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 Caity 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 Caity M.’s responses:
How were you introduced to Tolkien’s work?
I was introduced to Tolkien’s work because of the production of the Peter Jackson films. I was 11 in December, 2001 when the first film was released, and my best friend/neighbor’s older brother was excited for the films, because he was a book reader. He was a few years older than us, and because I was 11 and he was a cool teenager, I got interested too. I remember vaguely having conversations with him about Tolkien after seeing the first film; he told me that the Lord of the Rings barely scratched the surface of all there was to know about Middle-earth. I remember him saying something about the relationship between Sauron and Morgoth, for example. I was immediately intrigued; I had read and loved Harry Potter around the same time in my life, but that sense of depth hinted at when he told me about Morgoth was different than what Rowling seemed (at the time – I suppose she has tried more myth building since then) to be doing, and was exciting. I began the first book before I watched the first film, and had finished them all by the time the second film was released. I have since read Hobbit, Silmarillion, some of his scholarship, some other stories like Wootton Major and Roverandom, a few Lost Tales (although I’m saving up for History of Middle Earth), and dipped my toe into his languages.
What is your favorite part of Tolkien’s work?
I think its his writing about nature, and his recommendations for how to enter into right relationship with the parts of earth over which humanity has dominion, if I’m gonna get Christian about it. I’ve been doing a lot of rereading in the Tolkien world recently, since the Fall of Gondolin came out this summer, and his writing about animals and landscape does make me feel religious, if I’m being honest with myself, especially in the context of that recent report on climate change. The passages where Gandalf describes his relationship with Shadowfax are really sticking in my mind as of late.
What is your fondest experience of Tolkien’s work?
I worked for many summers at an all girls sleepaway summer camp in North Carolina. It’s tucked away in the Blue Ridge mountains, a few thousand feet up, on a lake at the foot of a bald rock mountain we call Old Bald. The camp itself caters to the children of serious, generational southern money. Country Club families from Buckhead in Atlanta and Mountainbrook in Birmingham etc. send their daughters there, because their mothers and grandmothers and aunts all went there too. The campers all go to the same private schools, and rush the same sororities when they go to college. Its an extremely white and privileged place. By no means did I grow up in want, and I am also white, but that camp introduced me to a rung on the tax bracket that I had never seen before, and it was an integral step down the rabbit hole of left wing politics I have fallen into, but I digress. I tended to seek out and try to support the outcast girls, the nerdy ones, because camp could be a brutally lonely place for those more bookish or introverted campers. I absolutely saw my younger self in them, and I myself wasn’t exactly embraced with open arms by the other staff; I had never been a camper there. There was a camper once with very serious ADHD, who many counselors got easily annoyed with, myself included. But one day, after a few summers of getting to know her, I realized she was a fledgling Tolkien reader. We would chat about the books often, which we both really enjoyed. She found my address in the camp bulletin and sent me a drawing she had done of the Durin’s Door illustration from Fellowship. I feel so lucky she sent me that.
Has the way you approach Tolkien’s work changed over time?
Without a doubt. I find something new to love with each rereading. I’ve developed a much deeper appreciation for Tolkien’s work, and have a much more difficult time with the racism and sexism of the world he created. I was young when I entered Middle-earth, but I ended up getting a Master’s in Medieval Studies, and as you can imagine, that is a context in which I got to talk a lot of Tolkien very often, with people who have become very good friends. It was a treat! It has also deepened my understanding of the scholastic context from which Tolkien wrote, for better and for worse. As I’ve been rereading recently, and as my own politics have moved towards the centrality of redressing systemic, historical patterns of racism and sexism, all of Tolkien’s imagery depicting the dark eyed, dark skinned hordes make me shudder, especially as the tide of global fascism rises around us. Colonization seems to be given a pass at times in Tolkien, and even his cardinal directions seem racist! North and West, good! East and South? Bad. I struggle a lot with how much of a pass I want to give Tolkien, and men like him more generally. Lets call it the problematic fave conundrum. Is Tolkien a product of his time? Absolutely, and maybe even better than most of that time. Is he worth reading? For me, still of course, yes. Do I understand that his project was inherently focused on a mythology of the British Isles? Sure, ok, fine. However Tolkien’s integral place among the racist and xenophobic history of medieval scholarship and fantasy literature is a stumbling block for me, and the adoption of the Tolkien Legendarium by the worst elements of online racists both breaks my heart, and is something for which I struggle to find a working defense. Of course they love him! Its painfully easy to see why.
Would you ever recommend Tolkien’s work? Why/Why not?
With reservations, yes, because of how foundational they have been in my life. I can’t imagine my life without loving Tolkien, but it gets harder every day, honestly, due to the context I lay out in my previous answer.
You can follow Caity M. on Twitter for more of her excellent thoughts on Tolkien and other topics!