Posted by: Billy Marsh | September 10, 2008

Talking Wholly In Narrative

Towards the end of Humphrey Carpenter’s classic biography on J. R. R. Tolkien, he told of the experience Tolkien had when he would visit his wife at an elderly community called Bournemouth. Apparently, Tolkien could only take the other men living there in small doses since all of them talked “wholly in narrative.” And this approach to male fellowship was something for which both he and C. S. Lewis had a great distaste. Only after a brief visit, and Tolkien was on his way back to the comfort of his Oxford home.

One of the things that has impacted me the most throughout my exposure to and growing interest in Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, and C. S. Lewis has been their presentation as well as demonstration of a certain quality of friendship. There is much to say with respect to how Tolkien viewed friendship, especially in light of how his perspectives manifest themselves amongst his fictitious characters, specifically in the Frodo/Sam and Legolas/Gimili relationships. Yet when you read a biographical work on either Tolkien or Lewis, you will find that their friendship penetrated to the very heart of their lives, even to the point of sparking some jealously within their social circles, for example on the part of Edith Tolkien’s attitude towards Lewis, who seemed to captivate her husband’s attention at times more so than she did. I guess I identify with the type of friendship that Tolkien desired to have, since the Lord has blessed me with some very personal and meaningful friendships also.

But this comment regarding the type of conversation that Tolkien sought to avoid, that of speaking “wholly in narrative,” struck me as incredibly profound, and in turn, identified exactly the kind of friendship that I desire to move away from when meeting new people in pursuit of something that offers much more substance, and I should add, much more purpose.

After reading hundreds of pages on and by both Tolkien and Lewis, it is clear as to what “narrative talking” is. These men have in mind the fellow that can only partake in and sustain one form of conversation, namely, that of story-telling. Under some conditions, we might name this as “small-talk”. However, even small-talk just won’t do insofar as “small-talk” can occasionally breach the monotonous rehearsal of any given day’s activities and experiences. But what Tolkien was longing for while in Bournemouth was the male companionship that went beyond the mere re-telling of events and entered into the world of contemplation. During his life, Tolkien never failed to initiate, lead, or participate in some kind of club or small-group that met with the sole intention of searching out the intricacies of a topic or wrestling with some of the weightiest matters of faith and literature. In fact, we can owe in large part the development of The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, and even Lewis’ Space Trilogy  to both of these men’s desire to have meaningful friendships, not only between each other, but also with other interested men as well. This, of course, has several implications with respect to the quality of work produced in community, but more specifically, and I would say more importantly, it speaks volumes to the value that they placed on cultivating friendships that went beyond the surface level and penetrated far into the soul, thus, allowing their relationship to supercede companionship and mature into what has now become a worldwide impacting bond.

Not everyone is given to this kind of atmosphere within friendships. There are guys I have known for a very long time with whom I never can seem to get past what they did that day and the ongoing justification for being mad at that person who cut them off in traffic. And although I’m not against “narrative talking” as being a worthy of means of conversation, there comes a point when I’m ready to take the next step. I have always seemed to find little pleasure in being updated on everyone’s whereabouts, what everyone is doing, and so forth and so on. Honestly, I think we all can agree that “narrative talking” often serves as the inroad to gossip, which in my opinion, is the shallowest of all modes of communication insofar as it takes very little intellect or thinking to swap basic facts and then distort and bend them however you want so that you can look or feel superior to your subject. But on the other hand, to take the great big step into a discussion on myth and how it relates to Christianity, now that takes guts and the discipline of the mind. And thankfully, Tolkien was ready to have that conversation into the wee hours of the morning while sitting by a fire and smoking on a pipe, as he traversed further and further into the concept, and thus, helped bring Lewis to a point where he realized that Christianity was in fact the true myth, thereby playing an intricate role in paving the way for Lewis to believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

I love sitting in on a big group of guys who are swapping story after story and are simply enjoying one another’s company, but if there’s a clock in the room, you better believe after a little while I’m watching it; however, give me one man who wants to ponder the deep things of God or even pick apart the complicated ways of this world, and I’ll throw my watch in the garbage can. And I believe it has very little to do with education. In fact, I have two very close friends who have nothing more than a high school education, but never cease to leave me speechless when they call in light of the extreme complexity and difficulty of their well-thought out questions. I think it has more to do with a waking awareness to what is really going on in this world beneath all the bells and whistles coupled with a deep desire to do something about it. On the other hand, those whom I have observed who appear to speak “wholly in narrative” often are the ones who have very little idea, or at least concern, as to the state of this world and the destiny of its inhabitants. I’ll leave you with a quote that pushes me to continue to build relationships where I can wrestle with ideas that I have posted in my room by Francis Schaeffer, who I believe would have had endless hours of “non-narrative” talk with both Tolkien and Lewis if he had ever had the chance due to the nature of his own personality and way of thinking:

The Real Battle for Men is in the World of Ideas.”

~ Francis A. Schaeffer, True Spirituality

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