Robert Steed’s Experience — Tolkien Experience Project (176)

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 fan.

To see the idea behind this project, or if you are interested in sharing your own, visit the project homepage. If you enjoy this series, please consider helping us fund the project using the support page.

I want to thank Donato Giancola for allowing me to use his artwork for this project. Prints are available on his website!

Now, on to Robert Steed’s responses:


1. How were you introduced to Tolkien’s work?

As far as I remember, I was first introduced to Tolkien in the third grade when the teacher started reading a chapter from The Hobbit during reading time each day. While I remember enjoying that, it did not move me to engage with Tolkien then. It was not until middle school when I read The Lord of the Rings that I started to really enjoy and engage with Tolkien’s work on a more sustained basis.

2. What is your favorite part of Tolkien’s work?

I am sure this is a common response, but it is difficult to identify a single favorite part. What my favorite is seems to shift from day to day, from season to season, from age to age, and from mood to mood. That said, parts which I always enjoy are the Ainulindale, Akallabeth, “Riddles in the Dark” from The Hobbit, “The Council of Elrond” from LoTR, and “On Fairy Stories.” I could add a great deal more, but then the list would become absurd. It would probably be briefer and easier to list what I do not enjoy.

3. What is your fondest experience of Tolkien’s work?

Not too long ago, I would have said that my fondest experience was when I was simply discovering the legendarium for the first time and starting to plumb its depths. More recently, since I started organizing a small conference and participating in various Tolkien groups, I find that sharing Tolkien’s work and having the chance to learn from others in congenial settings is creating my new fondest experience(s).

4. Has the way you approach Tolkien’s work changed over time?

Certainly it has. As a teenager I read it primarily for the fantasy elements and the action sequences. Since then, my attention has shifted much more to the relational and interpersonal aspects of Tolkien’s work, with a particular interest in the philosophical, metaphysical, and religious underpinnings and themes of it. The attention he devotes to meditating upon the nature of mortality throughout his legendarium has proven to be deeply meaningful for me. There is a strong phenomenological dimension to Tolkien’s work as well, both academic and literary, and that is fascinating. I also pay more attention to the potentially problematic aspects of both Tolkien’s legendarium and his scholarship. Tolkien is a genius, but not beyond criticism; I do not think he would accept being idolized.

5. Would you ever recommend Tolkien’s work? Why/Why not?

Yes, I would and do recommend it, but gently. Tolkien’s work is deceptive in a way; the fiction can be read purely at the level of story/plot, but of course the reader does not have to stay at that level. There’s always layers of possible interpretation below the surface and beyond the plot. It’s like an onion centered within a Ptolemaic universe—-layers upon layers, wheels circling above circling wheels. Tolkien seems to have thought about and to care about everything, from the smallest seemingly trivial detail of plot to the structure of language to the nature of love and evil, all the way to abstract metaphysics and ontology. Taken as a whole, there is literally something in his work for everyone.

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