Question: What do these baby raccoons have in common with author J. R. R. Tolkien?
And, for Tolkien, that curiosity sometimes led to disappointment...at first. Along the way, though, unexpected new roads and secret gates gave Tolkien his own fascinating path to travel.
"Do You Hear That?"
On a sunny afternoon, I saw three baby raccoons playing in a small meadow below my deck. I quickly grabbed my video camera and a few seconds later, a timer went off.
Their mom wasn't too impressed, but the raccoon kits were fascinated, trying to figure out that beep-beep-beeping noise.
I love how the first raccoon keeps pushing her sibling with her paw: "Do you hear that? What is it?"
In what was called the Aesop's Fable Intelligence Test, raccoons gave the researchers a surprise. When presented with a problem, raccoons showed how they could come up with their own solutions in individual ways, not just the way they were shown.
In fact, researchers back in the early 1900s eyed raccoons as ideal, intelligent subjects for behavioral lab experiments. The raccoons scoffed at that idea.
Researchers, in their gray laboratories and white coats, soon gave up on using raccoons extensively. They were just too smart and strong-willed, escaping from their cages and turning the experiments upside-down with their own solutions. Way to go, raccoons!
Raccoons proved how highly innovative they are, with memories that can hold the solutions they've devised for years.
So, these beautifully wild baby raccoons in my video are exploring the world and figuring things out for themselves (and look pretty adorable while they're doing it).
The book explores the way Tolkien approached his life and writing with curiosity that would make a raccoon proud. He forged his own path.
As a young person in his teens, with a brilliant mind, it was obvious that university should be in Tolkien’s future. The devastating loss of his mother made him an orphan at age twelve. For his future, he had little hope of attending university unless he won a good scholarship.
As the time approached, those around him advised that he should keep walking the main road—a well-defined study regimen to earn the scholarship.
Instead, his curiosity took him down side roads to learn about the things that fascinated him.
J. R. R. Tolkien
In his book, Devin Brown writes: “…time that should have been devoted to studying for the exam was often spent studying something else—including a great deal of time on languages such as Old English, Finnish, and Gothic that he would not be tested over.” [pg. 29]
Lost and Found
Tolkien wound up losing the scholarship—his scores were too low. His curiosity simply had distracted him from the exam subjects. He did receive “a lesser award” which helped him to attend Exeter College, one of the colleges of Oxford University. It was at Oxford that he'd later become a professor of Anglo-Saxon languages.
Yet, the byroads he traveled, sometimes when he "should" have been doing something else, helped him write his masterpieces.
His love of languages and the sheer joy of words and their nuances infused his books with deep meaning, poetry, and adventure. His books, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings often appear on the greatest book lists of the Twentieth Century (Brown, Prologue, VI-VII).
In fact, after a poll of over 25,000 people conducted by Waterstones, the number one Book of the Century was named: The Lord of the Rings.
Tolkien had lost a scholarship but gained a world beyond the “secret gate”—a new place of stories—containing the spirit of the languages he loved, and studied with curiosity, on his own initiative.
Another man who took his own creative paths (and appreciated animals as story-tellers), said this:
We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things, because we’re curious…and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.
Thinking about this, I know I have gone off on some lovely byroads as I write my books. It seems, at the time, that I'm not staying "on point" in my research.
But when curiosity leads me to learn about something new, I sometimes find that it fits right into the mystery I'm writing. I'll think of Tolkien and curiosity now when that happens!
Here's to finding those "unexpected gates" on the lovely byroads of curiosity.