I was fifteen, about to embark on my first overseas experience. I had my passport, my visa, and my clothes (expertly packed), but I was lacking one item essential for transcontinental travel: a book. In the end, Terry Brooks and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle were consigned to my checked baggage, and J.R.R. Tolkien took his honored place in my carry-on. That flight to Fortaleza inaugurated what has since become an established ritual for me.
You see, during times of extreme change in my life, I (re)read The Lord of the Rings. I still have the same paperback that accompanied me to Brazil and, according to the tally on the epigraph page, I’ve read it six times. The book was my companion during two cross-country moves, my marriage, and my time serving as a missionary in South Asia.
I would argue that Tolkien’s fantasy epic is an excellent applicant to any missionary’s library. When you’ve exhausted the in-flight entertainment system and your Kindle’s running dry, J.R.R. can still spin his tale under your reading lamp. When the Road ahead does indeed go on and on, and home is far behind, Tolkien is the ideal companion. Here are a few reasons why.
The Great Escape
Many a self-styled literary critic has sneered at fairy tales as escapist, as flights of fancy that draw the reader out of the “real” world. And they are perfectly right. As Tolkien himself said in On Fairy-Stories, “Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?”
The Lord of the Rings is an escape, not out of reality, but into it. We live our twenty-first century lives hemmed in by the incessant lie that this world is all there is, that truth, goodness, and beauty are nothing more than random sparks in the simian brain. We’re told repeatedly that chance and reproductive impulse are all that govern the universe. But Tolkien will have none of that foolishness. He leads us out of physical facts through glorious fantasy so that we may finally arrive at eternal Truth.
“The Lord of the Rings is an escape, not out of reality, but into it.”
For you see, this tale of talking trees and wandering wizards invites the reader to believe in truths that are more real than anything we can hold in hands of flesh. It insists on the existence of courage, justice, redemption, and friendship. It holds fast to the dream that small and insignificant folk can “arise from their quiet fields to shake the towers and counsels of the Great.” It clings to Sam Gamgee’s mad hope that one day, “everything sad [is] going to come untrue.” It’s a clear and gentle call to keep believing everything worth believing in, and few need to hear that call more desperately than the missionary.
There and Back Again
My flight to South Asia took me farther away from home than I’d ever been in more ways than geographical. I stepped off that plane and deep into a land of shadow, a land where precious few had heard of the Light of the world. But Tolkien’s world was a familiar path through a strange forest. I could journey with Strider and his hobbits as they journeyed with me, and they gave me space to feel my homesickness while staying true to my quest. “I feel,” as Frodo does, “that as long as the Shire lies behind, safe and comfortable, I shall find wandering more bearable: I shall know that somewhere there is a firm foothold, even if my feet cannot stand there again.” Middle-Earth was warm and familiar, even if it was fantasy, and I needed that breath of familiar air as home faded fast behind me.
Because, for many missionaries, even the flight back to the States is not truly a homecoming. We’ve changed. We no longer fit into the spaces we left. We’re surrounded by friends and family who love us deeply but who can’t really understand the world we’ve seen, any more than Sam’s Gaffer could understand the songs of Lórien or the dungeons of Moria.
“Even as I longed, sometimes even wept, for home, Tolkien faithfully reminded me that, truth be told, I haven’t been there yet.”
But as Frodo observes, “It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them,” and that is as true for gospel worker as it is for the Ringbearer. A missionary gives up home, not just for a time, but often for a lifetime, so that others can be brought home to the family of God. And they return to their respective Shires with an elvish air, a touch of strangeness about them, as if they don’t quite belong in this world. Because, after all, they don’t. No Christian does. We are “strangers and exiles on the earth . . . seeking a homeland . . . a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Heb. 11:13–16 ESV).
Even as I longed, sometimes even wept, for home, Tolkien faithfully reminded me that, truth be told, I haven’t been there yet. I knew, like Master Samwise, that “in the end the shadow [i]s only a small and passing thing: there [i]s light and high beauty forever beyond its reach,” and that Light is my true home. I tread and retread the paths of Rivendell and the streets of Minas Tirith with the confidence that, even in their glory, they are but a small foretaste of the eternal home waiting for us.
The missionary makes their home on the ragged edge of the kingdom of God, joining their voices each day with all creation as it groans for redemption. We confidently hope in truth we cannot see (Rom. 8:18–25). But through Tolkien’s masterpiece, we catch a flash of the day when “the grey rain-curtain turn[s] all to silver glass and [i]s rolled back, and [w]e beh[o]ld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.”
Jaclyn S. Parrish worked as a writer for IMB in South Asia. She currently serves in the US as a writer, editor, and social media associate for IMB. You can follow her on Twitter at @JaclynSParrish.