All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.
Today marks the birthday of one of the greatest writers of the last century, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. He was born 121 years ago today in Bloemfontein, South Africa.
Professor J.R.R. Tolkien
I believe that often books find us at the right time in our own journey. Tolkien's writing found me later in life that it does for most people who read The Hobbit as children. My best friend was telling me for YEARS "You should be reading Tolkien!" By the time I did manage to take an interest in The Lord of the Rings I had completed a masters in history and knew a great deal about the industrial revolution and the First World War. When I learned Tolkien had been a combat veteran of the Somme I immediately took to the themes of his writing and the underlying hidden messages.
Second lieutenant Tolkien, Lancashire Fusiliers in 1916
It has been pointed out that the major theme of Tolkien's writing is death. By 1918 many of his closest friends from school had been killed in the war--deaths which profoundly affected him as a writer. He later said:
One has indeed personally to come under the shadow of war to feel fully its oppression; but as the years go by it seems now often forgotten that to be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years. By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead.
He also conceded that his writing was primarily a religious and Catholic story:
The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like 'religion', to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.
Art by Ted Nasmith
What I find most inspiring about Tolkien is that he came out of the First World War and wrote an epic Christian novel fundamentally about hope against evil and despair. The youth of his era have been called the "lost generation"--they were stripped of their beliefs in God and country in a war unparalleled in history for its meaningless, catastrophic waste of life. Many survivors abandoned their faith in God.
Thomas Shippey, a leading Tolkien scholar, refers to authors such as Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and others as "traumatized writers"--combat veterans whose life and death experiences on the Western Front was a defining moment of their lives. They turned to the written page to seek or express answers to the experience of a war that had nearly killed them. Other great writers belong here: the British poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, the novelists Robert Graves (Goodbye to All That), Ernest Hemingway (A Farewell to Arms), Erich Maria Remarque (All Quiet on the Western Front), and Henri Barbusse (Under Fire), to name just a few. In their writing one feels the cynicism, the despair and hopelessness they experienced in war.
Tolkien chose another path. He took the loss of friends--the fear and darkness of his own past and wrote an epic of friendship, of sacrifice and the triumph of good over evil. Ultimately he wrote about hope and salvation. By creating Lord of the Rings Tolkien felt he would bring himself and his readers closer to God. He explained:
We have come from God and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed, only by myth-making, only by becoming a "sub-creator" and inventing stories, can Man ascribe to the state of perfection that he knew before the fall.
I believe Tolkien witnessed one of the darkest moments in human history and felt compelled to write on his faith as a Christian that humanity will not succumb to to evil. This he expressed through The Lord of the Rings. At the heart of Tolkien's writing is a belief in the true Christian myth, that we are created in the image of the Maker and exist in an evil and fallen world to be redeemed if we seek God's truth. In seeking truth one can live optimistically, without despair.
Tolkien reminds us that time is short, to hold our loved ones close, to cherish our friends, to be true and noble to each other, to believe in God and our ultimate salvation. In doing so his writing transcends from the written page and into our everyday lives.
Happy birthday John, we miss you.