The Listening Heart and the Artist’s Pen

In a modern fantasy series (Chronicles of Ancient Darkness, by Michelle Paver), the young hero is called the listener. The author explains that this is because the boy Torak is an expert hunter. Even though we humans are very visual, the boy perceives more about the natural world by listening than he does by looking.

 I’ve quoted this before, but I think it’s pretty powerful—and true! So here it is again: “For when you come to think of it, the only way to love a person is…by listening to them…(Brenda Ueland, from the paperback edition of If you Want to Write, page 6).

 This past Friday, my sisters and got to see a wonderful example of what can happen when someone truly listens to another human being. It was at the Tolkien exhibit at the Morgan Library.

 Needless to say, the exhibit was fantastic. As one attendee said, it was hard to believe a single human being could be so talented in so many different ways. I loved the photos of the family, the doctoral gown from Oxford on display along with a photo of Tolkien wearing it, and the insights into his creative process. And then the artwork! My twin sister really loved Tolkien’s abstract paintings; I loved his maps and charts; but our younger sister loved best a tiny painting Tolkien made for his son.

Michael Tolkien's owl

 It was a little owl, almost perfectly circular, with rainbow plumage, fierce eyes, and jutting eyebrows. On the plaque next to it was its story. It seems Tolkien’s son Michael, as a little boy, had nightmares about an owl that perched in high places in his bedroom and glared down at him. Tolkien drew this owl for his son. By doing so, he helped him conquer his fear. Michael said his father was extraordinary in the way he listened, with total attention and respect, as if his little boy was another adult. He said J.R.R. Tolkien was the only adult he ever came across who listened in that way to a child. His words on the plaque next to the owl were: his father was ‘both father and friend, ‘a unique adult, the only ‘grown-up’ who appeared to take my childish comments and questions with complete seriousness.’

 So I think now my younger sister was right. There was so much that was special in this exhibit, but this tiny pen drawing, done to help a little boy, showed so much about the artist as a human being. It’s also quite a spectacular owl in itself!

 I gather Netflix or Amazon or someone is going to make a series based on Tolkien’s works. I would personally love a series about a little boy and his owl fighting shadows and fears. Is anyone listening?

(The owl above is a copy of the owl Tolkien drew for his son. I hope my posting it here will count as fair use.)