Tolkien has had such an impact on my life.
I didn’t read the Lord of the Rings until I was studying at UCLA. For years prior to that, I had appreciated Tolkien just in the images that I’d see in book stores… the books fascinated me, Hobbits, Dwarves, Elves, and their ilk drew me in, even though I hadn’t read their telling from Tolkien’s hand.
I played role playing games avidly as a young teen. My friends and I setting out on journeys and adventures in our imaginations, much along the lines of Tolkien’s creation- little did we know. (It’s a fact now understood that Tolkien’s work was the basis for Dungeons and Dragons, which became so popular from the late 70’s onward).
So I had for years felt a kinship to Middle Earth, even before ever actually reading the story. You might say that’s how engrained the mythology has become in our society. The concept of the Ring of Power, and Gollum… seemed etched in my mind all before opening the pages.
There is some explanation, of courese. As a very young child, I had an audio picture book companion of an animated and HIGHLY abridged story of the Lord of the Rings. (The whole story was told in about 20 minutes, and 18 pages of pictures). I think much of my “knowledge” of the LotR must have come from here.
Once I finally made it through the Lord of the Rings in my early 20’s I fell completely in love. I think I started re-reading it almost immediately. I’ve since read it over 30 times. I’ve lost count, actually. Many of my readings coming from the intrepid performnce of Rob Ingles in the only unabridged audiobook (an absolute halmark favorite in my life). Some people eat chocolate when they’re depressed. Some people drink vodka and smoke cigarettes to deal with stress. Some people smother their pain in binge eating or drinking… I put on my headphones and listen to Rob Ingles reading the Lord of the Rings to me. Instantly, I’m there in Middle Earth.
After having read LotR several times, and having gone through the Hobbit, and eventually the Silmarillion, I became obsessed (fan boy?) With Tolkien. I began reading anythign and everything I could about him. Most memorable was the biography of Tolkien written by Humphrey Carpenter. This book moved me in so many ways. I ended that book in tears, and resolved to write to Carpenter to thank him for his work. I found out just a month later that Carpenter had just died. God rest his soul.
Another pivotal collection of knowledge came from reading the published letters of Tolkien. When you read his letters you see the true genius and piety of the man. He was such a thoughtful individual. He loved his wife; he loved his children. He understood so much of the human condition here on this pained planet.
When the movies came out I was thrilled. THRILLED. I was among those who waited in line opening night, braving the cold to be among the first to see them in their big screen glory. When the DVDs came out with all the extended footage and the bonus material… I devoured the content, over and over. So much joy did I receive from the hooplah surrounding Tolkien’s brilliant creation.
Tolkien’s Middle Earth, the peoples therein, the history… all of it… taught me about nobility. I learned what courage looks like. I learned ethics not in a vacuum, but applied in a most dynamic situation. As Lewis said, characters in fictional stories wear their emotions/convictions on the outside. I was able to see a man like Aragorn- learning what a true, godly man behaves like. I was able to see the strength and dedication of Eowyn. I was able to witness the bravery and faith of the hobbits, so outsized and underprepared for their tasks, yet, somehow, successful. It gave me hope. I learned hope.
I’d like to offer a thank you to God for Tolkien’s life, so filled with suffering as it was (at least for much of his first few decades).
Let’s honor this man who put his faith first, his family second, and his imagination to God’s glory.
Happy birthday, John Ronald.