Some research revealed that on this day in 1973, at age 81, the world lost one of its greatest writers, J.R.R. Tolkien. What, one might ask, does this have to do with fishing or curing cancer?
Any number of fantasy-inspired stories have been written or told over the ages, but Lord of the Rings has survived and thrived better than almost any other. In fact, as of 2010, the Lord of the Rings has sold more than 150 million copies. The few books that have topped that on the all-time list are ones like… The Bible.
When Peter Jackson brought the epic adventure to the big screen, the final installment, The Return of the King, grossed more than 1.1 billion in worldwide box-office sales.
Tolkien lost his father at only 3 years old and while he spent his earliest years living in Africa, he’d later return to England, where he’s most known and loved.
I fell in love with Tolkien, and all things Lord of the Rings, in middle school. I even feigned illness and skipped a class one day to finish reading The Return of the King.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve thought about his work more, and why it has become such a universally endearing, seemingly timeless story in our culture.
Scholars have poured over his life and work, and anything I might write about the man and his stories has almost certainly been written before. But as a fan, a reader and a writer, I’ll do my best to remember him on the day the world lost him.
I think, more than any other single factor, it was the nature of his epic adventures that made them so universally endearing. Yes, he had an incredible imagination, he was a fantastic writer and his ability to weave poems and songs into his work is almost unparalleled.
But he did something that perhaps only a man who lived through his era could: He set before his heroes a task of seemingly insurmountable difficulty. Tolkien was a Second Lieutenant in 1915 in the First World War, so the type of evil he wrote into his stories isn’t something he had to create wholly from his imagination, he saw plenty of it on the battlefield.
During his time fighting he endured everything from trench warfare to lice-delivered disease, but unlike many of his friends, he survived to return home.
I have no doubt that the evil of war that he encountered served as a great inspiration in the works he’d go on to create.
What I loved and love most about the Lord of the Rings was the nature of the quest set before the heroes. There’s not a page in the books where you feel, for a second, that a hobbit has a chance at completing the task set before him. From the minute Frodo leaves the Shire, you can’t help but think that he’s undertaken a journey without a hint of hope. But a journey he must undertake nevertheless.
Even, for his part, Frodo never seems to see his task as a possible one. He understands, however, that it’s not a burden he can pass along or a responsibility he can neglect.
Tolkien’s ability to instill the nature of the mission into the reader, his talent at conveying the sheer hopelessness of the mission, is what makes the entire ordeal so inspiring in the first place. No task, mission or journey is more admirable than one taken on without a hint of hope, one born of obligation that necessitates sacrifice.
And perhaps there’s even some inspiration to be drawn from type of mission.
It is impossible, and unthinkable, that any one person might undertake or attempt any journey that would end with cancer’s eradication. The very notion that any of us might attempt this is laughable.
But for all of us affected by its evil, the journey is one, each in our own way, we must undertake. If Frodo passed along the ring, or gave it up, or threw it away, he’d be relieved of the burdensome task put before him. Tolkien, too, could have found a way to avoid the war. Neither did.
Both fictional and historical figures understood that whatever stand we can make against an evil that exists in our lifetimes, that threatens to affect our lives and the lives of loved ones, is one that we must make.
If we say that a growing evil on the horizon, whether it’s cancer, Sauron’s armies, or a threatening enemy, is “not our problem,” then we allow all those around us to do the same with our example.
And evil, disease and death will exist as long as humanity does, but the only truly dangerous thing for any and all of us is complacency, is indifference.
On my best day I will never be the writer that Tolkien was on his worst, so I’ll leave you with his words rather than mine: “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
Image: Huffington Post