[Week 1 of the “Imagination in Action” reflection series. Introduction to the series.]
JRR Tolkien is best known for writing The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. However, his main career was not as an author – this was a sort of side-hobby for him. Instead, he was a professor of Anglo-Saxon language (aka Old English) at Oxford. Beowulf (an epic Old English poem) was a key area of study for him. It tells the tale of a hero named Beowulf that arrives to save a kingdom from the attacks of a demonic creature named Grendel (and Grendel’s mother), and then at the end of his life must also defend against an attack by a dragon. Beowulf slays the dragon, but dies of his wounds.
Tolkien gave a famous lecture on this story, which was later published as an essay called “The Monster and the Critics.” Here Tolkien responded to critics that complained that the story of Beowulf was too simplistic for an epic. Rather than the grand travels of something like the Odyssey by Homer, it only talked about a couple of battles against monsters. In response to this critique Tolkien argued that by limiting its scope it actually widened its applicability. He wrote that, “It glimpses the cosmic and moves with the thought of all men concerning the fate of human life and efforts.” The monsters could be seen to represent the struggles of the beginning and end of life, and hinted at the supernatural aspect of faith. Putting the “monsters” in the forefront of the story was a deliberate choice based on what the author wanted to convey.
This connects with a general principle that Tolkien believed about ancient myths/legends. In one of his letters he wrote, “I believe that legends and myths are largely made up of ‘truth,’ and indeed present aspects of it that can only be received in this mode.” He is not saying that Bilbo Baggins or Beowulf existed historically, but that their stories tell true things about our world. Some of these truths might be obscured by the complexity of life. By setting the stories in a fictional world, an author can help us to see our world in a different light. Tolkien sought to follow this ancient pattern of myth and legend in the way that he wrote the Lord of the Rings. He wanted a story that highlighted many of the real struggles of life through the “sub-creation” of an alternate reality.
My appreciation for Tolkien has only grown as I’ve read these other works of his that explain his vision and philosophy of “myth.” It sparks my imagination to enjoy stories both in themselves and in the ways they illuminate reality. It also explains why certain stories, very simple in themselves, can have such a powerful impact on us. And, ultimately, I think it helps us to understand why the Word was made Flesh, and lived among us. The life of Christ brings together all of these glimpses at truth in the actual course of human events, and invites us to see our life in this larger dimension.