NewsWire: The Spirit of Fantasy: 'Lord of the Rings' fervor might lead readers to other authors of fairy - Detroit Free Press
Thanks to Rick P. for the heads up on this article!
The Spirit of Fantasy: 'Lord of the Rings' fervor might lead readers to other authors of fairy
by David Crumm
Detroit Free Press - May 14, 2001
There's far more to "The Lord of the Rings" -- already shaping up as the blockbuster movie of the year -- than hobbits, elves, wizards and monsters.
J.R.R. Tolkien's epic novels were part of a hugely successful experiment among a group of British friends to explore the deepest spiritual questions of their age through fantasies that captured the hearts of countless readers.
Just as Tolkien's publisher is bracing for his hottest year ever, 28 years after the author's death -- so are the publishers of Tolkien's friends, who dubbed their literary circle the Inklings.
It's a stunning forecast, considering that "The Lord of the Rings" already has sold more than 150 million copies worldwide and "The Chronicles of Narnia," a seven-volume fantasy by Tolkien's close friend C.S. Lewis, has sold more than 65 million copies.
This year, even fantasies by the lesser-known Inkling, Charles Williams, and the spiritual mentor to the Inklings, George MacDonald, published by Grand Rapids-based Eerdmans, are expected to sell well.
Recently, HarperSanFrancisco and Grand Rapids-based Zondervan, which are sister companies, cut a multimillion-dollar deal to issue new editions of nine fiction and nonfiction books by Lewis. HarperSanFrancisco will blanket secular bookstores and Zondervan will stock Christian bookstores.
"These books remain so fresh to readers today that Lewis' readership definitely is expanding," says HarperSanFrancisco publisher Stephen Hanselman.
The movie connection is likely to boost them all, says Phyllis Tickle, contributing editor at Publishers Weekly. But their growing popularity is larger than the film.
"These numbers are very, very, very large," says Clay Harper, a spokesman for Tolkien's publisher, Houghton Mifflin. "It would be very difficult to find any other fictional work in the 20th Century that has sold at the level of Tolkien's novels.
"Tolkien certainly has become the great and cherished crown jewel at Houghton Mifflin."
And Lewis' continued popularity, 38 years after his death, also "is absolutely show-stopping amazing," says Tickle. "After all these years, this old Oxford don still takes people's breath away. He has opened up a whole new corridor into faith for so many people.
"I could read Lewis' story about a group of children walking through the back of an enchanted wardrobe a thousand times and still enjoy it. They come out of the wardrobe in a whole different world. For me, going through the wardrobe is a much better image than Alice falling down a rabbit hole. For me, the wardrobe is a beautiful image of how a person passes in and out of prayer."
Millions of Americans are attracted to the Inklings' idea that the vast spiritual realm can only be explored when the imagination is set free, says Tickle.
In 2002, PBS is planning a four-hour documentary, "The Search for Meaning," that will explore the theories of Sigmund Freud and Lewis as two of the 20th Century's greatest thinkers.
"Freud is probably the primary spokesman for the secular or materialist world view in the 20th Century, and Lewis is the primary spokesman for the spiritual world view that Freud attacks," says Dr. Armand Nicholi, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School whose studies of Freud and Lewis are the basis for the PBS series.
What has fascinated Nicholi and millions of readers is Lewis' spiritual journey -- aided by Tolkien and the Inklings -- from his early years as an outspoken atheist to a later career as his century's greatest Christian apologist.
Appropriately, Lewis' conversion came about partly because of the love of myths.
One evening in 1931, Tolkien, Lewis and another Inkling, Hugo Dyson, took a stroll along a stream near Oxford University, where the men discussed their lifelong fascination with myths.
It was sad, Lewis declared, to think that classic tales of courage, beauty, sacrifice and virtue are all untrue and ultimately worthless, recalls Lewis' biographer Humphrey Carpenter in "The Inklings."
Then, Tolkien stopped his skeptical friend cold by forcefully arguing: No! They are not lies! Myths contain great spiritual truths.
Lewis recalled later in a letter to a friend that, at that moment, there was "a rush of wind which came so suddenly on the still, warm evening and sent so many leaves pattering down that we thought it was raining. We held our breaths."
That night sparked a revolution in Lewis' thought. If myths could contain real spiritual truths, then perhaps the mythic stories about Jesus might contain truths. Eventually, Lewis became one of Christianity's greatest defenders.
It was as if the Oxford professor of literature had stepped through an ordinary wardrobe -- a wooden clothes closet -- into an exciting new spiritual realm.
A wardrobe became the most famous metaphor in "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," an early volume in his Narnia tales in which a group of English children discover a fantasy world that rivals Tolkien's Middle Earth.
Lewis and Tolkien wrote many books, but their most imaginative novels blossomed in the early 1950s, when Lewis published his Narnia tales and Tolkien produced "The Lord of the Rings."
The novels contain many characters and plot twists that their fans consider an explicit reflection of Christianity.
For Tolkien, the story of Jesus is echoed when the wizard Gandalf heroically sacrifices his life, then reappears in a resurrected body even more powerful than his original human form. In the Narnia tales, the sacrificial hero is the lion Aslan.
But these stories are far deeper than mere paint-by-number allegories, argues poet Kathleen Norris, whose own more recent memoirs, such as "Cloister Walk" and "Amazing Grace," have become spiritual best-sellers.
"Like all really great literature, Tolkien and Lewis really are most concerned about the question of good and evil," says Norris.
"One of the most marvelous things about Tolkien's stories is that evil is not all-powerful. Yes, it has lots of tricks, but it does not hold the winning hand. And Lewis gives us that sense in Narnia, too. Evil is revealed for what it is: dangerous, troubling and tricky -- but not all-powerful."
At Wheaton College in Illinois, the wooden wardrobe believed to have inspired Lewis' metaphor is preserved in a new, multimillion-dollar research center and museum dedicated to the Inklings. On Sept. 8, the Marion Wade Center is scheduled for dedication. Thousands of Inklings fans are expected to make pilgrimages to its exhibits.
"Tolkien said it clearly that he believed literature should infuse people with hope," says Jerry Root, who teaches courses on the Inklings at Wheaton.
That's why the writers remain so popular, decades after their deaths, says Root.
"People today are underdeveloped spiritually. They're famished," he says. "And these authors are deeply in touch with the spiritual side of life -- but not mere spirituality. It's spirituality with real substance.... They say to us: How can anybody look with an imaginative eye and not see a world that is infused with the divine?"