Tuesday, November 10, 2015

A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and a Great War: The Significance of Insignificant Hobbits and Children

Thus, the “small people” who fought and suffered in the Great War helped inspire the creation of the unlikely heroes in Tolkien’s greatest imaginative work. Like soldiers in the war, the homely hobbits could not have perceived how the fate of nations depended upon their stubborn devotion to duty. – Joseph Loconte*

Anyone familiar with Tolkien’s Hobbits knows that they avoid adventures of all kinds and at all costs. Hobbits prefer puffing on a pipe in comfortable chairs discussing the meal they had just eaten, or were about to eat, to paths leading to unknown destinations. They certainly want nothing to do with Dark Lords, powerful rings, and dragons. A Hobbit will choose security and comfort over adventures, every time; until, that is, the adventure catches up with him.

Tolkien said “The Hobbits are just rustic English people, made small in size because it reflects the generally small reach of their imagination—not the small reach of their courage or latent power.” (Loconte) In other words, hobbits are a wonderful representation of the “average Joe.” Before he wakes up in the adventure, he is all about comfort. After he wakes, he discovers that there is far more to him then meets the eye. What he chooses to do with his latent power is the question.

“I have always been impressed that we were here (trenches in WWI), surviving, because of the indomitable courage of quite small people against impossible odds.” The hobbits were made small, he explained, “to show up, in creatures of very small physical power, the amazing and unexpected heroism of ordinary men ‘in a pinch.’” (Loconte, citing a letter written by Tolkien.)

In the first volume of CS Lewis’ “The Chronicles of Narnia,” The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, four average children – Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy Pevensie – walk through the back of a wardrobe into the magical land of Narnia, where they join the lion Aslan and his army, experience harrowing adventures, and then become Kings and Queens of Narnia.

Children are weak. Children are often foolish. Children lack wisdom. A perfect metaphor for many of us: for how we see ourselves. “There’s a war? Everyone knows that it’s extraordinary men and women with great power who change the tides of war; not ‘children’ like me!”

Landing in the Adventure
Stumbling into Narnia or landing on the path to Mordor presents the protagonist with a Calling where the answer is “Yes” or “No.” “(I)ndifference to the Call to struggle against evil is not an option: one must take sides. This, set before our imagination in the words of Tolkien and Lewis, is one of the great paradoxes of our mortal lives: the mysterious intersection of providence and free will.” (Loconte)

Loconte cites this exchange between Sam and Frodo regarding saying, “Yes” or “No,” from The Lord of the Rings:

“I don’t like anything here at all,” said Frodo, “step or stone, breath or bone. Earth, air, and water all seem accursed. But so our path is laid.”

“Yes, that’s so,” said Sam. “And we shouldn’t be here at all, if we’d known more about it, before we started. But I suppose it’s often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually — their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t.” 

You have landed in a war. You weren’t looking for it; you didn’t want anything more than to remain before a roaring fire and binge watching a new series on Netflix. But with not so much as a how-do-you-do, the war exploded on your doorstep or at your child’s school or at work. The Call has been issued: fight for Truth, Justice, Goodness, and Liberty, or fall in with Sauron or the White Witch.

Being an insignificant Hobbit grants no deferment, no immunity, from this Calling. Deeming yourself useless and unfit for battle does nothing to keep the Calling at bay. In fact, it appears that God prefers using Hobbits and Children, or so says St Paul:

Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.

* “A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J.R.R Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-1918,” Nelson Books, 2015

Copyright, Monte E Wilson, 2015

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and a Great War: Heroic Quests in a Time of War

“Lewis understood evil as ‘an objective power in the world, waging a war for individual souls. It seeks to create a society of slaves, ruled by despots, and ‘held together entirely by fear and greed.’” – Joseph Loconte*

I first read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings in January of 1971, a time of incredible disillusionment, especially among young people. Vietnam was a debacle; the “All you need is love” crowd was still reeling with the news that at a Rolling Stones concert (1969), the security team (Hells Angels: who could have ever guessed that something would go wrong?) had killed four people; at Kent State (1970) National guardsmen had fired 67 rounds in 13 seconds, killing four unarmed students, wounding 10 others, leaving one with permanent paralysis; and let’s just say things were soon to go from bad to worse for President Nixon.

O. And let us not forget the book authored by Hal Lindsey, The Late Great Planet Earth (pub. 1970), pronouncing that God was about to call the game due to darkness, and was instructing millions of readers that the world going down the toilet was awesome because it meant Christians were about to escape (via the rapture) to heaven. “Glory be!”

Is it any wonder that despair, disillusionment, and cynicism, were the default mindsets of the day? Granted, the “rapture” crowd would take a little longer to become disillusioned when, after some years later, they woke up and realized, Dammit, we’re still here and have to deal with this mess.

For me, reading Tolkien’s epic story was nothing short of an elixir. Over the previous decades, such had been the experience of those reading Lewis and Tolkien. There is a Great War raging around the world, presenting each and every person with a choice: join the Dark Lord Sauron or follow The Men of Aragorn, son of Arathorn, into battle; submit to the wicked White Witch who had placed a curse upon Narnia, whereby it was always winter but never Christmas, or follow Aslan.

“The most influential Christian authors of the twentieth century believed that every human soul was caught up in a very great story: a fearsome war against a Shadow of Evil that has invaded the world to enslave the sons and daughters of Adam. Yet those who resist the Shadow are assured that they will not be left alone, they will be given the gift of friendship amid their struggles and grief. Even more, they will find the grace and strength to persevere, to play their part in the story, however long it endures and wherever it may lead them.” (Loconte)  

Many of those who had survived WWI saw nothing heroic about the “folly of war” and, as was my generation, were drowning in disillusionment. But, as veterans who had seen the same horrors and sorrows, Lewis and Tolkien set out to “recall the courage, sacrifice, and the friendships that made it endurable.” (Loconte) In their stories, each author shows the reader that there is a war that is always upon us, a war where, if we so choose, we can engage in Heroic Quests where we exhibit courage, sacrifice, and nobility.

“Retrieving the medieval concept of the heroic quest – reinventing it for the modern mind – is one of the signal achievements of their work. Whether in epics such as Beowulf or romances like Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, Tolkien and Lewis both found in medieval literature a set of motifs and ideals worth recalling. More than that, they believed the genre offered a tonic for the spiritual malaise of the modern age.” (Loconte)

Do we choose to go on a Heroic Quest with our Band of Brothers, fighting against injustice, cruelty, and tyranny, or do we fall in with Sauron and the White Witch? A war is upon us that cannot be avoided. All that is left us is answering the question: To whom and what do we pledge our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor?

* “A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J.R.R Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-1918,” Nelson Books, 2015

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Copyright, Monte E Wilson, 2015