Telling the Tales
How Our Stories Reach Back
We all exist within stories. These are the stories of our lives, families, communities, and beyond. Our stories shape and form who we are and how we act within our ethics, beliefs, and life itself. Trauma, triumph, excitement, boredom, the spectacular, and the mundane are all parts of our stories, and every interaction shapes that story.
One of the most beautiful passages in the Lord of the Rings (LOTR) is the moments before Sam and Frodo go up the steps of Cirith Ungol and talk about the great tales and the nature of their own story. I will quote portions of that passage here, but you may want to go read it yourself again, or for the first time. You can find this in chapter right of The Two Towers which is around page 712 in combined volumes. Go ahead if you wish and I will wait patiently. The passage is one which pulls at your heart and exposes the beauty of Tolkien’s storytelling.
“The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually – their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on – and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end. You know, coming home, and finding things all right, though not quite the same – like old Mr. Bilbo. But those aren’t always the best tales to hear, though they may be the best tales to get landed in! I wonder what sort of a tale we’ve fallen into?”
Sam realizes all great stories contain people who don’t realize their story is great.. This passage can be an emotional read. Between the deep and abiding friendship of Sam and Frodo and the looming Doom close by, the Hobbits are reflecting on what it means to exist and have purpose. I referred to this passage in my recent ordination biography because it described how I see my journey in life and faith.
Sam talks about the tale of Beren and Luthien from millennia prior and how even in a darker place than they find themselves a quest for a Silmaril (see the Silmarillion or the appendix of LOTR). But Sam then has an epiphany as he remembers a star glass given to Frodo by the Elf Galadriel and he finds a truth that I hope we can recognize of ourselves. “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 Eärendil. 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, the great tales do not end, not fully at least. That is a truth for us. Those of us who are Christian find ourselves in an ongoing yet ancient tale. The tale of God and God’s people is a tale of relational love and mercy. We are in a tale that has not concluded and we tell that tale over and over, adding to it as the Church ages and moves throughout our world. It is the truth that “beauty will save the world” that is used as a pejorative toward Prince Myshkin in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot and the idea that Brian Zahnd tells us is the truth of the Gospel. Like Sam and Frodo, we find ourselves in a continuing tale we shape and form within our cooperation with God such that the tale grows larger and more epic.
I hope we continue telling the stories of beauty that draw others to God rather than stories of anger and hatred that repulse. Our part in the stories “come, and go when [our] part’s ended,” but yet we tell the story we find ourselves in reaching back to “In the beginning.”
Tolkien, J.R.R.. The Lord Of The Rings (pp. 712–713). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
If you like Tolkien content and how it intersects with pop culture, check out my friend Nick Polk over at teh TolkienPop! Substack.