Written into the Story
Readers as characters in four different books.
TOWARD THE END OF The Two Towers, by J.R.R. Tolkien, Frodo and Sam, on their way to destroy the Ring, take a rest “in a dark crevice between two great piers of rock” on the stairs of Cirith Ungol. As they rest, Sam gets to wondering: “‘I wonder what sort of tale we’ve fallen into?’”
I was reading this aloud to my seventh grade daughter, Samara, and we both smiled as we listened to Sam and Frodo step outside their story to consider it.
“‘I wonder if we shall ever be put into songs or tales,’ Sam goes on. ‘We’re in one, of course; but I mean: put into words, you know, told by the fireside, or read out of a great big book with red and black letters, years and years afterwards.’”
Our eyebrows shot up with delight. In the midst of their stepping outside their story to consider it, we found ourselves written into it!
“People will say: ‘Let’s hear about Frodo and the Ring!’ And they’ll say: ‘Yes, that’s one of my favourite stories. Frodo was very brave, wasn’t he, dad?’ ‘Yes, my boy, the famousest of the hobbits, and that’s saying a lot.’
“And then Frodo chimes in. with a laugh that fills the staircase and makes the rocks bend in to listen: ‘It’s saying a lot too much . . . Why, Sam, to hear you somehow makes me as merry as if the story was already written. But you’ve left out one of the chief characters: Samwise the stouthearted. “I want to hear more about Sam, dad. Why didn’t they put in more of his talk, dad? That’s what I like, it makes me laugh. And Frodo wouldn’t have got far without Sam, would he, dad?’”
Samara and I couldn’t get enough. I was ‘Mom’ and not ‘Dad,’ Samara, my girl and not my boy, and we were sitting on her bed, not at the fireside, but there was no missing us. There we were, written in to the story. “I bet Tolkien had so much fun, writing that bit,” said my daughter, who wants to be an author someday.
That bit of Tolkien reminded me of the bit of The Neverending Story, when the boy, Bastian, who is reading the book, The Neverending Story, finds himself in it. The empress of the dying magical land of Fantasia says that all of their adventures had happened in order to captivate the human child who was now reading about them. Bastian, the reader, became (or always was) Bastian, the character, who had an important job to do in the rebuilding of Fantasia. He had to give the empress a name and then re-imagine Fantasia back into being.
In a much homelier way, I used this same motif in my daily diary 30 years ago. . . .
Every night, I read to my two oldest daughters the diary entries that I wrote when I was their age. On December 6, 2017, I read my December 6, 1988, entry to Samara. In that entry I revealed an intense crush on a boy who had picked me first in choosing teams for basketball at recess. Samara and I were stunned to see a note to her in the margin, written in green pen: “If my daughter is reading this right now and wants to see a picture of [name], just ask me. I’ll show him to you, dear.” There she was, in the story. My sixth-grade self had written to my future Grade 6 daughter! Sadly, I could find no picture of this particular sixth grade crush (there were several crushes that year), but the joy was in the marginalia.
I like to think the apostle John had the same fun when he wrote down Jesus’ words to Thomas: “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29). There is no missing us. There we are, written right into the story.
Eugene Peterson once said that people bring two questions with them to church: Is there a story? And am I in it?
The answer is yes. In a thousand ways, yes!
We are part of so many stories, and The (Neverending) Story, as well.
“‘Don’t the great tales never end?’ asked Sam.
“Frodo answered: ‘No, they never end as tales. . . But the people in them come, and go when their part’s ended. Our part will end later – or sooner.’
‘And then,’ Sam said, ‘we can have some rest and some sleep. And I mean just that, Mr. Frodo. I mean plain ordinary rest, and sleep, and waking up to a morning’s work in the garden. I’m afraid that’s all I’m hoping for all the time.’”
Amen. So let it be.