Slowing Down with Tolkien, Lectio Divina

With all that’s been going on in my life lately, I’ve been finding it necessary to take action to slow down.

I know, that sounds like an oxymoron.  But as a recovering perfectionist and incorrigible planner, I tend to labor over any life changes, even if it’s merely the quest to find a little peace and quiet.  I have learned a few things from this methodical approach, although in reality, just the awareness of trying to slow down has helped lead me into some more practical, if unexpected, steps.

Turning off the “TV”

Prior to all of this, I had (for other reasons) decided to take a YouTube fast for three weeks this past November.  For me, YouTube is the equivalent of cable TV, except that I get to choose the content through a very personalized subscription list.  Typically, I can spend hours just trying to keep up with each channel, and I actually avoid some channels in part because I can’t keep up.

Taking a break was really hard, but very good.  I did not feel particularly happy knowing I was missing out on all my favorite YouTubers, but at the same time, it forced to me do more reading.  It’s probably the reason I managed to finish Kirkegaard’s The Concept of Anxiety, a book which was as dry as YouTube is enthralling.

Coming back to YouTube in December, I’d been dreading the “catch up” phase. What I didn’t expect was that my fast had changed my perspective.  Now I see a lot of videos I could watch, but viewed collectively, only some of them stand out as actually interesting.  I feel motivated by this to limit my viewing now and may even unsubscribe from some channels.

A Long-Expected Viewing Party

Something really exciting happened during my YouTube fast.

The local library had the full, extended-edition Hobbit trilogy.  More importantly, the DVDs all arrived for me at once.  Unheard of!

My siblings and I have been watching it over the past few weeks – it’s new to us.  “Extended edition” is by definition “slow,” but in a good way.  It gives you space to really savor each segment and talk about it.   

I don’t know if it’s the “extendedness,” but I love these three films more than ever and in some ways as much as The Lord of the Rings.  It’s really apples and oranges, yet I’m a child at heart, and The Hobbit especially appeals to my love of fairy tales.

You can read about my history with Tolkien here.  I have just started re-reading The Lord of the Rings for the first time.  I don’t know how long it’ll take me – and in the spirit of slowing down, that’s ok.  I just don’t want to wait for the “perfect time.”

The Bible and Lectio Divina

As a Christian, I’ve read the Bible through once or twice, in addition to studying sections of it.  But it’s been a while since I read it regularly, and I’ve found it difficult to get back into it.

During my break from YouTube, I listened to several episodes of The Word on Fire Show, a podcast by Bishop Robert Barron from Los Angeles.  He talks about books on occasion; I think I first stumbled across his talks on YouTube, possibly to do with Shūsaku Endō’s The Silence (a book I have yet to read).  I’m not Catholic, and I don’t agree with all of Barron’s views, but of the episodes I’ve listened to, I’ve found the podcast to be interesting, educational, and well presented.

One of his older episodes is about “5 Ways to Pray Better Today.”  In it, he talks about lectio divina, a method of prayer and Bible reading traditionally used by Benedictine monks.  It’s broken down into four steps (which I paraphrase from Wikipedia):

  1. Lectio (read) – Read a passage of Scripture.
  2. Meditatio (meditate) – Ponder over what you have read.
  3. Oratio (pray) – Speak to God.
  4. Contemplatio (contemplate) – A calm silence.  Bp. Barron describes this step as “contemplative listening to what God wants to tell you.”

Coming from a Protestant background, I had never heard of lectio divina before.  I tried this for the first time the other night, reading John 17

John 17 is one of my favorite parts of the Bible and certainly one of the most beautiful passages of all literature.  Absorbing it slowly and with prayer brought me so much peace.  I think I will continue lectio divina as I re-read the New Testament.

Looking to the New Year

As planned, I’ve read at least 40 books this year.  Much of that was for my podcast, which I highly enjoyed while I had time to do it.  I still want to bring it back next year, though it’s looking doubtful if I will have the energy for it.

I’ve shelved Flannery O’Connor‘s Complete Stories and Václav Havel’s Open Letters for the time being.  Same with Hawthorne’s Complete Tales and Sketches.  I love anthologies, but the best way to read them is at intervals, not all at once.  (I made the latter mistake with Kafka.)

Next year remains open.  How many books will I read?  I don’t know if I want to set a goal.  Ideally I’d like to avoid reading several books at once, which is what happened this year.  Focusing on one book at a time and avoiding multi-tasking – these are going to help me get more out of my reading and enjoy life.

Reading, watching, and writing updates

Reading
Something not immediately evident from this blog is that I’m a recent “fan” (for lack of a more precise word) of Soren Kierkegaard‘s writings.  His book Works of Love changed my life in 2016, but being so profound in topic, it was not a book I felt comfortable writing a review on.  I did review Fear and Trembling, though once again, not delving too deeply as I felt myself inadequate of completely analyzing it. 

I approach philosophy as outsider, not from the “ground up,” so many cross-references are a bit lost on me.  However, there’s something addictive about Kierkegaard in particular that makes the struggle worthwhile.  It’s like listening to the ramblings of a friend who would be incredibly obnoxious if he weren’t so incredibly brilliant, even obviously to outsiders like me.   


The Concept of Anxiety has sat on my bookshelf for a while.  Right now I’m going through a great deal of anxiety (though not the worst I’ve ever experienced, by any means), and it just seemed like the time to read it. 

I can tell you right now I will not be reviewing this book, because once again, it is a bit over my head.  Actually, this is the toughest book of his I’ve read.  I don’t know if it’s the translator or the material itself, but it makes Works of Love and Fear and Trembling seem simplistic by comparison. 

Anyways, as far as I can discern, Kierkegaard’s theme here is multi-layered, but one motif that stands out to me is the idea that anxiety preceded original sin. Maybe “uncertainty” would be a better word for this context.  Really what he’s suggesting is that Adam experienced “the anxious possibility of being able [to sin]” (p. 54) before he ever actually committed sin.  This is equated to freedom or free will.

And that is the simplest takeaway I can offer from this book, thus far.  (I’m over halfway.)

Watching
The other day, I rewatched Horatio Hornblower: Duty (2003), finishing out my campaign to introduce the series to my brother. 

I’d remembered this as my least favorite episode of the eight-episode series, which follows the early career of a Royal Navy officer in the Napoleonic Wars.  Rewatching it much later, I realized it’s not a weak film per se, simply misplaced as the final episode in the series (its being the final episode is clearly unplanned, if the screenplay is any indication). 

The trouble with Duty is that it shows all the faults of a protagonist we’ve come to admire, with minimal distraction to offset the painful human interactions.  Hornblower has never been particularly deft at “soft skills,” but here he’s rather abysmal for nearly the whole ninety minutes, whether he’s (mis)communicating with Maria, his loyal wife, or managing his unwanted political passengers.

On the other hand, if this had merely been the middle episode of a longer series, I think its focus on Hornblower’s faults would be seen as the middle of a character arc, as opposed to somewhat of a letdown.  In fact, trying to forget it was the ending to the series, I could actually appreciate the human drama. 

In other news – I’ll be picking up the extended editions of The Hobbit from the library today.  Haven’t seen them yet, so looking forward to binge-watching them over the weekend (or maybe next weekend).

Writing
By NaNoWriMo standards, I’m quite a bit behind, but my goal is not to reach 50k this year, just to finish my novel.

The trouble I’m having now is that I just finished a major scene but had forgotten I had an outline for it (sigh).  So I either need to rewrite/extend the scene or try to move on without those additional plot twists.

My gut feeling is to move on because I’m starting to get novel fatigue – I have been working on this for three years, so at this point it might be wise to get right to the ending and fill in details later.

She – A Classic, or a Trendy Tale of Obsession?

John William Godward - Atalanta

If the title brings to mind a song by the classic tenor Charles Aznavour, you wouldn’t be far off from the theme of H. Rider Haggard‘s book.  The song’s tender, yet at times worshipful lyrics could be one way to describe the “spell” which She, Ayesha, inspires in those who are privileged (or cursed) to look upon her unveiled face.  As might be expected, those who do so find their lives bound to hers, and, like a drug, she compels them to love her, in spite of her unpleasant ways.

But let’s start at the beginning.  It’s the late 19th century, and young Leo Vincey learns from his adoptive father Horace Holly that he is heir to a special family heirloom, comprised chiefly of an ancient piece of pottery.  The pottery is covered in writing, which tells a grim tale of Leo’s ancient ancestor, Kallikrates, being lusted after and then murdered by a mysterious, white sorceress, who lives in Africa.  Kallikrates’ wife urges her descendants to seek out Ayesha and avenge their father.  Leo, evidently finding life in Cambridge too safe for his liking, decides to go to Africa and see if there’s any truth in the story.  Holly and Job, like the good friends they are, agree to accompany him.

She caverns

What follows is an adventure that is both bizarre and, at times, humorous (both intentionally and unintentionally).  On the one side, you have a classic premise of a search for lost treasure – in this case, lost revenge – and on the other hand, there’s a reverse Sleeping Beauty twist, in which an innocent prince is to be “awoken” by a wicked witch.  This rather unique premise seemed like a good idea for a story, but personally I found its execution to be lacking, both in terms of content and message as well as in the somewhat pedestrian writing style.

In spite of its flaws, Haggard’s novel and the fierce title character influenced both C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, who would later create their own “queen” characters not dissimilar to Ayesha.  Fortunately for us, the less savory aspects of She – including its dated handling of race, class, and female characters – were either greatly reduced or replaced in those later works, particularly in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.  For more on that (and some other fun facts), please check out my latest podcast episode on Classics Considered, which goes into it in detail.

Overall, I would give She 2.5 out of 5 stars; it’s interesting in a historical and literary context, but not a must-read.  For a stronger “lost world” novel, I’d recommend The Lost World (surprise!) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

The Children of Húrin, and their Middle Earth

By David Revoy [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Courage, resilience, loyalty, and hope.  These themes, among many others, permeate J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and its immediate prequel, The Hobbit.  I think of these ideas to be as much Tolkienesque as the “ring saga” itself: the bleakness in LOTR is well exceeded by acts of bravery and strength of faith.  Yet if you go back further in Middle Earth history to The Children of Húrin, you’ll find very different tale, as similar as it may seem in most respects.

Before Sauron, there was another dark lord called Morgoth.  Like Sauron, Morgoth intended to rule all Middle Earth, and he was merciless to any who stood in his way.  Túrin, son of Húrin, is compelled by his mother Morwen to leave the eventual war zone of his home village and find refuge with the elves in Doriath.  Though a natural leader, Túrin is hotheaded and impulsive, and in a world where all must fend for themselves, he finds it easier to make friends than to keep them.  As he grows from boy to man, with all the glory and heartbreak that his heritage has left him, Túrin feels he must take on Morgoth in his own way, and, if he can, reunite with his mother and the sister he has never met.

I regret putting this off so long.  It’s a bleak, lingering wreck of a story, more disturbing than shocking.  I loved the characterization of Túrin and Morwen, because they seemed to me very real people, given their circumstances.  Túrin has good intentions, but in the greater scheme of things, he is not particularly heroic.  I would hardly expect him to be; he’s just trying to survive, and that without a Shire to remember, or a Samwise to turn to.

Some of the plot was a little repetitive; most of it was tragic and depressing.  By the end, I almost felt like it was too tragic, to the point of melodrama, but that might just be me.  I give it 3.5 out of 5 stars, though I rounded to 4 on Goodreads.  Recommended to those who enjoyed reading LOTR and also anyone who likes mythology stories.

The Hobbit

In a hole in a ground there lived a hobbit.

…something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick. 
 
With this year’s release of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, it was one of my goals for 2012 to read J. R. R. Tolkien‘s book again.  The previous (and first) time I’d read it, several years ago, it had been to cheer me up after the super emotional ending of The Return of the King (the last volume of The Lord of the Rings).  I loved The Hobbit as a prequel to LOTR, but the more lighthearted storyline was difficult to appreciate at the time.

The plot, very simply, follows Bilbo Baggins, thirteen dwarves, and the wizard Gandalf as they embark on a journey to the Lonely Mountain, where they hope to kill the dragon Smaug and regain the dwarves’ homeland and immense treasure.  Of course, nothing ever goes exactly as planned.  There are many evil creatures between the Shire and the Mountain, and many warlike people with agendas of their own.  Bilbo’s own journey is one of self-discovery, along with the discovery of a magic ring.

Being able to visualize The Hobbit through photos from Jackson’s movie has really helped me view it in a context more similar to LOTR.  And, proportionally, The Hobbit may be lighter reading than LOTR, but for a fairytale there is still much to learn from and marvel at.  You don’t have to be a child, either – if you enjoy fairytales, fantasy, and/or adventure stories, I highly recommend The Hobbit5 out of 5 stars.

The pines were roaring on the height,
The wind was moaning in the night.
The fire was red, it flaming spread;
The trees like torches blazed with light.