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Introducing Tolkien Fans to the Western Canon

Above: a scene from Ivanhoe.

There has been a steady incline in popularity of the delightfully entertaining novels written by the brilliant author J. R. R. Tolkien. This is largely indebted to the fact that Hollywood has made 16 hours-worth of impressive epic film on these stories. I enjoy them and so do many people in my age group. This fascination, however, is something that the older generation does not understand. They see the story as it appears on the surface – dark, scary and perhaps lacking morality. But young people enjoy the challenge that the epic gives their minds and that it intrigues them to deeper thought. They have limited their adventure tales to these films, but I think that this attachment merely comes from a lack of deeper thought in other areas of life. Perhaps their minds have never been challenged to think critically about epic literature. Unfortunately, much of what Tolkien was inspired by is lost to my generation and there exists a divide between what previous generations read and discussed and what we are enamored by, a Hollywood product.

My attempt here is to narrow the divide between the stories that connect my generation to those of our grandparents.

Toward the end of the 19th century, there rose several popular Englishmen who enriched the West with their literary works. The first of these are G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. These two are known for their poetry and words of wit. Another one of these English authors was Rev. Robert Hugh Benson, arriving late to the Catholic Faith as he was a convert from Anglicanism. He also gave the world works of poetry, for it was he who penned “A Child’s Rule of Life.” If you do not know the prayer, “now I lay me down to sleep…” then this is a good place to start in your Benson reading.

These three men contributed many wonderful novels during their life time, and we will speak more of them below. About 20 years later, John Ronald Reuel (J. R. R.) Tolkien was born. and his Protestant friend, Clive Staples (C. S.) Lewis, who is known for his works The Screwtape Letters and The Chronicles of Narnia. It is important to remember that although many say that C. S. Lewis was Catholic in his heart, his works should still be read warily as he never did convert to Catholicism. (Robert Hugh Benson condemned his own Protestant works and wrote books hoping to heal any damage which he may have caused.) But this is not about C. S. Lewis; that is a topic for another time. We will focus on the previously mentioned Tolkien and continue.

Tolkien wrote many literary works, but we will strictly focus on the ones that Hollywood has picked up. I will try to be brief in giving a synopsis. Chronologically, The Hobbit comes first. It follows the adventure of a homebody who is hired to be a “burglar” in a treasure hunt mission with a band of dwarves and a wizard. The treasure is guarded by a fire breathing dragon and it falls upon the said hobbit to steal “The King’s Gem” so that the dragon can be destroyed, thereby ridding evil and uniting the scattered dwarves. This is a bittersweet and enduring tale of adventure and summoning courage when the occasion has never arisen before to need it. During the journey, Bilbo, the hobbit, discovers a ring which makes him invisible, whereby aiding him in his mission. This may seem like a useless detail, except that it is the ring which sparks the need to tell the sequel, The Lord of The Rings.

In this sequel, it is discovered that the ring is evil and must be destroyed in the fire that made it, which is in the center of a nucleus of evil. A small fellowship is formed to help Bilbo’s nephew, Frodo, travel into the belly of the beast to destroy the ring. Many details could be related here, but, if you are a young reader, you will know what I’m talking about, and if you are an older reader, you will get more enjoyment out of comparing this story with other works with which you are more familiar.

There is nothing in Tolkien’s tales that gives me a satisfaction that I did not find in the epic works of literature from bygone ages. I have found a dragon slayer in Beowulf, an exiled king in The Ballad of the White Horse, even a forbidden albeit innocent love affair in Ivanhoe. If the small man facing a giant fulfills an adventure your heart yearns for, God Himself has given you that story. If walking into the center of evil to learn something about yourself that you did not know before intrigues your imagination, Dante Alighieri has documented that account for you. Have you needed to mourn over a dying hero and did not find satisfaction in the Song of Roland? Did not the drums of the host of the Almoravide make your heart beat in time as the music score of the above films do? Do you know not of these tales that I speak? Surely you have heard these titles and songs? Did you dismiss them as ancient and un-translated works that date to the Iliad? If so, you are mistaken. These are the great works of the West. They come from Italy, Spain, France and England. If you have never heard of these stories, allow me to broaden your horizons.

I will start with the oldest of these works: Beowulf. This adventure follows the life of a brave and fearless warrior as he aids the Danes in their afflictions. Not unlike The Hobbit, a man-eating monster awakens at the smell of wealth and gold. He plagues the great hall every night while the men are asleep. The woe of this land reaches the ear of a peerless Geat warrior who embarks on an adventure to save these sad people. “There was no one else like him alive. In his day, he was the mightiest man on earth, high-born and powerful.” The story relates the might of a God-fearing man who is too strong for any sword and challenges a coward who attacks innocent people at night to hand-to-hand combat. All his victories are credited to his Maker and he walks in this life as God wants all men to: blameless and perfect.

Next comes the brave kin of Charlemagne, who dies similarly to a Tolkien character, giving his last breath blowing a horn to warn and save others. Roland is the valiant French hero—every French child knows who he is. During the battle of Roncevaux, the Saracen captain swears to kill Roland in the field. Once he succeeds in wounding him, the latter retreats to a quiet place to warn the emperor of the movements of the Muslim enemy. By sounding his horn, he draws even the Muslims to himself who search for him to silence his call. After his death, his emperor has nothing but words of praise for so valiant a knight, “Better vessels than you have I never seen.”

The Ballad of the White Horse was given to us by the aforementioned G. K. Chesterton. Instead of the wandering ranger that Tolkien incorporates, history has given us St. Alfred the Great, who in his nomadic lifestyle “made laws under a tree” in “shameful tears of rage.” Alfred is finally given the encouragement of heaven to rally his scattered countrymen to unite against the “beautiful half-witted men” with “scarlet beards like blood”—the Danes. Alfred gathers together a small company consisting of a Roman, an Anglo farmer and a Celtic minstrel and their faithful followers. They all sacrifice their lives in the defense of the king and for a hopeful future of a free Britain.

Dante’s Inferno is the magnificent allegorical adventure of a man entering the depths of Hell to destroy his attachment to sin and to better understand the love of God. He is guided by the soul of the great poet and philosopher, Virgil, whose duty it is to see that Dante does not die during the journey lest his soul remain in Hell forever. Dante’s path is imperiled by grotesque demons who want to see him stumble and lose his eternal soul in those depths.

Another common theme of the Tolkien movies is the unfulfillable romances. There is a “match” which has some dilemma, either they are different creatures or one will cause the other unnecessary sadness and so on. This drama is as old as Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. Only here, these two are separated by religion. After the small-town hero Wilfred Ivanhoe reveals his identity, he faints from his tournament wounds. He is nursed back to health by a Jewess and the two taciturnly fall in love. As soon as he is well, Ivanhoe quits her company but not before telling her that, were they of the same religion, he would keep her and treasure her forever. When Rebecca is about to be burnt at the stake under false accusations, Ivanhoe throws aside human respect and comes to her rescue. These two, of course do not marry, and they separate forever with Rebecca’s parting blessing, “May He who made both Jew and Christian shower down on you His choicest blessings.”

These are only a sampling of the old stories which obviously inspired Tolkien and shaped the way he told stories. Unfortunately, these stories have been drowned out and forgotten by the younger generation, causing a yearning for satisfaction for these kinds of adventures and making a chasm between those who read these books in high school and those who have never opened them. I would encourage young people to read these works in order to live through a variety of adventures and imitate a wider collection of heroes.

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