One hundred and twenty-one years ago today, a child named Johnathan Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born to British parents in Bloemfontein, South Africa. Sixty-seven years later, he would publish a trilogy called The Lord of the Rings, his magnum opus and a work of literature that would change my life forever.
It was the summer of 1978, the summer I almost died. I was ten years old and was backpacking with my family in the mountains of Idaho. Twenty miles in the backcountry and two thousand miles from home, I became critically ill. In retrospect, I’d been getting sick for several months, but our doctor repeatedly told my mother she was overreacting to my mood swings, hypoglycemia, and fatigue. “It’s just because she’s in a growth spurt,” she was told, “now go home and quit being so overprotective.” And so we went forward with our plans to go West – to spend three weeks backpacking in the rugged terrain of the Sawtooth, Bitteroot, and Bighorn mountains of Idaho.
The trip started quite well and our first two trips were amazing: Camping above timberline, eating fresh-caught trout with pancakes for breakfast, seeing moose and elk just yards from our tent, it was heavenly, but then, our world began to tilt.
We were camped by Heart Lake, in the Bighorn Crags on the morning I couldn’t get up. Try as I might, I couldn’t stay awake. I slept twenty hours in a row. I was incoherent and nauseated, and I started losing weight, literally losing pounds a day. We knew had to get out, get back to the car, get to a hospital, but I couldn’t stand, much less walk.
To make matters worse, a wildfire was raging just two valleys away. The night sky glowed ominously red and we could smell smoke on the wind. A forest ranger found us and said we were safe as long as the wind held steady, but we weren’t reassured.
We broke camp at daylight and walked 18 hours straight. At first Dad just carried my backpack – the activity of walking seemed to help and as long as Dad talked to me, I could make my way fairly well. The Crags are desolate, strewn with boulders and unpleasantly hot under the best conditions, but the fire pushed the temperatures upwards by twenty degrees and by afternoon, my strength gave out. It was then that Dad carried me. For six long hours, up mountains, down dry gulches, Dad and I went forward until, at long, long last, we reached to car. We drove 1800 miles in twenty-four hours, straight to the hospital where my Grandfather was on staff. It was there they diagnosed me with Type-I diabetes and my new life began.
The rest of the summer we learned how to give shots of insulin, test my blood sugar, and make proper meal-plans. We became experts in diabetology and by the time school started, I was on steady footing once again. I started fifth grade and earned placement in an advanced reading program. When I learned I’d be doing an oral book report at the end of the year, Dad had a suggestion: “You like fantasy novels,” he said, “why don’t you try this one – its called Lord of the Rings.”
From the first page I was hooked. Tolkien’s world, his characters captivated me like nothing I’d ever read. I read non-stop, taking breaks only to practice my Elvish and write in the elves’ flowing script. Then I came to the climax: Sam and Frodo’s last, heroic push to reach Mount Doom, and it was a story I knew – a story I had lived.
Frodo Baggins, the hobbit and his best friend Sam, must take the One Ring, source of all evil, and cast it into the fires of Mount Doom where it was forged. The journey was long and the power of The Ring had taken every ounce of Frodo’s strength. Near death, he and Sam must cross the desolate, boulder-strewn plains of Gorgoroth and climb to the fiery summit of the volcano to complete their quest. The sky is red with flames and a pall of smoke hangs over the darkened land.
‘Come, Mr. Frodo!’ Sam cried. ‘I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you! Come on, Mr. Frodo dear! Sam will give you a ride. Just tell him where to go, and he’ll go.’ …like small grey insects, they crept up the slope. They came to the path and found that it was broad, paved with broken rubble and beaten ash…
I remember reading the words like it was yesterday: I could almost intuit the next line of text because Frodo’s story was mine. The images were crystal clear because I had been there. Somehow, in the midst of my everyday life, my story had intertwined with something greater, a universal story that flowed through all mankind. On that day, the doors of possibility were opened to realms I’d never dreamed of exploring. No longer was I confined to a spiritual life that revolved around Sunday School and Bible stories on the flannel-board. The Divine was everywhere, speaking to each of us in the language of our heart.
In the years since that day, I have found my spiritual home in the worship of the Celts and Druids, in the forest temples and desert shrines. I have seen the council fires of the Grandmothers dance across a northern sky and found God in a wolf’s golden eyes. So I say, “Thank you, Professor Tolkien, Edinor veren, mellon nin!”