(This post was originally published on HH2B).
I mentioned last month that Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is like the Bible to me, and I read it annually. It’s not the only book I read on a regular basis, but it was the first I consciously decided to do so with. When I look back, I see that I treat the Lord of the Rings like scripture not necessarily because of the good message of hope it brings (because it does) but because it was literally presented to me as such.
We moved to Fresno as I was entering 4th grade. (Does anyone else do this? Does anyone else remember their childhood not by year, but by grade?) My parents had a religious experience and were preparing to go into ministry. Because of this, we went to the Fresno Bible Book store. A lot. I was entering 4th grade, as I said, and although I’d really enjoyed reading as a child — well, you know, a younger child — I became a voracious reader in 4th grade. I read every biography Slater Elementary’s library had — Disney, Einstein, Eisenhower, Grant, Lee, Tubman. I read Morte D’Arthur, Three Musketeers — well, “Young Adult Classic” abridged versions, to be sure, but the heart and soul of those books were there. I wanted more.
Fashion Fair had a B. Dalton, and whenever we went there (which wasn’t very often, except to go to Gottschalks, which just wasn’t as kid-friendly as you might think, for a store that catered to grandmothers and housewives trying to look San Francisco chic) I’d get something like Beverly Cleary’s Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing or some such. But the best place to go, for me, was the Fresno Bible Book Store. It was like a K-Mart of religious books, music, household decorations and various Christian bric-a-brac. And my mother, knowing my love of reading and hoping she could use that to help guide me to Christ, or whatever, made a pact with me: As long as my grades were up, and I had finished the last one I’d read, I could get a new book every time we went.
I started with the most obvious: CS Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. It is said that CS Lewis is the third most-quoted Christian, with #1 and #2 being Jesus and St. Paul. I don’t doubt it.
Anyway, I read The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, and learned about deep magic from before the dawn of time. That the Witch was of a race of men God created and then destroyed, sometime between Day 5 and 6 of creation (there are some who believe the giant Goliath, of David and Goliath was of the same race, and the story of Noah describes there being more than one sentient race on the planet at the time of the flood). I read Prince Caspian, which taught that all men are sons of Adam, and have as much right to access the throne of God as any others, despite any calls to divine heritage or special privilege. I read The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and learned that the kingdom of heaven is open for anyone who searches for it, but only when they’re ready, and their time here is done can they enter. I read The Silver Chair and learned about the erotic power hypnosis can have (maybe another topic on another day lol)… every single book Lewis wrote gave lessons in spirituality and understanding God that were neither “preachy” nor — to be honest — entirely “Christian” by the rules of Christianity set down by the local preachers in town (in The Last Battle, Lewis flatly says that a man who’s never had the chance to become a Christian, who nevertheless lived a life holy and pleasing to God would still be allowed into heaven, something no Bible-thumping zealot today would ever accept).
OH! And I read them IN ORDER. The RIGHT Order. Lion first, then Caspian, then Dawn Treader, Silver Chair, Horse and Boy, Magician’s Nephew, then The Last Battle. I can’t believe the gall publishers have today, making the Magician’s Nephew first, just because it’s a “prequel” to Lion. I call Shenanigans!
The Bible Book store, full of Bibles, treatises on theology, daily devotionals, and hymnals, had one row dedicated to fantasy. I plowed through the Chronicles of Narnia, and moved on to John White’s The Tower of Geburah and The Iron Sceptre. These books were clearly written in the bent of Lewis’ work, but my little mind absorbed them like water, not even caring that the protagonists lived in Canada instead of England, and their magical land did not have an all-powerful lion as its deity.
Next on the list was The Hobbit.
Then Lord of the Rings, which, by this time, either 4th or 5th grade, was far, far above my grade and probably reading level, but the words soaked into me, became a part of me. I was as likely to shout “Elbereth Githoniel!” in the schoolyard as another child would be to cry “Stupid Poopyhead!” I was getting these books from a reliable purveyor of theology, and I read them as devoutly as any penitent reads his memory verses. I stayed up late at night, flashlight under the pillow, reliving the battle of Helm’s Deep over and over and over again, Gimli and Legolas fighting and counting orc corpses as they went. Understanding that Sam was very small, and not even the hero, but he did what he had to do to save his master — and even assaulted an entire castle of orcs to save Frodo single-handedly. It was mind-blowing. It was eye-opening. It was gospel.
Gospel is a word that originally mean “Good news.” The Gospel of St. Mark, Matthew, Luke and John are the recollections of four men about the good news that Jesus had come to save mankind. Matthew, Luke, and John’s are first-hand accounts and recollections. Mark’s is the transcription of St. Peter’s experiences, told to the young boy, Mark, late in his life. To me, The Lord of the Rings was the Gospel According to Sam. We learned that there was great, great evil in the world, and that it had been thwarted in the past, when great heroes and mighty lords existed to do such things, but that evil was back, and growing stronger, even as the forces who might have stopped it before were growing weaker and weaker.
The Good News was that in all of Middle Earth, there was one, small, lonely hobbit who had fallen into the right place and the right time to shift the fate of the entire world. He was a simple hobbit, but he had courage. He had a good heart. He had an uncle with some experience in world-changing adventures. And he had a friend who would not let him down. The Good News was that with these four things, anything could be done. The Lord of the Rings is about friendship. The friendship of two kings, uniting to defeat a common enemy. The friendship of two Hobbits lost in Fangorn with nothing but a centuries-old tree shepherd to talk to. The friendship of a dwarf and elf that was so strong that when that elf left Middle Earth forever, his friend the dwarf chose to go with him. The friendship of a master and servant, who literally went to the ends of the earth to save it.
Fantasy became my religion on the shelves of the Bible Book Store. Those books taught me about faith, loyalty, discipline, friendship, good, evil, love, hate, despair, failure, and forgiveness. The genre has changed a lot since then — I seriously doubt George Martin’s books are there (I’ll tell the story about how I got a certain fantasy series taken off the shelf there someday), but when I was a child, these were the things that fueled my spirit.
They still are.