Not All Those Who Wander are Lost: Tolkien’s Tonic for the Millennial Quarter-Life Crisis

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Not All Those Who Wander are Lost: Tolkien’s Tonic for the Millennial Quarter-Life Crisis

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

Happy New Year! But New Year’s is rarely a very happy time, is it? I for one find the self-congratulatory posts on social media, where people show off their achievements from the last 365 days and set lofty targets for the next 365 to be insufferable. After all, I am just a writer in my mid-20s, and people taking vacations I can’t afford and scoring gigs I wish I had scored can be quite the downer.

With so many triggers, it’s all too easy to write yourself off. The social media barrage reminds me that I’m still trying to save a little bit of my pay cheque at the end of the month while my classmate gets a book deal with an international publishing house. Perhaps I’ve lost the race. I mean, if you haven’t made it to where you want to be in life by 25, will it ever happen for you? It gets even worse when you’re in a creative field, and the good work of your peers causes you to doubt your own ability in a crippling case of Impostor Syndrome. Maybe it’s an age-related issue. An essay in The Guardian cites a LinkedIn study that states 72 per cent of millennials feel as if they are in the throes of a quarter-life crisis – a period of overwhelming stress brought on by mounting adult responsibilities and unfavourably comparing your life to the flawless snapshots on your Instagram feed.

When faced with a crisis, some people turn to religion and seek divine deliverance from their problems. I’m not religious, but I do have idols, and it’s to them whom I turn to when I feel adrift. As a writer, a lot of those idols are authors far better at their craft than I will ever be, and out of the entire pantheon, JRR Tolkien is the one who rules them all.

I discovered Tolkien 18 years ago, in a crowded bookshop during a family trip to Mahabaleshwar, a hill station near Mumbai, and since then, the road has gone ever on and on. I spent the entire holiday perched on a swing, trying to devour the nearly 1,200-page copy of The Lord of the Rings. Next I was hooked on to The Hobbit, borrowed from my school library, which was followed by The Silmarillion, purchased at a sale for old books in Churchgate. When we returned to Mahabaleshwar in 2007, some seven years after I had bought LotR, I went to the same bookstore to pick up a copy of Children of Hurin, then a newly released addition to Tolkien’s legendarium.

Tolkien’s work is a Smaug-worthy treasure hoard of aphorisms, which remain deeply relevant to readers today.

It was early on during my Tolkien obsession that I knew I wanted to be a writer. Not just any writer, but a storyteller in the tradition of Tolkien himself. With all of its mythological connotations and surreal tropes, the fantasy genre is often derided as childish escapism, but in the words of Tolkien himself, “Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape? If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we’re partisans of liberty, then it’s our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!”

Back then, as a fresh-faced teenager who thought he could conquer the world with a Word Doc, it was easy to believe that following my calling as a writer would be as easy as eating second breakfast was for Merry and Pippin. That notion was as misguided as laughing at a live dragon. To quote Tolkien yet again, “the burned hand teaches best,” and experience has shown me that turning dreams into reality is just as hard as simply walking into Mordor.

Feeling lost or bereft of hope in your 20s is what is expected of us millennials, but that doesn’t make it easier to deal with. When you’re stuck in a soulless office job or scrounging a living from one low-paying freelance assignment to the next, all while feeling like your peers are racing past in you in achieving life milestones – appearing as panelists, giving TED Talks, getting married – you tend to spiral downward when reflecting on yourself. But as Gimli said at the Council of Elrond in Fellowship, “Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens.”

In an age of instant gratification, we forget that the seeds of creativity only blossom in the loam of patience.

Tolkien’s work is a Smaug-worthy treasure hoard of aphorisms like these, which, even decades after he first penned them down, remain deeply relevant to readers today. Not just his work, but also the way he lived, speaks to those who feel like they’ve lost their way. Though his legacy casts one of the longest shadows in literature, Tolkien’s greatness was not a flash in the pan, or propelled by a prodigal rise to the top. It was the product of a lifetime of dedication spent honing his craft. He was in his 40s when The Hobbit was first published in 1937, and only released LotR twelve years later, in 1949. He began writing much earlier, and continued to do so until his passing in 1972, and received most of his acclaim posthumously. His life was not like a perfectly curated Instagram timeline – he served as a soldier in the trenches of WWI and afterwards, held a stereotypically “boring day job” as a professor. One of the greatest lessons that can be gleaned from Tolkien and his writings is the lesson of patience.

In an age of instant gratification, we forget that the seeds of creativity only blossom in the loam of patience. Our lives might not be Insta-worthy all the time, and a quarter-life crisis can honestly feel like a bad time to be alive, but like Gandalf tells Frodo when they’re trapped in the mines of Moria, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

It’s okay to be adrift, that means you’re going with the flow. It’s okay to feel like you haven’t fulfilled your potential, because that means you know you’re capable of doing more. I would offer more words of encouragement, but as always, Tolkien said it far better than I ever could, a long time ago.

“Not all those who wander are lost.”