Life + Culture
Did Tolkien Waste His Life?
There were imaginative flickers of Middle-earth in the precocious child, Ronald Tolkien. Enchanting English landscapes, a language invented with a young cousin for kicks, an awakening love of mythology, especially of the northern and Germanic variety, and a local doctor named Gamgee were all future literary fodder.
But it was in the fierce furnace of World War I, where Tolkien (a signals officer) saw unspeakable horrors and evils and which took the lives of all but one of his closest friends, that the mythology and epic tales that later gave birth to his books The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) were forged. He spent the rest of his life working on this fantasy (or as he preferred, “faërie”) world. When John Ronald Reuel Tolkien died on September 2, 1973, it fell to his son, Christopher, to work through boxes of writings to piece together and publish the mythic history of Middle-earth.
Tolkien never envisioned those tales of Middle-earth would become a global phenomenon it has. And what a phenomenon! An estimated 250 million copies of The Hobbit and LOTR books have been sold worldwide, and the revenue from Peter Jackson’s motion picture adaptations are $5 billion and growing.
Fantasy in a World of Real Need?
But sales and celebrity achievement are no biblical endorsement that a life was well spent. The fact is Tolkien spent an enormous portion of his life conceiving and composing a fantasy world.
And this world is quite comprehensive. It has its Deity, its angel-like, Satan-like, and demon-like creatures. It has its intelligent creatures of numerous species, each having its own ethnic branches. It has its geology and detailed topography. And it has several fully developed, sophisticated languages. There is nothing comparable to Middle-earth’s scope in English literature.
But was it worth it? Did Tolkien waste much of his life loitering in his own elaborate Elfland? And did he enable hundreds of millions of others to waste theirs by joining him there? In the face of such real desperate needs of very real souls in the very real world, isn’t Middle-earth just an escape?
Real Seeing Through Fantasy Lenses
Since I am not God, I do not know how much of his life Tolkien may have wasted in his work. God knows I’ve wasted more than enough of my own already. But in terms of Middle-earth being a means of escape, Tolkien had this to say:
Evidently we are faced by a misuse of words, and also by a confusion of thought. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using escape this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and what is more, they are confusing . . . the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter. (“On Fairy-stories”)
Tolkien never intended his tales of Middle-earth to be a desertion from reality, but a means of seeing beyond the confined walls of our perceptions to a much larger reality beyond. And he suffered no delusions that Middle-earth was that reality. But through the lenses of Middle-earth, Tolkien, an unashamed Christian, wanted to show us “a far-off gleam . . . of evangelium in the real world” (emphasis his, “On Fairy-stories”). His kind of fantasy was intended to help prisoners in the real world escape and go home.
There is a deep, profound reason why God created us to be story-makers and storytellers, and why, when the Word became flesh (John 1:14), he frequently spoke in stories. The best make-believe stories help us better understand the real world. And in our day, such stories are needed more than ever.
Professor Louis Markos writes,
We are, in many ways, a civilization adrift on the stormy seas of relativism and existentialism. The first ‘ism’ has robbed us of any transcendent standard against which we can measure our thoughts, our words, and our deeds; the second has emptied our lives of any higher meaning, purpose, or direction. Our compass is broken and the stars obliterated, and we are left with nothing to navigate by but a vague faith in the modern triad of progress, consumerism, and egalitarianism. They are not enough. . . . What we need, in short, are stories. (On the Shoulders of Hobbits, 10–11)
And, he says, the stories we need,
are precisely those that will beckon us to follow their heroes along the Road; that will embody for us the true nature of good and evil, virtue and vice, and then challenge us to engage in the struggle between the two; that will open our eyes and ears to that sacramental faerie magic that we so often miss. (187)
There Is More Faërie to Reality Than We See
It is a great, sad, tragic irony that we so often miss the true magic. This world pulses with the glory of God shining out in all that he has made (Romans 1:20) and the written Word contains “precious and very great promises” (2 Peter 1:4) of incredible magnitude, and we are often so dull to it all. The pervasiveness of our sinful depravity causes us to live so much of our days in a small jail cell of self-obsession.
But the great Hero of the true Epic has proclaimed liberty to all the captives who will follow him (Luke 4:18). The road is hard and the perils are many (Matthew 7:14). The enemies are otherworldly and far more powerful than ourselves (Ephesians 6:12). But the Hero is greater still (1 John 4:4) and he promises to be with us to the end (Matthew 28:20), even in the darkest places (Psalm 23:4) and deliver all in his fellowship safely into his heavenly kingdom (2 Timothy 4:18).
No faërie story or myth or man-made religion in all of recorded history compares with the Great Story of Christianity. But we need all the help we can get to turn our eyes away from our confined corner of reality and see the Story with fresh eyes.
For many, looking through the faërie lenses of Middle-earth has helped them see again the real Epic we each are a small part of. They have been helped to see the gleam of the true evangelium and press on in the journeys to which they have been appointed with renewed hope and courage, knowing that at the end of the Road is Home.
Investing life in creating fantasy that results in pointing real people in the real world to true hope in the true evangelium is not a waste, but well done.
More Resources on Tolkien:
Bilbo’s Last Goodbye (article)
The Allure of Middle-Earth (article)