What I Learned from Tolkien

The darkness comes and all seems bleak and wrong,
My calm is rent, right burdens can’t be borne
And Evil holds an iron grip so strong
It seems it must prevail. With all hope torn,
The path ahead seems lost in storm and murk.
But then I think of Tolkien and his work.

Specifically, his hobbits come to mind.
I treasure Frodo, who destroys the Ring.
But when defeatist thoughts occur I find
It’s Sam whose decency and courage bring
Me solace. More than solace! Inspiration
And healing from these times of degradation.

It’s Sam who is consistent, calm and ready
To offer words of comfort. Even through
Exhaustion and despair his sword is steady
And valor in his heart stays strong and true.
Sam speaks of stories—heroes, battles braved,
Of dragons fought, dark quests, a Shire saved.

These tales are sometimes full of so much dread
That we may never want to face the end.
What use are they when our own road ahead
Is no less harsh, when death rounds every bend?
Just this: these timeless stories help us grow
And charge our weary hearts in times of woe!

Strength grows when we tell of courageous men—
The best of who we are and yet could be.
Such stories keep us going even when
The world feels lost and hope is hard to see.
The heroes Tolkien writes are plain and bold
And won’t give up or in. These heroes hold

To something—something meaningful and true,
Though overwhelmed by loss of strength and grief.
What Tolkien shares through Sam brings hope anew
And we need never question this belief:
When all seems lost, there’s yet some Good in store
For this sad world. And it’s worth fighting for.



Reading Fiction

upon reading Chesterton’s The Evangelization of the Imagination

I’ve danced at Gatsby’s, sword-fought with an orc;
I’ve cherished Aslan, hunted for John Galt.
I’ve fled the headless horseman in New York
While rooting for Valjean despite his fault.
I’ve grokked, I’ve worked my gray cells like Poirot
And scowled with Heathcliff through the Yorkshire moors.
I’ve watched the March girls romp through Concord snow
While cast away with Crusoe on strange shores.

The works of hundreds grace my repertoire:
Like blooms, I’ve learned to angle to the sun;
I’ve found that sacrifice may be a far,
Far better thing than I have ever done;
I know what grabs the conscience of the king
And that life’s stages yield more than one role.
I’ve learned no good can come from Sauron’s ring;
And this: to be the captain of my soul.

We’re built for stories told and phrases rhymed.
I’ve lived a hundred lives and in the end
The seas that I have crossed, the mountains climbed
Have made me kinder and a better friend,
A man who tries, who grows more wise and whole.
So much of who I am is what I’ve read.
O, let me be an educated soul
And follow close where poets dare to tread!



Brian Yapko is a lawyer who also writes poetry. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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32 Responses

  1. Julian D, Woodruff

    Well written, indeed. And thank you for honoring Chesterton.
    I’m afraid I’ve missed one or more allusions (“life’s stages yield more than one role”?; “a kinder and a better friend”?)–you’ll see why below–but still very enjoyable.

    She reads more than I do
    retains more than I;
    She’s more into crosswords
    and games of that kind;
    She’s just much more verbal
    by far; that is why
    when I spot a strange word—
    such as “grokked”—I soon find
    that she’s seen it before,
    knows its meaning, its source.*
    (She’s the better half in this
    arrangement, of course.)

    *Heinlein (she thinks). “Am I right, sir?”

    • Brian Yapko

      Thank you very much, Julian! I love your poetic comment. My allusions were probably not as close to the original as I could get them, but such is the nature of writing poetry! “the multiple “roles” that are yielded in “life’s stages” is my phrasing of “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players… And one man in his time plays many parts… ” from As You Like It. “The conscience of the king…” refers directly to Hamlet’s plot to use the team of players to elicit a guilty reaction from Claudius. A “kinder and better friend” is original phrasing by a poet named Yapko something or other. And “to grok” comes directly from Robert Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land.” Your wife wins!

  2. Norma Pain

    I really enjoyed both of these poems Brian. They contain important messages for us all:
    “When all seems lost, there’s yet some Good in store
    For this sad world. And it’s worth fighting for.”

    • Brian Yapko

      Thank you so much, Norma! The Tolkien poem especially is particularly personal in the discouragement I feel during these sad times. But we must keep on fighting! I’m so glad you appreciate the message.

  3. Talbot Hook

    This might be a long comment, for which I apologize, and none of it is to say I don’t appreciate your Tolkien poem (of which I am fond).

    I think you’re absolutely correct to hone in on Sam as a source of solace and steadfastness; Tolkien wrote to his son: “Certainly Sam is the most closely drawn character, the successor to Bilbo of the first book, the genuine hobbit.” I perhaps disagree, however slightly, that Tolkien wrote heroes “plain and bold.” At least, they are not purely so. Tolkien was especially moved by “the ennoblement of the ignoble,” and so Sam and Frodo are both acknowledged to have some explicit moral failings (though Frodo’s “failure” to destroy the ring — which necessitated Gollum and Frodo’s pity towards him — is not of this kind).

    Tolkien wrote of Sam: “Sam was cocksure, and deep down a little conceited; but his conceit had been transformed by his devotion to Frodo. He did not think of himself as heroic or even brave, or in any way admirable – except in his service and loyalty to his master. That had an ingredient (probably inevitable) of pride and possessiveness: it is difficult to exclude it from the devotion of those who perform such service. In any case it prevented him from fully understanding the master that he loved, and from following him in his gradual education to the nobility of service to the unlovable and of perception of damaged good in the corrupt. He plainly did not fully understand Frodo’s motives or his distress in the incident of the Forbidden Pool. If he had understood better what was going on between Frodo and Gollum, things might have turned out differently in the end. For me perhaps the most tragic moment in the Tale comes in book II when Sam fails to note the complete change in Gollum’s tone and aspect. ‘Nothing, nothing’ said Gollum softly. ‘Nice master!’. His repentance is blighted and all Frodo’s pity is (in a sense) wasted. Shelob’s lair became inevitable.”

    I do love Sam as a character, and he is mostly an agent of good, but the story for me is powerful precisely because good is finally achieved by flawed beings who work to ennoble one another. Sorry for the mind-droppings and letter-quoting. Thanks for your poem — one day after International Hobbit Day, no less!

    • Brian Yapko

      Dear Talbot, I’m very grateful for your comment — especially your taking the time to address the characters of Frodo and Sam. You are quite right in that I oversimplified their characters for the sake of the poem. Both of them have character flaws and make decisions that are not exactly praise-worthy. Frodo, of course, is most notable in his weakness at the very end of “Return of the King”, but is also dangerously naive in his trust of Gollum in both “The Two Towers’ and “Return.” If Frodo and Sam were simplistic characters who did everything right and had perfect judgment they would be very boring and unrelatable. That being said, Sam and Frodo — for all their flaws — are beloved characters for a reason. They are essentially good, they are humble, they are persistent and they achieve so much despite being such improbable heroes. You say “the story is powerful precisely because good is finally achieved by flawed beings who work to ennoble one another.” I could not agree more and I think your articulation of the Tolkien theme is superb. My invoking Sam and Frodo in this poem was my way of expressing the hope that, though we are flawed beings, we may nonetheless accomplish important, good things. That is, in the end, what I think Tolkien was hoping people would take away from his books.

      And I had no idea yesterday was International Hobbit Day! Cheers!

  4. Paul Freeman

    ‘…where poets dare to tread!’ I like it.

    Two very engaging and thought-provoking poems, Brian. Funnily enough, re ‘Reading Fiction’, I’m currently reading ‘Little Women’ at the recommended of my daughter.

    Thanks for the reads.

    • Brian Yapko

      Thank you very much, Paul! I’m delighted to hear that you’re reading some Louisa May Alcott! I don’t think anyone will list her among the greatest authors of all time, but her books are readable and charming.

      • Paul Freeman

        ‘Little Women is like a 19th century soap opera. Alcott was excellent at making characters three-dimensional and relatable. I’m really enjoying it.

    • Brian Yapko

      I agree, Paul. There’s a reason why her books (especially Little Women) have survived and are repeatedly made into movies. If you do like the book after you’ve finished it, I recommend watching the 1933 film starring Katharine Hepburn as Jo.

  5. Margaret Coats

    Brian, both of these are authentically inspirational, the Tolkien as encouragement in times of desperation, and the Chesterton for an entire way of life that can be adopted early or late. I find the second more powerful because your lines depend less on literary allusion. It is a splendid poem for anyone willing to read lightly over references he doesn’t comprehend–and after the first stanza, only “Sauron” reminds him that there might be more under the surface.
    Considering the vast repertoire available to readers in our time, and the lack of any canon agreed upon, a catalogue like that in your first stanza risks losing even a literate audience. Still, the topic makes a brief review of a few books a practical necessity. You are wise to make the poem as accessible as possible by including touches recognizable from films and television. The strength of the piece comes from its move into an expression of wisdom–and from stepping beyond to the fine finish where “educated soul” echoes “captain of my soul.” Great instance of reinforcement by quoting yourself!

    • Brian Yapko

      Thank you very much, Margaret! I am especially interested in your observation that my catalogue of literary references may be lost to many readers. I certainly don’t want my work to lapse into obscurity and yet I want the poem to speak to myself as well as to others. I admit it’s a bit of a stretch to go from Shakespeare and Hugo to Agatha Christie and Robert Heinlein. I’m hopeful that if readers haven’t encountered some of these writers that they will check them out. I’m also glad you noticed the double “soul” references. It’s a subject that is of paramount importance to me.

    • Margaret Coats

      Brian, literature is a stretch! You reminded me of taking the GRE in Literature, which was required to go to graduate school in English, even though the Literature exam went well outside works originally written in English. I had not imagined my score would depend heavily on undergraduate courses in French and Italian literature, or on a modern course from my college Drama department, and even on my memory of Russian novels in translation, read during high school. And students aiming for graduate school in Spanish or German had to take the very same test! If it still exists, the Literature GRE must be an easier exam now that literary works are rarely read in college. You simply listen to professors apply “theory” (Marxist, feminist, environmentalist, etc.) to everything. The principles are not hard to learn, but they are inimical to discovering the soul of a text, or to developing the soul of the reader.

      Your exposition of what literature can do may therefore come as a happy surprise to students who don’t read. That’s an additional reason for your poem to be something more than a guessing game with literary clues. And you do well to offer personal recommendations readers may look into.

      • Brian Yapko

        Margaret, the thought that ideology is the driving force behind the teaching of literature now actually sickens me. Ideology — especially anti-Western ideology — is what’s driving the cancellation of a host of important works of literature from Mark Twain to Harper Lee, Margaret Mitchell, and on and on. And it doesn’t just end with literature. I understand there are Music Departments that are cancelling composers like Beethoven and Bach because they are European white men. I’ve even heard of this extending to Mathematics Departments. This ideology-driven basis for reviewing Western Art and Culture is a viciously dangerous dead-end.

    • Margaret Coats

      Brian, this practice of reading according to “theory” (which of course has nothing to do with real literary theory) is more insidious than cancellation. As I understand it, “cancelling” means putting a “Do Not Read” sign on a book or author by banishing the offender from the curriculum or library, or shaming anyone who speaks up for him or it. “Theory” leaves the book open, but cancels the critical faculty of the reader’s mind, by teaching that reader to consider primarily “subtexts” of various sorts. Read the book, but look for the evil hidden meanings. And you are right that this occurs outside the literary realm. It is common in art history to think first of who paid for the work of art, and what benefits the patron or the artist received for the investment of money or work. Even “connoisseurship” does not speak of the effect of art on the soul, but describes brushwork or finishing techniques. Whatever is ultimately meaningful does not merit discussion!

  6. Joshua C. Frank

    Great poems, Brian! I saw the Lord of the Rings movies many times with my parents, and I know all the books to which you refer; both brought back delightful memories. Both express so well the joys of reading fine literature. My spiritual director got me into the classics, saying, “In order to be supernatural, we must be very human.” It’s so true that “We’re built for stories told and phrases rhymed!”

    Thanks for these. They really were a delight.

    • Brian Yapko

      Thank you so much, Josh. I’m so pleased that my poems brought you some joy! I, too, love the Lord of the Rings movies and I think your spiritual director’s advice is brilliant. What a great premise for a poem. I hope you write it!

  7. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Brian, I was a huge fan of Tolkien as a child. I read The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings at ten and have since seen the films. I believe these books are multi-layered masterpieces that tap into many facets of human nature and the sheer wonder of the capabilities we have if we conquer our fears and acknowledge and overcome our flaws. For me, this says so much: “these timeless stories help us grow/And charge our weary hearts in times of woe!” ‘What I Learned from Tolkien’ makes me want to pick his books up and appreciate them from a mature perspective. I am certain this admirably written and engaging poem will encourage others to do just the same for a bit of escapism with perspective in a world that has lost its way.

    My favorite is ‘Reading Fiction’ simply because I was born a bookworm and all of your allusions to literary works conjure magical memories for me. A line that stands out for me is: “So much of who I am is what I’ve read” – I believe this wholeheartedly. I was never without a book in my hand and have read many, many classics, classics I draw on when writing poetry. Brian, I made a pact with myself a few years back… not to indulge in fiction but to start reading factual books… your poems have cured me of the dark desire to indulge in facts when the world’s bookshelves are heaving with mythical magic… where I believe most of the truth lies anyway. These two poems are a guiding light for those disillusioned with the mayhem and murk of today’s world. Great stuff!

    • Brian Yapko

      Susan, I’m overjoyed that you liked these poems! I hoped that you would find them inspiring and am pleased that this is the case. I hope you do pick up Tolkien’s books again — and those of his close friend, C.S. Lewis — and see as an adult how much both of these fine authors “evangelized the imagination” and gave encouragement for doing the right thing. If they were both alive today I believe they would be writing furiously and issuing rallying cries for moral clarity, albeit using enjoyable fiction to make their points.

      I’m also very pleased that you liked “Reading Fiction.” I understand your pact to read only factual books, but what a loss! There are so many wonderful stories that have been written which are not just escapist but which make points and help to bring clarity to one’s thinking. Yes, it can result in some great silliness — yes, there are Force worshippers who invest mental energy learning Klingon. But I think overall people are better for stories they have read and the characters in which they have become invested. Your favorite line is my favorite line: “So much of who I am is what I’ve read.”

  8. David Watt

    I thoroughly enjoyed both poems Brian. As a fan of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, I found that your lines provide ample reasons to revisit these tales.
    Your second poem is a fine tribute to timeless fiction, and the joy of reading.

  9. Jeff Eardley

    Brian, I have just finished re-watching the Lord of the Rings trilogy after giving up on the abysmal “Power of the Rings” so your Tolkien piece really struck a chord. Mr Gamjee is the most loyal and brave character in the saga. A great poem. I got most of the references in the superb “Reading Fiction” particularly the one buried from “A tale of two Cities.” Reading makes better citizens of us all as you describe so well. I have recently given up on Salman Rushdie but am currently entranced by E.F. Benson’s “Mapp and Lucia” stories which are highly recommended. Thank you once again for two great reads.

    • Brian Yapko

      Thank you very much indeed, Jeff! I’m glad and grateful that you liked both poems but am especially pleased that you share my views regarding Samwise. I have always found myself surprisingly moved by his simple decency. I will definitely look into your Benson recommendation concerning Mapp and Lucia! If I can make a recommendation, I’m currently similarly entranced by Alexander McCall Smith’s “Number One Ladies Detective Agency” series.

      • Jeff Eardley

        Thanks for the heads up Brian. I’ll put that on my reading list. In the meantime, “Au Reservoir” as they say in Tilling, (Sorry, this Benson stuff is getting to me!)

  10. Roy E. Peterson

    Brian, you wonderfully condensed what you learned from Tolkien into a pithy meaningful poem, and you nailed the key lessons that I also felt. Like others, I have read the books and watched the movies many times. You took my mind back to those times of magic and mischief. Your “Reading Fiction” similarly took me back to some familiar classics but reminded me there is so much I still need to read. Poirot has always been one of my favorites. I loved the phrase, “So much of who I am is what I’ve read.” There is a great warning in this phrase besides the comfort of what you have read, and that is to be careful what we read, because that is what we will become!

    • Brian Yapko

      Thank you so much for this great comment, Roy! I’m glad you liked both poems — especially Tolkien — and I’m very intrigued by the warning you’ve found implicit in the “I am what I’ve read” phrase. I don’t want to run too far with that warning because I’ve read a lot of material that I’ve detested and I hate to think that it’s become part of me. On the other hand, perhaps part of finding oneself is in gauging one’s reaction to material that one dislikes and not just the material one likes. In other words, what one rejects helps define a person just as much as what one accepts. Thank you for giving something to ponder!

  11. James Sale

    Wonderful poetry, Brian, very inspiring. I wouldn’t worry too much about what Tolkien wrote in his notes about Frodo and Sam – that isn’t a basis for any kind of judgement on them: it’s the rational mind rationalising, whereas what he actually wrote in the book is his soul speaking, which is much truer. I take the perverse view that LoTR is the greatest novel of the C20th precisely because of the inspiration for good that it has inspired in you, me and so many others. But when I say, ‘perverse’, I mean perverse from the academic, woke, anti-literary departments’ POV. Some years ago in the UK a poll was conducted throughout the all shops in the national Waterstones book chain as to which was the greatest English language novel of the C20th? Every shop, bar one, found in their poll for LoTR. The single exception was ironic: Ulysses by James Joyce – the irony being of course that that is possibly the worst novel of the C20th (but much beloved by academics who simply can’t get enough of literary onanism!)

    • Brian Yapko

      Thank you very much indeed, James, for this insightful comment. I am inclined to agree with you about LOTR as the best novel of the 20th Century because of the way it not only makes one think but actually lodges in the soul. Not many authors can accomplish something that deep and, although it’s a complex story with complex characters and much literary flare (including elaborate world-building and the creation of an entire fictional language!) it is LOTR’s moral force that ultimately sticks with one and makes it utterly timeless. It is a deeply moral work which captures the heart as well as the imagination. I’ve never read Ulysses and was never inclined to read any more James Joyce after being forced to read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and finding it to be something of a slog. I had to look up what “onanism” meant. Haha! Thank you for the insight and the chuckle, James!

  12. Cynthia Erlandson

    Sorry I’ve come to this party late, Brian; but these are great poems. Your ability to weave together so many literary allusions is a major talent. (reminds me of a contest you once won…. 🙂 And I’ll bet you would win if there were a contest for the most literary lawyer!

    • Brian Yapko

      Thank you very much, Cynthia! I’m pleased you liked them and am especially grateful for your mention of literary allusions which I find I enjoy embedding into some of my work. “Most literary lawyer” would be a great honor but there’s some stiff competition from many other literary lawyers — some of them on this very site! But thank you for this gracious comment which has made my day!


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