Aspiring to Greatness—a lesson in leadership creativity from a dusty Tolkien letter

What makes leaders truly great? Can power and influence ever emerge as something healthy and life giving? Is greatness only destined to be self-serving and ugly?

Leaders are readers. Voices commonly clamor: “Tolkien was brilliant.” “He was the literary giant of the twentieth century.” “The Professor was the most prolific artist of fairy and fantasy.” “None will ever compare, nor even come close in prowess.”

These and many other superlatives have been employed regarding Tolkien’s genius. His characters, plots, and scenery have inspired millions to rise higher and grow stronger. While the above statements of stature indeed ring true, we should not be so surprised by the greatness of Tolkien’s life work. There is a primal reason for such greatness. Remarkably, it has very little to do with the cause to which we normally attribute an author’s remarkable accomplishments.

We may conclude on solid grounds that just like other authors, Tolkien developed. He grew over time, and this made him a marvel. No doubt about it, his craft increased in profundity of both depth and breadth as he moved into the mid-twentieth century. Simply read The Lord of the Rings. Then revisit The Hobbit. While the reader is impressed and delightfully entertained with young Bilbo, Frodo and the Fellowship reveal a remarkable level of personal literary development. Authorial growth literally leaps from the pages.

Something much hairier is afoot than simply “Tolkien grew up and created more complex hobbits.” This issue for consideration emerges in one of Tolkien’s earliest letters. John Ronald was still in his early 20s. His close companion, Rob Gilson from King Edward’s School and a member of their semi-secret society, “The Tea Club and Barrovian Society,” had been killed in the Great War. It was July 1916. Several weeks later, Tolkien received sad word via a letter from Geoffrey Smith, one of the other Society members. Also serving in battlefield trenches that summer, Tolkien went into the nearby woods to reflect. Amidst his responses, he said:

I now believe that if the greatness we three certainly meant (and meant as more than holiness or nobility alone) is really the lot of the TCBS, then the death of any of its members is but a bitter winnowing of those who were not meant to be great—at least directly. God grant that this does not sound arrogant—I feel humbler enough in truth and immeasurably weaker and poorer now. The greatness I meant was that of a great instrument in God’s hands—a mover, a doer, even an achiever of great things, a beginner at the very least of large things.[1]

Tolkien proceeded to express the greatness he believed their departed friend had now found in the courageous sacrifice of death. Deeper insight regarding aspiring to greatness may be gleaned from Tolkien’s posture in this poignant moment. He was indeed wrestling with the full mix of personal grief and the struggle to find purpose to move forward. It seems instructive that he fully admitted this small band of young scholars had aspired to future greatness.

What might prove doubly enlightening and revelatory of Tolkien’s grander greatness to come? Such aspiration to greatness was grounded in humility, born of personal realization of working for one’s Creator. Take special note. He was humbled by the current circumstance upon the loss of their friend. And he saw the potential of being an instrument in God’s hands and all that might unfold as “a mover, a doer, an achiever.” He and his fellowship aspired to greatness, but it was grounded in humility and a full recognition of God’s working through them.

During the bridging years between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien delivered his essay On Fairy-stories. His concept of humans serving as sub-creators burst on the scene:

We may put a deadly green upon a man’s face and produce a horror; we make the rare and terrible blue moon to shine; or we may cause woods to spring with silver leaves and rams to wear fleeces of gold, and put hot fire into the belly of the cold worm. But in such ‘fantasy,’ as it is called, new form is made; Faërie begins; Man becomes a sub-creator.[2]

Flieger and Anderson supply commentary:

With its partner term sub-creation, sub-creator expresses Tolkien’s profoundest views on the creative process, that the Prime Creator is God. His creation is the world of humankind who, following in God’s creative footsteps, both make and are made in God’s image, using—again, like God—the Word as the primary creative instrument.

Brilliant? No doubt. Oh-so-gifted with capacity for literary genius? Absolutely. Ever-developing, improving, and growing in his craft? Tolkien improved like fine wine. Year by year, his flavor and tone seasoned. His primal posture set him apart and set him up for stunning achievement.

Audaciously aspiring to greatness can blend with confident humility. Fully recognizing one’s role as a sub-creator can generate a generous, genuine genesis—growing from the Creator’s gracious image in us.

May we each aspire to such greatness in all of our creative endeavors!

 

 

[1]Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Edited by Humphrey Carpenter with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien. Letter 5 to G.B. Smith, pp. 8-10.

[2]Tolkien On Fairy-stories: Expanded edition with commentary and notes, pp. 41-42.

Bourdain, Spade, and Denethor—Loving Parts Unknown and Known

He was so skilled, such a stunning character. We are so sad—so deeply sad. What more can be said?

Our collective emotion was rocked this week as more amazingly talented creators—high profile leaders—chose their own exit. We feel such sorrow together.

What more should be said?

My reading and training on grief have coached me to say nothing. Less is more. Remain silent. Do not preach or dispense advice. Simply grieve with the grieving.

And under almost every circumstance, I concur. Indeed, we pray comfort and divine hope for family and friends. We live ever-cognizant of the heartache of mental illness and the struggle of addiction. Ours is a pulsing grief, oft best unspoken. Together, our hearts ache.

Albeit for a moment, indulge me. Perhaps lean into a shade more reflection. I am compelled to break from the normal silence of our society’s prescribed, safe decorum. When we witness such a sad avalanche of remarkable people, it seems that some further commentary might be appropriate. Perhaps, a few next level thoughts might prove helpful to someone. And we join together in confessing, there are still parts both known and unknown.

I shall not engage in diatribe against the supposed emptiness of the splendidly wealthy and the wickedly successful movers and shakers of current culture. Over my years, I have seen too much. Suicide regularly claims the upper crust as well as the best of us lower crumbs. She plays no favorites in her deceptive malice. Life’s pressure, pain, and resulting hopelessness are no respecter of persons.

In the wake of Anthony and Kate’s self-determined exits, my mind has been moved with sadness. And I am drawn into a Tolkien scene and several correlating truths. Beware. This scene happens far from the Shire but not yet Mordor. We find Gandalf and Pippin in one of the dreadful, messy middle places of Middle-earth, the Citadel of Gondor during the apex of the Battle.

He was so skilled, such a stunning character. Denethor, the Steward of Gondor, had served many years as the ruler of the city and surrounding parts, both known and unknown. Overwhelmed by the Shadow and Sauron’s dark influence, this long-time leader chose to do the unthinkable.

With great haste, Pippin desperately explained to Gandalf: ‘Denethor has gone to the Tombs, and he has taken Faramir, and he says we are all to burn, and he will not wait, and they are to make a pyre and burn him on it, and Faramir as well. And he has sent me to fetch wood and oil.’

Denethor’s son, Faramir, had been wounded in battle, a wound the father assumed to be fatal. Gandalf and Pippin raced to the house of the dead in an attempt to rescue both father and son. They rushed in, and we read: “Denethor stepped backward before Gandalf as one amazed.”

Gandalf and Denethor engaged in a volley of heated argument. Denethor declared: ‘Battle is vain. Why should we wish to live longer?’ The old wise guide responded, attempting with all his might to clear the crazed perspective. O if he might talk even an ounce of sense into the frazzled leader.

‘Authority is not given to you, Steward of Gondor, to order the hour of your death…only the heathen kings, under the domination of the Dark Power, did thus, slaying themselves in pride and despair, murdering their kin to ease their own death.’

Here is one powerfully germane, highly potent statement from the Wizard’s lips. Before we quickly shrug, shake our heads, and dub this as insensitive, provincial, or even judgmental, let us ponder the depth of Tolkien’s analysis.

Gandalf was drawing from the deep recesses of his memory, reaching back to ancient times in earlier ages when rulers chose to exit life of their own accord. His analysis was profound. The root cause was a dark blend of pride and despair. They allowed Dark Power to get the better of them. (Catch the rest of the story in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Chapter 7.)

But notice this standout statement: Authority is not given to you…to order the hour of your death. Tolkien was very deliberately conveying through the wise lips of Gandalf his own world and life view. Humans are ultimately accountable to their Creator. From Tolkien’s perspective, to think otherwise is a misguided, under-the-Shadow, yes even arrogant perspective. When the leading persons of a culture arrive at believing they hold the authority to decide when they shall depart, they are beguiled by “pride and despair.” But Tolkien does not end with diagnosis. In typical Tolkien style, there is hope and wonderful good news.

Gandalf’s next words to Denethor conveyed so much: ‘Come! We are needed. There is much that you can yet do.’ He called the Steward of Gondor to recognize his important stewardship. He called him to humbly recognize his sacred calling and how much he was needed.

We must all remember, even in our darkest moments:

The choice is not our own. Yes, this runs contra popular, pervasive perspective, the groundswell of societal opinion. Misguided, we think we should rule our own entrance and exit. Sadly, we are now slogging through the Shadows of such dark thinking.

We are needed. There are still friends, coworkers, clients, precious children and spouses who do indeed need you to stay in the battle. Choose to stay. Please choose to stay!

There is much we can still do. There are new parts and places to go—both known and unknown. There are fresh meals to create and taste. New people to meet and bless. There are fashions to still make, meetings to lead, and products to create. There is Good News to share, bad news to battle through, and love to spread profusely.

We all battle with our own blend of pride and despair. We all have demons, addictions, and old enemies. Amidst the voices of dark despair, may we listen instead to the voice of Gandalf and ultimately our Creator. Hear him say: You are not your own. You are loved.  You are not alone. COME! You are needed.  There is much that you can yet do. There is hope!