Hello there! My name is Erika Heins. I’m an English teacher and an artist with a special love for the work of J.R.R. Tolkien. My ventures into Tolkien illustration started with a poem I had written for my best friend, celebrating our friendship and comparing it to Frodo and Sam’s. It was an ambitious project, more than two feet wide with calligraphy, trees, several Tolkien characters, and a border of rope in elaborate knots. Since then, I’ve done many Tolkien pieces, almost all of them featuring words as well as images. Somehow I can’t seem to depict such rich literature without keeping some of the words in my picture.
|Companionship by Erika Heins, first LotR peice|
I’ve been trying to figure out what, exactly, it is about Tolkien’s writings that captures my heart—because they do, more than any other work of fiction. Certainly, part of his stories’ appeal is his characters—lovable, flawed, and intensely realistic. And then there are his settings—rich enough to inspire generations of artists. Probably one of my favorite elements of his work is his themes. In one of my English classes, my students and I recently studied a list of universal themes, and together we were able to find examples of nearly every theme in The Lord of the Rings.
All of these things make his stories unforgettable and powerful. But I think that the single element that I find most inspiring is his sense of the “big picture.” From the first pages of The Silmarillion to the appendices of The Return of the King, Tolkien takes hundreds of characters in different locations and ages of the world, and weaves their individual struggles, failures, and triumphs into one grand story with one grand point—that good is ultimately better and stronger than evil, no matter how weak it may appear to be. We learn about his “big picture” most directly from Sam, in his musings toward the end of The Two Towers about what it means to be part of a story. He thinks back to the legends he’s heard from The Silmarillion and exclaims, “Why, we’re in the same tale still!” Tolkien does not make it too hard for us to imagine that we, too, are still in the story ourselves.
|"We are Your Friends, Frodo." artwork by Erika Heins|
I’m a firm believer in the “big picture.” I think I always have been, but Tolkien’s work (and specifically, that one dialogue between Frodo and Sam) helped me discover that my favorite way to think about life is as a story. I was thrilled to recently discover a philosophical term for this concept—metanarrative. In down-to-earth terms, a metanarrative is simply a huge, overarching “story line” that we use to describe our beliefs about the world and our place in it.
It’s not that I think of my own life as a little self-contained story, with its own beginning, middle, climax, and end. Rather, like Sam pointed out about his role in Tolkien’s story, our individual lives play parts in the telling of a greater story—a story that began with Creation and will end with the Return of the King of Heaven and Earth. Many people feel that when things go inexplicably wrong, God cannot be in control or He cannot be good. But, as Sam pointed out, not everyone in a story comes to “a good end." Like hobbits, we like our peace and happiness; but, after all, there comes a time when the Teller of our metanarrative may require more of us. Instead of setting a goal of living in as much comfort as possible, perhaps our goal should be to play our part as nobly as possible, no matter what that part may be. Knowing that we are a part of a bigger story is often exactly what's needed to give us the courage to step out and face whatever waits around the bend--and to keep going when the adventure includes Barrow-wights, spiders, or just going without a second breakfast or two.