`Lord of Rings' author toasted on `eleventy-first'

In Willingale, England, they're planning a costume party featuring rabbit stew. In Malmo, Sweden, it will be a bring-your-own-pie bash. Others will lift glasses of Tullamore Dew in Stamford, Conn., beer in Lima, Peru, sparkling white grape juice in Chicago, and apple juice in Chennai, India.

All over the world, at 9 p.m. Friday a legion of fans plans to take a moment to say, in the British style of toasting: "The Professor!"

In every field of human endeavor there is someone like that: so revered no name is necessary. For baseball fans, there is only one Sultan of Swat. To the boxing crowd, there'll never be another Brown Bomber.

And for fans of Middle-earth, of all the professors who ever have walked the campuses of all the world's universities, there is and will be only one Professor with a capital P: the late J.R.R. Tolkien, author of "The Lord of the Rings."

Friday is Tolkien's 111th birthday, a special occasion to devotees of the Oxford don turned fantasy writer. As they all know, an "eleventy-first" birthday party--for a hobbit, Bilbo Baggins--plays a role in kicking off the "Rings" saga.

The occasion arrives at a remarkable moment. The makers of "The Two Towers," the middle installment of three "Lord of the Rings" movies, predict it will become only the second film--after "Titanic"--to break the $1 billion mark at the box office. The first installment, "The Fellowship of the Ring," came close, with more than $860 million worldwide.

For Tolkien's fans, the movies' success has made a once-private passion into an icon of popular culture.

It is not unusual for devoted readers to work through the trilogy annually, like sacred text, much as observant Jews do with the Bible's opening books. Sarz Maxwell, a psychiatrist who co-founded a Chicago-area Tolkien fan club, has read the book annually since she was 11. She is now 37.

"My professional subspecialty," she says, "is addictions."

Ethical lessons

But true addictions, Maxwell adds, are harmful. Like other Tolkien fans, she thinks only good can come of reading and re-reading his masterwork. There are myriad ethical lessons in its complicated turns of plot, she argues--far too many to be digested all at once.

"The Lord of the Rings" is a complex, three-part tale that chronicles the joint effort by men, elves, hobbits, dwarves and other intelligent beings to defeat a powerful evil force that threatens the freedom of Middle-earth, the make-believe land born of Tolkien's imagination.

Steuard Jensen, a graduate student in physics at the University of Chicago, credits his personal morality to having been through the trilogy 20 or more times, since his father read it to him as a child.

"Professor Tolkien doesn't preach," Jensen said. "He shows you people wrestling with difficult questions and situations where it's not obvious which course of action will result in good and which will lead to evil."

And if the movies bring more readers to the texts, his fans will be contented.

"We only hope that audiences don't think of `The Lord of the Rings' as just a movie," said Adina Zippora Shoshani, who co-founded the Chicago club with Maxwell. "We want them to read the book itself."

They are also pleased, for the most part, with what the filmmakers have created.

Director Peter Jackson has been largely immune to the kind of harping criticism that often trails a movie made from a beloved novel. Rearranging a story line or moving a line of dialogue usually drives loyal readers up the wall.

True in spirit

Not so with Tolkien enthusiasts, Shoshani reports. As long as the movies are true in spirit to the author, the fans actually enjoy the little alterations.

"The director didn't lie when he said he would change some things in the second movie," Shoshani said. "But that allows us the pleasure of figuring out from where in the novel a bit of the Professor's words have been transposed to somewhere else in the film."

Among Tolkien adepts, Ron Carrier belongs to an exalted subset held in awe even by other fans. A Northwestern University librarian, he is a member of the Elvish Linguistic Fellowship, an international group devoted to the study of the languages Tolkien invented for his book's inhabitants.

Carrier has tried his hand at composing poetry in Elvish, submitting the results for criticism by fellow devotees of a mother-tongue that never was.

Asked why, he responds with the hallmark enthusiasm of a true scholar.

"Studying Elvish involves such a high pitch of abstraction that it is not particularly useful," Carrier said.

Tolkien wasn't the first or the last author to put imaginary words in the mouths of fictional characters. But in Tolkien's case, just as in the Gospel, it was the word that came first.

Fascinated since childhood by created languages, he began working out the languages during his World War I military service. Only afterward did he begin writing stories populated with creatures to speak them.

Evil characters in Middle-earth use the harsh, guttural words of Black Speech, while the good-guy elves speak a pleasant-sounding tongue.

All of it was created according to recognized principles of language development, noted David Salo, who is generally recognized as one of the premier scholars of Elvish.

Tolkien knew a great deal about languages and how they change through history, Salo notes. His pioneering scholarship on the Old English epic "Beowulf" is still highly regarded in the ivory tower.

Tolkien similarly infused his novel with hints as to how Elvish evolved over mythological time from its predecessor language to that spoken in "The Lord of the Rings." Challenged by those word-clues, Salo has made his own breakthrough in Tolkien studies: the reconstruction of "proto-Elvish," a theoretic language never spoken before Elvish was never spoken.

Elvish consultant

Salo, in fact, is so knowledgeable that he served as a consultant to the makers of the "Lord of the Rings" movies--an experience that has given him a new measure of respectability at the University of Wisconsin, where he is a graduate student in linguistics. Before that, he kept his passions from his professors.

"I've been fairly shy about admitting to my Elvish studies," Salo said. "Since the movie, I've been brought out of the closet, so to speak."

Some of the fans who plan to toast Tolkien are also organizing an effort to record the gatherings for a documentary about the milestone birthday.

There is no shortage of locations, from Infinite Coffee in Monterrey, Mexico, to the Bilbo Baggins Cafe in Alexandria, Va. Fans in Pennsylvania have arranged a memorial mass at the Pittsburgh Oratory, as their beloved author was a devout Roman Catholic.

In Chicago, Jensen has a bit of a conflict. He's hosting a party for a friend who shares a birthday with Jensen's favorite author. "But I'll take a couple of minutes out to share with our guests a few words about the significance of the eleventy-first," he said.

The occasion is somewhat bittersweet for those who revere Tolkien, who died in 1973.

Yet one of their number, who will lift a glass of honey mead in Rennes, France, has a suggestion for marking the occasion with an alternate mood. On a Tolkien Web site, he suggests an eleventy-first greeting right out of the Professor's book:

"Mourn not overmuch! Mighty was the fallen, meet was his ending."


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