John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973) shaped my life in more ways than I can or ever will understand.
At least in this life time.
Though he died when I was only five years old, I have often given God thanks for allowing me to live on the same earth as Tolkien. Indeed, as a young and even as a teenaged boy, I prayed as intensely for Tolkien (to be in heaven, not purgatory) as I did for my own father (who died two months after I was born) and my grandfathers. Tolkien was just as real to me.
One of the great moments of my life—one of the most memorable, an awakening of sorts—was my first encounter with the book, The Silmarillion. It appeared for the first time in print in September 1977. My oldest brother turned 18 that month, and I turned 10. He received a hardback as a birthday present from my mom. I stared and stared at the cover, an image of Tolkien’s taken from his illustrations for The Hobbit. It should be noted that in addition to his innumerable talents as a scholar and as a writer, Tolkien was also a very gifted painter. He was especially good with his choice of colors. The color in “The Mountain Path” (the cover of the 1977 edition of The Silmarillion) is subtle but quite enticing. It captivated me for months. The picture has two strangely opposite qualities: one of invitation and one of peril. The only thing that had captivated me to the same extent at that time in my life were the Roger Dean covers and gatefolds of Yes albums.
The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords. In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveler who would report them. And wile he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should shut and the keys be lost.
But, at age 10, I had no idea that Tolkien had been a professor or that he had addressed the faculty of the University of St. Andrews with such Christian wonder and force. In 1977, I only had the cover and my rather vivid adolescent imagination. It was enough. The world that Tolkien painted went far beyond the world I had experienced in the Great Plains of central Kansas and some of the American West of the Rocky Mountains and deserts of the Great Basin. With that painting, I felt that Tolkien had invited me into a world of sacramental wonder and mystery. I realize this might seem egotistical, but I mean it much more in the sense of it being personal. We’ve all had the privileges of seeing public speakers appear to be speaking directly to us, though, in reality, of course, we’re but one of a crowd. Tolkien’s paintings (and his writings) have the same feel. This is because Tolkien—perhaps more than almost any other man of his age—did speak to us, of the most important and personal things.
Being young but more than a bit adventuresome, I attempted to read The Silmarillion. In fact, I attempted to read it probably twenty or thirty times. It was too much for my 10 year old brain to comprehend. But, the opening—that glorious opening about the gods and creation and tragedy and sorrow and beauty—happily and gently molded me in ways I will never fully comprehend. I still can’t teach the first chapter of Genesis or any of Plato without Tolkien’s gods and especially Iluvatar making an appearance in my mind. It’s a joyous confluence of images, myths, and theologies.
As soon as I could, I saved up money from mowing lawns, and I rode my bike down to our local bookstore, a small but beautiful shop, Crossroads Books, in my hometown of Hutchinson, Kansas. There, I purchased the full golden Tolkien boxed set: The Hobbit; The Fellowship of the Rings; The Two Towers; and The Return of the King. The publisher had decorated the box with various Tolkien renderings of the several Elven houses, tying the set rather clearly to the recently published Silmarillion. I devoured every one of these stories as quickly as I could. I was riveted. I looked through all of the maps, and I studied the artistry on that gold Ballantine box (sadly, lost for good in a loan to a friend). All of this was a part of a massive world, one far more romantic and meaningful than my own.
How many hours—whether actually reading the books, drawing the maps, attempting to learn the scripts and languages, getting through the tedium of grade school and junior high classes, or making up my own worlds in fiction and games—did I spend in Middle-earth? I’m sure there were times in my young life when I knew far more about Tolkien’s world than I did my own. Escape, frankly, was not only healthy for my mind and soul, but it was actually life saving for my very being. But, this is a much longer story.
In frustration, C.S. Lewis once asked Tolkien “What class of men would you expect to be most preoccupied with, and most hostile to, the idea of escape?” Tolkien answered: “jailers.” He also expressed the same frustration in a poem he wrote for Lewis:
Blessed are the legend-makers with their rhyme
of things not found within recorded time.
It is not they that have forgot the Night,
or bid us flee to organized delight,
in lotus-isles of economic bliss
forswearing souls to gain a Circe-kiss
(and counterfeit at that, machine-produced,
bogus seduction of the twice-seduced).
Each reading since the late 1970s has only confirmed my initial wonder and understanding that this was the work of a great man, an artist whose talents abundantly blessed this existence. Just as I could never calculate how many hours I’ve spent in Tolkien’s world, I’ve also lost count as to how many times I’ve actually read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Add in Tolkien’s other works, in and out of his larger legendarium, and I’ve spent many of my forty-five years of life in Middle-earth. Hours reading the books again, writing about the books again, reading the books out loud to my children, teaching Tolkien to students, etc.
Enter three persons—connected to Tolkien in very direct ways that have dramatically shaped my life—into my own trek through this World of Sorrows.
Winston Elliott. Yes, our Winston Elliott. I started speaking for Winston’s Free Enterprise Institute in the mid 1990s. I was the first person to speak on non-economic topics (you wouldn’t want me to speak on economics; I have nothing to say except, “leave me alone,” which is fine as it goes, but it gets rather tedious after too much repetition). During my first visit to Houston, I gave four lectures. I was still a half of a decade away from completing my dissertation, and I was shocked when Winston asked me to return.
Over the next five years, not only did we develop a strong friendship (one that lasts to this day), but he also graciously encouraged me to broaden my own research and writing as much as possible. In fact, it was Winston who encouraged me to start lecturing on Tolkien. Not just one lecture, but several. I had written a long research paper on Tolkien and religious faith in a junior philosophy class at the University of Notre Dame, and I used this as the basis of my first few talks. As soon as I finished writing my dissertation (which, to this day, I can’t look at for the self-loathing it engenders), Winston suggested I write on what I love, J.R.R. Tolkien, using the lectures I’d given at FEI as a basis of the book.
I’ve praised Winston in every way I can elsewhere, so I won’t add much more to that. The fact you’re reading this at TIC is testament to what Winston is capable of (yes! I am ending a sentence with a preposition; feel free to knock my grade down to a B). He combines charisma, intelligence, and inspiration in a way that is so rare in the history of the world. TIC’s success, as I’ve noted before, owes more to Winston’s tenacity and vision than anything else.
During my first year at Hillsdale, Phil Nielsen, a first-year student, and I founded the Tolkien Society. Along with Hillsdale philosopher, Don Turner, about 15 to 20 of us met regularly to discuss all aspects of Tolkien’s work, but always focusing on the classical and Christian elements of his larger mythology. A typical meeting involved an opening prayer, some question about Tolkien or his mythology, a reading from some part of his legendarium, and then hours and sometimes even more hours arguing the finer points of things. When Dedra and I first arrived at Hillsdale, our oldest child was only a few months old, so we didn’t have as many time and family commitments as we do now. So, those conversations with students could go for a very long time. Equally important, being much younger then, I could also stay up later and keep up with the students. Not a possibility any longer.
As with Winston, Phil encouraged me in every way possible. Sometimes, the two of us would talk for hours in my office, in the library, or out on the quad. I’ll never forget once asking Phil a rather technical question about a character in The Lord of the Rings on a Friday afternoon. On Monday, Phil handed me a paper he’d written over the weekend in answer to my Friday question. This is a perfect Phil move.
When I went to the Tolkien archives in Wheaton and in Marquette, I naturally took Phil with me. We had a blast. Maybe too much of a blast. Not only did we have serious discussions, but we rewrote the Star Wars mythology to incorporate Cicero, Livy, Tacitus, and Virgil into what George Lucas had created. We also talked about time, eternity, and everything that really matters.
Not surprisingly, Phil is now one of the leading Von Balthasarians in the world, especially when it comes to Balthasar’s aesthetics. He’s just about to complete his PhD in sacred architecture. I couldn’t be more proud of him or of my friendship with him.
The third person introduced to me through my love of Tolkien was Joe Pearce. As with Winston and Phil, Joe and I hit it off from the moment we met. The guy is as hilarious as he is bright. He also exudes a kind of rare confidence (much like Winston and Phil) that makes everyone around him feel an equal to himself, not in mediocrity, but in excellence. That is, Pearce leavens everyone and everything.
I still think Joe is our greatest living biographer. He takes great chances with topics, but he never ceases to get into the very soul of his subject, no small feat for any writer.
If Winston and Phil encouraged my intellect and imagination, Joe taught me that it is quite worthwhile and possible to regard each subject as a unique reflection of the Infinite Face of God. Indeed, Pearce’s writings exude sacramentalism and Incarnationalism.
Considering his own life it’s also quite possible that Pearce will one day be recognized as a saint. After all, outside of those in ecclesiastical positions, who among us is doing as much to advance Christendom as is Joe? Well, maybe Winston and Phil.
And, the list could continue. Through Tolkien, I came to know the genius and friendship of Carl Hostetter and others. [Image of the Lexicon]
With the Tolkien book, I also realized that I could continue to write—in the mode of Pearce, rather admittedly—about men I admire immensely. From JRR Tolkien, I went to his fellow parishioner, Christopher Dawson. From Dawson, I went to the great Christian Humanist of the American founding, Charles Carroll of Carrollton. From Carroll, to another admirer of Tolkien, Russell Kirk.
But, I’ll leave this with some of the best things I ever learned from Tolkien.
The war against evil never ends. Evil, whatever its lack of imagination, is intelligent. In its defeat, it reemerges and adapts to the new conditions of the world.
Beauty exists, forever beyond the reach of evil.
Progress always leads to evil.
Friendship and loyalty rule the fates of men.
And, a whole lot of other things.
Thank you, Professor Tolkien.
Books by Tolkien and by others mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.