One thing the internet has shown us quite clearly is that everyone wants to be heard. No one understands this desire better than authors. The opposite end of the spectrum has also been exposed through the power of message boards, blogs, fan sites, Goodreads and Amazon.com reviews: You think too much.
I read a book about Tolkien’s Ordinary Virtues. It was a nice, straight-to-the-point book that pointed out, positively, virtues in actions and deeds of Tolkien’s characters. Reading this book, it is clear that Mark Eddy Smith LOVES Tolkien with a capital L.O.V.E. I can totally Grok that. The book, though short, was a nice homage to the King of the Fantasy genre and suitable for a woman who got caught up in Harry Potter fan sites when the books first started to roll out.
Having enjoyed this bit of hero worship, I moved onto another:The Gospel According To Tolkien. The introduction announced that the writer was a professor. This is usually a cry akin to: “You must pay attention to me, I have a degree,” which we hear every day on any given news channel, but I let it pass. After all, Tolkien was a professor. Sure, he didn’t announce it to everyone while trying to sell the Hobbit. “I’m a professor and I know about these things,” coming from the same man who wrote “Elves and Dragons? Cabbages and potatoes are better for the likes of you and me,” would seem a little bipolar. Besides, it’s fantasy. There are no experts on elves and dragons. Not yet, anyway. But if people like Ralph Wood have anything to do with it, there will be.
The book starts out sluggishly proclaiming that Tolkien’s characters give light and hope to a dying, perverse world. Whoa! Heavy. It moves on to compare Gandalf, Aragorn, Frodo, Glorifindel and Tom Bombadil to the Savior.
Tom Bombadil? Really?
Maybe Tolkien was just trying to tell the story in his head. This story started with a hobbit and it went on and on, just like Bilbo’s song. Most authors aren’t trying to convert you to Christianity, or teach you about the seven virtues. Even those who are, like CS Lewis, admitted his Narnia story was meant like a parable. Those who couldn’t see an allegory would enjoy the fantasy story. But unlike Lewis, most authors are just trying to tell a story.
It really is that simple.
The problem with dissecting stories, trying to figure out what an author is trying to teach you, is that you lose the beauty of the story in the process. Sometimes you even force the author to lose the story.
Harry Potter started out simple, beautiful and clear. It ended up complicated, long, dark and unclear. I blame this as much on fans who were constantly trying to unravel the secret meanings of every painting and ghost at Hogwarts as on the author, who was trying to out-think them.
When you are an author, you shouldn’t be thinking too much. Likewise as a reader. The truths in the story will reveal themselves to you in personal ways. This is why Jesus taught in parables. Some people simply enjoyed the story and left it at that. Others, like the apostles, were touched by the truths and inspired to live better lives. It was the Pharisee’s (the professors of their time) that were confounded and couldn’t admit it to the public.
Whether an author or a reader, one thing is true for enjoying a story (either told or written): Try not to think too much about it. After all: “God made man because he loves stories.” (Elie Wiesel, from an old Hasidic proverb below)
When the founder of Hasidic Judaism, the great Rabbi Israel Shem Tov, saw misfortune threatening the Jews, it was his custom to go into a certain part of the forest to meditate. There he would light a fire, say a special prayer, and the miracle would be accomplished and the misfortune averted. Later, when his disciple, the celebrated Maggid of Mezeritch, had occasion, for the same reason, to intercede with heaven, he would go to the same place in the forest and say: “Master of the Universe, listen! I do not know how to light the fire, but I am still able to say the prayer,” and again the miracle would be accomplished. Still later, Rabbi Moshe-leib of Sasov, in order to save his people once more, would go into the forest and say, “I do not know how to light the fire. I do not know the prayer, but I know the place, and this must be sufficient.” It was sufficient, and the miracle was accomplished. Then it fell to Rabbi Israel of Rizhin to overcome misfortune. Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands, he spoke to
God: “I am unable to light the fire, and I do not know the prayer, andI cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is to tell the story, and this must be sufficient.” And it was sufficient. For God made man because He loves stories