J.R.R. Tolkien — or “the Professor,” as he is sometimes called — left behind a legacy of imagination. He opened up a whole world filled with elves who sing in golden woods, dwarves who delve deep in mines under snow-white peaks, and hobbits who love cold beer and hearty meals.
The sweeping stories this quirky Catholic Oxford professor left us — such as The Lord of the Rings — offer beautiful but practical examples of how to live a good life in our own time. Here are three things I’ve learned from his literature.
Tolkien teaches me what home can look like
“His house was perfect, whether you liked food, or sleep, or work, or story-telling, or singing, or just thinking best, or a mixture of all. Evil things did not come into that valley.” —A description of Elrond’s house in The Hobbit
Though Tolkien’s characters embark on incredible adventures, they have taught me a deep appreciation for what home is — and their commitment to stability and community and the good life shows us a bit of what home could be for us, too.
I am not just talking about how a house should physically look, although the peaks and waterfalls around Rivendell and the cozy English aesthetic of the hobbits are quite fantastic! In Tolkien’s books, home is a place where people can work or rest, they can be safe, they can be themselves. I want to make my home a safe and restful place for myself and others.
Tolkien teaches me the importance of joy
“It is no bad thing to celebrate a simple life.” —Bilbo Baggins in The Fellowship of the Ring
It’s easy to get caught up with being productive or right or successful, but Tolkien’s tales emphasize just how beautiful are the simple things in life — how important it is to slow down. In Tolkien’s world, the little things are actually the big things in life.
When not slaying orcs or going on near-hopeless quests, his characters are found enjoying a pint in a pub, relaxing with a long pipe, or munching on elvish lembas. They sing often. They understand the importance of rest and laughter.
Like Thorin the dwarf once said, “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.” These stories remind me that I want to make more time in my life for merriment.
Tolkien teaches me what daily heroism looks like
“The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr Frodo: adventures as I used to call them. I used to think they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them … But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t.” —Samwise Gamgee in The Two Towers
Tolkien fought in World War I where he was stunned by the atrocities humanity can commit — but also deeply inspired by the heroic deeds of ordinary men. It was a simple soldier who had come from the English countryside who inspired his beloved character Samwise Gamgee — a small, plump hobbit who had tremendous courage. Samwise, and Tolkien, have given us a practical model of what it looks like to be courageous — of what it looks like to be good.
Tolkien’s characters actually give a beautiful example of what sainthood should look like. Heroic virtue is not something for elite holy people who have it all figured out. Sainthood looks a lot like Samwise Gamgee’s journey: making small decisions to do the right thing each day until suddenly you have changed the course of your life and, perhaps, the course of history.