This article started life as an email to a friend who is a fellow Tolkien fan.
I present it here to act as my FAQ page for my thoughts on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and fantasy literature in general.
I grew up reading my parent’s National Geographic magazines at the time George Leakey was excavating Olduvai Gorge in Kenya in the 1960’s. When I was six, I announced that I wanted to be an archeologist like Dr. Leakey. I was fascinated by the idea of uncovering things long hidden. The nickname “Rockturner” Simon calls Daniel in the beginning of my first novel (Asulon) could have been my own nickname as a child because I was constantly turning over rocks and logs to discover what was underneath them.
While reading The Lord of The Rings (LOTR) and the Silmarillion, I felt like I was opening an archeology of ancient lore, a bridge between the heart of those old myths and something more; if not a true history then at least a high allegorical truth.
Remember my response when we discussed Tolkien previously. I said the thing I liked most about his work was the sadness of the elves. This is what makes Tolkien’s elves work when the elves in the books of so many Tolkien imitators are just guys with pointy ears. They are sad because they are longing for something lost, and that thing is the same thing for which I long.
Here is an excerpt from the end of Chapter 13 of Asulon, where Simon is explaining magic to Moor:
“What attracts most people to magic is an innate desire in the human heart to regain the world as God first made it, before mankind fell, for we instinctively know what was lost and long for its return. We all long for a time when we had power over creation and were its caretakers, when we could command the wind and the earth and the waters, when death walked not and sickness was unknown, when we could understand the speech of animals and none would do us harm. That is why children are so fond of magic in their fairy tales, for they know that is the way the world should work, even if it does not now. But all of us long for the return of Eden whether we know that name or not. We seek to satisfy our homesickness for a land we have never seen but know, as surely as we know our hearts beat and our lungs draw breath, once existed and will exist again.”
I first read LOTR at the age of eighteen and for me it was like a culmination and fulfillment; the Rosetta stone of all the myths, legends and fairy tales that I had read before. Everything prior was merely an appetizer; LOTR was a perfect feast, satisfying in every way. Here I was, viewing myself then as this tough, streetwise guy, and when I finished the book I nearly wept, so much did I not want the story to end. I heard a lecture on swordmaking once in which the swordsmith said a good sword must be “strong and sharp and beautiful.” Tolkien’s work is like that for me; strong in its story, sharp in its sadness, beautiful in its wisdom.
To me, the best fantasy stories are, at their core, not about elves and dwarves, but are really about hope. What makes a fantasy tale work for me is more than just its supernatural elements or characters. These alone could also describe most “Sword and Sorcery” tales and much in the horror genre. For example, Steven King writes mostly horror, while Dean Koontz’s writing feels very much like fantasy to me, despite the lack of elves or dragons in his books, because of his hopeful outlook.
The first Star Wars movie (Episode IV – A New Hope) is referred to as a “science fiction fantasy” because of its hopeful good-triumphing-over-evil element. Thus, I still bring it all back to hope. In my mind, fantasy and hope are so closely tied together that I sometimes worry about people who dislike fantasy. I have to wonder if they have given up on hope. I suspect that it isn’t the elves or wizards that they find “unrealistic,” but the happy endings.
Do you remember the 1940s version of Miracle on 34th Street? Even though this version of the movie had no elves or dragons, I think it is more of a true fantasy story (because it is a story of supernatural hope) than many of Tolkien’s imitators who do have their elves and dragons, but whose stories have no hope. Remember in the movie it is the divorced mother who tells her daughter that there is no such thing as Santa Claus. When asked why, she calls him a fairy tale and goes on about how fairy tales lie to children. “They get them dreaming of a Prince Charming, but when he finally arrives he lets you down.” That is when the man who asked the question realizes she has stopped talking about Santa Claus and is now talking about her ex-husband. I think many jaded critics are like that, they have been so wounded by life that they have lost hope in their own happy ending. A person in such a place won’t like Tolkien.
Another major theme in Tolkien’s work is sacrificial love. Frodo is willing to die to save the world from evil and Sam is willing to sacrifice his own life to save Frodo.
If you can’t see yourself dying to save something that you love, if you don’t believe in self-sacrifice for a greater good, then you won’t like Tolkien.
In The Return of the King, there is a part where Aragorn uses a flower (which a learned physician is familiar with, but says is useless) to heal the wounded Faromir. There is the idea here that the king’s hands are healing hands and that the true king will be revealed in this way. In Aragorn we see a man better than we are.
If you can’t believe in someone greater than yourself, then you won’t like Tolkien.
When all is at its most hopeless in the story, the day is saved because Frodo has had mercy on Smeagol. If you don’t believe in the wisdom of mercy, then you won’t like Tolkien.
Good vs. Evil is a common theme in fantasy. And when I use the word hope, it is specifically the hope that good will prevail over evil. Many Tolkien critics specifically point to this aspect of Tolkien’s work as what they most disapprove of, the strong theme in his writing of moral absolutes. While everything in the world is certainly not exclusively black or white, neither is everything solely a subtle shade of gray. That is the problem so many of Tolkien’s critics have with him. How can you enjoy a story about the battle between good and evil if you don’t believe in the existence of good and evil? And more than that, this great battle between good and evil must have each of these opposing forces directed by a conscious mind or upon what does the hero’s hope in an ultimate victory reside? It is alright for the villain to rest his faith in victory solely on his own strengths, but the hero of a fantasy story should have faith in something or someone greater than himself.
I know that Tolkien wrote that he disliked allegory, but perhaps he meant allegory of current events because he certainly used allegorical characters in his story: Gandalf’s death and resurrection (and the friends who don’t recognize him at first); Frodo’s sacrificial love and mercy; Aragorn, the king who heals. Hmm, I wonder to whom Tolkien was referring?
And of course, there was that obvious allegory in the Legolas, Gimli, Galadriel dynamic: obvious at least to Tolkien’s fellow Catholics, as Legolas (representing Catholics) introduced Gimli (representing Protestants) to Galadriel (representing Mary).
What are the common denominators between the three most popular fantasy authors in the last hundred years: Tolkien, C. S. Lewis and J. K. Rowling? They all were well educated in classical literature and they all use deliberate Christian themes or symbols in their works.
Tolkien uses these three themes in his work: hope, sacrificial love, and belief in someone greater than oneself. Of these, I think hope is the common denominator for the fantasy stories that have endured before and after LOTR was published. Lewis gives the most important part of the Gospel story in the first book of his Chronicles of Narnia. In his Space Trilogy, Lewis deals with the Fall of Man and original sin, the Tower of Babel and the pathways leading to the Great Tribulation, but he ends with redemption and hope. Rowling constantly uses both biblical and Medieval Christian themes and symbols in her Harry Potter series: the Griffin, half eagle – king of heaven, and half lion – king of earth; the Stag whose antlers represent the two trees of Eden; the Phoenix – the resurrection bird; and of course Harry is “The Boy Who Lived” who Evil tried to kill and whose own sacrificial love for his friends leads to evil’s defeat.
I keep going back to that word hope, but in the case of fantasy, I think I can be specific about that hope. I believe it falls into two categories among fans.
Those who don’t openly believe in God, but hope He exists. I believe that fantasy is popular because such people think, even if secretly, very deeply within themselves, that if even one supernatural thing exists (even if it is the very smallest thing), then that opens the door to the possibility that the greatest of all supernatural things (God) exists. And, to take this hope to its logical conclusion, if God exists then perhaps we have an immortal soul and the most important part of us shall not end with the death of our bodies. As C. S. Lewis wrote: “You don’t have a soul, you are a soul. You have a body.” Much of the best fantasy (especially what is called High Fantasy) rests upon this knowledge.
2. Those who openly believe in God and have faith that He will set things right in the end. Once you overcome the hurdle of believing that God exists, the next question you ask yourself is “Can I trust Him?”
Heroes in fantasy stories often put their faith in the surrogate God character (Gandalf, Aslan, Obi Wan, Dumbledore) and are forced to ask themselves; “Can I trust him to be wise and strong enough to win? Can I trust him to be good? Can I trust Him to care about me?” I think that this hope in a God that is wise and strong and good and caring is why Tolkien’s work resonates so much in the Western mind and why he is listed as the all-time favorite author when a poll is taken on the Christian writers newsgroups to which I belong.
Most good fiction has to read like non-fiction. It has to feel true (at least while you are reading it). Now most fantasy, even something like Watership Down, where the characters are not human, still must tell us a truth about human nature in order to feel real to us. In LOTR, I believe that Tolkien’s aim was higher, to tell us not about the nature of man, but rather the nature of God. Tolkien wrote a book about God hidden in a book about elves and hobbits and wizards. Not just about the existence of God, but about His nature and what He has done for mankind. Tolkien did more then tell us a truth, he told us an important truth. For me as a writer, Tolkien is the gold standard, the ruler by which I measure my own writing now. My goal is for my writing to have the same emotional impact on my readers as Tolkien had on me.
He affects me today, because I wish to do what he did, to tell an important truth and hide it in a story that entertains on several levels. My goal is to tell not just a good strong story, but to tell what it means to be both good and strong and that these two things are not diametrically opposed (as so many today seem to believe). I am writing about what it means to be a godly warrior. My goal is to tell the good that it is not wrong to be strong and to tell the strong that it does not lessen their strength to be good. This important truth I am hiding in a book about giants and dragons and swords, i.e., a fantasy novel. Just like Tolkien.
Non Omnis Moriar,