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 Yvonne 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 Yvonne Marjot’s responses:
1. How were you introduced to Tolkien’s work?
My dad gave me a copy of The Hobbit when I was six. It was meant to be a ‘growing into’ book but I was already a precocious reader, addicted to story, so I ploughed through it. Although I don’t remember, I’m sure my poor mum (a teacher) was frequently called upon to define words. Afterwards I was desperate to read more about hobbits and discovered my grandparents had the Lord of the Rings trilogy. There was a family disagreement over whether I should be allowed to read it, as Mum thought I was too young, but Dad said I would take from it what I could and the rest would go over my head. Somewhat true – but I can still remember the moment, aged 8, that I staggered out of my bedroom reeling from the fall of Gandalf. I stood in the hallway, blinded by tears, unable to articulate what I was feeling while the mother of all arguments got going between my parents (starting with “I told you so.”). I’m a third generation Tolkienophile and I’ve since indoctrinated the fourth and fifth generations.
2. What is your favorite part of Tolkien’s work?
Tolkien’s writing isn’t perfect. No writer is. But he possesses the property that he grows with the reader. By my teens I’d read LOTR so many times. I knew vast tracts of it by heart, including the appendices. When Dad gave Mum The Silmarillion I did the same with that. I watched Ralph Bakshi’s terrible cartoon adaptation of LOTR and reconciled myself to the understanding that it would never be filmed (never say never!) and collected other Tolkien works from second-hand bookshops whenever I could. He was my favourite dead writer for most of my life (though my then favourite living writer, Ursula K Le Guin, has now joined him in equal first place). I literally cannot pick a favourite part, because I love whichever part I am currently reading. But my favourite character is Eowyn. Tolkien’s not brilliant on full-depth female characters, but he’s nowhere near as bad as he’s painted. Eowyn proved a great model for growing up, and for understanding the politics of being female. I might never have been called to be a shieldmaiden, but I completely understood (by age 11) the way in which girls can be thrust aside into purely domestic expectations “until use and old age accept them.” No wonder all those girls and their horses were keen to turn up in South Island New Zealand when Peter Jackson put the call out for extras on the films. It’s important to grasp the opportunity for out-of-the-ordinary life when it presents itself.
3. What is your fondest experience of Tolkien’s work?
Tolkien speaks to us. This undoubtedly arises from his real life experiences, as well as from his great scholarship – growing up as I did on Andrew Lang’s colour fairy books, the 1001 nights, Lancelyn Green’s Tales of the Greek Heros etc, I already had myth in my bones so it was a familiar language. Tolkien’s mastery of Anglo-Saxon and European mythology informs his work at all levels. In common with many young readers of Tolkien I took one particular comment of Gandalf’s as my life mantra. “so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
4. Has the way you approach Tolkien’s work changed over time?
Of course. Not only through approaching the books differently as I grew up (at 13 I stopped reading LOTR for some years because I’d started thinking about Aragorn and Faramir in a way I didn’t want. I realised I’d lost my childish admiration for them and was beginning to look at them with a more grown-up eye and I didn’t want that to happen. Going back in my late teens allowed me to come back fresh to them). As a writer myself now I find I can rarely completely lose myself in the story, but I am fascinated by how Tolkien constructs his tales (and the exquisite scholarship that went into his worldbuilding) and the work Christopher Tolkien did later to wrestle all those notes and fragments into further volumes. I wait longer between rereads, and they have all the familiar charm of an annual pilgrimage or a visit to a favourite holiday spot. But they still have their moments – where I turn a corner, or a page, and am confronted with an image that feels as fresh as the first time I read it.
5. Would you ever recommend Tolkien’s work? Why/Why not?
Yes, absolutely. For anyone who enjoys fantasy, especially if they are a reader, it’s the wellspring from which 20th century fantasy sprang. For us Brits it’s a ready-made mythology in a recognisable landscape, to which we come gladly for nourishment (and I believe Tolkien meant it that way – to give England that same kind of bred-in-the-bone mythology that the Celtic nations have managed to maintain).
But even more than that – these are great stories. The Hobbit is still a favourite amongst the children who use my library. It provokes great creative stories – hobbits are an endless source of inspiration for these young writers. Some will go on to attempt LOTR, and many will succeed. And now we have the wonderful Peter Jackson films (and a wealth of games as well) to introduce less keen readers to the worlds of Middle-earth. I am not one of those who disliked Jackson’s revisioning of LOTR. In fact, when I first heard that he might be doing it I told a number of people “if he’s working with weta workshops it might be okay.” It was better than okay. Some of his alterations were brilliant (though obviously not canon) including giving Arwen a greater role (although Glorfindel was one of my favourites, sadly). The way I described it to my sons was this: Middle-earth feels real. Reading Tolkien feels as though you are reading the history of a real place, as interpreted by him as historian of record. Peter Jackson has told us a different version of history. This happens with our history too – a new interpretation for a new generation. It doesn’t mean that it’s wrong. And if you love the films, the greatest complement you can pay Jackson is if that love leads you to read the books. Because the books are vast in their scope and give of themselves endlessly. Long may their influence reign.
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