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Reflections on Time Spent with My Favorite Author J.R.R. Tolkien

Reflections on Time Spent with My Favorite Author J.R.R. Tolkien

An earnest reader for most of my life, I knew that reading would occupy a significant portion of any time spent away from work. During the extended time of rest and slowed-down pace my wife and I planned, my hope was to select a few “literary guides” to be my paper-and-ink companions. 

I wanted to stretch my mind in areas of philosophy and theology—enter Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica. I also wanted to return to an author who has shaped my formation as an apprentice of Jesus more than any other—enter the robust library of Dallas Willard. And I wanted to mine the depths of Scripture in an unhurried manner—enter Robert Alter’s translation of the minor prophets. 

Yet before any of those had been selected, I knew who the most comfortable companion would be over the course of the entire journey, like an anchor to my spirit and a buoy to my imagination. Anyone who knows me even moderately well will of course know I am talking about the erudite and clever master of fantasy, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien.

I devoured his work anew, returning to the well-worn pages of The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, engaging essays, letters, and short stories like “On Fairy Stories” and “Farmer Giles of Ham,” and also embarking on the formidable and uncharted territory of the twelve-volume History of Middle Earth

Needless to say, I was reminded of what I loved about this faithful Christian, brilliant thinker, masterful worldbuilder, and majestic writer. In particular, a few key reflections emerged at the intersection of Tolkien’s work and the normal Christian life as shaped by the gospel he and I share across time and place. 

Indulge me as I share reflections on how the Spirit of Christ used my favorite author to move my heart, stimulate my intellect, and slowly and subliminally rekindle my hope in God and man. May it also provide insight into the mystery of your own life and faith.

 

A reflection on victorious failure

 

There is a moment in The Fellowship of the Ring that invariably brings tears to my eyes. Boromir, a member of the company accompanying Frodo on his quest to destroy the ring, is a valiant and noble man troubled by the potential that his home city might fall at the hands of Sauron. Through the entire book he wrestles with the thought that the ring might be better used against Sauron than destroyed. 

In a moment of weakness at the climax of the book, he corners Frodo and attempts to take the ring from him. Frodo runs away, and immediately Boromir realizes his mistake. He breaks down weeping at what he has done. And that is when he hears fighting break out—orcs have arrived to assail the company. 

He runs to the aid of the young hobbits Merry and Pippin, determined to make good on his failure. While he slays many orcs in the process, he himself is filled with many arrows and the orcs run away with the hobbits. Aragorn, their leader, arrives at the scene too late, finding Boromir leaning against a tree and drawing his final breath. That is when we read this exchange:

“Farewell, Aragorn! Go to Minas Tirith and save my people! I have failed.”

“No!” said Aragorn, taking his hand and kissing his brow. “You have conquered. Few have gained such a victory. Be at peace!”

Even as I type these words, tears fill my eyes as they did when I was listening on the drive up to Canada for a time of solitude. During that time alone I realized that I am more afraid than I would care to admit. I wrestled deeply with fears that were unearthed in my soul: fear of death, fear of letting others down, fear of being unloved, unwanted, alone. Fears, in other words, of failure. Of dying in failure. Of not being enough or having what it takes at the end of the day.

Jesus, my dear Shepherd, spoke to those fears with the words of Aragorn. Here is what I wrote in my journal:

Did Boromir fail? Unequivocally! But not irrevocably. And so do I. Did death have the final say? No, for he conquered, and even more do I through the valiance of Christ, whose own death and subsequent resurrection formed the storytellers quoted above who are so near to my heart. “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”

Indeed, we are guaranteed both failure and death in this life. But the remarkable reality of life with Jesus is that power can be perfected in weakness, victory can emerge from failure, and life can triumph through death. For on the cross, it appeared to all that death had won and Christ had failed. Yet it is precisely in that moment of failure that victory was secured and precisely in that moment of death that death itself died forever. 

So as you are confronted by the fears that assail your own soul—as you come face-to-face with your own failures or the prospect of death—take heart. Feel Jesus take your hand, kiss your brow, and hear him whisper strength to your spirit: “You have conquered.”

 

A reflection on perfectionism

 

One of Tolkien’s lesser known works might also be my favorite. The short story, “Leaf by Niggle,” tells the story of a painter who has an unavoidable journey to make. Though he encounters many people and things that distract him, vying for the increasingly short time before the journey, Niggle spends every chance he gets in front of the canvas he is painting. The painting is a tree, which might not seem like much except it is his life’s work and greatest passion project. 

The problem is, because he cares so deeply about the painting, he becomes obsessive over every small detail. He wants every leaf to be perfect and unique. He is engrossed in getting every feature exactly how it should be for the painting to be complete. So he works thoroughly and meticulously, never quite satisfied and at the same time fearing that he will not be able to finish the painting before he has to leave for his journey. 

It becomes clearer over the course of the story that however much he wants to blame the interruptions of his neighbors, sicknesses, and unrelated work, the primary reason the painting is never complete is his own all-consuming “niggling” and perfectionism. 

Niggle is clearly a stand-in for Tolkien himself. The “mysterious journey” is a metaphor for death, and the painting of the majestic tree with each detailed leaf is analogous to Tolkien’s own life work. A noted perfectionist, Tolkien would spend countless hours working and reworking even the smallest phrase or moment or feature of the world he built. 

Rarely satisfied, his niggling is part of why his books took so long to produce, and why so much of his writing was published posthumously. It is also why Middle Earth is one of the most robust and consistent worlds ever built, and his writings among the greatest achievements in human history.

As I wrestled with my own fears and hopes and dreams, I discovered just how much my own personality resembles that of my favorite author. I have so many ideas that I am afraid I will never get around to seeing most of them come to fruition in this life. I want things to be so perfectly consistent that I spend hours working and reworking sermons, writings, conversations, and yes, even this blog. 

I don’t want to miss a nuance, an inconsistency, an opportunity to say something better or differently, or more helpfully. And as is so often the case, perfectionism is the breeding ground of procrastination. I’m worried I won’t have what it takes to do something up to my standards, so I put that thing off until some unknown time in the future, distracting myself with something else at hand that doesn’t take as much of my thought or heart. 

And thus so much of what I aspire to seems to whittle away before my eyes, and the aforementioned fears of death take the form of fears that I will die without accomplishing all that I hoped or dreamed.

Niggle ends up taking the journey in the end. He has no choice. His painting is used to patch a roof, and the only thing that remains is the one perfect leaf he spent all his time on. His journey leads him in the end to a place “for a little gentle treatment” that is evidently representative of some sort of heaven. 

What Niggle discovers is that this world is the fully realized vision of his painting, featuring the tree and a magnificent forest surrounding it. He is able to explore mountains and forest areas that were only glimpsed from a distance in his original, imperfect painting, working to make it more beautiful with the newfound time afforded him.

My realization was this: We are free in Christ to labor earnestly for the good of the world, using all the raw material God has placed at our disposal to realize the dreams he has stirred in our heart. We need not procrastinate in fear that it will never be perfect, because nothing will be as it should be until the end of days. And we need not fret that we will never accomplish all we set out to do, because of course we won’t, that much is sure. But just as sure is the reality that something of our work in this life will be reflected in the next, and perhaps we will even be given a glimpse of the majestic vision to which it all pointed in the end.