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 Dylan 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 Dylan Higgins’s responses:
1. How were you introduced to Tolkien’s work?
I was first introduced to Tolkien’s work when our family sat down to watch the Rankin/Bass production of The Hobbit on television in the early 80s. I was captivated by Gandalf and absolutely terrified by the goblins! To this day, I still prefer the R/B depiction of Gandalf (particularly the beard, the eyebrows, and the voice) and the goblins (Gandalf and the Goblins…that sounds like a band name). Not long afterward, my parents bought for me the children’s storybook vinyl of both The Hobbit and ROTK by R/B. I still have them! Unfortunately, it wasn’t until I was about to marry, in my early twenties, that I picked up the books. My interest was piqued when I came across the early release of that photo of the Nine at the ford, showcasing a scene from the Fellowship film. I then read The Hobbit and Fellowship at which point my wife caught up with me and we adventured the rest of the journey together. We have done so several times since.
2. What is your favorite part of Tolkien’s work?
If I have to narrow it down (which is very challenging for us all, I’m sure), it is the theme of hope. But this needs to be subdivided into two categories.
1. Hope in the midst of great despair – wherever you turn in this epic the protagonists are faced with insurmountable odds and yet there always seems to emerge a glimmer of hope. It arises in the nick of time. One moment that comes to mind is when Frodo and Sam see the star high above in the night sky, barely visible but for a chink in the dense clouds of Mordor – a sign that the winds of fate are changing. I see similarities in this with the chink in Smaug’s armor. In these examples, the narrow openings represent the way out, I think — the smallest of chances — but as with all such eucatastrophes a tiny glimmer of hope is all that we need! This is, perhaps, best worded by Legolas, who says of the seemingly hapless pursuit of the captured halflings, “Yet do not cast all hope away. Tomorrow is unknown. Rede oft is found at the rising of the Sun.” (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings)
2. LOTR is a powerful instrument of ‘sehnsucht’ for the far country — a yearning or longing for what Tolkien calls the True West, what Lewis calls Aslan’s Country, and what the Apostle Paul calls the future hope of Glory. This future hope comes to life before Frodo’s eyes on his voyage from the Grey Havens toward the West. I would suggest it is best described by Gandalf, in his discussion with Pippin about death, as follows:
PIPPIN: I didn’t think it would end this way.
GANDALF: End? No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it.
PIPPIN: What? Gandalf? See what?
GANDALF: White shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.
(J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings)
3. What is your fondest experience of Tolkien’s work?
If I may take the liberty, I have more than one!
– Seeing the Shire made manifest on the silver screen. It was a tearful moment!
Reading The Hobbit and LOTR aloud with my wife in our first year of marriage. We actually jumped up off the couch with excitement when Eowyn faced down the Witch King of Angmar!
– Reading The Hobbit and LOTR with each of my children (I have four of them and the oldest two have now adventured through with me). These readings have produced some of the best memories ever, as we have read on vacations, by campfires and fireplaces alike!
– Starting a smial of The Tolkien Society with my son which we named Remmirath Fellowship. Though we are only a year old we have about 20 members and we love to eat second breakfast and camp together!
– My sister’s life was taken from her nearly four years ago and she loved Tolkien’s work! A year or so after her death, I came across my son’s old Gameboy. He had recorded some videos on it that none of us had ever seen and that he had forgotten about as well. I uploaded them to my computer and found a video he had shot of my sister washing dishes while singing along to Annie Lenox’s “Into the West,” my eldest daughter by her side, painting at the kitchen island. She longed for the far country in life and it was a priceless gift to see her singing of it after she had passed into the west, herself!
4. Has the way you approach Tolkien’s work changed over time?
Absolutely! The books are an old friend to me having been a part of my life for decades. But I still get that feeling accompanying the excitement of the first read, which I now experience through my children. It’s akin to that renewed sense of wonder that parents experience through the eyes of their young child at Christmas time. Another major difference is that the older I get the more emotional I am when reading these stories — especially when reading aloud to my kids. There are many moments where I have to stop and collect myself before going on. My children wait patiently for me to continue, fully aware of what’s happening even though I’ve brought the book closer to my face as if I’m trying to see a word more closely. Nope. Just crying.
5. Would you ever recommend Tolkien’s work? Why/Why not?
Yes, I would and yes I do! I have taught several classes in secondary school on both Tolkien and Lewis and I’m always referring to Tolkien’s themes in my sermons on Sunday mornings. I think the congregation might be getting a little tired of the references but it won’t stop anytime soon. I would recommend Tolkien’s work because in it we see the human condition — the story of humanity unfolding. I know Tolkien has famously stated that his work is not analogous to anything particular but it certainly carries within it the heart of what it means to be human. This imaginative look at the heart and soul of mankind is worth sharing and often!