Alan Sisto’s Experience–Tolkien Experience Project (28)

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 Alan 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 Alan Sisto’s responses:

How were you introduced to Tolkien’s work?

The answer to this question will, unfortunately, necessitate my admitting to being older than I’d prefer to acknowledge. In November of 1977, I was 9 years old and, apparently, watched the Rankin & Bass animated TV presentation of The Hobbit. Admittedly, I no longer remember that experience with any degree of specificity. What I do remember — and what I still have on my bookshelf — is the first Tolkien book I ever owned, a copy of The Hobbit that I received that Christmas: the book as illustrated with art from the film. I recall reading that story over and over and simply being enthralled.

Sadly, it would be another five years before I would even learn of the existence of The Lord of the Rings — the Rankin & Bass book didn’t include the usual list of “other books by the author”, and the internet was just a sparkle in Al Gore’s eye at the time. But as a freshman in high school, I distinctly remember coming across the set of paperbacks from Ballantine Books (the Silver Jubilee set, as it turns out, with art by Darrell Sweet). I spent nearly all my paper-route money on that set and began to read them; though ‘devour’ might be a more accurate word, as I read the set at least three times in my first year of high school

What is your favorite part of Tolkien’s work?

I’m sure my answer won’t be the only one along these lines, but my favorite element of Tolkien’s work is how they feel grounded in reality, despite their fantastic nature. It wouldn’t be until much later — as an adult, studying his works — that I would realize the importance of ‘the inner consistency of reality’ and the resultant Secondary Belief in the sub-created world. Still, identifying and understanding these elements does not detract from the impact they have when I read Tolkien: no other author I’ve found seems as able to sub-create a world as utterly believable and internally-consistent as the world that Tolkien made

What is your fondest experience of Tolkien’s work?

To be honest, I’m not sure I can narrow it down to just one. I’ve had an incredibly wonderful time (so far!) in walking through the legendarium for The Prancing Pony Podcast — I’ve learned so much, and it’s brought me closer connections to the Tolkien community than I ever would have imagined. And then there was the four or five year ‘drought’ where I didn’t read Tolkien (out of lack of time, not lack of interest), and the first time reading the books after that was like a desert wanderer stumbling upon the sweetest water.

But if I have to pick just one ‘fondest experience’, it would have been in the summer of 2001 — a few months before Peter Jackson’s film adaptations would come to theaters around the world. My wife had never read The Lord of the Rings but had shown some interest in the movie trailers and previews that we’d seen. I suggested she read the books before the films released so that she could experience them properly; her response was for us to read them together. So I bought a second set of paperbacks (my Ballantine set was nearing 20 years old, and was held together by tape and a very inadequate spell of binding) and we read together. Not just ‘together’ in the sense that we would each read a chapter every couple of days and stay mostly on track, no… by ‘together’, I mean we would find time and I would read aloud from the books while she followed along in her copy. Not only was it the first time I’d read the entirety of The Lord of the Rings aloud (an experience I highly recommend to anyone!), but I got to experience the story as a first-time reader vicariously through my wife. That first-time experience is something that, by definition, we can only experience once… but watching someone else have that first-time experience comes close, and is definitely my fondest experience of Tolkien’s work.

Has the way you approach Tolkien’s work changed over time?

Without a doubt. Like most young people, the richness of Tolkien’s world was something that I enjoyed without being able to properly identify it. So my approach was merely to enjoy the story — I say ‘merely’, but there’s nothing wrong with this approach at all and, I suspect, Professor Tolkien would approve of those who approach his works exclusively in this manner.

Over time, though, I began to develop a deeper appreciation for the craft of the story… for the recurring themes… for the worldview that (I believe) Tolkien espoused. And these interests made me dig deeper — into biographical material, the Letters, essays, studies, and more.

Now, of course, I approach Tolkien’s work with even more attention to detail than ever before. As the co-host of The Prancing Pony Podcast, I have to approach Tolkien’s work with several thousand listeners in mind! This means being more thorough in my research, more complete in my comprehension, more open in discussion with my co-host, and more careful in leaping to conclusions. It’s been an extraordinarily rewarding experience, and I’m thrilled we have so much more material to cover.

Would you ever recommend Tolkien’s work? Why/Why not?

At first, this seems like an odd question. Why would anyone who is willing to take the time to answer these questions not be willing to recommend Tolkien’s work? But as I considered it, I realized that there are some people to whom I wouldn’t bother recommending Tolkien — they are already set in their (orcish, perhaps) ways, sadly content in their myopia, pleased to focus on only the Primary World and not even the truths about that Primary World that they might learn from Tolkien’s secondary one.

But aside from those few, sad people, the answer is an unconditional ‘yes’, I would whole-heartedly recommend Tolkien’s work! As for why, the answers may be found in On Fairy-Stories, the seminal essay on fantasy written by Tolkien and printed in Tree and Leaf, among other volumes. The reasons are threefold: recovery, escape, and consolation. Each provides an important (in my view, perhaps essential) element in enjoying our brief span on this earth, but to understand and experience all three is a wonderful gift. Tolkien’s works provide each in unavoidable quantity and rich quality; reading his works can only improve one’s life correspondingly.

You can hear more of Alan’s thoughts on all things Tolkien in the wonderful podcast that he co-hosts: The Prancing Pony Podcast!

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