Wednesday, September 2, 2015

A Tribute to Tolkien from a Mississippi Boy

J.R.R. Tolkien, 1892 - 1973
He wrote something or other.
I said in my blog on Leonard Nimoy that I believe God used his Mr. Spock to bless me. Though Jewish himself, Nimoy did such a loving and truthful portrayal of our half-Vulcan science officer, it guarded my heart and mind for Christ.

I must say the same of J.R.R. Tolkien, a devout Catholic. Tolien died September 2, 1973, nine years before I read him. I owe him a lot.

In a weird chain of events, I was introduced to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings via Dungeons & Dragons as began my final year of high school. That was a banner year for my family, let me tell you.

My mother had been diagnosed with cancer in Laredo. She had to have a mastectomy but was definitely not going to go through it so far from her "native land." Thus, we moved back to Mississippi in time for me to attend my senior year at Southaven High School.

Earlier that spring, I had picked up, on my own, the Basic Dungeons & Dragons boxed set while at a student speaking competition in San Antonio. I was intrigued with the idea of fighting monsters and acting out the things I had read in the King Arthur books. I wanted to be a knight of old. I wanted to explore dungeons and storm castles and do all that cool medieval stuff you don't get living in an apartment - or in a house in the suburbs.

I wasn't the only one who felt this void in our culture.

In listening to Led Zeppelin, Rush and other rock bands, it's clear we children of the 70s were wanting something more, something older, something ancient and non-modern. A time or place where we could fight glorious battles against great evil and defeat them by force of arms, allowing the sinister cowards no leeway in rulership.

My heart was dying. I would not have said so at the time, but it was dying.

Best AD&D Illustration EVAR!
By atheist, Jeff Dee. Who says God has no sense of humor?
It wanted a better world where good prevailed [remember this is after Viet Nam and Richard Nixon]. It wanted to see the damnable, vile, creatures that hid in shadows and lived by spouting lies face-to-face and crush them. It wanted me, a child of bus rides and school rooms and hospital visits and K-Mart to have a new realm to explore.

So that spring, I bought and read voraciously the Basic Dungeons & Dragons boxed set, but after one poor attempt at gameplay with some apartment buds, I laid it aside. We  moved back to my old stomping grounds, and, as school began, I found myself reading The Hobbit, suggested in  the "Inspirational Source Material" section of the Basic D&D rulebook.

I loved that book like no other before.

I was a hobbit, and Tolkien wisely and cleverly used such sheltered child-men as his chief protagonists in a book written primarily for boys.

Smaug, check. Lonely Mountain, check.
Where the heck is Haven South?
I cannot tell you what it meant to look at those drawn maps in first  pages of The Hobbit. They were in and of themselves, magical.

To be able to immerse myself in the world of high fantasy and know I was safe, because Tolkien was a known Christian. Though later I would find less attraction due to his Catholic sensibilities, Tolkien's heart and imagination were God-friendly, supernatural, heroic and showed evil for what it was: horrific and deadly.

It was a tall frosty mug of supernatural ethics for my thirsty soul. For, in the reading SF world of the late 70s, I'd gobbled up way too much atheism, too much dystopia.

Looking back now, I think God was not only helping my family but my soul to recover. I was in the process of change, and I would need a lot of help to survive it.

I gave up riding the school bus because of one snide girl's remark; I'd had enough of that and having come back from Texas, I saw no reason to suffer it. I bought a 10-speed bike from my cousin and biked myself to school, rain or shine, morning and afternoon.

That change of mobility meant the world to me. It meant freedom. As the days cooled, I kept riding. If I had to warm up on the way to school, I'd stop in the In-N-Out for a few minutes. I bought a new jacket and well-bundled in its oversized faux leather goodness, I would cruise along bike paths, enchanted by the stark beauty of the fall woods and neighborhood trees. The very sights you miss when travelling by car or a bus, distracted by traffic.

I could see and smell the joys of Hobbiton down my street, and experience the dark forests of Mirkwood by visiting the copse of trees in Cobbs Lake.

I finished The Hobbit and proceeded onward to The Lord of the Rings.

At once, I could tell I was in for a much bigger adventure.

Back in school, I made new friends, and soon we found out whoever loved D&D could join in our fellowship. That was the only criteria. One younger guy who was way smart, had played Dungeons & Dragons before with his older sister's guy friends so he knew how to connect the books I loved and the game I did not quite grasp.

It was at his home we ended up played D&D in an all-night sessions - a total blast. It was also where I got my first kiss. Whaddaya know? I had a girlfriend.

A few weeks later, I distinctly remember riding over to his house on my bike, awash with hope and joy.
I have a girlfriend. I have a friends. I have good classes. I'm back from Texas and the bullies are gone. I am liked. I am having fun.

It was like something out of a fantasy novel.

"I'm just saying, DON'T BUY THAT RING.
You're gonna lose it anyway. Sorry, bud."
As I flew along the quiet streets of Southaven that October night, with my breath visible in the crisp air, I realized I no longer felt like a little hobbit safely ensconced in his hole at home.

I felt like a ranger. I felt like Aragorn.

I wasn't a boy anymore. I was a young man moving forward into his future, whatever it was.

Many hard things happened after this. To be honest, they were devastating. Cancer is not an easy foe. Losing your home and not knowing where to go is scary. But at that time, in that season, on that night, I was transported with possibilities. I was happy.

I was reading Tolkien - and he gave my imagination life.

Thank you, Tollers.

You gave me an inkling of the coming glory.


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