I gave a talk before a reading at Nashville's St. Paul Christian Academy last week. This is a version of that talk. That picture to the left, by the way, is by Justin Gerard, one of my favorite illustrators. Here's a link to his blog posts about his illustrations of The Hobbit.
Of all the characters in The Lord of the Rings, the hobbits seem the least qualified to deliver the Ring to Mordor. We love the fact that they do. The very pedestian muggles who raise Harry Potter believe he'll never amount to anything, yet he is the object of hope and wonder in the much more wonderful world of the wizards.
Why do we so love stories of unlikely heroes? I think it's because they're the truest stories. In our story, the Hero is a most unlikely one: the King of the Universe was born not in a palace but in stable. His birth was announced not to the movers and shakers, but to shepherds on a hillside. He grew up in Galilee, a region so rural and backwards that people used to say, "Can any good thing come out of Galilee?" When he grew up, he didn't have a home or a steady job. He hung out with laborers and tax collectors and losers and misfits of every stripe. And when his time had come, he conquered death through a most unlikely means: he died the shameful death of the cross and rose again from the dead.
Yes, Jesus was the most unlikely of heroes--and the only sort of hero who could rescue a human race that was hell-bent on its own destruction. There is an upside-downness to our story that requires upside-down solutions.
When the gospel began to spread, it didn't spread rightside-up but upside-down--not through the powerful and the influential, but through twelve poorly educated sons of toil, some of whom, like Peter, were of questionable reliability. The gospel that began by paradox conquered the world by paradox.
I love what Paul told the Corinthians:
Consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the strong.
Which is another way of saying that, in the end, the real heroes turn out to be the unlikely heroes. We look at ourselves and say "I don't bring much to this situation," but God says, "No, no, no; I use the weak things of the world to shame the mighty, and the foolish things of the world to shame the wise." We say, "We feel like orphans," but God says, "No, no, no; you are sons and daughters of the Most High."
To paraphrase Chesterton, when you're born upside down, it's hard to know when you turn rightside up. We aren't born knowing who we are. We have to be told.
The Charlatan's Boy grew out of a single sentence, which now, in its published state, is still the first sentence of the book: "I don't remember one thing about the day I was born." None of us really knows how we got here--only what somebody told us. We depend on others to tell us, "Here's who you really are." A name is something that has to be given us.
The Charlatan's Boy tells the story of Grady, an unusually ugly orphan boy who has never had anyone who could give him a name. He believes himself to be not only unloved, but unloveable. He was born upside down. The biggest difference between Grady and us, perhaps, is that he is inescapably and constantly aware of his upside-downness. There's something heroic in his unflagging quest to get rightside-up again. He's an unlikely hero, yes--but what other kind of hero is there?