Tolkien, Fairy Stories, and Sub-creation

I was first introduced to Tolkien’s The Hobbit when I was a pre-teen. At that point I was not familiar with The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings trilogy (the movies had not yet premiered). I had the joy and privilege to experience this story with a blank slate, knowing nothing about the book besides the cover image. Image result for the hobbit coversThus I was immediately whisked away into the magic of the Shire, Mirkwood, the Lonely Mountain, and Bilbo’s adventures with his “Unexpected Party” of dwarves. To my great relief upon completing the book, I discovered that The Hobbit was only the prequel (though it was not originally written with the intention of being a prequel) to the much grander and epic The Lord of the Rings, and soon after I dived right on in to that as well.

Few worlds have captured my imagination and inner longings like Middle Earth. Perhaps I could add Narnia (I have probably read that whole series ten times or more), Hogwarts, and the Fairy Land of Phantastes. I am being very serious when I describe my experiences in these worlds as mystical. It was not merely a matter of entering a great story–I entered into a new reality of wonder. It was not merely escapism–I began to see the magic of my world in new ways (what Tolkien would call “Recovery,” discussed below). Great imaginative writers have written detailed apologias defending the power of fairy literature. Stories and worlds such as those I’ve already mentioned have unfortunately been quickly dismissed into genre fiction: fantasy. It is almost never critically viewed as serious literature. But its importance is far greater than just another pop-novel category.

Tolkien’s mythopoeia is best detailed in his famous Andrew Lang Lecture, “On Fairy-Stories,” delivered at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland on March 8, 1939. In it he describes the importance of the Faerie realm equal to and even beyond the narrative itself. Tolkien goes on to explain that writers become “sub-creators,” drawing upon the Christian doctrine of the imago dei. Humans are made in the image of a Creator-God and are endowed with similar (though not equal) abilities to create: “we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.”

Tolkien went on to dispel the myth that fairy stories are only for children (similar to my statement about the dismissal of the “fantasy” genre):

At least it will be plain that in my opinion fairy-stories should not be specially associated with children. They are associated with them: naturally, because children are human and fairy-stories are a natural human taste (though not necessarily a universal one); accidentally, because fairy-stories are a large part of the literary lumber that in latter-day Europe has been stuffed away in attics; unnaturally, because of erroneous sentiment about children, a sentiment that seems to increase with the decline in children.

Tolkien concluded his lecture by listing three important functions of fairy stories: recovery, escape, and consolation. First, fairy stories help readers recover the magic of their “Primary world,” which is often lost in our overly scientific, overly explained universe. Escape, in Tolkien’s view, is not a bad thing. Instead, he likens escape to the noble desire of the prisoner rather than the ignoble flight of a deserter. Escape in this sense is one who imagines a better world. Thus, in many ways fantasy begins overlapping with the real world to help heal it. Finally, consolation is Tolkien’s and the fairy tale’s highlight. Tolkien names this the “Eucatastrophe”: “the good
catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale)…” I’m reminded of Gandalf’s eucatastrophic appearance at Helm’s Deep when it seemed that all would be lost. Tolkien, however, goes further, and here his Catholic Christianity is very evident. Consolation envisions the fulfillment of the Christian’s longing: paradise, the new heavens and new earth provided only by the eucatastrophic death and resurrection of the Christ.

Thus, I hope it is evident that fantasy, true and good fantasy, is something much deeper than a superficial pop-novel. By creating a secondary world of imagination and magic (if you will), it plays out consistently the deepest human and universal themes of the primary world.

Follow New Instagram Account: A Little Literary Fun on the Side

a big cup of books insta image

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your front door…”

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”

“To be, or not to be…”

Some famous lines of literature. A good quote has the ability to boil down a profound idea into a single statement. Now, in this 144 character, bite-size Twitter culture, I’m not always impressed with our faddish, weightless phrases, and of course one must be careful not to rip things out of context. Nevertheless, I still believe in the power of a quotation, a nugget, a piece of gold from the classic, literary treasure chest.

Thus, here I am justifying a new little side venture. Follow this Instagram account for daily literary quotations. You can also see the account on this blog’s sidebar.

a big cup of books on Instagram

at the still point, there the dance is...

 

 

 

An Open Letter to My Graduating Seniors

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It’s here. You’ve finally made it to the end. I’m proud of you.

And I’m not saying I’m proud of you because every single moment of every class period you acted like perfect little angels (we all know that’s not the truth). I’m saying it because…well…it’s easy to say now that you’re gone. Ha! Just kidding. No, really I’m saying it because all of you have so much potential and so much passion for life. I have had the privilege of learning so much from you; thank you for sharing your lives and culture with me. All of you have immense value, and you just completed a major milestone. You have finished high school, and you begin a new, profound journey to university, to your career, to the mysterious (and often scary) beyond. It’s amazing to me the impact and influence you might have as you take your passions literally all around the world. Some of you will continue to impact your home country, El Salvador; some of you will study in other Latin American countries; some in the United States; some in Canada; and one all the way in Korea!

I’m not sure if I ever shared this with you guys, but I was the student commencement speaker at my first undergraduate graduation. There are a million directions to take a graduation speech (I worked at a book store for a year in Boston, and we sold so many copies of Dr. Suess’ Oh, the Places You’ll Go! during graduation season), but I shared and briefly expounded upon two ideas. First, I read a few lines from Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road”: “Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road, / Healthy, free, the world before me…” (in fact, I wrote a longer post about this very poem here). I hope you feel that, that sense of adventure, that carpe diem, that grabbing the world by it’s tail. But I also hope that life is more than that. In my graduation speech I also shared the latter part of Hebrews 11 from the Bible. Of course Hebrews 11 is remarkable, the “Hall of Faith” it has been called, recounting the deeds of faithful men and women. But the last few verses  about the faithful are sensational indeed!

Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated–of whom the world was not worthy–wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.

And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.

Hebrews 11:35b-40 (ESV)

Rather a sobering passage to share in light of graduation, huh? But I say this because throughout history, the most influential men and women have understood that there is a greater law than individual success, money, power, and fame. Always a life worth living involves self-sacrifice (though I hope you never need to experience the physical torture and death that some throughout the world experience). From a Christian perspective, there is the hope of greater reward than what the world can offer. This creates the freedom to serve selflessly. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that “If a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.” So what definition of success will you live by? What cause are you willing to die for in order to truly live?

Be workers. Be leaders. Be husbands, wives, fathers, and mothers. But don’t let popular, vain opinion dictate your definition of success and accomplishment. Some of the greatest servants and saints have been relatively unknown.

I’m proud of you. I’m excited for you. Now go and change the world.

 

Deep breaths…

It’s a simple playlist, only sixteen songs right now. My thinking music. My deep breathing, deep contemplating music. My centering music. It’s playing in the background right now. I invite you to join in my thoughtful reveries:

a pipe and thoughts

 

Every life is a universe. Every step opens new worlds, new realities and spheres of possibility and influence. Some days I feel off center but find that my life is merely finding a new center; it’s the way of things on the outside of normal.

  All the past we leave behind;
We debouch upon a newer, mightier world, varied world,
Fresh and strong the world we seize, world of labor and the march, Pioneers! O pioneers!

-Walt Whitman, “Pioneers! O Pioneers!”

I cannot always believe the life I live. At times it is painfully ordinary; life must be that way to be effective. But when I float up and out, when I peer down upon my life like the watchful moon, there’s something unsettlingly magical.

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Adventure: Reflection and Looking Ahead

 

Seven years ago today I embarked on an incredibly transformative life-adventure: backpacking through Europe by myself for 3.5 months as a freshly graduated 22 year old.

I spent time journaling and reflecting this morning. Here’s today’s entry:

January 14 [2017]:

On this day seven years ago I flew from St. Louis to Dublin. That experience ended up being one of the most transformative of my life. In some ways I can directly link to that experience as a point in which everything changed. I learned to see life differently. I grew independent. I grew quieter and more reflective. I became imaginative and wanted to see the world through experience rather than didactic moralism. I fell deeper in love with books and writing and creativity and art. I have wanted to explore the depths of knowledge and adventure. Suddenly I was dissatisfied with a normal (9-5) life. Some might say I’ve become “unhinged” ever since; I’d just say “unsettled.”

When we have experiences such as these there’s a temptation to try and re-create them. But we can’t; it does disservice to the memory and the experience. In a sense, we can’t look back in life. We can look in the mirror (self-reflection and growth), but we can’t turn around. Re-creating sublime moments is a sort of prostitution [soiling what is supposed to be pure]: we’re plucking at the divine fruit we were meant to taste once. We forget we’re in the garden of mystery where every tree bears a different fruit. Savor that which you’ve already enjoyed, remember it, cherish it, but search for new fruit.

I’m thankful for the adventure that started my adventures. Let’s keep moving forward.

Since that trip in 2010 I’ve had the incredible privilege of backpacking around Scotland (and the West Highland Way), hiking the Na Pali coastline, traveling and getting my CELTA in S. America (Ecuador and Peru), Scotland again to hike with a friend, and Italy with my family. I now live in El Salvador. I’m not rich monetarily; but I’m rich in experience. Travel itself will not fill emptiness in your life–it will not “fix” you. You can be filled in so many ways. Nevertheless, don’t settle for mundane. Keep pushing at the seams of life.

Here’s a link to my inactive blog that recounts my Europe trip in full: Go.

Finally, read it or don’t, but below is a final piece of warning/advice. Happy Saturday!

 

[Note: As I scan webpages here and there, I want to leave this warning/advice to any readers. Don’t commercialize travel. I hope that’s not what I’m doing by blogging about this. There are a zillion travel tips and organizations and resources (many of them helpful, many of them that I have used from time to time), but don’t lose the spirit of travel. It’s not an industry for some Fat Cat to get rich off of…feeding into the Western world’s dissatisfaction with life. Travel, done correctly, is painfully intimate–no one can understand your experience like you can. It is sublime. It is mysterious and soul-seeking. Stepping out, I mean really stepping out, was never meant to be a two-second affair, snapping off a bunch of photos and scampering back to safe and normal. Now, it’s okay to return to what the world might call “normal” because YOU know that you’re no longer normal, and you adjust your life accordingly. You bring that spirit of change and  new eyes back with you. I feel that I’m rambling a bit here; I don’t know how to put this into words. But I see some people’s travel posts and sites, etc. from time to time, and it seems that they are more interested in how their experiences are perceived by others rather than letting those moments be their own. Remember when Sean O’Connell in Walter Mitty explains that “If I like a moment, for me, personally, I don’t like to have the distraction of the camera…”? Leaving aside the irony of using a major Hollywood quote to make my point, let’s take a page out of O’Connell’s book and not feel the need to prostitute our moments, OUR OWN. Let’s pursue truth and beauty and self-discovery, not gimmicky tourism-industry shenanigans. I hope this makes sense. Thanks guys!]

Everyday Adventure

{I feel like every post lately starts with an apology. Here’s my last apology but hopefully not my last post for awhile. The reality is that I was a little over-ambitious when I began my blog, not factoring in my schedule (besides being a first-year teacher I’m finishing another degree online). Once my schedule clears up a bit, my posts will become more regular again. Thanks all!}

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…the girl 😉
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Chicago with my brother and my Salvadorian brother over Christmas break.
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sunset at Costa del Sol…it’s good to be back in El Salvador

 

 

La vida es bella.

Every day we wake up to a new sunrise and a new wind, a wind gathered among the airs and the comings and goings of an entire globe, accumulating and retracting and gathering and forming and transforming–touching our small little environments along its journey. And we are invited into the tears and smiles and burdens and triumphs and tragedies of that traveling breath–the wind is a speechless whisper, ever observant, ever moving–that passes over this beautiful, ugly little planet, a mere pinprick in the sea of stars and galaxies and universes.

Estoy feliz.

I am learning about contentment. For years I have been learning this lesson, and I will be its student until I die. St. Paul wrote to the Philippians that he had learned the secret of being content. That is a great, slippery secret. I have bounced around a lot. The temptation for adventurers and wanderers and travelers is to brag of their experiences… I know that temptation. The truth is, every new opportunity comes with tears. Every new opportunity brings with it the chance to be selfish and to make it all about ME. And every new opportunity punches me in the face, reminding me just how fragile I am and what the priorities of life are. Love God and love people–Jesus summarized in a few words what takes a lifetime to learn and fail and learn some more. I am learning to adapt. I am learning about contentment.

La vida es bella.

 

 

 

El Salvador: Birthdays

This past weekend was my birthday. I’m really close with my family, so it’s not always easy to be away from them during celebrations. However, living abroad has the unique advantage of celebrating in new ways.

First, my school department took me to El Zócalo, one of my favorite Mexican restaurants in El Salvador. I was donned with a sweet sombrero and cape as the waiters sang and brought me flan.

Second, three of my classes on Friday threw me a little party: cake, ice cream, soda, balloons, silly string, even a picture of me on the dry-erase board.

And I got a cake from my school department!

Also, I learned about a fun little tradition: “Mordida! Mordida! Mordida!” How it works is… well, if you don’t know, I’ll just let you experience that one for yourself.

Lastly, my other family came to my house Friday night, and we enjoyed homemade tacos, fun, and games.

All in all it was a wonderful birthday. So many people sang for me, brought me food, cooked me food, gave me gifts, and warmly wished me a “Feliz Cumpleaños.” Gracias a todos! Wonderful country. Wonderful people.

Poetry Wednesday: Abandoned Farmhouse

photo from Poetry Foundation

Ted Kooser, 2004 and 2005 US Poet Laureate, visited my small, Midwestern university back in 2009. Unfortunately I was not able to attend his poetry reading at the time. Nevertheless, I became slightly acquainted with his poetry.

Ted Kooser, born in 1939, is a pastoral, Midwestern poet of sorts. He focuses on rural landscapes and universal themes, and what makes him so powerful is his accessibility. In an age of obscurity, abstraction, and elitism in poetry, Kooser brings poetry back to the people. Perhaps Dana Gioia sums up Kooser best.

…unlike most of his peers he writes naturally for a nonliterary public. His style is accomplished but extremely simple—his diction drawn from common speech, his syntax conversational. His subjects are chosen from the everyday world of the Great Plains, and his sensibility, though more subtle and articulate, is that of the average Midwesterner. Kooser never makes an allusion that an intelligent but unbookish reader will not immediately grasp. There is to my knowledge no poet of equal stature who writes so convincingly in a manner the average American can understand and appreciate. -Can Poetry Matter

Here I share Ted Kooser’s “Abandoned Farmhouse” (1980). What might we discover if we came upon an abandoned farmhouse or any old building for that matter? What do we deduce without a word when we meet someone? What kind of burdens are they carrying? Perhaps Kooser’s poem does not exactly raise our spirits, but it helps us think about our lives and the symbols of our stuff.

He was a big man, says the size of his shoes
on a pile of broken dishes by the house;
a tall man too, says the length of the bed
in an upstairs room; and a good, God-fearing man,
says the Bible with a broken back
on the floor below the window, dusty with sun;
but not a man for farming, say the fields
cluttered with boulders and the leaky barn.

A woman lived with him, says the bedroom wall
papered with lilacs and the kitchen shelves
covered with oilcloth, and they had a child,
says the sandbox made from a tractor tire.
Money was scarce, say the jars of plum preserves
and canned tomatoes sealed in the cellar hole.
And the winters cold, say the rags in the window frames.
It was lonely here, says the narrow country road.

Something went wrong, says the empty house
in the weed-choked yard. Stones in the fields
say he was not a farmer; the still-sealed jars
in the cellar say she left in a nervous haste.
And the child? Its toys are strewn in the yard
like branches after a storm—a rubber cow,
a rusty tractor with a broken plow,
a doll in overalls. Something went wrong, they say.