That life is a journey and that we are all travelers on the road is, at once, a well-worn cliché and a profound and universal truth. It lies at the heart of many of the greatest works of the human imagination (The Odyssey, The Aeneid, The Divine Comedy, Canterbury Tales, Don Quixote, Pilgrim’s Progress, Moby-Dick, Great Expectations, Huckleberry Finn, The Grapes of Wrath, the Five Books of Moses, and the Acts of the Apostles), and it speaks to us at the deepest core of our being. No matter how comfortable our situation may be, no matter how permanent it may seem, we never quite feel at home. There is, in all of us, a vague restlessness, a feeling that, to quote the old hymn, this world is not our home. That inner voice ever troubles us with the realization that we are all, finally, pilgrims and sojourners, strangers in a strange land.
Not surprisingly, most of us stay put. Better to suppress that nagging voice than to risk the dangers of the road. And yet, even if we do not go off on adventures ourselves, we are continually drawn to characters, both historical and fictional, who do. Although the taking of pilgrimages to holy shrines and sacred places has played a major role in most world religions (especially medieval Catholicism), today, only Islam maintains a strong and visible commitment to this ancient discipline. True, many modern Americans will take secular, consumer-driven pilgrimages to such places as Disney World or Graceland or Manhattan, while others will take more intellectual and aesthetic pilgrimages to Rome or to Athens or to Stratford-upon-Avon. A number of Jews and Christians will even make their way to the Holy Land. Still, something, I fear, has been lost. Perhaps it is that sense of messianic anticipation that converts the journey into a longing for higher purpose. Perhaps it is that willingness to be profoundly changed that transforms it into a voyage of self-discovery. Perhaps we simply insulate ourselves too much.
Has your life included a great journey?
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).