Today is Tolkien Reading Day. As always, there is a theme. This year’s theme is life, death, and immortality.
Morbid, huh … or is it?
Many of you may be thinking this is a far cry from last year’s theme of friendship, but I think it goes hand in hand and strikes a very similar chord–though maybe a more solemn tone.
We know that Tolkien’s relationships influenced his writing, but do we realize how much their deaths did as well? Read any of his books and you’ll find themes of immortality/mortality, death/life, and loss. The Lord of the Rings quickly comes to mind, but themes of loss and death can be found in even his lighter works, such as the Hobbit.
The Immortal Four
Tolkien was greatly inspired by the lives and deaths of his friends and members of his writing group, The Tea Club Barrovian Society (TCBS).
The members were Tolkien, Robert Gilson, Christopher Wiseman, and Geoffrey Smith. Like Tolkien, they were all academic, philosophical, poetic, and artistic young men, and they became very close friends.
Several of the members died during the First World War in battles that are said to have inspired the wars of Middle Earth, particularly the Battle of Somme, which was a gruesome battle that took thousands of lives and ruined the landscape. This was supposedly and very possibly the inspiration for Mordor.
The first to die was Rob Gilson. In a very heartfelt letter sent to Tolkien by Smith you get a good sense of the strong bond and deep connection that the members had for one another.
My dear John Ronald,
I saw in the paper this morning that Rob has been killed. I am safe but what does that matter? Do please stick to me, you and Christopher. I am very tired and most frightfully depressed at this worst news. Now one realizes in despair what the T.C.B.S. really was.
O my dear John Ronald what ever are we going to do?
G. B. S.
Not long after, Smith died as well, leaving only Wiseman and Tolkien. In this letter to Tolkien, Wiseman grieves the loss of their members while declaring that death cannot end their ideas and goals.
…there will still be left a member of the great T.C.B.S. to voice what I dreamed and what we all agreed upon. For the death of one of its members cannot, I am determined, dissolve the T.C.B.S. Death can make us loathsome and helpless as individuals, but it cannot put an end to the immortal four!
The immortal four is the perfect epitaph, because though they died, they lived on in Tolkien’s memory and in his writing. Their ideas, discussions, and Smith’s words, “May you say things I have tried to say long after I am not there to say them.” inspired Tolkien to write The Silmarillion and other stories of Middle Earth. We wouldn’t have The Hobbit or the Lord of the Rings if not for these men.
So essentially what I’m saying is the death of his friends gave Tolkien a kick in the butt to start writing. He certainly felt the pressures of being one of if not the soul survivor of the group. Tolkien’s burden of carrying their stories, their memories, and their ideas is clearly comparable to Frodo’s burden of carrying the one ring. I have to wonder if Merry, Pippin, Frodo, and Sam weren’t inspired by the immortal four. There were four hobbits and four members of the T.C.B.S. Coincidence?
I don’t think we’ll ever live in a world where people aren’t familiar with Tolkien and his books. While no one can live forever, like Tolkien’s elves, he certainly has achieved immortality in its most obtainable sense.
Anyone will tell you, Tolkien lives on because of his books. Another way he lives on is through his friends, family, and children.
Christopher Tolkien (3rd and youngest son) is said to be the most like his father: a soldier, scholar, writer. Of all of his four children, Chris was probably the favorite. In one of Tolkien’s letters, he refers to Chris as a “special gift” to him, “in a time of sorrow and mental suffering.”
Just like with the Immortal Four, you can see where his relationship with Christopher inspired his works.
Chris completed his father’s writing just as Frodo finished Bilbo’s writing in the Lord of the Rings.
Without Christopher’s efforts, the Silmarillion would never have been finished. This act in itself speaks of immortality. If someone else picks up the story where you left off, then does the story end?
Which reminds me of something Bilbo says, “Don’t adventures ever have an end? I suppose not. Someone else always has to carry on the story.”
Indeed, Tolkien is immortal, even in death, because of the love his son has for him. Chris loves him so much infact that he is very protective of his father’s works. He wasn’t particularly fond of Jackson’s films, so it’s very unlikely that we’ll see a Jackson adaptation of the Silmarillion. sigh …
Speaking of Peter Jackson’s films. Whether or not Chris thinks they measure up to the integrity of his father’s work, they are helping to preserve Tolkien’s memory by rekindling an interest in his writings and creating new fans of his works.
Even when Chris Tolkien dies, Tolkien will live on because of his fans. His work continues to inspire readers even to this day. With holidays celebrating Tolkien (such as Tolkien Reading Day) it’s practically impossible for Tolkien to be forgotten.
Life, Immortality, and Death in Tolkien’s Works
This would be a never ending blog post if I listed all of the stories that have to do with life, death, and immortality. However, if you’re looking for a passage to read to observe Tolkien Reading Day, you could read Boromir’s death, The end of the Return of the King where Frodo sails west, The Appendix: Story of Aragorn/Arwen, Thorin Oakenshield’s death, the story of Beleg and Turin, The Story of Glorfindel, or the story of how Aule created the dwarves.
I chose a story that combines all three: life, death, and immortality. This Tolkien Reading Day, I’ll be reading chapter 24 of the Sil where Elrond and his brother Elros are given the choice which kindred (man or elf) they will join. Elrond chooses the side of the Firstborn and remains immortal while his brother chooses to be a king of humans, thus forsaking his immortality–though he does live for 500 years. I can’t think of a better chapter to read than one where characters literally have to choose between death and immortality.
The Story Must Continue
Tolkien’s life was full of loss: his mother died at an early age, his wife died before him, he lost many friends to war. This is why he is so able to successfully articulate the feelings of loss in his writings: The death of Beleg, of Boromir, of Frodo.
Despite that, he seemed to have an optimistic attitude about death with descriptions of white shores and a land of ever green. He seemed to view death as a beginning, not an end.
While I don’t share his sentiment, I find his attitude regarding death to be very hopeful and optimistic. I hope that’s the feeling you’ll come away with this Tolkien Reading Day.
Please share and comment below. Let me know what you’ll be reading today. Will you be reading a passage with the theme of life, death, or immortality?