In Puerto Rico last month, Darrow mentioned something about one of his “favorite books,” Tree and Leaf by Tolkien. I had never heard of this book but came home and ordered it. Now I have a new favorite book. In Tree and Leaf, the creator of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings establishes why fantasy is a legitimate vehicle for communicating truth.
When Tolkien wrote Tree and Leaf he had recently begun the Lord of the Rings. “At about that time we had reached Bree,” he writes in the introduction to Tree and Leaf, “and I had then no more notion than [the hobbits] had of what had become of Gandalf or who Strider was; and I had begun to despair of surviving to find out.” All who appreciate Tolkien’s craft in The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings will find Tree and Leaf of interest; some will find it compelling, even ravishing.
I used the word “creator” to describe Tolkien’s role as writer. His own term of choice, “sub-creator,” highlights one his key beliefs: when authors write, they demonstrate their imago Dei nature. “Fantasy remains a human right; we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.” 57
To write a story is to create a world. To the degree that that world is infused with truth, the story is speaking forth a miniature, imperfect echo of the massive, perfect world created by God. Thus to write such a story is to be like God. This means gifted writers have opportunity to use their craft to infuse society with elements of kingdom culture—truth, goodness, and beauty. Some will find ways to proclaim the biblical message that a transcendent yet immanent God who made the universe is renewing that creation, now stained by human sin, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Those of particular skill—Tolkien is perhaps the paradigm—can use fantasy to weave truth together into a fabric of such alluring beauty that multitudes are taken in, unaware that their defenses have been devastated.
This is an argument for fantasy, for all story, as a vehicle for truth. Why do we enjoy a story? Why should humans so readily get caught up in a narrative? As a preacher, I have seen faces light up, sometimes listeners literally scoot up in their chairs, when they realize they are about to hear a story. Tolkien believes this universal fascination is rooted in what some theologians have called the “God-shaped vacuum” in the heart of every human. No wonder narrative is the most used genre of the Bible, 40 percent of the Old Testament alone.
Tolkien points out that writers of fantasy succeed to the degree that they create worlds in which the reality comports with the ultimate reality as established by the one divine Author of all that is real. The world of The Hobbit is real to the writer, the reader, and the characters. The broad appeal of Tolkien’s fantasies testifies to the power of this genre to teach truth.
Where that truth takes the reader is fodder for another blog post, but here’s a brief introduction. Many of our readers are aware that Tolkien heavily influenced his friend C.S. Lewis. If you read Tree and Leaf you may recognize a thread Lewis picks up in his essay, The Weight of Glory.
Apparently, then, our life-long nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation.
… We want something else which can hardly be put into words—to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it. … if we take the imagery of Scripture seriously, if we believe that God will one day give us the Morning Star and cause us to put on the splendour of the sun, then we may surmise that both the ancient myths and the modern poetry, so false as history, may be very near the truth as prophecy. The Weight of Glory, 16-17 [emphasis added].
- Gary Brumbelow