A Certain Ring to It

One fish to rule them all? Well, maybe.

My fellow Tolkien geeks and I received a little something extra to celebrate this week, thanks to the Natural History Museum in Britain. It seems their researchers recently discovered a new species of fish in the Amazon – one that has now been named Myloplus Sauron. Yes, as in Sauron, the Dark Lord of Middle-earth.

The name comes from a long dark stripe on the fish’s side that resembles the “Lidless Eye” used by Sauron’s forces. The species resembles a piranha, which would seem especially perfect – except for the fact that it’s actually a vegetarian.

The aquatic Orcs are going to be so disappointed.

OK, it’s a little silly. But frankly, we can use some silly these days. And over the years, the seemingly sober-sided practitioners of science have been more than willing to oblige.

These are the people, after all, who decreed the spikes on a Stegosaurus’s tail to be “the thagomizer” after Gary Larson created the name in a Far Side joke. (“Named for the late Thag Simmons.”)

They’re also the folks who named a creepy, cave-dwelling species of spider after Smeagol, the Lord of the Rings character who becomes the obsessive, dark-dwelling Gollum.

And yes, a couple of scientists have even been known to refer to the universe’s origins as “the Horrendous Space Kablooie.” That came from a Calvin & Hobbes comic strip where Calvin doesn’t think “Big Bang” is nearly evocative enough.

I could go on and on … a lunar module dubbed “Snoopy,” an ichthyosaur with a sword-like jaw named after Excalibur … but you get the idea. Like dandelions, our stories have powerful roots and can crop up in the most surprising places.

And thank goodness for it.

I’ve sometimes thought that “homo sapiens” was a misnomer for us, and not just because “wise human” seems like a doubtful claim to make these days. A better term might be “homo fabula” – story humans.

We spend our lives telling each other stories. It’s how we relax, how we learn, how we formulate beliefs and build societies. A joke is a story. A myth is a story. Even a shampoo commercial has a tale to tell … in this case, one with a price tag attached to the “Happily Ever After.”

We think of stories as pure imagination, envisioning worlds of utter fiction. But they go farther than that. Our tales help us picture the world as it could be, for better or worse. Even more so, they help us frame the world as it is. 

We see the world through our stories. Not just our novels and movies – though those are powerful, too – but our beliefs, our values and the evolving tale we tell each other about our history and purpose. And depending on how we tell that tale, we can let people into our common story or wall them out.

Granted, you still have to take action to make those dreams a reality. But it’s the dreams that give those actions purpose. Depending on which ones we choose, we can craft a triumphant epic worthy of J.R.R. Tolkien, a paranoid conspiracy theory straight out of the X-Files or just about anything in between.

So think about the story you want to tell. Or rather, the story you want to live.

And if that story happens to include an odd-looking Amazonian fish … just keep a close eye on your rings, OK?

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.

A Ring of Support

Among the usual headlines for the week – foreign trips, political accusations, football uniforms that looked like bad Nintendo graphics from the 1990s – a story slipped in that caused an earthquake in the geek world.

Christopher Tolkien has retired.

Normally, a retiring 93-year-old might not draw much attention, aside from admiration for staying on the job so long. But in Christopher’s case, “the job” involved heading up the Tolkien Estate. For over four decades, the son of J.R.R. Tolkien has been the principal guardian of his father’s literary legacy, holding the rights as closely as dragon-gold and weighing on the worthiness of those who would adapt Middle-Earth to their own purposes. Inevitably, he was also his father’s foremost literary scholar, publishing reams of information about how the world of Elves and Hobbits and Rings of Power came to be, along with works by Tolkien that had never seen the light of day.

In The Hobbit, when the dragon’s treasure becomes unguarded, armies come racing to claim it as their own. Much the same has been happening in the real world, but with less chainmail and more contracts. There are already reports that the Tolkien Estate is working with Amazon on a Middle-Earth-based television series, and a lot of speculation about whether this means a new era for the classic tales or the final downfall of the West.

But for me, the real story is both smaller and greater.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s fun to play the guessing game of what a new adaptation will look like and who might be involved. (“Morgan Freeman leads an unlikely band of heroes to death and glory in … A Game of Rings.”) But lost in all of this has been Christopher Tolkien himself, and the role he has played for so long.

A role that I think many of us could empathize with.

Most of us are never going to write a bestselling novel. (Though I do hold out hope.) Nearly all of us will go through life without having won a Nobel prize, or led a nation, or opened the new smash hit of the Broadway season. That’s no judgment on anyone’s skills or talents, just a simple fact of life in a world of more than 7 billion people.

But all of us touch someone’s life. All of us have the chance to take who we are and use it for someone else. A friend. A relative. A chance-met passenger on the bus. Whether for moments or a lifetime, we join our story to theirs. And the tale is forever changed.

in The Lord of the Rings, it’s Sam Gamgee carrying Frodo on his back when his friend can’t take another step … unheralded strength that means more to the world than all the armies preparing to clash miles away.

In the real world, it’s been Christopher Tolkien putting his shoulder to his famous father’s epic for decade after decade, illuminating and enhancing it for millions with maps and histories and tales not told – tales that included The Silmarillion, his father’s lifework of Middle-Earth mythology that was never completed in his lifetime.

For all of us, it’s that someone or something that truly matters. Enough to earn our help, our sweat, our outstretched hand. Not for spotlights or applause, but because it needs to be done and we care enough to do it.

We don’t have to be epic heroes. We just have to be willing to see where we’re needed and take the step. Because enough steps, from enough stories, can scale even Mount Doom.

All it takes is a willing heart. And that’s worth more than all the dragon gold ever forged.

Even with the television rights thrown in.

A Long, Strange Trek

On the day he died, I heard NPR replay an interview with Leonard Nimoy about Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. In it, he mentioned that he wanted to try something different for a science-fiction film: that he wanted to have a story with no real villain to defeat.

“We had done two pictures in a row with black-hat heavies and I didn’t want a bad guy anywhere,” he explained in an interview elsewhere for the magazine Monsterland. “Circumstances would cause the problem. Lack of awareness, lack of concern, ignorance…these would be the problems. Not a person.”

That clicked with me. And it may be the best epitaph for the man in the pointed ears that I’ve ever heard.

I came late to Star Trek. No real surprise there. I grew up a huge Star Wars fan at a time when the fan bases didn’t overlap much and were often perversely proud of it. One was a swashbuckling space opera that found instant mainstream success; the other, an odd mix of conflict and exploration that built its following over years.

Silly, of course. To anyone on the outside, after all, a geek was a geek. But to many, the lines mattered.

But even Star Wars kids thought Mr. Spock was cool.

How could he not be? He was the intelligent outsider, the alien among humans, cool and detached without being heartless. He had an answer for everything, often accompanied by a wry remark and an arched eyebrow. To him, the universe was “fascinating” but never totally inexplicable.

He was, in short, what every young geek and nerd like me wanted to be. Apart, but still a part. Not surrendering an identity to be part of the crew, but embracing it and being valued because of it – even if it still meant we were weird.

I was grown before I found out that Nimoy spent years resenting the character. Understandable, in retrospect. Few actors like to be typecast, to become so strongly identified with a role that they can never really be seen as anyone else. For someone as versatile as Mr. Nimoy – actor, poet, photographer and more – it must have been doubly frustrating.

But over time, he came to embrace Mr. Spock. The Vulcan came to be “one of my best friends,” as he told Starlog magazine.

“When I put on those ears, it’s not like just another day,” Nimoy said. “When I become Spock, that day becomes something special.”

It did for a lot of us, too.

Today, we live in a world where the geeks won. “Game of Thrones” and “Doctor Who” are hit TV shows. “Lord of the Rings” and “Harry Potter” commanded huge film audiences; superheroes by the dozen still do. Even roleplaying became mainstream somewhere along the way – with proponents such as Stephen Colbert and the late Robin Williams – and computer gaming is so common a hobby as to barely be worth mentioning.

But saying “the geeks won” doesn’t really capture it. It’s more like the lines got erased. Maybe not entirely (there’s still some discouraging tales about how “geek girls” get treated by a small but noxious crew of self-appointed critics) but enough that the distinction no longer has the same meaning. The geeks became the cool kids, and vice versa. It’s even OK to talk about Jedi and Vulcans in the same breath.

There really isn’t a bad guy anymore.

Leonard Nimoy was a big part of that. And while it might seem like an odd part of his legacy to emphasize– “he helped make it OK to be a nerd” – there are far worse ones to have. Anything that brings people together instead of setting them apart should be celebrated; anyone who builds bridges instead of walls should be cherished … even if the bridge is that of the starship Enterprise.

Thank you, sir. You lived long. You prospered. And you helped many of us do the same.

In an often-dark world, you truly lit a Spock.