One of J.R.R. Tolkien's literary projects that he never completed was an agreement he made with C.S. Lewis. Lewis wrote about space travel and Tolkien was supposed to write about time travel. Writing a book about him has led me to think of a possible time travel story.
Like Tolkien I'll probably never write it, but here is the basic premise:
Say you are, against your will for reasons you don't understand, thrown back in time and space to South Africa in 1896. Perhaps you are given some brief medical training and supplies. There you meet a man named Arthur, who -- you were told -- is likely to get rheumatic fever. You stay with him and manage to prevent this from happening.
But your time travel assignment is not over. Next, you are whirled forward a few years in time and a few thousand miles in space to an English home. Arthur is there and tells you he decided to return to make his fortune in England since his wife so prefers it. Their two boys also love the English countryside (perhaps the older one does so especially in contrast to early, vague memories of the South African wilderness). They are a faithful Anglican family, attending a rather middle-church parish.
You recognize your next and final assignment in the wife, Mabel. You explain what insulin can do for diabetes and leave her with the training, equipment, and supplies she needs to remain healthy for years (extracting a promise never to reveal her anachronistic technology).
And then you return home and find you cannot recognize the sci-fi section of your local bookstore. It is all spaceships and ray guns. There is no large swords-and-sorcery genre except perhaps some old reproductions of Conan and other pulp books.
And you can easily see what the problem is: The Lord of the Rings was never written.
Now there are jillions of things wrong with this scenario. We could assume the rules of the recent TV series LOST and say that time always tries to spring back into its original shape so that, once you prevent a death, another death comes about soon after. Perhaps then Arthur and Mabel still die early in the life of the boy who became the man we know as J.R.R. Tolkien.
Also, maybe some other great author would have invented fantasy.
On the other hand, I might be under-stating the impact. Perhaps C.S. Lewis would never have been converted because Tolkien never pursued Oxford so that they never met. Then there would be no apologetics and no children's fantasy either.
But getting back to the impact on fantasy literature: I doubt we would even have Star Wars, Dune, or Harry Potter or many other works without the influence of Tolkien. There would be no Ranger's Apprentice series not least because the term "Ranger" would be restricted to cowboys rather than medieval war scouts. Tolkien not only wrote in a genre, but he taught publishers about how much the public was hungering for it.
Would a Tolkien growing up happily with his parents have achieved so much?
As I discovered looking at studies on the background of other authors to compare to Tolkien, noteworthy and creative people are disproportionately likely to have suffered the loss of one or both parents in childhood. Compensation for loss seems to drive a significant number of them to make significant accomplishments. One finds this among writers or even British Prime Ministers. While he could have wandered in many ways (and almost did many times), Tolkien was following a rather well-trod path going from bereavement to fame as an author.
Reconsidering my time travel story idea: What if we replay the scenario except you recognize who Arthur is and realize that when you go back, if you save him, it will be a world with a much happier Tolkien and no great literary phenomenon that nourishes souls in the post-war era and inspired many others?
Do you save Tolkien's father?
Whatever your views about human history and the power or free will, Christian theists acknowledge that God influences nature. Every time we pray for healing for a loved one we acknowledge this fact. I'm sure Tolkien prayed with his mother for his daddy, that God would keep him safe. Just as he later prayed for his mother as she sickened.
God took care of Tolkien. He made him world famous and wealthy beyond anything Tolkien ever expected. But he also allowed Tolkien to suffer horrible loss.
The point of my time travel story is pretty simple: You don't want God's job.