Today is the anniversary of the death of J.R.R. Tolkien, one of the 20th century’s greatest writers. Tolkien was born on 3 January 1892 and died 2 September 1973.
Can you recall the first time you ever encountered Tolkien?
My first memory of anything to do with Tolkien was in the school library where an otherwise shy class mate was presenting his book report on The Hobbit. We could hardly make any sense out of his excited babbling. Apparently the book had something to do with dwarves and dragons and a mountain of treasure, but it was hard to tell. Some time later I would find delight in reading The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, and Leaf by Niggle.
Tolkien wrote fantasy, which is basically fairy tales for grown-ups. Yet his work offers so much more than a few hours of escapist pleasure. Tolkien believed that by reading about other worlds, we could make sense of our own world and our place in it. I have found great joy in reading Tolkien for he writes about themes I value – redemption, faith, courage under fire, friends standing together through great trials, and the triumph of good over evil. For instance, I can’t help but see the story of Jesus all through The Lord of the Rings. He’s in Aragon coming first to Gondor as a secret servant, but returning as an all-conquering king. He’s in Gandalf sacrificing his life for his friends, then coming back better and more glorious than before.
Let me give you two more reasons for appreciating J.R.R. Tolkien.
Tolkien models what it means to be the head and not the tail in the world of literature. He is not known to us as a Christian-writer, but a great writer who also happened to be a Christian. What’s the difference? The first writes books that are sold to Christians in Christian bookstores, while the second writes books that shine in dark places. God gave Tolkien a creative gift that blessed the whole world, not just those who go to church. (As an aside, in 2009 Tolkien was ranked the world’s fifth richest dead celebrity by Forbes. He’s just behind Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley.)
The other reason for appreciating Tolkien is C.S. Lewis. If the Catholic Tolkien had not been friends with the atheist Lewis, the latter might not have met Christ. Now that would’ve been a tragedy of Narnian proportions!
To commemorate Tolkien’s life and work, I have picked 12 of my favorite quotes. Most of these come from The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) trilogy. Reading Tolkien is a highly subjective experience, so permit me to jot down a few of my impressions after each quote.
Top 12 JRR Tolkien Quotes
1. “The burned hand teaches best.”
This pithy bit of wisdom is spoken Gandalf after Pippin touches the Palantir in The Two Towers. No matter what trouble the hobbits got themselves into, you could guarantee that Gandalf would have something quotable to say about it. Most of it would sound like it came straight out of the book of Proverbs.
2. “Fair speech may hide a foul heart.”
You can’t fool Samwise Gamgee!
3. “All that is gold does not glitter, not all those who wander are lost; the old that is strong does not wither, deep roots are not reached by the frost. From the ashes a fire shall be woken, a light from the shadows shall spring; renewed shall be blade that was broken, the crownless again shall be king.”
This is an ancient prophecy translated by Bilbo in The Fellowship of the Rings. I am taken with the image of the crownless being made king. The climax of Tolkien’s fictional world, as with ours, is of a servant-king being clothed in glory and recognized by all.
4. “It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him.”
Those of you who live near dragons really need to write that down.
5. “War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.”
How good is this?! In the end, Faramir proved to be not only more philosophical, but also a better warrior than his head-strong brother Boromir.
6. “I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.”
I have a confession to make. There have been public occasions when I have been tempted to use Bilbo’s cheeky quote just to see how people react.
7. “I have no help to send, therefore I must go myself.”
This is Aragon the intercessor, but it brings to mind the Messianic prophecies of Isaiah 59:16 (“He saw that there was no one, he was appalled that there was no one to intervene; so his own arm achieved salvation for him, and his own righteousness sustained him”) and Isaiah 63:5 (“I looked, but there was no one to help, I was appalled that no one gave support; so my own arm worked salvation for me, and my own wrath sustained me”).
8. “Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens.”
This is Gimli in The Two Towers. It could just as easily be Paul after Demas deserted him (2 Tim 4:10).
9. “It is perilous to study too deeply the arts of the Enemy, for good or for ill.”
This is Elrond, but it reminded me of something Bill Johnson said last week: “If I live in reaction to the powers of darkness, then the devil has a role in my agenda. And he is not worthy… I can’t afford to let what the devil has done affect me. I don’t want his fingerprints on my thinking. He is not worthy of setting my agenda.”
I’ll bet I’m the first person to compare Bill Johnson to an old elf!
10. “Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”
I remember reading this part of the story as a kid and feeling ashamed. Like Frodo, I thought the fellowship would be better off with Gollum dead. But Gandalf is all mercy and wisdom. We’re not to be in the judgment business. That’s God’s domain. I wonder how many New Testament Christians prayed for the death of Saul of Tarsus. Gandalf gave Gollum a second chance and it made all the difference, even though Gollum was ultimately lost.
11. “Above all shadows rides the sun.”
Preach it Sam! This quote comes from one of the darkest parts of the story (the Stairs of Cirith Ungol in The Two Towers). But there is nothing dark in the heart of this hope-filled hobbit. We may be walking in darkness, but God who said “Let light shine out of darkness” has made His light shine in our hearts. Frodo, ever conscious of his evil burden, gave in to despair. But Sam never gave up. If you could pick one hobbit to come on a journey with you, you’d want faithful and loyal Sam.
12. “End? No, it doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one which we must all take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all change to silver glass… And then you see it… White shores, and beyond, a far green country, under a swift sunrise.”
This is my all-time favorite LOTR movie-quote. The gates of Gondor are about to fall and Pippin fears the end has come. Gandalf responds with this revelation of the Undying Lands or heaven. Ian McKellen nailed this line in Peter Jackson’s movie. (Click here if you can’t remember the scene.) Gandalf is not prophesying but remembering what heaven is like. When Pippin hears his words he is filled with hope and the fear of death is gone.