Many moons ago I stepped out of the confusing world forced upon me and into a literary world of cunning dragons, wizards, and magic rings. The horizon of imagination spread before my mind revealing mountains where monsters hid deep down at the roots of the world, towers in black, and epic battles roaring across green fields. Once I took my first steps into the lively world of Middle-Earth there would be no coming back.
I say with all honesty that had it not been for the literary works of J.R.R. Tolkien I most likely would either not be the person I am today (certainly would not have pursued writing) or be here at all. You see Mr. Bilbo Baggins and the rest of the Hobbits came to me in the darkest years of my early life. I don’t tend to reflect too personally (can’t imagine anyone being interested anyway) but as my coffee cools beside me and The Two Towers plays on TV – and here on the anniversary of the late Professor’s death – I find myself a bit sentimental. So I handle this the way a writer does – by writing.
And it begins in part in a faraway land of many shadows.
Around the age of twelve, my parents quit their careers, sold our 17-room ranch home, and moved us overseas to serve the Good Lord as faith-based missionaries (‘faith based’ for those who don’t know means we relied on financial support from local churches kind enough to give us money) in the former Soviet Union.
Within months we went from a big house to a one-room flat where I was sleeping on the floor with a thin pillow and blanket. My sister and I huddled around the space heater and shivered beneath a newly discovered kind of misery, one that defeated Napolean’s armies and one that crushed the Nazi war machine. Russian winters, which proved unbeaten and taught us a new meaning of the concept of cold.
Simple things like going out to buy eggs became a challenge. I didn’t speak the language yet and I wasn’t used to being stared at or pointed at. I saw strange faces whispering as I walked by and knew I was the topic. I was only 12 and I’m glad I didn’t know about Russia’s bad habit of human trafficking or I might have boarded myself up in the flat. I was young, scared, and very far from home. The days were shorter and the chill nights long, much longer than I ever knew nights could be. As the sun set each afternoon you felt the heavy shroud of night roll over the city and it became no wonder why Eastern Europe is known as the land of vampires.
I should also mention the oppressiveness that loomed over the country in those days, a lingering ghost of the failed USSR stubbornly remaining, refusing to admit defeat in light of a newly placed democracy. Might as well mention this was also the city that destroyed its Czar and his family and was ruled by the tyrannical occultist Rasputin. The city was both physically dark and spiritually so. A land of shadows and I found myself unwillingly in the dead center of it.
My separation anxiety was out of control being so far from friends and cousins and grandparents. With puberty riding a train of chaos through my body and my thoughts in tatters due to grief I’m not proud to admit that I was dangerously suicidal at an early age. I saw absolutely no future ahead, had nothing to live for, and my world was torn away from me. I was already tired of being spat on by neighbors or stoned in the streets just because I was different from the public. I slipped into a mental pit, was becoming wraith life in my thinking, and the shadows were taking over my thoughts. Worst part was I couldn’t act like I was in any mental pain because apparently, that’s not what faith-based believers do. Gotta rely on God and all that to be healed. The churches were watching after all.
But, into the darkness of those days shone a light, very unexpectedly too, and by its grace, I saw similarities between a marvelous world of fantasy and the life I now lived. An adventure was at hand. Of all things a Hobbit who had no interest in leaving his hearth and home suddenly found himself whisked away on a very big adventure. The odyssey of dwarves, the threat of trolls, evil goblins in the hills, and a dragon! It’s as if the book was personalized just to me. And slowly I found something to look forward to.
The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings cast their spell over me and crazy enough I found my courage thanks to them. I never even liked reading before these. But these were so very different! These weren’t school books or required reading. These were something otherworldly, something I needed when I had nothing else left to enjoy in life. When most kids my age were playing Super Nintendo back West I was sleeping on a cold hard floor. Kind of like the Hobbits who left the comforts of the Shire and found themselves in caves or on tree roots. My depression was slowly pushed aside in favor of Rangers, elves, and a pursuit to defeat the Great Shadow.
It didn’t take long for me to start fantasizing about my own fables and far-off mythic places. I began writing and – can you believe it? – loving it! The more I wrote the happier I found myself. Like I had discovered some amazing jewel in an unexpected place. I kept at it, adding maps and illustrations along the way, and developing stories about elves and dragons. Always about dragons! And to this day dragons remain in the center of my story, the one I’m currently working out.
Before I knew it Tolkien gave me a reason to wake up and look forward to the days ahead. To turn challenges into adventures. But more than that to look forward to what’s ahead despite the doom at present.
His stunning descriptions have taken root inside my core and given me strength over the years. How bravery more often than might proves to be the most useful. The enormity of good friendships. Of hope in the face of hopelessness.
There’s a reason why Professor Tolkien is called the Author of the Century. I’m not the only life he’s saved along the way. Not at all the only writer he’s inspired either. The world of Middle-Earth was written by a man who was once left for dead in the trenches during World War I. Tolkien lost many of his dearest friends during the Great War and later returned home with a lot of pain and confusion weighing on his chest. The problem of evil and the atrocities committed against innocent lives being among them. Issues his grand mythology went on to tackle and deal with, especially the problem with evil. A topic powerfully displayed by the Ring Wraiths.
Tolkien’s themes are grand but not out of reach. The choices made by the Fellowship are ones we ourselves are free to make. We might not have a Dark Lord in Mordor to contend with. But we can still choose life over death, hope rather than despair, and courage despite the fears inside us.
There’s a modern movement nowadays trying to distort the humble philosophies laid down by the Professor. Orcish-type minds I call them, but the nobility of the man’s great works cannot be overthrown. Too many lives shine like stars across the night sky due to Tolkien’s original inspiring flame. His broken heart was used to give this world something immeasurably beautiful. And it will outlive each one of us and go on to encourage and inspire millions more with each coming age.