Last week, Word On Fire Research Assistant Jack Thornton made a visit to one of the best collections of original Tolkien manuscripts in the world. Today he reflects on his experience there.
A couple weeks ago some of the Word On Fire team were sitting at our lunch table finishing up yet another fun, entertaining lunchtime conversation. We have a lot of those, about many different topics, but towards the end this one veered towards literature.
I don’t remember exactly how we got there, but at one point Fr. Steve spoke eloquently of J.R.R. Tolkien’s excellence as a writer, not only in the wide scope of his stories but in the beauty of his sentences. Fr. Steve described a moment from a recent re-reading of The Lord of the Rings when he had to put the book down and just marvel at Tolkien’s stunning prose for a while. We all agreed that some writers have that intangible ability to invoke great awe, admiration and wonder at the beauty of their words, and that this awe sometimes so great that it interrupts the reading process itself.
This should sound familiar to anyone who appreciates good writing. I remember clearly, when reading authors like Evelyn Waugh, James Joyce, Gustave Flaubert, Leo Tolstoy, Salmon Rushdie and others, being quite frequently blown away at how incredible and beautiful their prose is; so blown away that I need to stop reading and take a moment to admire it. Sometimes, however, the always lovely experience of reading great writing is tainted by a tinge of jealousy and the question ‘why can’t I do that?’
When I admitted this to Fr. Steve he said, “Well, Jack, writing like that doesn’t just come out easily. Those writers put a lot of time and work into their craft. Yes, there’s talent there, but it requires immense effort to write like that. Think about it.”
So I did think about it, but I didn’t realize how right he was until a couple days later when I went on a little field trip to the J.R.R. Tolkien Collection in the Raynor Memorial Libraries at Marquette University to do some research for a future Word On Fire project involving Tolkien’s life and works (stay tuned for more details about that)...
It's a rare phenomenon that an artist is as revered in the popular culture as he/she is the Catholic culture — count J.R.R. Tolkien among the few. Today, Word on Fire blog contributor Jared Zimmerer takes a look at Tolkien's treatment of heroism, and how tales of integrity and courage in the fictional realm is borrowed heavily from the bravest true act of all.
J.R.R. Tolkien has captured the minds and hearts of his readers for many reasons. His style, clarity of vision, originality and depth enveloped all of his writings, consequently creating an unforeseen base of fans and tens of millions of copies of his books sold. Those who are not fans of the faerie story or the fantasy genre have still felt his graceful message through the medium of cinema. Numerous stories of conversions are associated with his legendary work.
What is it about his writing that arrests the very soul of his fans? While there are many virtuous aspects within Middle Earth, two pillars are concrete on which the heart beats, those being heroism and self-sacrifice.
Middle Earth, the sub-world from the imagination of Tolkien, is rife with stories of heroism and bravery. In The Lord of the Rings the journey of Frodo carrying the one, evil ring to Mount Doom exemplifies unprepared yet humbly accepted heroism, as Frodo is a simple Hobbit from a place where the only danger might be to drink a bit too much ale. Frodo’s heroic sacrifice to sell everything he has and carry his cross, i.e. the ring, is a resounding mirror of Christ’s call in Luke 9:23 and 18:22. Frodo’s heroism is expounded upon through the fact that he had nothing to do with the creation of the ring or the history of the struggle, yet he selflessly took the burden upon his own neck to save the free world of men, hobbits, dwarves and elves. Without full knowledge of the peril ahead, Frodo understood that something must be done and therefore he acted, a true sign of a hero. He was not always happily trudging through his journey: “I wish it need not have happened in my time," Frodo said. Tolkien would follow up any doubt in our hero with a philosophical statement of profound depth: “So do I," said Gandalf, "and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for
them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”...