Well, the cold weather continues. We’re looking at temps around -10°F tonight. The white car still refuses to start, so I think I’m simply going to give up trying until temps moderate, which means probably next weekend. There’s no point burning out a starter.
I was telling a friend this week that Today’s History Lesson has given me a much greater appreciation for good writers. So it’s great that I get to write about one today, though I won’t do him near the justice he deserves.
J. R. R. Tolkien may not be the most remarkable writer that ever lived. He certainly wasn’t as prolific as many authors. And I’m not 100% sure that writing was even Tolkien’s first love. I think that was reserved for linguistics, languages, and the studies concerning them. But J. R. R. Tolkien is responsible for one of the most remarkable works of literature ever created. It largely defined a literary genre and has captivated millions of readers (and more recently, movie-goers) worldwide.
When The Hobbit was published in 1937, it achieved a success that surprised its author. Tolkien had created a story essentially to read to his children, and a goodly number of people decided they wanted it read to (and by) their own kids. Though the author did not really envision a sequel, the publishers believed one would be appropriate.
And so Tolkien began work on a continuation of The Hobbit, and very quickly discovered a story that ran much deeper, and with a much darker vein, than its predecessor. Published as The Lord of the Rings, it contains many elements of the prequel. There’s a quest, there’s a ring (the same Ring from The Hobbit, but with a much more sinister nature), and there’s a group that forms the “quest party”.
But the similarities pretty much end there, as The Lord of the Rings is far more involved, exposing us to much of the expanse of Middle Earth and the richness of its 7,000-year history. There are numerous races of people, and Tolkien’s mastery of languages came to the fore, as he created more than a dozen distinct langauges and writing systems.
Since their first publication in the mid-1950’s, the three volumes that comprise The Lord of the Rings have sold millions of copies and have captivated millions of readers. The trilogy largely created and defined the fantasy genre and has since become the benchmark against which all fantasy fiction has been measured. It’s been made into numerous video games. There were television movies in the late 70’s, though they weren’t very good. It is, without question, one of the most important literary works of the 20th Century.
In the late 1990’s, New Line Cinema essentially “mortgaged the farm” on film director Peter Jackson and his ability to bring the massive scale of Tolkien’s world to the big screen. The three movies were a tremendous success, introducing The Lord of the Rings to millions of new fans.
I read the trilogy every August, and 2009 was my 25th reading, so I consider myself a fan. I love The Lord of the Rings so much because they’re the books I would have wanted to write. I very much want to walk the plains of Rohan and stroll with Halflings through the Shire. Maybe lay eyes on Sauron’s Dark Tower or stand over Balin’s tomb in Moria. It could be the kid in me (or possibly I’m just weird), but Tolkien’s story draws me into the pages like no other fiction has or probably could.
It begins humbly enough, but builds in urgency and pace until the final crescendo before the gates of Minas Tirith when the King is crowned. The 3rd book’s final 70 pages are basically the epilogue, and while the story seems to end on a positive note, I consider it a tragedy. Evil is vanquished, but even good suffers loss…”they all lived happily ever after” sounds discordant as this masterpiece is completed.
And I want to see it…but then, maybe I already have. My mind’s eye has created Middle Earth, and I’ve visited so often that, in some sense (a sense that might rightly earn a crossway’s glance from any number of people), I already know the place. I own Peter Jackson’s movie renditions, but steadfastly refuse to watch them. I’ve watched the intro to The Fellowship… and the scenes from Khazad-dum, but that’s it. I don’t want another “world-view” infringing on my own.
It’s so all-encompassing in scope. The Tale of Years, detailed in the appendix, verifies the “truth” of the Third Age. We see snippets of stories, largely untold and never-to-be-explained, that beg for fleshing out. The historian in me just has to know. Its languages, and lands, and races of people, and heroes long dead and gone, each story crying for its witnesses to come forth. But while it’s “all-encompassing”, it’s also so personal…to the point of being just my experience alone. Tolkien’s world is his creation…but the books make it my creation as well. When I open the books, I play God for a brief moment and, with a thought, create a landscape “in my own image”. Treebeard looks and sounds as I wish, the Misty Mountains are as rugged as I make them, the Brandywine River as cool to the touch as I desire.
Maybe that’s the magic of Tolkien’s creation for me…his creation allows me to create. I don’t know. It’s kind of ethereal and hard to explain.
J. R. R. Tolkien was born in South Africa on January 3, 1892. When he died in 1973, he left behind a canvas that I paint, and repaint, every year. I can’t wait for next August.
Happy Birthday, J. R. R. Tolkien!!
Recommended Reading: The Lord of the Rings – Experience Middle Earth for the first time…or the nth time.