What does J.R.R. Tolkien have in common with a nine-year-old boy who created an elaborate cardboard arcade in his father’s auto parts shop in East L.A.? Quite a lot as it happens. Caine Monroy spent his summer hanging-out at work with his dad. Caine loves arcades so, to pass the time, he created his own ingenious funland out of whatever he could find in the shop or at home. In the beginning, his prizes for successful players were the Matchbox cars he liked “when [he] was little.” Thanks to an internet campaign launched by his one and only customer at the time, Caine experienced his first big success when crowds of people “came to play!”
Both Tolkien and his eventual friend, C.S. Lewis, spent their childhoods indulging their imaginations in ways that would not draw crowds for decades but, oh!, the crowds they would draw. In his letters, Tolkien wrote that he began crafting new languages almost as soon as he could write. He never abandoned this pursuit, though in a 1916 letter to his future wife he called it “a mad hobby.” From these languages, eventually came the deep, almost fathomless, history of Middle-earth.
As for Lewis, he wrote in Surprised by Joy, his autobiographical account of his early life, that he and his brother Warnie spent warm days gathering twigs and moss and other odd bits to create terrariums, tiny worlds that represented the larger worlds that were taking shape in their imaginations. Warnie called his world “India,” though it was a continent of his mind very unlike the continent written about in the encyclopedia. Lewis’s world was initially called Animal-Land but, when he added its history to the history of Warnie’s “India,” it became “Boxen.” From the tales of Boxen eventually emerged the tales of Narnia. Who knows how many came to play in Middle-earth and Narnia and how many more will? Every day there are more and more new arrivals.
The moral of this story is that, the next time you see a child building something out of cardboard and packing tape, paperclips and bits of string, let the child go on and on. Whatever comes of it, cars or castles or dragons’ caves, don’t ever call it a “mad hobby.” The world needs more places where those who long to can come to play.