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 M.L. Corbier 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 M.L. Corbier’s responses:
1. How were you introduced to Tolkien’s work?
My introduction to Tolkien’s work was twofold actually, as there was an introduction and a re-introduction. The first was when a classmate of mine mentioned a book called In de Ban van de Ring, the Dutch translation of The Lord of the Rings. It translates along the lines of enthralled by the ring and I thought that sounded utterly stupid and ignored it completely as I wasn’t into jewellery at all. A couple of years later, my best friend asked whether I wanted to go to the Peter Jackson and company’s film adaptation of something called The Lord of the Rings and I agreed as the trailer looked rather neat and exciting, and he was my best friend after all. The film amused us but my friend was slightly disappointed as lots of things from the book weren’t in it. At this time I didn’t really read anything besides football magazines, but I agreed to give it a try nonetheless. I was blown away by the richness, so I quickly moved on to my friend’s copies of The Two Towers and The Return of the King. I didn’t really get why there were appendices in a novel but was intrigued enough to pick up The Silmarillion. That turned out to be a grave mistake. It is an incredibly rich and stunning story, but I don’t think a teenage, non-native speaker of English is the perfect audience for it. At the same time I was in my final year of high school and back then to graduate you had to read an impressive pile of books. First fifteen books in Dutch which was fine until my teacher complained that I read too many humour books and should move on to more serious literature – so the fun vanished immediately. I also had to read twelve English books but was forced to read Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe which is an interesting, important and valuable read but certainly not when you’re a teenager. To add insult to injury there were also eight books in German on the list to read… In the end, I was so put off by reading that I didn’t touch a book for five or six years. After those dark years, I went to study English Language and Culture and one of the texts we had to study was “Ancrene Wisse” and on the list of secondary sources I found an essay by a certain Tolkien, J.R.R. That name rang a bell and it came back when I was introduced to “Sir Gawayn and þe Grene Knyȝt” and again when an unreadable poem titled “Beowulf” showed up. It was then that my interest was rekindled and I have read Tolkien continuously and extensively from that point onwards.
2. What is your favorite part of Tolkien’s work?
I have two favourites these days but after long and careful deliberation, I will say “Sellic Spell.” What Tolkien did perhaps even better than writing fantasy is reconstructing things to show how they might have been. Due to an illegible word, one of the most problematic parts in the Anglo-Saxon epic “Beowulf” is a thief stealing a golden cup from a dragon. So it’s hardly a surprise when you find out Bilbo nicks a cup from Smaug’s heap in The Hobbit. Tolkien argued that before this epic poem there must have been a folktale that would have explained certain things that don’t make much sense at first glance. Tolkien explains the character by the name of Handshoe in the story and its introduction for example. I love this in Tolkien’s works as it combines the two reasons I have for enjoying them. The first is pure entertainment but the second is from a more academic point of view: thinking about “Beowulf” in a particular way interests me.
I have to mention my second favourite now of course but will do so shortly. It is The Father Christmas Letters. I believe every parent reading those letters is thinking about doing the same thing for her or his offspring (even when they know they can’t really pull it off).
3. What is your fondest experience of Tolkien’s work?
My master thesis was on Tolkien and linguistic relativity. In short, linguistic relativity means that a language affects the world view of the speakers of that language. I wasn’t all that impressed with my own research to be honest and need to do it again properly now that I know better what I should be doing, but locking myself in a room to surround myself with huge piles of books by and on Tolkien is indeed a fond memory. Also my professor deemed the research interesting enough to give me my Master’s degree which is a fond experience as well!
I do hope to replace this experience with a new one when my daughter is old enough to be read The Hobbit though…
4. Has the way you approach Tolkien’s work changed over time?
Definitely. I first read the Ring trilogy because of Peter Jackson and company’s film adaptations. That was nothing but entertainment. But then I went to university and focussed more and more on literary masters such as Geoffrey Chaucer (anyone excited for Tolkien’s Lost Chaucer) and Sir Thomas Malory. That meant, of course, that I started to enjoy reading the professor’s commentary on “Beowulf,” his translations of “Pearl,” “Sir Orfeo” and others, and his reworking of the “Völsungasaga” and the Arthurian legends. I’m reading Tolkien’s works in a different way now than before. That is in its own really rewarding though I wish of course I could go back to the day when I discovered the works for the first time and could dive in it without any idea what will be around the next corner.
5. Would you ever recommend Tolkien’s work? Why/Why not?
I take it a step further than recommending it actually. As a high school teacher of English I have to write a curriculum for my pupils and I can alter it as I see fit. I always include a little Tolkien in the curriculum – even the fiercely hated “Goblin Feet” has been part of it at a certain point!
However, I would never force a student to read a certain book as long as they can come up with a good alternative. As I recalled above, my high school teacher forced his pupils to read stuff they didn’t give a rat’s arse about and for me it meant I wouldn’t touch a book with a ten-foot pole for a long while afterwards. I’m a way more lenient teacher and believe there is a tremendous power in discovering your own reading taste. If I make a pupil read The Silmarillion and the result is that she never wants to read Tolkien or any book for that matter again, I have failed as a teacher. If she wants to read Fifty Shades of Grey and enjoys it partly because I have encouraged her to keep on reading, and then she keeps on reading other works (and hopefully moving on to something less shady) I did a good job. I would only recommend Tolkien’s works to people who I think would enjoy it. There are many great books in the world and many different tastes after all! Though some tastes are greater than others of course…