Tolkien, Lewis, and Smallness
I had the privilege last month to present the $500 award, sponsored by Homeschool Connections, for The Tolkien, Lewis, and Friends High School Essay Contest at The Center for Faith & Culture (Aquinas College in Nashville, TN). I thoroughly enjoyed spending the weekend with this year’s winner Lydia Martin and her family. Lydia is a homeschool senior and hopes to join the Dominican Sisters in Nashville. Her essay is almost as delightful as the author herself. I hope you’ll enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed listening to it at the Tolkien and Lewis Celebration. ~ Maureen Wittmann
Lewis and Tolkien’s fiction and fantasy works, by the mere fact of being fiction and fantasy, are often mistaken for escapist literature. Actually, there is a key difference between the writings of these two authors and escapism. While the events and even the worlds they describe are fictional, and while they do not have a moral, in the ordinary sense of a point the author is pushing, what they portray is nothing less than an understanding and reflection of truth. One of the chief ways they do this is through their portrayal of little things. Both Tolkien and Lewis create whole and glorious worlds which are rooted in littleness and humility, and by being so provide an avenue of truth by which the reader finds a different kind of escape, right into the world of reality.
In Tolkien’s Middle Earth, the most obvious place for littleness is the Shire. Everything about the Shire is little: little people, houses so low that they prefer to be underground entirely, and the quiet, childlike pursuits of its inhabitants. The hobbits’ most steady concern is food, as Tolkien tells us, “growing… and eating it occupied most of their time.” They are fond of bright colors, and parties, and presents, very much like most children. “Book learning” is not particularly important to them, and some never bother learning to read at all. Instead “they love peace and quiet and good tilled earth: a well ordered and well-farmed countryside.” The Shire is not a Utopia, but even hobbit quarrels tend to be small, like the petty feud between the Sackville-Bagginses and Bagginses of Bag End, the cheerful contempt for “foreigners,” or the distrust applied to hobbits from other regions within the Shire itself. Hobbits are neither angels nor heroes, but little people minding their own business and loving life.
This basic love for the good things acts as a foundation for the hobbits’ spiritual growth. When Frodo first leaves the Shire he has no idea that he will become a savior for elves and men. He only thinks of protecting his beloved homeland. The other hobbits go with even less comprehension of the overarching dangers, either to themselves or others, but follow him on strong hobbit principles of friendship and family. Because their love is for things that are close and concrete, it has substance rather than being an illusionary admiration of distant things, as abstract love tends to be. Small though it may be, the solid reality of their love enables it to grow. As Merry says in The Return of the King:
It is best to love first what you are fitted to love, I suppose: you must start somewhere and have some roots, and the soil of the Shire is deep. Still there are things deeper and higher; and not a gaffer could tend his garden in what he calls peace but for them, whether he knows about them or not. I am glad that I know them, a little.
The understanding and love for what is small and hidden gives perspective to and understanding of big things. Frodo learns not only to love the Shire from a distance, but to recognize his call to work for the ultimate defeat of the Enemy. As Gandalf told him, he was “meant” to bear the Ring, and he opens himself up to this meaning. Merry and Pippin pledge their allegiances to Rohan and Gondor in addition to their own Shire and their cousin Frodo. Sam is willing to carry on and finish the quest, even without his master. Their deep roots in humble things make these little and apparently inconsequential people a deadly threat to the greatness of the Dark Lord himself.
Yet this thread of humility, the appreciation of the small, and particularly the understanding of one’s own littleness, is also shown in the things “higher and deeper,” than the Hobbits. Gandalf, one of the greatest beings in Middle Earth, hides his power behind tattered grey and occupies himself in lonely journeys. He watches, and waits, and protects, never demanding personal attention. More than his outward un-ostentation, he knows that his power is limited, or rather, that he himself is limited. He refuses the Ring because he knows that he has the potential for very great power, but he also knows that because of that potential, the Ring would overcome and rule him, to the ruin of all. Aragorn, Elrond, Galadriel, and Faramir have the same realization of their own limited abilities in the face of great evil and similarly reject the Ring. Paradoxically, their understanding of their own weakness allows them to remain in control of their free will instead of being possessed by the Ring. Their weakness is their strength.
Others are not so humble. Boromir believes in his pride that, while elves and wizards may be corrupted by the Ring and thus must reject it completely, he will not be. He has a passion to save Middle Earth, particularly his own Gondor, as do the rest. The difference is that he believes that he, personally, has the strength and purity of character to withstand the Ring and bend its colossal evil to good. Ironically, this pride in his own honor as a “truehearted man” is the foothold in his nature which the Ring exploits, leading him to break his honor and attack a companion. Saruman falls in a similar way. He has all the trappings of power and glory, and is the head of the White Counsel. Everything about him seems strong and wise and good. Yet, while he is surrounded by the apparent security of Isengard, he oversteps his strength and is seduced by Sauron’s lies and his own desire for power. By believing in their own immunity to temptation and the absolute inviolable strength of their wills, they fall.
The Enemy, the Dark Lord himself, lives in the hugeness of his own evil. His realm of Mordor is a vast and blasted waste, a desert of rock and ash and craters. He has millions of orcs at his command. He holds many of the southern and eastern countries as allies or slaves. His first major appearance into history occurred during the First Age, as the greatest servant of Morgoth, the Great Enemy, and by the War of the Ring, he had replaced his master and been The Enemy for about 6000 years. He holds mighty Gondor constantly at bay, and continues to send out evil into the northern lands which Gondor and Rohan cannot wholly check. He wraps himself in the darkness and shows his power in destruction. He wishes to overawe, overwhelm, overpower, overmassMiddle Earth with his crushing enormity.
It is interesting to note, amid all of Sauron’s graspings at greatness, that the Ring is “so small a thing.” Much of its danger lies in its innocent appearance. It seems to be just a plain gold ring. Its victims are lulled into a false sense of security, because it seems at once harmless and beautiful. When it drives them to deeds of madness and evil, as it does to Boromir and Gollum, and as it tries to do with Bilbo, they are caught off guard. It is Sauron’s great gamble, into which he poured a great measure of his strength. It was made in imitation of, and in order to gain mastery over, the other Rings of Power, which the elves made to be sources of good. Sauron comes closest to victory by trusting his strength to the One Ring, a very little thing, “the trifle which Sauron fancies.” Though littleness may be a foundation for humility, as it is for the hobbits, humility is something more than that. It is a dependence and an opening of the heart to goodness and truth which are lacking there. Thus the Ring is only a counterfeit and can be overcome by true humility.
Like Tolkien, Lewis makes his understanding of humility integral to his work, yet he draws it out more emphatically. Tolkien’s use of littleness is very subtle, like the laws of physics or gravity, which are perceptible without being visible. Lewis makes a visible theme of it, like the rising sun.
In the last book of the Space Trilogy, That Hideous Strength, Lewis uses this theme to great effect. Jane and Mark are a newly wedded couple, and they begin with very high opinions of themselves. Jane prides herself on being very sensible, modern, and scientific. Mark piques himself on being in the “inner circle” of his college, the “Progressive Element.” When they encounter problems, their vanity prevents them from seeking help and support from one another. They are afraid of the vulnerability involved in acknowledging their own insufficiency to face challenges alone. Jane’s opinion of herself is shattered when she suddenly develops the most un-modern, un-scientific psychic dreams. The only way to deal with her visions is to trust others and depend on them as she earlier refused to depend on her own husband. She recognizes goodness, and makes herself subservient to it, even though she does not fully understand it. Mark’s vanity, on the other hand, rests less on his intellectual abilities than on his social ones. He is attracted to worldly power and constantly curries favor with whoever appears to have it. This eventually leads him into the N.I.C.E., a huge corporation which is taking over the world in the name of progress and development. Only when faced with death does he realize how petty his pride has been, and he tries to reject it. Instead of being able to do so, he finds himself assaulted by demonic temptations to accept an invitation to “the true inner ring… the ultimate secret, the supreme power, the last initiation,” to surrender himself to the arcane. In the face of this overwhelming evil which he has hitherto unconsciously desired and sought, he recognizes that, like it or not, he is horribly vulnerable. He doesn’t believe in God, but he calls out to all that he knows of Goodness, as he has found it in his wife, and in certain friends from long ago, and asks for defense from the evil that is too big for him. He chooses to be vulnerable to goodness rather than evil. To be little is to be dependent, and when Jane and Mark, in their own separate ways, realize that they are little and depend on a higher good than themselves, they humbly submit to it. This dependence on the Ultimate Good enables them to grow into their own individual persons and successfully resist evil.
In the Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis’s main characters are not merely childlike, they are children, and the rest of Narnia is peopled with animals and mythological creatures, which are humble in their own way. It is a child’s world, which is another way of saying that it is the sort of world grown-ups need, because it is so little. The Narnians are little creatures: dwarves and satyrs, fauns, naiads, dryads, and talking animals. Their littleness, especially that of the animals, rests ultimately in the fact that they are not men. In Narnia they have been raised from the status of servants to subjects, but Lewis tells us that “Narnia was never right except when a Son of Adam was King.” Even when they are a little conceited, like Pattertwig and the other squirrels, or simply oversensitive, like Reepicheep, they remain at root humble in accepting the dominion of Man. Man is the king and crown of creation, and in Narnia, understanding this fact, animals and men have a much clearer understanding of their relations to one another under Aslan than most men and beasts in this world.
Of course, there are also giants, but the giants in Narnia manage to illustrate humility as well as the smaller creatures. The good giants are always very simple-minded, like Giant Wimbleweather in Prince Caspian, or Rumblebuffin in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The clever giants, for some reason, are always bad. Taken in context with the general attitude towards humility, the logical reason is because the combination of physical and mental power has gone to their heads and they live only for themselves
The children themselves often have to struggle to accept their childhood. Lucy, the youngest child in the whole series (not even yet in boarding school like the others), is the discoverer, and her older siblings refuse to believe her. When they return to Narnia again in Prince Caspian, it is she who first sees Aslan, and she who first obeys him, when the others neither see him, nor believe her. In both cases, she, as the youngest, the least, is the most receptive to Aslan, because she is the most willing to forget herself. When Aslan tells her that it is time for her to live and learn entirely in her own world, Lucy remembers the lessons she learned in Narnia, and above all remembers Him. By doing so, she finds Him in this world also, and is eventually allowed to return. Her sister Susan does the opposite. From the beginning Susan is always trying to act grown-up. She disbelieves Lucy, and then listens to her fears and chooses her own way, the logical, sensible, grown-up way, even when she knows Lucy is right. By continuing her vanity (in many ways like Mark’s), she loses Narnia. She crushes her ability to believe what she once knew, and is eventually left behind in England, alone. Where Lucy is willing to be little and open, Susan attempts to be independent and shuts herself off from anything which threatens to disturb her world.
When Eustace first comes to Narnia, he has a similar problem. He is full of himself, always trying to show off or act superior. In reality, he knows very little about anything worthwhile, and he can’t comprehend the Narnian world. He dislikes and distrusts his companions and is only attracted to the wealth and haughtiness of Calormen, the nemesis of Narnia and all that it stands for. On Dragon Island, he secretly gathers treasure for himself and plans to escape with it to Calormen, where he will be self-sufficient. He is punished for his greed and pride by being changed into a dragon. As a dragon, he is as powerful and self-sufficient as he could wish, but he suddenly realizes that he would prefer to be small, and in harmony with the people who all along have tried to be his friends. He tries to help his companions as best he can in his new body, and his change of heart is tested when Aslan leads him to a magical pool. The lion tells him to “undress,” that is, take off his dragon skin, before he gets into the water. Eustace is unable to do so because there is a new skin beneath each one he removes. He swallows his fear and allows Aslan to do it for him. Through his dependence, a very beautiful thing happens to him, which happens in other ways both in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth and in our own world. He becomes himself again.
It is one of the paradoxes of the spiritual world that a person becomes most himself when he surrenders himself in love. “Whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Lewis’s works are not strictly allegory, in the sense of each thing being intended to represent something from our world. As Lewis explained in a letter to some children who asked about this, his idea about the representative aspect was “let us suppose that there were a land like Narnia and that the Son of God, as He became a man in our world, became a Lion there, and then imagine what would happen.” In the same way, Tolkien did not make his world a parallel or a copy, but a precursor. The reason that humility is glorified in all three worlds is because the same basics of the moral and theological world apply to all. All three worlds have the same God. Tolkien and Lewis’s mythological worlds were less translations of this world than rhapsodies on truth and beauty set to dovetail reality. Both authors, like Tolkien’s elves, put the thought of all that they loved into all that they make, and as God was their greatest love, He also shaped and influenced every aspect of their works.
Tolkien and Lewis understood and applied humility in their works as the virtue touchstone with reality and with God. They show delight at and appreciation for the simple things of everyday life, as one finds in Narnia and the Shire. They also remind the reader that he is living in a world full of both danger and adventure, filled with things bigger and stronger than himself. There is nothing wrong with being smaller than the things we face; in fact, victory often comes through the little things. Most importantly, the little things are good because they come from the Ultimate Good, the one who stands behind all music and all stories, all heroes and all worlds. All things depend on Him, and the good ones are good because they accept their littleness and become who He made them to be.
J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, Prologue Concerning Hobbits.
(Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1982) pgs 18, 10
Tolkien, The Return of the King.
edition, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1993) pg 142.
The Fellowship of the Ring, 414
The Fellowship of the Ring,
C. S. Lewis, Prince Caspian
. (Harper-Collins, New York, 1979) pg 69.
Lyle W. Dorsett and Marjorie Lamp Mead, C. S. Lewis, Letters to Children
. (Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, 1985) pg 45, a letter to Fifth Graders from Maryland.