“The true work of art is but a shadow of the divine perfection.”- Michelangelo
What is art?

As a writer, this question hovers in the backdrop of my mind on a daily basis. What does it mean to create something beautiful? Something worthwhile? As a storyteller, is my goal merely to entertain? Or is there some other purpose to my struggle?

Ever since I was little, I was awed by Middle Earth. It wasn’t just the rich imagination of Tolkien, or the exciting story of triumph in the face of evil. For some reason, when I was in Middle Earth, I felt like I was reaching higher. Like I was seeing a broader vision of reality. Ideas like beauty and wisdom were personified, and they walked around wearing pointy grey hats and radiant elvish robes. Nobility dripped from the Halls of Edoras–nobility tinged with sadness for a people somehow less than they had been. Could they be their true selves again, redeemed in a last heroic stand against evil? And then there was the courage of ordinary people like Frodo and Sam, pushed by unexpected circumstances to do more than they could ever imagine–one step at a time, falling and getting up, and falling again.

Like other writers of fantasy, Tolkien sometimes faced accusations of “escapism.” Why was he bothering with imaginary worlds, made-up languages, and hobbits when he could be doing more practical things? Tolkien’s response was simple: “Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home?” [1] Trapped in one of humanity’s bloodiest centuries, Tolkien longed to reach beyond the horrors of “progress” to a place of true beauty.

This, I believe, is the meaning of art. All art, regardless of genre or medium, is an act of reaching beyond the mundane towards what Michelangelo called “the divine perfection.” Art is a mirror for our souls. It’s an eternal question: who are we, and why are we? 

So that brings me back to myself and my own humble work. Why do I write? And how can I ever compare myself to great creators like Michelangelo and Tolkien? The simple fact is, I can’t. The point is not to copy any existing art–then it ceases to be art and becomes instead the shadow of a shadow. Instead, we each of us reach for the divine in our own way, sometimes clumsily, always imperfectly, but always in search of something higher and greater.

In the end, all we can hope for is a shadow.

[1] Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” (1939).