January 21, 2004

Beyond The Lord of the Rings

"THEN THE LORD GOD said, 'Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, lest he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever --' Therefore, the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken."

-- Genesis 4:22-23

WE MUST SAY we are delighted the three Lord of the Rings films have garnered such amazing critical and box-office acclaim. Yet this is not merely because the movies in themselves are amazing. That would be triumph enough. Rather, it is because when placed against any conceivable cultural standard, they rise to that standard and surpass it. As proof of that argument, consider the following.

First: the movies are, as we said, amazing cinema. They're just quality films, and it's always nice to see people choose those over some mindless drivel. Second: the movies reinforce the concepts of good and evil, which have wrongly been discounted in this modern age. Thirdly: the films will excite their audience to the point where hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people will buy the books on which the films are based. It is this that gives us the most inner joy.

We are joyful not merely because people will rediscover the love of reading; and go on to read other books. It is that the books themselves will cause people to do some serious thinking about the greater and more important things in life. For whilst "The Hobbit" is a children's story, the Lord of the Rings trilogy is most certainly not (Sheila O'Malley pointed that out). Indeed, we can imagine that those who only know the movie may find the books a bit daunting at first -- but they'll finish recharged.

One might find it a stretch to say that "The Lord of the Rings" might cause a cultural reawakening; but we are hopeful that such a thing happens. We hope that people will read Tolkien very closely indeed -- not only because the work deserves it, but because for many readers, the books will spark an intellectual and spiritual fire. Intellectually, the books are challenging. Spiritually, although Tolkien was extraordinarily subtle in his work, religious messages do exist in it. And while the book is clearly not out to convert anyone to a particular faith, we would be pleased enough if people began giving such things thought.

IT IS AMAZING to consider that even as Western society continues to reach unmatched heights in terms of its knowledge and prosperity, we have seen an increasing disconnect between the temporal world and the spiritual/intellectual world. Such a gap was nonexistent when our country was founded; it was still quite small fifty years ago; but now, it has exploded open. We submit that this trend must be reversed, lest the stratification become permanent, and the damage to society go beyond repair.

This is not to say that we are looking for a religious revival, so to speak. We understand that Faith, in the religious sense, is highly personal; this goes hand-in-hand with the doctrine of Free Will. One cannot be forced to believe in anything, no matter how much another screams or pleads. In short, one must accept -- or reject -- God on one's own terms; and there's nothing anyone else can do about that.

Still, we find it disconcerting that these issues are not as prevalent today as other matters. This may be a case of us looking through rose-colored glasses at the past, but we find it disturbing that in this life, people can in theory go without thinking about these things at all. Indeed, people are openly discouraged from thinking about the spiritual. What we have seen instead is a marked emphasis on the temporal world -- with its omnipresent focus on materialism. And while wealth is clearly a good thing, consumption alone does not encourage thought. If we are to give everyone a true chance at happiness, we ought value both the intellectual and spiritual building blocks upon which they can construct that.

One thousand years ago, even the poorest peasant -- while deprived of even the most rudimentary education -- gave thought to the spiritual. It was nitroglycerin for the mind; it opened a frontier; it gave him the chance to reach higher. Today, on the other hand, we disregard spiritual matters. We do all right with the intellectual side of things, but we don't do enough to encourage rigorous study on one's own. And if both building blocks are thus diminished, how can people have all the tools they need to make the decisions which lead to happiness?

Thus, enter Prof Tolkien. We sincerely hope that his work will build respect for the intellect, but also for the soul. And while that was an incredibly long digression -- sorry -- we also hope that people will start reading some of Tolkien's friends as well.

Specifically, we refer to C.S. Lewis, whose relationship with Prof Tolkien has been well-documented. We bring him up because Dr Lewis wrote a trilogy of his own that is well worth reading. That would be the so-called "Space Trilogy" -- Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra and That Hideous Strength.

It is an odd trilogy -- and we say that because the books are different in tone and style. They are all wonderful, but they are different. Dr Lewis writes from a Christian perspective, one might say. It's not overpowering or blunt or TOO over-the-head, but it certainly does exist, and one should expect to see that regularly in the series.

The first volume is something an educated high schooler would read and get. The second is about the same, but a bit more difficult. The third -- which one can read on one's own, without the other two -- is extremely tough reading, for it challenges a reader's intellect at every turn

Interestingly, Prof Tolkien apparently had a significant influence on that volume. As Dr Lewis writes in his preface, "Those who would like to learn further about Numinor and the True West must (alas!) await the publication of much that exists only in the MSS. of my friend, Professor J.R.R. Tolkien."

We won't spoil the story, although we will say this: That Hideous Strength may seem a slog to get through at times. Do not let this discourage you, though. It is that way for a reason. You see, Dr Lewis was not kidding when he gave That Hideous Strength the sub-title "A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grownups."

For it deals entirely with the world as an adult knows it, and all the wonderful and terrible things adults deal with on a daily basis. It is passionate and yet maddening; troubling and yet awe-inspiring; immensely spiritual and yet so very temporal. As the tale unfolds, it pulls no punches. And it will keep you thinking long after you turn the last page.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at January 21, 2004 01:13 AM | TrackBack

It is a slog. I received the trilogy as a birthday present... way back in what was probably 2nd or 3rd grade. I was exceptionally bright, but still found it incredibly daunting. I remember the copies were paperback, and printed with the smallest type I think I've ever seen. All I can remembeer now is the beginning part, where a weary traveler stops at someone's house and asks to spend the night. I could be way off.

I put them down, and my mother bought me a box set of the Chronicles of Narnia, which I still have, and which was drastically easier reading. I've read all seven books about five times, and each time has caused me to question things and to examine my life.

I haven't picked up Out of the Silent Planet since I stopped reading it (again, way back in the middle of grade school), and I'm still not sure I could take it on now. Oh, I've read plenty of dense text -- Plutarch's Lives, for instance, when I was a Classic Politics major at UD -- but a few years ago I resolved to fight my way through Infinite Jest (1100 pages, tiny print, thousands of footnotes, Dictionary required), and unfortunately have had it hand me my ass multiple times since...

Posted by: Kevin White at January 21, 2004 09:32 AM

"One thousand years ago, even the poorest peasant -- while deprived of even the most rudimentary education -- gave thought to the spiritual. "

I think you can make the case that this was a cause and effect relationship (deprivation causes the spritual/religion) and that this does not obtain any more, at least in the West, because there is no longer such deprivation...

Posted by: jon ravin at January 21, 2004 10:53 AM

Nasty liberalses!

Posted by: Gollum at January 21, 2004 10:27 PM

Jon but deprivation can take many forms. There are many people who feel deprived of something these days who seek solace in religion and spirituality. It is a security blanket for many as they deal with life's foibles (not a bad thing) and tribulations.

Posted by: Andrew Ian Dodge at January 22, 2004 08:54 AM

The Planet Trilogy is about my least favorite of C.S. Lewis' work. I reread Narnia every few years, and I also really enjoyed "The Screwtape Letters" and "The Great Divorce."

I find Tolkein's language to be dense, sort of like Gene Wolf, though in Wolf's case, I'm distracted by how lovely his phrases can be.

Hey, a few more random observations: I find I can reread "Dracula" every few years and enjoy it, but find "Frankenstein" unbearable. I expect it's due to the Stoker having written for serials.

Wow, I'm all over the place tonight. At least my spelling isn't too bad.


Posted by: Leo at January 25, 2004 01:54 AM