Stories hold a special ability to deeply impact their readers. Those who enjoy reading imaginative fiction like The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings by the Wade Center’s authors already know the truth of that statement. From the page to the screen, from the parables Jesus used for the spiritual benefit of his audiences to the trials of two small hobbits struggling up the slopes of Mount Doom, stories engage the heart in ways that other forms of expression cannot accomplish. We yearn for that kind of engagement and feel nourished once we find it, like taking a breath of fresh spring air or a drink of water after a long thirst.
J.R.R. Tolkien calls this nourishment “recovery” in his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” explaining that stories can help us see life afresh and reawaken or illuminate spiritual truths:
“Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a re-gaining—regaining of a clear view. I do not say ‘seeing things as they are’ and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say ‘seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them’—as things apart from ourselves. We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity[.]”
“Recovery” is like a wake-up call to our souls after they have been lulled to sleep by the daily, familiar patterns that soon become mundane. G.K. Chesterton spoke against this pull towards apathy that can develop in our lives in the “Ethics of Elfland” chapter of Orthodoxy, where he uses the example of the sun rising each morning. That routine phenomenon, Chesterton says, should be seen not as a mere repetition in nature, but as God’s “theatrical encore.” Each sunrise is miraculous. Likewise the character Innocent Smith in Chesterton’s Manalive leaps out of his garden one morning to travel around the world so that he may appreciate his garden properly again when he returns home. Only after his long journey can he see the garden’s awe-inspiring beauty when his eyes behold it afresh.
Dorothy L. Sayers relates the theme of recovery to the truths of Christian doctrine in her essay “The Greatest Drama Ever Staged,” reminding us that it is we who have made religious dogma boring:
“So that is the outline of the official story—the tale of the time when God was the under-dog and got beaten, when He submitted to the conditions He had laid down and became a man like the men He had made, and the men He had made broke Him and killed Him. This is the dogma we find so dull—this terrifying drama of which God is the victim and hero.
If this is dull, then what, in Heaven’s name, is worthy to be called exciting? The people who hanged Christ never, to do them justice, accused Him of being a bore—on the contrary; they thought Him too dynamic to be safe. It has been left for later generations to muffle up that shattering personality and surround Him with an atmosphere of tedium. We have very efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, certified Him ‘meek and mild,’ and recommended Him as a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies.”
The Truths professed within Christian doctrine, Sayers claims, deserve not only our attention but our excitement as well. If the welfare of our souls depends upon this “Greatest Drama” being True, then we cannot afford to let it remain dull but must find means of recovering it and letting it work on our sensibilities anew. But how is this to be done?
There are many methods of recovery available to us, but the one that the seven Wade authors specialize in is the written word. Masterful writing allows the truths that stories contain to steal “past those watchful dragons,” as Lewis calls our internal sentinels of doubt and cynicism, so they can give our heart and soul the chance to embrace recovery. We simply need to be on the lookout for recovery when it crosses our path, and notice which methods strike a chord with our spirit.
Some may have apprehension about the idea of intermingling imaginative literature with faith. Such a concern was brought to C.S. Lewis by the mother of a little boy who was worried that he loved Aslan the lion from The Chronicles of Narnia more than Jesus. In Laurence Krieg’s own words as an adult, he remembers: “what worried me was that I found Lewis’s portrayal of Aslan much more appealing and worthy of worship than any church or Sunday School’s portrayal of God or Jesus.” His mother wrote to Lewis about this problem to ask his advice. Here was Lewis’s response in a letter dated May 6, 1955:
“Laurence can’t really love Aslan more than Jesus, even if he feels that’s what he is doing. For the things he loves Aslan for doing or saying are simply the things Jesus really did and said. So that when Laurence thinks he is loving Aslan, he is really loving Jesus: and perhaps loving Him more than he ever did before. Of course there is one thing Aslan has which Jesus has not – I mean, the body of a lion. … Now if Laurence is bothered because he finds the lion-body seems nicer to him than the man-body, I don’t think he need be bothered at all. God knows all about the way a little boy’s imagination works (He made it, after all) and knows that at a certain age the idea of talking and friendly animals is very attractive. So I don’t think He minds if Laurence likes the Lion-body. And anyway, Laurence will find that in a few years, as he grows older, that feeling (liking the lion-body better) will die away of itself, without his taking any trouble about it.”
The lines “loving Him more than he ever did before” and “God knows all about the way a little boy’s imagination works” serve as a wonderful summary for how God can use our imaginations, which He made, to reveal Truths to us and recapture our hearts through the vessel of story. We must remember that story does not work this way for everyone, and stories will impact people differently, but for many readers the re-awakening and recovery of spiritual truths actively occurs through God’s call to their imaginations.
For me, the story that captured my heart and imagination was Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. I’ve met many readers over the years who can say the same for themselves. There are innumerable ways that the story has aided me in the work of recovery, but I wanted to share one example in this reflection as the celebration of Easter draws near.
The suffering of Frodo Baggins has always touched me deeply, aided by Tolkien’s vivid descriptions of his long journey to destroy the Ring and the injuries he received along the way. That suffering carries timely resonance as we remember the wounds of the past year in so many lives worldwide. Frodo chose selflessly to take an object that few others would (or could) touch in an effort to rid Middle-earth of the evils of Sauron. He suffered hunger, thirst, the endless temptation and weight of the Ring, and exhausting travels. The first time I read The Lord of the Rings in high school, I was so imaginatively and emotionally invested in the story that I found it difficult to eat meals while reading about Frodo and Sam starving on the plains of Gorgoroth.
Frodo receives four serious wounds during his quest, in addition to his travel weariness and the temptation of the Ring:
- The stab wound in his left shoulder by the Nazgûl at Weathertop
- The spear wound in his right side from the orc in Moria
- The poisoned wound from Shelob on the back left side of his neck
- Gollum biting off the third finger on his right hand at Mount Doom
The Nazgûl knife wound and Shelob’s sting impact Frodo even after the Ring is destroyed as Tolkien tells us the effects are lingering and the wounds are not fully healed.
“At last the hobbits had their faces turned towards home. They were eager now to see the Shire again; but at first they rode only slowly, for Frodo had been ill at ease. When they came to the Ford of Bruinen, he had halted, and seemed loth to ride into the stream; and they noted that for a while his eyes appeared not to see them or things about him. All that day he was silent. It was the sixth of October.
‘Are you in pain, Frodo?’ said Gandalf quietly as he rode by Frodo’s side.
‘Well, yes I am,’ said Frodo. ‘It is my shoulder. The wound aches, and the memory of darkness is heavy on me. It was a year ago today.’
‘Alas! There are some wounds that cannot be wholly cured,’ said Gandalf.
‘I fear it may be so with mine,’ said Frodo. ‘There is no real going back. Though I may come to the Shire, it will not seem the same; for I shall not be the same. I am wounded with knife, sting, and tooth, and a long burden. Where shall I find rest?’
Gandalf did not answer.”
– “Homeward Bound,” The Return of the King
It becomes evident that Frodo’s wounds will not heal if he remains in Middle-earth, and sadly his sacrifices from the quest are largely unknown by the inhabitants of the Shire, with the exceptions of Sam, Merry, and Pippin. Frodo is given the opportunity to sail west, the “spiritual epicenter” of Tolkien’s legendarium, where his wounds can be healed. The end of the story brings the poignant bittersweetness of Frodo’s departure, despite all he did to preserve the Shire and Middle-earth.
“I have been too deeply hurt, Sam. I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me.”
– “The Grey Havens,” The Return of the King
Despite the sadness, it is comforting to know that Frodo will have his cares removed, dark memories forgotten, and his physical wounds healed. He will be refreshed and renewed, and as a result, can ultimately one day die in peace.
Frodo’s story aids me as a spiritual stepping-stone when I contemplate Christ’s wounds and suffering. We see human vulnerability in Jesus’s prayer in Gethsemane: “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42) He was not looking forward to the tortures ahead, but Jesus still accepted that burden. Not only did He endure the physical pain of the cross, but He also bore the sins and evils of the whole world (and of past, present, and future generations) all at once. The weight of that burden is greater than the One Ring by far. He confronted all the forces of evil, and overthrew them. And unlike Frodo’s inability to destroy the Ring without Gollum’s intervention, Christ brought about the ultimate defeat of evil that no one else could achieve, and He did this for all of us. In fact, that is one reason why Tolkien chose not to have Frodo destroy the Ring with his own strength; it serves as a reminder that only the person of Christ, as both fully God and fully human, can accomplish such a task.*
After the resurrection, Jesus appears to the disciples and they are able to touch the wounds on His hands, feet, and side. This is a good indication that Jesus will bear those same wounds for eternity. We may likewise guess that the moments of suffering on the cross will also be remembered by Jesus perfectly for eternity. While those hurts and memories do not have power over Him, they are real, and will remain engraved on His body and memory. He does not get to “sail West” and have those hurts healed as Frodo did. But those eternal wounds are what give us the hope and assurance that our own wounds will be fully healed one day. They are also a beautiful testament to the extent of God’s love for us.
“But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.”
– Isaiah 53:5
“He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
– Revelation 21:4
This practice is not an exercise in allegory or a one-to-one comparison between Frodo and Christ. It acknowledges the emotive and revelatory qualities inspired by Tolkien’s story and their resonance with the truths of my Christian faith, making the True Story more vibrant in my own life. I cannot fully fathom the amount of love that Christ has lavished on each of us through His sacrifice, but my care for Frodo gets me several steps closer, causing me to worship with a more fervent appreciation and gratitude. Like Laurence, I find myself loving Jesus more than I ever did before. That renewed spirit of worship and understanding is what “recovery” is all about.
This note by C.S. Lewis from the chapter “Time and Beyond Time” in Mere Christianity seems an appropriate word to end on: “This idea has helped me a good deal. If it does not help you, leave it alone.” Recovery takes many forms, and God’s ideas on how to reach us in ways we will understand are unlimited. The vital reminder is simply to be on the lookout for where the opportunities of recovery turn up in your own life, and embrace them. They are beacons of hope on your horizon, sent by God for your benefit. Are you watching?
*It is interesting to note that the date of the Ring’s destruction, March 25, is the traditional date of Christ’s Crucifixion, as well as date of the Annunciation. It is celebrated as “Tolkien Reading Day” by Tolkien enthusiasts around the world.
Laura Schmidt has served as Archivist at the Wade Center since 2005. She is also the Staff Adviser for the Wheaton College Tolkien Society and Facilitator of WhInklings, a Wheaton College group for writers.