On Letters and the Truth in Stories

The Journey to the Crossroads

by Alyssa Huberts

A fellow lunting inkling, C.S. Lewis (Source)

A fellow lunting inkling, C.S. Lewis (Source)

This winter, I read JRR Tolkien’s letters, arranged by his son, Christopher. I’ve been a CS Lewis fan my entire life and knew vaguely of the close friendship between the two authors, and after finally reading Lord of the Rings this summer, I wanted to know a little more about the best friend of my favorite author and the man behind the masterpiece. Inside the pages of Tolkien’s collected letters, I found a man who was stubborn, indefatigable, sometimes highly critical or defensive, but most of all, deeply thoughtful about the way in which we understand ourselves, our story, and God.

After the Lord of the Rings was published, many readers wrote Tolkien, asking him whether they should think of the epic as an allegory or a fairy story. Time after time, Tolkien wrote back, explaining that the story was not an allegory (and certainly not one for the nuclear bomb, which many supposed), but that the distinction between fairy story and allegory was the wrong one to make. He felt that the best fairy stories should be so true to life that they would inevitably feel allegorical, and that likewise, any good allegory could be read as nothing “more” than a fairy story. What we like in any story, he wrote, is that something in it speaks to us as true. Our soul looks at it and says, “Yes, that there. That’s exactly right.”

I like this idea, that our souls recognize truth and respond positively. I think to a large extent it’s right. CS Lewis says:

“Are not all lifelong friendships born at the moment when at last you meet another human being who has some inkling (but faint and uncertain even in the best) of that something which you were born desiring, and which, beneath the flux of other desires and in all the momentary silences between the louder passions, night and day, year by year, from childhood to old age, you are looking for, watching for, listening for?”

This is why I love books, and particularly the Lord of the Rings. Things that carry a trace of God, that hold truth, don’t need to be allegories to teach us about ourselves, and about God. Reading them teaches us empathy and grace, not because they lay out a lesson for us or an instructive metaphor, but because we were made to be empathetic and graceful. The truth feeds us.

At one point, George MacDonald made the observation that it was the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil that was the fall of man, and asked how different the world would have been if man had eaten instead from the tree of Life. Sometimes we search for knowledge, when all we’re really looking for is life itself.

What Tolkien did particularly well was look deeply into life, and bring that truth into his stories. It’s what makes the books rich, but it can also serve as a source of inspiration for the way we look at our own lives and those of the people around us. If our souls really do crave truth, if we’re really designed to be empathetic and graceful, then maybe when we look for direction, we should start by observing. Hobbits don’t have to – and shouldn’t be – wizards; Tom Bombadil knew his particular patch of the woods – and every tree, flower, and bee inside of it. A pastor once told me that when you feel most lost you should go to someone who loves you, and have them tell you the truth about you. When we find ourselves looking too hard for knowledge; for allegories, explanations, and instruction manuals, maybe what we really need is just truth. We are “fearfully and wonderfully made,” (Psalm 139) and all growth is, in the end, just growing into the skin we were made to occupy.

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