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 Ed Strietelmeier 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 Ed Strietelmeier’s responses:
1. How were you introduced to Tolkien’s work?
I was first introduced to Tolkien when my father read The Hobbit to me as a bedtime story while I was in elementary school in the 1980s. Along with The Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit became absolutely foundational in my psyche and worldview. It was as if I was both “walk[ing] in legends [and] on the green earth in the daylight” to paraphrase the Rider of Rohan as he speaks to Aragorn in The Two Towers.
I was also introduced to the Rankin Bass Hobbit and Lord of the Rings cartoons as well as the Ralph Bakshi Lord of the Rings while I was a kid. Looking back I cringe at so many aspects of those films, but at the time they really captured my imagination and made me love the stories even more. In a way they were like the silly figure of the Fairy Queen that Nokes put on the Great Cake in Smith of Wootton Major. To paraphrase the Fairy Queen, “Better a little [movie], maybe, than no memory of Faery at all. For some only a glimpse. For some an awakening…”
It was not until junior high that I read the Lord of the Rings myself, using my father’s old Ballantine paperback copies, which have since simply fallen apart! It was a long read for me at that age, but completely worth it.
2. What is your favorite part of Tolkien’s work?
There are so many to choose from! If forced to pick, I’d say the sequence in The Return of the King that begins with Chapter IV, “The Siege of Gondor” and ends with Chapter VI “The Battle of the Pelennor Fields.” These chapters have just about anything you could want.
All of the important parts connect to create a truly remarkable experience: The sense of impending doom that hangs over Minas Tirith jumps off the page and makes the moment when the cock crows and the horns of the Rohirrim call out so amazing. Reading about the Ride of the Rohirrim makes you feel like you are going along with them, on the way to Mundburg. The moment when Theoden sees the city under siege, slumps, but then gathers himself with the change of wind and the sound of the gate collapsing is Tolkien’s blending of providence and free will in microcosm. Eowyn and the Witch King.
Ultimately the moment when Eomer defies the Black Ships only to see the flag of Gondor and the arrival of Aragorn is the culmination of the entire experience. This moment is so powerful it’s hard to describe. But, even with all of that excitement and glory, you still are reminded of all those who fell and the loss that went into this miraculous victory. Simply amazing.
3. What is your fondest experience of Tolkien’s work?
My fondest experience has been reading The Hobbit to my oldest daughter (age 8 at the time). I watched her laugh out loud during the unexpected party, get scared at Gollum’s chapter, and wish she could live in Beorn’s house with his animals. She even drew her own version of Thror’s map and gave it to me.
At the end of the book we had a really thoughtful conversation about the “dragon sickness” and who really deserved the treasure in the Lonely Mountain. She could see how both the dwarves and the Lake Men had a claim but didn’t really see how the Elf King fit into the equation (which is a fair point!). In the end, she was just glad they found a way to work together. It has been one of my happiest experiences as a parent to date.
4. Has the way you approach Tolkien’s work changed over time?
Yes. I have been a Tolkien fan since childhood, but my interest rose to a whole new level in 2013 when I began listening to the Tolkien Professor Podcast. Corey Olsen’s lectures opened up a wider and deeper understanding in Tolkien’s works for me. His “Silmarillion Seminar” helped me to finally read The Silmarillion and understand it for the masterpiece that it is. Now I am able to see the wisdom, depth, and significance in Tolkien’s words in a new way.
I had read Tolkien’s various works sporadically over the years, but since listening to the Tolkien Professor as well as the Prancing Pony Podcast I’ve been reading the “Legendarium” annually. I’m a Lutheran pastor and my annual reading connects with the liturgical, or church, calendar. I read The Hobbit during the Christmas Season (12 days), The Silmarillion during the Season of Epiphany (January 6th to whenever Ash Wednesday arrives), and then The Lord of the Rings during Lent (40 days, plus Sundays). I’ve done this for the past 5 years: it’s been challenging but overwhelmingly rewarding.
5. Would you ever recommend Tolkien’s work? Why/Why not?
Would I?!?!? I’ve been handing used copies of Lord of the Rings to friends for a few years now! As a pastor and preacher, Tolkien quotes and themes find their way into my sermons regularly (although I try to no “over-do” it). His themes of escape, recovery, and the consolation of the happy-ending (eucatastrophy!) have crept into my way of seeing the world. Tolkien’s works have helped me recover a sense of wonder in our own world, which I have attempted to share with my two daughters. I hope they can carry that forward into their own lives.
I find that Tolkien’s works get at some of the central aspects of life and faith: providence, grace, the importance of mercy, the humbling of the strong and the rise of the weak, the sense of loss and sadness that so many people experience, bravery in the face of impossible challenges, and so much more. Tolkien’s works have helped so many people deal with their sadness and the losses they have suffered, I feel like his books can provide comfort and hope for people facing “the Shadow.”