Yesterday, the third of January, was J.R.R. Tolkien’s 121st birthday. I struggled to think of some way to celebrate it properly. Nothing I could come up with seemed to do the man justice.
There have been many brilliant minds in the realm of fantasy in the past century; none, however, have done quite so much for the genre as Tolkien has. He is arguably the father of modern fantasy. The Lord of the Rings is the paragon of the genre, the ideal which has influenced all subsequent works. He also happens to be the author that has been a constant source of inspiration and admiration for me personally.
It’s easy to list off his stats so to speak: John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was a great professor and a gifted linguist. He created no less than eleven languages for his writings and multiple writing systems. Tolkien was also a celebrated Beowulf scholar and a student of old English writings. He was best friends with fellow author C.S. Lewis, both of whom were founding members of the Inklings. These are simple facts that anyone can research online. While impressive, a list of facts cannot communicate why I love Tolkien above all other authors.
When I was younger, I was awkward. I still am awkward. I was anxious socially, intelligent and liked everyone to know it, and I preferred reading to interacting with other kids my age. Though I tried my best to fit in, I was bullied for the better part of my school years. Discovering Tolkien’s works was like finally discovering a part of myself that had been missing before. The world of Middle Earth became my escape. I read every book of his that I could get my hands on, including the rather extensive histories of Middle Earth.
What was it about Middle Earth that drew me in so much? In part, it was the story of the little guy helping to defeat the bad guy. Everyone loves a good Davd vs. Goliath story, and for someone who often felt small and helpless, the tale is particularly poignant.
Fairy tale does not deny the existence of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance. It denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat…giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy; Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.
It goes beyond that, however. Middle Earth has everything needed to capture a kid’s imagination. There are dragons and adventure, graceful elves and fierce warriors. There are normal folk who go on to do extraordinary things. Though Tolkien’s language can be dense at times for a ten year old to read, it has moments of sheer poetry. I don’t think I have ever read a line that has spoken to me as much as Tolkien’s famous phrase “Not all those who wander are lost.”
But it goes beyond that still. There’s something so undeniably personal about the world Tolkien creates. It’s because his Middle Earth was inspired by his own life and the places around him. His works communicate the sense that not only does the writer know this world intimately (and why shouldn’t he, since he created it?) but that he has lived in it, experienced its pains, seen its most glorious days and its darkest ones.
One of my favorite Tolkien tales comes from The Silmarillion. It’s the tale of Lúthien, the most beautiful of all elves and her forbidden love with Beren, a mortal man. Beren faces an impossible trial and eventually loses his life. Lúthien dies from grief soon afterwards. Her grief was so great even in the afterlife that she and Beren were granted a second chance at life together, though Lúthien became a mortal. This tale is central to all of the subsequent events in Middle Earth.
The story of Beren and Lúthien is a retelling the story of Tolkien and his wife Edith. The greatest love story in Tolkien’s legendarium is his own. This personal connection can be felt, even if the reader is unaware of the connection. The pure devotion and passion of his work is so poignant because Tolkien draws from his own life in such a meaningful way.
To a child who reads to escape from reality, this amazingly beautiful and passionate world is addictive. Even as an adult, I am still constantly struck by the level of Tolkien’s commitment to his work.
To me, there has been no author since that has poured that much of his heart and soul into his writing. And that’s why I love Tolkien.