He was born into poverty.
By age 14, he had lost both parents.
Left with only one brother, he was taken in by a local priest. The priest was a good man and taught the young boys the power of a disciplined, spiritual life.
His days were dark, but faith that the future could be better than the past kept him going. He became fascinated with languages, and soon he had mastered Latin and Greek.
Each day, the young man grew better at learning. He would read for entire days. Next, he was writing his own stories. Then, he was creating his own languages. He would band together with his friends and practice speaking the mythical languages he had created. The young man’s imagination was a fountainhead that inspired those around him.
But all of that changed in 1914.
A political leader named Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austria-Hungary throne, was assassinated.
A month later, Germany declared war on Russia. Fear gripped world leaders, and soon World War I was raging.
Unlike many of his friends, the young reader and writer didn’t join the military at the first chance. Instead, he went to Oxford to finish his degree and continue his study of languages. While he studied, he kept writing and inventing new stories and worlds.
He loved his studies, but something was missing.
He had spent his life in the safety of the Church, of Oxford, and in the company of a small band of friends. The thing that was missing was direct experience in the real world. He had read about the world, but up until this point he had been too fearful to venture into it.
Was he a coward, he wondered? Was he brave enough to face and fight the evils that lay outside the safety of his small, peaceful community? He read the reports in the papers about the war. There was a wave of evil on the march, and if it was not stopped, soon it would be at the gates of his small world.
The young man joined the British Army as a second lieutenant.
He arrived on the Western Front just in time for the Somme offensive. There he discovered a new band of friends and was soon closer with them than any of his friends from home. They all had to bond quickly because the threat of death was constantly in the air.
Four months in, he came down with a form of typhus called trench fever. Crippled by the illness that caused fevers, rashes, and migraines, he was sent back to England. During those first months home, he wrote letters to his friends. He was delighted each time he got a response and felt a bit less guilty for leaving them to fight on their own.
But the frequency of the letters from his friends trickled to a stop. What replaced them was news of his friends’ deaths. One after another, the news of their deaths arrived. It wasn’t long before all of them had been killed.
The man was distraught, and turned back to his books and writing to try and endure the madness of evil and war. Although his friends were now gone, he decided that their inspirations and souls must be placed in fiction that would outlive them all. His writing was more than a calling, it was a mission to give life to the memory of his fallen friends.
When he recovered, he returned to academia as a professor. He took a position at Leeds College first, then landed a position at his alma mater, Oxford. There he met new friends who were readers and writers just like him. His wife that he had met when he joined the British Army supported him the entire time, and soon they had a family.
Now his stories weren’t just for his fallen friends, they were designed to entertain and protect his children from the horrors of the world.
The teaching, research, and the exchange of ideas at Oxford invigorated him. But grading exam papers was soul crushing.
One chilly evening while grading papers, he found himself staring out the window at a cold and bleak Oxford winter.
Life has a funny way of bringing answers to those brave enough to seek them.
He forced himself to return to the task at hand — grading. He opened a student’s answer book and started reading. As he flipped the pages, he noticed that the student had left one page blank.
Without even thinking, the professor wrote ten little words on the empty page.
He leaned back in his chair and examined the words. They surprised him. They were the starting point he needed for one of his stories.
Like a bolt of lightning, he was back to writing his story, and new life was coursing through his veins. When he was finished, he rushed home to share the beginning of the tale with his children.
When he had a manuscript ready, he shared it with his group of writing friends and professors called the Inklings. His best friend Clive encouraged him to submit it to a publisher.
Months passed, and eventually, a London publisher read his manuscript. She was intrigued and passed along the completed manuscript to the managing director. The man took it home and began reading it to his ten-year-old son. His son read the entire manuscript while his dad was at work at the publishing house. That ten-year-old boy became the first official fan of the epic tale.
So what were those ten words that brought all of the man’s imagination to bear on a single tale?
“In a hole in the ground there lived… a hobbit.”
The man and veteran who penned them was, of course… John Ronald Reuel Tolkien.
J.R.R. Tolkien, who went by Ronald among his friends, brought the hero’s journey to life like no other author before him. His good friend Clive that encouraged him was none other than C.S. Lewis. The two friends had found their way to immortality through fiction, and Bilbo and Sam would go on to inspire a generation of young people. The tale would encourage them to leave the safety of the shire, go on adventures, and fight evil in the real world. That was the only way to become the type of people who one day could save the shire if evil tried to attack it.
If evil will be faced, fought, and overcome, we need heroes in the world.
Tolkien showed us a path where each of us can become heroes. It’s not necessary for us to look like the heroes in movies or on TV. We don’t have to be perfect, or fearless, but we do have to be brave enough to face the fear and act anyway. We have to be brave enough to face overwhelming odds and have faith that good can triumph over evil.
No matter how lost you feel sometimes, or how trapped in the darkness you might be, there is always a way out. It is through that faith that you’ll have the courage to put one foot in front of the other and keep going. When your journey gets dark, remember these immortal worlds of Tolkien:
“Still round the corner there may wait
A new road or a secret gate
And though I oft have passed them by
A day will come at last when I
Shall take the hidden paths that run
West of the Moon, East of the Sun.”
Secrets, mentors, allies, amulets, and hidden paths await those who are brave enough to leave the shire.
So no matter how wonderful the safety of your shire is at the moment, remember that it’s not promised forever. Evil is alive and well in the world, and it is on the march. You can choose to stay in comfort and pretend that evil will not eventually overtake your shire…
Or you can band together with your friends, go out into the world, and face, fight, and overcome evil in all of its forms. That is the ultimate call to adventure.