This is our 111th post – Relatively Entertaining turns eleventy-one posts old today! In honor of this special occasion, we’d like to chat about one of our Family Favorite authors: the gateway drug for fantasy literature, scholar J. R. R. Tolkien.
E: I was the first person in our family to read him, and I’m honestly not sure if the recommendation came from a friend or one of our town’s children’s librarians. We’re all pretty gratfeul to whomever that was, though. What I do remember is this – though he wasn’t the first epic fantasy writer I encountered (that’d be Lloyd Alexander with The Prydain Chronicles) he will always be the best. His language is precise and beautiful, and there’s humor as well as darkness. There are glorious heroes and heroines, villains both weaselly and terrifying, unimaginable odds, and great victories. But perhaps Tolkien’s genius lies in his ability to evoke both the larger sweep of events and the torments of an individual soul. The small and particular is never trampled over by the grandiose. Humility is not insignificance. Tolkien’s characters and readers always know what they’re fighting for: the pastoral vision of the Shire. And everyone can play their part; each one can make a difference. That gives great hope and inspiration, even if (later on – I read these in junior high) it can make you a bit dissatisfied with your 9 to 5.
I passed the virus on to M (“Why doesn’t your brother read? Give him something to read!”) and he took it to new depths.
M: I’m not sure I’d say new depths, but certainly to different depths. Much like E, my first foray into fantasy literature, and really into literature of any kind, were the Prydain Chronicles, and it was my love for those stories that led me to be accepting of E’s suggestion of reading Tolkien. As the reference to my mother’s words suggests, I wasn’t much of a reader (being the more math/computer/sports focused sibling, while each of my sisters were English majors). But I have always found that when I connect with an author I will read their works voraciously. Alexander was first, reading the Prydain and Westmark series, followed by Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, and long after discovering Tolkien I delved into pop authors like Grisham and Crichton. But Tolkien is the one that I connected with the most.
I tore through The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings the first time, though I was so emotionally drained by The Return of the King that I couldn’t pull myself to read the scouring of the shire (E: I HATE the scouring of the Shire) until the next time through. (C: I’ll confess, I’ve only ever skimmed it.) I have read and re-read them, dissected them, studied the indices, read The Silmarillion, his Bible-like history of Middle Earth, and even took a class in college on Tolkien’s sources (in which I excitedly found that some of his influence came from the same Welsh mythology that Alexander drew from for Prydain). As I mentioned in a prior post, when they announced the movies were being made, I obsessed (there is no better word) and found every bit of information I could about the production from the time it was just a couple sketch drawings and a loose agreement with New Line Cinemas, to their release and on after.
C: I remember that time vividly, from the excitement of seeing Ian McKellen’s face with a Gandalfian nose and hat drawn onto it, to the announcement of each cast member and endless discussion with roommates, friends, and of course siblings on whether they fit our mental images of the characters. Yes, we were big dorks, but this was our book! That we cared so much about! It mattered that they get it right!
E: I was such a trembling blend of fear and hope about those movies! Peter Jackson was so untested! And in the end, they were such a masterly portrait of Tolkien’s intent. (Well, except for Faramir, who was – painfully – not the unqualified hero of the books.) I mean, we loved the Rankin Bass cartoon (“Where there’s a whip, there’s a way!”) but Jackson did Tolkien justice.
M: And the movies are great, ultimately, because the books are beyond great. As E said, there is so much in the stories that draw me in. From the grandiose scope of the adventure, to the tiniest details of each character. From the marvelous maps (I LOVE maps!), to the amazing back story and depth of the world. There is humor (like the title of the post, as Bilbo Baggins drunkenly celebrates his 111th, or eleventy-first birthday) and there is pathos. One of the things that draws me the most is that you genuinely feel for both the good and evil characters. Tolkien makes you hate characters like Boromir and Gollum, then gives you insight into why they are as they are, and you feel pity for them. He makes you love characters, then gives you moments to doubt them (well, all but Samwise Gamgee. How could anyone ever doubt Sam?).
C: It would be impossible. His reflection on war, in the scene where he and Frodo witness the battle in Ithilien between Faramir’s rangers and the Southrons, is one of the most honest and moving things I have ever read.
E: That translated beautifully to the screen, too. But you know what my favorite thing about the movies might be? That they got our parents to read the books. And help awaken a love of literature in our Dad, who hadn’t read anything but non-fiction for about 25 or 30 years.
M: One of the things that amazes me, having read so much of his work, is the range in it. The whole world of Middle Earth started in Tolkien’s mind with the first line of The Hobbit, “In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit.” From such a humble start, and through a love of mythology and language, he created first a lovely, lighthearted children’s book, that my 9 and 6 year olds are greatly enjoying as I read it to them.
C: Yes, and I think people undersell what an achievement that is. To have this majestic grand scheme in the back of your mind, but to create a lighthearted yet engaging story with the feel of a classic myth or adventure tale, letting the darkness and subtlety inflect the background while you focus on celebrating the good things in life (like a good song and a warm fire and a kettle just beginning to sing!) is something few “serious authors” could succeed at.
M: Exactly. And from there he created an entire world, a deep, and much of the time very dark, world that in the end had very little to do with Hobbits. Hobbits were still central in The Lord of the Rings, a story much more intended for young adults and adults, more emotionally and thematically mature. Everyone and everything in the story has a back story, and every story is fascinating either in the drama or action involved in it, or in both. The Silmarillion is the back story, and even in college I had trouble getting through the first 50 pages or so, taking about three separate hacks at it before I was able get past that and read the whole book.
E: Now, gosh, I love love love the opening of The Silmarillion – the myth of the world being created through music? So gorgeous. I have lots of books of his ancillary notes and stories – it’s all unbelievably rich and detailed and thorough.
M: In the end, I could read these stories, especially The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, over and over and never once feel the slightest bit sick of them. I find new details each time I read them, new ways to understand actions and meanings of conversations. They are fantastical, and action packed, and adventurous, delivering spectacular battles between different races and species like the battle of Helm’s Deep. Yet they are equally dramatic and philosophical, delivering such profound moments as Gandalf responding to Frodo’s wish that he did not have to deal with the evil of his time, replying “So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”