Sue Bridgewater’s Experience–Tolkien Experience Project (59)

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 Sue 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 Sue Bridgewater’s responses:


How were you introduced to Tolkien’s work?

At University in the late sixties, I made some very good friends who have stuck with me for 50 years. One of these, during a conversation about what we had all read before we became official students of Literature and Language, turned an astonished gaze upon me and cried ‘What do you mean, you haven’t read The Hobbit?’

So I put off buying whatever set text I should have bought for a while, and bought The Hobbit. Fell in to it and disappeared for a while.  Came out and read The Lord of the Rings (I still got my required essays written, though they were rather a nuisance.)

And so it went on – and so it goes on.  New Tolkien text appears; I buy it, read it, cherish it. What would have happened if I’d fallen in with a different group of friends is something I try not to imagine.

What is your favorite part of Tolkien’s work?

I’m not keen on ‘favourite’ questions – each of Tolkien’s works, whether fiction or scholarly, has its own tones and nuances and qualities which need to be appreciated for themselves.  Over the years, I have when pushed begun to say that my favourites are Smith of Wotton Major and Leaf by Niggle; however, all the others are my favourites too!

What is your fondest experience of Tolkien’s work?

The many times I have been moved to tears reading or re-reading key passages: Thorin’s death; Frodo’s ‘I will take the ring’; the fall of Gandalf; ‘joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief;’ and many others.

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

Yes, as I have read more of his works, and more (and more) of the writings about him and his work, I have learned to understand how sub-creations affect us, that my tears were and are expressions of recovery, escape and consolation. When re-reading, I’m not looking at the works in that assessing kind of way, but do draw more from them as a reader because of my deeper understanding.  I’ve also written and had published a few articles about Tolkien’s work, and turned to writing my own sub-creative fiction.

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

Yes, but not to everyone I know. You can’t make everyone over into copies of yourself, and ‘Fantasy’, speculative fiction, is not for everyone. Although everyone needs their own roads to recovery, escape and consolation, we have to accept that we can’t force people to like everything we like.  I’m happy to be in touch with fellow Tolkienists across the world and to share our pleasure in Tolkien; that’s a joy within the walls of the world, and a light when all other lights go out.


For more from Sue, you can follow the blog on her website!

LotRFI–Signing Off

Hello everyone,

I just wanted to add a postscript to this project thanking you all for joining me on this fun journey to reconstruct my first reading of LotR! If you want to revisit any of my First Impressions series, you can see them all listed at the index page.

This series is over, and I am planning a little hiatus while I work on completing my PhD dissertation on Tolkien! Don’t be sad, though, because I have two important announcements to share with you!

First, I will continue to post the Tolkien Experience Project over the hiatus. Second, I am already contemplating what my next series of posts will be. So you will still have weekly content from the blog, and even more will follow soon!

Thanks again for supporting me in my journey to explore how many readers respond to and interact with Tolkien!

LotRFI Pt60–The Last Word

‘Well, I’m back’ (RK, VI, IX, 1031).

Seriously, that is the end?!?

I was incredulous and underwhelmed. After such a lengthy and grueling journey, in which I had left so many characters and experiences behind, I expected, nay deserved, more! I was flabbergasted that this was the end to such an epic quest. After the shock of this ending passed, my mind began creating a number of endings that I thought were more suitable for the story.

im-back_orig
Image copyright New Line Cinema

Perhaps the three remaining hobbits ride out together on more adventures. They revisit Bombadil and purge the evil from the Barrow Downs. Perhaps they go back to Bree and set the record straight about the Rangers. My mind was racing because I could not settle for the ending I was presented with.

This was probably a major contributing factor for why I didn’t read the appendices. I was so let down by this ending that I walked away and entered into my own imagination to change it. I have subsequently realized that I would have undoubtedly been upset by any ending to the story, and that all of my own ‘endings’ were really an attempt to extend the story, even into a sequel. Indeed, it is probably because I did not read the appendices that my own imagination took flight into different stories. Had I read them, I probably would have been re-grounded in Middle-earth and the background of LotR instead of trying to extend the story in my own direction.

What Do You Think?

How did you react to this final line?
Did you go on to read the appendices?
Did I miss anything? Let me know!

LotRFI Pt.59–Grey Havens

The lengthy series of departures earlier in the text were very trying for me. This parting of ways, though, was much more difficult. Not only was it the end of Frodo’s journey, but of Bilbo’s and Gandalf’s as well.

alan-lee-grey-havens_orig
Image copyright Alan Lee

The blow of the previous departures was softened by my expectation that all books ended with characters back to where they began. On some level, then, I knew that the heroes could not all live the rest of their days in Gondor or the Shire together. I was not expecting these three major characters to leave now, so late in the text and with so little forewarning. Of course, reading it again, I saw just how many times the narration describes such a departure, but I was not looking for it the first time.

I was heart-broken when it became clear that all three of these characters were leaving. The only solace I had was the way in which Frodo hands down his story to Sam. The tradition is kept alive for another generation of hobbits, and the obligation that began with Bilbo continues.

Another one of the most memorable quotes from my first read comes from this scene. Gandalf tells the hobbits that he will not castigate them for crying:

‘I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil’ (RK, VI, IX, 1030).

This was a consolation to me, as a reader who was already crying before this line. As a young boy, this was not the kind of response I typically received to tears. Gandalf’s acceptance of grief made me that much more emotive for the remainder of the scene, and I remember tucking myself away for a good cry after finishing the text.

It is important to note, once again, that I was not a very observant reader in terms of foreshadowing, and I did not read the appendices. Because of these facts, I did not understand that Frodo and the others aboard the ship were headed to a land of healing. Instead, I read the entire passage as an extended metaphor for death. As Frodo gazes out into the mist and espies

‘white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise’ (RK, Vi, IX, 1030).

I took this as a reference to heaven. These characters were dying and passing into the next life, leaving the others to pass on their story. I do not know if this deepened my sadness. It was the departure, the absence, which truly made me sad. In any case, I read the remainder of the text dutifully, but without much enthusiasm.

Where Do We Go From Here?

To the Final words of the text, where else?

What Do You Think?

How did you react to the Grey Havens?
​Did you know where Frodo was headed?
Did I miss anything? Let me know!

LotRFI Pt.58–The Scouring of the Shire

I was utterly unprepared for the Scouring in my first read of LotR. Almost every book I had ever read had an ultimate climax, and then a denouement to return the main characters to normalcy. I was shocked that there could be trouble after the Ring is destroyed.

sergei-lukhimov_orig
Image copyright Sergei Yukhimov

This event was pivotal to my interpretation of the hobbits in my first reading, though. This is where the hobbits display their new-found maturity. The quest has changed each of them, and those changes are displayed throughout their confrontations in the Shire. Merry, Pippin, and Sam all gained courage, confidence, and the ability to lead others.

Nowhere were these traits more apparent to me than in the preparations leading up to the Battle of Bywater. The hobbits of the Fellowship gather together disparate groups of hobbits and rally their spirits to out their oppressors.

For Sam, courage manifests itself on a personal level as he finds the strength to talk to Rosey Cotton, and ultimately marry her. Frodo, though, shows a different type of development. He has learned pity and mercy after these characteristics saved his life and all of Middle-earth. He demonstrates this several times in his interaction with Saruman and Wormtongue outside of Bag End. He offers them freedom and forgiveness several times.

As a child, I detected the changes in Pippin and Merry much more readily than those in Frodo and Sam. Their actions and outward appearance changes drastically after the quest. Even Sam was easier to understand because he seeks out more responsibility and involvement in the community. While Frodo partakes in many of these same responsibilities, this is not as noticeable a change for him.

Unlike the other hobbits, though, Frodo carries wounds that never heal. While Frodo was my least favorite hobbit, I still pitied his pain and I wondered if he would ever find healing.

Where Do We Go From Here?

To the Grey Havens, then on to the final words of the story.

What Do You Think?

How did you react to the change in the hobbits?
What did you think of Frodo’s pain?
​Did I miss anything? Let me know!

Ian L. Collier–Tolkien Experience Project (55)

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 Ian 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 Ian L. Collier’s responses:


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

Technically at school as my class of 12 year old kids had The Hobbit as a book to read as a class reading (each taking turns to read it) but as my father died around then I didn’t finish it with the class and forgot all about it – you can guess why. 4 years later though during the summer holiday from school I saw my sister reading a book with a strange design of a ring & strange red letters and asked what it was – she told me I could read it after I’d read The Hobbit. So I read The Hobbit and then sneaked reading of The Lord of the Rings (in 3 volumes) as my sister hadn’t finished it but had to go to work at her summer job – so I could read it when she wasn’t at home – and then went to get copy of from the library to read straight away after. I’d read Catch22 in a similar fashion earlier but have only re-read that once unlike TH & LotR etc 😉

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

Oh now that is something I would describe as very hard to pin down beyond ‘all of it’ In TH & LotR There’s the sheer depth of the world you experience around the characters and action. TH may be a bedtime story for kids but there are all these hints at older stranger things around the edges, in LotR there are even more and then at the end you get the appendices and “Tale of Years” with all these little snippets of ‘history’. After that you find The Silmarillion with its mythology and then the wars of the elves that are hinted at in TH. Unfinished Tales is a gem as it bridges Sil & TH/LotR with background information and also new stories.
After that you can discover Farmer Giles of Ham, or Niggle and his Tree, and the Father Christmas Letters are jewels of imagination and artistry, Tolkien’s output is a deep well of wonderful tales or scholarship wrapped up in fiction.
There is also the pleasure to be found in reading them aloud to other people (kids & adults).

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

Reading Farmer Giles of Ham with a group of students in Taruithorn (The Oxford Tolkien Society) who had never read it before – it was a delight.

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

Not really, I still just pick up a book from my shelves – they are quite tame so there’s no need to sneak up on them.

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

Of course I would, and have, before the films actually came out I was interviewed a few times for the Tolkien Society and I was asked what I would say to someone who had tried to read LotR and given up – my reply was to read it until the end of the Council of Elrond and if you weren’t hooked then not to worry about it – books are different to each readers’ taste and for some people the ebb and flow of familiarity and danger as FotR takes you from birthday parties, on to shadowy hunters etc works to draw you in but for others …

 

LotRFI Pt.57–Bilbo

Bilbo served as a vital link between H and LotR for me in my first reading. I loved Bilbo’s character in H and was curious to see what would happen to him in this new tale. I was surprised, then, when he quickly exited the stage and was replaced by Frodo. Nevertheless, Bilbo served a pivotal role. He was no longer the protagonist of the story; instead he was a patriarch, the figurehead at the beginning of a tradition. He preserved the Ring and passed it to Frodo. Now Frodo, and the reader by extension, must see the quest through to the end, if only for the sake of Bilbo. This was very clear to me in my first reading.

The idea of the quest of the Ring as an inheritance from Bilbo is emphasized in the Council of Elrond. Bilbo volunteers for the quest:

‘Very well, very well, Master Elrond…It is plain enough what you are pointing at. Bilbo the silly hobbit started this affair, and Bilbo had better finish it, or himself’ (FR, II, ii, 269).

He is turned down and the quest falls, instead, to his heir, Frodo.

bilbo
Image copyright Greg and Tim Hildebrandt

Bilbo functions to keep the reader motivated throughout LotR. I would argue that this is especially true of younger readers who were particularly invested in him in H. I know it was certainly true for me. I wanted to see what happened to this ring that Bilbo collected and that brought doom to the world. It was important to me that Bilbo was not implicated in anything so heinous.

Perhaps this post is a bit unexpected, especially here in the midst of the story’s conclusion. I have good reason for putting it here, though. Bilbo continues to serve as this important motivator for younger readers even through the end of the tale. When the hobbits revisit Rivendell, he is there to catch up on the adventure and to demonstrate how much the world has changed. Not only has the age of Men begun, but the age of children’s tales is fading, much like Bilbo himself.

Finally, this theme is enacted as Bilbo travels to the ships to sail west. Frodo finally comes to an even footing with his mentor after completing the quest which the one bequeaths the other. They part the world at the same moment, and this serves to bookend both LotR and H.

Where Do We Go From Here?

To the Shire, and then to the Grey Havens.

What Do You Think?

Did you see Bilbo as a structural element in your first reading?
Did you expect to see Bilbo as much in LotR? Did you expect to see him more?
​Did I miss anything? Let me know!

LotRFI Pt.56–Many Departures

Since I can remember, I have been prone to melancholy when significant events or phases of my life conclude. I do not know if this was caused by LotR or if I already had this tendency. What I know for certain, though, is that the protracted series of departures in Book VI were cruel and unusual punishment to me as a child.

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Image copyright Peter Caras

Each character that broke away and said goodbye would sting a little bit more. This started as early as the departure of the Fellowship from Gondor. I knew that everyone would have to return home, but I did not like saying goodbye to the likes of Faramir and Éowyn. As the Rohirrim leave for their land, another wave of sadness struck as the brave Eorlingas left. As Gimli and Legolas bade farewell to the Fellowship and turned toward their various ends, I was greatly saddened. Oddly enough, Treebeard saying goodbye to Merry and Pippin was one of the hardest farewells for me to read. This emotion finally reached its pinnacle with the departure of Aragorn. I remember sobbing as he vanished in the glimmer of the Elfstone, thankfully I was at home.

This extended leave-taking is still hard for me to read without welling up with emotion. I do not know what inspired Tolkien to write the departures in such a prolonged manner, but it certainly struck home in this reader in the first reading.

A couple of side-notes:

The way that the three bearers of the Elven Rings talked back and forth was interesting to me, though I did not wholly understand that they were actually conversing with one another. I just assumed this was some long exchange of meaningful glances.

I thought that the interaction with Saruman on the side of the road was the last I would see of him. I thought it served to show his declined state and how he was prone to making idle threats. I did not know that it foreshadowed his part in the Scouring of the Shire, but more on that later.

Where Do We Go From Here?

A special mystery post about an undisclosed character, then on to the Shire!

What Do You Think?

Do you like how Tolkien organized the departures?
Did they change your estimation of the book?
​Did I miss anything? Let me know!

LotRFI Pt.55–Aragorn King, Aragorn King

When Aragorn finally acknowledges his title, beginning with the ride out to the Black Gate, he changes dramatically. He becomes an archetype of the ‘good king.’ This is a motif that I was familiar with from reading Arthurian fiction, and Aragorn fits the role pretty well. Like my response to Frodo, I appreciated how Aragorn took on the responsibility of kingship but I did not like him as a person in this role as much.

returnking3
Cover art copyright Michael Herring

I cannot overstate how much I loved Strider in my first reading. He was cool but responsible, mysterious but stately. He was like the gruff uncle or something. He was very likable and I felt this likability diminish as he ascended to his throne. In short: I liked Strider better than Aragorn, and I think I still do. As a character, Aragorn becomes more distant and aloof to the hobbits. This is only natural because he has so much more responsibility, but it felt like a ‘growing apart’ in a way. Aragorn was moving on with his life, and the hobbits and I were still the same.

We were changed by the quest, of course, but not by status or class. For the hobbits and the reader, the change is internal, a maturing or growing up, but for Aragorn it is largely external. I felt this keenly in my first reading. While I still loved Aragorn, because he was still partly Strider, I lamented his change in status. Since I did not read the appendices, I did not know that the hobbits ever saw Aragorn again. I thought that he basically forgot them once he went back to Gondor: a melancholy ending to the relationship.

As a side-note: since I did not read the appendices or pick up on the hints throughout the text, Arwen was a mystery to me when she showed up to be his queen. I did not know who she was, or why she should have such an immediate claim on Aragorn. I essentially had to judge her based on her actions once she is Aragorn’s queen. I decided that I liked her enough, because she gave Frodo a present, but that I still did not know her very well. Keep in mind that I did not realize what she actually gave Frodo. I thought that she basically gave him a token, and that she was simply describing how he is destined to go West (something that I promptly forgot before the end of the book).

Where Do We Go From Here?

To talk about the many departures, then a special mystery post!

What Do You Think?

How did you feel when Aragorn became king and started taking on those responsibilities?
Did you feel a shift in his relationships to other characters?
Did I miss anything? Let me know!

LotRFI Pt.54–Sauron and Evil

Disclaimer: the nature of evil and the way we interpret it is inherently combined with the worldview of the reader. That means that I cannot effectively discuss the depiction of evil in LotR without addressing how my religious upbringing interacted with my ideas of evil in the world. I try to avoid such religious criticism when I can, but it is essential in this post. Feel free to skip to the next post if you are uninterested in this type of commentary.

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Image copyright Ted Nasmith

Since I read LotR as a kid, Sauron was a very effective depiction of evil to me. He was a disembodied, vague figurehead who inspired malice in his followers and crushed or corrupted his enemies. He was able to achieve all of this without ever being seen.

This type of pervasiveness made Sauron seem very complex to me as a child. I had a hard time understanding critiques of evil in LotR as being simplistic or naive. How could it be simplistic if it is able to be so pervasive and influential? To me, raised as a Sothern Baptist, Sauron was an accurate depiction of Satan (not the figure, but the figurehead). I did not understand that what people took issue with was the monolithic appearance of evil. As I think back, my lack of understanding is not very surprising to me.

Now we get to things hard to express in writing, especially plain writing without metaphor: As a child, evil was simple to me. Satan was simple to me. It was anything or anyone who caused pain or disagreed with someone I loved. This included those little thoughts of rebellion inside my own mind. Those things which were labeled as evil were to be avoided instantly. As a child, I did not wait to make distinctions or to problematize the character of evil, I fled it. Therefore, Sauron appeared as complex to me as any other evil, because all evil was monolithic.

To contradict myself, channeling my inner Walt Whitman, just because evil seemed simple does not mean that it was easy to defeat or avoid. The way that Tolkien portrays the Ring made sense to me as a Christian. I saw it as an embodiment of temptation. This is how Boromir was corrupted by it, and why each new character was to be mistrusted. Anyone at any time could feel the pull of the Ring and become ‘evil.’

To try to sum up what I have meant to express here: as a child evil was easy to identify, but impossible to avoid entirely. Sauron was a perfect embodiment of this kind of evil, which overlapped with my understanding of Satan from the Christian tradition. This meant that Sauron was, to me, the most effective antagonist I had ever encountered.

Where Do We Go From Here?

To examine Aragorn as a king, and then to start the homeward journey!

What Do You Think?

How did Tolkien’s depiction of Sauron interact with your view of evil?
How did you understand the Ring’s pull on other characters?
​Did I miss anything? Let me know!