01 September 2011

Rereading the "greatest fantasy epic of our time" and other musings

Last week (around the time of my last post, which I had hoped to expand upon sooner than now), I began to reread The Lord of the Rings. While I was in Washington for several weeks in July/August, I had gotten through over half of the Harry Potter series, but have been prematurely stopped by the underwhelming amount of copies available here at the Columbus libraries. (I have a hold for the next one, but am 4th on the list...) So, having just received my copies of the tried, true, and ever-loved trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien in a package I'd sent myself from WA, I figured time was of the essence for a second (or perhaps it's closer to a fourth, my dad having first read them to me almost 20 years ago!) read. In any case, I have been quite well-rewarded, as would anyone have been. While in undergrad, I took entire courses on both Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, both of which greatly increased my enthusiasm and background knowledge of the authors, their works, and their friendship. Not incidentally, Friendship is very possibly the major theme in both of these literary geniuses' (and good friends) writings. Hopefully, for those of you who hold these books and individuals highly esteemed, I have not just hypothetically stuck my foot in my mouth. Many have and continue to analyze and review both LOTR and Narnia, but that theme is undeniable. It does seem to "compete" with the themes of Light & Darkness/Good & Evil/"Black & White", but at the same time those themes complement one another in a way that can only be described as ethereal - Elves, talking lions, Hobbits, or not.

Why am I bothering to type out all of my personal reactions on these themes, you probably wonder. Well, the truth is, that with the news and the world in the state that they seem to be today, even a "quick" viewing of the LOTR films (I emphasize the quotations on "quick", as the full running time of all three films happens to be well over 6 hours...and that is before you take on the extended versions.) would greatly benefit most people in "leadership" or "power" today. I do not aim to make light of our government or the responsibility and stress that are faced each day by these individuals, but I doubt I will be the only one to assert the opinion that our government today is a far cry from those who founded its entire existence a mere 235 years ago. But I won't go into that, for I know much less than I should and wish solely to explain why I think Tolkien and Lewis remain shockingly relevant today. Both men lived and were involved in The Great War, WWI, and lost many friends and acquaintances. I mean no disrespect to the victims of PTSD today, but that war left none safe from the horrors of death, disease, starvation and loss. I believe that the intense sadness that each soldier was subject to (whether he chose to become numb to it or not) at that time is manifest ten- or even one hundred-fold in both epic series. The longing for a life that has been lost - whether a single life of one person or an entire way of life that has now been literally blown to pieces - is not pushed aside, as we so often seem to be encouraged to do today. It is, on the contrary, verily encouraged and even celebrated in certain instances. For Tolkien and Lewis, this longing signifies that was has been lost is something to be celebrated and above all remembered. Traditions are held highly in Middle Earth and Narnia; tales of old are told in minute detail and descendants are recognized many generations down of those great people who shaped the history of those places. And yet, the characters in these books are always drawn with two sides: the side to which I have just alluded, that is the impressive and awe-inspiring side of each, but also the "ordinary" side. Of course, many would scoff at my use of that word to describe any character of the two authors' creation, but I hope you see what I am trying to say. The Elves, the Dwarves, Gandalf and the Wizards: they all have a history and they all have lives of their own. Naturally we rarely see even glimpses of those lives, as they are, by the time we meet them, all involved in a quest to preserve any and all good things in their worlds. But the fact of the matter is that this Longing is always celebrated through the telling of Histories and the joy got from Friendship. Not Facebook friendship, for that is in this context simply a mockery of True Friendship. In LOTR, in Narnia, the characters bare themselves to one another. Granted, many times this is out of necessity for a cause, but oftentimes it is simply a result of a deep trust and need to share Life. The characters have hopes and dreams, many of which the reader sees crack and sometimes be shattered. As I read the first chapters, a passage struck me particularly, and one which has inspired much of my pondering on these themes the past week. It is when Frodo and his three friends have at last set out from Hobbiton, having heard no news from Gandalf despite his promise to come to travel with them. They meet very luckily with a traveling group of the Elves, having been followed for several days by the Nine Black Riders of Mordor, who seek Frodo and the Ring he carries. Gildor, a great Elf and the leader of this particular group who comes upon the Hobbits, speaks with Frodo of things they both fear, but of which he knows much more than the Hobbit. Frodo's quest is still far from entirely known to him, and he still hopes to one day return to his home in the Shire, though he feels in his heart that it will not be so. He expresses to Gildor his dismay that the Shire be one day taken over by something other than Hobbits, for to him they have always been there and should always be.

'But it is not your own Shire,' said Gildor. 'Others dwelt here before hobbits were; and others will dwell here again when hobbits are no more. The wide world is all about you; you can fence yourselves in, but you cannot for ever fence it out.'
'I know - and yet it has always seemed so safe and familiar. What can I do now?'

Perhaps my words begin to get hard to follow. The thing that jumps out at me in these books is not the astonishing descriptions, the whole worlds and histories (and languages, in Tolkien's case) that these authors have created. It is the value which is given to honor, integrity, truth and Friendship. Friends are not just people who indulge you by listening to you brag about this or that or the other thing. They are those who walk alongside you as you travel Life's path. Whether you are a Christian or not, you cannot deny man's intrinsic need for others. Thoreau and Descartes may have been able to seclude themselves from society and turn out philosophical writings and hypotheses which shaped the entire world around them (whether immediately or posthumously, or both), but the Everyman needs Friendship. I truly believe that, when one chooses to fill his or her life not with true Friends, but with acquaintances that will help him or her get where they want to and advance in whatever field or arena they work or play in, a potentially fatal risk is taken. Perhaps it is not fatal to the physical life of that individual. But it is quite possibly fatal to their humanity, to their honor, to their integrity. I truly believe that Jesus Christ was, is and will ever be the sole man who could walk this earth at times completely and utterly alone and come out safely. And He happened to also be God, so that rules out pretty much everyone else. What I mean to say is: we have forgotten what Friendship is along with all of the other things we have pushed aside in the pursuit of fame, money and beauty. How is the term "Frenemy" even possible in any world? Why must we be so quick to ridicule men who are closer than brothers, assuming they are gay (and, thus, exposing our opinions of those who actually are, though they be but fallen human beings like ourselves)? I simply do not understand it. My last post spoke of my recent anxiety and lessons about friendship. What I write today will hopefully help you understand why my solitude (not 100%, as I have managed to snag and marry one of the most amazing men walking the earth today!) here so concerns me. How do I maintain Friends, and true Friendship, when all those that I hold dearest are so far away?

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