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To People Who Write in Books


Note: I found this slipped under my door one morning. But since there is a bookcase near the door, I’m afraid that it didn’t slip under the door, and was slipped off the shelf instead by a badly treated copy of The Lord of the Rings. In which case I have at least one literate and very grumpy book in my bedroom. I’m borrowing my sister’s dagger. It’s not sharp, but a book wouldn’t know.

Dear poltroons, fiends, and knaves,

(and also some very nice people with poor study habits):

I write in defense of books—pure, clean, involiate. We realize that accidents happen. Little children want to read about Frodo, and they aren’t of an age to understand reprimands like Don’t read with dirty fingers and Don’t leave the book lying open for six weeks. We feel the pain of those mistakes, but we understand them. It is the adults who are the true problem.

My cousin lives in a library. It’s a hard life, but he tries to be understanding. His cover gets sticky, and the librarians are too busy to clean it off. His pages are torn, and there is nothing he can do. But he says the day that sticks out in his memory is the day a mature adult scrawled Frodo lives! across his title page.

Don’t get us wrong. We love to see people writing Frodo lives! on appropriate targets, like pigs, and bedspreads, and other people’s privacy fences. But writing in a book—a book!—is unconscionable.

We have feelings. We also have pages that are white where they aren’t black (or purple, red, orange, etc.). We would like to keep them that way.

Please, we beg of you. By all that you hold dear on this good earth—alarm clocks, styrofoam, and the little plastic microbeads that are currently poisoning fish in the Great Lakes—we charge to control yourselves. Restrain your pencil.

Better yet, burn it. There ought to be a pencil-burning occasion in revenge both for book-burnings and for all the damage we suffer when pencils are applied to our pages by people who ought to know better.

Many illustrious people have written in books. Some of them were monks. Those monks wrote notes in copies of the Bible. And since that time Bible scholars have been fighting tooth and nail about which words count as original text. People who write in books enjoy stirring up conflicts that can last for generations to come.

You may be thinking, “But I write in cursive. Nobody would confuse my pencil marks with actual text.” Try to remember that not everyone who wrote in books was a Gothic-scribbling monk. Vikings probably wrote in the books they stole, after they stripped all the gems off. And they probably wrote in the Viking equivalent of cursive. So by writing in books, you are joining with people of ill repute. (Or boring people–Alexander Pope wrote in books.) Also remember that there might be a dark age in the future. All elements of our culture will be forgotten. The archeologists of future generations might not know that you markings are not part of the original text. You could start a war.

You say, “Well, I want to stop writing in books, but it’s hard not to. I’ve developed a habit. What should I do?

First, try taking notes about the book somewhere other than in the book. That is the proper way to record ideas from a text, or your feelings about those ideas. Second, remember that there are nerve endings located within our pages. We feel pain when a pencil touches us. That pain leads to stress, which can lead to severe spinal injuries, which can lead to our untimely deaths. By writing in books, you may become guilty of bookslaughter. Third, bear in mind that we have feelings, including pride in our appearance. And many of you have bad handwriting.

If you ignore this warning, beware. You may have books in your house. And they never sleep.


A Very Resentful Volume


Posted by on August 4, 2014 in Humor


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Ten Ways to Annoy a Tolkien Fan

There are more, but these will do for a start.

1. Call The Lord of the Rings a trilogy.

Just so you know—it isn’t. This is an unfortunately common mistake. Someone made it in a book review I was reading today, thus inspiring this post. J.R.R. Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings as one book, but it was so long that it was published in three installments. It ain’t a trilogy. It’s a book.

2. Claim that The Lord of the Rings is pro-war.

For starters, there are consistent pacifists, but very few people who would argue the opposite—that all wars are always good. But if you mean that The Lord of the Rings encourages unnecessary warfare, you haven’t been reading it carefully. (Or you just watched the movie….) Faramir basically outlines Tolkien’s philosophy of warfare in The Two Towers. Warfare is sometimes necessary but never desirable.

 3. Argue that The Lord of the Rings is racist.

If you’re worried that Tolkien’s characters have little mercy for evil monsters, all I can say is that you must hate folklore. All the mythologies I can think of have similar monsters, and that includes non-European nations.

4. Whine that people prefer The Lord of the Rings to “true literature.”

It is true literature. And it is part of the reason I went on to read Beowulf in full, along with The Kalevala, Nordic legends, and a book of random Old English poetry. The Lord of the Rings is many things, but it isn’t shallow.

 5. Complain that The Lord of the Rings is too complicated for ordinary people to understand.

This group should get in touch with the folks in #4. Maybe they could find a happy medium somewhere.

6. Argue that The Lord of the Rings is “escapist.”

Philip Pullman earns an F here, I’m afraid. His essay “The Republic of Heaven” shows a remarkable failure to understand Tolkien from someone obviously versed in his writings. Does Tolkien include every aspect of life in his stories? No–but does anyone? This sounds like a rehashing of the debate over whether art imitates life, or the other way around. I’m inclined to answer “yes” when anyone asks that question. In any case, my initial reaction to The Return of the King was a reaction to its darkness. Fluffy Tolkien is not.

7. Fret about the lack of female empowerment in The Lord of the Rings.

If a close study of Galadriel’s character doesn’t help you here, then you’re hopeless. And, honestly, there are some people who can’t enjoy certain kinds of fantasy, including Tolkien’s. That’s fine. If Tolkien repels you, copy C.S. Lewis’s policy in regard to detective stories–don’t comment on what you won’t like anyway.

8. Complain about the lack of empowerment in The Lord of the Rings in general.

Tolkien didn’t write the story to make people feel good. In fact, when asked to suggest a theme for the story, his response was “Death.” Tolkien’s mythology was born, quite literally, in the trenches of World War I. If All Quiet on the Western Front teaches nothing else, it shows that most people involved in that war were not feeling very empowered.

9. Call Frodo a wimp.

Okay, so you love Sam. Great. We do, too. Some of us even like him more than Frodo. But Frodo is not a wimp. By making that assertion, you are making us question whether you have actually read the books. If you haven’t, read them (of course), and in the mean time distinguish between the movie and book versions of Frodo. And be prepared to argue with people who think you missed the point of the movie.

10. Ask why the eagles didn’t carry the Fellowship to Mt. Doom.

Just kidding. Ask away.


Posted by on August 14, 2013 in Fantasy


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Frodo versus Robespierre | The Imaginative Conservative

If Tolkien meant Sauron to represent modernism (and he did), Sauron certainly has a connection with the villains of the French Revolution. Chesterton, too, makes it into this article from The Imaginative Conservative web journal.

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Posted by on January 27, 2013 in Guest


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The Hobbit Movie (and Other Psychological Disturbances)

The Hobbit Film: 13 Dwarves

DSM 5, the American Psychological Association’s new manual, is coming out in the near future, and a surprising last-minute change has been reported. Psychologists have added a new category, broadly labeled “literary disorders.” And apparently the first and largest subcategory has been titled “Severe Tolkien Inundation Syndrome (STIS).”

STIS is associated with the following symptoms:

  • Repeatedly reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s books, particularly The Lord of the Rings
  • Reading any of Tolkien’s works but The Lord of the Rings and/or The Hobbit
  • Memorizing Tolkien’s poetry
  • Repeatedly watching The Lord of the Rings movies
  • Attending the midnight showing of The Hobbit
  • Hating The Lord of the Rings and/or The Hobbit movies for being too “inaccurate”
  • Ranting about “what Peter Jackson did to Faramir”

In teenage females, STIS can be accompanied by temporary Orlando Bloom obsession, which may eventually be followed by permanent hatred of Orlando Bloom. STIS is also associated with depression, largely initiated by the departure of the Elves.

Well—that isn’t quite accurate. Psychologists haven’t actually labeled STIS as a disorder (yet), although I expect at least some of them find it disturbing. Personally, I love Tolkien. And I show some of the signs of STIS. But my ability to quote “The Fall of Gil-galad” from memory doesn’t quite match up to a real Tolkien obsession. Enter my teenage brothers.

The younger of the two has what amounts to a level 10 Tolkien obsession. As in, that’s what he wants to talk about at least 50% of the time. Unfortunately he has a very unique way of interpreting The Lord of the Rings. He says that the Balrog is his favorite character and wishes that Frodo had turned into a wraith so he could destroy Rivendell. He is also the one who managed to get the Twin Towers confused with The Two Towers. He’s reading The Silmarillion right now, and that seems to have cooled him down. But I’m taking him to see The Hobbit when it comes out, and my mom fears that she’ll hear about nothing but Tolkien until long after Christmas.

The older one doesn’t have quite the obsession with all things Tolkien that his younger brother does, but he remembers more from the movies and has a tendency to quote them at inopportune times. I can’t even safely threaten to kill him any more. His latest retort: “You would die before your stroke fell.” (For those who haven’t memorized the movie, that’s a quote from Legolas in The Two Towers.) He also makes regular use of Gandalf’s opening statements: “A sister is always late. She arrives precisely when she intends to…. A brother is never late. He arrives precisely when he intends to.”

That’s when I redirect my attention to the younger brother, who starts talking about how he likes the orcs from Moria best. I suppose I should feel some guilt for his situation, since I was the one who started it all by reading him The Hobbit. So far I don’t feel a lot of guilt, although sometimes I do feel like fleeing to another room and shutting the door.

And then, afterwards, putting a warning sign on his door. Something like “One does not simply walk into Mordor.”


Posted by on December 13, 2012 in Fantasy, Humor


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Telling Tales

‘Beren now, he never thought he was going to get that Silmaril from the Iron Crown in Thangorodrim, and yet he did, and that was a worse place and a blacker danger than ours. But that’s a long tale, of course, and goes on past the happiness and into grief and beyond it—and the Silmaril went on and came to Earendil. And why, sir, I never thought of that before! We’ve got—you’ve got some of the light of it in that star-glass that the Lady gave you! Why, to think of it, we’re in the same tale still! It’s going on. Don’t the great tales never end?’

‘No, they never end as tales,’ said Frodo. ‘But the people in them come, and go when their part’s ended. Our part will end later—or sooner.’

‘And then we can have some rest and some sleep,’ said Sam.

Postmodernism has its flaws. And a lot of them. In fact, postmodernism generally annoys me—I often feel, rightly or wrongly, that postmodernists are missing the point. But postmodernism has made contributions, particularly to our understanding of how stories affect us.

Postmodernists emphasize the existence of “metanarrative”—that is, stories that explain other stories. Often, they appear in the form of a worldview. Postmodernists tend to see metanarratives as dangerous, however—“control stories” whose object is to control not only other stories, but also other people. To many postmodernists, every belief system is “narrative,” and therefore untrue. Gene Edward Veith, in his book Postmodern Times, criticizes this view: “Truth-claims are defined as fictions.”

Yet, contrary to postmodernist beliefs, narrative and fiction are not the same thing: rather, fiction is a subset of narrative. Witnesses narrate what they experienced to a jury. The jury does not believe they are lying merely because they tell truth in the form of a story. As my former apologetics professor said, “The difference between a story and obituary is narrative. Obituaries list the bare facts and usually do not connect them.” Narrative is about connection, not control.

Similarly, metanarratives help us to make sense of individual stories. They lie at the back of the mind, influencing how we see the individual facts of our lives. For Christians, the Bible provides our main metanarrative—that of the world’s creation, man’s fall, and God’s plan of redemption.

Humans are story-telling creatures. To use J. R. R. Tolkien’s terminology, we exercise our prerogative of “sub-creation” when we tell stories. God authored the world, and we author smaller worlds. Yet these worlds, whether written down or passed by word of mouth, can lie at the back of the mind, affecting how we see our world. They are not full metanarratives, but they help explain life at a different level. In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien repeatedly shows how backstories—neither metanarratives, nor simply history, but rather a form of myth—can continue, after a fashion, into the present. In his phial Frodo carries the light of Eärendil’s star.

Jim Ware’s recent novel, Stone of Destiny, brings backstory to mind, although his backstories are of a different sort than Tolkien’s. Stone of Destiny is based around the Irish legends about the Lia Fail, ancient Ireland’s kingship stone at Tara. Young Morgan Izaak and his friend, Eny Ariello, learn of the legends as Morgan is struggling to find a cure for his cancer-stricken mother. When Morgan’s efforts with alchemy prove inadequate, he turns his attention to the Lia Fail, having been told by Madame Medea that only its power can make his powder work. But Madame Medea is not who she seems, and Morgan’s willingness to trust her risks the safety of many other people—including his friend, Eny.

The book has its flaws. For one, while Morgan is clearly intended to be the book’s main character, his struggles often fade into the background while Eny is off having her own adventures. Also, partly because the novel unfolds mainly in our world (California, to be exact), its balance of legend with Christianity—a challenge in any event—sometimes tips in the wrong direction. Overall, Ware avoids preachiness, but he does not always succeed. Ware’s struggles bring to mind Tolkien’s avoidance of allowing his Middle Earth legendarium to coincide with Christianity. I personally believe that—depending on the tone an author wants, of course—that a melding of the two is possible. But it is difficult. And, as wonderful as Ware’s dependence on legend is, sometimes he includes too much legend and too little action.

All that being said, Ware reveals an understanding of how stories shape our lives. Both of Eny’s parents—one of Spanish descent, the other Irish—have their own story cycles. And both sets of stories not only shape Eny, but also prove vital in the struggle to understand what is happening around them.

Storytelling. It’s something of a lost art. In a culture that has transitioned from oral tales to printed books to computer screens, storytellers are rare. Most of the storytellers I’ve found exist within the pages of–you guessed it–printed books. People don’t have time to tell stories. Many of them aren’t sure how.

Storytelling isn’t simply about passing on words. A printed page can do that (and ought to). Rather, storytelling is about connection–connection not only between people and the story, but between the people themselves. Do you have children, or know some? Take a story, even one you’ve read, and tell it to them. The best way to connect people is not through classes in social skills. Rather, connection comes through shared interest in something bigger than you both.

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Posted by on August 24, 2012 in Fantasy


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