Feb 12, 2017

Fantasy Is Not Escapism But Equipping - J.R.R. Tolkien Biography

This book is part of the Christian Encounters series. A series of biographies that highlight well known people from all ages and areas of the Christian Church. Some are familiar faces, like our friend J.R.R. Tolkien. Others are unexpected guests.

This is the first book I've read in this series and I found it to be an approachable biography, mainly due to the fact that it's a short and quick read (about 130 pages), unlike some of the other biographical tomes out there. So while it's not too in-depth we still get a comprehensive overview of J.R.R Tolkien's life and I was left with a more intimate idea of who he was. My favourite part was the final section which looked at Tolkien's influence and legacy. It was really concise and, if anything, I would have loved to spend more time exploring that area. I would recommend this as a starting point for those wanting to read a biography on J.R.R. Tolkien.

In a sense, the history of Middle-earth was his own version of an Atlantis myth—the legendary recollection of a lost world. pg. 25


What I found most interesting was the discussion around how Tolkien juggled his Christian faith and writing without resorting to allegory as most Christian writers are wont to do. As a Christian, Tolkien believed that all truth was from God and that it even pushed itself into human culture through myths and legends, yet he insisted that his writings, especially this Lord of the Rings trilogy was not allegorical or topical and that it was wrong to look into his intentions for any inner meaning or message (pg. 52).

As a child he loved the children’s novels by George Macdonald, The Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie, but he would later come to judge much of the Victorian author’s writings as far too allegorical and moralistic (pg. 10).  Tolkien later said that George MacDonald was but an old grandmother who delivered sermons rather than stories. Tolkien wanted to go about things differently and 'invite the world to a meal instead of preaching at them.'

From my reading, this also seems to be, in part, a cause of some friction between him with his friend C.S. Lewis, the author of The Chronicles of Narnia. Tolkien disliked allegory in all its manifestations and not only were Lewis' writings strongly allegorical, he also mixed different mythologies (such as Father Christmas and fauns of Greek mythology), which really grated on Tolkien, he didn't like the imaginary world of Narnia and told Lewis so (pg. 102).

While C. S. Lewis raved about the book (Fellowship of the Ring) and W. H. Auden loved it, other reviewers, such as Edwin Muir and Edmund Wilson, were quite hostile toward the books. One of the issues, ironically, was the advocacy of C. S. Lewis. Now well-known as a Christian apologist, Lewis was a controversial figure. While many loved him, there were others who felt quite the opposite about his writing. Having Lewis as a champion virtually guaranteed the provocation of strong feelings among the literati, much of it negative. pg. 109

Not An Agenda But A Vision

Tolkien believed that rather than pushing his Christian faith through an allegorical tale, which was agenda driven, that what was needed was a more applicable (or mythic) approach to story telling which was vision driven. The applicability of a myth is different to an allegory because in it resides in the freedom in the reader, he said, not in the purposed domination of the author.

Just because myths did not happen does not mean they don’t relate truth. Thus, in writing a myth for the modern world, Tolkien was rather confident that he was somehow reflecting God’s truth, even without explicitly mentioning him. As God was the Creator, humans made in his image were meant to be sub-creators. But these works of sub-creation were not truly independent because God is the original author of all things. They derive truth from the source of all truth. While myths could be used wrongly, Tolkien could avoid such misuse as a Christian and write a myth that was not mere allegory but still communicated truth. Tolkien claimed his Ring fiction had no inner meaning or message. He denied it was allegorical or topical—for Tolkien, the point was to let readers make their own choices (pg. 86).

Having written an epic of good versus evil, Tolkien left readers free to make up their own minds how to apply his fiction. Tolkien presented the reader with a vision of a fallen world, in which there was evil to overcome and also the realization that the ultimate evil, or death, could not be overcome by heroism. But it was a world in which there was much beauty and where there was true courage to do what was right even at great cost (pg. 86).

Tolkien’s use of his own private experiences in creating his epic fantasy give us more evidence that the key to his success lies in his humility in refusing to moralize to his readers. He did not wish to dominate his readers because he wanted them to be free to see their own lives in the adventures that he described. pg. 130

Not Escapism But Equipping

One of the last things looked at in this book is the argument which is popular among many academic critics, that the fantasy genre is pure escapism and of no use to us in this modern life. I can see where they are coming from because critics regard what they do as serious business. They're trying to calculate a canon of great works, and there's no room for anything less. They seem to think that if enough people consume good works, people will start being nice to each other, giving out flowers and candy and find the cure for cancer, but if they consume bad works, people will have their souls crushed and vote to establish fascism.

On the other hand, I think that some Fantasy books (along with some Science Fiction books) need to be reexamined and taken more seriously. The key assumption in the critics argument is that modern readers are using Tolkien’s world of epic fantasy to escape from the real world. But what if instead of escaping from the modern world into an imaginary realm of heroic epic, readers are using the reality that the stories portrays to get the tools or encouragement for living in the modern world? Instead of being simplistic, Tolkien’s epics provide exactly the mythic resource that people need to live in a complex world. Dealing with the temptation of power, fighting for what’s right, persevering in faithfulness, and many other issues that are portrayed in The Lord of the Rings are not irrelevant to the modern world.

Maybe if more people took up Tolkien's vision the world would be a better place. pg. 128

His enduring impact on the world shows us how a Christian artist can be most effective when he offers himself rather than when he tries to “help” others see the truth. While God calls Christians to proclaim his truth in a variety of ways and situations—some of which are unavoidably confrontational—we can learn from Tolkien that sometimes a mere story can change people's lives pg. 130.

Tolkien portrayed a fantasy world that could not only entertain us but could also challenge and inspire us. pg. 121

If you want to get a copy of the book for yourself click on the cover below and help support Wolfs Books.

J.R.R. Tolkien (Christian Encounters Series)

by Mark Horne

Born in South Africa and growing up in Great Britain, J.R.R. Tolkien, or Ronald as he was known, led a young life filled with uncertainty and instability. His was not a storybook childhood- his father died when Ronald was three years old, and his mother died just before he reached adolescence. Left under the guardianship of his mother's friend and priest, Ronald forged his closest relationships with friends who shared his love for literature and languages.

As Tolkien grew older, married, served as a soldier, and became a well-respected Oxford professor publishing weighty works on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Beowulf, the Christian faith that his mother had instilled in him continued as an intrinsic element of his creative imagination and his everyday life.

It was through The Hobbit and the three-volume The Lord of the Rings that Tolkien became a literary giant throughout the world. In his fiction, which earned him the informal title of "the father of modern fantasy literature," Tolkien presents readers with a vision of freedom- nothing preachy- that a strong, unequivocal faith can transmit.

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