I stumbled into the Tolkien novels as a teenager (in the 60’s). They were a gift from an Aunt and so collected dust on a shelf for a year or more. A virus turned me into a shut-in for a short season, and I dusted them off out of sheer boredom. I extended my illness for a couple of weeks until the whole series was finished. It was a journey into another world, one that had a way of changing the world I lived in. There were no elves that suddenly appeared nor was there an army of orcs invading my town. But there was an ache that I felt as I read that seemed to match an ache in my life. It took some years to discover the connection.
People have told stories from the earliest days of our existence. We do not have the words of the earliest stories, but we have seen their illustrations, recorded on the walls of caves. No one knows what how the stories went, but they seem to have involved animals. The beauty of those animals tells us that the stories included wonder.
People have a way of seeing the world as a story. Israel was God’s chosen people, whose very presence in their land was an on-going saga of purpose. The Greeks had the Iliad and the Odyssey that described their own lives as intertwined with the gods. Poor Rome, lacking a great story, found its voice in the Aeneid, a work of pure fiction written into the ancient Greek stories, and imagining Rome as a new inheritor of that divine drama.
We live in a story that calls itself the “modern world.” It is about the “time” we live in. It invented terms such as the “Classical Period,” the “Dark Ages,” and the “Middle Ages,” naming history in such a way that it inevitably yielded modernity. It is the story of progress and evolution, not the unfolding of a divine plan, but the successive work of increasing understanding, science and compassion.
It is not surprising that the “modern” world plays host to a growing number of people who identify as atheists or non-religious. The narrative of modernity has no place for religion, other than a condescending tolerance for people who “like that sort of thing.” Religion is frequently cast as the villain of the “Middle Ages,” and, thus, something that does not belong to our own day and age.
Of course, the narrative that is the story of modernity is fictional. It’s power and strength come from repetition. Modernity did not end war; human suffering has changed but not disappeared; prosperity has come to some but very unevenly; democracy has created universal suffrage to little or no effect; human dignity is a popular slogan, but largely without content. Has the world truly left behind superstition and ignorance in an ageless march towards a consumer paradise?
Modernity is only a story: it is a narrative disguised as history. The emptiness and pointlessness of the modern narrative begs for questions. I suspect it’s why our hearts ache from time to time and dream of Hobbits. The narrative of Middle Earth, though fictional, has a transcendent meaning and purpose, something that calls for the deepest courage and makes every sacrifice to be significant. That Mordor and Isengard both embody elements of the industrial revolution, endangering even the Shire, are not accidental. They intentionally represent the flaws of modernity. Tolkien’s mythology imagines that such forces can be defeated.
In Tolkien’s world, the characters of Sauron and Saruman make it easy to discern the dark and evil hand behind the engines of change. The diffuse and hidden character of modern powers, masked by the institutions that claim legitimacy, presents only the face of propaganda, the relentless cry of freedom, human liberation and prosperity. There is no spiritual center. Modernity offers freedom for an unknown purpose, liberation for the latest popular cause and a prosperity whose banality mocks the public welfare. The very same mantra has also given the world weapons of mass destruction and placed them in the hands of madmen (including our own). War has become a ceaseless business unlike anything in human history.
The most insidious part of the modern world order is its claim to normalcy. Its myth of progressive history casts modernity as the “natural” outcome of historical processes, something that is inevitable. It ignores and obscures the clear philosophical commitments that underpin it that are arbitrary and anything but “natural.” Its account of the world as a self-existing, secularized neutral-zone, in which any reference to God or transcendent values are viewed as suspect, is contrary to the human instinct of every era and time. Worse still, modernity’s narrative hides the economic and political powers that manipulate the present order, describing them as “market forces,” or other purely natural processes.
The genius of Tolkien’s Shire was its ability to live as though the larger world need not trouble their way of life. Of course, there were guardians who made that possible. There comes a time when even the guardians cannot stand against the opposing powers. The defeat of those powers depended not on a reply in kind – one of force and power. It depended on the very virtues forged in the Shire itself: kindness, comradeship, an ability to endure, and, above all, the love of something greater than power. That alone made the journey towards Mount Doom possible.
The technological consumerism of modernity is not the stuff of paradise, even though it advertises itself as such. The Shire is much closer to a proper ideal. Life is not made for managing but for living. It is this tender reality that whispers to the hearts of modern folk when they pick up Tolkien. It is not a demand that there be no technology, but that the spiritual center of the world be restored. We do not need to become Hobbits. We do need, however, to return to being human.