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 Phil 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 Phil Knight’s responses:
1. How were you introduced to Tolkien’s work?
My very first introduction to Tolkien was, I think, BBC’s Jackanory adaptation of The Hobbit, broadcast way back in 1979. Jackanory was a long-running children’s TV series in the UK in which a fairly well-known actor or celebrity would read an abridged version of a children’s story, usually interspersed with specially commissioned illustrations, over the course of 5 fifteen minute weekday episodes. The Hobbit broadcasts ran over two weeks and were commissioned to mark the show’s 3,000th episode. Rather than a single reader, several actors contributed to the reading, though my abiding memory is of Bernard Cribbins taking the part of Bilbo. Bernard Cribbins was – still is – a well-known actor and TV personality who did a lot of work in children’s TV. Fans of Doctor Who will likely know him from both the 1966 film Daleks Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. and as the grandfather of one of the companions of David Tennant’s incarnation as the tenth Doctor. He has one of those instantly charming and recognisable voices, and I can remember just being reeled in by it and then totally captured by this amazing story. I recently discovered the audio for these episodes is available on CD, so just had to buy, though it was with some trepidation I started to listen again with fears of childhood nostalgia about to go up in smoke! But I shouldn’t have worried and was pleasantly surprised to find it still holds up very well even now. I think it would still make an excellent introduction to Tolkien’s work for the right person. Yes, it’s an abridgement, but one that remains very true to its original. For me anyway, it became the catalyst for seeking out the book. The Lord of the Rings quickly followed, which I loved even more. But as a 10 or 11 year old at the time, The Silmarillion was a bridge too far and quickly ended in failure! I had to wait a few more years (quite a few in fact) until I finally “got” that.
2. What is your favorite part of Tolkien’s work?
This is definitely something that has changed, and continues to change, over time, and it’s nigh impossible for me to pick out one particular favourite part. As a child it was surely the thrill of the adventure, together with all the weird and wonderful creatures inhabiting Middle-earth. Then came recognition of the immense depth and detail underpinning his created world, a realisation which seemed to explode exponentially as soon as I started to dig into HoME where the full scope and vastness is laid bare. Learning more about Tolkien’s own context – his life, war experience, relationship with the inklings, and academic and scholarly work – has transformed, and continues to transform, the way I think about and appreciate his work. In more recent years I suppose I’ve engaged much more with Tolkien’s academic work. While this has certainly also fed into and significantly enhanced my appreciation of the legendarium, it’s also given me a far greater appreciation of Tolkien first and foremost the pre-eminent scholar. I suppose if forced to pick out one single aspect of Tolkien’s work it would perhaps be the way his academic knowledge as medievalist and philologist feeds not just into his Middle-earth legendarium but gives rise to so much of his other – perhaps my favourite – literary output: his Beowulf translation, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, The Fall of Arthur, The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun, Finn and Hengest, The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son, and so on. Ask me the same question in 6 to 12 months time though, and the answer will almost surely have changed! But then again, isn’t that also part of the beauty of his work?
3. What is your fondest experience of Tolkien’s work?
A number of your respondents have talked about “sense” memory and that’s certainly the case for me, too. I can vividly recall sitting in the garden of our house during a particularly hot summer reading The Hobbit for the first time; I must have been about ten or eleven. I also remember listening to the excellent Rob Inglis narrated audiobook of The Lord of the Rings while on a family holiday sailing around the Mediterranean – fond memories of that holiday will forever be inextricably linked with that book.
My fondest experience of Tolkien’s work, however, and one which ultimately turned out to be life changing, was participating in some online courses that Dr Dimitri Fimi presented through Cardiff University some 10 or so years ago. One was on Fantasy Literature, the other Tolkien, Myth and Middle-earth In Context. This was the first time I’d been exposed to Tolkien scholarship and also the first time I’d studied in the humanities at postgraduate level. Not only were these courses just THE best experiences in their own right, they became the catalyst for me to return to uni to study for a BA in humanities (specifically, I did a degree in Classical Studies). I’m now over halfway through an MA with Signum University following a Germanic Philology pathway. It’s no exaggeration to say that without Tolkien – and Dr Fimi’s influence in particular – the last 10 years or so would have taken a completely different and (I suspect) far less fulfilling direction.
4. Has the way you approach Tolkien’s work changed over time?
Yes, undoubtedly. I’ve touched on this to some extent in my previous answer to the question on my favourite part of Tolkien’s work, but from my very earliest encounters where I generally approached his work as a fan of his fantasy fiction, nowadays my engagement is much more with Tolkien the academic. This has undoubtedly added to my appreciation of his fiction and I can’t imagine ever losing the sheer enjoyment of reading his work simply for entertainment. At the same time, though, from a medievalist and philological perspective, I find his scholarly output endlessly fascinating, with so much still utterly relevant and influential in spite of its age.
5. Would you ever recommend Tolkien’s work? Why/Why not?
Yes, and indeed did so fairly recently. A friend who is really into Harry Potter and Game of Thrones had started to watch the Lord of the Rings films but struggled to get into them. I got her to try The Hobbit and, after she really enjoyed that, encouraged her to try reading The Lord of the Rings books, which she really enjoyed too – mission accomplished! Having said that, while I would never pass up an opportunity to point someone towards Tolkien’s work I appreciate that they aren’t going to be to everyone’s taste. On that basis I wouldn’t necessarily always recommend his work as a matter of course. I think many of his works demand a particular type of reader; I’m pretty sure the friend I mention would struggle with The Silmarillion, for example, so I would never push it – sometimes best to quit while ahead!
You can find more from Phil Knight on Twitter!