After giving the example of being inside the beam of light in the toolshed, versus viewing it objectively, standing in the darkness, Lewis provides a second, analogous situation – that of being in love. “A young man meets a girl,” he postulates, and “the whole world looks difference when he sees her. Her voice reminds him of something he has been trying to remember all his life” (God in the Dock, 212). Of course, the scientist – that viewer from the objective darkness – comes along and ruins it all, going on about hormones and biological stimuli and what-have-you. The joyful and irrational illusion is revealed, though perhaps the young lover isn’t ready to listen yet; there may, of course, come a time when he, ironically, perhaps devastatingly, realizes it of his own accord.
This passage was particularly resonant for me because it describes an experience that I feel is very analogous to falling in love: reading Tolkien. There was a time when The Silmarillion alone occupied me on every car trip and every rainy afternoon, when I took several pounds of the HoME with me to summer camp several years running, when I spent hours devoted to drawing sub-par, manga-esque renditions of obscure characters. In seventh grade, in lieu of a simple “do not disturb,” I was very proud of the homemade sign on my door the proclaimed, to any unwitting passerby, Get thee gone from my gate, thou jail-crow of Mandos! I could go on and on (though I won’t, for my dignity), but I know that a lot of you out there in the crowd probably have similar histories with Tolkien, if not also with other authors and their respective thought-worlds (OK, I won’t kid myself, that’s kind of just a fancy word for fandom. I believe someone in class today already ‘fessed up to the fanfiction thing. I say, virtual high-fives all around! Seventh through ninth grade was a great time…as is the present!). To put it is Lewis’s language, in immersing ourselves in such naturally immersive texts, when we look from inside the beam of light and stare outwards in awe at the “green leaves moving on the branches outside and beyond,” we give ourselves entirely to a world alien to our own, ever devoting and stretching ourselves towards the perfection, depth, and mystery that we perceive to be.
Before this class, I had honestly preferred to not consider the religious dimension in my recreational (though wholly devotional) enjoyment of Tolkien’s writings. Though fully cognizant of Tolkien’s Catholicism, I preferred to know Middle-earth in a vacuum, putting any possible religious symbolism in the category of allegory, which I had discerned was something Tolkien did not want construed on his pure story. In fact, I had always been under the impression that the LotR books stood opposed to the self-conscious Christian allegory of Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia – the departure through the door of light, Susan’s not being allowed to return, now that she wears hose and lipstick and has fallen from innocence. Here, in an academic context, it’s obviously difficult to disregard Tolkien’s religiosity, and I certainly confess that it has been pretty critical to understanding the context of his moral universe. Based on the language I just found myself using – devotion, striving, mystery – it seems that reading The Lord of the Rings et al was, in fact, a kind of religious experience, and one that left me with an imprint of the devotion of its creator. In this strange way, a kind of transmission of faith was engendered.
In part, this must have been the kind of thing Tolkien intended for his readers, or at least hoped might happen, though he knew that, for better and worse, he relinquished control of the story to these new minds that were exposed to it. In other ways, I am certain that it was what he would not have wanted to happen, for I know that I, in my time of greatest mania, was a card-carrying member of “the deplorable cultus” that semi-deified him in the ‘60s, and continues to do so this day. I didn’t end up finding God through Lord of the Rings, because that wasn’t who I was looking for, at age thirteen. I was hungry for a world, and I swallowed it; that world became a compass, and internal mythology, that was of indescribable importance to me for a not insignificant portion of my life. It’s still there, and it still compels me.
But it’s not the same as it once was. Returning to the stories over the past weeks has been familiar and comfortable, like stepping into well-worn shoes, and don’t get me wrong, it’s been wonderful. Yet the joy of total immersion, of one’s brain chemistry, at age thirteen, reacting to the Doom of Mandos, is irretrievable. Is this because I put the wrong kind of faith into Tolkien, because I was looking for things that weren’t there, making meanings that weren’t there? A few years past the zenith of my obsession, I was fortunate enough to visit Wolvercote Cemertary in Oxford, and by the time I finally read Beren and Lúthien on the grave, I was completely, unexpectedly inconsolable. Like the children in A.S. Byatt’s novel, I was distraught, for here the story ended, when I hadn’t wanted it to, when I wanted, and needed, for there to be much, much more. In Tolkien’s mind, as we discussed today, the story never does end; it is living, and we are part of it, even when we don’t intend to be. My problem might just be that I’m still half in Middle-earth, without realizing that the world around me is still Arda, evolving from age to age.
- J. Wetherell