By Austin Fraley
Tolkien admirers, English majors and Christians (particularly Catholics) were equally delighted on Tuesday when Baylor University professor of literature and theology Dr. Ralph Wood came to campus. He came to speak about Tolkien at the Danford Thomas Lecture as the first–ever extension of this lecture.
In his first lecture, Wood expounded on the differences between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings series, drawing a distinction between what he defined as “adventure” of the former, and “quest” of the latter. Wood defined “adventure” as a journey in which at the end, “one returns to where they began fundamentally unchanged.” Bilbo goes on an adventure, whereas Frodo goes on a “quest,” a journey in which one does return fundamentally changed at the end.
Also an important distinction, perhaps Wood’s central point, is that in a quest the protagonist does not choose to go on the journey. “Poor Peter Jackson has Frodo volunteer,” Dr. Wood lamented, “but avid readers will know that this is simply not the case.”
He then related this point to John 15, where Christ tells his disciples, “You did not choose me. I chose you.” A person does not choose to go on a quest. A person is called.
In his second talk, Wood chose to focus on something all Tolkien fans were ready and willing to hear about: the meaning of the three powers the wearer of the ring possesses. These are: invisibility, immortality and exercising power over another.
Wood brilliantly related Tolkien’s ambiguous and slightly hidden allegory to the Christian’s struggle with sin. When asked to discuss how imagination plays into the desire that the ring produces, Dr. Wood said, “The importance of imagination on the part of the one attempting to destroy the ring is vital. Sauron cannot imagine anyone who does not act like him, in total self-interest, while wearing the ring.”
Dr. Wood himself is an interesting character, having been raised in east Texas as a Baptist, but increasingly becoming more aligned with Catholic traditions as he aged and studied. I was part of a group of students that got the privilege of sharing dinner with him and asked him if he had ever considered becoming Catholic.
“Yes,” he told me, “But, and you’ll understand this being from the south, I realized that there is so much from the Catholic tradition that I want to impart to Baptists and other Protestants. If I became Catholic they would simply tune me out. I wouldn’t be ‘one of them.’”
Undoubtedly an interesting man in all respects, Wood combines things that wouldn’t normally go together. Not only is he a Baptist who seems to have more in common with Catholics, but the position that he holds at Baylor as professor of literature and theology is a position which Roger Ward quipped, “basically means that they invented the position entirely for him.”
Whether you’re a Tolkien fan or a Christian or neither, there were words in both of Tuesday’s talks that reached out beyond the words of the pages of both The Lord of the Rings and the Bible that spoke to the fundamental questions and problems of the human condition. Hopefully we do not forget them.