Though I have read The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, and Tolkien’s other stories and books too many times to count, I never once lost interest in anything about or by the great Oxford don. Now, with the movie Tolkien out from Fox Searchlight Pictures, I’m seeing references to him everywhere. The more I see of him and know of him, the more I continue to be astounded by his mind, his creativity, and his tenacity. For forty-one years now, he has been a constant companion in my life, a friend, as well as a mentor and an inspiration.
As I’ve had the chance to mention before, I first encountered Tolkien through his painting, The Mountain Path, when Houghton Mifflin used it for the cover of the first edition of The Silmarillion in September 1977. I turned ten on the sixth of that month, but my oldest brother, Kevin, turned eighteen on the twenty-third. The Silmarillion came out on the fifteenth. My mom gave Kevin a copy of it, but I, more or less, confiscated it. I would stare and stare at the cover, finding it not only inviting, but irresistibly so. I loved the fold-out map of Beleriand in the back, and I loved even more the opening chapter, “The Ainulindale,” the creation of the universe. Those three things connected me to a world beyond anything I had yet experienced in rather idyllic Kansas. I so desperately wanted to escape into that mountain scene, explore every nook and cranny of that invented world, and meet a God who sang the universe into existence.
Obviously, September 1977 was a great month for the Tolkien-Birzer alliance, informal though it might’ve been.
To be sure, my brothers shared my love of Tolkien, though probably not to my obsessive degree. My older brother, Todd, even made Tolkienian things for me: maps of our farm in the style of Christopher Tolkien’s map; treasure hunts with clues written in Tolkienian ruins; and even, in his wood-working class and projects, a very nice version of Sting, the ancient Elven blade Bilbo and Frodo wielded.
After devouring The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion, I also read everything available at the time by Tolkien—his poetry as found in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil; his short stories printed in The Tolkien Reader; and his paintings as printed in the annual Tolkien calendars. In 1980, of course, the mythology expanded dramatically with the author’s Unfinished Tales, giving much deeper histories of the three mythopoetic ages of the world.
Of those books about Tolkien, but not written or edited by members of the Tolkien Estate, I loved the works by David Day, especially his TolkienBestiary, featuring some of the best painted renderings of Middle-earth I have yet to overcome. My current students have the distorted images of Tolkien’s world by Peter Jackson stuck in their heads. For me, my images come from the paintings commissioned by Mr. Day. Just as important to me was cartographic treasure, Barbara Strachey’s The Journeys of Frodo.
All of this came together for me in the fall of 1980 when I discovered a role-playing game that allowed me to spend as many hours as I so desired in Tolkienian-inspired worlds, Dungeons and Dragons. Surviving a very violent domestic situation during the late 1970s and early 1980s, I can state with no hyperbole that my ability to enter in and out of Tolkienian realms at will quite definitely saved my life. I remember the bizarre motherly whisperings at the time that Dungeon and Dragons might open a child to Satanism and the dark occult. I can only laugh at such comments, especially in hindsight. For me, Dungeons and Dragons (as based on Tolkien’s mythology) not only sheltered my then pre-teenage collapsing faith from collapsing entirely, but it also allowed me sanity by giving me an escape from household terrors that so dominated those years. During my daily walks to and from Liberty Junior High, I often contemplated suicide, trying to decide not if, but when. Honestly, it sometimes seemed the only way to escape my stepfather. Tolkien’s characters and stories, as played in Dungeons and Dragons, strangely (or Providentially?) intruded, pushing aside the darkest thoughts and depressions. Fantastic worlds provided the healthier and healthiest escape in those sombre days. When my friends and I played Dungeons and Dragons, we challenged and conquered evil in all its manifestations, domestic and foreign. We had only one God, and that God was good, true, and beautiful. If some kids fell in the occult because of Dungeons and Dragons, I am truly sorry. In my case, though, it prevented the greatest darkness of all and helped me realize the precious value of life. While I might not be able to stave off the evil in my home, I could rescue others from abuse, even if only in my imagined kingdoms and fantastic republics.
In this context, I cannot help but think of the description of Gandalf (originally named Olórin) in The Silmarillion:
But of Olórin that tale does not speak; for though he loved the Elves, he walked among them unseen, or in form as one of them, and they did not know whence came the fair visions or the promptings of wisdom that he put into their hearts. In later days he was the friend of all the Children of Ilúvatar, and took pity on their sorrows; and those who listened to him awoke from despair and put away the imaginations of darkness.
Eventually, my love of Gandalf became my love of St. Michael, patron of law and good.
As I’ve had the privilege of describing elsewhere at The Imaginative Conservative, I came back to the Catholic faith in, of all places, the deserts of western Morocco, in February 1988. I was then spending my sophomore year of college (July 1987-July 1988) at the University of Innsbruck, Austria. Filled with bursting faith upon returning to Notre Dame that fall, I (again, Providentially?) took a course from a then-famous Platonist entitled “Philosophy and Fantasy.” I wrote my term paper on the Catholicism of J.R.R. Tolkien, and the professor allowed me—as one of three—to deliver it to the class as an oral presentation. It is, at least by my own poor judgment, one of the three best papers I wrote in college, and I was—for better or worse—so proud of it that I wanted it to become better.
Jump forward ten years to my conversation with Winston Elliott, Publisher of The Imaginative Conservative, who asked me, “What would you most like to write upon?” as I explained to him my exhaustion with my dissertation topic (American Indians during the American Revolution and War of 1812). When I told him about my college paper on Tolkien and how I would like to expand it to a book, he not only encouraged me but he also promised me that he would do everything in his power to get it published.
While I am not a major author, I can state that my books have all sold well—at least by the standards of a non-bestselling author. Most importantly, though, I can state that my writing career began during that third week in September 1977, staring at The Mountain Path. Throw in some childhood horrors, some healthy escapes, some great classes, and the encouragement of a best friend—and a book and a writing career are born. How fitting. And, it all began with Tolkien. Or, maybe, God. Yes, the Tolkienian answer is the proper one. It certainly began with God.