I recently watched the Tolkien biopic and it reminded me of my own enthusiasm for words. I thoroughly enjoyed the film and wished it would have covered more of his life, but my own research and reading will have to suffice. However, it did inspire me to begin a new section of this blog where I will write about authors and their significance to me. There are many authors I’ve wanted to write about and share, and I have recommended many of their books, but I have never really talked about them directly. That is all about to change. The first author I shall discuss is one who has played a significant role in my life and someone I do feel I have cheated as far as recognition on this web page. An error soon to be corrected.
John Ronald Reuel (J.R.R.) Tolkien has influenced more than just the millions of people who read his work when it was first published. He changed storytelling forever and was a loud voice for the acceptance of fantastical stories as serious, or popular, literature. Like many others, I have been fascinated with the man since I was a boy. I first read The Hobbit when I was perhaps 9 or 10 years old. I quickly read The Lord of the Rings (LotR) shortly after. I can remember, quite vividly, the exact moment I finished the trilogy. It was summer and I was stuck in a church where my mother worked as a daycare teacher. There weren’t any kids around and I wasn’t entirely sure what obligations brought us there. I could only remember sitting in a short hallway between two classrooms as I read the final chapters of The Return of the King in an old copy that my father passed on to me which he had bought as a kid. On the top right of the cover was the printed cost of $1.25. For a mere $5 he had gotten the trilogy and its prequel. I still have the set sitting carefully on my bookshelf. Fairly worn and slightly discolored from sunlight. The cover of the last novel has a slight tear. All bearing cover images probably first drawn in the 1930’s. I will treasure these books for many reasons. One is the story they contain and the impact it had on me. Another is the fact that my father gave them to me. He has introduced me to several significant stories and I like to think I’ve come to an age and read enough to finally return the favor.
But back to the short hallway between classrooms. The walls were white-painted cinder blocks and there was a chair and a desk. I was leaning back in the chair with one foot on the desk as I read the final words. I remember sitting forward and contemplating the meaning of that ending or, rather, what it meant that there was no more of the story for me to read and what the completion of this story meant to me. It was one of the first times I’d ever had to simply sit and think after reading a book. To let the finality of it sink in and weave itself into the threads of my life experiences.
These books have influenced much of the fantasy that has been written since their publication, but Tolkien himself was influenced by much that was written well before his own time. I think it would be ignorant to say that Tolkien is the father of fantasy or that all fantasy writers must read him if they wish to be taken seriously. In fact, V.E. Schwab gives and excellent Tolkien Lecture where she proudly states that she has never read his work. She makes some excellent points about many doorways into the realms of the fantastic. Tolkien is just one of them. A large one that has ushered generations in, but, as Gimli would say, “it still only counts as one.”
My initial fascination with LotR was partly influenced by the movies directed by Peter Jackson. I remember, again vividly, attending the first movie in a tiny, three-screen theater in Marysville, Kansas. The nearest movie theater to Hanover, Kansas, where my grandparents live. I had not read the books at this time and did not know much of what was going on, but I loved it. I distinctly remember having to leave the theater to use the restroom and while waiting to enter the small restroom, I sneaked glimpses through a cracked door as I shuffled my feet at the pain of a full bladder. The scene was the infamous defense of Merry and Pippin by Boromir, and Aragorn’s showdown with the Uruk-hai captain Lurtz. I quickly learned how to control my bodily functions after that and was easily able to hold it in during the lengthy movies. Including the final installment, which I watched with my father after he came home from work and asked if we wanted to go see it that opening night and I of course said yes. His parents had come in town that evening and I felt bad leaving my grandparents home (they declined the invitation if I remember correctly) while we went off to see The Return of the King at a much bigger theater than where I’d seen the first movie. I made the mistake of drinking most of a gigantic soda during the previews but I rallied through the 3+ hours, willing myself to hold it in, as I watched the brilliance of film-making unfold with extreme detail the epic of Tolkien’s work. I can’t think of how many times I’ve seen those movies. In fact, I feel a re-watch coming again soon. The extended versions of course.
I remember these specific moments because they have become important to me as some of the first experiences I had with the magic Tolkien wrote. The movies had almost as much influence as the text itself having first been released when I was 10 years old. The brilliance, awe-inspiring magic of it left many impressions on a malleable mind. I was hooked. I had walked through a grand archway into a new world of possibilities. I wanted to create stories like these. Tolkien’s work wasn’t the first to make me want to create stories, but it was definitely an example of the type of stories I wanted to write. Of course I wanted to write about the magic and the dragons and the battles, but more than that I wanted to create stories that would impact people. Stories that would stay with them. Inspire them. It is a dream I am still chasing today, but I am much closer than I was at age 11. I have a story published after all. Somewhere out there in the world is a one-page story that someone may happen across and enjoy. I’ve also written many things. Most of which will never see the light of day, but I’ve written and continue to write. I may not have the fascination with languages that Tolkien himself had. I simply have a fascination with words and stories. If you are reading this, I imagine you do to.
Another unexpected thing that comes from a story becoming massively popular is what is known today as a fandom. There are many now and some contain toxic elements but they all originate from a love of a fictional world or the characters that inhabit it. I cannot imagine how many people have become friends because of a common interest in a book. Especially LotR. Stephen Colbert is a super nerd when it comes to Tolkien and his works. I like Stephen Colbert. Even though I probably shall never meet him (I would jump on any opportunity to do so), I know with certainty that I would have the subject of any of Tolkien’s works to fall back on as a topic of conversation should I ever mumble my way past a simple introduction before he walked off to continue his busy life. I know this about Stephen because he turned his entire set of The Colbert Show into a Hobbit hole and wore prosthetic Hobbit feet for the entire week he interviewed Peter Jackson, Ian McKellen, and others from the then soon-to-be-released Hobbit movies.
I received the Ring of Barahir, also known as Aragorn’s ring worn in the movies, as a gift when I was in high school. I’ve worn it every day since. It is a more obscure LotR item than those hanging in my office as I type this; which include a map of Middle-Earth, Gimli’s Axe & helmet, Legolas’s short swords, Aragorn’s sword (Narsil before it was broken and remade, aka Elendil’s sword), and a cardboard cutout of Ian McKellen as Gandalf from a standee I took home from when I worked at a movie theater. I am a big fan. I even visited several of the filming locations for the movies when I studied for a semester in New Zealand. I am also listening to the movie score as I am typing this. Whenever someone comments on my ring, I let them know where it is from, but when someone recognizes it, I have an instant common interest with that person and we can give each other a smile of appreciation for having similar tastes. This is an incredible thing. It often goes unnoticed how easy it is to have something in common with a complete stranger. This is just one of the things stories can do, and LotR was an extremely popular story that had an enormous fandom well before I experienced it or even knew it existed. It had shaped the lives of so many people before reaching me and it will continue to do so.
I mentioned earlier that I had cheated Tolkien regarding recognition on this blog. In my book recommendations, I never really recommended The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. Instead I wrote a recommendation for a biography of the Tolkien and referenced the other titles in it because I felt like it was cheating to recommend one of my favorite books, especially a series that has been popular for over 80 years. I can’t tell you why I felt that way but I know it was stupid of me to feel that way. I should never hold back like that. (Neither should you for that matter. If you like something, don’t be afraid to let others know about it. Say “hi” to that person wearing the shirt or who has a tattoo of your favorite show or movie or book.) Let this post be a remedy for my mistake. J.R.R. Tolkien had no idea his work would take the world by storm. He never liked the attention it brought him either. I’ve read much of his work and have an entire shelf filled with volumes containing only his name. I know I can always go back and re-read LotR and enjoy it. I intend to. I’ve only read it two or three times in the last 15 years. But there are many other books I still need to read. Other worlds to discover. Other author’s works to fall in love with and expand my opportunity of having more interests that align with a greater number of people. Perhaps one day I will be able to walk outside and talk to anyone about a book we have both read.
Perhaps one day I will finish a few of my own books and have people talk about my work. Maybe they will find new friends because I created something they enjoyed enough to discuss with others. This is a dream that developed long before I knew what it was. Before I discovered Tolkien. He helped me figure out exactly what it was and helped me give shape to it. As have many other writers and creators I grew up with. I’m still learning about it today with every book I read and every story I write. It just so happened that Tolkien’s work came into my life a very important time and has remained with me since. I will never be able to tell him this like so many others who tried to when he was alive. I’m not sure if he read much of the fan mail that bombarded his living spaces. I will, however, be able to talk about him or his work with others and share in the fellowship he sparked. For this I am extremely grateful.