Friday, June 24, 2011

Much of what I learned of manhood, I learned from the Inklings

For a variety of reasons, I didn't have a lot of instruction in manhood from other men while I was growing up. My own father never had good instruction from his father, so he had only so much he could pass along. He led by word and example as best he could, and I'm tremendously grateful for that, but it was limited. We lived far from any relatives and didn't have many families we were close to, so I didn't have grandfathers or uncles or surrogate uncles to do the kind of mentoring that can form lads into men.

But the Lord has many tools in His toolbox, so He arranged for me to learn critical things about manhood from other sources. One of them happened to be the Inklings – primarily C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Now, don't go looking for a book or essay on “Manhood 101” from either of those authors, because there isn't one. What they have to teach is scattered through their works. In my case, it was mostly through their fiction, which was very formative in the development of my moral imagination. I grew up with the Chronicles of Narnia from elementary school days, discovering the Lord of the Rings and Lewis' Space Trilogy in my high school years. I cannot count the number of times I walked across Ettinsmoor with Puddleglum, or crossed the Midgewater Marshes with Strider and the hobbits, or looked on while Tirian gave Eustace lessons in knighthood. Though these were literary figures alive “only” in my imagination, they were real, formative, and very valuable.

So, I'd like to pass along a few of these lessons, and what they've meant to me. These aren't just nice theories and maxims – these lessons have helped me at critical points in my life, and have guided my decisions great and small since I was 10 years old. I'm afraid that understanding them will require a reasonable working knowledge of the works quoted – I haven't the space or skill to synopsize them in blog posts.

So, I present: the manly wisdom of the Inklings:

“[Shasta] had not yet learned that if you do one good deed your reward usually is to be set to do another and harder and better one.” (from The Horse and His Boy)

The young traveler Shasta had only intended to escape a harsh and bitter life in Calormen. He would have considered himself fortunate to simply succeed at that, but one circumstance after another kept complicating his journey. The hardships kept piling up, and he always bore the brunt of them. In the end he was forced to do dangerous and heroic things in circumstances he could have never foreseen. He didn't choose these struggles; they were just handed to him and he was expected to overcome them.

Except – he did choose them, in the sense that he did not walk away, as he could have done. With the immediate future of Archenland and the ultimate future of Narnia in the balance, he could have just thrown up his hands and sat down on the grass, letting the Great and Powerful decide the outcome rather than a ragged, runaway peasant boy. But he and his companions just couldn't do that, so he kept at the tasks, even when the cost kept going up. The hurdles were the cost of getting to Narnia, to the freedom he had dreamt of his entire life, so he kept his eye on the goal and kept at the increasingly difficult tasks.

Lewis tosses this principle into the narrative almost as an afterthought, but it is a pivotal one that has helped me many times in my life. It's only human nature to look for some kind of reward or at least recognition for a job well done, especially when in service of a noble ideal. The reality is far different, especially with service to Christ's Kingdom, and doubly so with less glamorous tasks like pro-life work. Often when I'm feeling disappointed or getting discouraged or tending to self-pity with the never-ending-ness of it all, I remember the “Shasta principle”. I should not be surprised when the reward for doing a good deed is being set to do a harder and better one. Expecting that, living with that, is a critical part of true manhood.

A true man takes responsibility, even at great personal cost.

“And since it seemed fit that Isildur's heir should labour to repair Isildur's fault, I went with Gandalf on the long and hopeless search.” Aragorn son of Arathorn at the Council of Elrond, The Fellowship of the Ring

The character of Aragorn is a lesson in nobility and true manhood, and this statement is a good example of why. Gandalf needs Aragorn's help in a difficult and dangerous task: finding Gollum to learn the truth about the Ring he held for many years. That the Ring was not destroyed when it should have been was due to Isildur's fascination with it. Centuries later, Aragorn remembers this fault of his forefather, and undertakes the brutal hunt of the lost Gollum in partial reparation. He takes responsibility for something that happened centuries before he was born, to which he is only tenuously connected.

The cultural phenomenon of adolescence was all but invented for my generation, the Baby Boomers. Part of the definition of adolescence is claiming adult privileges while avoiding adult responsibility. When I was a young man, I saw most of my peers place an almost unquestioned value on avoiding responsibility. The idea was to get as much as you could while giving as little as you could get away with, especially as little personal commitment. This was what engendered men living with their parents well into their 20's, and participating in “relationships” that sometimes lasted longer than a decade without moving closer to marriage.

Over against this insipid model stands the inspiring figure of Aragorn, who accepts responsibility for something for which no reasonable person would consider him in the least culpable. This has inspired me all my adult life not to fear responsibility, but to step up and accept it. I've been far from perfect at it, but the example of Aragorn has always been there, calling me on.

What must be done takes precedence over what you feel like doing

“Were I to go where my heart dwells, far in the North I would now be wandering in the fair valley of Rivendell.”

“...may I not now spend my life as I will?”
“Few may do that with honor.”

Conversation between Aragorn and Éowyn, “The Passing of the Grey Company”, The Return of the King

One of the highest value in our culture is self-fulfillment. Every day through hundreds of channels we are told that we, and only we, should define ourselves and lay out our own paths. We should go where we want to go and do what we feel like doing. Nothing should stand in the way of self-fulfillment – not duty, not honor, not responsibility. “I just had to be true to myself” is the mantra that trumps every claim on us and justifies any treachery, any abandonment, any shirking. It is even taught that to deny yourself pursuit of what you wish is to be false to yourself, to betray your own identity.

Again the manly figure of Aragorn stands in stark opposition to this lie. Duty and responsibility drive him to do what must be done. He knows what he wants, and longs for it deeply, but first he must attend to his tasks. Others are counting on him to come through, and he must not let them down. His own desires and wishes can wait – he has a job to do. To Aragorn, being a man means being one who puts responsibility and duty before his own wishes and preferences.

Aragorn's example has helped me frequently through the years, especially when the sirens of our culture have sung to me about placing my own identity and fulfillment ahead of my responsibilities. I will not find my identity by abandoning my duties and chasing after what seems fulfilling at the moment. I will find my identity by seeing my responsibilities through to their completion – because that's what men do.

I'll have a few more examples of Inkling manhood in my next post.