Monday, April 28, 2014

On the Shoulders of Hobbits

Louis Markos, On the Shoulders of Hobbits: The Road to Virtue with Tolkien and Lewis. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2012. 234 pages. ISBN 978-0-8024-4319-9.

I read regularly The Hobbit, the Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, and the Harry Potter series. These books can be read for pure pleasure. These books, however, can also be read to cultivate virtue. Louis Markos, Professor of English at Houston Baptist University, shows how J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis can cultivate both the moral and theological virtues in the reader. Markos has published other books including From Achilles to Christ: Why Christian Should Read the Pagan Classics, Lewis Agonistes: How C. S. Lewis Can Train Us to Wrestle with the Modern and Postmodern World, and Restoring Beauty: the Good, the True, and the Beautiful in the Writings of C. S. Lewis. Markos both teaches courses on Lewis and Tolkien and lectures widely. I attended a conference at the University of Mobile where he was main speaker. The theme of his lectures were Lewis's Abolition of Man. 

I enjoyed reading this book because it covered two of my favorite authors and the importance of the moral imagination for cultivating virtue. On the Shoulders of Hobbits is to address the lack of moral examples of living a virtuous life. He notes, "Throughout most of the history of mankind, children have been taught good and evil, virtue and vice, honor and shame through the medium of stories: proverbs, parables, myths, legends, allegories, fables, etc." (11). This is sorely lacking in our modern world. Many people no longer know the Bible but many of the classic stories that teaches the virtues. Markos states that the stories of the past served two functions" both "entertainment and instruction of the children" (12). They also serve this purpose for adults. Lewis and Tolkien have also produced stories that serve the purposes of delighting and educating the reader.

On the Shoulders of Hobbits is divided into four parts: the road, classical virtues, theological virtues, and evil. The author's main focus is on Tolkien's tales of Middle-earth with a brief glimpse of Narnia at the end of the chapter. Each chapter focuses on a single virtue. He shows how this theme is illustrated in Tolkien and he further develops it by analyzing a passage in the Chronicles of Narnia. This book is intended for the general reader. The author clarifies his purpose: "I will not be offering in this book a Christian or an allegorical or a symbolic reading of The Lord of Rings or The Chronicles. . . . Rather, I will mine them for insights into virtue as I would a rich vein of silver or gold. . . . I will be choosing, then, episodes that most effectively illustrate the particular theme being explored in that chapter. . . " (17-18). I think both Lewis and Tolkien would approve. We must always remember that these books were meant mainly as stories to be enjoyed.

Part one of this book looks at life as a journey or a "road." The author notes, "The Lord of the Rings, like all the great romances of the Middle Ages, is essentially a quest narrative" (24). This means that Tolkien's characters go on a journey and are changed by this journey. They are not the same people at the end of the journey as they were at the start. It is also a story of both good and evil. It shows both good characters and evil characters. These early chapters show that we must have a purpose for our life. We must know where we come from and where we are going. Chapter four shows how to deal with our mortality.

Part two describes the moral or classical virtues: fortitude, temperance, justice, and prudence. There is a chapter for each of these virtues. Markos notes, "In the first section of this book, I concentrated on the Road and our status as pilgrims on that Road. In the two sections that follow , I will shift my focus to the virtues such pilgrims must possess if they are to endure the dangers along the way and carry out their calling to the proper end" (64). The chapter on fortitude argues that "only those who possess fortitude can bear to have their desired mortified for a higher cause" (67). In other words, fortitude will help us to pursue the right even when we do not feel like doing it. This is shown in the scene when Frodo approaches Mount Doom. Markos states that "true temperance (or self-control) manifests itself neither in gluttony nor asceticism, neither in hot prodigality nor a dry Puritanism" (75-76). A big part of The Lord of Rings is humor and joy. This is not a picture of sour-faced Christianity. Markos in describing wisdom (prudence) notes, "it is wisdom that allows us to sift and judge information properly. But part of that judging includes discerning which information we should accept and act upon" (88). In other words, there are many voices calling for our attention. Not all of them are good. The author notes that one day Christ will judge the world: "Christ will set all things right to true justice" (98).

The third part discusses friendship and the theological virtues: faith, hope, and love. I am glad Markos put friendship with the theological virtues. It just seemed fitting and friendship is a big part of The Lord of the Rings. Lewis spoke of friendship in The Four Loves. It is a book I have read multiple times. I think friends are helpful to us in cultivating virtue. The author writes about faith: "the faithful are called to trust in the promises of old and to believe that the time and place of their birth was no accident. For faith sees not only that history is meaningful, that it is going someplace. . . " (122). While faith is "a transcendent vision;" hope is about "an imminent expectation" (124). Faith and hope are like to sides of a coin. The last part of the book discusses the problem of evil. It speaks of the different temptations that will lead us from God's path.

On the Shoulders of Hobbits is a joy to read. I enjoyed reading about some of my favorite scenes in The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and the Chronicles of Narnia. It is helpful to see how these books can teach others about cultivating moral virtue. This book is recommended for those who are interested in these matters.

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