What We Can Learn from Tolkien and Fantasy When it Comes to Our Recovery

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I have written about the value of praying novenas to Mary and other saints as well as forming habits and relying on resources to assist us in our recovery. I now want to take a small departure from the usual and write about the power of fantasy stories and how they can help us in our recovery.

I have been fascinated with J.R.R. Tolkien since my teenage years. I read the Lord of the Rings trilogy just before Peter Jackson’s movies were released. I’ve also read The Hobbit and The Silmarillion. As a Scholar-in-Residence at St. John’s College, Oxford, I had more than a few pints at the Eagle and Child, the pub where Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and fellow “Inklings” often met. I even occasionally smoke the very pipe tobacco that Tolkien liked. All to say, I’m a major fan of Tolkien and his fantasy stories, and I believe his fiction can offer us valuable insight when it comes to our recovery. 

In 1939, Tolkien gave a lecture at the University of St. Andrews titled “On Fairy Stories,” where he argued that fantasy stories have three important functions: they offer Recovery, Escape, and Consolation.

The first gift of fantasy stories is Recovery. I am reminded of those disciples on the road to Emmaus. Downtrodden and bewildered, they shared with each other how they had hoped Jesus was going to redeem Israel. Then Jesus opened their eyes to see Him who was crucified and yet risen. Jesus offered them recovery of sight to their spiritual blindness about the ways of God. 

As addicts, we were once blind but now see thanks to God’s grace and recovery. But we had to first be called out from our comfort zones of addiction. This certainly happened to me on more than one occasion, and it’s exactly what happens to Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit. Bilbo Baggins is a comfortable, “bourgeois” hobbit who never has any adventures or does anything unexpected. Then the wizard Gandalf and thirteen dwarves arrive at his home and, later that evening, Bilbo is listening to a song and a “love of beautiful things” and a desire “to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves” stirs within him. Like Bilbo, we recover a childlike wonder for the world, others, and ourselves when we enter recovery and set forth on an adventure out of the clutches of addiction.

The second gift fantasy stories give us is Escape. As recovering addicts, we have often used fantasy and escape in a disordered way. Yet, the right approach to fantasy doesn’t offer us an escape from reality (as our addictions and unhealthy attachments do) but a flight into reality. Tolkien, as a Catholic shaped by the Christian account of reality, saw the world as the handiwork of a glorious Creator full of wonder, beauty, delight, majesty, and strangeness. That is what Tolkien duplicated in his fictional creation of Middle Earth—his fantasy stories really are thick with meaning and depth beyond what lies on the surface, just like our reality is. Stories like this can remind us that we are called to be heroic and fight against evil in the adventure we call real life. 

There were several moments in the second year of my deep addiction where I felt powerless to the pull of pornography. Much like Frodo at times in The Lord of the Rings, the destructive force of the ring drew me toward doom and destruction. But at other times, I embraced something similar to Frodo’s inner steadfastness before temptation. Once I said my novena to Mary, met my future wife, and embraced spiritual direction I began to transform, like Aragorn, from a searching ranger to a glorious king.

Additionally, different responses to the crisis of evil faced by two of the key characters in the latter parts of the trilogy—Theoden, King of Rohan, and Denethor, Steward of Gondor—mirrored my own reckoning. I saw a choice, like Theoden and Denethor, to either arise from my stupor, put my house in order, pick up my weapon, and join the battle against addiction and sin or let fear, despair, and inactivity creep deep into my soul. 

Gandalf facilitates Theoden’s recovery by suggesting that “his hands would remember their old strength better if they grasped his sword,” implying that Theoden should get a proper grip on his manhood—gird his loins, as it were—and take up the symbol of his obligation to carry out the actions appropriate for a true king. Similarly, my encounter and subsequent reversion to the faith gave me the chance to put my house in order and pick up the metaphorical sword of Christ to fight against evil and addiction.

The third gift that fantasy stories give us is Consolation. Fantasy stories provide us consolation because they stir within us wonder, joy, and heroism, which is what we need in our recovery as well. To be successful in our recovery, we need consolations from our Lord in the sacraments, Scripture, and prayer as well as from recovery support groups. 

As addicts, for a variety of reasons we did not question our false perspective and unhealthy ways of seeing the world. Yet, through working the steps, frequenting the sacraments, and deepening our prayer life, we began to receive consolation from the Holy Spirit, and the Lord encouraged us to continue with our recovery. 

At the heart of The Lord of the Rings is a story about enchantment, loss, and, finally, redemption. The same can be said about our struggles with addiction. How many of us were enchanted by what porn, drinking, drugs, or some other unhealthy attachment offered us only to realize it led to tragic loss? The loss of friendships, relationships, family, and even God? Yet, from the depths of my own personal loss of a relationship as well as financial hardships and depression, I eventually broke free of the false enchantment of addiction and found joy, healing, and redemption in the Lord. 

Ultimately, fantasy stories have the capacity to recover a healthy vision of the world, allow for a healthy escape into reality, and offer us consolation, encouraging us to live our lives as heroic pilgrims for Christ. While we acknowledge we won’t recover the fullness of joy that we long for in this life—not until we are with the Lord in heaven—fantasy stories like The Lord of the Rings help us keep fast to the road of recovery and faith as journeying pilgrims, much like Frodo and his companions that make up the Fellowship.

Aaron Walter is a lifelong Catholic and former porn addict whose ministry, NewMenRising, is dedicated to pornography addiction recovery. He is a coach, mentor, and accountability partner and is passionate about helping husbands kick their addiction and transform their lives and relationships. You can connect with him at calendly.com/aaronwaltercoachingsessions.