Below the Surface

J.R.R. Tolkien died 50 years ago today. It doesn’t seem to have slowed him down much.

Among fantasy fans, there’s a joke that you could rediscover Tolkien’s old laundry list and send it to the top of the bestseller charts. Look him up on Amazon (I’ll wait) and you’ll see the avalanche of material that appeared after 1973. Epics. Poems. Letters. Volume upon volume of backstory, fictional history and alternative drafts.

It’s awe-inspiring. Even a little intimidating. Many of us have hidden depths. The Professor had entire underground cities.

But then, he always did. And that should be encouraging to most of us.

I suspect a lot of us have stories we’ve never told, gifts we’ve never explored, ideas we haven’t shared. And the longer they stay hidden, the easier it is to get self-conscious about them. “It’s too different.” “No one wants to hear this.” “Eh, I’ve waited too long.”

And so the guitar gathers dust. The paints dry out. The words stay off the page. And the underground cavern stays sealed.

Maybe it’s time to do a little excavation.

Waited too long? Tolkien was 45 when he published “The Hobbit” and 62 when “The Lord of the Rings” came out.

Too different? The Professor not only re-introduced epic fantasy to the world but subverted it as well. He took the classic heroic archetype – the lost heir to the throne, raised in secret by elves, sent out with the sword of his fathers to save his people – and made him a supporting character. The real heroes were the people looking to throw away power, and “happily ever after” still ended with a changed and diminished world and a protagonist who’d been forever scarred by his experiences.

No one wants to hear this? For a long time, Tolkien considered Middle-Earth his private hobby, and an unusual one for an Oxford professor at that. He almost didn’t publish “The Hobbit” at all; once it was out the door, he had doubts about whether it would be reprinted. These days … well, remember that Amazon avalanche?

Knock a hole in the right cavern and you just might find hidden treasure.

But here’s the thing. It’s not about whether the gift you have shakes the world. It’s about whether you let it out at all.

Because even if it never changes the world, it will change you. And that matters.

Give yourself permission to try. To be curious. To explore. Whether you’re fascinated by tinkering, or languages, or strange-looking rocks on the side of a hiking trail, it’s a fire that’s worth lighting.

In a society that’s often driven to pursue success, it’s ok to do things for the pleasure of doing them. If other things grow from that, wonderful. But whether they do or not, you’re growing from it. And if it’s building your joy … well, maybe that’s touching the world after all.

I wish you luck in exploring the hidden depths. Meanwhile, I’ve got some spelunking to do of my own. In the words of a certain Professor:

“Still round the corner there may wait
A new road or a secret gate,
And though we pass them by today,
Tomorrow we may come this way
….”

If I find any Elvish laundry lists, I’ll be sure to let you know.

Tales of Discovery

The Road goes ever on and on. Especially in this house.

Missy lay back smiling as we wandered the roads of Middle-earth once more, letting the words wrap her like a blanket. Battles with Orcs. Respites with Elves. Wry comments from Gandalf. What better way to finish the day?

In twelve years of bedtime reading, we’ve come back to Professor Tolkien four times. The only other chronicle to get the same demand for an encore performance has involved a certain boy wizard. So you could say our reading nights are magical in more ways than one.

I hadn’t expected it. But then, I hadn’t expected a lot of things with Missy. Caring for a disabled relative has many adventures, so why should it be surprising that some of them involve hobbits with magic rings?

Especially when the same magic seduced me in the same way.

Long ago (if not exactly in the Third Age), Dad introduced me to “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings.” We read them together out loud, trading off halfway through the chapter, storytellers relating an epic.

Entranced? Oh, yes.

Some of it was the sheer sound of the words. To this day, I maintain that Tolkien must be read out loud to get the full effect, letting the narrative surround and suffuse you like a piece of music.

Some of it was the love being shared, the connections formed as my Dad and I discovered a mutual passion and reveled in it.

And so much of it was what it opened inside me and around me. An exciting tale, well told, that spoke of discovering new places and rediscovering old lore. Where compassion could be more valuable than strength and loyalty as important as learning. Where victory didn’t have to mean triumphing over every obstacle, but simply enduring long enough to do the job you needed to do.

That spoke to me. It still does.

I know I’m not alone in my passion. But frankly, it wouldn’t matter if I was. It’s the tale that was there when I needed to hear it, that still fits me in a way no other story can.

We all have a tale like that. Or should.

For one of my friends, it was “The Outsiders,” discovered at just the right moment of adolescence.

For my wife Heather, it was a slim middle-grade novel called “The Higher Power of Lucky” that still has the power to infuse hope.

For others I’ve known, it’s been “The Secret Garden,” or “To Kill a Mockingbird,” or … but that’s the point, isn’t it? There are as many possibilities as there are people, lying in wait like the world’s most wonderful ambush.

Everyone deserves a book that reaches their heart. No matter whether the world acclaims it or just you, it is forever yours and forever you.

Others can guide, suggest, encourage. (Heaven knows my folks did.) But you’re the only one who knows what fits. And when you know, nothing can keep it from you.

Some will try. But it’s a hard door to lock. Neither sneers nor bans will hold in the face of the determined and the curious. Give even the hint of a new possibility and the explorers will come.

And the best of those journeys will last a lifetime.

Tonight, our own journey continues. I don’t know what about Middle-earth hooked Missy’s heart but I’m glad for it. It’s something we can share, a world we travel together with old friends and new thoughts waiting around every bend.

The Road goes ever on and on.

And the next step is just a page away.

Oh, G’s

Stephen Wilhite led an animated life.

OK, his is not a name that leaps to mind like Maya Angelou, Steve Jobs or (heaven help us) Justin Bieber. But if you’ve been online at all, you touched his work. Wilhite, who died recently at 74, invented the GIF, the moving photos that turned social media into a special effect out of Harry Potter.

He also, years after their invention, triggered one of the internet’s most long-running minor debates with just five words:

“It’s pronounced ‘jif,’ not ‘gif.’”

Yes, like the peanut butter. That had actually been part of the documentation for  the Graphics Interchange Format since day one … which of course most people never saw. And in a jiffy (or even a giffy), we reconfirmed two essential truths of our species.

First, that people will argue about absolutely ANYTHING, and the flames only get hotter as the stakes get lower. Online battles over the “proper” pronunciation of GIF still rage back and forth with the intensity of a Star Wars movie, joining such timeless classics as “that stupid call in the Super Bowl” and “who needs the Oxford comma, anyway?”

After a while, the exchange gets pretty predictable:

“Well, the G stands for ‘Graphic,’ so of course it’s a hard G!”

“The U in SCUBA stands for ‘Underwater,’ are you going to start saying scuh-ba?”

“It’s like ‘gap’ or ‘get!’”

“No, it’s like ‘genius’ or ‘giraffe.’”

“Jif sounds stupid!”

“You sound stupid!”

“NYAAAAAAH!”

Verily, this is a philosophical discourse that Socrates himself would envy.

The second essential truth is more subtle. Namely, that the meaning of an idea doesn’t start and stop with its creator.

Any literature fans reading this will recognize this immediately as “the death of the author,” Stripped of PhD language (you’re welcome), this basically says that the author isn’t the only one who gets to decide what a story’s about. Just as an invention can be created for one purpose and used for another, a story can change when it reaches the reader’s hands. Yes, the author has intents and purposes, but the reader brings their own experience to the tale, which may lead them to discover something quite different.

It’s a little scary and a little exciting. It means that reading a story or watching a movie isn’t just a matter of cracking a code (“what did they mean by that?”) but a process of adventure and discovery (“what will I find here?”) J.R.R. Tolkien called it the difference between allegory – a strict this-means-that definition by the writer – and applicability.

“I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence,” he wrote. “I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.”

That’s challenging.

It means that while stories shape us, we can also shape them right back. It means that we don’t just have to accept ideas in couch-potato fashion. We can grapple with them, challenge them and take them in new directions. All sorts of concepts can be transformed this way, from fiction to ideologies to language itself.

So if 20 years down the road, the “hard G” folks win the GIF battle for good (or even for jood), it’s not an error or a crime. It just means the story wasn’t over.

It’s your tale. Choose as you will.

Just be gentle – or gracious – to those on the other side.

Walking Inward

“It’s not working,” Heather ground out, her face scrunched in pain. “What do I do?”

It had been a heck of a week. Heather had started out with one of her regularly-scheduled infusions for multiple sclerosis … followed by an allergic response that generated two trips to the emergency room over the next two days. The next day, an off-course driver swerved off the road and took out part of our backyard fence before ending his journey against the neighbor’s tree.

And now? Now Heather finally had the medicines she’d been waiting for to calm an MS flare. But after a few hours, they’d had as much effect as a peashooter on a boulder. Maybe less.

“Scotty?” she asked after the latest wave of pain and spasms, as we sat together on the couch. “Tell me what Middle-earth looks like.”

I knew what she was doing. We’d done this before. Call up a landscape. Talk through a memory. Mentally walk through somewhere, anywhere, that isn’t here.

And so we began. We talked out the Shire and the Old Forest. And then the tales of the cabin that her grandma’s family owned. And then the colors of fire, and how hard it could be to tell what had actually happened to start one. And then …

And then, an hour had passed.

The pain wasn’t gone. But it had had time to subside, a little. To lose the spotlight, leave the focus.

Somehow, with a shared weary smile, we’d made it again.

A familiar fight. Especially this year.

You know what I mean. 2020 has been a heck of a week, every week, with no immediate end in sight. It’s been tiring, exhausting, exasperating, and so many other synonyms that I’m surprised the thesaurus makers aren’t rolling in profits.

Each day, the path is a little different but the feeling is the same: fifty miles to walk with 400 pounds to carry on the hottest day of the year through a landscape dotted with thorn bushes and goatheads. And by the way, everything is on fire.

And each day, we have to find a way to make it. Not just through the health risks and the economic pain, though heaven knows those are challenging enough. But through the voice inside that says “I’m not sure I can make it this time.”

And if we stay where we are, as we are, maybe we can’t.

But we don’t have to.

Because even when walking outside is choked with smoke and danger, there’s still a walk inside to take.

We know it. We often reach for it without thinking. Stories, memories, experiences, thoughts. Real or created, beautiful or ridiculous. Streamed for millions or reflected on by one.

It’s one reason we look to each other in a time of crisis. Not just for assistance, but to share and talk. To be somewhere else for a while and heal in the words of a friend.

It’s not ignoring reality. It’s recovering from it. It’s remembering (as Samwise once did in The Lord of the Rings) that there are stars above the smoke that the Darkness can’t touch. It’s thinking beyond the moment to what makes us human and drawing strength from it.

It’d finding hope that what has changed can change again. That having lasted, we can last again.

Sure, some might call it escapist. JRR Tolkien himself had words for that. “Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home?” the writer asked. “Or if he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?”

Why indeed?

I wish you well in your own escapes. From the moment. From despair. From helplessness and exhaustion.

May we all walk through the landscapes of the heart and mind to a place of greater strength. Until someday this too is a story.

Together we will outlast the pain. And once again, we will see the dawn.

The Bindings That Tie

Some phone calls can transform an entire evening.

“I’m very pleased to tell you that the book is finally in.”

Ding-ding-ding! Never mind trying to find downtown parking near Barbed Wire Books on a Friday night. Never mind the chill of a January evening. This treasure had been a long time in coming, and it was perfect.

A used copy, for affordability.

Clearly in excellent condition.

And most importantly, the true object of my quest: a hardcover binding.

No wonder this one had taken months to search out. How often do you surrender a high-quality copy of The Lord of the Rings?

If you’re a regular here, you know that JRR Tolkien holds a high spot in my personal pantheon of heroes, both for the richness of his creation and the family history that it’s bound together. Dad introduced me to the lands of Middle-earth when I was in third grade, and from then until the early days of college, we read and re-read The Hobbit and his three-volume Lord of the Rings together. We pored over his old Ballantine paperbacks until they fell apart, got him a new set for Christmas, then started again.

Shortly after I got married to Heather (who is every bit as geeky as me), I found and quickly latched onto a single-volume paperback Lord of the Rings – a mass of paper that would probably stop a low-caliber bullet while leaving Elvish script embedded in it for good measure. That hefty tome followed us through the first 21 years of our marriage, coming along on camping trips, car trips, and numerous bedtime readings to an enraptured Missy.

It was during one of those Missy readings that the spine finally gave way, having provided service far beyond the ordinary literary call of duty. We finished its last reading in honor, laid it aside, and then began a new adventure. After all, if a thousand-page paperback book had lasted from the beginnings of Google to the ending of the first Marvel Cinematic Universe, how much longer would a hardcover hold up?

When you treasure something, you try to make it last.

And that’s true of more than just fantasy epics.

If you’ve owned a house or a car, you know the simple truth: maintenance is cheaper than repair. Take care of it and it will take care of you.

If you’ve exchanged rings and said “I do,” you learn a simple truth: that great wedding are far easier than great marriages. One is a singular event that is soon over; the other is an ongoing effort to build something anew every day.

And if you treasure a free nation, you know a simple truth: that it’s more than reciting the Pledge, learning the Declaration, and waking the neighbors on the Fourth of July. It takes work. It means facing up to what our country does and doesn’t do well, proud but clear-eyed at the same time. It means fighting to preserve what needs to be preserved, and to change what needs to be changed. It means speaking without fear, thinking beyond your own small piece of the picture, and building a nation that makes life better for all of us.

And most of all, it means holding our leaders accountable for the actions done in our name.

We’re not always good at that. Our brains like to simplify, and it’s easy to break things down into teams and colors and slogans – politics as sports, where the referee’s calls are just what “those guys” deserved but a gross injustice for “our guys.” Where right or wrong is less important than not giving in to the other side.

Breaking that is hard. And essential. We don’t have to be in lockstep – but without some common understanding and accountability, nothing worth keeping will endure.

When you treasure something, you try to make it last. Whether it’s the binding of a book, or the binding of a nation.

Hold it close. Bind it well.

And then, let it Ring.

The Doctor and the Professor

In some ways, the Doctor and the Professor couldn’t seem more different.

The Doctor looked toward a fantastic future, built among the stars and shared with a race of mechanical men. The Professor looked toward a mythical past, sheltered amidst the trees and hills and shared with beings older than mankind.

One wrote at high speed in a utilitarian style that kept the stories coming and coming. The other labored over each word, considering the history of every drop of color and whisper of wind.

And for fans of the fantastic like myself, the New Year hasn’t really started without them. Dr. Isaac Asimov, one of the biggest names in science fiction, born January 2. Professor J.R.R. Tolkien, the godfather of modern fantasy, born January 3.

Am I geeking out here? Maybe just a little. But it really is just that cool.

Part of it, of course, is memory. My love for Tolkien was born in elementary school, reinforced by many hobbit-filled reading nights with my dad where we delighted in every new character and voice. (I still envy Dad’s booming Treebeard, just as I think he always appreciated my attempts at the hardworking Sam Gamgee’s accent.) Asimov’s work I met a little later, encouraged in part by a science teacher who felt that no robotics club was complete without the Good Doctor.

Obviously, I’ve got a lot of company – including the Doctor and the Professor themselves, as it turned out. Asimov was one of the few “modern” writers that Tolkien genuinely enjoyed reading; Asimov, for his part, once mentioned that he’d read The Lord of the Rings five times and was genuinely surprised when his own Foundation series beat it out for a Hugo award. But it’s more than pleasure and nostalgia.

The truth is, there couldn’t be a better way to start the year. Because in doing so, we look toward the truly human.

I know that sounds strange. Asimov solidified robots in the modern imagination, while Tolkien introduced us to hobbits and all their kin. But both writers, even in their most epic tales, built everything on the most simple and basic of human qualities.

In Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, the problems of the world aren’t solved by mighty armies and powerful leaders. Instead, it comes from the compassion and determination of simple folk, knowing they’re not up to the job, but doing their best for as long as they can.

In Asimov’s worlds of the future, the answers don’t come from vast armadas and epic battles – in fact, violence is mocked by one character as “the last resort of the incompetent.” Instead, the key is to use your reason to understand the world and the people around you, knowing that if you can see what the problem actually is, the solution may be simpler than you think.

Heart. Mind. An awareness that other people matter – whatever their origin –  and a disdain for the pride and hatred that often sets them apart.

We still need all of that today. Maybe now more than ever.

And if we let it be nothing more than a fantasy, then we’re writing ourselves a very dark tale, indeed.

So go ahead. Look to the promise of the future. Take heart in the legends of the past. And use the tales of both to see our present moment more clearly. That’s what will give us the humanity to reach beyond the threats and fear that haunt our times – to build a world together rather than destroy it apart.

It’s a vital lesson.

And it’s one the Doctor and the Professor are still waiting to teach.

Screening the New Year

The lights went dark. The ads went quiet. The familiar words appeared on the screen.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away …

And with that, it was time to hit the holiday hyperdrive into another universe – even if it was without the usual crew.

Once upon a time, this would have been time spent with my Dad. After I graduated college and took my first job in Kansas, I made sure to come back to Colorado for the holidays. That was when our favorite literary universe of Middle-Earth first hit the big screen, so Dad and I always carved out a night to go see it. From there, it became a habit, even after I came back to the Front Range.

The Lord of the Rings. The Hobbit. Jason Bourne. Harry Potter. The Force Awakens. Something big and bold and splashy to wave out the old year and welcome the new one. As a kid, this would have been a summertime adventure, especially since Star Wars movies were always released in May. Now, it was something as brilliant as any string of Christmas lights and as dependable as any Times Square ball dropping.

This year, the count’s off a little bit. This year, with my parents in Washington State, it was my 7-year-old nephew Gil who got to see The Last Jedi with Dad. (Funny enough, that’s the same age at which I saw The Empire Strikes Back with Dad and became a fan for life.) This year, Heather and I watched the movie with friends even while our memories were with an audience far, far away.

And this year, it still felt more right than any countdown with Dick Clark ever could.

I’ve never been much for New Year’s resolutions. Easily made, easily forgotten. But with apologies to Robert Fulghum, everything I do know about New Year’s lessons, I learned from a night at the movies:

The story will go unexpected places. Let it. With the Tolkien movies, it was because Hollywood can never leave a literary adaptation alone, even when it’s done well. With something that’s pure cinema, like Star Wars, the directors will still have something in their back pocket. Maybe several somethings. (“Darth Vader is his what??”) Whatever story you find, take it on its own merits and follow where it goes – arguing about it in your head at the time will just mean you miss the best parts.

Talk with your family. Some of those surprises, of course, fueled many a conversation outside of the theater. The fate of Han Solo. The craftiness of Luke. Talking about them afterward not only drove them in more firmly, they tied us more firmly and created a family story to go with the fictional one.

Never give up hope. OK, this is practically routine for Hollywood, but it still bears remembering. Empire became one of my favorite films because its victory was survival. Nobody blew up a battle station. Everyone came away battered and scarred, sometimes literally. But they did get away. The fight went on, with promises made that friends would not be forgotten. That’s something that I think most of us can identify with.

Remember, and say goodbye. Not everyone gets to finish the story. On screen, we got that memory – and a catch in the throat — as Carrie Fisher performed what would be her last turn as Leia. Off screen … well, we all have our own separations and farewells, none of them at a time we would have chosen. Acknowledge them. They’re part of your tale.

Now it’s time for a new chapter. And whether it enters to the strains of “Auld Lang Syne” or of John Williams, it will be yours to tell. Tell it well.

And don’t forget to bring a few dollars for popcorn.

The Hobbit of a Lifetime

Eighty years ago, Bilbo Baggins greeted the world. And the story has been a compelling Hobbit ever since.

OK, that’s an awful pun to give someone before coffee, even if it does have a certain Ring to it. (All right, all right, put down the hammer, I’ll be good.) Jokes aside, though, this is a good anniversary to tip the hat to. On Sept. 21, 1937, readers first encountered the words “In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit” – words that J.R.R. Tolkien had once scribbled down while grading an exam, wondering where they had come from and where they might lead.

Since then, The Hobbit has been there and back again millions of times. We may have racked up a few dozen in our family alone.

Like many of us, I discovered The Hobbit early on. Dad  introduced me to it in third grade for our reading nights, where he and I would each read half a chapter. (We would later spend years doing the same for The Lord of the Rings, as I’ve mentioned in another column.)  The tale expanded both my imagination and my vocabulary as I learned that a mail shirt had nothing to do with envelopes, that a “rent” piece of armor had been torn, and that “quay” was a truly deceptive word, indeed.

I loved it. The goblins and elves, the dwarves and dragons, the riddles in the dark and eagles in the morning all spoke to something inside of me and have ever since. I began reading it to my own family long ago and got asked for an encore, the first volume besides Harry Potter to win that honor from Missy.

I know I’m not alone. And it’s fair to ask why.

The Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey may have hit a big part of it, when he noted how we travel the road in Bilbo’s shoes – well, Bilbo’s hairy bare feet, anyway. Bilbo is invited into a world of epic courage, Shippey noted, where he feels immediately that he doesn’t belong. But not only does he ultimately share in the sort of bravery a saga might celebrate, he also discovers a more modern courage of his own that the dwarves might never understand. An internal bravery, discovered in the dark, to do the right thing even if no song would ever celebrate it and no bard would ever know – a duty that a World War I veteran like Tolkien knew far too well.

“He fought the real battle in the tunnel alone,” Tolkien wrote of Bilbo mustering the courage to face the dragon Smaug, “before he ever saw the vast danger that lay in wait.”

That’s something I think we all can share in.

Our journeys, like Bilbo’s,  come without warning. They ask us to face fears and dangers we never prepared for, and sometimes aren’t sure we can survive. More than once, we want to step back to a cozy home with pocket handkerchiefs close to hand and tea on the fire – or at least somewhere where our worries can be about the Broncos’ choices on fourth down instead of family concerns, financial strains, and headlines that savage us like a pack of Wargs.

But in the journey, we can find ourselves. We discover new friends and unexpected gifts. And while tears are still a part of the story, they need not be faced without hope.

We don’t need to be an iron-muscled hero. We just need to be ourselves, ready to face the next steps with what we have. For who we love. For what we’ve promised. For who we are inside.

That’s a lot to carry in one children’s book.

And we need it like we need a hole in the head. A hobbit hole in the head, that is.

For that, Professor Tolkien promised us, means comfort.

The Power of “Yes”

Any time we grumble at gridlock, I can imagine the surprise of the Founding Fathers.

“A government that does nothing at all? Sounds like heaven, sir!”

OK, that might be a bit too strongly worded. After all, the Constitution was created because the old Articles of Confederation had proved impotent. Several founders (though by no means all) had realized the federal government needed more authority to act if the system was going to function at all.

Still, they were suspicious of a government that did too much. They could remember Townshend Acts, Tea Acts, and all the rest. So the Constitution was drawn with a bias toward inaction. A Congress that wanted to do something could be checked by the President and the courts. A Congress that wanted to do nothing… couldn’t really be forced to do otherwise.

Given that, I wonder what they would have made of the popularity of executive orders.

First, a little mythbusting. There’s nothing new or unconstitutional about executive orders themselves. The practice goes back to George Washington and began accelerating after the Civil War, reaching its peak in the first half of the 20th century. FDR was the most ardent practitioner (of course), but presidents Hoover, Taft, Truman, and Teddy Roosevelt were hardly shy of independent presidential action themselves. If anything, modern presidents are more restrained about using that power than those from Roosevelt to Roosevelt.

But it’s still an uncomfortable power to me.

In a government designed to default to “no,” this is the power of “yes.” In itself, that might not sound like a bad thing. We all know the image – and the reality – of a Congress locked in inertia, seemingly unable to agree on the time of day, much less anything of substance. So when a major debate goes nowhere, such as the debate on national gun control, it can be dangerously appealing to do an end run around the whole logjam.

The trouble is, the use of executive power rarely stops with the things you love.

Many people know that I’m a Tolkien fan. (I promise, this is relevant.) Between the novels and the recent immensely popular films, there are few people who aren’t familiar with the plot of “The Lord of the Rings” and its quest to destroy a magic ring to save the world.

What’s less familiar to the casual fan, though, is the nature of the Ring. It did more than just cause a wielder to turn invisible. In the hands of someone with enough power, it would grant a power of command – the ability to reorder the world exactly the way you wanted it, overriding the wills of others to do so.

That was the power that made the Ring so tempting, even to the righteous. Heroes fell, desiring it, even those wise enough to know better. The wisest – Gandalf, Elrond, Galadriel – simply shunned it.

“With that power, I should have power too great and terrible,” the wizard Gandalf says. “And over me, the Ring would gain a power still greater and more deadly. … Yet the way of the Ring to my heart is by pity, pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good. Do not tempt me!”

It’s true that executive orders can and have done good in the past. But they are not guaranteed to do good. What they are guaranteed is to do.

Independent executive action did indeed issue the Emancipation Proclamation. But it also issued the order creating internment camps for Japanese-Americans. Granting freedom, seizing freedom.

The strength and weakness of an executive order is that what one president can do, another can undo. But is that enough of a check? How much can be done in the meantime? How long might something sit before it is undone, by another president, or a dilatory Congress, or the courts?

Democratic friends: Is this a power you would want in the hands of Donald Trump?

Republican friends: Is this a power you would want in the hands of Hillary Clinton?

All friends: Is this a power you want in the hands of absolutely anybody at absolutely any time? Because right now, that’s how it’s potentially entrusted.

I’m not sure how we wind back the clock. I am sure we need to. However desirable the ends may be – and I’ve liked some of the ends a great deal – the means are far too dangerous. The boundaries are too fuzzy, the power too easy.

With this Ring, what have we wed ourselves to?

Learning the Mockingbird’s Song

Opus the Penguin told us this would happen.

Back in 1994, the miniseries “Scarlett” was about to hit the airwaves, based on the why’d-they-do-it sequel to “Gone With The Wind.” About a month before it aired, Opus discovered in his comic-strip world that another American classic was getting a second chapter as well, courtesy of Quentin Tarantino.

The name of this deathless piece of Hollywood literature? “Kill Mo’ Mockingbird: Boo Radley Loose in the ‘Hood.”

Well, we never got to see Bruce Willis as Atticus Finch and Dennis Hopper as a heavily-armed Boo. But from the recent ripples in the book world, you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise.

In case you missed it, the much-loved Harper Lee returned to the bookshelves this week with a long-unpublished manuscript: “Go Set A Watchman.” Seen through the eyes of an adult Jean-Louise “Scout” Finch, the book features numerous changes to the familiar world of “To Kill A Mockingbird” – not least, Scout’s discovery of the racist attitudes of her father, Atticus Finch.

That caused a bit of an earthquake, and understandably so. After all, “Mockingbird” fans are a devoted crew and Atticus is one of the most adored literary creations ever. Turning him into a segregationist is almost on an order with carving the Golden Arches on Mount Everest – so unthinkable as to be almost obscene.

And yet, that’s not quite right.

Before deciding to avoid the new book forever – and plenty of fans have declared their intention to do just that – consider this. “Watchman” was written first. It’s not a sequel. It’s an early attempt, written and then abandoned when Lee decided to approach the story of Scout and Atticus from a different time and perspective, the one that has endured for decades.

In short, it’s a first draft.

Many things can happen in a first draft.

Some regular readers may recall that I’m a longtime fan of J.R.R. Tolkien. Several years ago, Tolkien’s son Christopher wrote a series of books about his father’s creation of Middle-Earth, including the evolution of “The Lord of the Rings.”

The early drafts featured a hero named Bingo Baggins. Treebeard appears as a villainous giant rather than a mighty forest-guardian. And while there’s no sign of the courageous Strider, the reader is treated to a Hobbit ranger known as Trotter, running around the countryside in wooden shoes.

There are false starts. Uncertain tones. Details of the world that seem almost ludicrous compared to the epic we’ve come to know and love.

But to read it is utterly fascinating. Even illuminating. And my appreciation of the Middle-Earth that finally came to be is all the richer for it.

Very few works of art come to life fully-formed. They’re born in struggle and frustration, with all the ungainliness of a toddler learning to walk or a teenager growing into their body. The results aren’t often pretty and many of the early efforts are often well-abandoned.

But without those efforts, the final beauty could never be.

That’s encouraging, not just as a reader, but as a writer – or, indeed, a creator of any kind. It means you don’t have to be perfect from the start. It means you can find your voice, make bad choices, create pieces that fall to earth with a “clunk.”

It means you can learn. You can grow. You can master the skill that no one else can: the skill of your voice, your vision.

And that’s when the mockingbirds fly.

So when you read “Watchman,” read it in that spirit. This isn’t a second verse to an old song. It’s a map of roads not taken, the earliest sketches before the final canvas.

Come to it with those eyes. And you may just love Atticus – the one and only Atticus – more than ever before.