Bilbo’s Ring

The_One_True_RingI finished The Hobbit last night, so you can give a sigh of relief–my fantasy/Bible analogy posts will likely taper off now. 😉

Towards the end of the book I was reminded of a reaction I had to The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One of The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien, the first time I read it. For one thing, I was disappointed that Bilbo was only a secondary character. As significant, I didn’t like that the Ring was evil.

In The Hobbit the Ring gave Bilbo a decided advantage over his enemies. He used it to escape goblins, to lure the spiders away from the captive dwarfs, to get his friends out of the elvenking’s dungeon, to sneak into the dragon’s lair, and to stay alive during the War of Five Armies.

The Ring’s main property was to make Bilbo invisible, and he used it as often as needed, which you can see, was pretty often. With the edge it gave him, he did heroic, selfless deeds. He appeared courageous and wise to the dwarfs with whom he shared his adventure.

How, then, could Tolkien turn something so good, so ennobling into something dangerous, destructive, and evil?

I remember time and again, as I read The Fellowship of the Ring, thinking Frodo should use the Ring even though Gandalf told him above all to avoid putting it on.

I liked the Ring and the power it gave Bilbo.

For Frodo, though, the Ring was a burden, a danger. It exposed him to the evil lord, it became an obsession, it weighed him down, and in the end, it mastered him.

How could the same object be so different in the two books?

By the time I reached the end of the third book in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Return of the King, I had forgotten my initial thoughts about the Ring. I saw it as a metaphor for sin and Frodo as a type of Christ–one of several in the books.

Sin, after all, is a lure, a destructive power that only The Sin-Bearer could carry away–in the same way that the scapegoat carried away the sins of the nation Israel once a year. Only our Sin Bearer did so once for all.

But I was reading The Hobbit, remember. And this time, I’m aware that the Ring, though giving an advantage to Bilbo, will be the pivotal object for all of Middle Earth. I’m reading, watching for any hint of what is to come. And there is none.

Bilbo had no clue that the Ring had any adverse effects. Out of his ignorance, he used it at will. None of the dwarfs, nor the wizard Gandalf, showed any sign that Bilbo might be onto something that could harm him.

And then it hit me–that’s also like sin. Generally sin is attractive–it’s the tasty food of Egypt instead of the meager fare in the wilderness. It looks good. It seems like the answer to a need. It might even “work” a time or two or fifteen. In other words, our sin gets us what we want. Which makes it harder to think that the thing we’ve grown to love, our own dear precious, needs to be left at the foot of the cross and done away with forever.

Published in: on January 16, 2013 at 6:18 pm  Comments (2)  
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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

kinopoisk.ruI’m not going to give a formal review of the Peter Jackson movie, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey because (a) lots of other people have already given far better reviews than I could muster, (b) people already know the story, and (c) the trailers have already hooked viewers, or not. Oh, and the movie has been out for three weeks, so lots and lots of people have already seen it. I do have some thoughts about the movie, though, some in reaction to what I read in reviews.

First, I liked the beginning. I thought it was a masterful segue for those who might not be familiar with the story but who had seen the Lord of the Rings movies. Some of the material was straight from the beginning of Fellowship of the Ring.

It made me think once again that Jackson, had he known beforehand how popular Tolkien’s stories would be as movies, would have divided the trilogy into six movies. It would have been a good decision financially, but also literarily (after all, Tolkien divided the story into six “books” though they were published in three volumes). I would love to have seen the parts the movie makers omitted or condensed, fleshed out as they are doing with The Hobbit.

I enjoyed the dwarfs and agreed that they were wonderfully particularized, which made them seem quite real. I liked Bilbo very much and felt for him much as I did the first time I read the book. Seeing the dwarfs’ presumption and his confusion and Gandalf’s circumspection showed how disruptive this entire adventure was to his settled way of life.

I liked the fact that the movie showed Bilbo’s struggle to carry on once he realized the difficulties and the lack of faith Thorn had in him. I like the way he came to realize the need the dwarfs had to retake their home.

At the same time, I wonder how down-playing the dwarfs’ desire to reclaim their treasure will affect the later movies. This one certainly showed their wealth before Smaug invaded, and their efforts to squirrel away the trolls’ treasure (though I think they left a lot lying around), so perhaps that’s enough.

My biggest surprise might have been the appearance of Saruman the White. Since I just finished reading Return of the King, it was hard for me to look at him as a character the others respected. Actually, I think Peter Jackson may have had a hard time with that too, because I don’t think Gandalf and Galadriel actually did seem to respect him much. In the books, however, I think he was thoroughly convincing to those opposing the Evil Lord–which is why they accepted his counsel and did not try to root Sauron out of Mordor until it was too late.

I have to admit I thought some of the orc chase scenes seemed needlessly drawn out. When I read The Hobbit, the orcs seemed like a bigger threat somehow. More frightening, anyway. Bilbo’s big fear was to evade the orcs, not to escape Gollum. Only after Gollum went back to his island (which he didn’t do in the movie) did Bilbo realize he might have found Gollum’s Precious and that he was in danger.

Gollum in The Hobbit movieOther than that, though, the scenes with Gollum might be my favorites. They were so well played. Brilliant. They showed his dual personality beautifully. And Bilbo’s decision to stay his hand and escape without killing him was done so well.

I thought the movie makers did a good job bringing this first part to a satisfying conclusion. It wasn’t the cliff-hanging ending I feared, though obviously there’s more to come.

I thought the pacing was excellent. Some people said the first twenty minutes were slow, but I didn’t find any of it slow.

I also heard come mild criticism because of the segment with Radagast the Brown which does not exist in the novel. In some ways the character reminded me of Tom Bombadill. I thought perhaps Mr. Jackson drew on another part of The Fellowship of the Ring which he left out of that movie.

All in all, I found the movie to be happily satisfying. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world, but in looking forward to something, I realized there was the potential for it not to live up to my expectations. Not so with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. It was thoroughly delightful. And yes, it made me want to read The Hobbit again. Another book on the To Be Read pile. 😀

Published in: on January 4, 2013 at 7:11 pm  Comments (3)  
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Was Frodo Called To Be The Ring-Bearer?

Frodo, Sam, GollumI’ve been thinking about God’s calling, in part because of recent fun-poking at Christian writers who believe God has called them to write fiction. I am one such writer.

The question often arises, How do you know? Does God call audibly? Is it something forced upon you? Does it fall into your lap? Does God wire your DNA so that you create with words whereas others create with paint or clay?

As I’m finishing up Lord of the Rings, I’ve considered that the protagonist, Frodo, felt called to his task of bearing the One Ring, even as his faithful servant and friend Sam Gamgee felt called to go with him.

Frodo, of course, initially inherited the Ring. He actually tried to get rid of it, first offering it to Gandalf, then proposing that they throw it away or try to destroy it. Finally he agreed to take it to the wise elf in Rivendell who, he believed, would know what to do with it.

Once he reached his destination, however, he learned that someone would need to take the Ring to Mordor and throw it into the Crack of Doom to unmake it. And he volunteered to be that someone. He felt it was his job to do. He felt … called.

This week I read of a group of real-life people who took up a calling, too. Persia’s king Cyrus issued a proclamation that whoever wanted to go up to Jerusalem to rebuild the house of God, could go, with his blessing and aid. A group of exiled Jews responded and went.

But here’s the significant thing. Scripture says that “the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia” (Ezra 1:1b – emphasis mine) to make that proclamation. Further, it says that the people went “even everyone whose spirit God had stirred to go up and rebuild the house of the LORD which is in Jerusalem” (Ezra 1:5b – emphasis mine).

Might not this “stirring” be the best way of understanding a calling from God? According to Strong’s lexicon, the word for “stir” means “to rouse oneself, awake, awaken, incite.” In context, then, God awakened or incited Cyrus to act and He awakened or incited the people to go.

Why is it a stretch to imagine that He still stirs people today to do things He wants us to do?

Back to Frodo. When he made the decision to head off to Mordor bearing the One Ring, no one told him to do it. He knew within his heart that it was his job. It is this knowing within the heart that I think God puts into a believer from time to time. Not always, certainly. And not everyone.

The prophet Samuel anointed David as king over Israel, but not every king was so anointed. I’ve wondered as I’ve read 2 Chronicles how some of these kings were chosen. Often they were not the oldest son, so it wasn’t because of a traditional line of inheritance. With an exception or two, no mention is made of them being anointed by God. A couple were made king by the people, and Egypt once removed a king and put his brother in place. Babylon also removed a king and put his uncle on the throne.

Clearly those people who had the office thrust upon them could know their calling. But what of the others? Absalom wanted to be king and died trying to usurp the throne. He was not called to be king. Solomon clearly was.

All this to say, I don’t think we can know today who God has called to do what–apart from what He calls us to do. And even that will have its moments of doubt when we might try to give the job to someone else or extricate ourselves some other way or if we simply doubt whether or not we can get it done.

Gideon felt that way. He couldn’t understand why God was calling him to lead an army against Israel’s oppressors. He asked for confirmation, and asked for confirmation. Then God said, if you’re afraid, sneak down to the enemy camp and I’ll give you more confirmation. Gideon went–which meant he was afraid. But sure enough, God gave him yet more confirmation.

In the end, he led that army. His doubts about his calling didn’t stop him from doing what God wanted him to do.

For David, it was Saul’s opposition, not his doubts, that interfered with his calling. Because God called David, Saul tried to kill him. Despite his anointing, David obviously questioned his calling, or else he would not have left Israel to live with the Philistines.

We can look at Gideon, David, Solomon and know they were called because we have the end of their story. It’s another thing to recognize the stirring in our own hearts.

Frodo knew he was the Ring-Bearer, that the job was his to do, though he might perish in the attempt. He had no assurance of success simply because he had assurance of his assignment. That I think is the true picture of someone called of God. Writers included.

Saruman or Faramir?

GandalfPresently I’m re-reading The Two Towers, the second volume in the Lord of the Ring epic by J. R. R. Tolkien. The first half of the book is devoted to the conflict between Saruman the White, once head of the Council of wizards and Gandalf’s superior, who secretively aligned himself with the great Enemy in the East, and those who aim to forestall the evil sweeping the land.

For years Saruman counseled patience and waiting rather than active resistance as their Enemy grew ever more powerful. Saruman acted the part of a friend, but in reality he was undermining the efforts to withstand the Great Evil.

In the second half of the book, the protagonist Frodo and his servant Sam fall into the hands of a man named Faramir, charged with patrolling the border between the Evil Lord’s stronghold and that of Gondor, the land taking the brunt of the conflict.

Faramir is rightly suspicious of these two hobbits who say they are travelers. There are no travelers here, he says, only people for the Evil Lord or against him. His inclination is to take Frodo and Sam with him back to Gondor.

At some point during Faramir’s inquisition of Frodo, Sam interrupts with these lines:

It’s a pity that folk as talk about fighting the Enemy can’t let others do their bit in their own way without interfering. He’d be mighty pleased, if he could see you now. Think he’d got a new friend, he would.

These two characters seem to me to reveal the dilemma of the Church. On one hand there are people pretending friendship, even high up in authority, considered wise, people with influence and standing who others listen to and follow. Yet all the while, they are working for the enemy.

On the other hand there are those who seem wary and suspicious, who want to interview and question, who insist on details in order to be sure which way a person is aligned, all the while delaying and perhaps discouraging those from the work they have set out to accomplish.

Either there is lax acceptance leading to betrayal, or scrupulous investigation leading to division and potentially the undermining of significant work.

Interestingly, in the last sixty or seventy years the Church has tried to utilized the equivalent of passwords to alleviate the problem: Jesus people, born again, Bible believing, Christ followers. All are designed to alert others of a person’s true beliefs so that Family members can find one another.

The reality is, Saruman ended up showing his true colors when he held Gandalf captive. And Faramir showed his true colors when he let Frodo go free. In the end, their actions, not their words, showed their allegiance.

I suspect the same is true today. Whether or not a person claims some sort of connection with Christ matters less than whether or not they actually listen to Christ, put their trust in Him, obey Him. Who is taking up their cross? Who is seeking first the kingdom of God and His righteousness? Who is dying to self and living to righteousness?

Handsome is as handsome does, Sam says to Faramir at one point, and the old adage is still true. Christians don’t need to talk the talk as much as live the life. Then it will be quite apparent who is Faramir and who is Saruman.

Gettin’ To Be THAT Time Of Year

I can feel it coming on. I’ve noticed it more the last few years, but no doubt it’s been part of my makeup for some time. Call it the Fantasy Itch.

Yep, for some reason as the “holiday season”–usually defined here in the US as Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years Day–approaches, I begin to have an urge to snuggle in with one of the great fantasies. In recent years I’ve used the occasion to reread the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, much of the Narnia series, and a couple of Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain books. I even reread the one Harry Potter book I own–which made me realize, I definitely want to visit the library and get a couple more to satisfy this year’s fantasy itch.

The odd thing is, I read fantasy all the time–part of the job now, so to speak. I recently finished Falling Kingdoms by Morgan Rhodes, a general market young adult story, and the beginning of a series touted as “ideal for fans of George R. R. Martin and Kristin Cashore.” Then there was Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas, another general market YA. Before that was Shannon Hale’s sequel to Princess Academy, Palace of Stone.

Of course I also read all the books the CSFF Blog Tour features and some I judge for contests and others friends send me. With all this speculative fiction coming out of my ears, why would I want to settle down with a fantasy as a special holiday season activity?

I don’t really have an answer. I think I’ve mentioned this propensity before, either here or at Spec Faith, and kindly commenters have tried to help me make sense of it. It’s still a mystery to me.

Somehow, with shorter days and cooler weather (I realize we here in SoCal aren’t allowed by our Eastern friends to say “cold weather” 😆 ), reading becomes a greater pleasure. But more than that, getting lost in a different world, one so rich it feels real, is pure delight.

Which probably explains why I gravitate to certain books–those classics that have a level of worldbuilding that is a grade above most other fantasies.

Some of these more recent fantasies–not the urban kind or the dystopians–seem to me to be a weak imitation of the medieval world, with different countries, and of course some magic or supernatural power. In other words, I don’t feel transported to somewhere else.

Tolkien’s stories, though supposedly happening on “middle earth,” feel Other. Not unfamiliar or strange, mind you. There are familiar things like inns and ponies and roads and a comfortable fire and birthday parties. But peopling this familiar place are hobbits and trolls and dwarfs and orcs and wizards and dragons and elves. What’s more, there are frightening forests and abandoned dwarf mines that once held an entire city and mountains that turn malevolent and secret stairways and deadly marshes. In other words, along with the familiar are places that enchant and intrigue and even frighten.

Harry Potter is similar. Nothing could be more familiar to most of us than a school, though fewer of us have experienced a boarding school, unless you lived in a dorm during college. But mixed in with what seems so normal–homework and tests and boring lectures and athletic contests–is the special world of wizardry with its hierarchy and governance, games and tradition. And history. A dark history in which a wizard utilizing the dark arts ruled.

Ah, yes, I’m definitely ready to settle down with a good fantasy. It’s that time of year!

Fantasy Friday: Imaginative Is Not Weird

Grendel, the monster Beowulf faced

Over and over I’ve heard the description: speculative fiction is that weird niche of fiction that appeals to a small group of people who see things differently from almost everyone else. Some notable people working with Christian speculative fiction promote that perspective.

I’m calling a halt to this line of thinking. Weird does not describe good speculative literature — either that, or the whole world is weird.

Exhibit A — Harry Potter. Not only did millions buy the seven hefty tomes, millions more have been flocking to see the movies.

Exhibit B — The Lord of the Rings. Not only did the movies earn renown, they also brought a resurgence to the popularity of the books, which had already won over a generation in the mid-twentieth century.

Exhibit C — Speculative movies. The titles featuring speculative elements dominate the list of highest grossing movies. Of the top thirty, only Titanic is without some form of speculative elements. If you look at the numbers adjusted for inflation, nineteen of the top thirty are still speculative (and that’s if you count The Ten Commandments as not speculative).

Exhibit D — Television. From Topper in the 50s, I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched in the 60s to Star Trek, Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, Lost, V, and the flood of speculative shows out today, clearly the fascination with the speculative is part of the culture at large.

"Double, double toil and trouble" - Macbeth

Exhibit E — Classic literature. Starting with works like Beowulf, The Iliad and The Odyssey, and moving to Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Hamlet, on to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, Edgar Allen Poe’s various short stories and even poetry, and many others, speculative elements are a part of the fabric of the stories that literature students continue to study.

What’s my point? Imagination carries all of us beyond the confines of contemporary reality. It is not weird to imagine. Those who write imaginative fiction are not weird. Those who read or watch imaginative stories are not weird. Speculative fiction that is done well has a broad appeal and has had that appeal since the beginning of literature.

Why some today think they are doing the genre a service to call it weird and to define it as a narrow niche that only a few not-normals will like, is beyond me.

Certainly some speculative fiction is more “hard core” than others. The harder the core, I suppose, the smaller the audience.

And yet books like The Hunger Games and movies like The Matrix which some might consider hard core were widely popular.

I believe we can account for the popularity of speculative fiction simply because it is imaginative. God made us with an imagination. As a result readers and viewers love to be transported to new places they’ve never seen. Stories of a place or time that is different from the here and now create wonder and intrigue and spark a sense of adventure.

Is speculative fiction a “‘weird’ kind of fiction” as one professional says? Are writers and readers of speculative fiction “not normal” as a speculative writer says? I counter that the evidence shows speculative fiction is in the mainstream and has been for a very, very long time.

The problem, as I see it, is that we Christians have yet to write a “break out” story that will catch the eye of all those speculative fans. Rather than settling for a niche market of hard core speculative readers who will devour anything in the genre regardless of quality, I think we should commit ourselves to learning what makes imaginative stories work. And stop calling what we do and what we like weird!

Hope Or Truth

In my post today over at Spec Faith, I’m asking questions about why dystopian fiction is so popular these days, especially among young adults.

There are some great comments. One of the things that’s come up is that dystopian fiction, even if it ends with an element of light, largely traffics in despair.

That got me to thinking about fiction as escapism and the large numbers of people who say they prefer to read stories with happy endings. Not everyone is in this camp, however.

And the dystopian stories, while encased in speculation, are built on a foundation of reality. Government is big and getting bigger, more evasive. Man is cruel and getting crueler, more aggressive. The planet is dirty, the resources are dwindling, the games are risky, the work is meaningless. And dystopian novels show these social and political realities. They can also show the place or absence of God.

So that brings up the question. Which is “better,” to read a story that offers hope (and encouragement as a side dish) or one that exposes the realities of the human condition, offering little more than a warning?

My early exposure to dystopian novels was via George Orwell (1984) and Aldus Huxley (Brave New World). These books are uncomfortable and heartbreaking, but they say something about mankind that needs to be said. Neither of them offers hope.

In 1984 the protagonist ends up betraying the woman he loves, and she, him as they are both integrated properly into society run by Big Brother. In Brave New World the protagonist is so disillusioned by the society he hoped in that he commits suicide in the end.

And here’s where the truth of those books falls short. Because hope exists. Not in this world. Not in government or hedonism or power or science — none of the things exposed in the novels. Hope lies in God alone.

Some readers who prefer happy-ending stories say that the hope shown in books like romances, however temporary, creates a longing for the permanent hope and joy Christ provides.

Others say such hope is false, a superficial sham that hides reality and covers over what ought to be exposed.

Tolkien, however, says that escape from what imprisons is a positive thing, to be encouraged. Hence “faery stories” are ideal because they raise the reader, ennoble him, infuse him not only with hope but the desire to do greater deeds, to be a better person.

Perhaps there’s a place for both. I, for one, am glad I read the dystopian stories I’ve read, and I’m even gladder that I’ve read a fair number of faery stories.

I can’t help but think, however, that Tolkien may have sold himself short. I think his Lord of the Rings trilogy was dystopian fantasy set in Middle Earth. Rather than having his protagonist fail, though, he had him fail and succeed. It’s part of Tolkien’s genius, perhaps, that he showed the world as it is and that he offered hope.

Vampires and Angels – 2

We had such good discussion on the Vampires and Angels Tuesday post, I decided to blog on it again rather than responding in the comment section.

Where to start?

First, I think I’ve made my point about real beings and historical events, but what about those elements that are purely make-believe? Such as vampires.

While vampires are imaginary, they do have one thing that defines them—they ingest blood in order to survive. The myth, of course, is that they need human blood—hence their status as evil because they killed others to survive.

Of late, however, the “good” vampires found ways to satisfy their need for blood without taking human life. So the question moves to a theological one. The Bible says in Old and New Testament that Jews, then Christians, were to refrain from eating meat with the blood. So what can we assume about creatures that survive by ingesting the blood of another? I’d say, if they existed in this world, they stand in opposition to God’s law.

But what if these creatures exist in a fantasy world without God’s law? Must we, as readers, interpret such creatures in the light of Biblical reality? I don’t think so, not any more than we need to interpret physical events in a fantasy world by earthly reality. In other words, if it’s OK to include a portal between worlds or a flat earth or a sword only the rightful king can remove from its stone setting or any number of things and beings and events that do not adhere to earthly physical laws, then can’t fantasy also reinvent elements in a way that does not adhere to Biblical laws?

Understand, I’m not saying Biblical laws are to be ignored, just that they don’t apply in the same way to a fantasy world or a fantasized rendering of beings. Consequently, in a fantasy, people don’t need to become Christians. Salvation can be depicted through symbol or allegory or through what C. S. Lewis called “supposal.” (For more on this, check out my article at Spec Faith). The idea is, the author imagines a fantasy world and then asks, how would God make Himself known in this place, to these people?

So I might imagine a world where all people drank each other’s blood. They didn’t think it wrong because they all did it. How would God show Himself to those people? I can see Him coming as the only person ever born who did not drink blood. I can see a story about a group of blood-drinkers determined to take His blood by force.

What about beings with power over others and even over nature? How would God show Himself to them? Any number of story ideas suggest themselves.

Now what if I called those beings with power, witches and wizards?

Have I violated Scripture if some of those mythical creatures side with the good that must come if God, as He would show Himself in that fantasy, shows up? Perhaps of equal importance, must I show that their power comes from God?

I suggest it isn’t necessary any more than it is necessary to show that a character in a realistic novel can speak or think because God gave him that ability. In a fantasy world, if “special” powers are the norm, or the norm for a certain class of people, then I don’t think their power has to be shown as either from Good or from evil. Certainly a story can show this if the author chooses, but I don’t think it’s necessary.

Which brings me to Lord of the Rings. The wizards in Tolkien’s work are a special class of people; their power isn’t derivative. It is power that they use for good or for ill, depending on the intent of their heart. And nothing about his imagined beings is like real humans who practice divination or witchcraft. Tolkien has invented a different being but used a familiar name.

Frodo’s buddy Sam has a familiar name, but that doesn’t mean he is human. The point is, names must be understood in context. Because Aragon is called a Man doesn’t mean he’s restricted to act like men of reality act. In fact, he doesn’t.

In the same way, the White Witch, though Lewis depicted her as evil, did not act in any way like witches described in the Bible. She was as much a fictitious construct as Tolkien’s wizards.

Well, I have more to say, but this post is too long as it is. If you’re still reading, abundant kudos to you! 😉

Books That Last – The Lord of the Rings Model

This post is in honor of Fantasy Friday, though as you can see by the date stamp, I’m writing on Saturday. The key is, I conceived of this content on Friday. 😉

Why has J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings lasted? I suppose I should qualify “lasted” because certainly there may be a cult following for some books such as Mark Twain’s lesser-known works, but the way I’m using the word, that does not qualify as “lasting.”

I suppose first a book that lasts must have arrived, which is to say, it needs to have wide-ranging acclaim. The Harry Potter books come to mind, as do the Left Behind books. Those “arrived” because certainly they found a wide audience. But will they last? Only time will tell—unless there is some determinative factor thoughtful reasoning can uncover, in which case we can predict which are most likely to last.

So on to The Lord of the Rings. What made those books so successful? Here are some lines from reviews posted at Barnes and Noble:

Books of the Century; The New York Times Book Review – W.H. Auden

    For anyone who likes the genre to which it belongs, the Heroic Quest, I cannot imagine a more wonderful Christmas present….No fiction I have read in the last five years has given me more joy than The Fellowship of the Ring.

New York Herald Tribune

    Destined to outlast our time.

Time Magazine

    One of the great fairy-tale quests in modern literature.


    A work of immense narrative power that can sweep the reader up and hold him enthralled for days and weeks..

Sunday Telegraph

    Among the greatest works of imaginative fiction of the twentieth century.

Boston Herald

    A masterful story — an epic in its own way — with elements of high adventure, suspense, mystery, poetry and fantasy..

C.S. Lewis

    No imaginary world has been projected which is at once as multifarious and so true to its own inner laws.

Yes, they liked it, but what exactly did they like?

The thing I saw repeated most was imagination. Here was an epic story that swept readers into a world of questing. (As you know, if you’ve read the books—or seen the movies—the quest was against all odds, with the fate of the world hanging in the balance.)

It wasn’t solely Tolkien’s ability to create a credible place, however, that give these books their lasting quality, though that played a significant part. It was The Cause, put in the hands of, apparently, the weakest characters, not the strongest. In other words, The Lord of the Rings appeals to that part in us that longs to do great things.

I would suggest, then, that Tolkien’s work lasts, not because of the characters or the plot per se. I think it lasts because of the setting and the theme. The world is rich, a place readers lose themselves, and at the same time, the theme appeals to their better nature, and they find themselves.

That being said, there’s no doubt the plot had many twists and turns, suspense and tension. And conflict! Equally, the characters were ones readers gladly rooted for and cried over. Frodo, after all, was Bilbo’s nephew. And Sam was what we all hope to become. From Gandolf to Gollum, the other characters were distinctly drawn and easy to connect with.

But it is the fairy-tale, the quest, the world that reviewers brought up over and over. Maybe, just maybe, Tolkien hit the proverbial homerun and got it all right, which is why The Lord of the Rings lasts.

Published in: on September 20, 2008 at 1:22 pm  Comments Off on Books That Last – The Lord of the Rings Model  
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Writing – What’s after the First Five Pages, Part 2

So what keeps the reader reading beyond those early pages?

I mentioned engaging characters—ones that are interesting, well-drawn—but the truth is, good characters aren’t enough by themselves. These well-drawn characters must also do something interesting and believable.

In my adventures through Christian fiction (what I’ve mostly read since becoming a full time writer hoping to publish with a Christian publishing house), I’ve found stories with truly wonderful characters. They are fun—even funny—and realistic, with age spots and crows feet as well as knight-in-shining-armor charisma and undeniable moral fiber.

And yet, at times, something has been missing, something so integral that I can easily close the book and not finish reading because I just don’t care.

Yikes! 😮 What would cause such a thing?

In a nutshell, objectives. Actually, the lack thereof. In order for me to root for a character, which means I’ve arrived at the caring level, I have to see the character striving to accomplish something. The story can’t stall on bad things happening to a good character, over and over again. Instead, the character must take on a central problem and work to win out.

Somehow, a character striving, especially against great odds, resonates. It is in the effort to overcome that a character’s mettle shines.

That being said, I believe there is still more. In order for a reader to truly care, there needs to be the legitimate possibility of failure. Frodo was such a hero, such a tragic hero, in part because his ability to pull off a victory was in doubt until the last sentence of the climax. For much of the last book of The Lord of the Rings, Frodo’s spirit was willing, but his flesh was weak. Then his spirit gave out.

Along the way, he’d experienced a good number of successes, so how did Tolkien make readers feel as if Frodo might not make it in the end? I think the main way was by not protecting his characters from hurt. The four hobbits were captured, Frodo was wounded, Gandolf was killed, Peregrin (or was it Merry) looked into the crystal and fell gravely ill. King Theoden came under Worm Tongue’s spell, Boromir succumbed to his desire for the ring and died. At every turn, the end seemed in doubt and victories weren’t had without paying a price.

In summary, readers need to know what the character is trying to achieve so they can root for him. And winning can’t come easily or quickly. There needs to be the credible possibility that winning won’t be the kind of winning the reader was hoping for. With an engaging character trying to achieve the near impossible in the face of the real potential for failure, readers are bound to be scrambling for the book during every free moment.

Published in: on September 16, 2008 at 4:49 pm  Comments (2)  
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