“At this hour, to send [the Ring] in the hands of a witless halfling into the land of the Enemy himself, as you have done … that is madness.”
— J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King
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If the wisdom of God is foolishness to men, it follows that a certain type of holy insanity must and will turn out to be the health and salvation of the world. This is implied in everything we have said thus far about Pilgrim values and the Pilgrim path.
There is indeed a fundamental sense in which the kingdom through which the Pilgrim makes his progress strongly resembles the wild and topsy-turvy land of fairy-tales. Like Dorothy in Oz or Alice through the Looking-glass, those who travel in this strange and perilous realm encounter inversion, conversion, paradox, oxymoron, and surprise at almost every turn in the road. This is a place where the first are last, the poor are rich, and the weak are strong. Where children and beggars are kings and lords, where nobodies are somebody, and where death and failure become the pathways to victory and life. Where to lose one’s life is to save it, and all the power, prestige, and prominence the kosmos has to offer are worth no more than a pile of dung. Where fear is wisdom, contentment is wealth, and that which is highly esteemed among men is an abomination in the sight of God. How can the wise, the accomplished, the sophisticated, the rich, and the powerful ever hope to make anything of this maze of crazy contradictions?
Let’s face it. In a world gone as desperately awry as ours, madness is the only way out of the labyrinth. It’s the only possible solution to the dilemma. What is madness after all except a complete overturning of the world’s expectations? What better way to describe it than as a grand Rejection, a great Refusal? It was this realization that led poet and painter Gabriel Gale, hero of G. K. Chesterton’s quirky novel The Poet and the Lunatics, to observe – while standing on his head – that “It’s a very good thing for a landscape-painter to see the landscape upside down. He sees things then as they really are; yes, and that’s true in philosophy as well as art.”*
This is one of the fundamental messages of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, a story about how the destiny of the world is placed not in the hands of the great, the wise, and the mighty, but rather the small, the insignificant, and the defenseless. That plan, as Boromir son of Denethor reasonably observes, is pure madness. But what Boromir fails to understand is that, precisely for that reason, it is the only plan that has the slightest chance of succeeding. It is the only strategy attended by even the faintest glimmer of hope. In the end, it’s the weakness, incompetence, and vulnerability of the halflings that saves the day when all else fails. What could be crazier than that?
Frank Schaeffer, son of apologist and evangelist Francis Schaeffer, has famously accused his famous parents of having been Crazy for God. Perhaps Frank doesn’t realize how right he is. Francis and Edith Schaeffer were not perfect people by any stretch of the imagination. None of us is. But they did follow a path that in many ways ran directly counter to the expectations of the system.
In this they were not alone. On the contrary, they were part of a great daft madcap band that includes the likes of Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther, Boris and Gleb, Savonarola, George Eagles, John Bunyan, John the Baptist, and a host of other bona fide “Fools for Christ.” These people were not afraid to turn the kosmos upside down by living according to a set of values that was the inverse of the world’s. “They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated – men of whom the world was not worthy – wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground.”
Strange, isn’t it, that it was these rather than those others – the rulers of the earth who hounded them to death – who “gained approval through their faith.”
But then that’s the madness of the Pilgrim way.
* G. K. Chesterton, The Poet and the Lunatics; Ch. 1, “The Fantastic Friends.”