Last week, while browsing a local book store with my 10-year-old to redeem a gift from his godparents, we hovered around the “middle-earth” aisle in a section reserved for titles by and about J.R.R. Tolkien.
Since we already own a copy of “The Hobbit,” which is wildly popular now due in part to the recent release of the movie of the same title, I dropped some not-so-subtle hints that the children’s biography about Tolkien, “Mythmaker: The Life of J.R.R. Tolkien,” might be a good pick. When he bypassed it for a pocket-sized copy of “The Hobbit” (everyone needs their own, right?), I glanced back longingly at “Mythmaker,” and in the end, decided to buy myself a little Christmas gift.
Most authors and serious writers out there would, I’ll bet, admit to a similar fascination with the lives of other authors. What are the details of the life that led to the producing of this work? we want to know. We study these lives wondering how ours are different and, possibly, similar, too.
So while my son curled up this Christmas with his copy of “The Hobbit,” I glimpsed the life of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien and enjoyed it very much. For one, it brought me back to my five weeks living in Oxford, England, in the early 1990s. Reading about some of the places Tolkien had trod that I, too, had passed by or visited was a special thrill. But perhaps the best part of the book was delving into the details of what I am calling “Tolkien’s Triumph;” namely, that all the odds were against any of this happening.
By this, of course, I mean what so many know: that Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” is among the most popular books of all time. And yet, so many of the learned men around him during the concocting of this great tale scoffed at the attempts, seeing them as below his capabilities. And did you know that it took him many years to complete the “Rings” sequel? He started it in his 40s and was in his 60s when it was finally published.
It was inspiring to read of Tolkien’s personal journey — which included becoming orphaned, nearly losing the love of his life to another man, coming close to an early death in war and a resulting illness that took him out of commission for quite a while — and see how he overcame all these challenges to do this great thing: to create this work that, as he himself described it upon submission, “…is written in my life-blood, such as that is, thick or thin; and I can no other.”
Even so, it met a deafening rejection when the initial editor to whom it was intended was not around and the heavy manuscript landed in the wrong hands. As dramatic as the story itself, the book eventually made it back to the intended recipient, who, upon first reading, called it a “work of genius,” and set it on its track to publication, splitting the large tome into three volumes.
And once again we see, in reading of others who have gone before, that this journey of the writer is not for the faint of heart. It is only for those who have a deep belief in the craft and in their ability to pull off something remarkable, something worth bringing to completion despite all the inevitable challenges.
Consider, too, that Tolkien, while writing “The Hobbit” especially, had no dreams of grandeur. He was just a hard-working fellow writing stories, in large part, for himself and his family. That this work would be discovered and passed about is, in itself, miraculous.
We all have, and should have, dreams, but what all this leads me to is this: be flexible in your dreaming. It’s enough to be drawn to the craft, to work hard at it, to not give up, to believe that you have something special to share with the world that you alone can share. But we would all do well to be open to considering it might not go off just as we’ve envisioned it; that, God-willing, His plan, His will, not ours, be done in our work.
Tolkien was a man of God, and I have no doubt that it was in keeping God near that his dreams, even the unknown ones, were achieved, and that the world inevitably did have a chance to benefit from the world he would create; a world of good and evil, of suffering and joy — not unlike, in many ways, the one through which we are journeying at present.
Q4U: Have you ever experienced success in your work after pulling back a bit and letting God lead?