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 Dana 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 Dana Marie’s responses:
1. How were you introduced to Tolkien’s work?
The year is 1999. I’m a simmering pot of anxiety and insecurity molded into the shape of an eleven-year-old human girl, living in a brand new place. My parents had whisked us out of the city and into the suburbs; a move I now see as selfless and in our best interests, but at the time was undoubtedly a betrayal of the highest order and beyond the limits of my forgiveness. My mom took me for a drive to explore our new neighborhood and we ended up at a secondhand bookshop, which I can only assume was an admittedly clever ploy to buy her way back into my good graces with my drug of choice—books. I have few memories from my childhood, but somehow I’ll never forget the way that shop smelled, the glossy art books behind the counter, or how hard it was to squeeze through those cramped aisles. The first book I set my eyes on was The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien. I hadn’t read it and I didn’t know much about it, but I knew these were quite famous books. As I flipped through the yellowed pages, I could tell they’d been cherished. I grabbed The Hobbit and all three books of The Lord of the Rings—all of them editions printed in the 60s (with the exception of The Two Towers, which was a bit newer and wasn’t part of the same set as the others—I too often wonder who has that second book) and $4 later, I had no idea “where I’d be swept off to.” I can remember reading The Hobbit all the way home, giggling at the anecdotes about hobbits and being absolutely blown away by how vivid and charming and engrossing this new story was. I burrowed down into that hobbit hole and did not come up for air until I had finished reading all of them. Those books were my first friends in this scary new world, and I was alone no longer. You know that feeling when you enjoy something for the first time, and how you always wish you could return to that moment? I can’t read these books again with new eyes (unless I grow old enough to forget and re-read them, fingers crossed) but when I close mine, I can smell the musty editions I bought, I can touch the fibers in the pages, and I can feel that warm, cozy feeling that first made me love these books all those years ago—the same feeling Bilbo missed, the same feeling Thorin and company longed to return to, the feeling Sam comes back to when all is said and done—the feeling of home.
2. What is your favorite part of Tolkien’s work?
The following years would be filled with more (real) friends and many more books as well, but no story (or, arguably, person) would ever find their way into my heart the way Tolkien did. Of course, those years were filled with much more Tolkien, too. Unbeknownst to me, just as I was first falling in love with these books, on the other side of the world, an overgrown bespectacled hobbit and his Lúthien were stepping out of the door and onto the road of their own Tolkien adventure. I remember how nervous I was before that first film came out; so very concerned they would not do my precious novels justice. What they ended up doing was melting my heart like a ring in a volcano. I still feel these are the greatest films ever made (a hill I will die on with a song in my heart) but it was more than that. It was a chance to share this epic, beautiful, emotional, captivating, heart-melting story with people I loved—people who loved me too, but not enough to suffer the perceived torture of reading a book. My friends binged junk food and gushed over how hot Orlando Bloom was, (fact check: still true) and went back with me to see whichever one was in theatres even when they’d already seen it; later, my family let me play the extended DVDs even if the game was on. Yes, they fell asleep, but hey, they watched it. And sure, they thought my learning Elvish was a cause for concern, but they knew what Elvish was, so I took the W.
3. What is your fondest experience of Tolkien’s work?
One of my favorite memories to date is of going with my mom to see the first two extended films shown in the theatre before the midnight release of RotK. They let us bring pillows and blankets, and order outside food—which, to a preteen skipping school to go to the movies, with her mom, was about the coolest thing I’d ever done. We spent about twenty two hours at that theatre, in plastic chairs with a room full of strangers in costumes, watching movies we already owned, and it was the absolute best. Looking back, I know how dreadfully painful this must have been for Mom, but she did it, with a smile, for me. I didn’t have the slightest inkling that she was anything but thrilled to be there. That year for Christmas, she handmade a decorated wooden chest to store my Tolkien books and all my Lord of the Rings merchandise that had begun accumulating around the house like the treasures of a hoarder. I still get choked up whenever I see it, thinking of all the hours she put into it just for me. Years later, after I moved out of the house and was living in another country, my mom would flip the channel to any LotR movie that was playing on TV, simply because she missed me. (I know, right? Could you die?) By the time I’d moved back to the US, she was obsessed. Nowadays she quotes the films constantly, cries like a baby whenever we watch them, and gives me a run for my money in the LotR movie version of Trivial Pursuit. Lately she has been dying to dress in cosplay and go to Comic-Con together—I’ve created a monster! However, in all seriousness, and as trite as it might sound, I do love having this to share with her and I’ll treasure these memories for the rest of my life.
4. Has the way you approach Tolkien’s work changed over time?
Wherever I go in the world, Tolkien seems to follow. A few years ago I used his newly published translation to study Beowulf. When I taught English abroad, I used his excerpts in my lessons. I have the Russian version of The Hobbit that I use in my own language learning. I bought The Silmarillion in high school but I couldn’t really get into it. In the last year or two I went back and revisited it to find that it’s possibly my favorite of all his work. I read it slowly and re-read it, I highlighted and annotated it and cross-referenced with his letters and other writings. I’ve learned from this experience how much I’ve changed as a reader—in my tastes, but also in my methods. I’ve also found my love for Tolkien’s work has grown and deepened with time; after having studied literature at a collegiate level, or as I come to appreciate the subtleties of it, or go back and read things I never discovered before. I myself have been considering writing as a career path, and all of this Tolkien deep-diving has helped me get inside the head of an author. I’m forever grateful that he spent so much time writing about writing and documenting his process and his self-critiques. No author could ever hope to come close to achieving what J.R.R. Tolkien has done, but hopefully I have taken something from all the time I’ve spent in his world and it will inform my writing in the future. I can only hope. If nothing else, I’ve learned the sheer power of a good story; it can entertain and inform and inspire and fulfill you, yes, but it can also bring people together; teach us empathy for experiences outside our own, and form bonds of friendship that last far beyond the end of the tale. When you look at the cultural impact of The Lord of the Rings in the 60s, for example—the music of Led Zeppelin, the “Frodo Lives” buttons, and so on—it is evident how it altered the collective consciousness. Again I run the risk of sounding trite, but a good story can change the world.
5. Would you ever recommend Tolkien’s work? Why/Why not?
I would not hesitate to recommend Tolkien to any reader, because there’s something in his work for everyone. You can escape to a world of magical beings; a world where the lines of good and evil are firmly drawn in the sand, and the right path is clearly laid before your beloved heroes. Perhaps you’d rather lose yourself in a novel that explores fundamental truths about the human experience, celebrates the triumph of the human spirit, and teaches the value of love, loyalty, friendship, sacrifice and perseverance. You might not be a fan of novels and you prefer poetry. Maybe you’re a history buff and you’re intrigued by a dense supposed European mythology. It’s possible you’re looking for a book filled with action and suspense, or a funny book filled with cute anecdotes and whimsical songs, or maybe you just want something comforting and familiar to curl up with and wrap around you like a warm blanket. Whatever your preference, I could recommend the very same author. There is a whole world waiting for you; a very tangible one that you can see, hear, smell, feel and taste, and one you won’t want to leave. There is so much excitement waiting for you, and joy; suspense, laughs, tears, thrills and adventures. All you have to do is peel the cover back and begin. I’ll even let you borrow mine.
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