Tag Archives: J.R.R. Tolkien

A Grumpy Old Men Adventure

As mentioned in previous posts, my friend Kevin McQ and I are in a production of the one-act play Freud’s Last Session scheduled for October 17-20 (Dates have changed!). The play imagines a meeting between Sigmund Freud (just weeks from his death) and C.S. Lewis.

C.S. Lewis’ desk at the Marion E. Wade Center.

As part of our research of Lewis we became aware of the Marion E. Wade Center on the campus of Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois. The center hosts an archive of Lewis’ writing and correspondence along with a collection of Lewis’ possessions including his desk and his childhood wardrobe.

This prompted an idea for a one-day Grumpy Old Men marathon adventure for Kevin and me. So it was that we departed Pella at 4:00 a.m. this past Friday morning and drove in a cold rain all the way to Wheaton College. We pulled up to the Wade Center at promptly 9:00 a.m. when they opened. My nephew Sam is in grad school at Wheaton and hooked us up with his friend, Aaron, who works at the Center.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s Desk

Aaron gave us a tour of the Wade center. We got to see (and touch) the Wardrobe (For Wendy’s benefit, I checked to see if maybe…) and Lewis’ desk where he penned many of his books. There was also the desk of J.R.R. Tolkien where he wrote The Hobbit and much of The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. As a lover of writing instruments  I also enjoyed seeing both Lewis’ and Tolkien’s fountain pens. The archive there contains an exhaustive collection of Lewis’ voluminous correspondence. Both Kevin and I wished we’d had more time in the schedule to explore the archive.

Chicago’s Red Line train to Addison.

It was still raining when we caught the 10:55 train from Wheaton to Chicago. We walked in the rain to catch the Red Line to Addison and then walked to Wrigley Field for the Cubs’ 1:20 p.m. game agains the Cincinnati Reds. It was our good fortune that the rain stopped just as we entered Wrigley and held off for the entire game. We watched Alec Mills on the mound for the Northsiders in his MLB debut. He pitched a gem and even notched his first MLB hit. The game also included Daniel Murphy’s first home run as a Cub and the Cubs won the game in the bottom of the 10th with a walk-off homer by David Bote. Stellar afternoon!

Kevin and I retraced our tracks back to Wheaton and it was raining again by the time we arrived. We drove back to Pella, arriving just before midnight. A memorable 20 hour adventure!

Purposes and Implosions of Evil

“I will stir up Egyptian against Egyptian—
    brother will fight against brother,
    neighbor against neighbor,
    city against city,
    kingdom against kingdom.”
Isaiah 19:2 (NIV)

‘Yes, they quarreled, seemingly,’ said Sam. ‘There must have been a couple of hundred of the dirty creatures in this place. A bit of a tall order for Sam Gamgee, as you might say. But they’ve done all the killing of themselves.’
The Lord of the Rings, Book 6, Chapter 1

Evil falls prey to its own nature. That’s one of the themes that Tolkien threaded through his epic stories. Left to its own devices, evil implodes from its self-seeking appetites:

  • Several characters relented from killing Gollum and Gandalf even believed that Gollum had a part to play in the fate of the ring. Gollum’s insatiable lust for the One Ring was what ultimately saved Frodo and everyone else, while destroying both the Ring and himself.
  • In the Tower of Cirith Ungol Sam is able to find Frodo and rescue him because all of the orcs fought and destroyed each other. (see quoted passage above)
  • The orcs who took Merry and Pippin quarrel over their captives and their quarrel is leveraged by the hobbits to plot their escape.
  • Gandalf refuses to kill either Saruman or Wormtongue. In the end, Wormtongue finishes Saruman off himself.

I thought about this theme in Tolkien’s stories, and its caused me to think about my responses and reactions to evil that I encounter around me and in others. As a young man I was far more given to the notion of swift and final justice of any perpetrator of evil. The further I get in my journey the more I’ve come to appreciate that life is not always as simply black and white.

Even God, through the word of the prophets, makes it clear that sometimes the agents of evil unwittingly serve the greater design of the Great Story. In Isaiah’s prophetic messages to the nations in the past few chapters there has been a recurring theme of Israel’s enemies accomplishing God’s larger purposes. And, sometimes  implodes and devours itself.

Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement,” Gandalf says to Frodo regarding Gollum’s deserving justice. “For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”

This morning I’m thinking about grand themes of good and evil, of mercy and justice. I would love for things to always be simple in the story telling and to avoid the messiness of the mystery. I would especially appreciate it as I apply these themes to my own life and relationships. Yet, my life journey has taught me that things are rarely that simple. The truth is that I would have quickly dispatched Gollum and considered it a just end, but then how would the larger epic have ended?

I’m left, as I am so often am, praying for wisdom and discernment. I’m trying harder than ever to suppress my natural eagerness to deal out judgement. I’m trying harder than ever to increase love in tangible ways.

 

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The Importance of the Backstory

If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death.
Leviticus 20:10 (NRSV)

Over recent months I have been reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion. It is not an easy read. Rather than a simple and continuous narrative, The Silmarillion is a collection of stories that, together, create the cosmology of Tolkien’s fictional universe from its creation.  Having a lot of excellent on-line reference material has been extremely helpful.

Slogging my way through The Silmarillion I am constantly inspired as I make connections and gain a broader understanding of the backstory of The Lord of the Rings. Knowing the backstory makes the story I know so well even more colorful and thought provoking. I better understand why the elves are leaving Middle Earth and where they are going. I better understand exactly what the “Three rings of elven kings” really are and represent. I learn the skinny on Shelob the giant spider and the evil Sauron, the scary faces in the Dead Marshes, all the obscure references made by the hobbits and about hoard they find with the barrow wights in the Old Forest, and the song Aragorn sings as he and the hobbits camp on the road to Rivendell.

In many ways The Silmarillion parallels the loose collection of history, poetry, prophecy, and legal text that make up what is commonly known as the Old Testament. For many people these ancient writings are difficult to wade through and understand. Nevertheless, I’ve always found that without them I have an incomplete view of who Jesus is, what His message was about, and why things happened the way they did. The stories of Jesus suddenly gain more color and depth in context with the backstory.

One such example struck me this morning. According to Levitical law in today’s chapter, those who committed adultery were to be put to death – both the man and the woman who committed the deed. I then thought about the story in John’s biography in which the religious leaders, seeking to trap Jesus and discredit him, bring a woman to Him. She had been caught “in the act” of adultery and deserved the death penalty. They wanted Jesus to render the verdict. If He let them kill her then it would be unpopular with the crowds, but if He let her off then they could accuse Him of being a lawbreaker.

But Jesus knew today’s chapter as well as they did. If she was caught “in the act” then where was the man who was committing adultery with her? He was to be put to death as well. The story said that Jesus sat doodling in the dirt as the religious leaders were making their case. Perhaps Jesus was symbolically writing the name of the woman’s lover into “the record.” Knowing the law, I begin to understand how hypocritical, misogynistic, and crooked these religious leaders proved themselves to be with their accusations. Without even saying a word, Jesus’ brilliant response called the leaders to a legal point-of-order. His gracious forgiveness of the woman means even more to me in light of this context. [Note: you can read the brief story in John 8]

This morning I’m thinking about backstories. Beyond The Silmarillion and the Old Testament, there are also backstories to our lives, our families, our communities, our nation, and our world. I realize, once again, this morning why I love history. Knowing backstories helps me better perceive and understand things in the present. With that, I can made better decisions and judgements in the present just as Jesus did with the woman caught in adultery.

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The Power of the One Ring (Not THAT One)

Those twelve stones, which they had taken out of the Jordan, Joshua set up in Gilgal, saying to the Israelites, “When your children ask their parents in time to come, ‘What do these stones mean?’ then you shall let your children know, ‘Israel crossed over the Jordan here on dry ground.’
Joshua 4:20-23 (NRSV)

I have a ring that is worn on a chain around my neck. Those who know my life-long love of Tolkien are likely to think it some homage to the ring of power in Lord of the Rings. The ring around my neck may be a ring of power, but its power is not in magic, elves, wizards, or the stuff of imaginative fantasy. The ring around my neck was a gift to me from Wendy. She gave it to me before we were married, and its power is in the meaning it holds for her, and for me.

The ring was and is, for Wendy, a special reminder of a waypoint in her own spiritual journey, and the things God had done in her heart and life. These things are a part of her story, thus they are hers to tell and I will leave it at that. When she knew that I was to be her husband and that God was bringing me into her story, the ring became a gift to me. It always hangs around my neck. It is a ring of power, even if its power is limited in significance to Wendy, me and God.

Memorial [muh-mawr-ee-uh l] noun. Something designed to preserve the memory of a person, event, thing, etc.

In today’s chapter, the people of Israel were called to create a memorial. Twelve stones, one stone for each tribe, were piled as a reminder of what God had done in drying up the River Jordan so that they could cross. They would preserve the memory of that event. When future generations asked about the pile of stones, they could learn the story.

We generally think of memorials as a reminder of people after they die, but memorials can be a powerful tool in other ways. When God does something special or remarkable in the life of a person, a couple, or a family, it is an opportunity to create a tangible memorial of His faithfulness, provision, deliverance, miracle, answered prayer, or etc. The memorial can be a powerful reminder, even if its power or significance is limited to the person, couple, or family involved.

Today, I’m thinking about the ring that has hung around my neck for nearly 11 years, and the fact that 99.9 percent of the time I forget that it’s even there. But, I catch sight of it in the mirror as I shave, or I feel it pop out of my t-shirt when I bend over, and it reminds me of Wendy, her journey, and her gift. It reminds me in the moment of what God has done in her story, in my story, in our story. I am reminded once again of grace, provision, and redemption.

Therein lies the power of the ring.

 

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Green God

If you besiege a town for a long time, making war against it in order to take it, you must not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against them. Although you may take food from them, you must not cut them down. Are trees in the field human beings that they should come under siege from you? You may destroy only the trees that you know do not produce food; you may cut them down for use in building siegeworks against the town that makes war with you, until it falls.
Deuteronomy 20:19-20 (NRSV)

One of the things that I have quietly gained as a life long fan and student of J.R.R. Tolkien is an appreciation for trees. Tolkien loved trees and his expression of love is woven throughout his works. In his creation story, there are two trees, gold and silver, which produced light. When evil destroys the trees their fruit become the sun and moon.

Throughout the Lord of the Rings you find Tolkien’s love of trees expressed through Old Man Willow, the ents, and through the elves who dwell in the forests and carry the blessings of all things that grow. Those who are evil, like the wizard Saruman and his minions, fell the trees and destroy the forests to fuel their war machine and generally tear down that which is good. As a result, it is the trees embodied by the Ents and the mysterious forest of Huorns who rise up against evil and help usher in an unexpected victory in The Two Towers.

So it is that I read with keen interest God’s command to the ancient Hebrew in today’s chapter. The army was not to fell any tree that was living and bearing fruit. When laying siege to an enemy city, they could eat the fruit of the surrounding trees but were forbidden from cutting them down to use in building siege engines and utensils of war. Only trees which were already dead could be used for such purposes.

I am reminded this morning that our Creator and artist God began His work on earth with a garden, and at the center of the garden He placed a very special tree. The vision of the end given to us in John’s revelation likewise makes special mention of a tree:

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.
Revelation 22:1-2

I am not much of a gardener and I often joke of having a “brown thumb.” Yet, along life’s journey I have grown to appreciate that God, like Tolkien, is a gardner and a lover of trees. If I am to be like Him, then I must grow to love, appreciate, and protect gardens and trees and the living things that grow in His creation.

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featured image: The Tree of Life , Gustav Klimt

A Less Than Trivial Question of Direction

The Revelation of St John: 4. The Four Riders ...
The Revelation of St John: 4. The Four Riders of the Apocalypse (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I watched as he opened the sixth seal. There was a great earthquake. The sun turned black like sackclothmade of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind. The heavens receded like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. Revelation 6:12-14 (NIV)

Over the past year or so I have been slowly listening to Professor Corey Olsen’s series of podcast lectures on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. Over the same period of time, I’ve been reading Tolkien’s letters. For me, one of the most profound things to come out of both the lectures and the letters is a seemingly minor point, which I have come to recognize as having profound implications. Professor Olsen observes that Tolkien was a medievalist, and in the middle ages the common world view was that the world and humanity were slowly getting worse and inevitably heading towards destruction. Tolkien clearly believed that our technological advances were not actually advancing society in a positive way*. You see this played out in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings as the machines of war created by Sauron and Saruman are set against the powers of nature in forms of tree herds, floods of water, and eternal powers hidden in the forests.

The idea that we are moving towards destruction, of course, flies in the face of what I find to be the common world view today. We like to believe that humanity is inherently good constantly getting better. Technology and human advancement is moving us towards a better world in which peoples and nations come to mutual understanding and respect. Famine gives way to food for all. Death gives way to medical miracles. Pestilence gives way to environmental utopia. War gives way to peace as we all embrace the better angels of our nature.

As I look around me, read the headlines from around the globe, and talk to people of diverse opinions, I have come to believe that this seemingly trivial question of  which direction the world is heading isn’t really trivial at all. It’s fundamental to the way we perceive and approach life.

Today’s chapter reads like a medievalist’s nightmare. Things are not getting better, they are quickly getting worse on the Earth. The four riders of the apocalypse spread war, death, famine and pestilence across the earth. Believers are persecuted and slaughtered for their faith. And, reading like a number Hollywood disaster movies, stars fall from the sky with ensuing cataclysmic effects of nature, sending people scurrying into the mountains to escape the disaster.

I am a relatively positive person. I try to approach life with a “glass half-full” perspective, look for the goodness in others, and seek to discover the silver lining in tragic circumstances. At the same time, I look back across my lifetime. I study history. I cannot see a fundamental change in human nature. I’ve seen tremendous advances in treating symptomatic human problems, but I’ve also seen that the cures often create their own set of problems. I have not seen major shifts in addressing the underlying problems of human greed, the lust for power, hatred, selfishness, not to mention the senseless evil (the existence of which many choose to ignore) I find always at work under the surface and in the shadows.

Today, I am feeling a bit sobered. I believe that history is, indeed, an epic battle of good and evil. I believe that tragically flawed humanity is forever erecting a tower of Babel and seeking a pinnacle of god-like goodness that it can never, and will never attain. I believe that God and good is at work achieving amazing victories small and large, and I believe that the enemy, evil is at work ever thwarting, marring, and twisting for selfish, chaotic ends. I believe that Life and good will win in the end, but I also believe that today’s chapter stands as a reminder of what we instinctively know in our souls; That which resonates in our greatest epic stories: there is darkness before the dawn.

*From a letter 9 August 1945, Tolkien writes to his son Christopher: “The news today about ‘Atomic bombs’ is so horrifying one is stunned. The utter folly of these lunatic physicists to consent to do such work for war-purposes: calmly plotting the destruction of the world! Such explosives in men’s hands, while their moral and intellectual status is declining, is about as useful as giving out firearms to all inmates of a gaol and then saying that you hope ‘this will ensure peace’. But one good thing may arise out of it, I suppose, if the write-ups are not overheated: Japan ought to cave in. Well we’re in God’s hands. But He does not look kindly on Babel-builders.”

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Assurance for “a Dangerous Business”

United FlightThe Lord will keep you from all harm—
    he will watch over your life;
the Lord will watch over your coming and going
    both now and forevermore.
Psalm 121:7-8 (NIV)

Compared to passionate travelers and corporate road warriors, this wayfaring stranger is a relative lightweight. Yes, my parents claim never know where I am on any given day, friends joke with me about my regular business travels, and Wendy and I think we’re apart, way, way, way too much. Despite my closing in on a half-million lifetime miles with United and my pocket full of rewards memberships, however, I am usually 28th on the list of 34 people on my flight’s upgrade list. I keep an annual eye on my status with both United and Marriott just to make sure I get the few meager perks they dish out to travelers like me so as to make road trips a tad bit easier.

When I’m on the road and away from home, there are always thoughts of safety and making it home in one piece. Whenever I take off on a trip, Bilbo’s words to Frodo in The Lord of the Rings always flit through my head:

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

As I sit in my hotel room a thousand miles from home this morning and look forward to tomorrow’s return trip , I deeply appreciated the lyrics of today’s psalm. Mired somewhere between being a homebody and a road warrior, it’s wonderful to have the assurance of God vigilantly watching over me.

 

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