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On January 3, 2003, J.R.R. Tolkien would have celebrated his eleventy-first birthday, a most momentous occasion, the same birthday on which Bilbo departed the Shire for Rivendell.

What would this venerable Oxford don have thought about his position in western culture at the age of 111, almost a half-century after he initially published his trilogy?

He would have seen reason enough for distress, chilling marks of the modern secular-scientific ideal. In the East: the killing fields, the gulags, and the holocaust camps. In the West: materialism, invasive corporate capitalism, and softly tyrannical bureaucracies. An anti-modern conservative, Tolkien often fell into despair, especially toward the end of his life, as he took account of the world situation.

"The spirit of wickedness in high places is now so powerful and so many-headed in its incarnations," Tolkien wrote in 1969, "that there seems nothing more to do than personally to refuse to worship any of the hydra's heads." The world, he thought, seemed little better than a new Tower of Babel, "all noise and confusion."

Yet, this most devout Christian would also see signs of immense hope, knowing well that St. Paul accorded it the second highest place among the virtues. Karol Wojtyla, pope, poet, playwright, and philosopher, had told Tolkien's beloved Roman Catholic Church, "Be not afraid," quoting Christ. Emboldened by this message, millions between 1989 and 1991 peaceably tore down the misanthropic Marxist-Leninist regimes.

On Tolkien's 111st birthday, he would also be especially surprised to note that for fifty years, his myth—a myth he felt he had recorded rather than invented—had dramatically affected and shaped people all over the world. In it, they found depth, inspiration, ...

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