It came as something of a shock, when I was writing that first post in this series, to see that idea slide into place: I shoved so much stuff, over so many years, that I knew was fiction into my cortex that it crowded out faith. I think the elements were present in disparate parts of my awareness for a long time. They may even have gotten together and made out one evening, a long time ago. I couldn’t say for sure.
I picked up the Lord of the Rings when I was eleven, as I traditionally estimate. It was before we moved out of the old house, for I can remember sitting in a chair before those thick brown drapes over those nine foot windows some summer evening and reading. I had seen the books on the shelves for years, and had worked up to them. I must have read the Swiss Family Robinson six times. Still, the Lord of the Rings was three books that size… a major investment of time.
Over the years I probably read the Lord of the Rings fifteen times; the last time was probably almost twenty years ago. I hardly need to read them again. I’ve watched the movies, and I could sit with you and explain every detail that was changed between the books and the films and its significance to the arcs of the characters involved. I read the Silmarillion three or four times; the Unfinished Tales, some of them another ten to twenty times, some less.
I was obsessed. I had to know every detail, watch the progress of Tolkien’s whole subcreation from beginning to the end, where it tried to merge into the real world… an interesting trick.
I think Tolkien is at the near end of a bridge back into the former age. Go back further, and the exercise of storytelling clearly “starts” to follow a different set of norms from those of today. Today, every writer and reader knows they are making something up. In the past, it seemed oddly necessary to at least keep up the appearance of speaking of the real world, that one’s tales really happened long ago. I wonder how often classical writers ever believed they were writing fiction at all.
The other side of that sense is that ancient and medieval and early modern writers chose only to write things that they at least thought could really have happened. Vergil did not sit down to use his prodigious skill on a fictional tale; he pulled out a strand of putative Roman history to spin into his tapestry. Even the writer of Judith, who seems pretty clearly to have had no actual historical event to serve as the core of his story, has nevertheless woven several recognizable real world elements (Nebuchadnezzar, Babylon, the geography of Judea) into his morality play.
This whole complex of ideas cannot help but be the subject of hundreds and thousands of doctoral dissertations at this point. I only mention it to place my own experience in perspective. No one in the centuries before Christ, or most of the centuries after, spent time filling his or her head with tales obviously spun out of whole cloth about galaxies long, long ago and far, far away. Now we live in cultures where tens of percent of the population do, I prominently among them. I have even brewed up my own such tales away in secret where almost no one has yet seen them.
What will come of it all?