Sunday, 27 February 2011

Do Hobbits go to Heaven?

People look upon the same world but see different things, they live through the same events but experience them differently, they meet the same people but have different reactions to them. This is principally due to their differences in social background, education, race, religion, etc. All these factors provide a different hermeneutic framework for interpreting reality and come together to form a narrative of the world, a story of the universe which motivates and justifies our dealings with day-to-day situations. One hugely influential factor on both our personal and national narratives are the underpinning moral examples and stories of history or legend.

The United States have their War of Independence and the Civil War, and depending on which side you consider your ancestors to have been on, you will have a different story to tell. Britain has a memory of its imperial past and some of her actions today still reflect that melancholy for the good old days. At the same time she is proud for having been the driving force in the abolition of slavery in the 19th century and nowadays Britain is still on the forefront regarding human rights protection. Flanders has the story of how our Flemish soldiers in the trenches of the First World War were commanded by French-speaking officers who bellowed their orders in French causing many unnecessary deaths. The political situation today reflects this awareness of injustice in the past. Stories are important. They are a powerful tool and at times a dangerous tool.

J.R.R. Tolkien was very much aware of the transforming power of stories. He considered the positive-scientific world-view of the early 20th century seriously flawed and inherently dangerous to humankind if it were not balanced by another narrative. For this world-view conveyed the message that as humans we can control our environment and can abstract ourselves from it. Tolkien was worried that the modern narrative would have a negative impact on human beings. Beauty becomes mere aesthetics, an external ornament and not a manifestation of goodness. Goodness itself is substituted as a value for functionality and truth is reduced to mere scientific propositions. He proposed to write a narrative that would balance out the scientific world-view and bring back a sense of mystery to the world, which he felt had been lost. The result was The Lord of the Rings, an epic tale that paints the beauty of the world and of its inhabitants by showing them in their goodness as creatures possessing the virtues of fidelity, heroism, sacrifice, humility, perseverance, friendship... They come across as true to themselves. In contrast, what is ugly in that world is evil and full of falseness. Tolkien depicted this story with clear black and white strokes. There is no room for confusing good with evil. That, so he believed, is what a good story does. And as such, it provides a hermeneutic backdrop to real life.

I was walking recently in Surrey. The countryside struck me as a place of deep calm and mystery. I was reflecting on Tolkien's story and I considered my surroundings with a sense of awe. Every moment now a hobbit could come out of that hilltop and invite me in for a cup of tea with home-made scones. I felt attracted to the truthfulness of Samwise Gamgee and the nobility of Aragorn, son of Arathorn. Reading The Lord of the Rings has certainly changed my outlook on the world. Not in a radical way, but in the background of my mind I have now stories that speak of values I cherish and that will come to the fore when I am in doubt. Stories are powerful and transform us in ways we can not predict. They provide us with values and moral criteria. And if heaven is a place of goodness, than I am sure that Hobbits live in the heavenly hillsides offering cups of tea to occasional passersby.

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