If John Ronald Reuel Tolkien were still with us, today he would be celebrating his 121st birthday. A humble philologist, Tolkien once worked at the Oxford English Dictionary studying the history and etymology of Germanic-origin words that begin with the letter W. He spent most of his career as Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Pembroke College in Oxford. What on earth are we and thousands of others across the globe doing celebrating the life of this obscure academic? After all, Mindhut doesn't usually report much on linguistics.
The answer has everything to do with The Lord of the Rings. This epic, voted in a 1999 survey of amazon.com customers as the greatest book of the entire millennium, has gripped millions. There are few ":/" fans of Tolkien—mention Orcs and Hobbits today and you're far more likely to evoke a feverish gleam in the eyes than a disdainful shrug of the shoulders. The reason we celebrate Tolkien is that he gave us that gleam.
Now, we imagine that most of our readers will immediately and intuitively identify with the intoxicating impact of the ingestion of Tolkien. But it is interesting to note that the "book of the millennium" was snuffed and scoffed at by snooty scholars at Oxford. They derided his fantasy as "escapism." This criticism is so key to understanding what Tolkien satisfies in the human spirit, or at least what we guess it satisfies in the souls of our readers. For it implies that literature should always deal with reality—with the cold constraints of the circumstances of this world as we find it.
Escapism is no crime! In the sense of Middle Earth, it is a virtue. We don't read Lord of the Rings for an artificial drug trip, but as an exercise in what might be—the same exercise that any reformer or idealist in any age has done. Anyone who has ever fought for something, wanted to make something better, is an escapist. As Tolkien himself quipped, “Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisioned by the enemy, don't we consider it his duty to escape?. . . If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we're partisans of liberty, then it's our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!”
But we don't just escape—we come back. Tolkien wrote in an essay, "On Fairy-Stories," that one of the functions of fantasy is to return the reader to the real world with a new sense of possibilities. He or she has been inspired to live and think differently. The Lord of the Rings is a fairy-tale, and as one of Tolkien's literary heroes, G.K. Chesterton, once said: “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”
If Frodo, Sam, and Gandalf had ended with their heads on pikes outside Mordor and the Shire had been turned into an apocalyptic wasteland, the tale would be a bit less popular (or it would just have to be on HBO). Furthermore, his characters fought for home—they did the right thing in a harsh world. To the frustration of ivory-tower intellectuals, people tend to like that stuff.
If we had to put into words why we do the enormously natural and obviously right thing of celebrating the work and birthday of J.R.R. Tolkien, our best attempt is that we do it because he allowed 20th century Western civilization to officially "come out of the wardrobe" (all my Narnia fans say haaaayyyyyy) as lovers of fairy tales and authors of fantasy. And this is unarguably a very good thing.
How are you celebrating Tolkien's birthday?