The Gift of Life Stories: J.R.R. Tolkien
To tell a story, whether your own life story or any other type, is to share a piece of you, a part of your world and how you see it. J.R.R. Tolkien did this, sharing stories and an entirely new world, Middle-earth, that have resonated with readers, filmmakers, authors, artists, and fans down through the decades. If you’re familiar with The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings but not with their creator, I hope I can share why Tolkien and his works have impacted our world, as well as my own.
Tolkien’s books not only caused a major shift in the fantasy genre, but they came to largely define it: epic in scope and length with generous world-building, magic, and mythical creatures and beings, most of which are taken from Tolkien’s adaptation of Norse and Germanic mythologies. Take this last category as an example. While Tolkien didn’t invent the mythical creatures in his books—with one trademarked exception—his works popularized and standardized them. For instance, even if you haven’t read Tolkien’s works, you probably know that elves are woodland creatures with pointy ears, immortal lives, and a knack for archery or that wizards are wise spell casters with tall pointed hats, magical staffs, and enormous gray beards. Most of all, you probably know that hobbits (or halflings) are a small, food-loving, social people who live in pleasant holes in the ground. Whether it’s in novels, films, television shows, video games, or board games—need I even list examples?—if it’s fantasy, you will likely find a bit of Tolkien’s shadow there.
Tolkien’s works, particularly The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, are also masterpieces of art and literature, which can be attributed to both their high literary and entertainment value. Tolkien’s experiences, scholarship, mastery of language, love of song, and fascination with mythology, history, and people were all infused into these books. It seems to me that the greatest works of art tend to do one or more of these three things: they inspire and prompt us to change, touch the heart, or help us view our world a little differently. Tolkien does all three. Unfortunately, most of the entertainment we have in our modern world is a bit like mental junk food—it’s cheap, tastes good, but has no nutritional value, and, in excess, leads to mental obesity. On the other hand, some literature is so nutritionally dense that only the English majors and their professors are willing to taste them. It’s rare to find a book that both children and scholars are willing to read, but that is precisely what Tolkien wrote.
I love what Tolkien himself said about the beautiful power of his magnum opus: “As for any inner meaning or ‘message’ [in The Lord of the Rings], it has the intention of the author none…. I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations…. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of the readers. I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory.’” In other words, Tolkien wasn’t trying to preach a hidden message to you with his stories. Instead, he invited readers and he invites you to explore yourself through his characters and their stories.
Now, if you’ve never read The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, and since you’re the type who takes time to read articles like this, I would invite you to do so. I think you’ll enjoy it. Even if you have read them, maybe take a shot at it again. Quite frankly, I love these books. They connect me with my childhood, with my Tolkien-loving siblings, and with other Tolkien fans. So, give it a taste. Stroll through the quiet hills of the Shire and hear the laughter of reveling hobbits; sprint across the bridge of Khazad-dûm from the oncoming Balrog; march with the ancient Ents; and stagger up the ashen peaks of Mount Doom with Frodo and Sam. As Tolkien said, you may just find a bit of yourself in there, some “applicability” in his characters’ stories. There really is just something about devouring these books that can change you, far more than the films. Watching the films is easy, passive, and mindless, and you feel that little twinge of guilt after sitting for three hours in front of a screen. The books, however, engage the mind and prompt thoughts to ponder, and to finish these epic masterpieces and clap the back cover closed brings a rare sense of satisfaction, a resounding sense of conclusion. You just traveled thousands of miles on foot. You witnessed wars and witnessed miracles. You followed characters as they struggled and were refined into new people—all through the pages of a book.
Finally, I want also want to emphasize that while Tolkien was an Oxford scholar, a brilliant author, and master of language, he was also quite a normal human, like you and me. He simply used his gifts to create his own world and then shared it with others. When we hear of people like Tolkien, it’s easy to look at ourselves and say, “Oh, they were simply lucky enough to be gifted. I’m not gifted like them, so I can’t be like them.” Exactly! You weren’t designed to be like them! Instead, you were lucky enough to get your gifts, gifts that you can use to create your own world and share your life story to uplift and inspire others. You don’t have to be a professor, write books, or be famous do to this—that was Tolkien’s story. Instead, use your gifts! Write songs, draw pictures, lead businesses, make friends, inspire, teach, uplift, design, smile, listen to a friend, bake carrot cake, do crazy math problems, build epic Lego villages—I don’t know what gifts you have, but I can promise that you have some. So, please, share your story. Make it a work of art. You’re the only one who can.
Shop the Tolkien Collection.
For those interested, here is a brief biography of J.R.R Tolkien:
John Ronald Reul Tolkien was born on January 3rd, 1892 in what would be present-day South Africa, where his father was employed. The family moved back to England after Tolkien’s father suddenly passed away from rheumatic fever.
Known as Ronald to family and friends, Tolkien was an imaginative boy who became fascinated with language, learning Latin and Greek and even beginning to invent his own languages by the time he was a teenager. His mother passed away when he was 12, and so he and his siblings were put into the care of Father Francis, a Catholic priest. Tolkien graduated from Oxford University in 1915.
In 1916, Tolkien married Edith Bratt before he was sent to France to fight in the Great War. He survived the horrors of battle, returned home, and began to work for the Oxford English Dictionary in the etymology and history of words. He was then hired as a professor at the University of Leeds and then, at the age of 33, Tolkien became a professor at Oxford University where he would stay for the next 34 years, largely teaching English language and literature.
As Tolkien was grading exam papers one day, he wrote this sentence on a blank page he had: “In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit.” This became the catalyst that would create some of the most popular and successful books ever written. This opening line was expanded by Tolkien and became The Hobbit, which was published in 1937 as a children’s book and had good success.
The publishers asked Tolkien for a sequel, and in 1954–17 years later—they got a masterpiece, an epic saga that was published in three parts over the next three years. It received mixed reviews, but soon swelled into an international phenomenon that brought the reluctant Tolkien considerable fame.
J.R.R. Tolkien died in 1973, following his wife who died two years previous, and leaving four children and a legacy that endures today
By Kelson Roney
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, published by Houghton Mifflin, 2004. See pages xxv-xxvi.