One of the most charming moments of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Hobbit takes place at Beorn’s farm when Gandalf tells his host their tale.
By twos and threes, the dwarves intrude, interrupting Gandalf’s narrative. In part, this is intended to soften the blow of fourteen unexpected visitors arriving all at once.
Yet for a moment, one might wonder if these little interlopers will instead work their host into a state of malice:
“Now perhaps we can finish this story without any more interruptions.”
But we are told that:
“Mr. Baggins saw then how clever Gandalf had been. The interruptions had really made Beorn more interested in the story, and the story had kept him from sending the dwarves off at once.”
There is both charm and cleverness in Gandalf, and we might not make much of it, were it not that the Hobbit itself began in the just this manner, with these unexpected guests at the doorstep of Bag End.
There is something in this technique, in little interruptions which make a tale a tale, making it a true yarn and no mere relaying of news in the ordinary sense. It is in this strange way that stories and people make themselves guests in our lives.
The true action, the true meaning or greatness of a tale emerge perhaps more cogently in the context of its windings, than in the bare face of a streamlined plot. There is an old tradition that the beginning, middle, end of a story are each very important, and that they are not to be a mere history, that is, if the story is truly poetic.
Is this because true to life, a plot is not just the logic of moving from point A to point B, but the working out of some deeper thread, the unraveling or reworking of some richer and unforeseen pattern? What would our life be without these little interruptions, these squiggles which craze the plane of our Euclidean intentions?
Do dwarves from Gandalf not sometimes come knocking at our own doors, interrupting our Wednesday mornings and making them “most awkward?” And will we not one day thank God he gave us the grace to receive them, even if a bit gracelessly, even if grumbling sometimes and worrying about our plates?
In fact, I can think of many tales which only work as they do because of this scribble-scrabble halting manner of progress. Consider Stone Soup or the Tortoise and the Hare. Or consider Jane Austen’s Persuasion, which begins within the context of an engagement interrupted, and ends with the realization that somethings no worldly circumstances, no loss, no forestalling, no disappointments can truly forestall or interrupt! Are we not grateful that Captain Wentworth did not bring the tale to a too early consummation?
Take Tolkien’s own work Leaf by Niggle as an example. In that tale, we find another artist trying to bring a great work to completion. Facing one interruption after another, he is forced continually to leave the beloved project incomplete.
But the glory of Niggle is not his artistry, it is his humanity–his heart. It is in the way he meets these interruptions and faithfully attends to them, despite his longing, his plans.
These interruptions are indeed no interruptions in his life, though not as far as he can tell. Unknown to him they are making him into something beautiful to behold. The story being completed is him, and bigger than him. These interruptions are really life entering into him, beckoning him out of himself and into something greater–a story which in the light of eternity is rather glorious.
Dante himself begins his great Comedy as a life interrupted. The theme of interruption runs throughout the work, marking movements of life, good and ill. But notable is what takes place just inside the gates of Purgatory, just within the borders of heaven. In a meditation on humility, Dante iconographically depicts three lives: that of Mary hearing the message of Gabriel at the annunciation, that of David dancing before the ark, that of Trajan doing justice for a poor widow, despite being in the midst of other series business of state. Each of these interruptions mark the eruption of grace in different ways. They mark the humility in which we receive the events and peoples before us as somehow from the hand and will of of God. Such is in a certain way the dividing line between heaven and hell.
God’s own story has its own hesitations and meanderings from the very beginning in the garden. His people again and again wander in one direction and another, from one place to another. Eventually there are several centuries of silence in which the story seems to have miscarried. But out of this silence emerges the Word itself in flesh, an interruption of a new kind. And yet even his life, especially his life, is marked by this pattern. His life is this pattern–and becomes knowable uniquely in him.
In the course of his ministry, his disciples see hands laid on their master and death bring closure to all their hopes. But the great Author does not leave them there. He has prepared and brings to completion a story which is very good news indeed–worthy in its telling and in what it tells.
In our own lives we cannot always tell the straight from the crooked, when we are moving toward our appointed end vs. when we have drifted off course. We do not always judge aright between the interruptions and the thread. But we can be sure that he who directs all things is one who makes all paths straight, however they seem to us. Because of this, we need not fear loosing the better part, if that is indeed what we have chosen.
2 thoughts on “Tolkien on How to Tell (Interrupt) a Story”
Tolkien is my favorite author. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings truly blessed my burgeoning faith as a teenager. I saw in the stories an outline of the Christian walk. Ignoring and taking our sin back to the pit where it belonged. Destroying it in the fire of repentance, having no regard for self. Thanks Frodo, for your example; and thanks Sam, for representing the Holy Spirit so incredibly well!
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