Tolkien’s Normal Living Amidst Fame
I ordered the book after a trip to the UK in the late Summer of 2010.
Since then, I have been reading it steadily in the pockets of the day, and in the dark of night before bedtime. Last year, I could only afford a couple pages at a time. At the end of the day, with all my immediate energy already spent, I would reach deep into my soul to find the backup energy stored there for times like these. I’d pull out just enough energy to read for fifteen minutes or so. And with my roommates sound asleep, the lights out, and the clock nearing midnight, I would savor those few sweet pages that took me away to a far off place called England where I could clearly envision the life I was reading about being lived by the man I deeply admired.
I was reading the biography of J.R.R. Tolkien. Through the “pocket method” (reading books gradually by utilizing the pockets of the day), with hiatuses here and there, it took me just over a year to get through this biography. I finally made a last burst for the finish line yesterday and today, and finished it just an hour ago. I find myself yearning to just pack up and move to Oxford for a couple of years. Maybe some day…
I resonate with many elements in Tolkien’s life. Like him, I have my fair share of gloomy nights and wandering days. Like him, I have my bouts of sadness and cycles of over-thinking. But like him, I remedy those things through my relationship to Jesus. I remedy them also by creating works of art. I write books, stories, songs–anything to give me hope. I think everyone has methods to keep going. Methods to inspire yourself. The main point is to not give up. We can all learn something by knowing Tolkien’s story of laboring nearly his whole life toward what was to become, essentially, one project. He faced the temptation to give up many times. He thought his little story called The Lord of the Rings, or The New Hobbit as he referred to it when talking to friends, was useless. Many of his colleagues made fun of him for what they thought was a childish project. He was, after all, the Professor of English Language and Literature at Merton College, Oxford. Wasn’t he supposed to be doing Philological work?
Tolkien doubted himself many times. In 1938, he wrote to Charles Furth at Allen & Unwin, the publishing house that eventually published The Lord of The Rings: “The sequel to The Hobbit has remained where it stopped. It has lost my favour, and I have no idea what to do with it.” As Tolkien started writing LOTR, even he had no idea where it was going or what the story was about, an encouraging thought to all those who create. He was a confessing perfectionist, which contributed to the many delays in the publication of LOTR as he poured over miniscule details, rewrote the story numerous times, and made sure everything was consistent, even going so far as to spend hours making sure the phases of the moon in the story were accurate and realistic. On top of all that, he wasn’t sure that many people outside of friends and family would read anything so long.
If Tolkien had let these doubts control him forever, we wouldn’t have the masterpiece that we do. Sure, the gloom and the doubt got ahold of him many times, which led to multiple halts in the process, but Tolkien found the will to keep going. My brother Jason pointed out that the section titled “Success” in the biography is only about ten percent of the book. That’s something to dwell on. Most, if not all of life, is a messy struggle to come out alive and well. If we experience success at all, or any sort of fame, it will last for five, maybe ten percent of our lifetime, and then it’s gone. Even if we write Lord of the Rings, it’s still ten percent. Tolkien still cared most of all for his wife, Edith. He moved away from Oxford for her benefit, he spent less time with his male friends so that he could spend time with her, and he made most decisions based on what would make her most happy. His chief concern was her well-being, right up to the day she died.
Amidst the fame, fan mail and fortune, his relationships still took precedence. Tolkien still enjoyed the ordinary pleasures—a good smoke, a good beer, and male company. After fame and money came in, he still lived in a cramped house on Sandfield Road, overflowing with books and papers. He still took time to spend with his family and friends. Fame confused Tolkien, and even after he was known internationally, he sought normal living. Interesting, how normal people desire fame, and if they become famous, they desire normalcy. Maybe we ought to not care what we are, but rather care about who we are.