I was eleven years old when my mother brought me to a garage sale to buy a white sweater. Naturally, because the purchase involved clothes, I wasn’t terribly interested. But somehow the man running the sale discovered that I was a reader. He insisted that I had to have specific books, important books – “These are the books he has to read,” he wanted my mother to understand. She did understand, but as a single mom struggling to make ends meet, she explained to him that she just couldn’t afford all of those books, even if they were the ones that I Just Had to Read.
He pretty much gave the books away for free; with a white sweater and a garbage bag full of books, we went home. I was living in an apartment with my grandmother at the time, and had a room of my own. I remember opening that black garbage bag, piling the books on the floor, and even at that age the irony of treasure in garbage bags wasn’t lost on me. Little did I know that one of those books resonated with that irony: “All that is gold does not glitter.” Indeed.
It was a year of reading, but it was especially a summer of reading. Once school was over, I decided it was time to delve into the whole pile. This was my reading list: The Chronicles of Narnia, A Wizard of Earthsea, The Last Unicorn, the first Terry Brooks Shannara trilogy, The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and Unfinished Tales. I even made brave forays into The King James Bible, though it was not part of the “garbage pile.” It sounds to me now like far too much for one summer, but I was consumed with a need for Story. It also sounds like a rather sedentary summer for a twelve-year-old boy, but in fact it was not. There were sidewalks all through the neighborhood, a small copse of trees that to my imagination was Mirkwood and Terabithia and the Wandering Trees of the Isle of Roke and whatever other enchanted forest I needed it to be; there were hills that looked so green to me then, though I know in truth they were probably more brown. But dragons were behind each knoll’s crest and fairies danced just behind the next tree. What people who do not read fantasy fail to realize, I think, is how much longing it produces for the outdoors; simple walks in twilight under the sidewalk lamps become quite a magical affair. When I read “Tintern Abbey,” Wordsworth’s recollections of his energetic youth remind me now of this summer: the summer when I became, in a deep, identity-fashioning way, a Reader.
Gollum Reads Tolkien
Lord of the Rings, actually, took me a bit longer to complete than the summer; I read it on weekends in the Fall when I visited my grandmother. I still remember the smell and feel of the books in my hands; I remember finishing the first chapter of The Fellowship of the Ring and already feeling sad that the story would someday end. When I finished C.S. Lewis’s Last Battle, I remember having a sort of Neoplatonic ecstasy (I didn’t know that was what it was then) where I felt some cosmic Goodness peering down from the clouds and up from the grass; it made me excited to live in this world. But not so with Middle-earth. Reading Tolkien made small talk and small tasks seem, well, so desperately small, far too respectable and Baggins-like, nothing Tookish about it whatsoever.
As I have read in the writing of other LotR readers, there is a bit of Gollum in most Tolkien fans; there is something so precious, that it panged me to hear others irreverently mention plot points or the names of characters as if they were talking about just any other story, as if Tolkien was just some “version” or “example” of fantasy. I wanted to hoard Tolkien’s mythology under my belly like Smaug and never share it. I did like the movies, and I still do, but I am still unsure what I react against more strongly: the person who “simply doesn’t care for Tolkien” or the casual fan. It’s not your cup of tea – I find that confusing, unimaginable, but very well. But to have a take-it-or-leave-it appreciation for Middle-earth? I wish that you were hot or cold – the lukewarm shall be vomited out of this supercilious Smaug’s mouth. “It is MINE,” I say, my greedy, lamp-light eyes flashing, “My precious, my garage-sale present!”
Many of my dear friends have a similar feeling about Tolkien’s works; I have had many fulfilling conversations with them now, and have at least begun to outgrow my Smaugish Gollumnity. Something that often perplexes them, as it has even perplexed me, is that I have never reread The Lord of the Rings. I have reread the Silmarillion in its entirety and specific tales several times; I am even currently rereading The Hobbit for the third time. I’ve kept up with Tolkien’s posthumous publications, including the Histories, read his Letters, read scholarship by professional Tolkien scholars, and, as I mentioned, have seen the movies, at least twice through now. But my hand has been stayed from reopening Lord of the Rings. It was not out of some fear that the books would be ruined or less magical; I was confident in the brilliance of the story and have remained so. I have consulted a passage or two when debating the plot hole argument concerning the Eagles and the One Ring (which is a silly argument, by the way, if you read with anything like attention to detail). But it was the One Ring sort of effect that kept me back: What else could I possibly motivate myself to do, when I am in the midst of reading The Story? I must wait until I am undistracted by anything that would weaken my attention; maybe a summer, maybe a winter break, maybe I will find some way to pause the Time-Space Continuum so that I can give each word the full attention it deserves. My fellow Elf-friends have even expressed wonderment as to how much I love Lord of the Rings if I have only read it once – is my allegiance to Frodo true?
I read Perelandra a bit late in my reading biography, long after I read Out of the Silent Planet for a class in grade school and even longer after that threshold summer I droned on about above. It is a story, if you haven’t read the Space Trilogy (and really you must), of Professor Ransom, who goes to the planet Venus as an enlisted member of some serious cosmic warfare. He discovers what I guess could be called The Problem of Good. We often talk of the Problem of Evil, but how are we to respond to goodness? This problem comes to a sharper point as he encounters the sweet smells of fruit growing in the forests: “To say that they made him feel hungry and thirsty would be misleading; almost, they created a new kind of hunger and thirst, a longing that seemed to flow over from the body into the soul and which was a heaven to feel…There was something in Perelandra [Venus] that might overwhelm a human brain” (37). That is Middle-earth for me in general, a place that delights me so deeply that sustained reflection upon it all nearly overwhelms my nervous system, exceeds the capacity of my mortal reach for appreciation of Story. It is a similar difference for me between Isaiah and Ezekiel, or The Gospel of John and Revelation. Isaiah and John I can hardly stay away from for long, but the fearful, blissful reverie of Ezekiel and Revelation is a transport I am hesitant to simply enter into, as if I could be so bold – like Moses routinely visiting the Burning Bush for a casual chat. I do not defend the reaction entirely, although I do not dismiss it entirely either, and do not think that it should be so dismissed (if surely I do not promote its adoption).
And so my long pause in returning to The Lord of the Rings – as with Ransom as he tastes a fruit of Perelandra, I feared that “Perhaps the experience had been so complete that repetition would be a vulgarity—like asking to hear the same symphony twice in a day” (38). As with Ransom, I could not just reread The Lord of the Rings because singularity seemed a part of the very thing: “He had always disliked the people who encored a favourite air in the opera—“That just spoils it” had been his comment” (43). As with Ransom, I am not against capitalism but against profiteerism: “Money, in fact, would provide the means of saying encore in a voice that could not be disobeyed” (44). The plot of The Lord of the Rings has been bought and sold and repeated across the vast chasms of the Internet, not always in cheapening encores for others, but it did often feel so to me. An unfair perception in many cases on my part towards others, but I do not think the pause, the delay of Encore, has been terribly wrong. I hope I am better equipped, on this second reading, to be a worthwhile Reader of The Story.
As I near the end of my doctoral work and long, I admit, for a recollection (in an admittedly somewhat Neoplatonic sense) of who I am as a Reader, I believe the time has come to revisit Tolkien. I can hear the Music of the Ainur and the Waters of Ulmo as I am more than halfway through my reading of The Hobbit, and I think I ought not let this reverent pause become a stranger’s neglect. Fear of a cheap encore is one, after the journey I have had through literature, that I still respect but have, perhaps, outgrown. One of my New Year’s Resolutions, therefore, is to revisit Tolkien’s world. I am feeling a bit Tookish, you see, and wish to go see the great mountains again.
In addition to these, I will be revisiting Tolkien’s shorter works and letters, especially if I am able to get ahead of schedule.
January: The Hobbit
February: The Fellowship of the Ring
March: The Two Towers
April: The Return of the King
May: The Book of Lost Tales 1
June: The Book of Lost Tales 2
July: The Lays of Beleriand
August: The Shaping of Middle Earth
September: The Lost Road and Other Writings
October: The Return of the Shadow
November: The Unfinished Tales
December: The Silmarillion