I Read The Entire Tolkien Mythology — This is What I Learned

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It’s November 30th, 2022 and I finish watching The Rings of Power.

I liked it. Solid story. Great visuals. It reminded me how much I loved The Lord of The Rings growing up. But I never read it, and right there and then I made a rather grand commitment to devour the entire Tolkien Mythology and Legendarium.

Yeah… I didn’t quite know what that entailed in the beginning.

But with my planning for an upcoming marathon and the vast training involved, I wanted to dive deep into some sort of audiobook series.

So why not the Tolkien Mythology 🤷

5 life lessons after reading the entire Tolkien Mythology

I like to run.

Well, I say I like to run, but I don’t. I find it boring and tedious, and because I live in Yorkshire, I’m surrounded by these steep hills. Everywhere.

And the weather? The less said, the better.

It all makes running rather rubbish.

But I do like how I feel afterward, and once I get past the resistance of running, I find it clears my head and fuels my mind, body & spirit.

But I do not enjoy it. So let’s just get that clear right off the bat.

And that’s important, because to keep running, I have to commit to challenges.

Like marathons, which is exactly what I did around the time I watched The Rings of Power — and because I find the whole act of running numbing, I need to keep my mind busy and my usual go-to is an audiobook.

Ah, there we go… this puzzle is beginning to piece together.

Because on December 1st, 2022, I grabbed a copy of The Silmarillion.

Later that day, I hit the streets to begin my marathon training — the race was in May — and, placing Airpods in ears, stepped into a rabbit hole that would lead me to December 1st, 2023 … an entire year later and hundreds of hours worth of listening, watching, and reading.

The complete Tolkien Legendarium, devoured.

Not just books, but countless explainer videos.

(a big shout out to In Deep Geek, and his soothing voice and wise words)

… and of course, the movies, both The Lord of The Rings and The Hobbit, and a rewatch of The Rings of Power, so I could come full circle on my journey, back again, just as Bilbo had.

Why did I do all this? I have no idea.

Did I expect to learn something from the whole experience? Not really.

But I did, and the impact of these lessons dug much deeper than I could ever have imagined … that’s the purpose of this video, to share five life lessons I took from this deep dive into Tolkien’s mind.

1: the hero is in the shadows

In The Lord of The Rings, the protagonist and hero are not the same.

 

Back before all this, when I just watched the films, I assumed they were the same; that they were both Frodo. He was the lead character. He was the hero. We were on his journey. But that isn’t the case. Because although Frodo is the protagonist, he isn’t the hero and we aren’t on his journey.

We are on Sam’s. He is the real hero of the entire tale.

It’s why the book (and film) ends with Sam infamously saying “Well, I’m back.”

That isn’t by accident.

If there’s one thing I learned about Tolkien, it’s that he is a master storyteller and someone who knows more about writing and language than almost anyone. The fact he ended his tale with Sam, and those words… there’s purpose behind it.

Sam is the real hero, by Frodo’s side, selflessly giving himself to the greater cause. He may not have carried the ring and that burden, but he carried Frodo, and his.

Quite literally at the end… once again, I sense not by accident.

Realizing this hit me hard because I saw how important the difference between a protagonist and a hero is. Sometimes they are the same. Yet not always.

That may be the case in your life…

You may feel like you aren’t the lead character as others around you take center stage: your kids, partner, friends, boss, the company you work for…

Looking back on my life, I grew up hoping to become someone; to be something. 

To be like Frodo, the central cog in an essential machine. 

Yet for most of us, this isn’t the case as we slip into the background

It’s not that life is boring… but most of the time, it isn’t book-worthy.

Certainly not movie-worthy.

And so it’s easy to feel lost, unimportant, and that you’ve somehow failed.

Yet that isn’t the case because the real hero usually lies in the shadows.

Not the central character, but a supporting one.

Not only a vital role but often the most important of all.  

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      2: your journey evolves

      When I first started this adventure into Tolkien’s mind, I had no idea how vast it was. I knew it extended beyond The Hobbit and Lord of The Rings … but the massive mythology he had built and that his son, Christopher, brought to completion over many, many years? I had no idea.

      And I say completion, but that isn’t exactly true.

      Indeed, that’s the point because stories and journeys like these don’t simply end when the text says ‘The End’.

      As a writer and creator, this led me to think deeply about my own work.

      You see, I like to have a plan and to map everything out; to appreciate where I am and where I am going (as well as where I’ll end up).

      At first, I assumed Tolkien must have done the same.

      After all, how could he create such a vast universe without a plan…

      It turns out, he had no idea what he was doing.

      He didn’t begin with a detailed strategy to write all these different books and stories, each one interconnecting and linking with one another. 

      He just had ideas; he just had stories.

      Writing The Hobbit, and its subsequent success, ignited more ideas.

      Yet his legendarium didn’t begin with Bilbo and his tale… other characters like Tom Bombadil existed beforehand, as little tales he told his kids at bedtime.

      I imagine for a long time, Tolkien didn’t see how any of these works would link. They were just ideas in his head that he allowed to be. 

      In time, they became more.

      And then, as more time passed, he began to see a bigger picture.

      … began to see that there was more at play.

      … at least, there was potential for more.

      And this was tricky because not everything he had created fit seamlessly.

      It was messy, random stories on shreds of paper … countless rewrites … a lifelong job for his son, Christopher, to piece together a broken puzzle his father had started and then left him with.

      It was not neat. It wasn’t even intentional. It was chaos in its finest form, and yet despite all that a seemingly flawless body of work still found its way to the surface so someone like me, all these years later, can read and devour and learn from.

      That’s the power of evolution!

      It happens when it happens, as well as in the way it needs to.

      We can have a plan, but it won’t always work.

      And even without a plan, we can still make magic after the fact.

      We just have to let it evolve; indeed, we have to allow ourselves to.

      3: stick to your story

      One of the things I haven’t read as part of Tolkien’s Legendarium is the published letters he sent to readers, friends, peers, and editors over many years.

      I’ve consumed some of them though, and one that stuck out was a conversation with his publisher — several conversations, in fact.

      In short, his publisher wanted something different from what Tolkien did.

      After the success of The Hobbit, everyone was keen for more. 

      Readers. Agents. Publishers. The world!

      Tolkien, though, he had begun to think a lot about A LOT.

      An entire mythology hazily formed in his imagination, one that had been slowly evolving over many years as he read bedtime stories to his kids and I imagine sat around all day being all writerly and mysterious.

      The Hobbit had simply scratched the surface. He wanted to craft an entire history of Middle Earth and add depths to Bilbo’s journey that nobody else could fathom.

      I guess the world didn’t want that, let alone need it. 

      All it desired was a story … a sequel to a book everyone loved.

      Understandable. But to Tolkien, a writer and creator and someone with ideas that HAD to come out… it isn’t as easy as to write the book everyone else wants.

      You need to write the book you NEED to write.

      Now, there were compromises, for sure, and The Lord of The Rings wasn’t the book he wanted to write at the time per se. 

      His publisher wanted a shorter story… a more digestible one… a cheaper one to print and distribute.

      Yet Tolkien wouldn’t budge. He couldn’t!

      So the back and forth lasted years, a slowly developed process that must have been difficult for all involved. It would have been easy for Tolkien to give in and submit to what his publisher wanted. After all, he needed them more than they needed him—it’s not like the world was short on writers with stories to tell.

      And at this point, Tolkein wasn’t “Tolkein”.

      Yet he did not budge; could not budge! 

      Compromise, sure, and placed his ego to one side, yes.

      But kneel and submit… that he did not do.

      Important, too, because when you have a story to tell, you need to tell it.

      You need to stick to it.

      Not just a story, but your values, principles, and character.

      It’s during these periods we show the world who we are, including ourselves.

      Yet it’s never easy, which leads us to the next big lesson and the one that’s had a bigger impact on me than any other I’ve ever experienced.

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      4: you will feel like an imposter

      One of the great aspects of books like Beren and Luthien and The Children of Hurin is how the stories were accompanied by anecdotes, letters, and commentary from Christopher Tolkien.

      Not only did it provide greater context to the story itself, but it offered a glimpse into his father’s mind; as well as the experiences he went through.

      It’s easy to forget that back then, as he lived his life, he wasn’t the Tolkien we know today. No movies. Not even a fraction of the books that are now available. 

      He was a well-respected, talented writer and professor, but no different from any other talented, well-respected professor and writer.

      It reminded me that we place people on a pedestal.

      Not just writers of yesteryear, but so many people we come across each day.

      Now, I won’t get into the toxic nature of Comparison Culture, as I’ve already done so in another video.

      What I will say is that you WILL compare yourself to others.

      And you WILL feel like an imposter, even if you “know” you have talent.

      Tolkien did. He experienced a level of fame and success in his lifetime, and I have no doubt he knew he was a good writer and someone who knew more about writing than almost anyone else he met.

      Yet what’s also clear in several of his letters, stories, and anecdotes is that he doubted himself; doubted that his story was good enough, if good at all.

      Like me, and you, Tolkien was just a fragile, imperfect, and insecure meat human. 

      In my eyes, one of the greatest storytellers and world builders to have ever lived.

      But to him… he was just the guy he lived in the head of, 24/7.

      Realising this as I ran along the canal, humbled me; and reminded me that the reality we build in our head is only ever, at best, a version of what is.

      At worst, it’s just plain straight lies we tell ourselves.

      Because amongst the doubt and uncertainty and chattering inner voices that force us to question our worth, it’s important to remember that there’s value in what we do … that this is always true.

      And it’s okay that we don’t always see it, or believe it. 

      Because if someone like Tolkien felt what I feel, then maybe such feelings are okay.

      If he doubted himself and compared himself to others… felt like an imposter and all the rest, well, we sure as hell are allowed to feel that way, too.

      It doesn’t have to hold you back or stop you from taking the next step.

      It is just part of the journey, which brings us to the fifth and final lesson…

      5: pursue daunting depths

      As Frodo stands before the council, he says that infamous line, “I will take the Ring to Mordor. Though — I do not know the way.”

      The words seem to crawl from him like a child admitting a hard truth.

      The journey he faced, the knowns and unknowns alike… utterly daunting.

      Sam’s, too, and everyone else part of the fellowship.

      The possibilities of what may and may not have happened, infinite.

      The hope of a positive outcome, slim.

      Despite this, they had a job to do. 

      And so they did it, daunting fear and all.

      I imagine this lay parallel to Tolkien’s own journey.

      Not just his adventure into writing The Lord of The Rings, which, let’s face it, is a huge undertaking on its own, but as he sat with an entire Middle Earth and its long history in his mind, the burden of somehow bringing it together his alone to bear.

      He failed in that regard.

      Never did finish it.

      Never even came close.

      His son had to tie some of the loose ends, but even so, it’s a “world” that remains frayed at its edges; more questions than there are answers.

      But all that’s fine because the only real failure he faced was to succumb to the no doubt unimaginable fear that consumed him.

      It would have been so much easier to *just* write the book his publishers wanted him to; so much easier to *just* write a few books and leave it at that.

      Yet he didn’t… I imagine he couldn’t.

      That’s what makes him so inspiring.

      Because he dove deep into the weeds, venturing to depths few of us can imagine. Writing history and backstory and thinking about all the details 99% of people will never notice, let alone care about.

      But he cared. That’s what matters.

      He did his job, daunting fear and all.

      That’s all any of us can do. We each have a job and are here to live a life. Often, it’s full of fear and unknowns and worries about what might be. 

      We get to choose to venture deep into those daunting depths or remain on the surface where it feels more safe.

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      Tolkien Mythology: final thoughts…

      Doing my own deep dive into Tolkien’s creation reminded me how magical the hidden depths can be.  You never know what’s down there, but it is almost always better than what’s up here.

      From the interesting stories to the rich characters, the wonderful world-building and the vast universe he created over such a long period, I left my adventure into Tolkien’s mind full of inspiration and a lack of mourning.

      As I venture forward into future reads, I’ll certainly miss it.

      Yet as the whole point here shows, ‘The End’ is rarely that. I sense I’ll revisit this world in the future, and when I do, I expect more lessons await me.

      I hope you find your own among the Tolkien Mythology that is sure to evolve as the years go by.

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