As March 25th, National Tolkien Reading Day, draws to an end, I have much to celebrate. For today I discovered a new book. By a favorite author. A book which I should absolutely have known about, but did not. A book which cannot be found anywhere except on Abe Books, two copies, one just under $1000 and one just over $1000, which is pretty much the same as “cannot be found anywhere.”
Fortunately for me, I know someone who has more books than I do – more books than most public libraries, and who is a medievalist, and who is a Tolkien scholar, and who lives in my town, and who is very kind.
This person and I are both rule-followers. And our town is under a stay-at-home-except-for-necessities order. Getting my hands on this book was a necessity. So at noon:30 today, I ventured out to a quiet neighborhood, pulled up to a curbside mailbox, surreptitiously retrieved an unmarked manilla envelope of medium heft, deposited in its place a small hermetically sealed package of British cookies, glanced around nervously because what if someone thought I was making a ransom money-drop, and then drove off with literary gold settled gently on the passenger seat next to me.
And now, at nearly midnight, I am settling into The Old English Exodus, Text, Translation, and Commentary by J. R. R. Tolkien.
You read the correctly.
And glory be. The inside dust jacket has already filled my soul with delight. But the first lines – well, the first lines cause my heart to pound with joy.
Hwæt we feor and neah gefrigen habbađ ofer middangeard Moyses domas wrætlico wordriht wera cneorissum –
All of that valiant orthography. All of that Beowulfian pathos. Plus middle earth. And Moses. There are simply no words to express the wonder and weight of language.
Hold your heart. Rest your soul. And hear the opening lines of Exodus as translated by John Ronald:
Lo! We have heard how near and far over middle-earth Moses declared his ordinances to men, uttering in words wondrous laws to the races of mankind – to all the blessed healing of their life’s care in heaven on high after the perilous journey, to all the living enduring counsel: let him hearken who will!
This man did the Lord of Hosts, true King, by his own might honor in the wilderness, and to him did the Eternal and Omnipotent grant power over many miracles. He was dear unto God, prince of his people, a leader of the host, sage and wise of heart, valiant captain of his folk.
March 25th, 2020 was filled with far too little reading of Tolkien at my house, much to my dismay. But I am going to make up for that now by settling into a mere 590 lines of ancient epic, a mere 13 pages of translation, and a mere 44 pages of linguistic and literary commentary.
I cannot think of a better way to finish out this day of sheltering-at-home.
[Nov 17, 2018: Purdue Football Senior Day, the final home game at Ross-Ade Stadium for all those players who graduate this December or next May. Also Day 3 of National Youth Worker’s Convention, St. Louis. In other words, my heart is divided across state lines.]
Graduation is a big deal. No more classes. No more quizzes. No more exams. No more grades. No more oral presentations. No. More. Group. Projects.
But also: no more college football. And for college football players, the final whistle of that final home game will carry a deep well of memories and experiences that can’t be weighed.
For college football fans, the final whistle of that final home game will carry its own deep well of memories and meaning, shaped by circumstances and context.
In the fall of 2017, my “ENGL 264 – Bible as Literature” roster at Purdue University included 25 amazing college students, aspiring to be nurses, engineers, teachers, managers, artists, agricultural specialists, social workers, pilots, and physical therapists.
They were, each and every one of them, wonders to behold (which is exactly how I feel about middle school students as well, an unexpected miracle of my inner-wiring bestowed upon me by my Creator).
Among those 25 wonders were two young men on the Purdue football team – a system and community that had for several years weathered what we might call turbulent times.
David Blough (#11, QB) and Kirk Barron (#53, Center) sat side by side in the far corner of my classroom on day one (far corners being prime real estate on the first day of class: from first-hand observation, I tell you that it is possible for 25 college students to all find far-corner seats in a room that has only four corners, which is a testament to their creativity and tenacity).
Having football players in one’s favorite class – when one is a hard-wired football freak and when said football team has just hired a new football coach to (in the words of Israel’s King David) pull the program out from bottomless pits of miry clay – might perhaps result in Boilermaker football reascending the rungs of one’s passion-ladder (not to the very top, obviously, since the very top spots of my personal passion ladder are occupied by Narnia, Middle Earth, and napping, a reality for which I am finally old enough and content enough to offer no apologies or explanations: I read, I nap, I aspire to be Narnian and Elvish, and I love football).
As a general rule, I truly enjoy not just teaching but also knowing my students. It’s the overflow of my Young Life and youthworker self.
So last fall, I enjoyed not just teaching but also knowing 25 wondrous students, including David Blough and Kirk Barron.
After many years of not inhabiting Ross-Ade stadium on autumn Saturdays (which followed many years of faithfully inhabiting Ross-Ade stadium on autumn Saturdays), my husband and I climbed aboard the train (metaphorically) once again, attending home games, cheering on a team that was starting to emerge from the fog and find its collective feet. We did this because we knew certain players, and knowing people changes everything.
We cheered when they won, and when they lost – because there is always something to cheer (even when some refs botch calls and certain opponents are dirty rotten stinkers).
We roared with delight when face-painted fierce Barron stalked the sideline rousing his teammates and when fleet-footed fierce Blough launched breathtaking passes that connected with receivers.
We moaned with despair when Barron’s rousing roars came up short and when Blough was loaded into an ambulance with a thoroughly destroyed ankle.
We watched with joy when, after a stunning recovery and rehab by Blough, they once again both walked out to the coin toss, flanking pint-sized football fans who were special guests of honor.
We wept along with the world as they befriended, encouraged, and prayed with Tyler Trent, a young man who defies all worldly explanations of life and love and hope.
And today, we will proudly watch Barron and Blough run onto that field one last time [really truly the last time], walk to center-field for the pregame coin toss one last time, give and take the opening snap one last time, play as a team-within-a-team one last time, and (we all hope) put up a “W” at Ross-Ade Stadium [or Nissan Stadium, as the case may be] one last time.
Football is a funny thing. Some people hate it. Some people ignore it. Some people worship it. Some people bleed it. And some people simply and inexplicably love it.
I am of the latter ilk. I simply and inexplicably love football, which, being a bookish, academic, PhD-ish, theological, ministerial, Middle-Earthian, Narnian kind of person, is rather odd and unexpected.
But much of life is odd and unexpected. We can be confounded by it, or we can joyfully take it and run with it (metaphorically, that is – as a general rule and daily practice, I vehemently oppose and doggedly avoid running).
Today is a celebration for and about many people.
But these words right here are a celebration of two particular young men who in some odd and unexpected way have become “my” players for these past two years – the two players I watch most carefully on the field and on the sideline, the two I cheer for most enthusiastically, and the two I know most personally. And that last one, I would argue, is the most significant thing.
When you know people, things matter in different ways and to different degrees.
Knowing is the secret sauce of almost everything. Not knowing about, but knowing.
I know, in small ways and in small degrees, David Blough and Kirk Barron. They make me proud. They make me laugh. They are men worth knowing.
Today, I celebrate them. I hope the final whistle of this final home game brings them not just a victory but also joy, energy, excitement, anticipation, and wild hope for all that lies ahead.
**In my ongoing quest to leverage my love for dead British authors (whose writings continue to be long-lasting and meaningful) in the realm of life and ministry (which on occasion runs the risk of being short-lived and shallow), I have compiled:
Seven Principles for a Lasting and Meaningful Ministry, also applicable to Life and other Meaningful Endeavors, based on the writings of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Dorothy Sayers, and G.K. Chesterton, authors now long-dead but whose Devout Embrace of Christ lives still in various and sundry essays, tales, poems, letters, and diaries. MMXV.
PRINCIPLE #4: EXPECT DRAGONS
“As you like,” said Chrysophylax, licking his lips again, but pretending to close his eyes. He had a very wicked heart (as dragons all have), but not a very bold one (as is not unusual).
–from “Farmer Giles of Ham,” J.R.R. Tolkien
But perhaps if he had known something about dragons he would have been a little surprised at this dragon’s behaviour. Most of us know what we should expect to find in a dragon’s lair, but, as I said before, Eustace had read only the wrong books. They had a lot to say about exports and imports and governments and drains, but they were weak on dragons.
–from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C.S. Lewis
Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.
–from “The Red Angel” in Tremendous Trifles, G.K Chesterton
Here be dragons to be slain, here be rich rewards to gain . . .
If we perish in the seeking . . . why, how small a thing is death!
–from “Desdichado” in Catholic Tales and Christian Songs, Dorothy Sayers
So, here’s the thing about dragons: they are hands down, entirely, thoroughly, exceptionally, and superlatively bad, wicked, evil, nasty, foul, no-good little stinkers. Period.
Except here. Except now.
Our sophisticatedly nuanced world offers us dragon riders, dragon trainers, and dragon fighter-pilots. Nothing against these tales or their authors (Naomi Novick’s series about draconian aerial warfare during the Napoleonic wars is supremely delightful), but this recent domestication of dragons portends something infinitely more perilous.
On the one hand, we fail (or refuse) to recognize dragons for what they really are, convinced that if we just handle them gently enough, feed them plenty of tasty bits, and cajole them with sweet songs, they will somehow cease to be dragons — as though we have the power and the wisdom to be undragoners.
On the other hand, having lost sight of real dragons, we now see dragons everywhere, squinting our eyes crooked-like and viewing things from inverted angles until – beware! – every kitten, tree, and cloud is branded a dragon — as though we have the capacity and the discernment to be dragonlords.
We surely do hate dragons . . . especially if they are of our own imagining.
We surely do love dragons . . . even if they threaten our very soul.
And by they, I meant it.
Sin. Self-enthronement. Me-centricity. I-fullness. God-emptiness.
It is a dangerous path we tread when we forget that Christ died because of dragons and instead focus our undivided attention on kittens, trees, or clouds, as though they endanger our very existence.
It is a perilous turn we take when we neither recognize nor admit the power of dragons, and instead head off into the forest with a knapsack of jelly sandwiches and a flapping paper shield, as though life were naught but a make-believe quest.
Dragons are. We ignore and forget this at the cost of our ministries and our lives.
But– Christ is. Christ will be. Christ forevermore. We live and minister within that brilliant truth, regardless of the cost.
Expect dragons, dear friends, and then prepare to willingly see them slain.
(All images from The Art of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, 2012)
Two winters ago I (along with millions of others) planted myself in a movie theater to watch the first installment of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy. For several years, I’d included the book on my English syllabus (Purdue University). My students – many of whom had never read the book previously (or even heard of it – how is that possible??) responded to the story in various ways. [Note 1: my rather old-fashioned pedagogy requires students to arrive at class with a comment, question, or discussion starter – based on that day’s reading – written on a 3 x 5 card. In cursive, preferably. Extra points for using a fountain pen.] [Note 2: I’m not big on deconstructing a text to death and then discoursing in a lofty and snooty and philosophical manner about things that are killed by loft and snoot and philosophizing. I’m big on reading – carefully, enthusiastically, intentionally, thoughtfully, and joyfully – and letting a book be what it is, not what I or some dead French philosopher says it should be. But that’s just me.]
Last week, I stumbled across some of those old-fashioned 3×5 cards in an old-fashioned file drawer and enjoyed a few moments of old-fashioned reminiscing.
“I wish Bilbo and gang wouldn’t act so irrationally. Just do as you’re told!”
“I’ve gotten so attached to the dwarves and Bilbo that I may have shed a tear when Bilbo was saying goodbye. Is that normal?? I can’t believe I teared up over dwarves and a hobbit. They’ve changed me.”
“I wish Tolkien could read The Hobbit to me before bed every night.”
“STAY ON THE PATH!!!”
“I got so upset when they wandered off in the woods that I literally threw the book and didn’t pick it up again for several days. Why, Tolkien, why??”
“These dwarves have taken a terrible beating so far. Between giants, spiders, and being locked in barrels, they deserve a break – and TREASURE!”
“As terrible and disgusting as he is, I always just want to give Gollum a hug.”
“Why do the ponies always have to die??”
Who knew that 3×5 cards could be so enjoyable and that college students could be so endearing? But then, this:
“I really wish that Fili and Kili didn’t have to die. And this is going to be such a sweet movie.”
This, from an A+ student, who really loved the book and really can’t be blamed for having such high cinematic hopes.
But the movie wasn’t “sweet” – regardless of how you define the word – and not because it diverged from the written narrative extensively (which it did) but because in making it, Peter Jackson did that which an adult should never ever do: he stole from a child. From all children, actually.
While sitting in that theater two winters ago, I soon gave up on jotting down all the ways the cinematic experience strayed from the textual (and authoritative) narrative and instead got out my phone (yep – I was that person) and started frantically texting all my Tolkien-loving friends who were planning to take their kids to the movie that night, because, you know, children’s book, duh.
My text: Leave the children at home! Really! Truly! Just do it!
I fumed as I typed because, well, this was not a children’s movie. (And yet people brought their children anyway. What is wrong with people?) And if children couldn’t (or shouldn’t) go to see The Hobbit, then what was the point? (Besides the money, that is.)
Not surprisingly, I skipped installments two and three because, as my students rightly observed, The Hobbit is a story that should be read to children – or by children – at night. And also adults. Of course. Indeed. And though readers of all ages should rightly shudder at the thought of goblins (pony-eating horrors that they are) and Smaug (gentle and tame dragons are a freak of postmodernism) and Wargs (blerrgggh), we should still be able to sleep peacefully because the book is ultimately joyful and entirely eucatastrophic* in a way that honors all readers, and especially the children.
The movie – not so much.
“I hope the movie gives off the same happiness that the book does,” wrote one of my students on his 3×5 card just a month before the release date.
Um, no. It does not. Not in part one. I suspect not in part two. And definitely not in part three where two-plus hours of a large-screen brutally vivid battle does not do justice to Tolkien’s genius of appropriately describing for children, on just a few pages,** the Battle of Five Armies – “and it was very terrible.” (Chapter XVII) Based on reviews I’ve read, neither does it do justice to Tolkien’s genius of narrative construction, which is just so very sad.
I’m a firm believe that the book – any book – is always better than the movie, just because (which isn’t to say that movies aren’t ever good or wonderful or brilliant or delightful.)
But when the movie exists in its present form only by way of being rudely, violently, and quite childishly wrested away from its intended audience – an audience that gives the story its very essence – then things have gone too far. They have perhaps gone there, but then failed to come back again.
Please, please, please – stop it, stealers. Really. Truly. Just write your own stories.
**I recently read this comment in an online forum: Did Fili and Kili die in the book, too? They are by far the greatest characters in the movie, yet I don’t have the heart to read the book since it is to[sic] long.
You could read the entire book, cover-to-cover, in less time than it takes to watch the entire movie conglomerate, credit-to-credit. Really. Truly. Just read it, already.
It seems presumptuous to join all the other Lewisians today in celebrating what would have been his 114th birthday.
But I’m going to do it anyway. Perhaps not brilliantly, but oh well – we can’t all be Lewis.
Set aside for the moment that Lewis and Tolkien had a serious falling out, in part because of Lewis’s decision to join the Church of England after his conversion.
And that his writing sometimes echoes faintly of British snobbery.
And that he occasionally leaves you guessing as to what he really thinks and believes about specific doctrinal points (purgatory, for example).
And that Robin McKinley, one of my favorite young adult authors, who recently converted to Christianity, is quite thoroughly allergic to him (as stated here).
And that Hollywood has made a flozzergnashing priddlyshnotz of Narnia (there are no words for it, really).
And that HarperCollins has ignored all textual evidence, literary logic, and scholarly output by INCORRECTLY renumbering the Chronicles of Narnia (which many of us have ranted about in the past for all the reasons outlined here).
And that Tolkien pooh-poohed his Chronicles in part because they included Father Christmas.
And that many of his colleagues felt he’d sold out to the world of commoners via the BBC and popular publishers (or maybe it was just jealousy).
And that sometimes you have to read his sentences several times over to really digest all of the truth and logic and brilliance packed into them.
And that his literary scholarship can sometimes make current literary scholars feel incompetent.
And that he often leaves readers hanging with, “In a book I read one time – I can’t remember which one…” (the price of possessing a searchable-PDF-high-quality-flatscanner-like memory).
And that he smoked (this one really gets some people).
And drank (now I’ve really done it).
Set it all aside because it doesn’t matter; the fact remains – C. S. Lewis was a brilliant writer. Since his writings are all I personally have of him, they are all I can speak to.
And they are indeed brilliant. Delightful. Unexpected. Rich. Deep. Profound. Playful. Reflective. And so many other things.
The Lewis Society to which I belong does, on occasion, genuflect a bit more than necessary. And a friend of mine sometimes jokes that I adhere to the doctrine of the Quadrinity. But I recognize my sometimes excessive adoration of Lewis for what it really is – sincere admiration (with a dash of awe) for a man who wielded language like a warrior’s sword, waved words like a magician’s wand, and rang truth like a chorister’s bell.
He did this as an expert of literary scholarship.
He did this as a devout believer of Jesus Christ.
I am glad to know him, even if just through his books. Those are more than enough.
[Lewis is so very much more than his Chronicles; even so, many readers only know him as the man who created Narnia. And so here are some of the best lines from that land where we all want to be.]
“Then he isn’t safe” said Lucy. “Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” –The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
“Aslan,” said Lucy, “you’re bigger.” “That is because you are older, little one,” answered he. “Not because you are?” “I am not. But every year you grow, you will find me bigger.” –Prince Caspian
“If they’ve said it once, they’ve said it a thousand times. ‘Puddleglum,’ they’ve said, ‘you’re altogether too full of bobance and bounce and high spirits. You’ve got to learn that life isn’t all fricasseed frogs and eel pie.” –The Silver Chair
“My own plans are made. While I can, I sail east in the Dawn Treader. When she fails me, I paddle east in my coracle. When she sinks, I shall swim east with my four paws. And when I can swim no longer, if I have not reached Aslan’s country, or shot over the edge of the world in some vast cataract, I shall sink with my nose to the sunrise.” –The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
“Was it all a dream?” wondered Shasta. But it couldn’t have been a dream for there in the grass before him he saw the deep, large print of the Lion’s front right paw. It took one’s breath away to think of the weight that could make a footprint like that. –The Horse and His Boy
Then there came a swift flash like fire either from the sky or from the Lion itself, and every drop of blood tingled in the children’s bodies, and the deepest, wildest voice they had ever heard was saying: “Narnia, Narnia, Narnia, awake. Love. Think. Speak. Be walking trees. Be talking beasts. Be divine waters.” –The Magician’s Nephew
“Come further up, come further in!” –The Last Battle
Okay, just one more, from Out of the Silent Planet, basically summing up the entire doctrine of the fall and our subsequent need for Christ’s redemptive work on the cross:
They were astonished at what he had to tell them of human history – …
“It is because they have no Oyarsa,” said one of the pupils.
“It is because every one of them wants to be a little Oyarsa himself,” said Augray.
Confession: I own too many books. Not just a few too many, or some too many. A lot too many.
Someone keeps saying it’s a problem.
I keep not listening.
So when I got an email today from one of my literature students with “book tree” in the subject line, I was intrigued. I thought it might be some kind of narrative thematic diagram resembling a family tree, which would be pretty cool.
But it wasn’t.
It was an idea. For a book tree. (Go figure.) Made out of books. To look like a tree. You know, for Christmas and all.
Which was so much cooler than cool I can’t even put it into words.
This email, and the resulting fervor it whipped up in my soul, is precisely why I don’t Pin. I would forfeit my life to this and that and such-and-such and so-and-so and ladeedahdeedoo and pretty soon I would be a crazy person who only converses with glue sticks and rotary cutters.
Proof positive is that I spent several hours tonight constructing this:
It was a lot more work than I expected. The light schematic is pathetic. In a few places, I had to jerryrig shims of folded paper to keep things level. I didn’t know how to finish it off. I made a mess of my bookshelves.
But oh my, I am delighted. Beyond words. Because not only do I love my books (too much, says someone) but I love the season that my new book tree celebrates. The incarnation. The Birth of Christ. The eucatastrophe of mankind’s history (for all you Tolkien fans).
Breathtaking indeed. Beyond words.
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)
Every now and then, I refashion the refrigerator door.
This is something that I imagine organized, intentional, and purposeful people do on a regular basis.
In my case, the motivation has more to do with either 1) avoiding some other necessary and unpleasant task or 2) being bored with (or similarly overwhelmed by) the current refrigerator fashion.
The side of the refrigerator rarely gets such personal attention. With its sidelong stance and hoarding tendencies, it lives a prodigal life of its own making. (Which is to say, I have neither the will nor the stamina to tackle 8 years worth of haphazardly displayed this-and-that.)
The fridge front is currently in a Magnetic Poetry season, a season that usually lasts anywhere from 6-9 months (because it’s so intellectually fulfilling with all of its semantic possibilities) and then gets packed away for 2-3 years (because it’s so pragmatically and emotionally taxing with all of its potential organizational disasters…like when the standby adverbs and adjectives start mixing it up so that I can’t even think straight for all of their renegade whimsey).
Words are just about the best thing ever, which makes sense since God used them (in some perfected and sacred form, I presume) to speak the universe into existence.
With all their inherent power, then, the best writers know how to transform them from individual units of nothingness (dry as dust until someone breathes life into them) into startling and exquisite bolts of energy that can be surprisingly life-giving even as they knock us to our knees in breathless amazement.
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”
[No digressive Tolkien tangent to follow. Simply this: go here and listen to Tolkien read about Gollum. And this: read The Hobbit if you haven’t. Please. I beg you. Before you see the movie, which is, remember, an adaptation of the book.]
“Oozy smell.” Perfect. Wonderful. Miraculous. Nine letters. Two words. Infinite possibilities.
I recently hosted a play-date with my five-year-old neighbor friend. The plan was to do typical five-year-old-play-date kinds of things – books, snacks, stickers, crafts – but instead, she spent two hours at the refrigerator, choreographing a linguistic dance of sorts with what she dramatically referred to as “all these words that have vowels and competents in them!” Two hours of enthusiastic magnetic lexical ballet thoroughly dismantled the (neurotic) demarcation lines between nouns, adverbs, and adjectives (a good excuse to refashion the refrigerator door in the coming weeks), but it left unscathed the topmost semantic creations from the recent months:
Wild angel worship pierces my night with a vision of sweet eternity.
Translucent and smooth poetry whispers to me and surrounds my broken heart like ferocious love.
Deliciously sacred words dance through the universe and celebrate deep in my blood like fresh morning stars.
And that just about says everything a person could ever hope to say (on a refrigerator door, anyway).