“Well, I’m back.” Those were Samwise Gamgee’s words at the end of The Lord of the Rings, and they evoke a bit of the mixed feelings of returning from the Lewolkien literary conference.
This year, my third attending the Lewolkien Conference was vastly different from the others. For one, it was in Rugby Tennessee for the first time, which meant a tour of the 1880’s town and buildings. Though I had been on the tour recently, it was still enjoyable to see the town with a new group as well as see old friends from past conferences.
I had a bit of a rough go of it this time around, though. I could not make the Friday night activities and had to come in Saturday morning. Then I missed the first of the four talks, and only got to hear about half of the second. All of this because the week prior to the conference I came down with the crumples, crudiest flu and stomach bedraggledness you can imagine. Awful. Times Ten. So I chugged into Rugby on fumes and kept going largely on excitement and adrenaline. Speaking will do that to you.
All that said, I’m glad I went and I thought I’d share a little overview of what happened, both with and without me.
To allegory or not to allegory?
The first talk was given by Jacob Stock, the organizer of the workshop, which is put on each year by Castle Ministries. He spoke on his vision for encouraging others, especially parents and children, to seek out and discover great literature. That is one of the key pillars of the conference. It’s a time to focus on the good, the true, and the beautiful in literature and to inspire people to read more and to read better.
The next talk was from the featured speaker. Dr. Sam Overstreet. He spoke on the role of allegory in Lewis and Tolkien. As you probably know, Tolkien is famous for despising it, Lewis, not as much. But Tolkien’s work touches on so many universal themes like bravery, self-sacrifice, the lust for power, and the beauty of friendship and simple, everyday joys, that it can feel allegorical as well. Tolkien himself said, that “the more ‘life’ a story has the more it may be interpreted allegorically.”
Lewis, while he did not set out to write explicit allegories in his Chronicles of Narnia, nevertheless found himself using the allegorical mode often with things like the White Witch, the Stone Table, and, of course, Aslan the great lion. He even has Aslan appear as a lamb in Voyage of the Dawn Treader, because of course Christ, whom Aslan represents, is spoken of as a both lamb and lion in the Bible.
The more “life” a story has the more it may be interpreted allegorically
A walk through literary history
After Dr. Overstreet’s talk we headed over to the Rugby Visitor’s Center to begin our tour of the historic town. First we were treated to a short talk by one of the tour guides. He informed us about how the town was founded in 1880 by author Thomas Hughes, author of Tom Brown’s School Days. The town now has around 80 residents and all homes, even the newer ones, are built in the architectural style of that time.
After leaning about Mr. Hughes and the founding of the town, be sauntered over to the nearby library, home to roughly 7000 volumes, all from the late 1800’s. It’s a small little one-room affair, but it is remarkable how well-preserved it is. A vent in the ceiling allows moisture to evaporate, but there are no other environmental controls in use.
Next we visited the Episcopal church across the street. It has been in continuous use since 1887. It is quite small with two dozen or so pews which are original to the building. Most amazing, however is the paint on the back walls of golden fleur-de-lis set in a field of red. The buttermilk paint there is original to the building and is in perfect condition. It’s hard to imagine not needing to retouch paint for 130 years. I only wish they sold that particular mix at the local paint store!
The highlight here was an impromptu singing of the Doxology by the forty or so conference attendees. It was a holy moment of praise, made all the more holy because it was unlooked for.
After our trip to the church, the tour ended in the small museum on the bottom floor of the old schoolhouse. The displays there featured quotes from Thomas Hughes, more details on the life of the town, and highlights from the lives of some of the more prominent residents of Rugby.
Where has all the imagination gone?
In the first of the afternoon sessions I spoke on meta-narrative and how all of us are story-tellers in our own heads all the time. We all believe one overall story which explains all the others. These stories feature the same structure as the three act structure in story: origin, conflict, and resolution. These answer the three basic questions:
- Where did we come from?
- What’s wrong with the world?
- How can what’s wrong be made right?
Whether you are an environmentalist, a socialist, or a Christian, you will have these questions. And the meta-narrative you subscribe to will influence the answers to these questions, as well as how you interpret things happening in the world around you.
There are two main groups of meta-narratives, the materialistic and the supernatural. The materialist believes that nature is all there ever is, ever was, or ever shall be. The supernaturalist believes there is more to the story, that something else has a say in nature and that it’s more important even than what we can see and hear and touch.
Lewis and Tolkien were, of course, supernaturalists. They refused to bow the materialism of their age and wrote stories which reflected their belief that beyond the “circles of this world is more than memory,” as Tolkien put it.
An inside look at the birth of a book
The final talk was by Maynard Nordmoe, author of Mercy and Truth He gave us insights into the book he is currently working. The working title is, “Growing Old is not for Everybody.”
Having gotten rather up in years himself, Mr. Nordmoe offered reflections of his time taking care of his own elderly family members. He shared photos, stories, and lessons learned on what surely were some rugged roads.
He also read an excerpt from his manuscript and his passion for his work came through as he spoke about what he hoped to accomplish by writing it. Writing is such a personal affair and Mr. Nordmoe opened up in very honest way about some of his own struggles and victories through dealing with the elderly, from the perspective of one now having lived to the age of those he once cared for.
The conference ended with a panel consisting of Mr. Stock, myself, and Dr. Overstreet. The topics were far ranging and would be hard to sum up in this brief space. It was encouraging, though, to see so many young people and parents among those who stayed to the end. They asked great questions and several shared their own observations from having trundled on their own through many journeys “between the pages.”
And, like all all good things, the conference at last came to an end. The hope of those who organized it is that people will keep in touch over on the website Lewolkien.org. It’s a great place to discover new books and hear about the literary adventures of the readers and writers who help maintain the site.
In a world of light speed technology and twenty four hour social media feeds, Lewolkien hopes to be an oasis in a desert of busyness and pragmatism. A gentle call to go “further up and further in” to the realm of the good, the true, and the beautiful. And, for a few brief hours in March of 2019, perhaps it was just that.