The road lies plain before me, and I am eager to press on. However, before I begin, I would like to offer four brief caveats that will help clarify what exactly I will and will not be doing in this book.
First, although the message and diction of this book will be above the heads of children—though advanced teens should be able to follow the arguments—it is my hope that parents will read the chapters and then discuss the issues and episodes raised with their sons and daughters. Stories are meant to be shared, not read in isolation, and it is my hope that this book will initiate fruitful dialogue between parents and children and encourage them to enter as a family both into the adventures themselves and into the greater adventure of living, choosing, and yearning in a fallen world that is nevertheless filled with meaning, purpose, and beauty.
Second, I do not intend this to be a “scholarly” or “academic” work. Although I have provided, in an appendix, two bibliographical essays for those who wish to pursue further study or who wish to learn which books have most influenced my own reading of Tolkien and Lewis, I will not be referencing any secondary sources, nor will I be making use of footnotes. I want there to be nothing to distract us as we journey along the road from Middle-earth to Narnia. You might think of the chapters as a step-by-step series of interlocking meditations. Indeed, you may, if you wish, read them as you would a devotional: pausing to reflect on the “life-lesson” learned before moving on to the next. If you have children or grandchildren living with you, you might consider discussing one chapter per day with them, either during a meal or before they go to bed. Too often, “scholarly” books hold their subject at arm’s length, adopting a detached and “objective” tone. The goal of this book is to enter, to embrace, to engage. Not to study but to learn from, not to judge but to be challenged by, not to analyze but to love.
Third, I will not be offering in this book a Christian or an allegorical or a symbolic reading of The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles. I will not attempt to conform them to any single interpretative structure nor seek to trace all of the biblical, historical, or mythical allusions. Rather, I will mine them for insights into virtue as I would a rich vein of silver or gold. The main question I will ask is not what this or that character or event “means” or even what Tolkien or Lewis “intended” it to mean, but what we today, stranded as we are in the stormy seas of relativism and existentialism, can learn from the episodes that make up these two timeless works. I will be choosing, then, episodes that most effectively illustrate the particular theme being explored in that chapter, though in most cases it was the episodes themselves that first alerted me to the importance and urgency of the theme under discussion.
And that leads me, in turn, to my fourth and final caveat. Although I do not intend this book to be didactic or “preachy,” it will be my goal in the following chapters to be both practical and convicting. I will be treating The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles as wise and reliable sources of truth. Though I don’t consider Tolkien or Lewis to be prophets in the biblical sense, I do believe that these deeply Christian authors allowed themselves to be conduits of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. For both authors, stories were fun, but they were also serious business. Like Aslan, the Lion King of Narnia, they were to be loved and cherished but never trifled with. In the same spirit, though I mean for this book to be a fun, breezy, and energetic read, I do hope it will be attended to in a manner befitting its high seriousness. Our modern (and now postmodern) age has cast off—sometimes deliberately, but most often unthinkingly—many of the beliefs and virtues and disciplines that are necessary to the continuation of civilized life and the preservation of individual dignity and purpose.
As we travel the road with Bilbo and Frodo, it is my hope (if not my prayer) that we can revive those virtues and reawaken those stock responses that Tolkien and Lewis felt in their bones but which we and our society have allowed to fall to the wayside. I hope as well that as we journey down that road together, we will discover, as the hero of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress discovers, that God uses such journeys to strengthen our patience and our faith, to teach us to discern godly trials from demonic temptations, and to provide us with concrete models of heroism and villainy.
Let us begin.
John 1: 1-5
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not
We are joined this month by our friend, Dr. Lou Markos, Professor of English and Scholar in Residence at Houston Baptist University, where he holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities. This month Lou will guide us through his masterful book On The Shoulders of Hobbits.
For the study this month, Lou says
My approach throughout will be simple. In each chapter I take up a single theme (the nature of pilgrimage, facing death, kingship and hierarchy, the virtue of hope, the love that forgives, forbidden fruit) that has been overlooked or dismissed by our age, and then illustrate and embody that theme by making parallel references to one or more episodes from The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, or The Silmarillion. I will then develop the theme further by zeroing in on a single passage from one of the seven Chronicles of Narnia that clarifies or complements Tolkien’s message.
Happy reading and blessings for the journey!
Forward to On the Shoulders of Hobbits
Why should I read this book? What is it about?” That’s the question you want a foreword to answer.
Well, this book is about life. Your life. It’s not fantasy, it’s realism. It’s the so-called realistic books that are usually fantasy. When you close the covers of The Lord of the Rings or the Chronicles of Narnia, you intuitively know that you are not exiting an unreal world and entering a more real one, but exactly the opposite.
The best educational advice for life that I ever heard was my father’s: “Just be sure you don’t get all A’s in your subjects but flunk life.”
We humans are the only beings in the universe who can flunk life, because we have a free choice about what kind of life we will lead and what kind of human beings we will be, good or evil. We make these choices not, like angels, instantly and timelessly, but gradually, in each of our many big and little choices between good and evil throughout the drama that is our lifetime.
How do we become good or evil? When Plato asked in his Meno how human beings become good (virtuous), he suggested four ways: (1) by teaching (“knowledge is virtue”); (2) by practice (forming habits); (3) by nature (i.e., being born virtuous); (4) in some other way (i.e., against nature, by force). Most philosophers—Oriental as well as Western—give one of these four answers: Plato, #1; Confucius, #1 and #2; Aristotle, #2; Rousseau and Lao Tzu, #3; Hobbes and the “Realists,” #4.
All these philosophers are wrong, probably because most of them do not have children. Parents and children know the answer: by example. By having moral heroes.
That’s why reading great literature, next to meeting people, is the single most effective way to learn not to flunk life. Life is a story, and therefore moral education happens first and most powerfully through stories, e.g., through books.
The greatest book of the twentieth century, according to four different polls, is The Lord of the Rings. And the greatest children’s stories ever written are the Chronicles of Narnia (I dogmatically assure you of that!).
On the Shoulders of Hobbits is the logical conclusion from all of the above facts. Read it. It will help you fall in love with these two great works, their heroes, and their values. It will baptize your imagination and fertilize the soil of your soul so that you become the kind of person who doesn’t flunk life.
Louis Markos holds a BA in English and History from Colgate University and an MA and PhD in English from the University of Michigan. He is a Professor of English and Scholar in Residence at Houston Baptist University, where he holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities and teaches courses on British Romantic and Victorian Poetry and Prose, the Greek and Roman Classics, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien. He is the author of eighteen books, including On the Shoulders of Hobbits: The Road to Virtue with Tolkien and Lewis, Apologetics for the Twenty First Century, From Achilles to Christ: Why Christians Should Read the Pagan Classics,Lewis Agonistes: How C. S. Lewis can Train us to Wrestle with the Modern and Postmodern World, Atheism on Trial, and The Dreaming Stone and In the Shadow of Troy, children’s novels in which his kids become part of Greek Mythology and the Iliad and Odyssey. He has produced two lecture series on C. S. Lewis and literary theory with The Teaching Company/Great Courses, published 250 book chapters, essays, and reviews, given well over 300 public lectures in some two dozen states as well as Rome, Oxford, and British Columbia, and had his adaptations of The Iphigenia in Tauris of Euripides, The Helen of Euripides, and The Electra of Sophocles performed off-Broadway. He is committed to the concept of the Professor as Public Educator and believes that knowledge must not be walled up in the Academy but must be disseminated to all who have ears to hear.
Visit his amazon author page at amazon.com/author/louismarkos
Louis Markos and Peter Kreeft, On the Shoulders of Hobbits: The Road to Virtue with Tolkien and Lewis (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2012).