Different Kinds of Happy

The Importance of Story

The past hour, I was swept up into the Shire via the yellowed, musty-smelling pages of my dad’s 1973 edition of The Fellowship of the Ring. My heart lightened from the heaviness of a work-week to witness the magical fireworks only a wizard can produce, and my feet itched to chase Bilbo into the unknown. Fiction, I’m reminded is not only fun. It is vitally important to life. But before you blow me off as an insufferable nerd, (yes, I was an English lit major) let me explain.

So often, my evening routine looks like this: I get home from work, eat dinner, sweat out all the frustrations of the day on a run around the lake, and browse the internet for a delicious new recipe, thought-provoking blog post, or Parks and Recreation marathon. On a good day, I spend endless hours job hunting or write a blog post of my own (so it’s a good night, I guess?). But it seems as though I’m wearing blinders much of the time, like I’m somehow missing out on something.

As Tolkien plunged me into Middle Earth, a world not too unlike ours — darkened by fear of coming war yet clothed in the cheer of parties and pipe-weed — he took me out of myself even for just an hour. Deep in the story, I forgot about my personal struggles and remembered there’s a great big world out there with complex problems I understand no more than Frodo realized the ring’s power.

The paradigm of story as the basis for reality is beautiful because it implies that although we travel different paths, one overarching story binds us all together. See, it’s natural to think that the worries of today are the ultimate reality, that these “light momentary afflictions” of red lights when you’re late to work or feelings of despair in the face of an unknown future are all there is.

I’m not advocating a Pollyanna perspective and think it’s foolish to deny or ignore the darkness. But I do think it’s possible to be so consumed with your own story that you lose sight of the bigger one. You forget that the supposedly blank space around the Shire is actually teeming with Ents and dwarves and others who are quite content without knowledge of your existence.

Story, Tolkien reminded me, makes us more human, closer to our true selves because it emboldens and humbles us. Paradoxical, right? We are the characters whose kindness and courage make our corners of the world a little better. But we’re dust and vapor, too.

Pardon me. Frodo just got stabbed and time is of the essence …

This entry was published on March 29, 2014 at 1:25 am and is filed under Life, Literature. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

2 thoughts on “The Importance of Story

  1. I think you would find Josh Grace’s (http://wrestlinginthedark.wordpress.com/) senior thesis really interesting. You might want to ask him for it — he explores the archetypal form of fantasy as a genre and claims this “escapism / return” phenomena you’re describing here is necessary for that form to succeed.
    He introduced me to this excellent quote from John Timmerman which I think goes along the lines of your thoughts here: “The reader longs to stand apart for a time, not to escape but to rejoin earth’s ‘pathless wood’ with a clearer sense of direction and purpose.”

  2. Thanks for the tip! I would love to read it.
    And that quote is golden. 🙂 That’s the exact idea I was trying to capture here.

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