First let us raise a toast to “the Professor” on this his 121st birthday.
I have been thinking a lot about Tolkien recently. Partly it was watching The Hobbit (verdict: quite good), partly it was finding myself in the environs of his boyhood home in Birmingham on a visit to family. I have also been reading The Silmarillion as an antidote to the hi-tech brew that is Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth. I would like to consider the genre of fantasy fiction for a moment, with Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories” serving as inspiration.
By “fairy stories” we mean of course Märchen — not something frivolous or childish — and for Tolkien it is essential that they be presented as if they are “true.” It is this verisimilitude that is so striking about The Silmarillion — the author’s voice is barely Tolkien’s; the whole thing reads exactly like some ancient Norse tale. Of course, this does not mean that the reader will believe in elves or ents, but that is not the point. Rather, it is the seeming authenticity of the myth that draws us beyond the author and into a realm of truth. To illustrate: I do not believe in Ilúvatar — at least not as so named and phenomenised by Tolkien — but in reading the Ainulindalë (his creation myth) my thoughts went far beyond Tolkien’s words and to my own inklings of cosmogony and the divine. That it is read as myth is key.
There is much that is of good report in fairy stories, it seems. I wonder if scripture can be read in the same way. I suspect not, though I somehow wish it more easily could be. The Old Testament is the best candidate, I think, given the mythological nature of many of the stories and the deeper truths they contain (mythological meant here in its positive, truth-bearing sense). Not that that is how we tend to read it, of course. Mormon scripture is even less mythological, going far beyond verisimilitude: it is all verum and not just verum + similis. Readers of the Book of Mormon, both friend and foe, have tended to obsess about its historicity and very little else. If Joseph Smith had presented The Lord of Rings as scripture we would barely get beyond quarrels about whether Hobbits had ever really lived in England. Had Tolkien done so, he would be ranked with L. Ron Hubbard.
That is the curse of the Book of Mormon and scripture in general: if it is literally true, then it makes all the difference in the world, but because of this weight that it carries, few really read it for its “fairy stories.” And it is because it is free of that weight that the story of Middle-earth (and similar tales) can often be a much more interesting and enlightening read. This is a problem that goes beyond Mormonism, of course: I will admit that my own approach to the Bhagavad Gita has been hampered by a worm that refuses to leave my head — did Arjuna and Krishna really have this conversation? — and might partially explain why the pages of Tolkien are worn and those of the Gita are not. The reason has less to do with the entertainment offered by the narrative — have you read The Silmarillion?! — and more to do with exactly the power of “fairy stories” that Tolkien described.
Let us, then, ask this: is scripture spoiled by being called scripture?