J.R.R. Tolkien would be 121 — “twelvity-one” in hobbit-speak — today were he still with us in body. I say “in body” because any person moderately interested in the fantasy genre knows full well just how omnipresent Mr. Tolkien is in spirit and influence. I am not, however, of the faction who feel Tolkien created the world of high fantasy. Certainly Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jules Verne, and Arthur Conan Doyle — to name a few — blazed part of that trail before Bilbo set off on his most unBaggins-like, unhobbitish journey.
Tolkien, though, picked up their trail and turned it into a superhighway traveled by the “usual suspects” of fairy tales like shape-shifters, dragons, and elves — though Tolkien’s elves wouldn’t have been recognizable to the Grimm brothers, but also by new wayfarers like orcs, wargs, and — of course — hobbits. I can’t say much that isn’t already written in the multitude of volumes in libraries today extolling Tolkien’s works and cutting into the minutiae of Middle Earth. I have nothing in my poor hack writing to add to them. What they cannot do, however, is tell what Tolkien, hobbits, and Middle Earth meant and still mean to me.
I read The Hobbit for the first time thirty years ago when I was a fat, awkward kid in sixth grade. The library at Gray Court – Owings School was a welcome refuge for me since I was nonathletic, unaesthetic, and borderline neurotic. One October afternoon, I had just finished off the last book in the World War II section of non-fiction when Ms. Goodhue, the finest school librarian to ever hold the title, sat me down and asked if I’d ever read any fantasy. I could honestly reply in the negative because I wasn’t really sure what fantasy even was. Without fanfare, she went to the paperback section of the “big kids” side of the library (supposedly for 7 – 8 graders) and brought back The Hobbit. She told me to try the first few chapters and let her know if I liked it.
Much to the chagrin of my 3-6 period teachers AND my grandmother, I read the entire book before bedtime that night, stopping only to take a spelling test and eat supper.
The next day, Ms. Goodhue took my glowing report of how much I loved the book then reached into her book bag and pulled out HER PERSONAL COPY of The Fellowship of the Ring for me to borrow. I read it — and The Two Towers and The Return of the King — by the end of the week. That Saturday, I went to the now-long-defunct Waldenbooks in the now razed-to-the-ground Greenville Mall and bought a matched set of all four books with my entire piggy bank . . . and a little “advance” from Papa Wham. To this day, they sit in an honored place on my office bookshelf. I’ve read and reread those four books AT LEAST sixteen times cover-to-cover in the intervening years. In fact, that set is so precious to me, it nearly caused my beloved Budge and I to “have words.” The movies were due out and she wanted to read the books beforehand so she asked me if she could read MY set. Having seen how she was prone to treat other paperback books she read — crushing their spines and bending pages — I flat-out told her NO to her (and my) utter shock. In my defense, we’d only been married about four years and I did not possess the wisdom and knowledge a husband of more years would have displayed. I immediately recanted and told her she could, but as every woman reading this knows, I couldn’t have PAID her to TOUCH “those books of mine” so I took her to dinner RIGHT THEN and we bought her very own set — which I have not touched to this day.
That incident is just a taste of how The Lord of the Rings has been a thread through my last three decades. I think the major reason is I discovered the books at a time when I was in profound need of seeing someone small and insignificant use wits . . . and a bit of Tookish luck . . . to overcome tons of negative stuff being hurled at him. Even though it had been five years since my parents’ divorce, I was still unable to process why my mother and father were not together. To top things off, Daddy had remarried and so had Mama and now Mama was realizing exactly what the wise aphorism “Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face” really meant. In short, I was at a time of overwhelming mental and emotional turmoil. Tolkien gave me a place to go. When I was in Middle Earth, I was aware of the dangers, but they were dangers I could face on equal terms with sword and steel instead of lying helpless before words and people more cruel than any orc. Middle Earth was my refuge at a time when I desperately need one and it has sheltered me from many more woes and foes this world has offered.
So thank you, Professor, for turning the horror of WWI’s trenches into a world where a little boy could escape, if but for a little while and join a heroic quest to a Lonely Mountain because, as writer G.K. Chesterton so eloquently stated, ““Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”
Love you all and hope the new year is off to a great start! Keep those feet clean.