03 January 2012

What Tolkien Means to Me

It occurs to me that most of my entries in this blog are not personal in nature and do nothing to help truly connect with my fellow Tolkien enthusiasts. In honour of Professor Tolkien’s birthday today, I’d like to share a few words regarding the impact his writings have had on me.

I’ll start by admitting that I am very much a realistic individual. I have never enjoyed fantasy as I knew it before Tolkien: faeries, wizards, magic – as a child, I could hardly imagine such a world where these things existed. And if I couldn’t believe in it, I didn’t want to read or even think about it.

I was almost eleven years old by the time I discovered J.R.R. Tolkien. Previously, my interest had been in science fiction – Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, George Orwell, and so on. My first step into the realm of fantasy was when, at the age of ten, Brian Jacques’ Redwall series somehow captured my interest and began to take up a great deal of my reading time. I say somehow because from what I can remember, it was basically rabbits and badgers and other furry animals talking with one another and going off into battle and doing other humanistic things that animals don’t normally do. At that point, my mother suggested I try reading The Hobbit; I remember my initial response being a rather snobbish, “What the heck is a Hobbit?” The name alone suggested something completely unreal, and the more I heard the word, the more I convinced myself I probably wouldn’t be interested.

I still don’t know if my mother has ever read any Tolkien herself, but where I was an avid reader always in search of a good book, she kept insisting that I at least read a few chapters of The Hobbit before completely making my mind up against it. As I wondered whether or not I could get into a book like that, making every excuse not to (“I don’t have time to go to the library, mom!” “I’m sure they won’t have it there!”), my uncle offered me his copy, assuring me that I would love it…

As it turned out, “love” was quite an understatement. There was something about The Hobbit that felt real, not imagined or made up like all the other stories I’d read. Sure, there were dragons and wizards and other fantasy elements throughout, but they were secondary and did not distract from the main plot, which I liked. It felt more like a historical account or a mythological tale – which, having taken several Latin classes at that point, had been heavily taught in school, and therefore were of interest to me.

I quickly moved on to The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, The Lays of Beleriand, Unfinished Tales, The Lost Road and Other Writings, and so on; and the more I read, the more three-dimensional Middle-earth became. When I struggled to “find myself” during adolescence, Middle-earth became a sort of safe haven. I spent more time reading Tolkien and writing “for fun” essays on The Lord of the Rings than I did trying to make friends or socialise with my classmates. As a result, people thought I was a little weird – but when you’re as passionate about something as I was with Tolkien, you don’t really pay that any mind; eventually, my “weirdness” gained me quite a reputation in middle and high school – I believe “Elf Girl” was what they used to call me – and despite making no serious attempts to fit in with my peers, I found myself quickly attracting many like-minded individuals.

Throughout high school, I continued writing Tolkien essays and character analyses in my free time; at one point, I even submitted a copy to a local college professor, hoping for some input. His reception was both honest and encouraging, and I knew from that moment on that I wanted to become a serious Tolkien Scholar and one day publish some of my essays – and maybe, if I was lucky, publish a book or go on to teach a course on Tolkien.

It was difficult to branch out and make myself known back then (before the social networking era); less than six months ago, I made the decision to begin Tweeting, blogging, and actively trying to participate within the Tolkien community, and in such a short amount of time, I’ve already come much further than I thought. Not long after I began this blog, I became a contributing writer for the Middle-earth Network, and am now doing what I had hoped to be doing ten years ago (I still haven’t published a book or taught any courses, but there is still plenty of time for that). And I am even more grateful now than I probably would have been in my youth. As much as I wanted to be a well-known Tolkien Scholar at thirteen or fourteen years old, and despite all of the papers and analyses I wrote, looking back, I still wonder if anyone would have taken a pre-teen self-proclaimed Tolkien Scholar seriously.

But the greatest recompense to have come from my Tolkien studies and participation within the Tolkien community is, as I’ve probably said countless times before, the community itself. Already I have struck up invaluable friendships with many fellow enthusiasts. I’ve connected with people from all over the world, people of various ages and cultures, people who prefer the books over the films (or vice versa); but they all have one thing in common: their love of Tolkien is what has brought us all closer together. And I strongly feel that the Tolkien community is the greatest fan community out there. I don’t think a person could ever find a friendlier group of people.   

It is still very surreal to think that it was ten years ago that I first read and fell in love with Tolkien, and that it has essentially taken up half of my lifetime (which, at twenty-one years old, is a decent amount of time to devote to something). 

Like I said before, I had – and still have – a very strong aversion to the fantasy genre. I read the Harry Potter series and some of Narnia, and thankfully, I never got into the Twilight series (sparkling vampires? Excuse me?). Despite my lack of interest in fantasy tales, there is something about The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and everything else Professor Tolkien has written that set these stories apart from all the other tales out there. One can really feel the passion that went into creating Middle-earth. I am sure that if he were alive today, Tolkien would be delighted to see the following he has gained and kept over a span of many decades.

It is my hope that I will soon be able to start posting more original pieces on my blog beyond my “365 Days of Middle-earth” and Hobbit movie updates. I am beyond grateful and appreciative of all the support and encouragement I have received so far, and I look forward to seeing what other doors may open for me in 2012.  

Once again, thanks for all the support! A very happy birthday, Professor Tolkien!



  1. Wow, in all honesty, with some parts of what you said, it's kind of like looking at my reflection in the mirror. Well, a prettier looking reflection than what I usually see, but a reflection nonetheless :p From discovering Tolkien at the same age, to my previous fantasy novel experiences having included some of the Redwall books, Harry Potter, and some of Narnia (I might have enjoyed fantasy novels more than you though), to spending my younger days reading far more often than socializing, with LotR being a “safe haven” as you put it. And where you wrote essays and such for fun, as a kid I tried jotting down my own ideas for small side-stories and original adventures within Middle-earth, nothing special, just for my own amusement – I am sure they were terrible, haha

    It’s been about ten years for me as well since I first read The Hobbit, though it’s safe to say unlike me, your passion for it enviably did not taper off over the years, from what I can tell. But I do think I understand where you’re coming from with what Tolkien means to you, as a once Tolkien-obsessed fellow myself. When you say that your love for The Hobbit was an understatement, I know exactly what you mean. Reading those stories back then, as someone who had grown up on Greco-Roman, even some Japanese and Hebrew mythology and stories, the mythological and historical aspects of Tolkien’s world you mentioned were just perfect. Middle-earth felt like a living, breathing world, from the Grey Havens to Rhun, then back to Numenor, Beleriand, Valinor, etc, unlike anything I’d seen in fiction before or since.

    I don’t think I can explain it very well beyond that, but I have a feeling you get what I’m talking about too. I may not be as big a Tolkienite as I once was, but without his work I would have missed a significant, extremely meaningful part of my past. Now this is probably already tl;dr, so I’ll just end by saying keep up the good work! Whatever your goals are for this blog or your work with Tolkien in general, I hope you achieve them.

    Oh, and I also will be staying clear of Twilight. Stoker and Polidori must be rolling in their graves. Well, I suppose that’s better than rising from them. /lamevampirejoke

  2. This is one of the things I really love about Tolkien fans, Xagzan! We don't necessarily need words to be able to understand the impact Tolkien has had on a person's life.

    I'm starting to come around in terms of fantasy...I like the Harry Potter films a bit more than I used to (I still have to read the last book, though), but for some reason, still haven't gotten around to giving Narnia another shot.

    Haha! I love real vampires, like the original story of Dracula, but I think Stephenie Meyer's books are abhorrent (to be fair, I never read them; but I was somehow dragged to the first movie and the whole time wanted to claw my eyes out).

    Thanks for your support and for being an avid commenter, by the way! Every bit of feedback is encouraging :)

  3. You're welcome, it's my pleasure :) It's also been my experience when meeting a Tolkien fan, it's like there's some sort of instant understanding between the two, or more, of you that arises even without words, as if it's born automatically from Tolkien's creation. Well, maybe not everyone experiences that, but it's something I enjoy whenever it occurs.

    Also, I always have liked Harry Potter personally. You should definitely keep the last book on your list, if you've read all the way to that point. And it really has been years since I regularly read fantasy, like the Wrinkle in Time series, or Pullman's His Dark Materials, but I'm trying to get back into it to, currently with Mary Stewart's Merlin quintet...which I bought ten years ago...and finally got to it.

    As for Twilight, I hear you on the being fair thing; it's perhaps a bit unfair to attack it for one like me who hasn't read or watched it, so I generally try to hang back from all the bashing, when I can. I'll take your word for it though, from the movie. But, I just don't understand what story purpose it serves in every trailer I see, for Taylor Lautner to suddenly take his shirt off out of the blue. Seeing that makes me feel like instantly reaching for my copy of Dracula or even just Byron's The Giaour. After all, I enjoy vampire stories when they are portrayed as the horrible, terrifying undead monstrosities they were in folklore-at least in Europe-but those seem very hard to come by these days.

    Ah, well. So it goes.

  4. That's exactly why I'd like to read the last Harry Potter book; I've read the previous books and seen all but the last two movies...I've come so far to not tackle the last one. And I'm sure I'll have an opportunity to read some C.S. Lewis in a few weeks once the Mythgard course has begun :)

    I don't know why current authors can't let vampires go on being the terrifying creatures we once knew and loved; I find the idea of Robert Pattinson being the posterboy for vampires insulting. And then we killed the genre by creating a bunch of awful movies and TV series on vampires. *sigh*

  5. Oh don't I know it. And even when it's a series that doesn't have vampires that brood over teenage love and angst, and is actually pretty dark and serious, like say, those Underworld movies, even then it's so much...action. Slick, Matrix-fighting, guns akimbo action. Fear, dread, tension, those are never involved. How can they be, when everyone's just brawling out in the open (although I do think Bill Nighy makes a wonderfully entertaining vampire)? Allow me to echo your sigh.

    So you are doing that Mythgard course then? It sounded very intriguing from what I read of it. Actually, I think there's an old professor of mine who would love to know of its existence, if he already doesn't. Well in any case, good luck with it :)

  6. The first time I read Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit... I think I was 19. I must say the level of detail was overwelming for a guy that was used to read horror stories and some astronomy stuff. I got into reading it because I came across the title in several other places.
    Even though I read it quickly (yes I must be a heathen to all of you hehe) something stayed inside my head and the movies just rounded the whole story for me.

    As I said the level of details, the many aspects of the story and the relationship between the characters (specially after reading about Tolkien's life) makes all the books, movies... even the game a temptation for people like me who don't consider lore devourers. It is inevitable to take a look at all the side stories and all they represent to each one of us.

    These are the stories that I wish for everyone to get, at least, a glance of what they mean.

    (sorry about my english, it is not my native tongue)

  7. @Xagzan - True! I haven't seen all of the Underworld films, but they were a little too action-y for my liking (I mean, I love action films, but vampires + action = doesn't really make much sense to me). Yes, I am finally taking one of the Mythgard courses, and really looking forward to it!

    @Ramiro - Up until The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, I had mainly been reading science fiction myself. Tolkien's work was much different. His fixation on details is unmatched by any other author, I think. I know a lot of people who couldn't get through any of his books because of the overwhelming amount of detail, but I always loved that about his writing. By the way, your English is great!

  8. Britta, these discussions are making me interested in reading the books. I love the movies and own the books though I've never read them. Maybe it's because of the overwhelming amount of detail in the book. I think I'll read the books starting with The Hobbit :)

  9. I'm so glad to hear it, Sophie! One of my goals with this blog was to help inspire those who haven't to read the books. If you liked the movies, I know you will love the books even more! Definitely start with The Hobbit, as it's the beginning of the story (and with the films coming out soon, now is the perfect time to read the book!) and a much quicker read, since it's only one book, rather than three. Once you read The Hobbit, you'll be hooked! :)

  10. We fans of the mighty Tolkien share many of your feelings and insights. Out of all the many works I have read in my life, for some reason, Tolkien's world never leaves me. It is one of the few things that remains as bright in my life today as it did when I first read his work as a kid.

    Great post!