How my brother sent me on a Tolkien quest… from beyond the grave: Great-grandson of Lord of the Rings author was left an epic bucket list of 50 challenges by his late sibling

  • Royd Tolkien lost younger brother Mike, 39, to Motor Neurone Disease in 2015
  • After his death, Royd began receiving challenges to carry out in his memory
  • The 50 challenges were designed to reflect the brothers’ sense of adventure
  • Here, Tolkien’s great-grandson talks through journey ticking off the bucket list 

Standing on the end of a gangplank a couple of hundred metres above a canyon, I’m absolutely terrified.

It’s April 2017 and I’m about to experience The Flying Fox, the world’s highest cliff zip wire, located near Queenstown in New Zealand.

I have to run and hurl myself onto the mercy of the inadequate-looking thread that attaches me to the wire.

I’m wondering if it might be easier to slowly crawl and ungracefully dribble off at the last possible moment.

Then someone behind me hollers encouragement: ‘Shout Mike’s name as you jump!’

Mike was my younger brother. The reason I’m here is that in January 2015 Mike died of motor neurone disease, aged 39, leaving me a bucket list to complete on his behalf.

If I tell you that hurling myself into that canyon was by no means the hardest task, you get a hint of what made him tick.

‘Just run and scream Mike’s name,’ comes another shout.

I get it. The shaking fear in me steadies and I can feel Mike, the adrenaline junkie. If he could see me like this, I’d never hear the end of it.

Royd Tolkien (left) completed an epic bucket list of challenges left by his younger brother Mike (right) after he died from motor neurone disease. Pictured: brothers at Hobbiton, New Zealand

I feel his name in my throat. I’m going to do it. I have to do it. I can’t shout his name and then chicken out. I wish he was here.

I open my mouth, the ‘M’ of his name already forming, and I run.

‘MIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIKE,’ I scream at the top of my lungs. I’m not sure if the ‘K’ really comes out; I’m too busy flailing like a rag doll.

But as my descent becomes smoother, I slide across the canyon in the sunshine and I laugh. Euphoric.

Once again, my beloved brother has shown me the beauty of life, and the simple joy of throwing yourself into things. Quite literally.

This was just one of 50 items on Mike’s bucket list full of tasks meant to challenge me (bungee jumping, skydiving, stroking a tarantula), remind me of times spent with him (fishing, camping, snowboarding), or just make me look like a fool! That’s brothers for you.

Mike and I were always very close growing up and as adults lived just ten minutes apart in North Wales.

Happy, fun, full of drive, loyal, always on an adventure, Mike was someone I looked up to, even though he was five years younger than me.

By the time he became ill in November 2011, he was 35, working as a printer, and had an eight-year-old son called Edan. What started with a high fever and flu-like symptoms developed into cramps in his calf and weakness in his hands.

It wasn’t until April 2012 that the diagnosis finally came. The average life expectancy with MND is 18 months. I held my tough, handsome, caring, loyal little brother in my arms and sobbed uncontrollably.

Pictured: First challenge Royd was asked to do by Mike was simply to trip over at this funeral

That’s the only time we acknowledged the unavoidable fact. Mike was going to die. 

And it would be sooner rather than later. Everything was going to be stolen from him, as he would gradually be stolen from us.

The bucket list originated more as a plan of things we wanted to do together with the limited time we had left: camping in Norway for the last time; snowboarding in France; returning to New Zealand.

We never did make it back to New Zealand together, but that was where Mike set most of the bucket list. It was a place he knew I loved. He also asked me to make a film of the whole process to raise awareness of MND, which I did.

Over the last three years of his life, I became Mike’s carer, along with his girlfriend Laura. I was there during the day; Laura took over in the evening. We learned how to use all the equipment — breathing machines, hoists and so on.

In 2014 Mike deteriorated quickly, and on January 28, 2015, he passed away. The gaping hole he left was made larger by the fact that my role as a carer had also been taken away. I was bereft and didn’t know who I was any more.

Little did I realise Mike’s bucket list would start so soon — or that it would be so helpful in giving me focus in the darkest of times. Here, I open my diary to reveal the most memorable challenges . . .

February 2015

A few days prior to Mike’s funeral, Laura hands me a piece of paper. ‘Mike wanted you to have this,’ she tells me.

It’s the first task on the list. I’m only allowed to know each item moments before I have to do it. The first challenge will take place at his funeral.

When it’s my time to say a few words, I move towards the pulpit. A chair creaks. Someone sniffs. A muffled cough echoes around the packed room. It has to be now. This matters. It really matters.

I kick my foot forward, hard into the side of the step. Bang. And I’m falling. My momentum carries me forwards, and down. I crumple onto the remaining steps and my head bangs into the side of the pulpit. The crash thunders around the room.

I lie there, hidden from the congregation, feeling the silence somehow intensify. Nobody knows what to do.

Royd returned to a favourite retreat in the French Alps to scatter some of his brother’s ashes wearing nothing but a leopard print thong and a pink cowboy hat while snowboarding in 2017

I did it.

Once on my feet again, I fumble in my pocket and hold up a piece of paper that reads: ‘TRIP OVER’.

Mike’s instructions are: ‘1. The Funeral Trip. Please make a fool of yourself before you speak. Trip over and make it really dramatic. Make everyone laugh for me and lighten the moment.’

There’s a second of quiet while the penny drops, and then the room laughs with me. Thank you, Mike. Without this, I wouldn’t have been able to stand up here now and say what I want to say.

We’re here to remember your life, not your death.

January 2017

It took over a year-and-a-half to secure funding for Mike’s film, and for the second task I find myself in Avoriaz, in the French Alps, where I went with Mike in early 2012 and where I’ve returned to spread some of his ashes.

I am on a slope with my snowboard, wearing boots and a coat. And not much beneath it except a snug leopard-print thong.

Aside from that, perhaps in the spirit of dubious anonymity, I’m wearing sunglasses and a lovely shocking pink cowboy hat. This is Mike stitching me right up!

It’s cold, and there are people around. But I have to do it. For Mike. That’s all I need to remember; I’ll do anything for Mike.

I stand up and slide out of my coat. I set off, albeit slowly. Well, nobody said I had to do this at speed, did they? Don’t fall. Don’t fall. Everyone is looking at me.

And then, after the initial nerves, everything is suddenly OK. It doesn’t matter that I look ridiculous in this thong. I feel a grin stretch over my face. I feel oddly liberated.

One less challenging task set by Mike asked Royd to don the costume worn by Sir Ian McKellan in the Lord of the Rings films and welcome people onboard a flight to New Zealand as Gandalf

February 2, 2017

I am awaiting my flight to New Zealand, where the bucket list will begin in earnest, when a representative of Air New Zealand reads me a note from Mike.

‘Last time we went to New Zealand,’ she begins, and just those first words send a tsunami of emotion through me. ‘I was struggling with my walking, using a cane to help steady myself. Get into the spirit of the journey by dressing up as Gandalf. Embrace the character.’

I’m crying.

My mum, Joanna Tolkien, read us The Hobbit — written by my great-grandfather J.R.R. Tolkien — when I was about nine years old, without ceremony. It was only when I went to secondary school that I understood the importance of that book — to our family and the wider world.

One of the film’s producers presents me with a bag: ‘It’s Sir Ian McKellen’s actual costume from the films, so be careful with it.’

Wow! The costume fits great, but I’ve not got the special glue to stick the beard on, so I improvise with double-sided sticky tape. I stand awkwardly in the doorway to the plane greeting passengers in full Gandalf mode, with his whopping great staff in my hand.

‘You shall not pass!’ I boom.

They laugh.

‘Fly, you fools!’

This isn’t so bad.

Pictured: Royd hurling himself from the Nevis Highwire dressed in a pink tutu in New Zealand

February 20, 2017

Whenever a task is read out to me, I think: ‘Oh no!’ I never want to do it, but that’s immediately overridden by the fact that it’s Mike saying these things — I am hearing his voice again. Getting that connection back is my reward.

I never know when the producers are going to hit me with a new task. Sometimes there are three in a day, other times I’m granted a few days respite.

My tenth task is to jump from the Sky Tower in Auckland. It is the first of several jumps on the list.

Later, in Shotover Canyon, I will fall backwards sitting in a chair. I will also hurl myself from the Nevis Highwire dressed in a pink tutu. Each one becomes harder to do as I know what’s coming.

Now, wearing a multicoloured jumpsuit, I am clipped to the metal walkway that juts out from the tower. The woman at the top has doubtless seen every manifestation of fear up here.

I’m just another idiot that’s too scared to jump.

‘Come on, Royd!’ she says, after a failed attempt.

I really don’t want to.

‘Go!’

I go. I’m at the mercy of gravity, looking at the ground billions of feet below me.

And then, out of nowhere, the concrete rushes up towards my face and the brakes kick in. My seemingly fatal fall is rapidly slowed and I’m pulled upright just before I come to a standstill and land perfectly, if a little shakily, on the ground.

Tick. Finished. Awful.

Pictured: Although unable to draw, Royd was tasked with approaching people at Hobbiton, where the movie was filmed and now a popular tourist attraction, and offer to sketch them

March 14, 2017

Hobbiton — the set for The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings films — is now a tourist destination nestled in the rolling hills of the New Zealand countryside. I came here in 2012 with Mike and we got to take a proper look in Bilbo Baggins’s home and spend a day exploring this magical place. One of my happiest memories.

Five years later I’m back again. I’m handed an iPad and some headphones.

‘Royd,’ a voice fills my ears, oddly familiar. It’s John Rhys-Davies, Gimli the dwarf in The Lord of the Rings films.

‘Welcome to New Zealand. This is my little place in the Waikato. I have for you some instructions. These are your brother’s words.’

I feel a surge of emotion in my chest. Mike is about to talk to me. I can’t help but smile.

‘You are an artist. There should be an outfit waiting for you. Offer to paint Hobbiton visitors. I love this place, and our time here.’

I feel my eyes filling with bittersweet tears.

‘I am with you and I’m everywhere. I love you, bro.’

I crumble.

Then I remember the humiliating part — I can’t draw. It’s awkward as hell but I force myself to approach people and end up drawing three spectacularly bad portraits.

March 22, 2017

Plenty of the tasks are cringe-inducing. One involved me dressing as a hippy and spreading some love; another playing music on a busy street and enticing people to dance with me.

But this, the 17th, is the most agonising yet. Mike wrote: ‘You think you’re funny. Find an open-mic comedy night and see how many laughs you get.’ I am given just an hour’s notice.

It’s an open-mic night in a bar, with several other comedians and a large audience. I struggle through my seemingly endless five minutes, making terrible jokes. It’s excruciating. Thanks for that, Mike!

April 18, 2017

Mike and I loved fishing. While my technique was devoid of skill and I rarely caught anything, Mike was far more dedicated — and successful.

My 42nd task is to catch a fish in Fiordland, New Zealand, wearing Mike’s favourite green Tilley hat for good luck. ‘See if it brings you luck to catch a fish for once.’ I hold it to my face, crying. It still smells of him.

I can picture him in Norway, where we used to fish together, sitting on a rock away from the shore. I feel he’s as close as I’ve ever felt him.

I cast once.

Twice.

A third time. And I get a bite. It worked! I can barely believe it. I reel it in carefully, imagining Mike proudly beaming down at me.

I did it, Mike.

One of Mike’s lifelong dreams was to visit Machu Picchu and, although he never got to go, Royd was able to visit the site and scatter his ashes there in a final challenge on the bucket list

Autumn 2017

More than anywhere in the world, Mike wanted to see Machu Picchu. He never got to go. But he’s here with me now, a portion of his ashes kept safe and dry in their small wooden casket hanging around my neck. The last task is to scatter his ashes here.

Mike would have been thrilled I have made this long journey up into the Andes. I can feel the rising emotion of what I’m about to do. This is the end.

But I can’t do it. I don’t want this to come to an end and I don’t feel right being here on my own. Edan should be here. Dad and Laura too. And our sister, Mandy. My son Story should be here and so should Mike’s best mate, Ali.

I break down. I’m here for you, Mike. I made it. I’m in Machu Picchu. You’re in Machu Picchu.

I’m happy to sit on top of this cliff, on the side of this mountain, revelling in the glory of nature.

Just me.

And Mike. My brother.

It’s only right that he should have the last word. ‘Love you and thank you, bro. I hope you’ve had the time of your life. My life wouldn’t have been the same without you. Live to the max. I live through you. I’m still with you in spirit, always. xxxxx’

There’s A Hole In My Bucket: A Journey Of Two Brothers, by Royd Tolkien (Little A, £8.99), will be released on August 1 on Amazon.

The film, There’s A Hole In My Bucket, will be released shortly after.

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