Happy Birthday Tolkien

Today is J.R.R. Tolkien's 118th birthday, which is as good an excuse as any to praise The Lord of the Rings.

Before I go any further, let me make some things clear. I do not go to woods at weekends with like-minded souls, dress up in Middle Earth clothing and fight pretend battles. I don't speak or understand Elvish. I don't laugh patronisingly at people who don't 'get it'. I didn't go crazy when I saw three hobbits in my local supermarket on New Year's Eve. I have a fiancée. So I'm not a true geek, but I do love The Lord of the Rings. In fact, I've read it pretty much every year since 2003 and am doing so again now. Why? Setting aside where I may be located on the autistic spectrum, I think it's because Tolkien created a world so complete and satisfying that it welcomes repeated visits. As I reread the journeys it describes, my imagination goes back to familiar places, which is really enjoyable. How did this come about?

In his grandly-titled book about Tolkien's writings, Author of the Century, Professor Tom Shippey shows how Middle Earth's history, geography and societies were created by Tolkien from his expert knowledge of ancient English and Norse history and language. He didn't simply make up Middle Earth, rather by filtering these true sources through imagination he created/discovered an authentic fantasy.

Two other important thematic ingredients are related: bravery despite foreboding - which Tolkien himself had experienced as a soldier in the First World War - and the transformative power of unlikely victory, which he believed in as the Christian gospel. The presence of these in a time of evil is always applicable to readers.

The story and the characters aren't complex but its setting is and its themes are, so we can relate to it and be consoled by it. Or at least I will continue to be as I munch my way through my Christmas chocolate.

Thanks to Justin Taylor for the Tolkein tape, and to my sister Zoë for Cor Blok's wonderful representative artwork.