“I wish it need not have happened in my time," said Frodo. "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.” — J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
In Tolkien’s literary world of Middle-earth, the wicked armies of Mordor marched upon Minas Tirith and the beacons of Gondor were lit, sounding the alarm and calling for aid from Rohan. In our own world, authors such Rod Dreher have lit the warning pyre. Throughout his book, The Benedict Option, Dreher alerts Christians of the 21st century to the nature of the world we live in. Christians watch the news, hear the currents of thought swirling in our culture, and witness what Dreher observes, “The light of Christianity is flickering out all over the West.”
What can be done? Dreher offers both diagnosis and direction in his book. He rightfully challenges Christians to remain faithful, to think, evaluate, pray, and be discerning of the world around us. As I read The Benedict Option earlier this summer, I began to wonder, what do the events of good stories, like The Lord of the Rings teach us about the rise and fall of civilizations in our own world? I think a great deal.
Like Saruman, we could give into pride and join the powers of darkness. Like Denethor, we could sit in our halls and foolishly pretend the shadow is no threat. Or, like Samwise, we can see that there is some good in this world that is worth fighting for.
Like Frodo in The Lord of the Rings, many of us wish that we did not live in such dark times, where the strength of men fails, families are broken, and children are bought and sold; where pride, pleasure, and subjective preference have been hammered into a golden calf. Like Gondor, we long for the return of the King. Like Elrond and the Elves, we yearn for the undying lands. Like Bilbo Baggins, we want to be home, and yet the Shire seems farther on the horizon with each passing day.
In their memorable books, writers like C.S. Lewis an J.R.R. Tolkien brought a satisfaction to that age-old longing through their stories. In a time when the Great War and World War II were not playing on the silver screen but happening in live action before their eyes, Tolkien and Lewis wrote of joy, hope, consolation, and courage in the face of unimaginable evil. This is the strength of fairy tales. Good stories point us beyond the troubles of this world to a better world.
Lewis, Tolkien, and many others lead us through various trials in their own imaginary worlds—Harry Potter’s battle with Lord Voldemort, the Fellowship’s quest to destroy the Ring of Power, Aslan’s sacrifice to destroy the White Witch—teaching us something valuable about our own world. We read of bravery, courage, and steadfastness. We learn of right and wrong, true and false, and that good defeats evil, sometimes in the most unexpected of ways. Good stories pull us into literary worlds for a short time that we might know our own world better, just as Lewis brought the Pevensie children (and the reader) into Narnia, that by knowing Aslan there, we might know Jesus, the true Lion of Judah, better here.
I call this the Tolkien Option. In a day and age where reason is dismissed, truth and logic are denied, and arguments are shallow and subjective, fairy tales and other artistic, creative and imaginative means are useful arrows in our apologetics quiver, that we might sneak past the watchful dragons of unbelief. Inspired by the work of great authors and good stories, we use our imagination to point a decaying civilization, dead in trespasses and sin, to a new creation marked by life and salvation in Jesus crucified. This is what Tolkien and Lewis do so well in their imaginative worlds.
In his seminal essay, On Fairy Stories, Tolkien writes that there are three necessary ingredients for a satisfying, good fairy story: recovery, escape, and consolation. In the upcoming posts, I’ll expand on these three themes of the Tolkien Option using his own categories of recovery (seeing the world as it really is), escape (that longing we have for the world to be set right), and consolation (the joy that follows suffering and death; victory in the face of sure defeat).
In well-told stories, we find what is good, true, and beautiful; we find words and worlds that point us to the greatest story of all time—the Gospel. And this story is both historical and meaningful, true and beautiful: Jesus Crucified for you. And Jesus’ Word, is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path (Psalm 119:105), no matter how dark the world is around us. Jesus Christ is the Light of the world for you.