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 K. A.’s responses:
1. How were you introduced to Tolkien’s work?
I was around 12 years old when the Peter Jackson films were released, and they were extremely popular in my home country, and so I think those films were the entry point. But my mother always had The Lord of the Rings books around, and I made my first attempt to read it then. I don’t remember anymore when exactly it clicked and I devoured the whole text, but that did happen eventually. I do distinctly remember my mother telling me that Tolkien was friends with C.S. Lewis, whom I knew from having read the Narnia books, and whose works she had always liked. Our copies of LOTR had a line of Lewis’s praise for them and I think my young self took that as a recommendation. So maybe I should say that I owe my introduction to Tolkien’s work to my mother and to C.S. Lewis.
2. What is your favorite part of Tolkien’s work?
It’s difficult to state one single favourite bit because I feel like as I get older and continually revisit Tolkien’s work, I enjoy different parts. When I was younger I just enjoyed that LOTR felt very complete as a story, with a beginning, a middle, and an ending. The quest felt very neatly tied up. As I got older a thing I kept coming back to (in LOTR) is how many of the characters practice compassion and humility, and how these are not weaknesses but strengths in very tangible ways, which seemed to always be missing from other works of epic fantasy. One reason my favour for the LOTR books soon overtook the Jackson films was how the book characters had reasonable discussions with one another over what to do about their impending crisis and kept making choices informed by mutual understanding and a sense of collective responsibility, rather than blowing up in a temper for dramatic effect and/or just making the right choice by luck (Compare: the Council of Elrond scenes, as well as the reason Merry and Pippin are able to join the Fellowship). I was and still am always struck by how timelessly relevant the environmentalist parts of the story are; I joke along with everyone else that Tolkien ‘just really liked trees’ but honestly the stories of the Ents and the betrayal of Saruman and the ever-changing relationship with nature are some of the most poignant parts for me.
Nowadays I think I am enjoying The Silmarillion and the rest of the Legendarium more. I used to like reading the first part of The Silmarillion in the same way I used to like reading the Old Testament of the Bible; I liked the creation myth, and the Edenic part of the cycle. In recent years I am appreciating the rest of it in terms of a really good intergenerational family drama.
3. What is your fondest experience of Tolkien’s work?
Up until I went to university, my experience of Tolkien’s work was rather solitary. Apart from the odd friend here and there, I didn’t know anyone who read and thought about the books as much as I did. All anyone really knew were the Jackson films, and I was usually the one person in the room who had actually read the books and would self-deprecatingly admit that I had a personal tradition of rereading them every year at Christmas. On the one hand, I think I was spared a lot of what we might call fandom nonsense (particularly as a female and Asian fan, which I knew could be had from other works with large followings and fan communities). On the other hand, it was slightly lonely. So when my college offered a Tolkien course by one of my best professors and I signed up, I just had a wonderful time having peers to discuss the text with and articulate a lot of the thoughts I had about it.
That course also helped me years later, when I decided to do a degree in Fantasy Literature, because it previewed to me the kind of work I might be doing at such a degree. I didn’t end up pursuing Tolkien for my dissertation, but I consider my time doing the degree as an experience I got to have because of Tolkien’s work.
But the most concrete ‘fondest experience’ of Tolkien’s work I can name is that once I submitted my dissertation for that degree, my then-fiancé and I made a road trip up the Scottish Highlands and the Inner Hebrides, and we listened to The Silmarillion audiobook as we drove into unbelievably beautiful and epic landscapes. You can imagine how the scenes came alive for us.
Also, we were married the following January 3rd. I will admit there was some Tolkien-related intent in choosing that date but it was not the sole deciding factor. We do still occasionally listen to The Silmarillion audiobook together though. My husband is a theologian, so he appreciates Tolkien’s work in his own way, but I know he asks me questions about the text on purpose so I have a place to vent all of my incoherent Tolkien thoughts, and am no longer so intellectually lonely.
4. Has the way you approach Tolkien’s work changed over time?
I can pinpoint a few ways in which my approach to Tolkien’s work has definitely changed ever since that first childhood read of LOTR. The first is that I used to revere his work, LOTR in particular, to the point that it was a bit of a measuring stick. I had such an awe for it that I felt like everything else in fantasy felt like it paled in comparison. As I got older and got to read Tolkien’s nonfiction, like his letters and essays, and just got to read more about fantasy in general and exercise that criticism muscle, that I could approach his work as less of an authority on all things fantasy and more of an exemplar of a particular kind of fantasy. So not only do I appreciate many other works of fantasy on their own terms now rather than by comparison to Tolkien, I am also much more able to question and problematise certain aspects or elements of Tolkien’s work now as an adult than I was a child. The most glaring one, which I still think about a lot, are the constructions of colonialist thinking in that influence the text, but are taken for granted and so are somewhat invisible. In my opinion, this is what is actually underpinning a lot of the racialist ideas of the text.
But I would hasten to add that I don’t think I’ve lost my childhood delight in reading Tolkien’s work at all. This is something I wish more people would consider, actually, that being critical of a work you loved in childhood is not the reason you have lost that idyll.
5. Would you ever recommend Tolkien’s work? Why/Why not?
The other way I think my approach has changed is related to the question of whether or not I would recommend Tolkien’s work to others. I used to feel that Tolkien’s work was the piece of fantasy literature that ought to be read by everyone. But I’ve come to realise that this is the same attitude many people have about reading works of ‘classical literature’ and part of why you have people pretending they had read Moby Dick or War and Peace. I think people should read what they choose to read, and if you believe in the beauty of the work, then you know that people will choose it.
So in my everyday life, if a person asked me whether or not I think they’d like reading Lord of the Rings, it would really depend on who that person is and what I know about them, and this is the same with all books for me. Publicly, or generally, I think I wouldn’t recommend Tolkien’s works to anyone, because I don’t feel like my recommendation is significant to a random person’s decision to read something—even as I do wish more people would read his works. If you couldn’t tell, my whole experience with Tolkien’s works has been enriching and rewarding, and I’d like that for more people.
You can find K. A. Montinola on Twitter!