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.