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 Marie 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 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 Marie Prosser’s responses:
1. How were you introduced to Tolkien’s work?
Honestly, my first introduction to Tolkien’s work was the Rankin/Bass Hobbit and Return of the King films, which my family had copies of on VHS, and I did read The Hobbit as a middle school student. None of this was particularly memorable, though, and I have to say that the Rankin/Bass Return of the King barely spoiled the books at all ;). I read The Lord of the Rings when I was 12, and that was what began a lifelong love of Tolkien’s work.
How it happened was like this: The summer before seventh grade, I wanted to read Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, but for whatever reason, could not find a copy of it at the library. So, I was going through the bookshelf in my parent’s office (the one that had their old college textbooks on it), and was quite pleased to find a selection of novels that included the Jules Verne book. Next to it was the Ballantine paperback copies of Lord of the Rings, which I was not overly excited about at the time. But after I finished the book I wanted, I did eventually pick them up. The covers were…not encouraging, to say the least, but I remembered liking The Hobbit, so. I of course enjoyed them immensely. I had reached Return of the King by Christmas break, and I remember I was supposed to be finishing an art project (a grid drawing of a bird). I sat at the bookshelf in my bedroom, and I would read a chapter, then work on the drawing, read a chapter…. I still have that drawing, and it reminds me of the first time I read the books. My mother got it framed for me, because she knew I liked it so much. I re-read the books for the first time in 9th grade, and then again in 10th grade. I don’t really re-read them any more, but that’s mostly because at this point I know them so well I don’t need to; I just look up passages when I want to.
2. What is your favorite part of Tolkien’s work?
I am most partial to The Silmarillion. I love that story, and what he did with creating such a poignant story where everyone fails but there’s still a hopeful ending. The Silmarillion hurts sometimes, but it is so beautiful and I love it.
The part of Tolkien’s writing I love the most is his love of trees and stars. I too love trees and stars, and at this point, it’s difficult for me to say whether I love these things because I read Tolkien, or if I love Tolkien because he shares my love of these things. It is not unusual for me to greet Orion (I mean Menelmacar) when I go outside at night, just as the elves Frodo met in the Shire do.
3. What is your fondest experience of Tolkien’s work?
Oh, that’s an easy one! ALEP. A Long Expected Party is a Tolkien-themed event in the Shaker Village outside Lexington, Kentucky every three years. It is AMAZING and I love it very much. The people I’ve met there have become good friends. What kinds of friends? Well, I live with one of them; that’s where I met my roommate. I went on vacation with a bunch of them in June. And I’ve visited Banff and Calgary’s Stampede because one of them invited me to her place. I dated someone who also attends the event, which involved explaining to immigration how we met. So, yeah. It is dear to my heart and important to me and just amazing from so many points of view – hiking in the woods in costume, hanging out at a bonfire, recreating Bilbo’s birthday party, music and dancing, singing ‘Rolling Down the Hole’ at the top of my voice at 2 AM – you know, a good time! Oh, and I teach a Tengwar class there.
Second choice would be visiting Tolkien’s grave in Oxford. I sat next to it and had a nice long conversation, and then left a green stone that I’d brought with me.
4. Has the way you approach Tolkien’s work changed over time?
Certainly. When I first read the book, I mostly just thought about it. I would close my eyes and picture the forests of Middle-earth, and my teacher would ask me if I was meditating. I did make some sketches, I suppose, but I didn’t really know how to engage with a book yet.
When I was in high school, I tackled the Appendices more seriously. I taught myself how to write in runes, and I would often doodle on my schoolwork in them. I would make copies of the runic alphabet for my friends, so they could read the messages I wrote. My boyfriend even wrote a font program so I could type in runes; the first thing I typed was ‘bright blue my jacket is and my boots are yellow.’ I wrote ‘A Elbereth Gilthoniel’ on the wall in the set room during the school musical. I checked Humphrey Carpenter’s biography out of the school library, and was saddened to learn that Tolkien died before I was born – I called a friend and told her that we weren’t even alive at the same time! [The Balantine books I’d read were printed in 1972 and had the ‘respect for living authors’ disclaimer on the back, so it was news to me.] I read The Silmarillion and disliked it. I told my sister about it, though, and she said she wanted to marry Finrod (or Ulmo). A friend lent me Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings after we’d wandered around talking about Tolkien’s work for hours. I also came across the artwork of the Brothers Hildebrandt; I liked Galadriel’s Mirror the best.
When I was in college, I took a slightly more academic approach. My geography class required me to go to the library every week to view videos, and while I was there, I would go up to the Tolkien section and check out a different book of literary criticism on him each week. I was largely disappointed. Tom Shippey’s The Road to Middle-earth was the only one that actually taught me something new. I also read Letters and discovered what Tolkien’s opinion of a young American engineer was (that’s what I was at the time, so.) Luckily for me, I went on to take a few medieval history classes, so I likely wouldn’t have made the faux pas about feudalism. Whew! My college roommate (and best friend) learned Tengwar with me, and we wrote on each other’s notes during the classes we took together.
Then, the summer of ’99 was consumed by ‘So, did you hear they’re making a movie of Lord of the Rings?’ and I discovered online messageboards (my home was TORc, TheOneRing.com) Conveniently, Tolkien’s books were on my bookshelf, within reach of my computer, so I learned the ‘look it up!’ rule of answering questions in online discussions. My time there discussing Tolkien’s books in detail with other fans is most of the reason why I know Tolkien’s writing so well. I also decided to read the books aloud to my brothers in 2000. My youngest brother had requested The Hobbit when he was five, mostly because he liked Rankin/Bass’ Gollum, but now he was ten, so I thought he was ready for it. Each evening that summer, I would come home from work, swordfight with my brothers in the backyard using sticks, and then read Lord of the Rings to them after dinner. I drew them a sketch of Helm’s Deep (with labels!) so they could understand the battle and answered their questions as we went. It was a lot of fun, for me and them! I went on to recount most of the stories in The Silmarillion to my youngest brother while I was painting our parents’ living room. He would ask me questions, and I would tell him about First Age elves. I should not be terribly surprised that his middle school reading included Hamlet and The Silmarillion. He is still an avid reader to this day and loves fantasy; he’s currently trying to get me to read The Name of the Wind.
After college, my best friend made me a fleece cloak. It was a revelation to me that if the clothes you wanted to wear didn’t exist in the store to buy, you could make them yourself! I learned how to sew with my mother’s help, and made a dress with lacing on the back and a bodice. The bodice became part of my Hobbit costume and I still wear it. In 2004, I wrote my first fanfiction. It was about hobbits, and mostly nothing happened :P. I went on to write about Maedhros trapped in the Halls of Mandos and a young Elrond at the end of the First Age. I also read a lot of other people’s fanfiction and discovered another way to engage with Tolkien’s work. In fanfic, the whole point was to expand the story, to make your own choices and decisions about what these characters would do, what these places were like, how events unfold. Tolkien’s ‘unexplored vistas’ call out for that! I also discovered the artists Anke Eissmann, Jenny Dolfen, and Catherine Karina Chmiel who imagined Tolkien’s world visually in a way I found very appealing. Their love for The Silmarillion (and certain Sons of Fëanor!) likely keep me coming back to them as my favorite Tolkien artists.
As a teacher, I had opportunities to work Tolkien into my classroom. Did you know that there are examples of all the various types of erosion in The Hobbit? My earth science students found that out when they had to match the passage to the vocab word. Did you know that blond hair travels in hobbit families the same way it does in human families? My biology students got to study inheritance patterns in hobbit family trees. And of course I could always write what was happening in Middle-earth under the date. On October 6th, it was dark in the dell under Weathertop….
I discovered conventions and costuming, starting in 2006 at the Gathering of the Fellowship in Toronto. (Oh, I also had the opportunity to see the Lord of the Rings musical in both Toronto and London; it was very interesting, but not necessarily good. I liked it!) I’ve already mentioned ALEP, so you know where this goes, and I’ve also attended DragonCon three times. My costumes include: an orc, an ent, Varda, Elwing, Curufin, random wood elves and hobbits. Oh, and I made a costume for Finduilas of Dol Amroth specifically so I could make the starry mantle but not wear a blond wig for Eowyn 😛 The costumes from Peter Jackson’s film are very lovely, but I’ve never made a recreation of one. I did get to see them up close at the exhibit in Boston, which was fun.
Most recently, my efforts have been directed towards the Silmarillion Film Project, contributing to a collaborative group effort to adapt The Silmarillion to a television series, spearheaded by Corey Olsen with the help of Trish Lambert and Dave Kale. I mostly help with script outlining, but it’s been great to work with artists – we have maps, we have costumes, we have location scouting, we have artwork…everything you would need to create for this adaptation is fair game to tackle. So there’s been all sorts of fun conversations, like how do the Light of the Trees influence the architecture of Tirion (do all the windows face west?) and what visual changes does Melkor undergo when he is transitioning from fair-seeming to tyrant of Angband, and how do you handle first contact between the elves and the dwarves?
The short answer: I have transitioned from being a passive reader to engaging the text academically, and then later creatively, and I feel that this last is the most fruitful and rewarding, so I intend to keep doing it. I also very much enjoy reading Tolkien’s work aloud.
5. Would you ever recommend Tolkien’s work? Why/Why not?
Yes, of course. It’s very good. I would say that The Lord of the Rings is one of the best books ever written, and that it has surprisingly few flaws. People love it for a reason. But I take a strict ‘no pushing’ policy. I have friends and family members who have never read Tolkien’s work, and I do not push them to do so. I recognize that it is not to everyone’s taste, so if someone tells me that they prefer nonfiction to fiction, I’m not going to say, “You know what you should read? Lord of the Rings!” But at the same time, everyone knows I love it. It’s one of the first five things you learn about me, typically – you either find out that I’ve lived in Ethiopia, I’m Catholic, I used to teach high school, I grew up as the oldest of five kids on an apple orchard…or that I love Tolkien.
If you want to hear more from Marie Prosser, check out his great SFF blog: https://domnardireviews.wordpress.com or follow him on twitter: @Nardiviews