Bilbo Baggins’ title to The Hobbit is “There and Back Again.” It can hardly be coincidence that the title of this prelude to the greatest fantasy epic of our time provides the key to effectively reading the genre that follows after this great story. This title is also reflective of Tolkien’s theory of fantasy and its role in the life of its readers. This theory can be summarized as follows: fantasy should turn our gaze back to our own world, with new eyes more appreciative of the beauty of our world.
I am writing this while still on the post-Harry-Potter-#7-part-2 emotional high—I was itching to get to a computer or a notebook the minute I stepped out of that film. Then I realized that in my flurry to write down my ideas, I was in danger of rendering them empty and meaningless. I had been so moved by the portrayals of love in the film, and yet, in my excitement to write down my feelings, I was forgetting to love those around me. My wild rush to the computer was interrupted by my mom wanting to check her email and my brother wanting to go online for something, and my mad drive to write was interrupted by my sister wanting to play a game with me before (and past) bedtime. So I asked my guardian angel to keep a hold on my thoughts for me while I went to play, somewhat distracted, but not enough so as to prevent my winning the first round of memory. As I hugged my mom and sister good night, I realized that this is what Harry was willing to give his life for. If I didn’t cherish the love of my family and friends, then the film had taught me nothing.
In this last experience, I thank God for giving me the grace to read/watch this story the way I just did: with eyes turned on my own world and more attuned to the riches that lie beneath the surface of everyday actions. It wasn’t always this way for me. In high school I became a huge fan of The Lord of the Rings. (I still am, in case it isn’t obvious from the first paragraph above.) I was in a melancholy state of discontent after finishing the books and watching the films, disappointed that it wasn’t real, and bored with this world because it didn’t have elves. I imagined so many times being magically transported to Middle-Earth and just staying there forever, with one hang-up: no Mass on Sundays. I’d have to take along a priest...or a bishop, so he could ordain new priests once we got there…Anyway, the turning point in the story of my unhealthy desire to fall into another world is this: the realization that Christ died to save this world—this world and no other. If Jesus loved this world (or at least its people) enough to die for it, then who was I to spurn it as boring? Our world took on a whole new value in my eyes upon this realization.
Upon re-reading Tolkien’s On Fairy Stories in college, I found articulated the exact description of my above experience. This function of fairy-stories that Tolkien calls “recovery” involves seeing things as we are meant to see them; cleaning our windows; “so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness” (77). Far from causing us to be bored with our own world, the reading of fantasy should restore in us a sense of wonder for the things of this world: “We should meet the centaur and the dragon, and then perhaps suddenly behold, like the ancient shepherds, sheep, and dogs, and horses—and wolves” (77).
Another wonderful example of “there and back again” is Michael Ende’s Neverending Story. (Typing this, I realize the irony—or perhaps the fittingness—of the book’s title.) Bastian is sent to Phantasien so that he can make both that world and his own world whole. He goes to save Phantasien from the nothingness caused by the lack of imagination exercised in his world, but is nearly trapped there by the temptation of a world completely shaped by his own will. He would not be the first to be so trapped. In Phantasien there exists a city known as the Old Emperor City. All of its inhabitants are humans from Bastian’s world (our world) who have lost the will to leave Phantasien, and therefore cannot leave, since the world is determined by their will. All of the people in this city have lost their reason and are occupied with futile, irrational tasks, such as sticking stamps to soap bubbles or digging a hole to bury a burning candle. These people, in wanting to remain in the world shaped by their will rather than return to their own world, have lost the ability (but first the will) to distinguish between fantasy and reality. Tolkien also emphasizes that, rather than confuse fantasy and reality, fairy-stories must take reality as their base. Without a clear knowledge of what is real, there can be no concept of the imaginary. “If men were ever in a state in which they did not want to know or could not perceive truth (facts or evidence), then Fantasy would languish until they were cured. If they ever get into that state (it would not seem at all impossible), Fantasy will perish, and become morbid delusion” (75).
Those of you who are not heroic fantasy aficionados like me probably think that I have made my point to the point of redundancy: you can’t live in a fantasy world forever. For those of you out there, though, who really wish deep down that elves were real and who are reluctant to relegate fantasy to that safe little box of “it’s just make-believe”, I will try to elaborate on one more point. Reading fantasy can help us become more in-tune to the world of invisible realities all around us. Seeing the Gospels as the paradigmatic epic of our own world, we can imbue each moment of reality with so much more meaning. Suddenly, stopping to hold the door and smile at someone becomes a testament to the hidden reality that everyone is loved and valued by God. Praying in front of an abortion clinic becomes like bearing down on the gates of Mordor--or hell--with a flask of starlight, a light of truth. The imagination cultivated by the reading of fantasy will help us picture the guardian angels that are always with us and the city of heaven that awaits us. If we see the Gospel as the greatest (true!) story of all time, in which evil has already been defeated, then evangelization turns into a mission to convince people that this story is indeed reality. There is more to this world than what we can see; fantasy can awake in us the desire for this higher, hidden reality, a desire which is then fulfilled by the Gospel story. Summing up this whole view of fantasy, Aslan the lion reassures Edmund and Lucy at the end of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader that he is will be with them in their own world. “But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia” (270). Truth is truth whether it comes from the lips of elves, angels, or even talking lions. It remains our task as readers to discern the truth in whatever dress it is presented to us and to apply this truth to our own lives.
Tolkien, J.R.R. “On Fairy Stories” in The Tolkien Reader. New York: Ballantine Books, 1966.
Lewis, C.S. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. New York: Harper Collins, 1980.