I am a huge fan of J.R.R. Tolkien and particularly the Lord of the Rings saga. As many know, Tolkien was a devout Catholic and was instrumental in C.S. Lewis’ conversion to Christianity. However, while Lewis’ writings on Christianity and his allegorical writings referencing Christianity are well known and widely discussed, Tolkien tends to be regarded as the guy who brought C.S. Lewis to Christianity and the author who defined to this day the concept of fantasy epic. When you look at his life, though, you don’t get the view of acclaimed author and defender of the faith. Rather, you see a picture of an ordinary man who had an impact on the world just by living his life while pursuing his passions.
His was not a straight path. Born in South Africa, he and his mother moved to England after the death of his father. His mother, and subsequently he himself, converted to Catholicism when he was eight resulting in the family being ostracized by his Protestant grandparents on both sides. At 12 he was orphaned after his mother passed away from complications due to diabetes, and he wa raised by the parish priest and a lady named Mrs. Faulkner, who ran a boarding house. There, at age 16 he met Edith Bratt and they became very close despite the fact that she was Protestant and 3 years older than him. At 18, the parish priest became concerned enough that he forbade them to communicate with each other until Tolkien was 21. He was awarded what was referred to as a “disappointing second-class degree” in Classics at Oxford and decided to change his major from Classics to English. At the age of 21, he reconnected with Edith, served as a tutor for 2 Mexican boys living abroad in France and, after a tragic ending to that job, returned to England to get a first-class degree. In 1915, he completed his degree, in 1916, in March he was married to Edith and by June was embroiled in World War I as he was deployed in time to participate in the Battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest, most important battles of World War I. After suffering from a Typhus-like disease from the unsanitary conditions in the trenches, he returned to England, where he served through the end of the war in 1918. Post-war, he served as an editor of the Oxford English Dictionary and then an Associate Professor at Leeds until finally, at age 33, he became a Professor at Oxford, where he served until his retirement in 1959 at the age of 67. His academic service has been referred to as unremarkable and unexceptional. He did not publish frequently although the limited writings he published are still considered relevant.
Professionally, that is really all there is to say about J.R.R. Tolkien. However, the story outside of the career for which he was trained is the one we know. We know of the university student enthralled with languages and intrigued by the line from Crist by Cynewulf “Hail Earendel brightest of angels over Middle Earth sent to Men.” We know of the romantic who, when seeing his fiance dance in the woods, was inspired to write the central love story of Middle Earth about Beren and Luthien. We know of the father who wrote stories for his children to include letters from Father Christmas and the story about the adventures of the family dog to help them cope with its passing. We know of his writing the Hobbit and then the Lord of the Rings, although we don’t generally appreciate the difficulty he had in writing and publishing them. The Hobbit was published when he was 45 years old and the Lord of the Rings when he was 63. Although the Hobbit was a commercial success, the publishing company that first published The Lord of the Rings was certain it would lose its investment, and, indeed, did not see any profit from the books until two years after it was published. Edith passed away in 1971, and Tolkien himself died on September 2, 1973. Their tombstone lists them as Beren and Luthien.
The reason for posting this was not to underscore my geek cred, but rather to point out a couple of key points. First, Tolkien was largely unremarkable in the field for which he was trained. All too often we shoot ourselves in the foot by falling for the lie that if we aren’t “trained” to do something then we can’t do it professionally. Tolkien’s success was not in the field that he prepared for, it was in following his passions. Likewise, today, anything can be learned, but success will come in the areas about which you are passionate. This is because it isn’t about what you know, but what you do that dictates success. Second, Tolkien didn’t achieve major commercial success until he was in his mid-60’s. Sure, he had some success in his mid-40’s but then didn’t have anything of note for another 20 years. All too often we want immediate results and we expect success after success after success. That just isn’t reality. In reality, you get up day after day and pursue your passions, do what you need to to take care of your family and you reap the rewards in areas that you did not expect. Tolkien never intended to be a prolific author, just a good professor. But by following his passions, he shaped literature and Christianity in ways he never could have foreseen.
I guess the short of it is this…follow your passions and don’t worry about the “formal” training. If you pursue your passions, you’ll succeed…maybe not as you think, but you will succeed. Also, give yourself time to get there. If it takes 60 years, that’s still better than Tolkien.
P.S. He died in 1973. Turn that around and you have 3791 or 3 rings for the Elves, 7 for the Dwarf Lords, 9 for Men and..1 ring to rule them all…in the land of Mordor where the shadows lie.