The prologue to The Lord of the Rings informs us that Hobbits range between two and four feet in height. The tale itself teaches us that physical size is no determiner of moral courage. Not to be undone in this paradoxical yoking of tiny body and mighty spirit, Lewis presents us, in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, with a heroic traveler who is far closer to two feet than to four. I speak, of course, of one of Lewis’s two favorite Narnian characters (the other is Puddleglum): Reepicheep the mouse. Unlike Tolkien’s three-foot Abrahams, whose callings take them to the Road, the call that comes to Lewis’s two-foot Abraham takes him out to the high seas.
In brief, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader tells of how three earth children are pulled into Narnia and accompany King Caspian and his crew as they sail across the wide, uncharted Eastern Sea, in search of the seven lost lords of Narnia. The adventures are marvelous, and each of the children goes through trials that test and refine him. But what lends the novel both its heroic and spiritual aura is the special purpose that has impelled Reepicheep to join the crew.
While he was still in his cradle, Reepicheep tells us, a Dryad spoke over him the following cryptic rhyme:
Where sky and water meet,
Where the waves grow sweet,
Doubt not, Reepicheep,
To find all you seek,
There is the utter East. (II.16)
Though Reepicheep still does not understand the full import of the Dryad’s prophecy, he proclaims that the spell of it has been on him all his life. No matter the danger or the cost, Reepicheep is determined to seek out his destiny, to respond to a calling that he only partially understands. Whereas Reepicheep is depicted in the previous Chronicle (Prince Caspian) as a brave, courteous, somewhat headstrong knight (rather like Gawain in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight), here he suffers a sea change into something far richer and stranger: a more mystical, God-haunted knight who is willing (like Sir Galahad of the Grail legends) to pursue his divine vision wherever it takes him.
What is your calling in life?
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).