I took a stroll through the local bookstore tonight. I scoured. I picked up and flipped over.
And I yawned.
I am not suggesting that good contemporary fiction does not exist. I subscribe to several popular book blogs which boast of the newest fascinating work. When I have followed their suggestion, I usually concur with the verdict. One recent example is Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things. It’s fabulous.
So I know that there are good authors out there. But, at the grand risk of sounding like a book snob, most of today’s selection cannot hold a candle to the cherished classics. Now, before you cringe, let me assure you that when I use the term “classic,” I am not necessarily referring to those lofty, intangible tomes with four-syllable words which, with a glance, trigger our gag reflex and torment us with horrid memories of 8th grade English class. I mean those books we keep coming back to over and over. For me, works of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Madeline L’Engle, Dorothy Sayers, David Foster Wallace, Margaret Atwood, Hilary Mantel, George R.R. Martin, Diana Galbaldon, and Marilynne Robinson are a joy to reread.
Yet, I keep getting drawn back into Tolkien and Lewis. To a startling degree. I always end up where I started. One of my reading goals this year is to maintain a steady diet of the literature which inspired Tolkien and Lewis (Milton, Dante, The Iliad, etc.). I simply can’t shake the compulsion to uncover the deep roots of beautiful literary blooms we all enjoy.
The first time I read Tolkien, I was actually an adult (*gasp*) who had meandered into Lewis through his apologetic works. After reading Diana Glyer’s amazing book The Company They Keep: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as Writers in Community, I decided to explore other Inkling writers. Tolkien was a peripheral interest for me. Several years ago, I taught The Hobbit for several semesters. I was casually acquainted, but hadn’t followed the interest much further.
Then I began reading The Fellowship of the Ring.
I realized about three pages in that I wanted, sorely, to live in Middle Earth. This world, the one being built by sentences and paragraphs before my eyes, was stretching its vivid topography across my imagination. Establishing permanence and reinforcing in me a familiar sense of longing (Lewis called it “sehnsucht”). Beautiful pictures of wooded lands, of majestic mountain peaks, of a smoke-filled Prancing Pony, of the elegance of Lothlorien. On and on it went. Tolkien described so well the surroundings and captured the climate of a place seeking redemption and restoration, but even in it’s brokenness, it was still arresting.
Do you see what I mean? How can one turn to prosaic, ordinary fiction once one has visited Middle Earth? Regular fiction is suddenly an imitation. Often, it is a regurgitation of familiar storylines with different characters or different species. But Lord of the Rings is different. As Jane Austen once said, good literature “alters the color of the mind.” There is no going back.
When I finally finished it, 1100 pages later, it left me hungry. Aragorn is King…and…and now what? I have to carry on in a world without dragons and Dwarf gold and second breakfast. Reality faded just a little bit for me. Over time, and rather reluctantly, I returned to a normal rhythm of life but the scenery had changed. The bar of “good work” has been raised significantly.
I expect to find a fictional jewel every now and again. But I doubt we will see such rare talent as Tolkien in a long while. That is just fine though. I’ve twelve books of Middle Earth history (and other Tolkien miscellany) to keep me company.