Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of May 7, 2001
Tolkien learned value of waiting
J.R.R. Tolkien: The Man Who Created the Lord of the Rings, by Michael Coren, Stoddart: Toronto. 2001. 136 pages.
Review by WAYNE HOLST
Special to the WCR
Some months ago on these pages, columnist Father Ron Rolheiser highlighted the signficance of "waiting" by referring to author Annie Dillard's attempt to "hasten" the emergence of a butterfly from its cocoon. She took a candle and heated the cocoon, ever so slightly, in order to speed the birthing process.
The butterfly did indeed emerge more quickly, but the transformation had been unnaturally rushed. It was born with wings improperly formed and was unable to fly. The lesson? Learn to wait. Good things come to those who do.
J.R.R. Tolkien: The Man Who Created the Lord of the Rings is, on one level at least, a case study in the art of delayed gratification.
In his biography of the great author and mythmaker, Michael Coren offers intriguing anecdotes revealing how waiting became the way by which this highly energetic and creative man turned his life and gifts, as well as his setbacks, into opportunities for relational and professional fulfillment.
John Tolkien was born in South Africa (1892) to parents who had migrated from England. Because he grew sickly there, he, his younger brother Hilary and mother Mabel were forced to make an arduous journey back to England in order to get proper medical treatment.
They waited for Tolkien's health to improve and anticipated their father and husband Arthur would eventually join them. Arthur never did make it. He died of hemorrhage in South Africa, leaving his young family to find their way alone.
When John met his future wife Edith, his priest guardian advised him to delay marriage until he was 21 (Edith was three years older). They waited and lived to enjoy almost 60 deeply satisfying years together.
John became a professor and writer at Oxford. But he took time off from his career when illness struck to care for his son Chistopher. Then, after completing his great Lord of the Rings triology (following the earlier success of The Hobbit) months went by, years in fact, before this marvellous book was finally published.
Tolkien's life was, in part at least, a series of difficult but highly productive periods of waiting. When others might have been inclined to rush into a relationship, career, or economic opportunity, Tolkien allowed gentle transformations rather than dramatic shifts to take place. And today, we are all the richer for it.
Tolkien has influenced some of the greatest artists of our time and made dreamers out of children and adults. Generations of more than 50 million people around the globe, in 25 different languages, have grown up with his legends. Recently, Rings was named in some polls as the most popular book of the 20th century.
This Christmas, the first of three epics of good versus evil, extraordinary heroes, woundrous creatures and dark armies of terror will be released in theatres. The Fellowship of the Ring will be followed, one year apart, by The Two Towers and The Return of the King. This is Tolkien's Ring Trilogy for moderns of all ages.
In the spirit of discovering C.S. Lewis' Narnia it is not too early for families, young and old alike, to prepare by familiarizing themselves with the creative Catholic Christian behind these tales. Coren's new biography is an accessible, enchanting way to begin.
The book is rich in pictorial illustration and generally, with helpful description. The two major illustrations, however, are left to the reader's imagination to identify, although they would appear to be overviews of Oxford.
Christian spiritual and faith refined through testing are also themes running through the entire narrative. Being Catholic in late-18th and early 19th century Victorian England was not easy. Being English, yet loving the German people through two world wars, was also a considerable stretch.
Reading, teaching and conveying ideas to others - especially using the imagination - were ways Tolkien found to cope with major life challenges. Through his imagination, he was able to transcend ordinary categories of good and evil, light and darkness, friend and foe. In this, he has something special to teach us. If we attend to the multiple layers of his myths and legends we too can find ways to overcome barriers that would appear insurmountable.
One of Tolkien's personal maxims was that an ordinary person can do extraordinary things. While many would argue that he was far from ordinary, Tolkien would not have thought so. He knew from a young age that he had gifts and he went about developing them. It took many years for those gifts to become recognized by the world outside academia.
Yet, even after his writings made him rich and he was awarded the Order of the British Empire and an honorary Oxford doctorate he continued to live the basic values he had honed for 80 years. True joy is to be found in childlike invention and life's simple pleasures. We must allow students to explore and grow in their own ways; and not try to squeeze them into the shapes we want. We do well to use our own experiences and charisms with that in mind.
This professor was happiest when telling stories to his children. Their vacation times together were spent in nature; avoiding artificial experiences. "Even at the ripe age of 81" (when he died), says Coren, "It is sad to lose one who brought so much fresh air and poetry into our literature." But the kingdoms he created will not pass away.
(Rev. Dr. Wayne Holst is an instructor in religion and culture at the University of Calgary.)