Originally posted at the Rabbit Room blog.
Every time I come home for the Christmas holiday, I am greeted by the familiar sight of my father, lounging comfortably in his big, black leather chair…the soft, yellow glow of the lamp beside him illuminating his little corner…his old, green, flannel shirt…the glasses he’s finally resigned himself to needing…and perhaps the most essential piece to complete the scene: the worn and battered copy of The Lord of the Rings lying open on his lap.
This picture evokes winter to me: winter at home, in the warmth and safety of our log house tucked into the woods of north-eastern Ohio. Perhaps for most people, “winter” immediately evokes fires, hot chocolate, warm blankets, soups and stews, mittens and hats and scarves, and snow. But that image of my father with Tolkien’s trilogy is just as quintessential to me as these. He re-reads it every winter season. It is a ritual for him. As soon as the leaves start to fall, and the chill returns to the air, you’ll hear him say, “It’s about that time again. I’ll have to dig the old book out.”
I have always wondered a little at what keeps him going back to this book, year after year. Of course, I have loved The Lord of the Rings since first reading it at fourteen, and I have grown to appreciate it more and more, recognizing the epic capacity the story has to grow with us, to stretch with us through every new phase of life. But even my continual appreciation of this work has never touched the devotion and reverence my father has for it. All of his children have suggested countless other incredible works of fiction and fantasy, classics, and epics. And he has read them dutifully, enjoyed most of them…and always returned to The Lord of the Rings.
This year, however, coming home, I was struck by the familiar scene in a new way. Perhaps because I have been reading a lot about story, fairytales, and Tolkien: things that caused me, this time, to ask the question: what is it about The Lord of the Rings that keeps my father returning to it again and again? Is it something unique to this story? Or is this story a privileged expression of a certain kind of story? Is there something precious about myths, legends, fairy stories, to which The Lord of the Rings belongs? And as I thought of my father, and the things I’ve been reading, I began to see something for the first time.
J.R.R. Tolkien was intimately familiar with the history and origin of the genre of fairytales, or fantasy stories. He maintains that the fairytales we are familiar with are remnants of different cultures’ attempts to give a language to the deepest truths they find in themselves and the world; to enshrine in narrative an answer to the questions, “Who are we? Where have we come from? Where are we going?”
In his famous “Lang Lecture on Fairy Tales,” Tolkien describes the three functions of fantasy as: Recovery, Escape and Consolation.
Recovery: Fantasy, by leading the reader away from things he knows so well, and re-presenting them in novel ways, can make him re-think their true purpose and meaning. It offers a chance to glimpse the real beneath the appearance, “to see through the look of things,” Tolkien tells us: to be able to recognize the meaning of the simple and homely—perhaps for the first time. After encountering Treebeard in The Lord of the Rings, it is impossible to look at a tree the same way again, without recognizing the immense layers of complexity and life that make up this thing we pass by on a daily basis. In a good fairy tale, this is true not only of physical things, but of spiritual, that is, non-material realities: fear, love, joy, courage. The very manner in which things are portrayed in the world of fantasy serves the purpose of drawing out into the visible realm their interior nature and potentiality.
Man needs to be in contact with the real, the really real: creation in all its original newness, from the hand of the Creator. But we, in our modern world, have grown frightfully skilled at fortressing ourselves from any contact with the real—at surrounding ourselves with so many layers of a man-made reality, that we can comfortably go through life avoiding the terror of facing something that does not originate from us… that is beyond our control. This is true everywhere, from genetically modifying our food, to cocooning ourselves behind technology and media from the need for physical, individual human contact.
And yet secretly, our souls are parched for something more. Fairytales, in their ability to recover the real for us, are particularly relevant to a modern world that has mastered the art of isolation from the real.
Escape: in the sense that Tolkien means it, escape does not refer to a blindness, a stance of closure or denial. Rather, as Stratford Caldecott aptly describes, fairytales are
…an escape into reality. It is the world of the everyday—boring, banal, dull, meaningless—that is the prison from which this kind of fantasy seeks to liberate us, not by distracting us from the real but by showing us the deeper patterns and meanings that lie concealed within it. (Caldecott, A Hidden Presence, pg. 2).
Fantasy, as a creative act of man’s imagination, allows us to escape the boundaries of time and space, and to remind us that we are made for the eternal. The fairytale, Tolkien says, is man’s attempt to satisfy his desire for a world that is at once deeper, richer, more beautiful than his present. It is the recapitulation of his longing for a “paradise lost”; a place that reflects adequately his heart’s memory of the more that he knows to be true somewhere, because he can imagine it. The fairytale, therefore, becomes his medium through which to hearken to, to re-access this memory.
We live within a rationalistic, scientific worldview, that has rejected both creation (that we have come from Another), and heaven (that we are going to Another). It has at the same time reduced the human person to a merely biological or psychological being, determined by the body, by environment, or by desire; we do not have a meaning, a purpose, a destiny beyond the boundaries of this world. In the face of this, the fairytale, in its essentially spiritual, sacramental worldview, which takes seriously the longing in man’s heart for the transcendent purpose he was made for, is more essential to us now than ever.
Consolation: Tolkien says the third purpose of the fairytale is ultimately to restore man’s hope, to restore his faith in Beauty, Truth, and Goodness; to fortify his soul through reopening his vision to the larger landscape of the eternal drama.
The consolation of the fairytale is to remind us that we are not alone in the world, in the face of darkness and evils that are too much for us. Because they are too much for us. This is perhaps more true of the modern man than ever before. Having experienced two of the most atrocious wars in world history, and the increasing violence, nihilism, and hatred of the last few centuries, we are more aware than ever before of our incapacity, of our littleness, of our helplessness against the forces of evil in the world: against ourselves.
In the face of this increasing hopelessness, we are desperate to be able to believe, as Tolkien would say, in a “light and high beauty forever beyond the reach” of the shadow. The fairytale recalls man to his place within a larger story, and reminds him that the end he is going toward is something glorious; that the darkness and struggles of this life are not the end of the story. This is why, for Tolkien, the Incarnation is THE fairytale. The Christian story is the fulfillment of all fairytales: because with the coming of Christ, our hope has been realized, eternity has entered time, and we have been given the capacity to transcend again the boundaries of this world. In short, because of Christ, the ultimate meaning and hope at the heart of every fairytale has now come true for us.
Why, then, do fairytales continue to intrigue us? Why does my father return to Middle Earth, every year? Stratford Caldecott, in his book about Tolkien, says beautifully:
Many of us return to the Lord of the Rings again and again for refreshment of soul—perhaps even for the kind of healing that the author must have experienced in the writing of it.” (Stratford Caldecott, The Power of the Ring, Crossroads Publishing: 2005, pg. 6).
I realized the truth of this statement precisely because I had seen it in my father. I thought of him immediately, and I recognized that refreshment and healing was exactly what he received from this work, what kept him returning to it year after year. These stories can bring healing, because they speak to us from a world that still believed in things unseen, still believed in spiritual forces of good and evil, in a world “charged with the grandeur of God”; a world frightfully more complex, and therefore, more exciting, than the mechanical one we’ve created… a world in which even man himself has a depth, a mystery, a reality beyond being merely a scientifically-determined specimen of a material universe. Fantasies and myths are the remnant of this larger, deeper view of the world for which our human imaginations are now starving.
Tolkien understood this. He understood that we need to be steeped, immersed in the old stories; in the plain and simple struggle between good and evil; in a narrative that confirms for us that Goodness, and Love and Truth are as real as Evil, and Darkness and Despair, and that Grace is always more than all our weaknesses and failings. We need, more than ever before, stories that truly confirm for us that we can rely on something beyond ourselves: in the definitive, final victory of Good over Evil. Because only the truth of such a victory lends any purpose, meaning, or hope to the defeats that we experience inevitably in our daily lives.
Tolkien’s understanding of fairytale has taken on flesh for me in the experience of my father. He found The Lord of the Rings in high school, when his whole life was falling down around his head. It gave him something concrete to hold onto through the turbulence. Was this because it was a fantastical escape, allowing him to be in denial of the real difficulties he faced? No. I see now that it gave him, rather, an anchor, re-asserting him into what is true, good and beautiful, restoring his hope, to believe that the darkness enveloping his everyday life was not, in the end, the end of the story. It was a haven of rest, where he could find again the reality that had gotten lost in the chaos of his life.
And so he returns, year after year. Because, like all of us, there have been a host of darknesses very real in my father’s life: from the loss of a job, to painful relationships, to his helplessness in the face of his children’s illnesses and ongoing sufferings. And every time the darkness begins to feel too big again for an ordinary man, he takes Tolkien by the hand, and lets himself be led back to the fullness, the heart of his story: because the heart of my father’s story, even when it cannot be seen, is something just as glorious as Frodo’s, as Aragorn’s.
Tolkien taught my father, and now my father teaches me: to look out, like Sam, above the darkness, and recognize that in the end, all shadows are only a passing thing, and there is light and high beauty forever beyond their reach.
J.R.R. Tolkien, Verlyn Flieger, ed. On Fairy Stories (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2008).
Stratford Caldecott, The Power of the Ring: The Spiritual Vision of the Lord of the Rings, (Oxford: Crossroads Publishing, 2005).
Ian Boyd, Stratford Caldecott, eds. A Hidden Presence: The Catholic Imagination of J.R.R. Tolkien, (Oxford: Chesterton Press, 2003).