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 Charlie 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 Charlie Robinson’s responses:
1. How were you introduced to Tolkien’s work?
Summer 2002, when I was 10, on our family holiday to Northumberland. My parents always got us audiobooks to listen to in the car to distract from the 6+ hours it took to drive from Southampton. That summer, among others, we had the 1968 BBC dramatization of The Hobbit with Paul Daneman as Bilbo. I was hooked pretty much instantly: the music, the aesthetic, the characterisations, everything about it was enchanting. My parents bought me a copy of the book from a bookshop in Berwick-upon-Tweed (which I still have), but in the excitement of the holiday, I never quite got into it – the move from dramatized audiobook to Tolkien’s prose was an adjustment that I didn’t manage for a long time. On the way home from that holiday, we stopped in with my grandparents, who lent me their tapes of Brian Sibley’s 1981 dramatization of The Lord of the Rings. These I adored even more than The Hobbit. I learned all the songs, and still know them today – Sam’s song at Cirith Ungol is my favourite. I read the books at the time, but I barely remember it – again, the transition from dramatization to prose didn’t entirely work for me. I attempted The Silmarillion and got nowhere significant. That year, I saw the first two films, and between those and the Sibley dramatizations, with some vague memories of the books, I fell in love with Tolkien’s world. I didn’t re-read the books until my early 20s, and had that strange experience of half-remembering a book I’d read as a child, but simultaneously wondering if it was the same one. It was the closest thing to being able to read it for the first time again, and it was utterly marvellous, even having watched and listened to the adaptations in the intervening fourteen years. It’s always felt like a guilty secret to me that I have read the books only twice compared to dozens of times each for the films and radio plays. I know there is a brand of Tolkien fan who would consider that a lamentably small number, and it’s taken a long time to feel emboldened to be honest about it, which I think is a shame.
2. What is your favorite part of Tolkien’s work?
I have lots, and most of them are adaptation-specific, but Frodo’s illness and the Grey Havens in all its forms has got to be one of them. Frodo’s illness resonates very strongly with me, particularly Ian Holm’s cry of “where shall I find rest?”, and the Grey Havens, with its peacefulness, its mystery, its liminality, its promise of healing, and the conclusion of both the Fellowship’s travels and the entire age of the elves is so majestically powerful. Howard Shore’s soundtrack with that cor anglais solo (at the end of ‘The Grey Havens’ on the complete recordings) and Annie Lennox’s ‘Into the West’, Alan Lee’s pictures, Stephen Oliver’s setting of Bilbo’s Last Song, all woven around Tolkien’s own words and descriptions makes for something incredibly beautiful and poignant. It always stops me in my tracks, whichever version I’m getting it from, and it leaves me thinking for a long time afterwards, every time.
3. What is your fondest experience of Tolkien’s work?
When I read The Lord of the Rings again in my early 20s, followed by The Silmarillion for the first time. Having a long break away from the full text of the former, and having not got further than perhaps the Valaquenta on my first attempt at the latter, it was overwhelming and fascinating to dive deep into Tolkien’s world in his own words. The intervening 14 years between my first reading and my second almost reset my experiences of the book, even though I had watched the films and listened to the dramatizations dozens and dozens of times. It felt like reading the book for the first time again (an experience I envy for anyone who still has it ahead of them), separate from the experiences of those adaptations, and then adding the world of The Silmarillion to that just blew the whole thing open for me.
4. Has the way you approach Tolkien’s work changed over time?
Definitely! When I was first encountering it, it was quite a cerebral experience for me. I didn’t know I was autistic back then (I wasn’t diagnosed until I was 21), but it was probably one of my first major special interests, and it’s the one that’s lasted the longest. I loved learning all the facts and trivia, trying to learn how to write in Tengwar, how to speak Sindarin, I even made a little Elvish dictionary by breaking down all the names and translations in Robert Foster’s Complete Guide to Middle-earth. As I’ve got older, though, I’ve appreciated it more on an emotional level than I did as a child. Frodo’s mental journey is a very, very familiar one to me, and my late Granny had a Tookish streak that I didn’t understand until last year. Sam’s courage and love for growing things has been a balm and inspiration in the ups and downs of a new career as a gardener, and the passing of the elves just gets more poignant all the time for me. I think for a long time, I’d held off the obsessive bits of my interest because I’d been teased for loving Lord of the Rings so much at school. I’d kept it at arm’s length as a scholarly, nerdy pursuit. But finding my place in the fandom, realising that I am allowed, nay, encouraged, to love these books, this world, this author as much as I do, and that I’m not alone in that love have been huge moments that only happened in the last year or two.
Additionally, the more I listen to historically under-represented voices in the fandom (thinking particularly of those speaking on the experiences of non-white fans), the more I am beginning to understand the complexities of Tolkien and his fandom. As I become more integrated with both, I am also more frustrated with both and with myself for their limitations and my acceptance of them. So my personal growth with Tolkien is happening at the same time as, and entwined with, these considerations, which is a strange, sometimes bewildering, fascinating, and valuable experience. I’m also still chewing over how my identities as a disabled, autistic, queer fan actually work together as well – I’d not really imagined until recently that they could ever be relevant, but the more personally involved I get with Tolkien’s work, the more I end up thinking about it. One day, I may even have some answers…
5. Would you ever recommend Tolkien’s work? Why/Why not?
Between my own insecurities about looking like “one of those nerds” (which I am, but I am other things too) and the knowledge that the fandom isn’t always a comfortable place to be for everyone, I do sometimes hesitate to recommend Tolkien. As I am sure many other autistic and/or neurodivergent folk will know, balancing between sharing your love for a subject with people and info-dumping on them so hard they end up too dazed to take the recommendation is tricky! I love the films, radio plays, audiobooks, and print books equally and for different reasons, and I enjoy sharing that love with people along whatever lines they want to work, especially if someone finds a way to access Tolkien that they didn’t know about – I love it when people realise they can access Tolkien, having thought they couldn’t before. If someone has only seen the films, I think that’s great, and there’s loads to talk about there. I want to suggest the books in those conversations, purely for a different and slightly expanded take on the same material, but I’m always wary because of the slightly gatekeeper-ish nature of that suggestion in other contexts.
For all that, though, I would ultimately recommend him to anyone who was even tangentially interested in fantasy, who enjoyed the films, who enjoys a good radio play, or enjoys authors who riff off and invent mythology. I like to think of the fandom as a huge expanse of land with many different routes in and many places to set up camp once you’re in there. There is room for all, and new spots popping up all the time (I think those who come by way of Amazon will end up with a decent-sized pitch!) – it’s all the fandom, it’s all based on the same stuff, and in the end, the more the merrier.
You can read more from Charlie on their excellent blog!