In the world we live in, we may be duped into thinking that one thing is as good as another, and that moral choices are apt to be swathed in shades of grey rather than stark black and white. Is it surprising, then, that worldly self-interest so often stands paramount in the calculations of individuals and states alike? Indeed, in the wake of 9/11, we have embraced such noxious practices as torture and assassination as routine instruments of state policy, never stopping to consider that using the enemy’s methods might pose a greater threat to our most cherished values than our enemy does. What do we value most in life? Material comfort and physical security? Or, as people of the cross, are we prepared to assume our role as pilgrims, as “resident aliens in a fallen world,” as Louis Markos puts it in his fascinating book, On the Shoulders of Hobbits: The Road to Virtue in Tolkien and Lewis?
Sometimes, the most obvious things may be the most readily overlooked. What could be more evident than the importance of storytelling in teaching us moral truths? In stories, we share a journey with moral exemplars who teach us which paths lead to good and which to evil. Whether it takes the form of a parable, a novel or film, storytelling is fundamental to how we learn about moral choices. Perhaps that explains part of the undying popularity of the fantastical fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Those British academics, both practising Christians, created worlds that entrance countless readers.
Markos’s book, which is a sheer delight for devotees of Middle-earth and Narnia, examines how those stories are infused with examples f the classical virtues (justice, self-control, wisdom and courage) and the Christian virtues (faith, hope and love). Replete with moral choices (like the mercy that spares the life of the treacherous and dangerous Gollum), those stories feature moral heroes-characters who choose to live rightly and whose perseverance is rewarded with what Tolkien dubbed the “eucatastrophe,” or the consolation of the happy ending that awaits all believers. What a welcome contrast to the moral nihilism that pervades so much contemporary entertainment.
John Arkelian is an author and journalist based near Toronto. Copyright © 2013 by John Arkelian.