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J.R.R. Tolkien would be 129, and his words lift spirits during coronavirus

Commentary: The Lord of the Rings creator knew hardship and grief, yet his words still gleam with hope.

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J.R.R. Tolkien battled grief and despair, but his characters (including Frodo, played here by Elijah Wood) found hope.

New Line Cinema
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J.R.R. Tolkien has been gone for 50 years now, and Jan. 3 marks 129 years since the author's birth. But he's far from forgotten -- a $1 billion series set in the years before the Lord of the Rings is coming to Amazon sometime this year. And the words the Lord of the Rings creator left behind feel especially applicable in this weird, uncertain world of the coronavirus outbreak. 

If you've spent any time on Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest this year, you've likely seen one Tolkien quote in particular that's been turned into a widely shared meme. The text comes from The Fellowship of the Ring: 

"I wish it need not have happened in my time," Frodo said.

"So do I," Gandalf said, "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."

Tolkien spoke of hardship from experience. The creator of Lord of the Rings fought in the hellish Battle of the Somme in World War I and suffered great losses. "By 1918, all but one of my close friends were dead," he wrote. He had seen a world shaken to its core, and perhaps he made sense of it by picking up his pen and creating a world of his own -- one not free from war and conflict, but one where courage and friendship and hope mattered more than fear.

Every time I step outside my home in Seattle, the region where the US outbreak really got started, I think of a line from The Fellowship of the Ring: "It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. … You step into the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to."

David Rowe, author of the 2017 book The Proverbs of Middle-earth, manages the Tolkien Proverbs Twitter account, which tweets out the Tolkien quotes he collected for his book. He understands why people find comfort in the words Tolkien penned so long ago.

"Tolkien's words resonate because they are true," he told me over email. "If something is authentic, even when it occurs in an entirely fictional context, it will speak to anyone with ears to hear."

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Naturally, Tolkien's writing is informed by all he went through in his own life.

"It's clear that one of the reasons Tolkien's work resonates so richly, and is so easily applicable when we are in dark times, is because he knew pain and loss firsthand," Rowe says. "He was an orphan by the age of 12, and all but one of his close friends were dead by the time he was 24. And yet he managed to retain hope."

Rowe recalls that in one scene from Return of the King, Tolkien's character Sam is despairing in the land of Mordor but then sees a single star. In it, Sam finds hope his situation will one day pass. 

"Going through darkness but evading despair with little glimmerings of hope is of huge value to us now," Rowe said.

Rowe doesn't select the quotes specifically to apply to the coronavirus crisis. In fact, his Twitter account just tweets them all in the order they appear in his book, about three or four a day, taking about six months to go through the entire volume, and then starting over. But he's found it fascinating how often the next proverb seems to match up with the day's coronavirus headlines.

"Something like Théoden's 'The world changes, and all that once was strong proves unsure,' hits home because its reality is unfolding before our eyes," Rowe said. "While Gildor's, 'The wide world is all about you: you can fence yourselves in, but you cannot forever fence it out,' is so specific to our context of global lockdown and quarantine that it can feel like those words were written to us."

And some of Tolkien's words find hope even while clearly acknowledging a bleak situation, Rowe notes.

"Haldir's proverb, 'Though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the stronger' seems to acknowledge our current crisis, while seeing potential redemption in it," he says. 

The fantasy genre, with its noble exploits and high stakes, may have helped Tolkien's words earn their staying power, Rowe says.

"Middle-earth allows us a chance to re-examine such concepts as fellowship, sacrifice, duty, or overcoming temptation, and discover that they are not only applicable to our humdrum existence, but they actually make it come to life in a new way," he notes.

Rowe says his Twitter following has grown markedly since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak -- he's now acquiring double or triple the amount of new followers per week as before -- and the reasons are obvious.

"So many people seemed to quickly realize that their quiet lives in the Shire were about to be affected by something dark and deadly, originating in parts of the world only vaguely known," he told me. "But people aren't only reacting, they are also drawing strength from Tolkien. … I'm glad I can bring people words like these."

This story was originally published in April 2020.

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