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Today is the birthday of J.R.R. Tolkien. But in some way, that never mattered. Neither did the day of his death.

 

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Tolkien was by most accounts an unassuming man: The sort of tweed-wearing Oxford don one might see riding his bicycle home for lunch. He started his career at Oxford working on their famous dictionary. From childhood he was an inveterate lover of words and language. Despite achieving great success while still alive (which is a trick uncommon enough to depress most writers) he continued to live modestly as a professor until his quiet passing. He was the furthest thing from a rock star.

Since his death in 1973, the world has seen so many rock stars. So many men of power and prestige have insistently left no doubt of their standing in the world–often at the end of a gun of some kind.  Some carried out wars with hundreds of thousands at their command. Most accepted the world’s adulation and rewarded themselves with the trappings of success: Spare cars, spare houses, spare women. Some of their mansions still stand.

Despite all the fanfare and folderol, almost none of these men of power and prestige were able to achieve what this quiet English professor did: Tolkien changed the world. We see our world the way we do thanks to what he wrote and published. Our imaginations have been formed by his. From his students and first readers to those whom they in turn taught and influenced, down to those who know only of this third- and fourth-rate imitators, our ideas of the world have been indelibly influenced by this humble man. We see the world different thanks to Tolkien. He’s outlived his natural life span, and will continue to do so indefinitely. His natural life gave no hint as to the immense power his writings — his ideas — held.

And so it occurs to me yet again that while “ideas” frequently get dismissed as unreal and evanescent, it’s ideas that are the only things with perduring reality. The idea of “mountain” preceded any particular mountain, and will outlast any mountain that ever exists. The ideas of a misplaced thing of great destructive power, a mission to rid the world of it, a disparate team dedicated to a cause, a transformative journey, and the intoxicating allure of worldly favor–all of those preceded Tolkien and live on still. Dictators and billionaires come and go, but the people gifted enough to grasp ideas, and translate them, package them, and state them in compelling ways are the only ones who hold any real, lasting power.

It’s because they’re tapping into the eternal.

Happy Birthday John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. Though in some way, that’s just a minor detail. The real part of you has always been, and lives on still.

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