Today is Tolkien’s Birthday…

tolkien tree…and I can’t think of many better ways to begin 2015 than by acknowledging it.  John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born this day in 1892.  It’s been over four decades since he left us (September 2,1973), and he is arguably still the most influential fantasy writer in the world.

James Maliszewski speculated earlier this week what the world would be like if Tolkien hadn’t written The Lord of the Rings.  I’ll not repeat his points; you should read his post for yourself if you haven’t yet.  I’ll simply say that it’s a world in which I’m not sure I would want to live.

That Tolkien is still influential can be seen by the latest movie based on his work (loosely I’m told; I haven’t been able to gather the family all together to see it yet) being one of the top box office draws of the Christmas season.

Tolkien-quoteOne of the reasons, and this is only one of multiple reasons, his work has proven to be so enduring is that he doesn’t shy away from taking a moral stance.  I think this is what resonates with so many of his fans, particularly those who don’t read fantasy on a regular basis.  Tolkien openly acknowledged the existence of evil.  His villains weren’t misunderstood; they weren’t victims of The System; they weren’t good people forced to choose between a selection of bad options.

They were flat out evil.

In addition, Tolkien recognized the capacity for both good and evil that resides in all people, every man, every woman, every human being.  And furthermore, he knew just how thin and fragile the line dividing good and evil could be.  His characters are real people who make real mistakes (Boromir, anyone?) and real sacrifices.  (Don’t try to tell me Frodo didn’t suffer for the rest of his life after destroying the One Ring.  Read the end of the book.)

tolkien bookshelf background

I would love to browse those books.

Tolkien took a moral stand that you don’t see in a lot of his imitators.  You could write a doctoral thesis on that subject alone, and I’m sure more than one graduate student has.  There are other reasons why he still sells today, but I believe this is one of the main ones.  Frankly, if the World Fantasy Award is a bust of a person, I think Tolkien would be better choice that Lovecraft simply because his influence is greater among the general population than Lovecraft’s.  (Tolkien was a straight, white, Christian male, so I can’t see that happening in today’s climate.)

Anyway, raise a glass to Tolkien’s memory today.  And if you get a chance, read some of his work.

3 thoughts on “Today is Tolkien’s Birthday…

  1. Fletcher A. Vredenburgh

    I suspect the main reason the award looks like ol’ HPL is because Gahan Wilson’s such a big fan. But seriously, Tolkien is the person who makes the most sense. I think the morality bit even more than his other “negative” points are what stick in many folk’s craw.

  2. Woelf Dietrich

    Hear, hear! I agree wholeheartedly. With Tolkien it’s about the story and the consequences of decisions in that story. Bravery and honor (which is not so easily attainable in most cases) come at a price even if that price isn’t immediately observable. There is no “message” Tolkien is trying convey. It is far more subtle and natural and fantastical because of the setting.

    And yes, I like H.P. Lovecraft, but a Tolkien bust makes so much more sense.

  3. Keith West Post author

    I don’t have much problem with Lovecraft as the face of the award, but I can understand how some people do. I do have a problem with Octavia Butler, since she wrote science fiction rather than fantasy.

    Woelf, that’s one of the things I like about Tolkien. He shows both short and long term consequences. Many of his imitators don’t.


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