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 SheilaMS 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 SheilaMS’s responses:
1. How were you introduced to Tolkien’s work?
I first heard about Tolkien through a fella I was dating in the late months of 1971. Having just graduated from high school, a private Catholic institution that provided me with what most people today might consider a college degree in liberal arts, I was a green teenager. Working as a photo finisher because I had no money for college, I lived in a house with a group of girls from the photo shop and from high school. We had no TV. Books provided me with my only solitary entertainment. Of course the fella and his friends, who included me in their little clique, loved to stay up all night on weekends drinking Mountain Dew and playing cards. The smoking of “pipe weed” would sometimes be added to enliven the atmosphere. By and large, we were a harmless group who would retire at about 5 AM to the local Hasty Tasty Pancake House for bacon and eggs after a hard night of Euchre.
Not as studious as I but a graduate of the same high school, this fella surprised me one day by showing me a set of three books he had obtained from an old Army pal. Entitled The Lord of the Rings, he called it fantasy. As he finished each book, he loaned it to me. While my relationship with the fella fizzled, my fascination with Tolkien did not. In my twenties, I re-read LotR several more times.
But not until many years later did I read The Hobbit. This peculiar reverse order of my introduction to Tolkien shaped my initial impressions of his work. I didn’t understand the Ring’s influence on its bearer until I read The Hobbit, because of course, the Ring’s sway immediately prompted Bilbo to lie to Gandalf about his encounter with Gollum. Only in the last 10 years did I read The Silmarillion. And since my first encounter with The Lord of the Rings I’ve read it and The Hobbit many, many, times. I now have electronic copies of the big five (Silmarillion, Hobbit, LotR) that I use for research. The power of NOOK enables me to enjoy frequent lookups and cross indexing as never before. My library continues to grow thanks to the hard work of Christopher Tolkien who I understand has published the last of his father’s works. I received the Histories of Middle-earth, 12 books in 3 volumes, for Christmas and reading The Fall of Gondolin currently winds me down at night.
2. What is your favorite part of Tolkien’s work?
Without a doubt, every word that Tolkien writes about Hobbits.
Through Hobbits (halflings, as he has other characters call them), Tolkien tells us that if we live up to even half of our potential, we can be heroic and courageous, simple and kind, and that the everyday things we do celebrate life. I think Peter Jackson’s movies totally miss this very important point.
Jackson’s Boromir belittles Frodo, calling him “little one” and in one scene, brushes snow out of Frodo’s hair as if he is a small child when Frodo is undoubtedly older than Boromir. By the Bruinen, Jackson gives Arwen a scene facing down the Ringwraiths that was given to Frodo by Tolkien. In The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo defies the Nine himself riding alone on Asfaloth. And Jackson omits “The Scouring of the Shire” from his film trilogy. Tolkien brings his trilogy full circle in this chapter of Return of the King. Hobbits demonstrate their strength, resilience, leadership, and skill freeing the Shire of its captors. (I omitted other examples for the sake of brevity but anyone who watches the movies with me understands that Jackson’s short shrift of Hobbits is a sore point with me.)
3. What is your fondest experience of Tolkien’s work?
Although I love the movies and can, by no means, match my knowledge of Tolkien’s many works with any true scholar, my love and my ultimate pleasure lies in re-reading Tolkien’s stories. Tolkien created a dangerous world where good, after much toil, overcomes evil and realized hopes triumph over bleak despairs. But I think my real enjoyment derives from the many beautiful words Tolkien created to tell his tales. One cannot turn a page without discovering some unique name, poem, or phrase in Quenya or Sindarin – names like Lύthien Tinύviel, Mithrandir, Lothlórien, and Arwen Undómiel – that sing without music. Even Lobelia Sackville-Baggins possesses a certain charm. Oddly, people who say they cannot ‘wade through’ The Lord of the Rings complain most often about the many proper names Tolkien uses. To me, they provide the magic.
In that spirit, most of what I study focuses on Sindarin. As a retired software engineer who no longer studies computer languages or anything else full time, my interests include needlework and grandchildren to whom I write letters using the Anglo-Saxon runes. They each have a card made by me that gives them the key using the standard ‘The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.’
And my approach has become much broader than Tolkien’s original published fantasy. The Children of Hύrin, The Fall of Arthur, The Fall of Gondolin, The History of Middle-earth, The History of The Lord of The Rings, Unfinished Tales Vol I-II, and about 8 different versions of The Hobbit live on my bookshelves. I even purchased the Latin translation.
4. Has the way you approach Tolkien’s work changed over time?
My most recent acquisition, J.R.R. Tolkien A Biography by Humphrey Carpenter, arrived today and adds to other titles about the Master, himself, including The Inklings and The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. I could go on and on having acquired books of maps, books of illustrations, books on the movies, companion books, books on Sindarin, books on how to write Tolkien’s invented languages, and so many collectibles that in every corner of my home, I can see some part of Tolkien’s fantasy world but I should probably stop here. In short, my first casual approach to Tolkien has intensified over the years and my husband, good man that he is, surprises me every year with figures and jewelry from the Weta Workshop in New Zealand. I even have the full-scale Sting, made in Spain, hanging on the wall in my office.
5. Would you ever recommend Tolkien’s work? Why/Why not?
I think everyone could get something good from Tolkien’s work. The man was a genius. And who doesn’t need to take a trip away from the very real problems plaguing the world today? But my kids, who love the Jackson movies, just won’t sit down and read the books. My oldest granddaughter has the books and all three grandkids have read The Hobbit. They probably read it because when they were younger and came to my house every weekend, I read one chapter to them every night before they went to bed. I did all the characters in different voices – I still do a respectable Gollum – and they loved it. Having that exposure at such a young age got them interested in Middle-earth. As they get older, I hope they read The Lord of the Rings. Once they do that, they will want to read The Silmarillion. I’ve told them parts of that story when the movies reference it. At least they know where to get it!
Since I only recently discovered podcasts, my current project involves listening to all the past episodes of “The Prancing Pony Podcast” and since Microsoft took it upon themselves to change the format of True Type fonts to something that doesn’t support Dan Smith’s Fantasy Fonts, I may try to contact him about redoing his fonts in the new format. Mostly, I intend to read Tolkien until my eyes are too tired to see. His stories fascinate me, his characters engage me, and his world draws me in as no other story teller ever has or ever will.
You can find SheilaMS on Twitter, where she talks about Tolkien and other topics!