Friday, January 11, 2013

On Hobbits, Spiritual Life and Works of Genius

There are types of fruit that grow from genius which leave the world stunned for a while. The person who develops the fruit may be dead for generations before the world gives the fruit a try.

When I went to see the latest Hobbit film, I had been reading the life of Einstein. As I watched, I compared the work of Tolkien and Einstein. I thought about how their work has touched the lives of common men and women in a surprisingly short time, especially given the way their imaginations so radically reorder the way people otherwise think about life.

This is not a blog about Tolkien. So I won’t waste your time pointing out his obsession with medieval culture, Nordic folk tales, and the ancient languages of Great Britain and Scandinavia. I won’t try to convince you of how weird it was for him to invent two languages for the characters in his stories, languages which he must, nonetheless, translate back into English to be of any use to his readers. But these are monumental products of study and genius and one wonders what made them seem worth it during his long hours of isolated obscurity.  After all, he didn’t know his stories would sell millions of books or become major movies.

Then there is Einstein, daydreaming about riding a beam of light through the universe, just for the fun of it evidently. While playing however, he discovered two major truths that radically overturned centuries of apparently common sense observations about how the world works.

Tolkien, daydreaming about his elves and dwarfs decided his characters would need a translator to communicate among themselves and to humans, and invented a wizard. What else? Surely the modern world needed a new wizard. 

It may be obvious to us that Einstein’s work will prove to be of more practical value than the work of Tolkien.  That was hardly evident however when Einstein was wasting away his early adult years staring out into space. We smile at how his foolish parents paced the floor; watching employer after employer dismiss their wild haired dreamer. Would he ever get a job? What would become of his, poor thing? Was he ill or just irresponsible?

Einstein is vindicated now of course. We have put his theories to work in real life applications and inventions that have utterly reordered our lives.

What do we do with the likes of Tolkien? For one thing, we entertain ourselves. We watch the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit as we munch $4.00 popcorn and drink $5.00 Cokes. We get a delightful escape from the day to day and promote the economy by paying prices that would push us into the streets with torches were the government to ask us for that kind of money to pay for parks or bombs. But since its Hollywood that needs the money and we like the taste of the $5.00 popcorn, it makes sense.

But back to Tolkien!  Do two hours at the matinee really justify Tolkien’s thousands of hours spent on inventing languages or reading old manuscripts in Anglo Saxon? What did his parents think? Or his friends?

I don’t know about his parents but I do know something about his friends. Tolkien’s friends were as weird as he. In fact, without those friends, we would have never even publishing his work. He was, after all, a respected professor. Why should he make himself the laughing stock of his world by publishing stories about elves and dwarfs? Fortunately for us, his friends that overcame his reluctance.

C. S. Lewis, Tolkien’s famous convert to Christianity, continually pushed his spiritual mentor to share his work with the rest of us. Lewis, himself a round peg in Oxford's square hole, knew genius when he saw it. He too was tinkering away at things his academic peers would have found utterly foolish.  

People who work on things we already know are needed in the world usually enjoy our respect.

Invention, as they say, is the child of necessity. If we know we need something  we are delighted for someone to try to get it for us. 

That bizarre fruit of genius, which creates something we didn't know we needed -- that is a different category of work altogether.

We didn’t need the theory of relativity, or at least we didn't know we needed it. We were doing just fine with Newton, thank you very much. We could have continued making do with Newton. But as Gandalf tells us in the Hobbit, adventure requires a toleration of, and perhaps even delight with, uncertainty. The people of the Shire will be disgusted with us unless and until we bring home the treasure. Even then they might whisper that we are a bit odd for their tastes. 

We didn’t need a grown man to resurrect fairy stories and epic tales of monsters and magical creatures or to remind us that it requires ordinary people, people willing to step out of ordinary life to confront such things.

We did need, and need still, people who will demonstrate that creativity involves taking risks, thinking about things differently, ignoring the anxieties of friends and foes as one struggles with some problem that others do not see, and, perhaps, finally, discovering a solution others will only gradually accept.

In our pathologically divided nation, in churches divided over issues so trivial as to make even the most pious wonder if we have lost the very faith itself, in the globalized, economically restructured and technologically wired world in which we find ourselves, we wonder if there are brave souls even now tinkering away at some product of imagination that will help us envision things differently than we do today.

If there are such people diligently at work – some David tending sheep, some mad mathematician trying to keep a job that bores him silly and which keeps him from thinking about riding the back of a light beam, some respected professor of linguistics who stays up late writing stories he keeps secret for fear of losing the respect of his peers – they are our hope for a way out of our madding attempts to hold back the realities of the twenty-first century.

Few of us fit in the category of an Einstein or Tolkien. But some of our children may fit there. Some of our young pastors may fit there. If we can just keep ourselves from crucifying the inventors of the future  before they bring their fruit out to the light of day where we can see it, and, perhaps, nourish ourselves with it.  

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I didn't see the Hobbit, but I did see Les Miserables. Does that count for anything?