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 Joel 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 Joel Merriner’s responses:
1. How were you introduced to Tolkien’s work?
I first encountered Tolkien’s work when I was around eight years old, whilst rummaging through the second-hand book stall at my primary school jumble sale. Among the old paperbacks I came across a 1966 edition of The Hobbit (priced 10 pence), the one with the famous Death of Smaug drawing on the cover. Two things struck me immediately about this book; firstly I had never seen a book with a real live drawing on the cover (I failed to realise it was a printed image until I got it home and looked a little closer) and secondly what kind of person sticks a price label right in the middle of a dragon’s head?
Reading The Hobbit eventually lead me to the local library where I began searching the shelves for other Tolkien works. First, I found Humphrey Carpenter’s Tolkien biography, but this was far too dry and dusty for me to tackle. What the biography succeeded in doing however was alert me to the existence of The Lord of the Rings which then became the focus of my search. Unfortunately, all I could find in the library was a battered hard-back copy of The Return of the King so I read that first, using the faithful synopsis to bring me up to speed with the plot. Later, I borrowed copies of the first two volumes from a family friend. It is strange, but during the week I was reading RotK my Dad was decorating the house and there was white paint being splashed everywhere, including on my library book. Whenever I smell emulsion now it takes me back to that first Middle-earth journey.
2. What is your favorite part of Tolkien’s work?
For me it is the evocation of landscape, and if I were to pick a passage in his works where that touches me most it would be the LotR chapter “Three is Company.” The hobbits’ tramp over the fields and lanes of the Shire is so beautifully described, the bucolic scenes tempered by the creeping menace of the Black Rider, played out both in “real time” on the woodland path and in flashback via Sam’s Gaffer anecdote. And then of course, we have added attractions of the inquisitive fox and the arrival of Gildor Inglorion to lift the shadow.
3. What is your fondest experience of Tolkien’s work?
As a young reader obsessed with drawing it would be the many hours spent creating cartoon strips and battle maps based on the made-up adventures of characters from “The Line of the Dwarves of Erebor” family tree in “Appendix A” of RotK. Their names sparked my artistic imagination like nothing I had previously encountered and became a springboard for many subsequent creative endeavours.
More recently I would say my fondest experience has been sharing the stories afresh with my daughter. Reading The Hobbit, LotR and Farmer Giles of Ham together has been both fantastic and eye-opening. Watching her formulate her own Tolkien-inspired stories and art (including some fiendishly complex Dwarvish inscriptions) has also been a wonderful highlight.
4. Has the way you approach Tolkien’s work changed over time?
In certain ways, yes. From my first encounter with The Hobbit cover image my approach to the material has been rooted in visuality. When reading the books it has always been the images evoked in my mind, the sights of landscape and material culture that have dominated. Originally this would translate into the creation of my own artistic interpretations, painting, comic strips and illustration.
However, in recent years as my career has altered trajectory in favour of an academic approach to Tolkien so my focus has shifted to other people’s visual responses to the legendarium. By this I do not refer simply to those people engaged in illustrating Tolkien’s work, but also to the viewers of those illustrations. How textual and visual motifs combine in the mind to create meaning for the viewer is now central to my analysis of the material.
5. Would you ever recommend Tolkien’s work? Why/Why not?
Yes, and no. Yes, because I love the work and it has given me so much over the years it would feel remiss not to do so. On the other hand, no, because often it is better to discover something for yourself. This is how I first encountered Tolkien, and it imparted a strong sense of ownership – “This is my world, I found it by myself.” I still feel like that today. But not in a Gollum sense.