Tolkien's Impact in Literature and Life
- Tuesday, August 21, 2001
A popular British magazine surveyed its readers to get their opinions about the best book of all time. Thousands responded. The landslide winner for the top spot in history: The Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien.
The literary elites were incensed and amazed. How could a fantasy writer win? They re-polled the country, and again Tolkien’s work blew away the competition. Again they asked the public, and for a third straight time the public was very clear, Tolkien was their favorite. I, for one, couldn’t agree more with this assessment.
J. R. R. Tolkien was born in South Africa in 1892. His father died shortly after his younger brother was born, so his mother was forced to raise the both of them by herself. To complicate matters, Tolkien’s mother converted to the Roman Catholic Church and was thereupon banished from much of her family and their support. A few years later his mother also died, leaving the boys to be raised by her parish priest.
Tolkien proceeded through school in a fairly unremarkable way except for his unusual giftedness in languages not just in speaking them, but understanding how they worked. Some children make up their own words - Tolkien made up his own languages. He pursued this love of words through studies at Oxford and later returned to teach philology there. He remains one of Oxford’s most celebrated professors. Through his study of languages he became exposed to the mythologies of the world. He wrote The Lord of the Rings, he later said, to give England her own myth.
The setting for this myth is Middle Earth, a land Tolkien first described to the world in The Hobbit, a work he first wrote for his children. The story is about Bilbo Baggins, an unassuming hobbit that gets swept into an adventure (much to his chagrin) with thirteen dwarves and a wizard. (Hobbits are man-like creatures about half the size of a normal human. They live in holes, usually; they love to eat, garden, and give gifts. Most of all, they love to stay home.) Along the way Bilbo becomes the owner of a magic ring that became the center of Tolkien’s masterpiece. The Lord of the Rings is an epic tale about the ring and how it fits into history.
Tolkien’s work has impacted me like no other author. Though many people recognize the quality and contributions of Tolkien’s work to the world, there are a few things, in particular, about his life and work that have import for me.
One is Tolkien’s view of myth. Though most people see a myth as a story of something untrue, Tolkien saw myth as the exact opposite. His great friend C. S. Lewis once objected to Tolkien that, “...myths are lies, though lies breathed through silver.” “No,” said Tolkien, “they are not.”
There are truths, Tolkien said, that are beyond us, transcendent truths, about beauty, truth, honor, etc. There are truths that man knows exist, but they cannot be seen - they are immaterial, but no less real, to us. It is only through the language of myth that we can speak of these truths. We have come from God, Tolkien said, and only through myth, through story telling, can we aspire to the life we were made for with God. To write and/or read myth, Tolkien believed, was to meditate on the most important truths of life.
Tolkien believed that what he wrote in The Lord of the Rings was true, not in the sense that the events really happened, but in the sense that they portrayed truth to us in a way that everyday events could not. After reading a bit of his work a friend asked him how the story would end. Tolkien responded, “I don’t know. I shall try to find out.” He felt that he was uncovering the truth already there, only hidden.
It was Tolkien’s view of myth that that most aided C. S. Lewis in his pilgrimage to accept Christianity. All the other myths of the world, Tolkien said, are a mixture of truth and error - truth because they are written by those made by and for God - error because written by those alienated by God. But the Bible is the one true myth. It is a true accounting of truth, while everything else we do is mimicking. This perspective was decisive in Lewis’ conversion to Christianity.
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