Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Truth So Vast, Only Magic Could Convey

Edward Blaylock has worked as a parking valet, a stadium vendor, a telemarketer, and a teacher. He writes under a (very thin) pseudonym on his blog, Walking the Earth.

Kevin has asked me to write about a book that has been a powerful influence on me. I could write about the way Have Spacesuit, Will Travel turned me onto science fiction. I could try to explain how Give War a Chance turned me on to political humor. I could wax rhapsodic about The Prophet, or talk about how The Games People Play gave me the tools to escape a difficult marriage. There have been so many books; it should be difficult.

I’ve known almost from the second he asked me what book it is, though. None of my friends or family will be surprised by my choice, because I’ve been a raving fan of it since I was seven years old. The book is The Fellowship of the Ring.

I love the Fellowship, and by extension the whole Ring Trilogy, with unabashed fervor. The first appearance of the Nazgul still fills me with dread. Gandalf’s stand against the Balrog and Boromir’s death bring tears to my eyes to this day. I get as choked up reading Theoden’s speech at Pellenor as I do hearing Henry V speaking of Saint Crispin’s Day. The pictures Tolkien paints are heartachingly beautiful, but that’s not how the books influenced me.

I can say without hesitation that the Ring Trilogy gave me my first instruction in the meaning of moral courage. People who haven’t read the series see it as a trifle, a story about fey Hobbits and twee Elves. What they don’t realize is how much it’s a tale of facing up to real darkness. I started reading the Fellowship for the first time at 7 years old, and while an awful lot of it went over my head, I clearly understood the terrifying evil of the Nazgul and the courage that it took Frodo and the other Hobbits to travel through the Shire and beyond. I understood even then the feeling Frodo had of terrible, heavy necessity when he volunteered to be the Ringbearer.

See, evil in the Fellowship is palpable. Evil is terrifying, not only when it’s swathed in yards of black fabric and riding a night-black horse, but when it’s whispering to you that you could make everything right again, if you’d just take this one easy step. Evil corrupts, whether through despair, through fear, through temptation to power. Evil is insidious and unfathomably powerful.

But here’s the other half of the equation: evil is limited. Sauron, the principal force of darkness in Middle Earth, cannot create anything, but only twist other people’s works. More important still, as much as Sauron and all his vast armies inspire terror in others, they themselves are cursed with constant, gnawing fear, the fear that comes of telling too many falsehoods and of having only that strength that one has taken from others.

In the face of evil, the heroes of the story stand up. They face their fear. They stare back into the baleful gaze of Sauron’s burning eye and they defy him. They face terrible trials, and not all of them succeed, but in the end evil is defeated by the concerted actions of good people.

Tolkien stressed over and over again that the Ring Trilogy was not meant as an allegory. He was right to the extent that he didn’t consciously write it as one. Nevertheless, his own Catholic worldview is plain to see. We’re all on a quest to make the world a better place. We have to do so keeping in mind that the end doesn’t justify the means. The road isn’t easy. We will stumble along the way. We’ll need help to get where we need to go. We may have to pay a high price. But in the end, if we listen to the better angels (or wizards) of our nature, we will win. I can’t think of a better way to summarize my own outlook on how to live a good life. That understanding of the struggle, of how hard it can be to face up to temptation and evil, is part of what has drawn me into the Catholic Church as an adult convert. I had always seen those ideas as self-evident because I heard the Ringbearer’s story as a child.

C.S. Lewis wrote the Narnia books as an allegory for children. As I mentioned, Tolkien vehemently denied any allegorical meaning in the Ring Trilogy. All his protestations aside, as a guide to living a moral life I have to say that The Fellowship of the Ring beats Narnia hollow.

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