Happy Birthday, Professor
I don’t know when I first REALLy encountered J.R.R.Tolkien, and Middle Earth. They have simply been a part of my life forever.
I fell into “Lord of the Rings” and it closed over my head, and I’ve been breathing it through silver ever since, its words and worlds often as real to me – and sometimes far more real to me – than the ones I was physically contained in. It was the worlds of my heart and my spirit and my mind that have always mattered to me; all the rest is merely existing. THIS world is not where I LIVE. It’s where my physical body is, it’s where people I love can hug me or hold my hand or smile at me, it’s where I can eat chocolate and drink coffee… but when I close my eyes I am always somewhere else entirely, and my dreams are always of times and places that have no truck with this everyday world at all.
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born Jan. 4, 1892. So many years ago. So much has happened in the time that has passed since. I wonder what Professor Tolkien would have made of the iPad and the e-book readers – the slim little tablets which can contain all of his hundreds of thousands, his millions, of published words without raising a sweat, which can allow his readers to carry ALL of his thick volumes with them at all times.
I read him in the original paper tomes, of course. My much-loved and literally falling apart omnibus paperback edition of “Lord of the Rings” is as familiar to me as a friend I have known from the cradle.
Tolkien was never MY professor, at anything, but Tolkien has taught me so much of my craft.
From him, I have learned how to build a secondary world so that it rises living and breathing and more real than the armchair in which the reader who is encountering it is sitting in. From him, I learned that characters are never wholly black or white but that there are always shades of gray and that it pays to explore the shadows. From him, I learned that trees can talk. From him, I learned that dreams have power. From him, I have learned that size is irrelevant and that the smallest of creatures – a fur-footed hobbit – can be counted on to topple the greatest towers that the Evil Overlord can dream of building. From him I learned of the power of language, and of other tongues, and from him I learned how much it matters to know, and believe in, history and legend and myth because of how fundamentally they shape our present and our future.
From him, I learned how to be epic and to see the big – the BIGGEST – picture; from him, I learned the strength and power of paying attention to details, and not losing sight of things others might think insignificant or irrelevant. From him, I learned what I know of patience. From him, I learned how to make people laugh; from him, I learned how to make people cry; from him, I learned how to make people remember.
Some years ago I actually visited the Wolverhampton Cemetery in Oxford where he is buried. A Catholic, his grave lies in the part of the cemetery which is devoted to the dearly departed of that faith – which, in this instance, means wading through gravestone after gravestone of Polish names until you finally stumble on the unassuming gray marble headstone which bears his name, and his wife’s, and their dates of birth and death – and two things more. Beneath her name, the word “Luthien”. Beneath his, the word “Beren”. The names of two characters who shared an undying love in the world of his books.
I stood at his graveside, mute, not knowing what I could offer other than a simple thank you for… for EVERYTHING… and it was at this moment that the stillness of the summer day was broken by a breath, just a single breath, of wind. It came swirling around the Polish gravestones, spiralled around the gray marble of Tolkien’s own, and briefly ruffled my hair, as though with the gentle touch of a hand, a soft blessing. And then it was gone again, and I was alone in the summer silence.
Thank you, Professor. For everything, and above all for that touch of wind in my hair.
I know it came down to me from the forests and mountains and valleys of Middle Earth, that world you created with such meticulous care, the world in which I have spent so much of my youth – and to which I still so often and so happily return, because it still has things left to teach me.