Reprinted with permission from Angels On Earth.

I was at my desk wrestling with the problem of finding something original to say in an upcoming TV interview. I had written a book called Visions of Innocence about spiritual childhood experiences, and the producers of the show wanted me to talk about parenting and spirituality. But I couldn't think of anything fresh and stimulating. As I stared out at an uninspiring world of brown grass and bare trees, my 12-year old son, Jeremy, burst in asking, "Dad, what’s a hobbit?"

I looked at him and felt a smile of unexpected delight spread across my face. I hadn't thought about the little people called hobbits in many years.

"My English teacher gave us a list of books. We 're supposed to pick one to read over winter break. Ever hear of The Hobbit?"

I thought back to when I was a teenager in the late sixties and had first discovered J.R.R. Tolkien and his wondrous fantasy tales of a place called Middle-Earth, which ostensibly resembled Old England, but was populated by people and strange, talking creatures who had incredible adventures. The Hobbit, as well as Tolkien's celebrated trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, remained firmly impressed on my imagination, and I was delighted to know that my son was about to discover the same pleasures.

Jeremy looked at me expectantly. I pushed aside my notes and turned to him. "Hobbits," I explained, "are furry-footed beings who make their homes underground. They like to smoke pipes and are extraordinarily brave." He raised his eyebrows. "So, you've read it, huh? Great! Then may I come to for help if I get stuck, especially when I have to write the essay assignment?"

For a second I considered my looming deadlines. How would I find time to reread Tolkien? But Jeremy was counting on me, and lately I had spent an awful lot of time buried in my work. "All right," I said, giving his shoulder squeeze. "Sounds like fun."

Before he left he slid his teacher's detailed study guide on my desk. "Here, take a look at this." His teacher had provided a dauntingly comprehensive series of questions, including one that caught my eye: How did the author's life influence the book you have just read?

That question stayed with me over the next few weeks as I reread The Hobbit and familiarized myself with some biographical material. Tolkien was indeed a genius at inventing complex, magical worlds where exotic creatures battled for goodness over evil. But more compelling was his life—inspirational, instructive and, in one important way, surprising. Born in 1892, Englishmen J.R.R. (Ronald) Tolkien was the older of the two brothers who lost their father in childhood. Their mother, Mabel, strove hard to raise them according to the ideals of their Christian faith. Living near Birmingham, the Tolkiens were so poor they were forced to board with relatives and owned practically nothing. But his mother was rich in faith and love; however, before Tolkien was a teenager, she was gone as well.

With the help of a kindly and astute priest who recognized his unique gifts, Tolkien was given a place to live and enough money to finish school. Since childhood, his imagination had been ignited by Old Norse, Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, and German sagas and mythology.

Life gleamed with promise for Tolkien—until the horror of World War I in 1914. Soon after marrying Edith Bratt, he fought the nightmare of the Battle of the Somme, in France, where British infantrymen came storming out of their trenches directly into German machine-gun fire. At the end of the first day of battle, 20,000 Allied troops lay dead or dying on the field. Tolkien developed trench fever, a serious illness common to frontline soldiers trapped in filthy, lice-infested trenches, and he was shipped home to a hospital in Birmingham, where he eventually recovered. But the Great War left its scar. "By the time I was twenty-one," he was to write, "all but one of my friends were dead."

He and Edith devoted themselves to raising the kind of family they, both orphans, had never known. Four children—John, Michael, Christopher, and Priscilla—were born between 1917 and 1929 while Tolkien was a professor of medieval English at Oxford.

Most significantly, Tolkien was able to give his children the gifts of his prodigious imagination by inventing fantasy tales for their entertainment. When John had trouble falling asleep, Tolkien sat on the corner of his bed and conjured up tales about Carrots, a red-haired boy who climbed into a cuckoo clock and had fantastic escapades.

At other times, Tolkien created stories about a villain named Bill Stickers—the name was taken from a street sign that read Bill Stickers Will Be Prosecuted—who battled a comic do-gooder named Major Road Ahead.