It is nearly impossible to read authors such as Tolkien, Chesterton, Lewis, and many others without feeling a profound sense of loss. Writing as they did as the consequences of modernity (the French, Industrial, Scientific, and Russian Revolutions etc…) were at their apex, those who held to the traditional classical Christian worldview were deeply reflective of what had been lost, and where society was headed. Because of this, their works have even more gravity for those who are alive in the west today, and as I get older, they increasingly resonate with me. Those who know me well know that I tend to be a fairly “even-keeled” if energetic person, so forgive me for being more impassioned and open when it comes to this.
In Tolkien’s “legenderium” involving the Lord of the Rings and associated books, there is a clear sense that something has been lost. It is well documented that Tolkien loved the English countryside, and was very disillusioned by the mass death he witnessed during World War I (where the west decided to commit suicide). Because of this, the evil Wizard (a fallen angel of sorts) Saruman is the “mind of mettle” with “gears and wheels” and starts an industrial war factory. The world is filled with monuments and ruins of a distant past that only is remembered in song and by the ancient and learned. The elves are leaving to never return, and men are but a shadow of their former glory. This is also captured fairly well in the movie adaptations. After teaching a class on the pre-modern worldview, where the concepts of honor, patronage, kinship, purity, holiness and a variety of other values were stressed, my local pastor remarked that “it is because of this that when one watches the Lord of the Rings, you almost want to weep at what has been lost…Men of the West, I bid you stand!…what happened?”* The loss of many of the cultural values listed is what happened, and the question is whether or not they can be recovered, restored, and defended for the future. In Tolkien’s story, the West does make a last stand and certain things are restored and made whole again, but never at the same level they once were. If anything, our culture doesn’t even remember the past in song and legend anymore, trying to reduce everything to a sort of dry scientific history and subjecting ancient heroes to social and psychological analysis. In other words, a culture and history that is completely soulless.
This sort of thinking can also be found in Chesterton’s work, when he talks about the romance of orthodoxy, and the romance of domesticity. Because both the Scientific and Industrial revolutions had reduced man to mere machines (and this still happens in today’s education and workplace environments), Chesterton found romance in the ordinary things, the things that “modern science” had reduced to naturalistic and meaningless processes. Chesterton could not stand this, and found the most exciting things to be the domestic (i.e. traditional family) life, and the orthodox Christian faith, based on what has always been believed. The modern mindset had eliminated any sense of mystery and the sense of “bigness” and wonder when it comes to God and his world. It is in this context that Chesterton would make many of his famous quips, such as “Tradition is the democracy of the dead,” or that “The world will never starve for want of wonders, but for want of wonder.” He also had the idea that for adventure, a man broke into his own house and had an affair with his own wife. Because the western world has progressed even more down the road of decadence (meaning decline), Chesterton is even more relevant than ever.
Many would call this sort of thinking “romanticism,” the broad term used to describe the arts and culture that reacted against the post-Enlightenment worldview. In England, this even impacted the Anglican church in what is known as the “Oxford Movement” or “high church” movement, in which the sense of mystery, deep spirituality, and serious art was considered superior both to the rationalistic “scientific” types who were destroying theology, and to the individualist and democratic evangelical mindset. Some found their way into the traditional forms of Roman Catholicism, while others and their descendents still work today to restore this sense of mystery and beauty in the church. This is especially true in churches that have maintained the ancient worship practices of the church, and is also why many my age are attracted to the mysterious and beautiful worship of Eastern Orthodoxy. I have read and heard many young people express a longing for a sense of something greater than themselves, even when it comes to the architecture of a church building, and interestingly, young people in many cases prefer the old gothic cathedrals far more than their grandparents!
So give me music that timelessly reflects the great tradition of the west, and carries it forward. Give me art that tries to capture the transcendent, and actually attempts to represent the wonder of creation and faith. Give me the church that bases itself on the Scriptures and the faith handed down by the fathers and everything that comes with it. Give me legends and heroes that are actually noble, good, and represent timeless virtues, rather than books that reduce everything good to machinery for analysis. Give me the romance of the domestic life and the great mystery that is marriage and parenthood. But even more than this, give me Christ, who is far greater than anything we can imagine, “not a tame Lion” (Lewis), and who at the end of all things, will restore things to what they should be, of which we who are in the faith have a foretaste of now through the life of the church.
* For the record, I did weep twice, and have a hard time not doing so still at two occasions during the films. Once, towards the end of “The Two Towers” when after a night of death, destruction, loss, and a last stand, Gandalf the White and a host of cavalry show up and with the sunrise demolish the enemy forces of darkness. As they descend the hillside and the sunlight breaks over-top, the effect is overwhelming (accompanied by a simple boy soprano voice musically), and I honestly cannot help but shed tears. In today’s culture, it is hard not to feel like one under siege at Helm’s Deep, waiting for the dawn to break and for the people of the west to not only make a last stand, but to rescue each other.
The second time involved the speech that Aragorn gives towards the end of “The Return of the King,” in which he rallies the troops one last time to face the forces of evil as a diversion for Frodo to destroy the ring. His words of “…when the age of man comes crashing down, but not this day. This day we fight! By all that you hold dear, I bid you stand, men of the west!” If only…if only.