In a school newspaper article back when I started grade ten, a snippet of advice for would-be readers of fantasy ran thus: “Read Tolkien. Live Tolkien. Love Tolkien. Memorize Tolkien. Tolkien, we would like to note, has absolutely nothing to do with inhaling drugs.”
Fortunately, at 14, I was already up to speed on the creator of hobbits, Middle-earth and rings of power.
My first exposure came at an impressionable age: watching the Rankin-Bass cartoon version of The Hobbit (and later Return of the King) on TV in the 1970s. I didn’t understand a lot of what was going on in the latter, but the image of Sam and Frodo fleeing molten lava down the side of Mount Doom scared me for years, not to mention the dank, creepy confines of Gollum’s underground lair.
Many years later, having read other fantasy books, such as C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series, I came back to The Hobbit in grade eight — first reading it and then renting the movie on Betamax. (Anyone born after 1984, please commence laughing or scratching your head at this.) I re-read it, then during the summer after grade eight I found a battered copy of the 1965 edition of Lord of the Rings, psychedelic covers and all. I started reading it and couldn’t put it down; so much so that I nabbed a copy of The Book of Lost Tales, Part I, which I would attempt but never actually finish until almost a decade later.
I can still remember loving the easy way the story picked up from The Hobbit; the growing menace as Gandalf suspected the truth behind Bilbo’s ring, stolen from Gollum, and the pursuit of Frodo and his friends by the Black Riders. Even through the long digressions such as the visit with Tom Bombadil and the endless rounds of discussion at Elrond’s Council, I was hooked. Sure, I skipped over a lot of the poetry, but as a hardcore Dungeons and Dragons player, I was there more for the heroism and fantastic battles than the depth of etymology and cultural history.
But I’m still glad LOTR was the first high fantasy I was really wrapped up in — it set the bar high for everything afterward.
That’s proven true for the entire genre Tolkien’s work spawned. By taking a concept somewhat ridiculous at the time — creating an imaginary history that would serve as a unified mythology for his home country, complete with multiple created languages, alphabets, cultures and geographies — Tolkien marked out the current body of fantasy literature.
As in any genre, the current innovators will push the bounds and leap to new heights; but without someone to claim a huge territory to begin with, there’s little to build on.
Still, I didn’t get into all the deep mythology Tolkien had worked up for Middle-earth until years later. One, despite the unity of The Silmarillion, to get the broad sweep of his imagined history, you really need to read from a variety of his writings, and that requires slogging through a lot of it first. Historians won’t find this consideration of multiple sources odd — but for a reader just trying to get the story it’s annoying.
Two, it’s still pretty dense stuff. Even the epic sections of The Silmarillion, such as The Fall of Gondolin, are actually told on more detail, if in less polished form, in The Book of Lost Tales.
But never mind: the point about reading Tolkien’s fantasy is that it can light up your imagination at different ages, and if you are hooked young it is immensely satisfying to to return to it and find it has much more to say to you as you get older. There are moral problems raised in The Hobbit that aren’t properly dealt with until you read The Lord of the Rings (why, for example, Bilbo lies about the ring) or The Silmarillion (such as the inherent distrust between the Dwarves and the Elves).
It also has wonderful differences in scope and scale. The Hobbit moves from an often comedic adventure to a tumultuous, epic conculsion. The Lord of the Rings threatens (and delivers) an upheaval of the whole world order. And The Silmarillion presents a world-shattering myth that dwarfs everything else.
I haven’t read everything published in the fantasy genre; but I’ve read a lot, and though many later works may be more unified, and flesh out the personal lives of their characters better, and stretch the current boundaries of the genre, it’s Tolkien that I go back and re-read more than any other. And that’s OK. I have a feeling he’ll still have something to say to me decades from now.
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Should you be interested in taking a journey through Middle-earth this summer, you’re in luck: the ever-organized SJ over at Book Snobbery has organized a reading plan to take us through The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings this summer. (If you really want to throw in The Silmarillion before June 23, by all means, do so. But not if you’ve never read it before. There’s a good reason for that, mainly that if you don’t get into it it can put you off the whole body of work. But diehards like me live for that epic stuff.)
Other bloggers are going to be blogging about this too as we journey together — feel free to join in in any way you see fit: on your own blog, on Twitter, or in the comments.