Good stories: food for the journey
My Vocation is Love l Lindsey Weishar
In a review he wrote for J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” books, C.S. Lewis says something quite profound about the world Tolkien has built: “Despite many a snug fireside and many an hour of good cheer to gratify the Hobbit in each of us, anguish is, for me, almost the prevailing note. But not, as in the literature most typical of our age, the anguish of abnormal or contorted souls; rather that anguish of those who were happy before a certain darkness came up and will be happy if they live to see it gone.”
Striking too is Lewis’ perspective on readers’ participation in this world of Middle Earth:
But with the anguish there comes also a strange exaltation. They [the characters] are at once stricken and upheld by the memory of vanished civilisations and lost splendour. They have outlived the second and third Ages; the wine of life was drawn long since. As we read, we find ourselves sharing their burden; when we have finished, we turn to our own life not relaxed but fortified.
Whether or not you’re familiar with — or a fan of — “The Lord of the Rings” (or Lewis’ own Narnia series), you may be able to relate to what Lewis points out as an element of a good story — it fortifies us. Like lembas (the restorative elven bread in “The Lord of the Rings”), and to some degree like viaticum (which means “food for the journey”), or like our “daily bread” which we receive in every Eucharist, good stories nourish us. They give us the strength to engage with — as opposed to being crushed by or escaping from — the reality of our life in this world.
WHAT ABOUT ANGUISH?
A key word in the Lewis quote above is anguish, a word that connotes a tightening, a choking. If you regularly view news or social media, you are likely familiar with the anguish that accompanies us in our present day. And in a culture where more stories and information than we could ever consume are easily and instantly accessible, this anguish seems to compound itself. In some lives this anguish can be so strong and constant that it twists us — we become cynical, hardened, bitter, disengaged from the beauty of life.
The stories that show us the difficulties that exist in our present day and offer us remedies, or at least fortifying food for our journey, are ones worth keeping close by.
Though she is brought to the Houses of Healing in Gondor after having been gravely injured in battle, she does not begin to recover until Faramir of Gondor helps her recover her hopes. In a word, he loves her and this love allows her to come out from under the shadow of her disappointment: “And suddenly her winter past, and the sun shone on her.”
These movements from despair to hope, from death to life, from disorder to order, are so necessary for us to rediscover. Our faith and our world remind us that we are what we eat. And what we eat applies not only to food, but to what we take in with other senses — who and what we listen to, what we read. The stories that show us the difficulties that exist in our present day and offer us remedies, or at least fortifying food for our journey, are ones worth keeping close by.
As we move into a new school year, I encourage each of us — school-aged or not — to find a good story to immerse yourself in. As Lewis concludes in his review of “The Lord of the Rings,” reading a good story changes us: “We are not quite the same men.” The mythos that can be found in good stories revives us, reawakens us to the reality of our lives: “we do not retreat from reality: we rediscover it. As long as the story lingers in our minds, the real things are more themselves.”
As you look for your next good story, I’d recommend asking those who know you well what they would suggest. You might also pay attention to book titles that come up more than once from multiple people. For me, book recommendations are sometimes a way the Holy Spirit moves in my life. Though I’ll refrain from adding book recommendations in the column, please feel free to email me. Knowing your interests and the genre you’re interested in can help me make a more personalized recommendation.
The journey of life can be winding, tiring; how beautiful that we have stories to accompany us, stories that breathe deeper truths into our own, stories that revitalize us.
C.S. Lewis’ review of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” books can be found in a book called “On Stories: And Other Essays on Literature” published by HarperOne.
LINDSEY WEISHAR is a poet, freelance writer, and native of Champaign who has a master of fine arts in creative writing from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. She is executive assistant to the president of Donnelly College in Kansas City, Kansas. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.