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 Raphael 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 Raphael’s responses:
1. How were you introduced to Tolkien’s work?
Via my father.
He is a big fan of mostly Science Fiction with the occasional forays into Fantasy, and as avid a reader and book collector as they come. When I was little, he used to drop mysterious names like Bilbo and Frodo the hobbits, Gimli the dwarf, Boromir the man, Gandalf the wizard, Legolas the elf, and hint at their epic exploits. I remember those names already sounding like adventure to me, and being immensely frustrated when he wouldn’t tell me their entire story right then and there. (I have since forgiven him.)
Eventually, he gave me a German edition of The Hobbit to read (the small format dtv junior paperback edition with Klaus Ensikat’s magnificent butterfly-winged Smaug on the cover!), and that was it for me. If my memory serves me right, it would be a bit before he gave me The Lord of the Rings to read (that characteristic green German paperback edition), and then The Silmarillion. We’d then have the occasional re-reads of it all, the release of the new German translation, and then I’d ‘graduate’ to English editions.
In retrospect, that last step happened surprisingly late – I must have been in my early to mid-twenties when a then-girlfriend gave me a paperback box set after snooping out that I hadn’t read Tolkien in English yet, despite my reading having pivoted to original texts instead of translations for English/American literature years before.
2. What is your favorite part of Tolkien’s work?
If I have to narrow it down that much, I’d choose that the legendarium is not ‘just’ literary text, but text that has in-universe authors written into it, as well as different variants of a fictional manuscript tradition explaining in-universe how these books ended up in our hands. That makes the texts into something much more like ‘fictional artefacts,’ with their double layer of ‘literariness.’ To me, this makes for the most interesting and rewarding way of reading them because it gives the text’s narration a perspective of its own – a hobbit’s perspective on matters of the world outside the Shire, an elf-affine perspective on who is who in the universe, a cumulative scribes’ perspective on a personal account, or if we accept Aelfwine as a middle-man for The Silmarillion, a 10th century man’s perspective that explains how through millenia of history and highest craft, warriors remained clad in coats of mail.
All in all, I wish Tolkien’s transformative influence on the genre included a bit more of that, the artificial myth aspect, rather than just the high fantasy trappings of elves, dwarves, halflings, and orcs.
Beyond this aspect, there are many motifs or parts I like a lot. How Thorin acknowledges to Bilbo the value of the apparently unheroic hobbit way of life on his deathbed, and it being that same hobbit way of life that makes the Ring’s sway over Sam so weak – weaker than even over wise Gandalf! The big tragedy of Húrin’s family also speaks a lot to my old goth heart. And everything dwarves is an instant win in my book. (The fact that we get so little of them and their status in creation being that of a step-child ties in neatly with reading the texts as coming from a perspective dominated by elven lore, doesn’t it?)
3. What is your fondest experience of Tolkien’s work?
Overall, I guess it is whenever I get to discuss the hell out of a random facet of a Tolkien work with a fellow fan. For one, there is always something new to learn from listening to how somebody else read those same passages, especially someone looking at them from a completely different perspective and lived experience.
And I just love digging deep and comparing notes on what exactly we think it means that Tom Bombadil speaks in verse in a world created as music made real. Or where we stand on and arrange ourselves with the themes of Noldorian colonialism, the hobbit classism exhibited in Frodo’s and Sam’s relationship, the many racist descriptions of nonwhite ethnicities, and so on. Or whether or not to stan Boromir and why.
4. Has the way you approach Tolkien’s work changed over time?
Oh, definitely! You can’t step in the same river twice, after all.
Reading the texts for the first time when I was young, I was reading enjoyable fantasy adventure stories. Then I got really into the worldbuilding, trying to suss out all the details. Somewhere in between these two, I was a young lad reading them for their clout in the genre. (That turned out to be not very rewarding. 1/10 do not recommend.) Eventually, I came upon that notion of how much fictional perspective is in the texts, and it uprooted much of how I read them previously.
As an amateur artist, reading the texts for inspiration is a recurring thing. As an enthusiast of bowyery and archery, I started a complete read-through gathering all mentions of bow and arrow, descriptions of their use, armour worn against them, and so on. And finally, during my studies in Digital Humanities at uni, Tolkien’s work often featured either as a test bed for methods or an inspiration for term papers.
These are just the bigger currents that come to mind – but every re-read makes something subtly different stand out, or a well-known turn of phrase reveal something new, and therefore constitutes something like a new mini-approach.
5. Would you ever recommend Tolkien’s work? Why/Why not?
Overall, yes, because I believe there is something there for most people who are at least a little receptive to Fantasy. But it is important to remain aware that things can not click for all kinds of reasons.
Being able to share something I feel deeply about with somebody else is too good an experience to abstain from recommending just because it might not appeal, though. That we now have not only the books, but also Peter Jackson’s high-profile films and soon Amazon’s series as a gateway is a big boon.
For fans of the genre, I’d consider Tolkien essential reading at the very least because he was such a defining influence on Fantasy that we now have to make explicit when we are talking about the pre-Tolkien flavour of it. It’s like Blade Runner for fans of cyberpunk-y Science Fiction films – there are plenty reasons it might not end up a personal favourite, but it’s worth watching at least once to see what became the DNA that’s now woven through the entire field of things you enjoy. And what of it didn’t.
For more about Tolkien and other literature from Raphael, visit Twiter!