Yesterday, January 3, was the 123rd birthday of Professor John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, an author whom I have had a bit of time to study. So at 9PM last night, elves, dwarves, hobbits, and men raised their glasses to that old Professor of Anglo-Saxon, who has changed so many lives.
My own experience with Tolkien has not been insignificant. Source: Sr. Hilda Kleiman, Mt. Angel Seminary Journalism, 2012
I suppose some say I take this whole “Tolkien thing” too seriously, and I would respond to them this: you take yourself too seriously. In Middle-Earth, we find a world of beauty, and in that beauty resides truth. But what was that truth for Tolkien?
Tolkien was a man of faith, a faith that would infuse his works, sometimes intentionally but mostly unintentionally. He was devoted to his Catholic faith, particularly to the Eucharist and the Blessed Mother. This imagery is easy enough to see throughout the books, and would be too much to detail here. But I believe his faith also taught him something else, something that also creeps into the land of elves and hobbits: it taught him that in every moment of life, there is a bit of magic, a bit of wonder. As one worried person once asked me, no I don’t mean that kind of magic, but rather a type of magic that brings music to the soul, and calls forth the best out of all people. Perhaps rather than use the word “magic” I should say that in Middle-Earth and in his own life, Tolkien saw grace. in even the smallest of occurrences, life became for him a living fairy-story, infused with grace. To borrow his own term, Tolkien lived a very mythopoetic life, full of wonder.
Last known photograph of Tolkien. Source: Michael Tolkien via Tolkien Gateway
None of this can be seen more clearly than in his romance with a certain Edith Bratt. Tolkien would meet Edith when he was 16 and she was 19 while they lived in the same boarding house, and he was subsequently forbidden to have contact with Edith by his then-guardian, Fr. Francis. Being the good Catholic that he was, Tolkien obeyed of course, but in his heart he persisted, and waited patiently until he turned 21, after which he declared his undying love to Edith. Their marriage was not easy, as no marriage ever is (Edith even had to convert to Catholicism, which was not looked upon favorably by some individuals), but they led a blessed life. In his romance with Edith, he saw wonder and grace ever-present, and believed Edith to be the Luthien to his Beren (see below for the “Song of Beren and Luthien,” written by Tolkien, which details the story of two elven lovers).
The grave of John and Edith Tolkien. Source: Álida Carvalho via Wikimedia Commons
I do believe Tolkien was a hopeless romantic, and I also believe that we need a bit more of that in today’s world. We need to see the grace and wonder that infuses everything around us, whether it is in finding our Beren or Luthien, being sent on a quest to change the world, or even as simple as planting a garden outside one’s hobbit hole. If we lose sight of this magic, we descend into mediocrity, and that my friends is no life any elf, dwarf, or man would ever want to live.
So, Professor Tolkien, we salute you, and hope that we may live that mythopoetic life which you so expertly demonstrated!
And for the record, yes, I have other interests outside of J.R.R. Tolkien and Middle-Earth, some very elvish. 🙂
Song of Beren and Lúthien
The leaves were long, the grass was green,
The hemlock-umbels tall and fair,
And in the glade a light was seen
Of stars in shadow shimmering.
Tinúviel was dancing there
To music of a pipe unseen,
And light of stars was in her hair,
And in her raiment glimmering.
There Beren came from mountains cold,
And lost he wandered under leaves,
And where the Elven-river rolled
He walked alone and sorrowing.
He peered between the hemlock-leaves
And saw in wonder flowers of gold
Upon her mantle and her sleeves,
And her hair like shadow following.
Enchantment healed his weary feet
That over hills were doomed to roam;
And forth he hastened, strong and fleet,
And grasped at moonbeams glistening.
Through woven woods in Elvenhome
She lightly fled on dancing feet,
And left him lonely still to roam
In the silent forest listening.
He heard there oft the flying sound
Of feet as light as linden-leaves,
Or music welling underground,
In hidden hollows quavering.
Now withered lay the hemlock-sheaves,
And one by one with sighing sound
Whispering fell the beachen leaves
In the wintry woodland wavering.
He sought her ever, wandering far
Where leaves of years were thickly strewn,
By light of moon and ray of star
In frosty heavens shivering.
Her mantle glinted in the moon,
As on a hill-top high and far
She danced, and at her feet was strewn
A mist of silver quivering.
When winter passed, she came again,
And her song released the sudden spring,
Like rising lark, and falling rain,
And melting water bubbling.
He saw the elven-flowers spring
About her feet, and healed again
He longed by her to dance and sing
Upon the grass untroubling.
Again she fled, but swift he came.
He called her by her elvish name;
And there she halted listening.
One moment stood she, and a spell
His voice laid on her: Beren came,
And doom fell on Tinúviel
That in his arms lay glistening.
As Beren looked into her eyes
Within the shadows of her hair,
The trembling starlight of the skies
He saw there mirrored shimmering.
Tinúviel the elven-fair,
Immortal maiden elven-wise,
About him cast her shadowy hair
And arms like silver glimmering.
Long was the way that fate them bore,
O’er stony mountains cold and grey,
Through halls of ireon and darkling door,
And woods of nightshade morrowless.
The Sundering Seas between them lay,
And yet at last they met once more,
And long ago they passed away
In the forest singing sorrowless.