Feb 5, 2013

Exploring the Virtues in Tolkien and Lewis

Both J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were godly men and their writing was informed by their faith. Although not always evident to everyone or plain in all of their stories, they crafted their characters and worlds to reveal the virtues of the Christian life. It is more obvious in the work of Lewis, whose fiction works clearly represent Biblical stories and virtues. Tolkien's work is more often praised for the depth of the fantasy world that he created. Unfortunately, many have chosen to obsess over the characters and the world itself and not examine the virtue, or lack thereof, built into his characters. In his book On the Shoulders of Hobbits, Louis Markos examines the virtues behind the stories and characters. He shows how the faith of Tolkien and Lewis undergird the stories of Middle-Earth and Narnia. Markos divides his book into four main sections with four chapters each. The four main sections are the Road, the Classical Virtues, the Theological Virtues, and Evil. In each chapter, he primarily discusses how The Lord of the RingsThe Hobbit, and The Chronicles of Narnia portray the particular virtue or, in the case of evil, the lack of virtue.
Markos begins with the Road. While itself is not a virtue, this is an appropriate place to start when discussing the virtues in the world of story. All good stories begin with a hero being swept up into some sort of journey. This is especially true of Tolkien's works (he even wrote a poem about the Road). The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings begin with a hobbit (or hobbits) leaving their shire on a journey. Markos rightly explains that all of us are called to take to the road and live out some sort of journey. Although our journey may not be as life threatening as those the Lewis and Tolkien write about, we all have to answer the call to live out the journey set before us.

The heart and meat of this book is found in parts two, three, and four. In sections two and three, Markos expounds how the seven virtues, four cardinal and three theological, are found in the work of Tolkien and Lewis. In the cardinal virtues, Markos does a fantastic job of revealing the characteristics of various characters in Middle-Earth and Narnia and the virtues that they portray. I particularly enjoy his exploration of wisdom and how wisdom and knowledge are not one in the same. Markos shows the differences between the wisdom and discernment of Gandalf and Saruman's quest for knowledge and power. He explains that Saruman's quest for power gives him great knowledge of evil and he gains great power, but Saruman's quest is ultimately folly because he quest for power blinds him to the fact that he is merely a pawn of Sauron. Gandalf, however, understands the wisdom of destroying the ring and not trying to better understand it and wield its power. 

The next part focuses on the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. Markos adds to this list friendship. This is, on one hand understandable, because of key role that friendship plays in Lord of the Rings and in many of the Narnia tales. On the other hand, it seems a bit odd that Markos seeks to add to the theological virtues. Looking at the table of contents, it appears that he was merely seeking for symmetry in his four sections to have four chapters. That being said, it is a well written chapter on the importance of friendship both in the lives of the authors and their works. Following friendship, he discusses faith, hope, and love. Compared to the section on the cardinal virtues, this is the weaker of the two discussions of the virtues. Primarily, I was disappointed with his section on faith. Instead of discussion the deep trust in faith that requires, primarily focuses on the meaning of the Greek word Kairos and how the council of Eldrond was a "Kairos" moment that called the characters to faith. 

Finally, Markos finishes with a discussion of evil, which might seem a little out of place, but fits in perfectly to round off this discussion. Not surprisingly, Lewis and Tolkien show a similar understanding of the nature of evil in the world. Neither of them consider evil or any evil power capable of creating anything. They are merely twisting and warping that which is good into evil. Markos explains that the "opposites" of the virtues, are not really opposites. Evil only has the power to steal, kill, and destroy what is good, it has no creative power. This is important in the real world because we need to see that God is the source of life and is more powerful that evil. It takes what God has created and twists, warps, and destroys. What may seem powerful to us, ultimately has no power over the Creator. The vices are not the opposite of the virtues, but merely a twisting of them.

Normally, I don't write reviews this long, but I am very pleased with this book and enjoy talking about this subject. Even though I have offered a few critiques, I believe that this is a fantastic book and a must read for anyone wanting to delve deeper into the writings of Tolkien and Lewis. I wish that Markos would have ventured more into The Silmarillion and into some of Lewis's other fiction works (primarily the Space Trilogy), but that would likely make this a much larger book. As it is now, it is very approachable for anyone who appreciates Lewis and Tolkien. For someone like me who wants more, Markos includes a list of books about Tolkien and books about Lewis for further study. If you like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, which most people do, read this book. It will help you appreciate their books and understand them as not just fantasy books, but as works of devout Christian men expressing their faith.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Moody Publishers as part of their book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
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