A popular British magazine recently surveyed its readers to get their votes for the best book of all time. Thousands responded. The landslide winner for the top spot in history: The Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien. The literary elites were incensed and amazed. How could a fantasy writer win? They re-polled the country, and again Tolkien’s work blew away the competition. Again they asked the public, and for a third straight time the public was very clear, Tolkien was their favorite. I, for one, couldn’t agree more with this assessment.
J. R. R. Tolkien was born in South Africa in 1892. His father died shortly after his younger brother was born so his mother was forced to raise the both of them alone. To complicate matters Tolkien’s mother converted to the Catholic Church and was thereupon banished from much of her family and their support. A few years later his mother also died leaving the boys to be raised by her parish priest.
Tolkien proceeded through school in a fairly unremarkable way except for his unusual giftedness in languages – not just in speaking them, but understanding how they worked. Some children make up their own words – Tolkien made up his own languages. He pursued this love of words through studies at Oxford and later returned to teach philology there. He remains one of Oxford’s most celebrated professors. Through his study of languages he became exposed to the mythologies of the world. He wrote The Lord of the Rings, he later said, to give England her own myth.
The setting for this myth is Middle Earth, a land Tolkien first described to the world in The Hobbit, a work he first wrote for his children. The story is about Bilbo Baggins, an unassuming hobbit that gets swept into an adventure (much to his chagrin) with thirteen dwarves and a wizard. (Hobbits are man-like creatures about half the size of a normal human. They live in holes, usually; they love to eat, garden, and give gifts. Most of all, they love to stay home.) Along the way Bilbo becomes the owner of a magic ring that became the center of Tolkien’s masterpiece. The Lord of the Rings is an epic tale about the ring and how it fits into history.
Tolkien’s work has impacted me like no other author. Though many people recognize the quality and contributions of Tolkien’s work to the world, there are a few things, in particular, about his life and work that have import for me.
One is Tolkien’s view of myth. Though most people see a myth as a story of something untrue, Tolkien saw myth as the exact opposite. His great friend C. S. Lewis once objected to Tolkien that, “…myths are lies, though lies breathed through silver.” “No,” said Tolkien, “they are not.” There are truths, Tolkien said, that are beyond us, transcendendant truths, about beauty, truth, honor, etc. There are truths that man knows exist, but they cannot be seen – they are immaterial, but no less real, to us. It is only through the language of myth that we can speak of these truths. We have come from God, Tolkien said, and only through myth, through story telling, can we aspire to the life we were made for with God. To write and/or read myth, Tolkien believed, was to meditate on the most important truths of life.
Tolkien believed that what he wrote in The Lord of the Rings was true, not in the sense that the events really happened, but in the sense that they portrayed truth to us in a way that everyday events could not. After reading a bit of his work a friend asked him how the story would end. Tolkien responded, “I don’t know. I shall try to find out.” He felt that he was uncovering the truth already there, only hidden.
It was Tolkien’s view of myth that that most aided C. S. Lewis in his pilgrimage to accept Christianity. All the other myths of the world, Tolkien said, are a mixture of truth and error – truth because they are written by those made by and for God – error because written by those alienated by God. But the Bible is the one true myth. It is a true accounting of truth, while everything else we do is mimicking. This perspective was decisive in Lewis’ conversion to Christianity.
The second notable thing for me is Tolkien’s value of friendship. It is a notable characteristic of his work and his life. In the LOTR, this is seen most notably in the friendships of Frodo and Sam and Frodo and Aragorn. In his life, this is seen in his friendship with C. S. Lewis. Friendships are gifts, not so much made, but given to us. Friendship occurs when two people meet who share a common perspective, experience, insight, treasure, or burden. There is a bond that occurs that brings them beyond mere acquaintances to friends. And that friendship should be cherished.
Tolkien and Lewis certainly did cherish theirs. They were together at least three times per week: on Tuesday mornings and Thursday evenings with the other “Inklings” (a literary circle of friends), and at least one other day for lunch. Tolkien wrote, “Friendship with Lewis compensates for much, and besides giving constant pleasure and comfort has done me much good from the contact with a man at once honest, brave, intellectual – a scholar, a poet, and a philosopher – and a lover, at least after a long pilgrimage, of Our Lord.” Tolkien saw that the value of friends was not just that they stand with you, but that they stand with you and see the same things as you.
Third, Tolkien’s values, again in life and in work, encourage me. Tolkien saw himself as a hobbit in every way but in stature. He loved to eat (hobbits prefer six meals a day). He loved gardening, trees and long walks in the country. He loved pipes, stories and friends. He loved his family and preferred being at home to travel. He was jovial, kindhearted and generous. He was a devout Catholic. He didn’t set out to change the world, he set out to live the life he had been given in obedience to God. Like Lewis, Tolkien believed that home, family, and our labors were the heart of our lives. And for him labor included all his work, not just that he was paid for. He normally ate all three meals and had tea at home with his family. He rarely traveled, but ate and smoked a lot. For him, home, family, and labor were godly things that pleased God more than any “good work” could.
The LOTR ends in a hobbit’s home. Some have thought ending anticlimactic given the grand scope of the epic. But this merely highlights that, for Tolkien, all the wars, heroism, and great acts of bravery are not nearly so valuable and praiseworthy as what goes on in the simple day-to-day events of our lives. We fight exciting wars so that we can lead boring lives.
Lastly, Tolkien’s life was dominated by his vision of the future – not a vision of what he would do for God, but what God would do for him. His mind was occupied with, what Calvin called, a “meditation on the afterlife.” He was fully aware and confident that “this slight, momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” Like Lewis, he felt that the fact that we long for something more is proof to us that there is something more for us. He wrote to a friend: “We were born in a dark age out of due time for us. But there is this comfort: otherwise we should not know, or so much love, what we do love. I imagine the fish out of water is the only fish to have an inkling of water.” Christians are fish out of water, living outside their environment. We are pilgrims, aliens, exiles, who soon will go home.
In December the first of three Lord of the Rings movies will be released. The other two will be released the next two Decembers. Why mention this now? Well, if you haven’t read it, now you have ten months to do so before the movie is released. As for me, I’ll be standing in line in August.