There and Back Again – Why Hobbits Still Matter for the Hunger Games Generation

Many twenty- and thirty-somethings came of age a decade ago, back when Frodo set off on his epic, three-movie quest to Mount Doom in The Lord of the Rings. The mere strains of the opening soundtrack are enough to evoke all the memories of that time: how we felt as young adults in a strange new millennium; what it was like when financial collapse and the events of 9-11 tore away the veil of security, showing the world for what it really was.  

The Matrix in 1999 may have set the prophetic stage, but hobbits reminded us that there is still “some good in this world… and it’s worth fighting for.” Yes, cue the cheesy soundtrack. Give us some misty-eyed nostalgia.

Now, more than a decade later, here comes the prequel. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is in theaters now. Naturally we want today’s teens to share the excitement. But most of them were still in diapers or toting SpongeBob backpacks to preschool when Frodo first set out for Mordor. And since then the film industry has become over-saturated with fantasy—thanks in part to the CGI technology that Peter Jackson’s LOTR geeks invented on the fly. So it’s entirely possible that today’s youth have become so accustomed to watching fantasy on the big screen that The Hobbit will be just another night at the movies rather than a cultural and generational phenomena like LOTR.

Not to mention, another film series has eclipsed all other stories lately in the teen imagination. And no, I’m not talking about Twilight. If The Matrix depicted a dystopian future that pretends to be better than it really is, then The Hunger Games gives us a dystopian future that really is as bad as it looks. If not worse. For Katniss Everdeen, you don’t wait around for the chosen one to appear—there is no Aragorn, or Harry Potter, or Prince Caspian, or Percy Jackson to save the day. There is no Neo, much less a spoon (that’s a Matrix reference, in case you’re younger than I am). Instead you grab a bow and arrows—or make them from saplings in the woods—and try to stay alive.

For the Hunger Games generation, no one else is looking out for you. There is no larger, grander narrative behind the world you see, bending the arc of the moral universe (to quote a famous civil rights activist) toward justice. You’re it. In more ways than one.

And for the postmodern imagination, it’s a story that rings true. Life is tenuous at best. Most adults have no better idea of how to move forward than youth do.  There are no guarantees that the story we’re living will improve. We are not sitting comfortable and well-fed in our hobbit holes, waiting for adventure to find us: we’re filing for bankruptcy while Bag End is in foreclosure, trying to pull together our last scraps of dignity. Gandalf? A fairy tale. There is no gray wizard coming to the rescue at the last possible moment.

So does this mean The Hobbit will find no takers? Is this generation so numb to fantasy and so enamored of dystopian sci-fi that it has no room for fairy tale?

I don’t think so. I believe we are just as in need of hobbits as we have ever been. And that’s because we are just as in need of myth as we have ever been—myth in its highest and purest form, myth that touches the deepest parts of who we are.

The kind of myth we find in the works of Tolkien and his friend, C. S. Lewis.

True Myth
Let’s back up a moment and define what we mean by “myth.” Generally speaking, there are four views:

The first sees myth as humankind’s attempt to make sense of a senseless world. It is something of an existentialist view: life has only the meaning that we bring to it. There is no inherent purpose to universe: we create that purpose. We invent myth. This view is also relativistic: if every worldview is essentially made up, then no one worldview or story is truer than any other. In that sense, the Christian gospel is just another myth, lumped in there with everything else.

The flip side of this view, one that often gets touted by Christians, is that because all myths are made up, all myths are therefore lies. Myths are deceptions propagated by the devil in order to drive us away from the truth. By contrast, the Bible is fact: it shares nothing with myth at all.

The third view sees all myth (cultural stories, legends) as a shadow of the Real, an echo of the True, which remains veiled and mysterious. This view holds that most myths share common themes (a creator, laws that must not be broken, a dying god), patterns that point to an underlying pattern to the human psyche that is both ancient and spiritual. It’s a view made famous by mythologist Joseph Campbell in The Hero With a Thousand Faces and since embraced by many postmoderns. Like the first view, this one is relativistic: since all myths are attempts to articulate what psychiatrist Carl Jung called universal archetypes, no one myth is more true than any other—including Christianity.

The fourth view of myth is the flipside of the above, but with a uniquely Christian twist. It says that myths give us glimpses of a larger narrative that undergirds the universe: a story that will one day be revealed in full. Through the world’s great legends and stories we catch hints now and then of what Tolkien and some of his writing buddies (self-labeled “The Inklings) called the “True Myth.” For several of the Inklings, the veil over the Real has lifted, however briefly, in the person and work of Jesus Christ. The Mystery has taken on flesh and blood; the whole pattern and purpose to the universe has become known; myth has collided with history. As Tolkien wrote in his essay “On Fairy-Stories,”

It is not difficult to imagine the peculiar excitement and joy that one would feel, if any specially beautiful fairy-story were found to be “primarily” true, its narrative to be history, without thereby necessarily losing the mythical or allegorical significance that it had possessed…The Christian joy, the Gloria…is preeminently (infinitely, if our capacity were not finite) high and joyous. But this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men–and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused. [1]

One of the members of the Inklings was a young atheist-turned-Christian named C. S. Lewis, who would go on to become the author of the bestselling Chronicles of Narnia. Prior to meeting Tolkien in the 1920s, Lewis had held the first view: myths were man’s attempts to make sense of a senseless world. All myths, including the Christian gospel, were not true—beautiful, but not true. But then he met Tolkien, and slowly Lewis started to come around to a different understanding. In Christianity, he realized, myth became fact. In a later essay Lewis summed it up like this: “The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact…It happens—at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences.” [2]

For Lewis and Tolkien, the best “myth” of all—the story that touches and enchants and changes us the most—became historical fact in Jesus Christ. It is the True Myth. All the best myths echo the True Myth; and all the best myth-makers only do what they do because they are made in the image of a Maker who stepped into human history. They strive to depict that Gloria, the Christian joy, even if they have to paint a dark world to achieve it. Myth, at its heart, is one of the modes God speaks to us.


Beyond the Walls of the World
When it comes to modern myth-makers, Tolkien and Lewis have no rivals. Take Tolkien, for instance. Dig an inch down in the soil of Middle-earth and vast depths of meaning emerge—not simply resonances with the larger story, with the history and languages that Tolkien created, but with echoes of ancient Norse and especially the Christian gospel. While The Hobbit itself is a more playful and light-hearted version of the larger narrative, it foreshadows much of what is to come. Doom, namely. And the quest to right terrible wrongs, even if one should die trying. Enemies vanquished. Kings returning to long-empty thrones. And most importantly, the “sudden joyous ‘turn’,” or what Tolkien called eucatastrophe, when help unlooked-for reverses the tide of the tale, giving “a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.” [3]

Picture the eagles swooping down to battle, sweeping in to save hobbits and dwarves and men from certain doom. Where did they come from? From beyond the immediate story. When, in both The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, the cry goes up, “The eagles are coming!” our hearts leap, and we don’t even know why. Eagles? We don’t remember any eagles. And yet here they are. Help unlooked-for. The unexpected turn of the tide. A sudden glimpse of Joy, Joy with a capital “J,” beyond the walls of the world.

It is the absence of that Joy which puts The Hunger Games in a different category altogether. To be fair, author Suzanne Collins did not set out to write a myth, even if the underlying structure strongly echoes the Greek tale of Theseus and the Minotaur. [4] She set out to write futuristic sci-fi—not to create other worlds but to depict our own as it could be someday, given its current course and its past history (gladiator games, anyone?). These are normal human beings with normal human strengths and weaknesses—albeit with the occasional technological advancement—up against other normal human beings in circumstances that eerily echo what Third World and developing nations face today. Poverty. War. Oppression. Slavery to a recklessly greedy consumer economy. All played out live on television screens.

This is darn good storytelling; and I’ll admit I’m a fan. The Hunger Games series is layered with meaning after meaning, some of it vaguely Christian.  But there is no eucatastrophe. There is no sudden, unexpected turn when help unlooked-for arrives, a glimpse of a larger story that undergirds the world. (Even when a certain district swoops in to the rescue at the end of book two, it is for purposes that grow more insidious as the series continues.) I suppose in the end there is a kind of hope—hope that a new generation will not have to suffer like their parents did. But there is no glimpse of beauty or justice or holiness at the heart of the universe. There is no joy beyond the walls of the world.

Instead, beyond the walls of the Arena—where the horrors of Katniss’ world are played out in a fierce competition between children for survival—is simply the Capitol, heart of material greed and military power. And beyond the Capitol are the districts, enslaved and poor, which supply the raw materials to the Capitol. And beyond that is the wilderness, which does not love you and has zero interest in your survival. If there is any arc to the universe, it does not bend toward justice unless you force it with all your strength; and even then it might betray you. A compelling and honest assessment of how life feels, to be sure. But a world we don’t want to live in.

By contrast, undergirding the fantasy worlds of Tolkien and Lewis is the sense that there is an ultimate justice, and that’s what makes the world worth trusting. There is a sense of ultimate beauty, which makes the world worth saving. There is a sense of ultimate holiness, which makes right actions worth doing. Even if the kingdoms of men should fall we are promised that at the end of all things “the grey rain-curtain [will turn] to silver glass” and be rolled back, and we will behold “white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.” [5] There is that fleeting glimpse of Joy, like a pang of homesickness, the echo of the True Myth in which the Author promises that the first things will pass away and all will be made new (see Revelation 21:4-5).

This is myth in its highest form: the building of what Tolkien called a Secondary World that in itself is an act of worship. It points us both toward the Primary World, which is the eternal kingdom of God, and back to our everyday world with renewed eyes. We don’t enter that Secondary World as a kind of escapism, hoping never to return to the ordinariness of our daily lives. Rather, through myth we encounter, say, a tree unlike any other tree, a tree that talks and sings and roams the earth. And rather than ever afterward dismissing all real trees as pathetically uninteresting, we suddenly see them as if for the first time. We approach a tree we had never noticed before—one that we should have noticed before, in our own backyard, for instance—and run our hands along the bark, gaze up into the trembling leaves, wondering if, when the earth was young, this tree too rose up and clapped its hands. Wondering if, at the end of all things, this tree will stir and answer that voice calling over the fields.

As Lewis once said, our encounter with myth re-enchants the world.

The Far Green Country
I suppose one could argue that Tolkien and Lewis were not telling an honest tale. The world is full of heartbreak, after all, and the battles we fight will wound us forever. Collins has painted a truer picture for those who will never recover, never see joy in this life. And yet we cannot forget that Tolkien and Lewis themselves were veterans of war, war that stole the heart of their generation and sent them home from France nearly friendless. When they returned to Oxford after fighting at the Front in World War I, it was to empty, echoing halls that had once been filled with the future of England. The veterans had to scrape together what little was left of their youth and plunge ahead into a world that should not have been so beautiful.

And yet it was in the trenches of France that Tolkien, in particular, began to create the languages that became the rich foundation of his tale. On scraps of paper, bullets zinging by, he penned the letters and sounds that evoked all the longing for a time before time, when the world was green and new. With death breathing down the long snaky tunnels through the mud and ruin, Tolkien became what he called a “sub-creator,” parting light from darkness, claiming a better story. Should a bullet come to end it all, he would live into the promise of the white shore and the far green country. He would speak Joy.

About The Lord of the Rings Lewis wrote, “Here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron. Here is a book which will break your heart.” [6] Tolkien’s is not an easy tale. You travel to the Lonely Mountain or to Mount Doom, and those places hold all the terrible promise of their names. But in the journey you find what Lewis found in another fantasy tale years before:

It goes beyond the expression of things we have already felt. It arouses in us sensations we have never had before, never anticipated having, as though we had broken out of our normal mode of consciousness and “possessed joys not promised to our birth.” It gets under our skin, hits us at a level deeper than our thoughts or even our passions, troubles oldest certainties till all questions are reopened, and in general shocks us more fully awake than we are for most of our lives. [7]

The Hunger Games has shocked us awake, but not by giving us joy. We do not want the world of Katniss Everdeen to be true. But we do long for Middle-Earth—which is to say we long for our own world, whole and untarnished, and for the far green country beyond it, which is our true home. It will be a long journey, Tolkien and Lewis warn us, but every step is worth it.

So the Hunger Games generation still needs hobbits. It still needs stories of justice, beauty, and holiness, stories that point to the True Story that upholds the world. Can such a story hold its own in an environment super-saturated with fantasy? Can such a story rub shoulders with dystopian sci-fi? This is where we trust the power of our faith to be what it always has been: the gospel, or the “good spell” (in Old English), the story that has the power to enchant and transform. This is where we trust the Holy Spirit to work through the human imagination in ways we cannot see or even control.

The Hobbit may touch the next generation: it may not. But as caretakers of culture we have a great opportunity to engage youth in exploring what Tolkien meant when he spoke of that “fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”

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[1] From “On Fairy-Stories” in The Tolkien Reader by J. R. R. Tolkien.
[2] From “Myth Became Fact” in God in the Dock, by C. S. Lewis.
[3] From “On Fairy-Stories” in The Tolkien Reader by J. R. R. Tolkien.
[4] See Scholastic’s interview with Suzanne Collins.
[5] From The Return of the King, Book IV, by J. R. R. Tolkien.
[6] Lewis’s review of The Lord of the Rings was first published in Time and Tide, August 1954.
[7] From C. S. Lewis’s introduction to George MacDonald’s Phantastes
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Reprinted and adapted from the Nov/Dec 2012 issue of Immerse Journal: A Journal of Faith, Life and Youth Ministry. www.immersejournal.com. Used by permission.

Sarah Arthur is a fun-loving speaker and the author of numerous books on the intersection of faith and literature, including the bestselling Walking with Frodo: A Devotional Journey through The Lord of the Rings and its award-winning follow-up, Walking With Bilbo: A Devotional Adventure through The Hobbit. A graduate of Wheaton College and Duke Divinity School, Sarah speaks around the country on the role of imagination and narrative in spiritual formation. She is a founding board member of the C. S. Lewis Festival in Northern Michigan (www.cslewisfestival.org) and served as a consultant for HarperOne’s C. S. Lewis Bible. She blogs at www.saraharthur.com.

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