John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born January 3, 1892, and this is a rather belated birthday tribute, occasioned by a recent viewing of the new Peter Jackson movie (The Hobbit, part 2).
I bought The Lord of the Rings books one by one, in what I think were the original paperback versions, and I can still remember the anguish with which I finished part 2, “The Two Towers,” where I was left hanging as the dread spider Sheelob nabbed Frodo, and Sam took off with the sword and the Ring.
Fortunately, the local bookstore (a B. Dalton’s) had “The Return of the King” in stock, and my nerves were saved. I became another Tolkien fan, and have reread The Lord of the Rings more times than I can count. It never fails to inspire and move me.
I didn’t read The Hobbit until much later, and it took me several years to accept it on its own terms, as more of a children’s book, though I am happy to say that I finally came round to liking it for its own sake. Still, The Lord of the Rings will always be my favorite of the two. Back in the day, I eagerly bought The Silmarillion when it came out, and picked up other odds and ends of Tolkieniana from sale tables and used book stores over the years, so that we now own a Tolkien atlas, an oversized book of Tolkien illustrations, a Tolkien Bestiary, and his lovely Father Christmas tale, complete with the charming illustrations. Tolkien’s drawings were every bit as fine as his stories, delicately drafted creations that have quite an elvish flavor about them.
I also love photographs of Tolkien himself. A hobbitsy looking man if there ever was one, with all the doughty, understated qualities of a hobbit’s character to boot. His biography makes for fascinating reading.
One aspect of Tolkien’s work that I find especially sympathetic is his attitude of reverence and respect for the wonder and beauties of Nature—an attitude that never runs to sentimentality, and is fully aware of the dangers that Nature holds as well (think of Old Man Willow!). The Ents in particular are my absolute favorite of his creations. Treebeard is a marvel, and it tickles my fancy to think that Tolkien modeled Treebeard’s booming delivery on his friend C.S. Lewis, another famous Oxford don who was part of Tolkien’s circle.
Every time that I read about some horrible environmental degradation or see a beautiful, healthy tree wantonly chopped down in a neighborhood yard, I have a fierce longing to evoke the vengeance of the Ents upon the offender, wishing that I could call upon the mighty shepherds and defenders of trees to mow down these destroyers of beauty as they mowed down Saruman’s nasty little fiefdom. Like the evil wizard, too many people these days possess “minds made of metal and wheels” as Tolkien so aptly put it—completely blind to the beauties of the natural world.
The religious aspects of The Lord of the Rings are woven into the tale with equal subtlety. The moral growth of Frodo and Sam that leads to their sacrificial journey to Mordor, the wisdom of Gandolf, Galadriel, and Aragorn, and the beauteous vision of Tolkien’s Elves all lend themselves to our moral and religious stories, no matter what our faith. The Lord of the Rings is truly a timeless and universal tale, and Tolkien a towering literary saint.