The Great River
When comparing J.R.R. Tolkien to other modern authors of high fantasy and epic – George Martin and J.K. Rowling, for example – there is an important distinction that often can get elided by even Tolkien’s greatest admirers: Tolkien was never a full-time author. Though Middle-earth is vast, its stories robust, and its peoples incredibly developed, and though the pages of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion (not to mention the vast assortment of unpublished and alternative drafts penned) readily compare to today’s most prolific writers, this was not the effort that consumed most of his time. Scholarship and teaching were his professions: sub-creation was his hobby. The Hobbit began as a bedtime story for his children, and gatherings of the Inklings, however valued, were always an addendum to the regular routine.
His daily life, as revealed through his letters and the memories of those who knew him, was one of great drudgery and often dreariness. He had been orphaned as a young boy, and lost most of his close friends in World War I. The morbid bureaucracy of even a place like Oxford frustrated him to no end, and it is startling how many days of his life all tallied up were likely spent in confrontation and negotiation with publishers and translators. Such monotonous mundanity did not overshadow his academic or popular work, nor (from what I can tell) impart a bitterness on his life, yet it is an insightful reminder that even the lives of the great and beloved are full of dreariness and humdrum.
The great poet and author Samuel Johnson completed neither school nor published verse before the age of 30. The days of Winston Churchill will full of depression, darkness, and defeat before his finest hour. Even the large portion of the years of Christ are unknown, and perhaps then are hidden the long months of simple, repetitive, uneventful living. On the Great River does the Fellowship travel, bidding time, letting the water carry them where they will. Whether the weight of the ring or the anxiety of where to turn or the gnawing temptation of betrayal, the dreariness seeps into the companions; the changeless passing wilderness and endless paddling a drudgery.
So Lent; so life. Drudgery and dreariness. Passions are not aligned with work. Accomplishments are not evident from effort. The days turn into years. Prayer becomes monotonous; perspectives become murky. Everything seems to slowly and endlessly pass.
The great span of human life is largely uneventful. Simple and unadorned days are the norm for the pilgrim people. Yet drudgery and dreariness are a matter of perspective: the slog can become an opportunity for service, the repetition an opportunity for reflection. One’s spirit can infiltrate all activity, however dull and mundane. And small moments of passion expressed can, ultimately, be the thing that remembers us.
2015’s Reflection: “On the Passing of Time”