I am a huge fan of Lord of the Rings and J.R.R. Tolkien. I know not everyone is and I promise not “geek out” too much about my Middle Earth fandom here where I spend most of time writing about faith in the midst of chronic pain, but some of you love this kind of stuff, so I am going to indulge a little bit today (and I’m still going to connect it to chronic pain)!
I recently finished a book by Daniel Day about Tolkien’s inspirations for his dark villains of Middle Earth. It was a short and fascinating read with incredible artwork throughout. Though I had read all of Tolkien’s Middle Earth books twice, I had never looked more deeply into the world of myth that inspired him. I was so inspired that the next book I bought was a book about Norse mythology.
Tolkien weaved together so many stories, peoples, and characters from mythology, one would be tempted to view his Lord of the Rings work as derivative. But the genius of Tolkien is that he made a better mythology than his source material, and he made it his own. Of course, as a devout Catholic, he also weaved in biblical themes and symbolism, because he believed that all stories were ultimately derivative of the greatest story.
Lately, I’ve found myself wanting to be lost in the world of fantasy, yes, even the world of myth. Is fantasy, as Tolkien conceived it, simply a world to which we can retreat to escape our pain? No, I don’t think so. Tolkien’s Middle Earth was full of pain, suffering, and death, just like ours. Heroes risked and experienced suffering and death in their battle against evil. In fact, even characters (like Frodo) who did not meet their ultimate demise, accepted death as inevitable to complete their quest.
I don’t think it is escapism that draws me into Tolkien’s world. I think it is meaning that pulls me in. I see something of our own struggle against the pain and evil of this world in the heroic stories of Frodo, Sam, Bilbo, Aragorn, et al. I am inspired that Tolkien’s characters saw their world was worth fighting for even in the midst of their darkest threats.
And maybe you think that doesn’t matter because it is a fictional world, but the best works of fiction echo the real world. We are caught up in an epic battle between good and evil. Everyday people decide where they will stand. Everyday people decide what they are willing to die for. Everyday people look doggedly for the meaning in their existence and in their world.
Who needs the belief in the reality of meaning and the story of good ultimately prevailing more than those who suffer with chronic pain? I need all the stories I can get that remind of the ultimate story. A story in which God himself heroically offered his life over to the forces of evil in what seemed like certain defeat for all goodness and truth. A story where even death itself could not hold down the Son of God.
That story is not a myth. But Tolkien’s mythological world helps me see that ultimate story in new ways. I will never tire of hanging out in Middle Earth. On my darkest days, it is still a place where I can find light. It is a place where I am reminded that pain and suffering are not things in themselves. They are simply the absence of good. Since good will prevail, pain and suffering will disappear when evil is vanquished. I will embrace every opportunity to be reminded of that glorious truth, even in the literary world of fantasy.