Every time I come home for Christmas, I’m warmed by the familiar sight of my father, lounging comfortably in his big, black leather chair, the yellow glow of the lamp beside him illuminating his little corner. He’s wearing his old, green flannel shirt, and the glasses he’s finally resigned himself to needing, and lying open on his lap is the essential finishing piece: the worn and battered copy of The Lord of the Rings.
He re-reads it every winter season. As soon as the leaves start to fall, and the chill returns to the air, you’ll hear him say, “It’s about that time again. I’ll have to dig the old book out.”
This year, the familiar scene struck me in a new way, maybe because I’ve been reading a lot about story, fairytales, and Tolkien. What is it about The Lord of the Rings that keeps my father returning to it again and again? Is it something unique to this story? Or is this story an expression of a certain kind of story? Is there something precious about myths, legends, and fairy stories in general?
J.R.R. Tolkien was intimately familiar with the history and origin of the genre of fairytales because he believed that fairytales are different cultures’ attempts to give a language to the deepest truths they find in the world. They narrate answers to the questions, “Who are we? Where have we come from? Where are we going?”
In his famous “Lang Lecture on Fairy Tales,” Tolkien describes the three functions of fantasy as: Recovery, Escape and Consolation.
Fantasy leads you away from things you know so well and re-presents them in novel ways, making you rethink their purpose and meaning. It offers you the chance to glimpse what’s real beneath the appearance,“to see through the look of things,” as Tolkien says: to be able to recognize the meaning of the simple and homely, maybe for the first time.
For example, after you encounter Treebeard in The Lord of the Rings, it’s hard to look at a tree the same way again without appreciating the layers of complexity and life that make up this familiar thing. A good fairytale not only reveals the complexity of physical things, but of the spiritual ones, too.
We have grown so skilled at protecting ourselves from contact with the real and with the world. We genetically modify our food, cocoon ourselves behind technology…the list goes on.
But our souls are parched for something more. Fairytales recover the real for us, making them particularly relevant in a world that has mastered the art of isolation from the real.
Tolkien isn’t suggesting the denial of or escape from reality. Instead, as Stratford Caldecott aptly describes, fairytales provide
“…an escape into reality. It is the world of the everyday—boring, banal, dull, meaningless—that is the prison from which this kind of fantasy seeks to liberate us, not by distracting us from the real but by showing us the deeper patterns and meanings that lie concealed within it.” (Caldecott, A Hidden Presence, pg. 2).
Fantasy enables you to escape the boundaries of time and space, in order to remind you that you are made for the eternal. The fairytale, Tolkien says, is the human attempt to satisfy the desire for a world that is deeper, richer, and more beautiful than the present one. It’s the recapitulation of our longing for a “paradise lost.”
Fairytales make you remember.
Tolkien believes that the third purpose of the fairytale is to restore your hope, and faith in Beauty, Truth, and Goodness, and to fortify you for the landscape of the eternal drama.
Fairytales remind you that you’re not alone in the world. It’s true that there are evils too big for us, but just when you feel hopelessness is when it’s all the more important to believe, as Tolkien would say, in a “light and high beauty forever beyond the reach” of the shadow. We’re meant for something glorious. The darkness and struggles of this life are not the end of the story. This is why, for Tolkien, the Christian story is the fulfillment of all fairytales: because with the coming of Christ, our hope has been realized, eternity has entered time, and we have been given the capacity to transcend again the boundaries of this world.
In his book about Tolkien, Stratford Caldecott writes beautifully:
“Many of us return to the Lord of the Rings again and again for refreshment of soul—perhaps even for the kind of healing that the author must have experienced in the writing of it.” (Stratford Caldecott, The Power of the Ring, Crossroads Publishing: 2005, pg. 6).
I see the truth of this statement every Christmas in my father. That refreshment and healing is exactly what he receives from The Lord of the Rings, and is why he returns to this fairytale year after year.
Like all of us, my father has walked through some real darknesses: the loss of a job, animosity within some of his relationships, helplessness in the face of his children’s illnesses and ongoing sufferings. And every time the darkness feels too big for an ordinary man, he lets himself be led back into the heart of his own story: a story as grand and as glorious as Frodo’s or Aragorn’s.
Siobhan Maloney works for the Center for Cultural and Pastoral Research at the John Paul II Institute in Washington D.C. She also assists with their online review journal, Humanum. She studied Humanities and Catholic Culture at Franciscan University, and Theology at the John Paul II Institute.
Cropped image courtesy of BagoGames, July 30 2014.