Royd Tolkien, great-grandson of JRR Tolkien, has spoken exclusively to HELLO! about paying tribute to his late brother by completing his bucket list
It was his late brother's dying wish to have his ashes scattered at Machu Picchu. But as he stood at the ancient Inca citadel, surrounded by mist in the Andean peaks of Peru, Royd Tolkien couldn't bring himself to do it. Opening a box containing a photo of his younger sibling Mike and his bead bracelet, he began to cry.
"I knew what he would have said if he’d been there, which was, 'Just do it, you pussy,'" smiles Royd. "But I just couldn't let him go."
This was the last task left on a bucket list of 50 that Mike, who died aged 39 of motor neurone disease (MND) in 2015, had compiled for his brother to carry out. An adrenaline-addicted thrill-seeker who squeezed every minute out of life, Mike had drawn up a list of challenges he knew would take Royd, who likes a sedate life, out of his comfort zone – from bungee jumping to performing stand-up comedy and wearing a tutu. Royd's life would never be the same again.
"Mike gave me an incredible gift that changed my perspective on everything," he says.
The great-grandsons of JRR Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Royd and Mike had been close since childhood, growing up in North Wales, where Royd still lives. In his 30s, Mike suffered muscle cramps and foot drop for a year before he was diagnosed in 2012 with MND, a terminal illness that eventually makes it impossible to move, swallow, speak or breathe.
As his condition worsened, Royd and Mike's partner Laura cared for him around the clock with other family members, feeding him and trying to anticipate his every need.
While Mike could still walk, the brothers visited New Zealand – a mecca for adventurers and where the film adaptations of their great-grandfather's books were made – and Mike was desperate to return.
"The idea was that we’d both go back, he’d do his bucket list and anything he couldn't do he would make me do. How could I say no?"
By the time they got round to organising the trip, Mike was too ill to travel and Royd didn't want to leave him. They agreed that Royd would live out Mike’s dreams (and dares) for him. It was Mike's idea to make a film about his experience to raise awareness of MND and to show how a positive can be made out of such a negative.
"I said, 'You can't make it impossible – or terrible.' But he looked at me as if to say, 'You'll do whatever is on it.' And he knew I would."
Mike made Laura custodian of the list, the contents of which would only be revealed to Royd one by one, just before each task.
The first was on the day of Mike's funeral, the day before what would have been his 40th birthday in February 2015.
“The place was packed and everyone was incredibly emotional,” remembers Royd. "As I walked up to the pulpit to give the first speech, I tripped over. There was an intake of breath and no one could look me in the eye. Then I held up a piece of paper, on which was written ‘Trip over’. That was number one on the list – to fall at the most awkward moment of the service, not to make me look like a fool but to break the ice.”
In February this year, after joining some producer friends to raise money for a small film crew, he flew to New Zealand to complete the remaining tasks. Following strict instructions from Mike, he had to begin the journey dressed as Gandalf.
"How embarrassing is that? A Tolkien family member dressed as Gandalf – on Air New Zealand?" he laughs. Peter Jackson, director of The Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films, whom Royd had met several times, sent Sir Ian McKellen's costume for him to wear – "The full beard, the hat, the works," says Royd. "I kept it on for half the flight but the beard fell off and people were a bit miffed with the massive hat and the staff. Some walked past and said, 'Ahh, Dumbledore.' I was like, 'Come on!'"
It took three and a half months for Royd, a film producer, to get through all the challenges in a journey that was highly emotional, funny and often embarrassing, including going on stage at a comedy club in Wellington to perform a five-minute routine.
"I was only told 20 minutes before I had to go on. My instant reaction was, 'This is going to be utterly s**t.' I can’t tell jokes."
After two minutes and little laughter, he said, "Anyway, that’s me done." But the MC made him stay to the bitter end. Out of desperation he blabbed about the Tinder date he was going on that night, which won the audience over and raised a few laughs.
The most terrifying were the jumps, which included flinging himself off the Auckland tower and bridge, swinging over a canyon and wearing a tutu for the Nevis Highwire – "A nice touch from Mike," he says ruefully.
Sitting in a chair and tipping backwards off a 197-foot-high cliff to swing across a canyon was by far the most frightening. "It was horrible," he shudders. "I came back up, full of adrenaline. They said, 'Does anyone else want to have a go?' No one said yes so I said, 'I'll go again!' as that's what Mike would have said. As I stood on the edge I thought, 'I'm an idiot. I've done this once – I don't need to do it again.' But I did.'"
There were highlights – getting a tattoo done on his wrist of the same design that Mike had tattooed on his back; kayaking in Cathedral Cove on the North Island; carving a greenstone – and surprises. He didn't expect that having his hair cut, which he'd worn long for 20 years, would upset him so much. "Mike always said to me, 'Cut your hair, you look stupid.' I have no idea why I didn’t think that would be on the list."
On the last leg of his journey, at Machu Picchu holding Mike's ashes, he realised he didn't want it to end. "It took me a step further away from Mike completing the list and I wasn't emotionally ready for it," he says.
He will return next year with family and friends to share the experience and conclude it together. Meanwhile, he's working on the film’s final cut, which he hopes will be on TV. He has never traded on the name of his famous relative but Mike told him that if there was a reason to do it, this was it.
"We haven’t had a privileged life," he says. "It's an honour to be related to someone who's loved by so many and we don't take that for granted." But he's hoping the name will help raise awareness of the illness which cut his brother's life so short.
"I'd also like the film to inspire people to face their fears and not wait until something dreadful happens before realising how important family and friends are; to grab life by the balls, as it can change in an instant. Mike taught us those and other valuable lessons with what he went through. Now he has given me the gift to continue living as he would have liked to have lived."