How does one create a hero at a time when heroes have fallen out of favor? Much of the literature of the twentieth century shows an ambivalence about this question. During the bloodiest century the world had ever known, a time of ever increasing disillusionment, the conventional hero became an increasingly rare figure in literature and the “anti-hero” increasingly popular. Against this background, J. R. R. Tolkien envisioned a character who embodied an old-fashioned ideal of heroism—but not at all in a conventional way.
The quest to recover a lost piece of priceless jewelry seems a natural topic for a good adventure story. Yet when the aggrieved quester discovers that the prize is not his, that it is not as valuable as he believed, and that he will die if he tries to regain it, the reader may begin to wonder if the story is really about adventure after all. Such is the case with Pearl, translated by J. R. R. Tolkien, and the story of Gollum that begins in The Hobbit and continues in The Lord of the Rings.1 Both the narrator of Pearl, who identifies himself as a jeweler (252), and Gollum must undertake a journey to find the thing each calls “my precious,” only to discover that he cannot reclaim it and live. The choice each character makes determines his eternal destiny; taken together, the moral lesson portrayed by both quests forms a powerful challenge to the reader.
Reading with C. S. Lewis: this was my chosen approach when I co-authored a reader’s guide to Lewis’ classic story. Why was that a natural choice? The answer: Lewis bequeathed a richer legacy of literary criticism and theory that addresses his imaginative writing more than any other author I know. From Lewis’ nonfictional writing we can glean a large and detailed picture of how Lewis thinks we should read literature, and how we should not read it.