Tolkein is dead

Well actually, JRR Tolkein has been dead for some time. He died on Sept 2, 1973, four years before I held in my hand copies of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. How little I knew how that particular literature would shape my future life.

Prior to moving to London, England for musical studies in 1977 Bill and Ann Osborne gave me a paperback boxed set of the trilogy plus one. I knew nothing of Tolkein or of his (literally) fantastic genre and style. I had never heard of his Inkling colleagues Owen Barfield and C.S. Lewis. The book cover was appealing; the print was reasonable for my disadvantaged eyesight, so I turned the page and dived in.

In the student hostel where I spent my first year, there was only one telly, no smart phones, only expensive long-distance conversations with nervous parents, and few if other distractions. That said, it took me six months to finish the set. Reading was physically and intellectually tiring for me in those days. But I plowed on, curious and enraptured by the travails and the journey itself. Mordor was anything but appealing, and as one critic said of the movies which followed decades later, it was one damn thing after another. I understood nothing of the dialects or cultural intricacies. The action however kept my interest.

It was my conquest of these books which opened my eyes and imagination to the world of literature, adventure, travel and inspiration. So many other books followed shortly afterward; fiction and non-fiction alike piqued my interest and opened my eyes to worlds of experience: Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights (I did visit the Bronte rectory in Haworth a year later); Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful; some early John le Carré novels which inaugurated my lifelong passion for spy fiction; Fine autobiographies such as Dirk Bogarde’s A Postillion Struck by Lightening and David Niven’s The Moon’s a Balloon were wonderfully entertaining sagas; American fiction such as Catcher in the Rye; Lots of introductory and popular theology by John R W Stott and Francis Schaeffer; And of course, with so many the voluminous multi-genre oeuvre of C. S. Lewis, especially Mere Christianity.

If there is a point to all this it is that reading requires effort if indeed the text contains ideas of merit, inspiration and depth. There must be something beyond the text itself which not only delights the spirit, challenges the intellect and expands experience. Good literature surprises and helps the reader transcend the ordinary, which itself is not worth writing or reading.

Sure, many simply read for pleasure, and I do not want to discount that need. Visiting a parishioner a few years ago I noticed an entire wall of trade fiction romance novels. Really, I thought? But hey, if that met a compassionate need, so be it. I did grow up reading The Hardy Boys which along with The Adventures of Nancy Drew and other syndicated and manufactured stories got children, and adults reading.

Now in my early sixties, somewhat addicted to social media, I do find my attention span shortened and less disciplined than previously. Once again though for different reasons I must again force myself to work at reading, as I once did through my early Tolkien travels. It’s work worth doing. So honouring Dickens’ Christmas Carol which begins with “Marley was dead” I say now that Tolkien, though dead, encourages me still to leave my particular shire and with Bilbo Baggins to go on my own particular adventure.

For me however, there must be a struggle to find the extra-ordinary beyond the ordinary.

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