Cheers and happy birthday to J R R Tolkien

I was going to continue writing about systems and villains today, digging in to Django Unchained, but I have been informed that today (Jan the 3rd) is J R R Tolkien’s Birthday. The writer of Lord of the Rings would have been one-hundred and twenty-one today, ten years older than Bilbo at the start of the Fellowship.

I could write about the new Hobbit movie, but I don’t care to. Tolkien fans with either love it, or love to hate on it. Peter Jackson’s saga will surely draw attention to epic fantasy, which will change the course of fantasy fiction a little, which in turn will result in a backlash and more shadowy assassins and villains win! books later on. That is simply part of the ebb and flow of the genre, at least as long as I have been reading it.

Instead I would like to write a little about why Tolkien is important to me.

My love of Fantasy did not begin with Tolkien. It started with history books (Cortez and the conquest of the New World was my favorite… ugh, bloody minded little bastard, I was) which morphed into an interest in Arthurian mythology and the Faerie court from Midsummer Night’s dream (The first play that I saw at Stratford) and then into Dungeons and Dragons and Sword of Shannara. These later two have direct connections to Tolkien’s work, and eventually prompted me to read my mother’s worn old copies of JRR Tolkien’s masterpiece.

I was about twelve, but like most of my family and many of the other lifelong readers that I know, I was reading well beyond a grade twelve level (meaningless statiscal drivel). I remember being distinctly unimpressed by much of the books. I was not interested until Gimli joined the fellowship and not hooked until Boromir died. Brooks works seemed much more adult to me back then, with more death and violence and viciousness and obvious darkness. I enjoyed the Lord of the Rings but it was not on my favourites list. As a precocious child I made sure than everyone knew that I much preferred other books (which varied depending on what I had just read) instead of that kid’s stuff. When confronted about this in my university career, I thought about why, and was forced to point out that I found the whole series rather dry. I even felt smart, in the way that cynics often do, for saying that. I did enjoy Tolkien’s world-building, even back then. His Dwarves and Elves, Moria and Mordor, enthralled me as ideas, even if they did not win me over entirely to his great work.

I felt a small a debt to Tolkien for what he added to the genre, but had I not re-read the books as an adult, I would have kept on insisting that Tolkien was oudated and rather stuffy, a foot-note in fantasy. I insisted that Jackson’s movie trilogy was better than the books, because it had real emotion and active pacing.

What brought me back to the fold was actually Lord of the Rings Online, the MMO. They were bringing out a Moria expansion, and I wanted to see how close the game was to the books. So I re-read the Lord of the Rings in preparation for the release of that expansion. By then I had delved deep into the Fantasy genre, and also further into philosophy, history, and mythology. Plato, Campbell, and Nietsche. Martin, Mieville, and Gemell. (My inner bookshelves are a confused mess). This time, not even Tom Bombadil could dim my enjoyment of Lord of The Rings. The trilogy really sprung to life in my mind. I was full of questions and theories. Inspired by Theoden King. Shaking my head at the hateful familiarity of Wormtongue and Denethor. I could feel the hopeless, oppressive atmosphere of the third age. I picked up on so much more that second time around. Lord of the rings immediately won its way to the top of my shelves once again.

This prompted me to read the Hobbit for the first time ever. By now I was over my fear of being seen as immature for reading “children’s books”, havind just read Harry Potter and loving it (The number of lumbering, tattoo’d, bearded manly men who told me I should rather surprised me). I found the Hobbit to be even better, and not just because I love Tolkien’s Dwarves. The Hobbit has an extra layer of polish, revised by JRR himself after writing the lord of the rings. The Riddle Game, Smaug’s Lair, Bard, The Hints of Darkness and corruption. Thorin and the battle of the five armies. Wow. While the world-building and imagery of the Hobbit are not as strong, the pacing, characterization and emotional appeal are even better than lord of the rings. I can honestly say that the Hobbit sits very highly in my estimation. I wonder what main series would be like if he had been able to take another pass.

After reading the Lord of the Rings again, and the Hobbit for the first time, I felt foolish for dismissing his works as dry and out-dated. I could see the subtle influences and appreciate the characters now. This experience taught me, yet again, that the best way to approach a book is with an open mind and a sharp eye for details. Tolkien’s world is one that only comes alive to those who are willing to look. The deeper you look, the more you find. I now understand why Tolkien fans re-read his works so often: it grows with you, far better than most.

Cheers to you Mr Tolkien, and thanks for the good times!

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2 comments on “Cheers and happy birthday to J R R Tolkien

  1. judaidan says:

    I also didn’t fully appreciate the level of complexity and beauty of Tolkien’s LOTR series until I was in my early twenties. In grade school, I had an amazing librarian who was particularly kind to me, saw that I read mostly fantasy, edited and typed out my first book I ever wrote about a “swashbuckling (Mary Sue) teenage girl who time travels to ancient Ireland and is descended to elves” and she would order books with me in mind. Awesome, huh? So when she unwrapped a brand new edition of LOTR and told me I would love it – I was so excited. I couldn’t get past the whole “Concerning Hobbits” bit (and it never would of occurred me to skip it). I read the Shannara series first because it was one series my mother (who mostly despises fantasy) actually owned, It was a shock when I read LOTR years later and saw how much Terry Brooks mined (and not in a unique or positive way IMO) from Tolkien. I didn’t read The Hobbit until high school, and I just adored it. I really wish I had read it as a child. However, I’ve read it twice to my oldest and am reading it now to my youngest, so it’s my way to vicariously see it through a child’s eyes.

    Unfortunately, I think that there was a tendency to dismiss any sort of fantasy as “children’s’ literature” at one time, irregardless of violent content and so on. LOTR is an adult novel and an extremely complex series that needs a well furnished mind to fully appreciate. That’s not to say a young person couldn’t appreciate it, or that the books themselves are without flaws (I hate hate hate mad Tom Bombadil – may his house burn down and his wife run off – Argh! – and the pages and pages of the Council of Elrond – an editor would have been nice). I think a lot of fantasy enthusiasts have, and will continue to have, a complicated and sometimes, dysfunctional history with Tolkien. It’s important that he continues to be celebrated, but sometimes I worry that he has dominated the world of fantasy for far too long, has grown bloated and tyrannical in our estimations. I would much rather think of Tolkien as a progenitor of fantasy, branching out and nourishing new fantasists in multiple artistic endeavours, rather than the irreproachable Cronos-like creature who devours his malformed young.

  2. grimkrieg says:

    Well said. Although you kind of went crazy with your last sentence 😀 I’ll blame that other discussion we were in 😉

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