This is one in a series of posts where the content is provided by a guest who has graciously answered five questions about their experience as a Tolkien reader. I am very humbled that anyone volunteers to spend time in this busy world to answer questions for my blog, and so I give my sincerest thanks to Shawn and the other participants for this.
To see the idea behind this project, check out this page
I want to thank Donato Giancola for allowing me to use his stunning portrait of J.R.R Tolkien as the featured image for this project. If you would like to purchase a print of this painting, they are available on his website!
If you would like to contribute your own experience, you can do so by using the form on the contact page, or by emailing me directly.
Now, on to Shawn E. Marchese’s responses:
How were you introduced to Tolkien’s work?
My first awareness of Tolkien’s work was as a child in the 1980s, when I saw a commercial on TV for Rankin and Bass’ The Hobbit on VHS. It must have included a clip of Bilbo in the cave with Gollum, because I got the idea that all of Middle-earth was underground: i.e., in the “middle” of the “earth.” I never cared much for the subterranean, so I didn’t give it a second thought. As I got older, I discovered Dungeons & Dragons, and before long I had a bookshelf full of middling fantasy paperbacks. I would occasionally hear about The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings as I roamed this literary wilderness, but the titles just hovered on the edge of my awareness for many years.
I didn’t actually make up my mind to read Tolkien until I was fifteen. I was reading a book about a well-known rock group that originated in London in the 1960s, and on page 11 the author inserted an alluring story about how, decades earlier, a distracted college professor had written the words “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit” on an empty page of a student’s examination. That little act of creative rebellion greatly impressed me as a teenager, so I made up my mind to find out what this “hobbit” was, and what kind of mind it came from. On my next trip to the local Waldenbooks, I bought a box set of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in paperback and read them right away.
What is your favorite part of Tolkien’s work?
I’m quite fond of the myth of Eärendil, as anyone who’s heard me talk about The Silmarillion for more than about seven minutes probably knows. Maybe it’s because Eärendil’s name was the start of it all for Tolkien, when he read that famous line of Old English poetry: “Eala earendel engla beorhtast.” Maybe it’s because of Eärendil’s central position in the legendarium, a nexus point between the Elder Days and the later stories. Maybe I just think flying star-boats are cool (who doesn’t?). But I think the real reason is because the myth of Eärendil allows me to connect the stories in the legendarium to my own life. Every time I see the evening star in the sky (I rarely wake up early enough to see it when it appears in the east as the morning star), I feel hope and wonder, as I imagine the people in Middle-earth did when they first saw the Star of High Hope rise in the sky. I feel a part of the story, and I sense my own birthright to the lessons it offers us.
And there’s so much there to learn: The importance of language and story, and their effect on how we view the world. The appreciation of nature. The need for enchantment and Faërie in our lives. The strength, hope, wisdom — and sometimes defiance — of Tolkien’s characters. And that’s what really keeps me coming back, more than the languages and history. It’s the strength of Éowyn, the wisdom of Faramir, the warmth of Gandalf, the insight of Samwise; the valor of Tuor, the loyalty of Beleg, the love of Beren and Lúthien, that makes me want to read it all again and again.
What is your fondest experience of Tolkien’s work?
My son was a cranky newborn, and nothing would get him to sleep at night except the sound of my voice or my wife’s voice. We’d spend an hour or two singing to him every night until he fell asleep, usually to find him awake again twenty minutes later! Hour after hour we’d go through this, night after night, for months.
Well, there’s only so many times you can sing the same songs over and over again before you get tired of singing. For me, that happened when he was three months old. As I looked down at the screaming baby in my arms, I realized it would be much easier for me to keep my voice going for hours on end if I was reading instead of singing. So, I picked up The Hobbit and started reading from the beginning. It was the first time I had ever read Tolkien’s work aloud, and I was struck by how much it changed my experience of the story. I could hear the music inherent in the words. I could feel the alliteration, the rhythm, the power of it all. I could keep this up all night if I had to! And the boy slept quite well.
I finished The Hobbit before he grew out of this phase, so I continued on to The Lord of the Rings. Then when my daughter was born a year or so later, I started reading The Hobbit to her at three months (she was a much better sleeper, but I wanted an excuse to read it aloud again), and continued the tradition with The Lord of the Rings after that. I’m proud to say both of my children technically were introduced to Tolkien before they were a year old, though they don’t remember it. I even read The Silmarillion aloud at bedtime to each of them when they were closer to two. I skipped some parts of “Of Túrin Turambar,” of course.
Has the way you approach Tolkien’s work changed over time?
Absolutely. As a teenager reading it for the first time, I approached it with curiosity and wonder. Despite having read many fantasy novels, I noticed immediately that Tolkien’s work was unlike anything I’d read before. By my mid-20s (right around when Peter Jackson’s Fellowship of the Ring came out), the mainstreaming of geek culture in general and the availability of movie tie-in memorabilia led me to a sense of Tolkien “fandom” as a personal identity. Now that I’m older, such labels don’t matter much to me anymore, and I just appreciate Tolkien’s work for what it is: a literary work like no other in the world, an entire mythology from the mind of one man. It’s so rich and deep that I can discover something new in it every time I go back to it, and that’s very exciting. I suppose that brings me back to an approach similar to when I read it for the first time, when everything was new; but now I have the good fortune to co-host a podcast exploring Tolkien’s work, and I get to share what I’ve found with others while participating in a conversation about these stories and this world with other Tolkien readers all over the world. That’s a fantastic feeling!
Would you ever recommend Tolkien’s work? Why/Why not?
Yes. I do it all the time. There’s something there for everyone. One reason why I spend so much time talking about Tolkien, and also why I wanted to podcast about Tolkien, is to share my love and knowledge of Tolkien with others who haven’t fully explored Middle-earth, or who think it’s all just too intimidating. There is a lot there, I realize; and I don’t expect everyone to muddle through every word of The History of Middle-earth. I even understand if someone says they can’t make it through The Silmarillion (though I’ll do what I can to help them make sense of it). But I recommend The Hobbit to everyone. Everyone should read The Hobbit at least once, and I think everyone should at least try to read The Lord of the Rings as well.
You can hear more of Shawn’s thoughts on all things Tolkien in the wonderful podcast that he co-hosts: The Prancing Pony Podcast!