My Tolkien History

Why I find myself diving deeper into the mythology I love.

I’m a bit of a philomath. Though some might say I have a short attention span. I have fads where I’ll get obsessed with something; entertainment, creators, literature, art or specific subjects. I consume as much as I can and eventually the fire is quelled and the initial intensity of that interest is reduced to lukewarm embers. I still hold a fondness for whatever it was that so held my attention. I’m glad to have experienced it, but it soon becomes clear there is no longevity to my intense scrutiny. There is not enough depth to keep me returning in an obsessive fashion.

I’m sure you see where this is going.

I wasn’t always obsessed with Tolkien’s work. I have a relatively long history with his books and I had to be romanced before I fell all the way in love. I believe I was 10 or 11 when I first read The Hobbit. I recall the exact design of the book I borrowed from the school library. I have been trying my hardest to find it again now to add it to my collection. It had the famous green, blue and white mountainous landscape illustration, drawn by Tolkien himself. I remember that it was printed on a hardback cover, but I’ve only ever seen it as a dustcover. I may well be mistaken. I know there is a version of that book that was recently released as a first edition facsimile. I cannot recall if that initial encounter with The Hobbit was the first edition text, but at the time I didn’t particularly care for the storied and fascinating evolution of Chapter 5.

The Hobbit had a big effect on me. I wasn’t a voracious reader at all, but there was something formative about it. It established a benchmark; a feeling that I would reach for in fantasy literature afterwards. At the time I didn’t really know what it was about this story or writer that made such an impression. Thinking about it now I guess it was the way the narrative was told. It’s a history rather than a story. All in all I became very fond of Mr. Bilbo Baggins and I was keen to find out more.

My parents weren’t big readers, and I can’t recall anyone noticing that I liked this book and nudging me in the direction of anything else. I assume the Lord of the Rings was mentioned at the back of my copy of the Hobbit, but I have no idea how I discovered it properly. My memory leads me to believe my small circle of friends, who were more advanced than me in literary matters, were discussing it. I think we must have been around 12/13. I had a close friend that was very well read and had consumed LofR at around 11 or so. Then another friend had been staying up late at 12/13 to get to the end. I couldn’t help wondering about a book that would keep you up half the night to find out what happened.

I tried to read Lord of the Rings many time between the ages of 12 and 17. I always stalled. I recall getting stuck in the Old Forest a lot. Tom Bombadil was totally lost on me. The only up side to this state of affairs is that I’ve read the first 5 chapters or so a lot more than the rest and I truly love that initial journey across the Shire where the tension and danger begins to build with the search of the Black Riders.

I got a huge paperback edition of LofR for Christmas, and it was that book that I constantly failed with. It was too intimidating. No matter how long I read, what progress I made, I kept seeing just how much was ahead and it daunted me rather than excited me. Through college I tried borrowing Fellowship on it’s own to see if I fared better in chunks. It’s possible I got as far as the Council of Elrond before fading once again.

It wasn’t until I was 18 that I finally broke through and consumed the entire book. It’s this first complete reading of which I have the most vivid memories. There are many books, films and songs that I wish I could experience for the first time all over again. With LotR I feel the same, but still with the 6 years of trying beforehand intact. It was this wanting and failing that made the completion so special, as well as the actual enjoyment of the narrative and my reactions to how the story unfolded.

My favourite scenes from that first complete read belong to The Two Towers. The Three Hunters pursuing the Uruk-Hai and their Hobbit friends across the plains of Rohan was so exciting. The battle of Helms Deep was thrilling and the encounter with Shelob and Sam’s revelation unbearable.

My fondest memory is of finishing the book. I recall being quite surprised by The Scouring of the Shire. To me the main thrust of the book was tied up quite well, so to read about the Hobbits journey back and facing fresh adversity was something I had never contemplated. After multiple re-reads that section holds a very special place in my heart. More than that I have perfect clarity of completing the book. It was Christmas time, I was in a very comfortable chair under a standing lamp, is a small pool of light while the rest of the room was in darkness, just lit with the gently twinkling Christmas lights. It was lovely and when I re-read the book now I tend to try and complete it over the Christmas period in a similar setting.

I will confess I didn’t trouble to read the appendices. I was only concerned with the narrative and still didn’t fully perceive the depth Tolkien had created in making this story and that it was a very small part in a much larger mythology. For that is what Tolkien created over the span of his creative lifetime.

I don’t have any vivid memories of reading The Silmarillion. I do recall it was something I persevered through rather than reveling in. The opening chapter ’The Ainulindalë’ perplexed me. It is Tolkien’s creation myth and in understanding those few pages among the thousands that are published can make so many themes and threads clearer and more powerful. I feel I am in a much better position to tackle the Silmarillion now and I’m looking forward to giving it a re-read soon.

The epic tales in the History of the First Age did capture my imagination. Beren and Luthien left a particular impression. I recall wanting to adapt it into a comic at one point. This was before my current experience making comics, when I was still nibbling around the edges of the medium. It was obviously biting off more than I could chew on a number of fronts. Though it was clear the battle against Morgoth had captured a part of my imagination, and the scope and scale of the legends were totally removed from the much more personal narratives of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, which is saying a lot as even those books are quite formal and impersonal in the telling compared to the modern novel form.

The Peter Jackson LotR adaptations came along, and it made me fall in love with the story all over again. I never had too many problems with the choices they made. I admired the lengths they went to in design and production to suggest the depth and history of the source material. I recall watching the films with audio commentaries and playing the extended behind the scenes features in the background as I worked. I loved the artistry of everyone involved. I so wanted to be a part of that creative team to make those films. My fervour for those films reached an insane level when I remember thinking, after the Two Towers… ‘What if I were to die unexpectedly? I’d never get to see how they finish it!’ There is nothing else in media that has prompted this thought. I was totally obsessed.

I re-read the books, at one point on a yearly basis. I still recall one singular day. The sort of day you only really have in your late teens, early twenties, when you have no particular responsibilities. I decided mid morning I would begin reading The Hobbit. By mid afternoon it became clear I would continue with it until I finished it. I read the whole book in virtually one sitting. It was fantastic.

I explored Tolkien’s shorter works, the ones unrelated to Middle-Earth and enjoyed them for what they were while totally missing their significance. I have a copy of Unfinished Tales, but have only sampled bits and pieces. That is a book to be approached after a full immersion into the ‘Legendarium’. Something I’m planning to do now.

In the decade between the film trilogies my life moved on and my tastes broadened. I wasn’t all that fussed with The Hobbit films. My wife was pregnant when the first was released and we had a small child (and relatively rough experiences for those two years) when the others came out. All in all I didn’t feel too hard done by missing them, and when I caught up with the DVD’s it was clear I hadn’t missed a lot. My view on those films has softened with a re-watch. They are fine for what they are, but bare very few thematic relations to the book.

In the Autumn of 2017 I was having a bit of a hard time. I’d lapsed into a mild depression and in that state sought out an old comfort. I wanted to read The Lord of the Rings over Christmas again. It had been a few years since my last read through. It felt so comfortable and familiar. It was easy to read, which considering my history with it came as a shock. Parts I previously found difficult and dull now dripped with interest as my comprehension deepened and I found meaning in links where previously I’d had confusion. It was pure escapism. I was transported and comforted.

Every person has their ‘thing’. Some have it more obvious than others. Maybe it’s Star Wars or Star Trek? Perhaps it’s Marvel/DC comics or films. It can be an entire genre, or it can be a game or computer system. We all have our small obsessions. The things we get drawn to, the things we can’t help but explore. I’ve often wondered what mine was, as it hasn’t always been obvious. I’ve tended to flit about. I try lots of things, sampling a huge range of media. I’m always craving input. After that last reading of LotR it finally dawned on me that, no matter what, I keep returning to Tolkien. There is an irresistible draw there, and I’ve never fully explored it. I’ve simply considered it as a group of books I enjoy. Now I’ve finally realised it’s more than that.

I began trying to find out more and soon discovered there is a huge group of people like me, interested in the entirety of Tolkien’s work. Some to an extent I’ll never quite understand! I began my journey with ‘The Prancing Pony Podcast’ where two American Tolkien enthusiasts talk about a chapter of the books at a time and unpick it’s context, history and relevance to the wider Legends. I found it utterly fascinating. Eventually I began asking myself questions, writing things down, reading different books and sources… Suddenly my mind lit up and I have so much to think about.

I need an output for all of this and that’s what I hope to do. I’m by no means a scholar. I don’t plan to write in a scholarly way. I just want to try and process and understand Tolkien’s work better with the sole aim of enhancing my enjoyment of it. I have no idea if it will be of any interest to anyone else? But at the very least I hope a few people might read it if only to correct me and help me learn.

I’m excited to venture down this rabbit-hole, if nothing else the work in this series of papers, essays and articles will stand as a testament to the depth of creativity that a single individual was able to render over the course of their lifetime. Something anyone wishing to make anything might aspire to.

Bag End Door

Feel free to get in touch or comment below if you’d like to start a discussion on anything you’ve read or if you have any corrections to aid further study.

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