As you may know, I consider J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings to be the literary masterpiece of the twentieth century. I’m not sure how many times I’ve read it, but I generally re-read it every few years. I loved Peter Jackson’s movies but even they don’t hold a candle to the books.
It’s interesting, no matter how many times you read something, you still can find new treasures. I found this gem of foreshadowing recently:
‘I did not mean the danger that we all share,’ said Frodo. ‘I mean a danger to yourself alone. You swore a promise by what you call the Precious. Remember that! It will hold you to it; but it will seek a way to twist it to your own undoing. Already you are being twisted. You revealed yourself to me just now, foolishly. Give it back to Smeagol you said. Do not say that again! Do not let that thought grow in you! You will never get it back. But the desire of it may betray you to a bitter end. You will never get it back. In the last need, Smeagol, I should put on the Precious; and the Precious mastered you long ago. If I, wearing it, were to command you, you would obey, even if it were to leap from a precipice or to cast yourself into the fire. And such would be my command. So have a care Smeagol!’
– The Two Towers
Never saw that before.
We’ve been listening to the audio book of Decision Points by former President George W. Bush. I’ve been pretty impressed with it (the audio book is, by the way, narrated by GWB himself).
There are some good quotes from the book that I may post when I have more time, but for now my main observation has been more of a reminder to myself: history’s judgment of a President can take a while to be rendered. Our politics are so polarized right now, and, as far as George W. is concerned, the events are still too recent. I think sober and more detached analysis of his two terms is still a decade away.
We’ve made it through perhaps half of the book at this point. There is an obvious pride – taken in the best meaning of the word – that comes through in certain sections. Two chapters in particular highlight this: the first being the chapter on his decision to limit embryonic stem cell research to existing lines of already doomed embryonic cells, and the second being the chapter on his response to the terror attacks of 9/11, and in particular his accomplishment in keeping the country free from any further attacks after that terrible day. Other notable sections include the narratives around his decision to quit drinking, his faith, and the 2000 election.
I particularly like the format. Every chapter is themed around a particular decision that Bush had to make as President. I’m looking forward to the rest of the book.
I find that there really are human beings who think fairy tales bad for children. I do not speak of the man in the green tie, for him I can never count truly human. But a lady has written me an earnest letter saying that fairy tales ought not to be taught to children even if they are true. She says that it is cruel to tell children fairy tales, because it frightens them. You might just as well say that it is cruel to give girls sentimental novels because it makes them cry. All this kind of talk is based on that complete forgetting of what a child is like which has been the firm foundation of so many educational schemes. If you keep bogies and goblins away from children they would make them up for themselves. One small child in the dark can invent more hells than Swedenborg. One small child can imagine monsters too big and black to get into any picture, and give them names too unearthly and cacophonous to have occurred in the cries of any lunatic. The child, to begin with, commonly likes horrors, and he continues to indulge in them even when he does not like them. There is just as much difficulty in saying exactly where pure pain begins in his case, as there is in ours when we walk of our own free will into the torture-chamber of a great tragedy. The fear does not come from fairy tales; the fear comes from the universe of the soul.
. . . . .
The timidity of the child or the savage is entirely reasonable; they are alarmed at this world, because this world is a very alarming place. They dislike being alone because it is verily and indeed an awful idea to be alone. Barbarians fear the unknown for the same reason that Agnostics worship it– because it is a fact. Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon. [emphasis mine]
G.K. Chesterton, excerpted from his essay The Red Angel
This really resonates with me, because from a young age I rode like a squire through the Arthurian legends, crouched quietly in the belly of the horse with Odysseus, galloped alongside Centaurs in Lewis’ Narnia, and went into the dreadful dark of Moria with Frodo and Sam. These led me one day to open up a Bible and begin reading what Lewis would call the “true myth” of the ultimate, and fully historical, defeat of the dragon.
As parents we should, of course, protect our kids. But I think Chesterton makes a compelling case here for not limiting them with politically correct, neutered fiction that contains no dragons. How will they ever know that the dragon can be killed?
I saw this on the excellent Brandywine Books. It's from The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, in which Lewis writes to his brother Warren on July 20, 1940:
Before the service was over – one cd. wish these things came more seasonably – I was struck by an idea for a book wh. I think might be both useful and entertaining. It wd. be called As one Devil to Another and would consist of letters from an elderly retired devil to a young devil who has just started work on his first ˜patient'….
I also think it's cool that he got this inspiration in church.
It’s nice to see that Mark of GospelDrivenLife is back home from his “fishing” vacation.
He read C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce several times while he was gone, and provides some excellent insight, excerpted below:
Lewis says up front that this book is a fantasy, a dream. It is not theology, per se. No, there are no bus rides from hell to heaven. No, the damned are not met by the saved as they get off the bus and they are not persuaded to remain in heaven by them. But the imaginative dialogue serves more purposes than can be served by mere prose. Art and poetry have a place in the teaching of truth — and this book is art and poetic as well. He develops a few things so very well.
First, Lewis unmasks the dismal pettiness of sin. Whether in the bickering folk in line for the bus, or the image of hell ever expanding as people fight with each other, or the portrayal of pride, or apostasy, or self-righteousness, or manipulation, or lust — Lewis manages to make real that sin is a perversion of who we were made to be. There is nothing pretty about sin. It deforms and ultimately shrivels the soul that it owns, turns the grumbler into a mere grumble. There is nothing beautiful about sin.
Second, Lewis shows the abounding joy of heaven. At every point in the book, even when offering correction, the “bright people” are full of delight. The theme of the delights of drinking truth, seeing God, forgetting the past in a massive awareness of grace, ending all past feuds at the feet of the Savior, and the transformation of earthly appetites into glorious desires leading to God — these are developed in the succession of events in a way that makes me thirst for that great day.
Third, Lewis sees heaven as the sanctification of our full humanity, not a denial of it. The characters in the presence of God, sinless and free, are not less human for their purity but more so – and the damned are feeble beings, unable to walk across the grass because it pains the soles of their feet. They are mere shadows. Some, as they refuse to heed the embracing call of glory, actually disappear. A man captured by lust yields to the killing of this red lizard upon his shoulder — and the lust, now dead, is raised as a fierce and beautiful stallion. The guide later comments that if lust redeemed becomes a stallion, what would the purified love of a parent for a child become?
Well said. As Mark later states: “If the joys of heaven are at all what Lewis describes, it certainly brings to life the glory of God, the greatness of our salvation, and the promise of Jude ‘faultless in his presence with exceeding joy.'”
I recommend you go read the whole thing. Actually, go read The Great Divorce first, if you haven’t already. Then go read the whole thing.
Today is the 114th birthday of J.R.R. Tolkien, the great writer and linguist who gave us such works of literary genius as The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and, of course, The Lord of the Rings, about which C.S. Lewis insightfully wrote “Here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron”.
I first read The Hobbit when I was about ten years old, and I was enthralled. I remember being overjoyed to discover that he had written “more about Hobbits” in another, longer work – a trilogy – called The Lord of the Rings, which I read when I was around eleven or twelve.
I’ll never forget diving into it for the first time; I was immediately struck by its more mature, darker tone and the rich depth of its histories. It was like a feast!
It swept me away, gave me visions of heroism and epic grandeur, and filled my mind with the values of goodness, simplicity, simple courage, loyalty, hardship, and love. And it is no stretch to say that it spurred me on in my search for God. I began reading the Bible sometime after reading LOTR, in a search, though I didn’t know it at the time, for what Tolkien would call the “true myth”. That search, spurred on initially by Tolkien’s shining work and helped along by many other circumstances and internal longings, culminated in the discovery – or perhaps revelation is a better term – of the reality of the story of my Savior before whom even Tolkien’s brilliant works of genius pale.
Happy Birthday, Professor Tolkien. My hope and expectation is that you are even now in the presence of the One who lit your imagination.
[Hat Tip to Sherry for the reminder]
I am a little more than halfway through Tolkien and the Great War and I am enjoying it immensely. I think my enjoyment stems from my love of history and the origins of greatness, and from my appreciation for war journalism and war histories.
Tolkien’s closest friends during this time were his Oxford pals (the TCBSers) Rob Gilson, Christopher Wiseman, and G.B. Smith. These young fellows wrote letters to each other, encouraged each other, sent their poetry for critique and discussion, and mourned their dead friends together. Rob Gilson was the first to die, struck down by a shell during the early days of the terrible Battle of the Somme.
A bit of correspondence and some war poetry, as recounted in the chapter “Castles in the Air”, stood out for me today as I read them. They are reproduced below.
The first is an excerpt from a letter written to Tolkien by his friend Christopher Wiseman as Tolkien was recovering from trench fever. This is prophetic:
“I am convinced that if you do come out in print you will startle our generation as no one has yet . . . Really it is presumptuous in me to say anything about the poems themselves, but I am afraid they will kill the dear old XIXth Century altogether . . .”
The second item is two verses of war poetry written by G. B. Smith, who would later die from an infected shrapnel wound. War poetry, meaning poetry written by the soldiers who experienced the maelstrom, affects me greatly. World War I was, indeed, a catastrophe for an entire generation of young men.
Who battled have with bloody hands
Through evil times in barren lands,
To whom the voice of guns
Speaks and no longer stuns . . .
– G. B. Smith
And in this poem he addresses the spirits of dead friends. He would soon be joining them:
Shapes in the mist, ye see me lonely,
Lonely and sad in the dim firelight;
How far now to the last of all battles?
(Listen, the guns are loud tonight!)
– G. B. Smith
For you Tolkien-ophiles:
I’m currently reading Tolkien and the Great War by John Garth. It’s stellar.
Below is an excerpt; a glimpse of an act of creative genius in its nonage:
At Phoenix Farm, on 24 September 1914, [Tolkien] began, with startling Ã©clat:
Ã‰arendel sprang up from the Ocean’s cup
In the gloom of the mid-world’s rim;
From the door of Night as a ray of light
Leapt over the twilight brim,
And launching his bark like a silver spark
From the golden-fading sand
Down the sunlit breath of Day’s fiery Death
He sped from Westerland
I will probably be posting on other passages from this book as I read it. It’s a very enjoyable and fascinating read.