Last Saturday, I had the rare opportunity of being interviewed about a topic people more often are attempting to shut me up about: that is, J. R. R. Tolkien and his influence on the modern world. (Requirement for someone’s college course paper, I believe.) No one reading this blog will be surprised to know that I had a lot to say, even in cases where I didn’t necessarily know a lot. But then, isn’t that’s what interviews are all about?
Toward the end, I was asked a question that went something like this: what impact I thought Tolkien had on the modern world, outside of the purely literary realm. I responded by citing what I think of as common tropes: that is, his expression of a nascent spirit of environmentalism and dissatisfaction with the modern world. I may have also talked about the search for meaning in general in modern life — something I touch on in my master’s thesis.
And then I said something I don’t think I had thought about before, at least not in quite this way. I talked about how Tolkien represents an outstanding example of the power of amateurism, which I define in this context not as a lack of quality or even of professional-level skill, but rather as the spirit of doing something first and foremost out of a love for the thing itself. In that sense, Tolkien was very much an amateur: not only as a writer of fantasy, but also as a student of language, a linguist. Philologist, to use the term that probably best describes his professional focus — not merely the study but also the love of language, literature, and “the word.”
More than perhaps any other famous author of the twentieth century, Tolkien manifestly wrote stories out of love. Certainly it wasn’t out of any rational plan to make a living as a writer. People who plan to become bestselling authors don’t take ten years to write a sequel — one that turns out to be of an entirely different character from the book it followed. They don’t write books that are terrifyingly long, from the perspective of conventional publishing wisdom. They don’t invent languages as a side effect of (or perhaps motivation for) their storytelling.
And they don’t write The Lord of the Rings.
I suspect that a true history of humankind would find that many of the best things our species has to offer have been products of love. Certainly in our time, with Wikipedia and TV Tropes and publishing on demand, there’s a lot that people are doing that has, at best, only a small chance of paying off in economic terms. But the example of Tolkien demonstrates the kinds of astonishingly worthwhile and beautiful things that may result when people do things in a spirit of true amateurism.
I went for a walk this morning. It’s a brilliant day: sky blue with puffy white clouds, no breeze, temperature astonishingly warm. Leaves, brown, yellow, and red, linger on many of the trees and litter the ground with that rich smell I associate with leather. (Tannic acid perhaps?)
I ended up at a park a few blocks from our house, where I sat several minutes watching a squirrel. I’ve read about the chittering noises that squirrels make, but this was the first time I think I ever heard such a sound, or at least recognized it as something other than birdcall: a kind of chuk-chuk-chuk-chuk sequence interspersed every now and then with a higher kaa! exclamation. Or something like that. (I’m no good at replicating animal vocalizations, in either written or sonic form.) I also noticed for the first time how a squirrel’s tail works in and out when it is running and shudders every few seconds in a kind of rippling motion when it is standing still — almost a spasm. Who knew? And there was the brilliant molten orange (green to the rest of you) of moss on the low wall behind me, and my wonderings about why one tree’s leaves were all curled up and silvery brown, while another almost identical tree about 30 feet away looked still largely green (but perhaps wasn’t, given my issues with color). An experience of pure delight.
All too seldom do I take the time to walk and sit and observe the natural and human environments around me, for all that I love doing so. I lack the patience. I want to be off and doing, like the character in John Myer Myers’s Silverlock whose mind (as I recall; I can’t seem to find my copy of the book) is so dazzled by poetic inspirations and flights of fancy from his first two drinks from the spring of Hippocrene that he fails to take the critical third drink. But today was a splendid exception.