J R. R. Tolkien is an unlikely “famous” name.
While his experiences of World War One were remarkable, they were shared by much of his generation, and unlike someone like Robert Graves or David Jones, he never publicly wrote about his experience in the war. I think my colleagues who teach medieval literature would know Tolkien, as his writing on Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are still important. But beyond those points, why do we remember this restive Oxford teacher, a contract instructor, a man who road his bicycle to mass in the morning and wrote long epic poems about an imaginary world at night. We often forget such a life. But obviously, we do not. We remember Tolkien, not just because he wrote The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but because he reminds us of the importance of language, the power of imagination, and the value of justice.
“We remember Tolkien, not just because he wrote The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but because he reminds us of the importance of language, the power of imagination, and the value of justice”
The Hobbit teaches us that we might defeat the dragon and in doing so, gain a great treasure, but that the problem was never the dragon, but the greed and falseness of the treasure itself. What is more valuable is the social connections—loyal friends, wise council, good builders, and faithful champions. The attraction of The Hobbit’s band of dwarves or the Nine Walkers of the Fellowship is that they work together, not against one another. Those who turn their back on their neighbour are the villains—the greed of Thorin and the Five Armies of The Hobbit are magnified into Saruman, Wormtongue, and the Scouring of the Shire in The Lord of the Rings.
The Lord of the Rings
Tolkien always questions the value of hierarchy, even when he recognizes its worth—power must be given away, not held tight in one’s fists. In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien does not simplify evil into a force to be punched and kicked, but as a constant and attractive lure to abuse power. It is Gandalf and Galadriel’s fear of the One Ring, Faramir’s wise rejection of it, and Frodo’s eventual failure that remind us how seductive the abuse of power can be. But, as Gollum shows us, evil can only create evil, and so the ring is destroyed as two of its victims struggle over it.
Love of language
That Tolkien loved language is well known, and his love of invention was an impulse of his imagination. When we try to teach students to be more creative or more innovative, we cannot overlook the role literature plays in developing those skills. As Northrop Frye argues in The Educated Imagination, literature is where language and imagination meet, where innovation begins. Tolkien did not innovate a single idea so much as he synthesized elements of our imagination into an admixture that still ripples through our culture as a personal and social force. In many ways, he reminds me of the important work we do when we read, teach, and study literature—the love of language, imagination, and the vision they create.