The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit are J. R. R. Tolkien’s most famous works. But he didn’t consider either of them his magnum opus–his most important work. Another collection of his writings took that place for him. But although he considered these other writings his true masterpiece, they were never published during his lifetime.
As a young man, he had the dream of creating a unique English mythology. He found himself writing poems, drawing maps, inventing languages, and coming up with stories about this mythic world he was creating. Tolkien finished the earliest drafts of these stories while on medical leave in the middle of World War I. And he continued working on them over the next half-century.
Later in life, with the success of The Hobbit, Tolkien had hopes that these stories would finally be published. But when he presented a draft of them to his publisher, they were rejected as being too obscure and “too Celtic.” Tolkien instead went on to write The Lord of the Rings. But he set it in the broader context of these other stories he had been working on. The history and names and languages that undergird the story of the Ring drew on this other work he had been laboring on throughout his life. He still held out hope that one day these earlier stories would be published. But he died before they were.
After his death, many of these stories were published by his son in a collection entitled The Silmarillion. What Tolkien considered his magnum opus, his masterpiece, failed to be the commercial success that his other works were. And yet he continued to work away on it anyway, although few people ever saw it before his death.
Now, you and I may not be a brilliant philologist, like Tolkien–I mean, how many of us create languages just for the fun of it?–or a famous writer or artist or entrepreneur. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have some important work we’re devoted to. It may not appear important to some; it may not be something many will ever see; it may be even rejected by others along the way. But that’s okay. That doesn’t have to be the point.
Your masterpiece might be something you create. It might be something you build or write. But it could also be of a more mundane nature. Your magnum opus, your most important work, might be raising your children or caring for a suffering family member or serving those in your neighborhood. It’s work, and it’s worthwhile. But it also won’t make headlines.
But if you don’t care what other people say, or if they even know, you’re free to focus on your most important work with fewer distractions. You’re giving your time and energy to it because it’s important to you, not to gain the approval of others. The work you devote yourself to doesn’t need to be big or conspicuous to be significant. Others may learn about it one day, or they may not. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s still your masterpiece, your magnum opus.
Questions: What do you see as your most significant work? If you knew that it would never receive much recognition, would you choose to continue to toil away at it anyway?