You can’t stand too close to “the fire”

You come away from a discussion and you feel strangely warmed. Brandishing ideas with friends and colleagues kindles the spirit, and this is what makes living a sacred experience. If you’re like J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, you can’t stand too close to the fire.

When Tolkien started a reading club called the Coalbiters at Oxford University, he was fostering an incendiary fellowship. The word “coalbiter” claims roots in Iceland where it was used for those who stood so close to the fire in winter that they could bite the coal.   At the Coalbiters’ gatherings of Oxford, univeristy dons read and discussed Icelandic sagas with each other. This is where Tolkien and Lewis began to meet regularly, a friendship that would nurture the creation of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia.

Perhaps another reason Tolkien chose this title for the club was that “coalbiter” also names a host of reluctant heroes in the Old Norse sagas, characters who have greatness thrust upon them. This genre of hero starts off weak, maybe even pathetic, then rises to perform great deeds. Perhaps as writer Peter Hallberg has noted, Tolkien’s Bilbo Baggins, Frodo and Sam were all coalbiters in their own right.

Students today flock to campuses seeking fellowship that will light their vision for a future. To all, I say, don’t be afraid. You can’t stand too close to the fire.


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