Today is Tolkien’s birthday — his “twelfty-first,” as some have pointed out, in reference to Bilbo’s “eleventy-first” birthday celebration at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring — and all across the world, folks are lifting a pint (or whatever amount) of ale (or whatever drink) in remembrance of one of the greatest author’s of the twentieth century.
For my own little encomium, I will share one of my favorite Tolkien quotes. It’s not from his more popular works, although they contain many worthy contenders, but rather from his poem “Mythopoeia,” which Tolkien wrote in response to his good friend C. S. Lewis. During an earlier conversation, Lewis had claimed that myths were “lies breathed through silver.” The poem outlines, in couplet form, Tolkien’s conception of what myth-making truly consists.
In the third quarter of the poem (approximately), Tolkien offers a set of three beatitudes describing the fortunes of myth-makers. The second of these has always been my favorite since I first read the poem fifteen or so years ago:
Blessed are the men of Noah’s race that build
their little arks, though frail and poorly filled,
and steer through winds contrary towards a wraith,
a rumour of a harbour guessed by faith.
The religious sentiment here is obvious (Noah, arks, faith), but it would be a mistake to see only the surface meaning. In context of the rest of the poem, Tolkien seems to be saying that the storyteller, the artist, the one who dares to thrust themself out into the world straddling their creation, without any assurance that what they’ve created will ever find a connection to others, is worthy of praise.
And to that, all I can say is: Amen.
The entire poem is filled with gems, both large and small, and is worth the few minutes it takes to read — and the much longer amount of time it takes to read again, and again, and again….
* Lewis’ and others’ affectionate nickname for Tolkien.