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Life Lessons from Tolkien

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Kristen McQuinn

Staff Writer

Kristen McQuinn is a medievalist who dreams of reading more, writing more, and traveling more while being the best single mama by choice she possibly can be. By day, she can be found working with English teachers at the University of Phoenix, where she also teaches the occasional class on mythology, Shakespeare, or Brit lit. Sometimes she updates even her own blog. Follow her on Twitter:@KristenMcQuinn or  Twitter: @KristenMcQuinn

Happy March, friends. I like to call it Middle Earth March. I specifically look forward to March 25th each year. In the Tolkienverse, it’s the Gondorian New Year, the day Sauron fell, the One Ring was destroyed, and the beginning of the Fourth Age of Gondor. It’s often celebrated as Tolkien Reading Day, the theme of which this year is “Home and Hearth: the many ways of being a hobbit.” March 25 is also my almost-birthday. On this day, I fix many meals (first and second breakfast, luncheon, afternoon tea, dinner, and supper) and hole up with a Tolkien book. Ha ha, get it? In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit? Anyway.

Orlando Bloom ALA Read Poster

Sometimes I reread an old favorite and revisit The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings to remember some of my favorite life lessons from Tolkien. Other times, I’ll pick a less-familiar work. It’s been probably 20 years and more since I read The Silmarillion, and I haven’t read Leaf by Niggle but once. Might be the year for that. Who knows? I did start reading The Hobbit to my daughter for the first time. She’s seven and so far is mightily impressed that Bilbo gets second breakfast at all. On the Gondorian New Year, I’ll definitely make all the food for her. I’m determined to make her a Tolkien fan.

As a lifelong Tolkien fan myself, it is natural for me to reread the books every couple years. Each time, I discover something entirely new in them. I’ve always changed in some way between readings, grown older, hopefully a little wiser, and so I pick up new things in the text. It’s like an English trifle, each reading revealing a new layer to reveal some new treasure within. It’s delightful. I honestly don’t know if it is just because I love Tolkien’s works so much, or if they are just that rich, or what, because there are any number of other books that I adore and reread often but don’t find that much new in them upon rereading. In any case, there are many life lessons Tolkien that I’ve learned over the years. Just a few of the ones I have found to be the most meaningful are below.

“There are many paths to tread.”

This line always reminds me that there are diverse ways to live life and many ways to achieve a common goal. Not everyone has to do things the same way I would do it. I can be a bit of a control freak sometimes, more so when I was younger, and this helped me remember that people come at situations differently and with unique skills. There is more than one right way to do things.

“All that is gold does not glitter.”

Don’t judge someone based on their looks. Even now, many of us still need this reminder. Aragorn was initially presented as the scary-looking Strider, one of the rugged Rangers of the North. Upon first introduction, no one would ever suspect he is the true King of Gondor, Aragorn Elessar son of Arathorn, who will become one of the greatest and most beloved rulers of all Middle Earth. Obviously he cleans up pretty good, but it’s what’s inside that got the job done.

Inspiration can come anytime, from anywhere.

Pay attention. Everything and anything can serve as inspiration and writing fodder. An example from Humphrey Carpenter’s J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography explains that when Tolkien and his little brother were children, they had got chased out of a field by a terrifying farmer because they were picking his mushrooms. Sound familiar?

Art/Writing/Learning is a lifelong process.

Be patient. You don’t have to do everything before the age of 30. Or 40. Or within a year. Tolkien took 14 years to write Lord of the Rings and kept writing and building his world for his entire life. He did all his writing in his spare time while he was working at his day job, teaching a variety of university courses at Leeds or Oxford, which is what actually put food on the table. You don’t have to do it all right away, and you don’t have to make your living as a writer. It’s okay to take your time.

“Darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines, it will shine out the clearer.”

Be hopeful. Do you know the unimaginable shit Tolkien endured in his life? He was put through the wringer and still managed to believe that everything isn’t just hopeless bullshit. I don’t think he could have written an epic about good triumphing over evil without a large element of hope living in him.

“Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens.”

Be loyal. Everyone comes to difficult times, but brave and true friends will stay beside you through nightfall and despite quaking hearts and to the end of all things.

“Home is behind, the world ahead.”

Be curious. Go out and have an adventure and see all the places of the world while you can. Embrace change and new things.

“Deeds will not be less valiant because they are unpraised.”

Be humble. You don’t need recognition for everything you do. Heroes don’t do heroic things for praise and glory. They do it to help people, or because it’s the right thing to do, or because it needs doing. Parents don’t care for their children because they want thanks. They do it out of love. We take care of our honored elders because they deserve it. What need is there of praise when doing a good deed should be reward enough on its own?

“Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.”

Value everyone. Every single person has something of worth to offer the world, some lesson they can impart. Sometimes it may be difficult to understand it at first, but it is there if we take the time to listen.

“And he took her in his arms and kissed her under the sunlight sky, and he cared not that they stood high upon the walls in the sight of many.”

Does this one really need an explanation? Love fiercely. We have too much hate and bigotry and intolerance in the world today. We need more hugs and laughter and love. So love your partners, hold your friends close, always give your little Frodo Lads and Rosie Lasses an extra hug, and smile anyway at those who think you shouldn’t.