It was December 19, 2001. Budge and I got stuck in Woodruff Road traffic on the way to Regul Hollywood Twenty and we were hurrying past rows of cars flying American flags in their windows. Feelings were still running high and patriotic over the 9/11 terrorist attacks just a few months old. That night, however, my mind was free from the existential dread the attacks had cast over our country. It was opening night of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.
We got to the box office about ten minutes after the movies supposedly started and I questioned the young lad selling tickets, “Have I missed anything?” He said he wasn’t sure. I replied, “No, you don’t understand; I’ve been waiting and dreaming about this night for twenty years. I can’t miss anything.” He told me I might be better off coming back the next night to be sure.
So the next night I was seated next to Budge as Cate Blanchett / Galadriel’s voiceover of the creation of the rings began playing. I was as excited then as I had ever been in my life. This movie, and it’s two sequels — released the following two Decembers — was the culmination of my love affair with Tolkien’s work, The Lord of the Rings.
I blundered onto The Hobbit totally by chance. I was browsing the shelves at Gray Court – Owings School library when I found it. I liked the cover because I like eagles. I was in sixth grade and at a time of nearly unparalleled stress in life. Soon as I got to Granny and Papa Wham’s that fall afternoon, I sat down on the cold concrete slab of the carport with my back to the half-wall and started reading. By the time Granny called me to supper three hours later, I was over halfway through. I would finish the book before I went to bed.
The next day, I took The Hobbit back to the library and asked the greatest librarian ever, Ms. Goodhue, if the library had the sequels the back cover of the book mentioned. She told me sadly the library didn’t have those books because they were considered high school level. I walked away dejected.
The following day, Ms. Goodhue called me down to the library and handed me three books. They were hardcover with the dust jackets removed to show what I now know was the One Ring outlined in fire on the covers. Ms. Goodhue said, “You’ve been reading on high school level since third grade. Take care of these and bring them back when you finish.” She was loaning me her personal first edition copies of The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King. The last time I priced a set of those books on eBay several years ago, they were running nearly $100K for a mint condition set with perfect dust jackets. So now you know why Ms. Goodhue was one of my earliest heroes.
I started in on the first book as soon as I got to Granny and Papa Wham’s house that day after school. Notice I don’t say “home” because when I was in the sixth grade, Mama and I didn’t have a home. We were staying with Granny and Papa — Mama’s ex-inlaws — because Mama had left my first stepfather after a summer in Columbia and we didn’t have anywhere else to go. It was tough on me. At the time, I knew it was exceptionally hard on Mama, but looking back I understand why I had a lot of upset stomachs and Mama kept a headache most of that year. The whole situation exuded stress. Imagine eating Sunday dinner with your Daddy and stepmother knowing your Mama is sitting on the bed with the door closed just across the hall. Just another depot in the rolling trainwreck I call my life.
But I digress. This is about The Lord of the Rings!
I tore through the first novel and was 3/4 through when I got one of the biggest jolts of my young life. Gandalf died. Now I’d grown attached to the kindly old wizard all through The Hobbit and the first part of The Fellowship of the Ring. Nobody said anything about Gandalf dying! They need to tell someone something like that. Nothing had prepared me for the moment he plunged off the bridge of Moria in battle with the balrog, Durin’s Bane. I lost it and started ugly crying. Just sobbing. I was reading in bed with Mama and she turned over and asked me what in the world was wrong. Saying, “Gandalf just died!” didn’t communicate the gravity of the situation to her. She just hugged me and tried unsuccessfully to remind me that, after all, it was just a book.
As readers of the books know, Gandalf doesn’t stay dead and I was as happy when he reappeared as I’d been distraught when he died. I finished all three books in less than a week and safely returned them to Ms. Goodhue. It’s only as I’m older looking back that I realize what it meant for her to trust me with her books like that.
So The Lord of the Rings became a touchstone for me. I would turn to them often over the years. When I was in seventh grade, I bought a set of my own with covers which match the picture at the head of this post. I’ll never forget; they were 25% off at Waldenbooks in the Greenville Mall and I was shopping with Scott Blume and his mother. I still have those books, even though I had to replace The Two Towers after I foolishly lent it to someone who will remain nameless. I’ve got another combined volume bound in leather and complete with a slipcase Budge gave me for Christmas one year. I’ve had others, but those are the two I’ve read the most.
Funny story, when the movies came out, Budge hadn’t read the books and wanted to. She asked me if she could read my set. Something in my face told her no before my mouth could wisely say yes. She couldn’t believe I would value books more than her! That even put me in a pickle for a bit, but I managed to return to her good graces by purchasing her a set all her own. I still read the books. I also liked the movies, but I was disappointed by a few things being left out as well as some things being added. Overall though, I thought Peter Jackson did a great job.
The Lord of the Rings is still a vital part of my day-to-day life. When I’m having a bad day, which happens more often than I wish, I’ll pick up one of my copies and scan a favorite passage. I’ll always stop and watch if I come across one of the movies channel surfing. Most of all though, they help me sleep. I have a difficult time getting to sleep, especially on nights I don’t take anything to help me sleep. When I’m lying tossing and turning in bed and can’t get my mind to shut down, I’ll start going over passages in my head. I’ll refight the Battle of the Pelennor Fields or struggle up Mount Doom with Sam and Frodo. I drift off with the songs of elves in my mind.
So it’s safe to say Tolkien has had a huge impact on me and still does. I have other books I love, but I don’t think anything will ever replace The Lord of the Rings in my heart. It’s always been there when I needed somewhere to run away to.
Love y’all and keep your feet clean.