Stepping onto the Road: Journeying with Tolkien
In a hole in the ground there lived a pre-teen. Not a nasty, bullying athletic pre-teen, filled with put-on bluster and bravado, nor yet an emotionally bare, withdrawn pre-teen, with nothing in him to draw upon in finding an identity: he was a creative, nerdy little WASP pre-teen, and that means discomfort.
It meant discomfort for me, because the secondary world created by devout Catholic J.R.R. Tolkien was my favorite place to live between grade five, when I was introduced The Hobbit by my best childhood friend, Danny. My real world wasn't a bad one: I wasn't hiding from an abusive parent or caustic siblings. It's just that I shared Tolkien's desire for dragons, but attended a North American Baptist church in socially and politically conservative Medicine Hat. This was long before Jackson's films won the approval of evangelical Christians writing on the "Gospel According to Tolkien." I smuggled Fellowship into church like it was the Ring going into Mordor. I read it in the back row of the balcony while the sermon was being preached, keeping it secret, keeping it safe, until an usher discovered me and gave me a stern lecture on books concerning magic, the occult, and the fires of hell.
But I needed The Hobbit and its sequels. I think every pre-teen does, but some will never have the chance to enjoy it. They're too busy being shuttled to hockey practice or gymnastics or dance class by overly practical parents who won't permit any of that ridiculous fantasy in their homes. The real world's the thing: I experienced this many times over the years, but most notably at Sunday dinner with my wife's family back when we were dating. I'd introduced her younger brother to Tolkien, and he had found his own way to Guy Gavriel Kay. Those influences had traveled to his drawing hand and sketchpad, much to his grandmother's chagrin. She challenged me to explain how such flights of fancy could be helpful to a young person, a young Christian's upbringing.
I was too flustered to give much of an answer at the time. Fifteen years later, I could tell her. Christian or no, young people travel out of the hobbit hole in Bilbo Baggins' footsteps (I'd have said shoes, but the metaphor gets lost on a hobbit). We leave the comfort of childhood for the adventure of adulthood, which is a perilous enterprise indeed.
We leave the comfort of home, of a certain degree of innocence, for the wider world beyond. Adolescence is a painful time for most of us. At first, the giant spiders still sing in rhyme, and the dragons still enjoy riddle games. However, as time goes by, the problems grow larger, friends learn to betray us better, and we lose companions along the way. I suspect this is why I loved Fellowship more than the other books as a young man. It is The Hobbit told again: but once we cross the Misty Mountains grey, Middle-Earth is a very different place. Boromir betrays Frodo's trust; Merry and Pippin are kidnapped; the fellowship is broken. Who hasn't experienced the breaking of a fellowship between adolescence and graduation?
And it isn't just geeky little nerds like me who needed to get out of the hobbit hole to leave the comfort of well-stocked pantries and whole rooms devoted to clothes. It wasn't just the introverts who were living in a bubble. Hockey kids live in bubbles too. Sure, they learn a method of confidence, but it's only within a certain context. Check out the nerdy noise at the back of a gaming shop to see what those ostensible introverts are like in their comfort zone. It isn't drastically different from the noise of the locker room: the smells, at the very least, are similar. We all need to journey beyond our hobbit-holes to brave the wide world. We need to learn what happens when we leave the path, what it's like to journey in the dark, lost and alone. We need to know what it is to be brave when we feel small, and that no matter how enticing the gold is, there is no gold greater than that of friendship and fellowship.
I realize I'm allegorizing, and that Tolkien likely would have disapproved, but given the chance, I'd argue the point with him over beer at the Bird and Baby. It's probably why a number of evangelical Christians wrote books like Sarah Arthur's Walking with Frodo: A Devotional Journey through Lord of the Rings. It's not really that Lord of the Rings makes for a great Christian allegory, because I'm not convinced it does, at least not in the neat and tidy way evangelicalism has attempted to make it. Certainly, the idea of eucatastrophe shares the positive teleology of Christianity, but nick-of-time rescues are not the Church's sole provenance. Instead, I'd argue that the wide appeal of the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings is that they speak to anyone with a positive teleological position. If you think life is going somewhere, then you resonate with the literary road. And of all the literary roads I've traveled, I prefer Tolkien's: I'm aware that Flannery O'Connor's road in "A Good Man is Hard to Find" is often closer to experience, but that has much to do with the Grandmother in that story. Had Frodo or Bilbo been as selfish and small-minded as she, the Ring would never have reached Bree, let alone Mordor. Instead, Middle-Earth would have found a new Shadow growing in the Shire, over the hobbit hole of a petty old woman establishing herself as a queen, beautiful and terrible.
Instead, Tolkien chose courageous members from the least of these, and at a young age those stories spoke volumes to a kid feeling very small, trying to grow up. It spoke over sermons that couldn't hold my attention, and in many cases, the book I was supposed to be taking with me to church. I am as much a follower of Frodo as I am of Christ, and I do not think this a bad thing. Jesus taught me to love my enemies and help the oppressed, but Frodo taught me that I'd have to get up off my ass and leave my home to do so.