Spiritual Reflections

Reflections on the Value of Reading and Writing (and Hobbits)

Writing and reading can lead to a spark of inspiration and how, if we have the curiosity to pursue that spark, we never know where it might lead us.

J.R.R. Tolkien once gave a lecture “On Fairy- Stories” that defined and defended the genre of fantasy literature. Reading well-crafted fantasy that immerses the reader in another world is not escapism, he maintained, but a way for the reader to recover from the trials of this world and to gain new perspectives. More, he argued, fantasy could give readers what he called a “eucatastrophe,” the joy that springs when miraculous grace intervenes to produce a happy ending when all seems lost. 

It is easy to understand why someone might want to escape the world these days: a global pandemic, climate change, systemic racism, an opioid crisis, a polarized citizenry, prejudice against immigrant refugees, and now, the unprovoked, criminal invasion of Ukraine and the deaths of so many innocent people. In the face of all that, we might ask where is our eucatastrophe? Tolkien, a survivor of the deadly trenches of World War I, answered that it lies in the birth and resurrection of Christ, God’s love for us made incarnate. Suffering continues, yet knowledge of God’s love sustains us. Moreover, he argues that we can engage in activities that help remind us of that love. For Tolkien, reading and writing can do that, since the writer enables readers to experience the process of escape, recovery, and joy, and so find the courage to stand for what is right in the world around them. It is a powerful vision of what writing and reading can do. 

This shouldn’t surprise us. In just the past year, in the face of all that brings despair, we see again and again how words uplift us. The soaring voice of young Amanda Gorman ringing out from the Capitol steps, “For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it. / If only we’re brave enough to be it.” As the war in Ukraine continues, hundreds of people have joined in online readings with Ukrainian poets to raise money for humanitarian aid. We thus hear their voices, such as that of Serhiy Zhadan, who wrote “Needle” in 2015 about a tattoo artist killed at a checkpoint. His poem encourages us to think about the role of the artist: “…carve, carve, tattoo artist, for our calling / is to fill this world with meaning, to fill it /with colors” (translated by Amelia Glaser and Yuliya Ilchuk). As people read, they connect with and care for the people of Ukraine. Reading, as Tolkien recognized, is a powerful act. 

So too is writing. Yet far too often, I see people cut themselves off from the benefits of these actions. They don’t see themselves as readers or writers (although ironically many of them spend much of the day reading and writing on their screens for both work and pleasure). I would like to urge anyone interested in wellness to reconsider, to embrace the identity of reader and writer, to experience how reading and writing can enrich our lives deeply, enhancing our emotional health and wellbeing. 

To open that door, we need to appreciate that there are all kinds of reading and writing, each with different values and purposes. Tolkien’s concept of reading as a place to refresh the soul and gain new perspectives on this world is just one. Sometimes we need challenge, to wrestle with Shakespeare’s language as Hamlet debates with himself or to wrap our minds around the impossibly hard choices of Toni Morrison’s Sethe. We read to learn of other peoples, times, and histories, to find new connections and compassion for those with different experiences. Other times, we read for information, still others for comfort, for humor or tears, a kind of aloe for a “sunburned brain,” to borrow a phrase from the poet Philip Sidney. Sometimes we re-read, choosing to revisit worlds or beloved characters or scenes. I cry every time Sam helps carry Frodo up Mt. Doom. Sometimes in the re-reading we find new insights as we ourselves grow and change. Immersing ourselves in a book can calm us, giving us distance from worry or anger, so that we can return to the world renewed. 

Similarly, there are all kinds of writing, each of them with benefits to our emotional wellness. Sometimes we have stories in us that are waiting to be told–memoirs, inventions, family legends that preserve memories for generations to come. They may never be formally published, but they are valuable all the same. When Tolkien began the labors of what would become The Lord of the Rings, he was simply inventing languages and mythologies to escape the horrors of war. So too can writing give people a creative outlet that matters. Countless creative writing programs across the country have helped military veterans cope with PTSD. Writing programs for incarcerated people have found that the process of creative writing improves prisoners’ mental health and social behaviors and reduces violence and recidivism drastically. Engaging in and sharing creative work is healing. 

Sometimes we should write just for ourselves. Too often adults dismiss the idea of keeping a diary as something for children, but many studies show the benefits of journaling on mental health, how it can reduce stress and help people cope with the effects of depression or manage the cravings of addiction. Journaling allows us to reflect on ourselves, on our actions and desires, and to consider different reactions and choices, giving us an outlet for our feelings. It is especially fascinating that studies show we think differently with an actual pen in hand. One Indiana University study showed increases of creativity when writers were using pens instead of typing, while other studies examined brain scans to reveal how different sections of the brain light up when the person is handwriting. I often encourage students to free write, to write without regard for grammar or coherence, but just to write in response to a question. It is amazing how the simple act of writing can free the mind to make new associations, to think differently and more deeply. Free writing can thus be a form of meditation that sparks creativity, mindfulness, critical thinking, and problem-solving. 

Tolkien recounts that he was marking exams when a thought struck him and he wrote on the inside cover of the exam, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” An expert in linguistics, he began to think about what was a hobbit and where would it live and so forth. How could hobbits fit in among the races of elves and dwarves and orcs he had already mythologized? The result of that moment is history.

What I love about the story is that it shows how writing and reading can lead to a spark of inspiration and how, if we have the curiosity to pursue that spark, we never know where it might lead us—perhaps to a story that the public will deem the greatest novel of the twenty-first century—or perhaps simply to a creative outlet that refreshes our minds and gives us courage to face the world around us. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *