It defies all expectations. In 2003, the British people declared it the nation’s “best-loved novel.” On one 1999 Amazon.com poll it was voted the greatest book of the millennium. Nearly sixty years after its first publishing, how does one fathom, let alone explain, people’s enduring love for J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings? Why has this story of hairy hobbits and wandering wizards persevered over the scoffs of literary critics to become one of the best-selling books of all time?
The Lord of the Rings has been called a fantasy novel, though Tolkien probably would have preferred to describe his work as a “fairy-story” properly understood. It is a sort of myth: a tale that speaks to the good, true, and beautiful that humans seek to understand through, in Tolkien’s view, the art of “sub-creation.” As Tolkien noted in his essay, “On Fairy-stories,” “Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.” Middle-earth is our sub-created Earth: the lives of elves and men, dwarves and dragons, wizards and hobbits traverse the same paths of our own days. We love The Lord of the Rings because it brings out from deep within us our longing for the things that make life worth living.
So too, then, must we journey with Frodo and Sam. And what more perfect a time for such a journey than the Christian season of Lent? As the Fellowship travels toward the great Doom of their time and the changing of the world, so the Christian makes pilgrimage toward the great Doom of the Cross and the changing of the world at the Resurrection. While on that journey, there is time to recall the beauty of things and yet their passing, and the strength of men and yet their mortality, and evil of our times and yet the good that can be done during them. From the shallow slopes of the Shire to the steep slopes of Mt. Doom, we traverse the physical geography of creation and human geography of free will. We laugh and shed tears. We fall into sin, friendship, and love.
That is the vision of this, “A Lent of the Lord of the Rings.” In reflecting on The Lord of the Rings over the forty (plus) days of Lent, we can consider those higher things of goodness, truth, and beauty. In walking with the Fellowship of the Ring this season, we have opportunity to muse on our own lives and communities. And, of course, in reading Tolkien’s marvelous story, we might savor and enjoy what countless women and men have come to love over the last six decades.
I hope you will join me on this adventure, starting on February 9th.