Dr. Ralph Wood is a professor of Theology and Literature at Baylor University. He has spent more than 40 years teaching on author J.R.R. Tolkien and his popular works, “The Hobbit,” and “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Wood's own book, “The Gospel According to Tolkien: Visions of the Kingdom in Middle-earth” was published in 2003.
Wood will give a free lecture, “The Lord of the Rings: A Book for Our Time of Terror” at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 7 at Sylvania Church.
Editor's Note: This interview was edited for length.
His appeal is that of a writer who seeks to reach what's called a generally informed audience. By that, I mean someone who is intelligent, not brilliant, who is educated, though not with a PhD, who cares about large questions: the meaning of good and evil, the question of violence, the matter of coercion, other large, public questions having to do with the moral life, religious life, and not least of all, the political life. Though no one needs any special training in any of those to appreciate Tolkien, you have to bring something to Tolkien more than simply a desire to be entertained. Now, he is, eventually, entertaining, once you get into his world.
I've never thought of reading being a moral act, can you talk more about that?
I mean by that, our world is more and more amusement driven.
When we're driven to all the time seek to be amused, to be entertained, to have fun, then the act of not doing any of those things, of having a delayed and differed kind of gratification that comes from the act of reading — and again, it doesn't necessarily mean high-culture.
So, we're increasingly a culture where people are not exercising their minds and are at almost the complete disposal of their emotions. So reading — though it often involves deep emotional engagement with characters, plot, and so forth — becomes a way of getting beyond amusement, beyond sensate entertainment.
You say that Tolkien “refuses to cheapen the Gospel by turning art into evangelism.” Can you talk about that? How does that cheapen the Gospel?
Tolkien is a very devoutly Catholic Christian. That means, for him, the fundamental bearer of the weight of the Gospel is the Church.
That means for Tolkien that an artist has his or her own craft that must be perfected to its highest possibilities in order to serve and honor God rightly. And that also means that one also cheapens, and in fact commits sacrilege against his or her craft, when one makes it a means to some other end, even so noble an end as evangelism.
So, Tolkien was in friendly disagreement with his closest companion in these matters, C.S. Lewis. He thought Lewis had turned the Narnia Chronicles into evangelism, and Lewis said he had, he was freely willing to admit that.
The title of your lecture mentions “Our Time of Terror,” can you expand on that?
Well, the obvious reference of course, is to 9/11. I begin with Bilbo — do you know Tolkien yourself?
I'm ashamed to admit I've only seen “The Lord of the Rings” movies.
I take off from Bilbo's song — it's a song he taught Frodo, his nephew and others memorized, which says “There's a great danger in going out your door every day, for you don't know where you might be swept off to.” Of course, his point is that human existence is radically contingent, frail and vulnerable. You know, 3,000 people walked out their door that morning (of 9/11), having no idea they were going to be swept away.
The question, of course, is what to do in the face of it. Our time of terror is nothing new. It's simply intensified and made more evident by the terrorists of our time.
What I'm going to try to do is show the way in which The Lord of the Rings — and the Hobbit to a lesser extent — The Lord of the Rings is a book about terror. Terror must be, can be faced without resorting to the tactics of the terrorists. Of course that's what's most difficult: not returning evil for evil.
And your point is that Tolkien uses the Christian virtues of faith, hope and love as antidotes to terror?
Yeah. Now, he doesn't use them explicitly. Remember, that's the point. It's a Pre-Christian book. The events of the Biblical world haven't happened.
It's a Pagan book in many ways, but if you go deeply into it, you'll see it has a deeply Christian subtext.
So, what I'm trying to do is lay out the three main powers of the ring: The power of invisibility: if you have the ring, you can turn invisible; the power of coercion: if you have the ring, you can bend other people's wills to yours; and the power of longevity: if you posses the ring, you won't die, you'll go on living endlessly.
How long have you been studying Tolkien's work?
I actually was teaching Tolkien before I studied Tolkien. I began my career in 1971 at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. I assumed that I would be facing a group of (students who were) na´ve Christians who needed to have their pious little noses rubbed in the cold snows of modern unbelief. I discovered that was not the case at all. These were kids that were left over from the 60s. They had no faith that needed to be challenged. They were products of the drug culture, they were products of the protests against the Vietnam War, they were thoroughly secularized already. So I tried to hit upon ways I thought I might hook them to care about things Christian. I had read Tolkien when I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago when he came out in paperback in 1965. I hit upon teaching just the first volume of The Lord of the Rings, “The Fellowship of the Ring,” but when I got to the end, the students began to beg for more.
(My book on Tolkien) came out just as the first movie came out. It sold 30,000 copies, which is unbelievable for a serious book.
Sounds like quite an adventure.
If I remember correctly, he worked on it for a long, long time.
What is it about the Hobbits that you think makes them so endearing to people?
They're so counterintuitive. They live in ways that are almost entirely opposed to our own, and therefore they serve, I think quite deliberately, as correctives to our way of life. They eat six times a day — there's no Slim Fast in Hobbiton. They don't throw away anything. They're anti-consumers. They keep everything they have around, in the confidence it might be of future use. So, what we call “junk” they call “matum” which is the Anglo-Saxon word for “treasure.” They are small of stature, and are therefore the opposite of the he-men and he-women that our world virtually worships, but being diminutive doesn't mean they're not courageous. On the contrary, they are extraordinarily strong of will and of body and of tenacity when they put themselves to a task. Therefore, the whole of this huge cosmic story Tolkien is telling is not to be won or lost not by the great figures of the world, but by these little people called the Hobbits. They're figures of enormous encouragement.