Great books: after you’ve scaled the mountain.

Mountain Peak2

A good buddy asked me a couple weeks ago about what he should read next, now that he finished Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. He asked if I knew of anything like that, with that kind of richness. I thought for a little bit, and I gave two or three suggestions of other books that might scratch some of the same itches. But I realized that I couldn’t recommend anything quite as good as The Lord of the Rings. And I definitely couldn’t recommend anything better.

The following here applies beyond Tolkien (or whoever your favorite author or book happens to be). Reading a great book that’s the best in its genre is like having scaled the peak of the tallest mountain in a range. In all of the breathtaking beauty and precipitous slow-going, you’ve known the mountain and you’ve seen the view from the top. Any other hill or mountain peak won’t be quite as imposing and full of serious joy as the experience of that tallest climb.

So what do we do? There’s definitely joy and fun and richness in the other books. But realistically, nothing’s going to give the same experience as that one great book. To risk taking the metaphor too far, heading up that tallest mountain again will definitely not produce the same experience, and that can be a really good thing. There will be familiar places that will ignite the same joy and numinous awe. But on a second attempt, the climb will yield plenty of things you missed the first time. When certain scenes are familiar, you’re freed up to experience other nuances of the place. Your experience on the way up won’t go exactly like it did before, and the view from the summit and the highest places won’t look exactly the same: there will always be more grandeur.

It’s disappointing, but also glorious, that there’s nothing else like the best few books you’ve read. It means you have to keep coming back to them – there’s no substitute. Other books will remind you of that greatest one that was the most full and rich, and gave you the grandest views. So don’t move on exclusively to lesser versions of the giant. There’s a store of joy in the greatest books that’s more inexhaustible. Go back again.

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“The Lord of the Rings” – Not Allegory, but Romance

C.S. Lewis said the following, specifically with Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings in mind:

“A strict allegory is like a puzzle with a solution: a great romance is like a flower whose smell reminds you of something you can’t quite place. I think the something is ‘the whole quality of life as we actually experience it.’ You can have a realistic story in which all the things & people are exactly like those we meet in real life, but the quality, the feel or texture or smell, of it is not.

In a great romance it is just the opposite. I’ve never met Orcs or Ents or Elves – but the feel of it, the sense of a huge past, of lowering danger, of heroic tasks achieved by the most apparently unheroic people, of distance, vastness, strangeness, homeliness (all blended together) is so exactly what living feels like to me. Particularly the heart-breaking quality in the most beautiful places, like Lothlorien. And it is so like the real history of the world: ‘Then, as now, there was a growing darkness and great deeds were done that were not wholly in vain.'”

C.S. Lewis, from a letter to Lucy Matthews. 11 September 1958

A good, true “romance” in the literary sense is a story that doesn’t relate to, or teach a clear “lesson” about, life as we know it in a strict “this represents that” sense. But in the telling of the story, and the development of the characters, it feels like real life. It stirs your affections, awakening pleasure and sorrow and fear and joy. You see much that is applicable, as Tolkien talked about, to real life as we all live within the great Story (capital “S”) that the Creator is telling. And in being this way, a romance is filled with Truth, of echoes and emotions that remind us of our true country. The “quality and texture” is there, and is realistic. The Lord of the Rings is filled with more truth than I’ve experienced in lots of other books, though it’s not an allegory. We don’t need it to be. And the things a story like that stirs in us are possibly more real and rich as a result.

It’s good to read books that have these qualities, because they wake us up, I think, to truer feelings, which all point to the new heavens and earth that are coming. When things will be the way they were meant to be in the first place. We only glimpse it now, but reading the right kinds of books can shape us into the right sort of people, who desire and feel for the right sort of things.

Peter Kreeft, and the Real Hero of “The Lord of the Rings”

This is really a great lecture. Kreeft’s insights into The Lord of the Rings are right-on, and I especially enjoyed this because I wrote a senior thesis paper on this subject matter in college. If you’ve never heard some of this, it’ll give you a deeper appreciation for what Tolkien was up to in his writing.

Peter Kreeft is the author of The Philosophy of Tolkien, where you’ll get more of these insights, in greater detail and depth.

Myth and Tolkien

“Conversation with Smaug” by J.R.R. Tolkien

As we know, J.R.R. Tolkien attempted to write a mythology for the English people, rooted in the traditions and atmosphere of England and the British Isles. We know the Greek and Roman mythologies stand apart from other literature as a genre, with a grandeur unique to them. They stand like titans above most other literature. What is it about mythologies that sets them apart, and makes them so grand? And why do human cultures develop them? Why did Tolkien feel we needed one for English folk?

I love Tolkien’s stories, and what he tried to do with an English mythology. And as I’ve been reading my way through The Lord of the Rings for the third time in my life, I’ve been grappling with why this story is so moving, exactly. There are lots of reasons, but here’s a quote I recently stumbled upon, that gets at some of intangible stuff that makes myth so important to literature, and to human experience:

“Myths are neither true nor untrue, but the product and process of man’s yearning. As such, they’re the most primal thing bonding us to other people. Yet the phenomenon is much more than a snake feeding on its own tail. Myths gather momentum because they provide hope.”

Cynthia Buchanan (Quoted in The Searchers, by Glenn Frankel)

This is why, in Tolkien’s stories we don’t find a one-to-one allegorical relationship between the story and real life, or the story and Christianity as many try their darndest to uncover there. But because his stories are crafted in the tradition of myth, there’s much of God, Christianity, and real life and human emotion that actually run much deeper then allegory can provide. Tolkien didn’t care much for allegory himself as we know, and that might be because he had an eye and a feel for a deeper kind of literary magic. The mythology is “neither true nor untrue,” but resonates very, very deeply in the human heart with the stuff of sorrow, hope, joy, and glory, and sends us back into our own world with a very real experience of these things. And the glory of Tolkien’s mythology is that it does what Buchanan mentions above: it provides, and points us toward the one real source of hope.

Christopher Tolkien’s First Interview With The Press In 40 Years

Christopher Tolkien gave an interview, his first words to the press in 40 years, to “Le Monde” in July 2012. Now you can read it in English here.

The interview’s fascinating, both because of the perspective on the relatively recent “pop culture” status of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, and because the article itself is written in a way that, I think, really honors J.R.R. Tolkien, and Christopher Tolkien’s lives and work. What a tasteful piece.

The article gives some great perspective as it relates the Tolkien family’s feelings about the Peter Jackson films. I enjoy the movies, but this piece put into words some of my misgivings far, far better than I could’ve. It’s very true – there is a “chasm” between what Tolkien’s stories are, and what the movies have made them into for many folks. I really long for readers to go back and experience the books without the effect of the films, interpreting and casting scenes and characters in the imaginations of the audience. But because the films are so widely viewed, and because of the way a visual medium affects the imagination, can we ever actually break from these effects and return “unspoilt” to Tolkien’s stories? I think so, if we really try. There’s always hope.

Check this out – here’s what Christopher says about the pop culture “commercialization” of The Lord of the Rings, partly because of the films:

“The chasm between the beauty and seriousness of the work, and what it has become, has overwhelmed me. The commercialization has reduced the aesthetic and philosophical impact of the creation to nothing. There is only one solution for me: to turn my head away.”

Tolkien And An English Mythology

Painting of Rivendell by Tolkien (some of his earliest book jacket art was painted by Tolkien himself).

January 3 was J.R.R. Tolkien’s birthday. He would’ve been 121. Tolkien has, and continues to shape me profoundly with his stories. I think I can safely say that at this point of my life, The Lord Of The Rings is my favorite book (originally intended to be one volume and not a trilogy, in case you didn’t know that). I feel similar to Tim Keller, who’s says that he’s “always in it.” Tolkien’s stuff is really that rich, lending itself to lots of great re-reading. His contribution to literature, and to storytelling, is immeasurably great.

I was really impressed with Tolkien’s vision for his stories of Middle-earth, that he talks about in a letter to Milton Waldman, that’s included in my edition of The Silmarillion. I’m including it below for your reading pleasure. His love of mythology, and desire for English folk to have one for their own, is pretty intriguing. All’s I can say is, I’m glad he wrote it for us.

From a letter by J.R.R. Tolkien to Milton Waldman, 1951:

“[H]ere I hope I will not sound absurd – I was from early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country: it had no stories of its own (bound up with its tongue and soil), not of the quality that I sought, and found (as an ingredient) in legends of other lands. There was Greek, and Celtic, and Romance, Germanic, Scandinavian, and Finnish (which greatly affected me); but nothing English, save impoverished chap-book stuff. Of course there was and is all the Arthurian world, but powerful as it is, it is imperfectly naturalized, associated with the soil of Britain but not with English; and does not replace what I felt to be missing.”

And so Tolkien wrote us stories that, before the Peter Jackson films, were fairly high literature. They were rich, epic stories that sprung out of the history of the English folk, but sought to speak to all human experience. Don’t get me wrong – I’m a huge fan of the films; but Tolkien’s stories are so much more than a pop culture phenomenon, and it’s worth getting to know a little of what he really set out to do. His stories are for us to learn from – to learn what wickedness is, what goodness is, what it is to have courage. Really, his stories were intended to be imbibed and told as a part of the cultural heritage of English-speakers (though you can absolutely enjoy another translation of his works). They’re our mythology. They’re Christian. They’re so darned good. We can, and should be very thankful for the richness of Tolkien’s work.

Paradise and Tangled Woods

“Trees, Chainsaws, and the Visions of Paradise in J.R.R. Tolkien” by Tom Shippey from ASU English on Vimeo.

I love hearing other scholars, who really love J.R.R. Tolkien, get into the books and talk about what Tolkien was up to in his stories. This fellow, Tom Shippey, is a lot of fun to listen to. Thanks to Tony Reinke for posting this on his blog.

There are places in Tolkien’s writing where he taps into what Heaven will be like. This lecture gets into some of those aspects, and if nothing else you might have a chuckle at Tolkien’s “tree-hugging” tendencies.