Life wisdom according to J. R. R. Tolkien

tolkien reading day

It’s Tolkien Reading Day today!

Among Middle Earth fans the 25th of March is known as Tolkien Reading Day, an event launched by the English Tolkien Society in 2003 to celebrate and promote the works of J. R. R. Tolkien. It’s also Mother’s day in Slovenia, but since Tolkien is one of my favourite writers and my mother doesn’t like Mother’s day, that can be ignored entirely.

For those of you who may be unfamiliar with the man, J. R. R. Tolkien (1892-1973) is the author of the extremely popular Lord of the Rings trilogy, which was later made into a set of blockbuster movies, followed by additional three movies based on the Hobbit, which were unfortunately rather horrible for people who’d read the book. He also wrote many other books, including children’s stories and serious literary essays (this one on the importance of fairy stories is awesome), and was a full professor of Old and Middle English (Anglo-Saxon) language at the University of Oxford, UK. Since he was an English scholar, his command of the English language was superb and his prose is a work of art in itself. Unfortunately that is also the reason why many readers find him tedious to read, because his books are long, full of fancy words and almost too full of details, but personally that is exactly why I love him.

Having lived through both World Wars and the subsequent events, Tolkien knew quite a bit about difficult times and the troubles of the ordinary people, so his books reflect that. In his works he aimed to create an ancient, fantastical world, a kind of mythological pre-history of the British Isles, and he called it Middle Earth. Middle Earth is the Middle English (medieval) expression for the ordinary world set between Heaven and Hell and in Tolkien’s stories it is populated by the races of Men, Elves, Dwarves, Trolls, Orcs and Hobbits. In short, Men are tall, regal and proud, the Elves are beautiful, fickle and long-lived, the Dwarves are crafty and industrious, the Trolls are huge and dumb and the Orcs are an evil war-like perversion of the otherwise good Elves. But it is the happy, halfling Hobbits, which are perhaps the most notable of them all.

tolkien
Our Tolkien shelf at home.

Tolkien’s Hobbits are half the size of men, live in comfortable, well-furnished holes in the ground with a deep respect for nature and lead unadventurous, routine, if a bit self-obsessed lives. They enjoy the simple pleasures of life: good food, family time, music, gift-giving, laughing and having a smoke at the end of a working day. The author even considered himself a bit of a Hobbit: “I am in fact a Hobbit (in all but size). I like gardens, trees and unmechanized farmlands; I smoke a pipe, and like good plain food; I like, and even dare to wear in these dull days, ornamental waistcoats. I am fond of mushrooms (out of a field); have a very simple sense of humour; I go to bed late and get up late. I do not travel much.”

Hobbits are in fact a representation of the ordinary people with all their pluses and minuses and Tolkien firmly believed that it is the acts of the many, seemingly insignificant people, that ultimately shape the world. In both the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit books it is a Hobbit that saves the world and steps up in a time of crisis, while the mighty and powerful squabble. That is particularly obvious in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, where war threatens to devastate the Shire, the Hobbit homeland, and the Hobbits must find their courage to defend it and rise up to all the moral challenges that come with it.

“Such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.”

J. R. R. Tolkien – The Fellowship of the Ring

While this may seem a bit simplistic, especially because I’m trying to avoid delving too deep into the actual story, you must remember that Tolkien’s books are meant to have the vibe of ancient legends and myths. In reality, they are full of unexpectedly deep moral and philosophical questions, complex situations and well-developed characters, and the struggle between good and evil is far from black and white. Thus the books are actually full of great life advice and proper words of wisdom, and that is what I want to share with you today in honour of Tolkien Reading Day.

You’ll find some of my favourite quotes from his books below and they truly are words to live by on various topics – they’ve stayed with me since primary school when I first picked up that heavy, thick green book with a wizard on the cover and got addicted to Middle Earth.

One quote to rule them all

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

J. R. R. Tolkien – The Fellowship of the Ring

Here’s the excellent movie version of this dialogue.

On life

And as far as the big life stuff and existentialism goes, there’s also this one:

“It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.”

J. R. R. Tolkien – The Return of the King

And this: one of my absolute favourite dialogues of all is the conversation below between Sam and Frodo, two main Hobbit characters, on the importance of not giving up and finding hope even in dark times. The movies had a somewhat different, but also beautiful version of this here.

`And we shouldn’t be here at all, if we’d known more about it before we started. But I suppose it’s often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually – their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on – and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end. You know, coming home, and finding things all right, though not quite the same – like old Mr Bilbo. But those aren’t always the best tales to hear, though they may be the best tales to get landed in! I wonder what sort of a tale we’ve fallen into? ‘

`I wonder,’ said Frodo. ‘But I don’t know. And that’s the way of a real tale. Take any one that you’re fond of. You may know, or guess, what kind of a tale it is, happy-ending or sad-ending, but the people in it don’t know. And you don’t want them to.’

J. R. R. Tolkien – The Two Towers

On why things matter

“The wide world is all about you: you can fence yourselves in, but you cannot forever fence it out.”

J. R. R. Tolkien – The Fellowship of the Ring

On money

“If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”

J. R. R. Tolkien – The Hobbit

On procrastination

“It’s the job that’s never started as takes longest to finish.”

J. R. R. Tolkien – The Fellowship of the Ring

On travelling

You probably know this one, which has been used and abused by many travellers:

“Not all those who wander are lost.”

J. R. R. Tolkien – The Fellowship of the Ring

Personally I prefer this one:

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

J. R. R. Tolkien – The Fellowship of the Ring

Or this one on adventures:

“Then something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick.”

J. R. R. Tolkien – The Hobbit

On problems

“So comes snow after fire, and even dragons have their endings.”

J. R. R. Tolkien – The Hobbit

On death and grief

The Lord of the Rings movies did a great job with some of the speeches based on the books and here’s one of them about death and the end of everything that’s a real masterpiece.

“The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.”

J. R. R. Tolkien – The Fellowship of the Ring

It was pretty hard to limit myself to only the 13 in this post, as the books are full of amazing quotes. Go read them, on Tolkien Reading Day or any other day, and the next time your say good morning to someone, remember this one and consider the true meaning behind your words. 🙂

“Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?”

J. R. R. Tolkien – The Fellowship of the Ring

How about you, are you a fan of Tolkien and Middle Earth yet and why not?

P.S.: You can see my LARP orc character on the cover photo reading the Silmarillion and she is not happy about the way orcs are (mis)represented in Tolkien’s works. Who knows, she might write an essay on it for next Tolkien Reading Day. If you want to see more orc stuff, go check out my boyfriend’s craft shop here.

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4 thoughts on “Life wisdom according to J. R. R. Tolkien

  1. “My, how many things you use Good Morning for…” I’ve read The Hobbit a couple of times but I could only get through the Lord of the Rings trilogy once. I’m glad I read it, though.

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