The Lord of the Rings & the Bigger Story

I first read The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy trilogy, when I was in 5th grade. The books were having a resurgence after Tolkien’s death and bands like Led Zeppelin were referencing Mordor and Frodo’s perilous quest.

But something unique happened when I finished the final chapter of The Return of the King. It was totally different from the empty feeling in my gut when I’d finished C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, looking at the final page and knowing that I wouldn’t be reading any more, even with Lewis’ brilliant conclusion:

And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story, which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.

There is a truth to what Lewis wrote that is deep in its own right: What we experience now is a part of a reality that is far greater than what we feel we  experience. That reality is God. And his life, his story, his being stretches out far beyond our own small lives, small stories, small beings. When we see him face to face and know as we are known (1 Cor. 13), we will participate in his reality to a far deeper extent than we ever have. Lewis captures all of that in his wonderful book The Great Divorce and in these final words of The Last Battle, Narnia’s conclusion.

But Lewis’ friend Tolkien, finished his yarn in a far different way. He added pages upon pages of appendices. To many, they feel tacked on and are never read or given a second thought. But to my 5th grade self, they were an amazing set of gifts.

First of all, the appendices enabled me to keep on reading.

Tolkien’s story was so good and true and beautiful that I didn’t want it to end. Not ever.

I wanted to keep reading and staying immersed in that world for as long as possible. And where Lewis had told me that the world and stories he’d written about were merely the cover and title page of the real story, my actual reading was done. I wanted more but couldn’t do anything but start reading from the beginning again (which I did seven times before I finished elementary school). But Tolkien was actually offering me more pages to turn and more words to read and I couldn’t have been more grateful.

The next gift of these appendices was unexpected. They took this engrossing tale of the war of the One Ring and put it in a far bigger context. What Lewis hinted at, Tolkien’s appendices actually did. They delved back down into the history of the ages of elves and the coming of men to Middle Earth and they continued the story of not just the beloved characters of The Lord of the Rings, but continued well past their deaths and on to generations far beyond.

I remember being overwhelmed. I had been so enthralled by The Lord of the Rings that it consumed all of my unfilled thinking time (and not having video games back then, there was a lot to be filled) and even my supposed-to-be-full thinking time, causing my grades to slump. But now, with these appendices, I was discovering that this story I’d been consumed by was merely one scene in one act of a large and complex play.

When I came across the name Morgoth, I was stunned. Sauron had been the ultimate in evil in The Lord of the Rings, but here I was discovering that he was a servant — a servant! — of Morgoth. He was merely one of many incarnations of evil, not the Evil One himself.

One the lighter side, there were stories of Merry, Pippen, and Sam that fed my need for more information about the characters I had come to consider my friends. But the stories didn’t stop with them. They continued on to their deaths and their children’s deaths. That was sobering. As a kid, I wanted endless stories, not death.

Even so, I poured over the family trees that Tolkien had sketched out in his compulsive need for completeness. And these became a third gift.

Because of Tolkien, I became enamored by family trees. Afterward, I would sit for hours, gazing over and trying to make sense of the tangled trees of British monarchs and even my own family’s tree.

These were people, real people. Each had lived and loved and died. Each name in each tree was an entire life. A simple name was shorthand for every experience, every joy and pain, every accomplishment of a lifetime.

Under each name were the horrible numbers, the dates that bracketed the span of their lives — birth dates and death dates. And there were black lines tying the names together, coupling mother and father together and leading to their child(ren) or leading nowhere at all, in which case the summary “no issue” proclaimed a dead end to that part of the tree.

OK. Now for a quick shift in gears to get to where this whole post is going.

This morning, I was listening to an audio version of the Bible and I got to one of the most skipped-over parts of the entire Bible — the genealogies at the beginning of 1 Chronicles. They are mind-numbingly dull.

But the sheer volume of these names is cause for pause. Just like Tolkien’s family trees and those royal trees I’d poured over as a 5th grader, the Chronicler’s list is made of up real people, each name summarizing a lifetime.

And just as Tolkien’s tree expanded my vision for the immensity of the world I had entered into through the pages of The Lord of the Rings, so, too, do these names in 1 Chronicles. But these names are each points of connection with the world of God.

Each name on the list represents someone who walked with God. Or walked away from God. Each name is, therefore, a doorway into the world of relationship with God.

And the strangeness of the names, with the difficulty in pronouncing them, is itself a sign of the kind of a world we’re entering.

When we deal with God, we’re not in familiar territory. We’re not in controlled and catalogued territory. We’re in the midst of the unknown, the untamed, the unexplored.

These names point to a pile of histories of God of which I have no knowledge. I know almost none of the stories represented by the names in the Chronicler’s list, just like I knew nothing of those royals, with their names, dates, and connecting lines. Their summaries are too brief for anything close to knowledge. And yet the summaries speak to a substance that is at least as deep as my own life.

And God knows not just the names on the list that buzzes by half-heard on my audiobook, but he knows the substance of each life summarized by their names. And even more than that, he has engaged with every detail of those summarily dismissed lives.

Our lives may rise up and wither away like grass, as Moses suggests in Psalm 90, but each blade of grass has roots in the One who is the Ground of our being. Each points to the Infinite One who is God. And each points to the Relational One who is God. He is both deep and wide.

And so I, again, say thank you to Tolkien for connecting me to the More who is God. He is far more than me, even though I reduce him down to being the provider of what I want and need and feel far too often. And his story is far more than my own small and often pointless story.

But just as Sam’s and Frodo’s stories found significance by their place within the vast story of Middle Earth, so, too, does my story and yours find its significance by our places with God’s Vast Story.