Monday, March 21, 2016
Recently my youngest child and I finished reading The Return of the King, Tolkien’s last volume in The Lord of the Rings. Three years ago, we began with The Hobbit, then moved into the trilogy, so it has been a long journey, a journey through hundreds of pages. I wonder how many hours of my life have been spent toiling with Frodo and that ring, especially considering that this is not my first time to read through this story aloud to one or other of my children.
The time is well invested. Specifically, it represents hours of being together, sharing experiences, and when you consider the fleeting nature of childhood, this is a significant relationship builder. When I later wonder where the time went, I know that we spent a valuable amount of it together on the dusty road to and from Mordor--to be precise, a quarter of my son’s life.
Reading literature of this length is worth taking time to travel through slowly. The intended grandeur of the tale has not been lost on us in skipping and skimming over the pages in a mad rush to reach the end. The slow reading has added to the significance of the story, somehow representing the extent of the journey the Fellowship made and the magnitude of its purpose. The adventures and toil these hobbits suffered in the pursuit of a victorious outcome on a seemingly hopeless and unobtainable mission took sheer grit. Reading the arduous journey page after endless page is much closer to the reality of what the protagonists endured than can be appreciated by sitting for a few hours to take in the movies.
In many ways, Tolkien set the standard for the flood of fantasy fiction that we find our young people consuming today. When I was a child, fantasy fiction outside of fairy tales was barely a recognized genre. Nowadays, children devour one fantasy title after another at a furious rate.
Though I’m thrilled children are reading and believe fantasy portrays truth in ways reality cannot, The Lord of the Rings ought not to be gobbled down in such haste. It was written in a panoramic pageant that was intended to absorb the reader heart and soul for life. Sure, it’s possible to read through the series in a few intense days, but that condensed experience may limit the mind-illuminating, heart-permeating effect only the slow drip method of reading accomplishes. Some stories are meant to be read slowly for more reasons than simply savoring them.
In Sarah Clarkson’s inspiring little book Caught Up in a Story (which I highly recommend to my readers if you have not taken time to enjoy it yet), she discusses the value of fantasy fiction, the Lord of the Rings, as a supreme example. One of the many benefits of reading a saga like this is to give children a tangible taste of a very indescribable essential of life: hope. Life is long, often perplexing, grueling, inexplicable. Frodo, Sam, and the others set out for a destination they only vaguely comprehend, without more than a glimmer of the ordeals to be endured, and, day by day, mile by mile, effort by slow effort, achieve feats they could never have imagined in their wildest dreams.
Is this not true of our lives? We believe, we set our hands and hearts to work each day without any knowledge of what the outcomes will be, tumbling toward eternity, weak and blind to the hope that leads us, holding onto that invisible thread that keeps us on the trail to the final glory we can barely imagine. This idea is the gift fantasy fiction gives our children. The rate at which avid readers flip through books, the uncertainties of our daily challenges, the speed of our lives and the frantic pace at which we live them, does not nourish hope in the way the slow reading of magnificent books can do. I’m not recommending that every book deserves a slow tramp, but am acknowledging that the slow savor is an essential practice not only in appreciating some extraordinary, beautiful literature, but builds character and feeds the soul in ways the swift soaking up of dozens of fun books cannot.
In the journey of life, the question is not how far before we reach the end, but whether we have enough hope to sustain us along the way.
For the joy of reading,