In his very excellent and moving book C. S. Lewis: Man of Letters, Thomas Howard writes of Lord of the Rings: “We find at work in that world such notions as majesty and mystery and purity and nobility and taboo and heroism and so forth—all of which we tend to attach to ‘antiquity’” (46).
Nobility. Purity. Majesty. Mystery.
After I was done with Howard for the day, I kept repeating these words to myself. They so effectively communicate what I’m trying to get at in all my reviews of Tolkien’s masterpiece. I use words like “soaring,” “deep,” “rich,” “timeless”—all adjectives trying to describe the book. But Howard’s list of nouns somehow embodies the book—not how it feels, but what it actually figures forth.
Nobility. Purity. Majesty. Mystery. I love these words: just the words themselves. Why do they make my spirit stand at attention, so to speak?
I think it is because they make me feel small. They make me feel with conviction that there is something out there bigger than I am, something I don’t measure up to but definitely aspire to, something I want to be part of. They remind me of humanity as a whole, of Important Ideas that existed long before me and will exist long after I am gone.
I don’t encounter these terms much in modern culture, but I think we would do well to stand back and behold them: not to sneer at them or deconstruct them or subvert them, as we often do, but to measure ourselves and find ourselves smaller.
I’ve written before how feeling small is actually a step through into joy. If you’ve ever felt awe at a giant redwood, humility at the Grand Canyon, amazement at the Milky Way, wonder at long-standing ancient ruins, admiration at Beethoven’s 9th, or satisfaction at being one voice in a choir of hundreds, you know as well as I do: feeling small is good for our souls.
Note that I am talking about feeling small in myself, against an objective measure. Trying to make others feel small is evil. When I was growing up, my mom told me that bullying was the other kids trying to make me feel small, because it helped them feel bigger.
Considering all of this, it’s funny how much time and effort I spend trying to make myself feel bigger. If joy occurs most often when I feel self-forgetful, you’d think I’d want to camp out there, not constantly angle for more screen time in my own and others’ lives. Logically, it just doesn’t follow.
But I must admit there is a rush of what feels like joy when we get recognized or gain some position of power. Yet it is the kind of joy that immediately fades and leaves me hungry: how can I maneuver to gain more of this feeling? The rush of joy at feeling small, however, doesn’t cause that grasping mentality. It’s more receptive, open-handed, glad to treasure the memory.
In a work where victory comes from relinquishing power, I think this is why Tolkien makes hobbits our main concern. They don’t need to get smaller; they just are small. They are more receptive to the good, and more resistant to the bad, because they have no foolish pretensions of making themselves bigger in the world. Frodo voluntarily serves as atoning priest for the world in the most thankless and hopeless task imaginable; Sam’s goal is only to be his helper. Merry and Pippin both find their places serving in Rohan and Gondor, respectively.
They’re not angling for big things. They are small. They don’t aspire to change the world, but they aspire to do the small, menial, servant-like things before them well. And through the books about them we find Nobility, Purity, Majesty, and Mystery—the glory and world-changing potential of accepting that small is exactly what we are, and that it is good.
Howard, Thomas. C. S. Lewis: Man of Letters. Ignatius, 1987.