The Lord of the Rings is one of those books that is a deeply personal, deeply significant text for me. For all my excitement about the fact that I get to teach a course devoted to it, I am also rather anxious—it has been my experience that those texts you love above all others can also be the most difficult ones to teach. For one thing, you tend to know them so well that it is easy to jump enthusiastically all through them, forgetting that your students don’t have the same facility with them. For another thing, that same enthusiasm makes it easy to go off script and confuse your students with your “oh, and there’s this cool thing here too!” impromptu riffs. And perhaps worst of all, it can be deeply depressing when your students don’t share your love. There’s really nothing worse than looking around, as you geek out about how awesome this novel/play/poem/film is, and see a sea of indifferent faces.
I have had variations of this happen to me in the past when teaching, among other things, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, The Crying of Lot 49, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Dr. Strangelove, and Neuromancer. Considering the general enthusiasm of my LotR class for Tolkien, I am hopeful to avoid at least the third pitfall. But I’m still anxious.
All that is just apropos of introducing my next Return to Middle-Earth installment, which was the title of this post suggests, is something of a self-indulgent memory of first coming to read Tolkien. Even better: it’s the first part of two!
When I was nine years old or so, my aunt bought me a boxed set of the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis for Christmas (or possibly my birthday—if the latter, I was just turning ten). As much as I loved reading, I did not immediately get into them. I was a devotee of Hardy Boys novels and anything on sharks or WWII that I could get out of the school library, but had not yet felt the attraction to fantasy. I did make a few attempts at The Magician’s Nephew, but never quite got into it. I wish I had known then that it wasn’t necessary to read that one first, that C.S. Lewis had in fact written it sixth; had I started with The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, I think I might have gotten into the series much sooner.
(If I can make an aside here as a much-belated thanks to my aunt: I remember getting that collection of books, and I remember being unenthused at the time. However much I might have loved reading, books were never what I wanted as Christmas or birthday gifts, not unless they had a lot of big, glossy photographs of fighter jets or sharks. So my muted thanks were probably less than gratifying to my aunt, but her choice of gift has been vindicated. This was very much on my mind this past Christmas, as one of my gifts to my niece Morgan was Neil Gaiman’s latest children’s book Fortunately, The Milk—a brilliant tale of time-traveling dinosaurs, pirates, aliens, and volcano-gods named Splod—and which I knew would not be appreciated amidst even the other gifts I’d given her, never mind the cornucopia of stuff from everyone else. But I hope it takes root in the months and years to come, much as my aunt’s gift of Narnia did for me. So: thank you, Aunt Carolyn. If I was less then enthused then, I have built up slightly more than thirty years of enthusiasm since).
I wish I could remember the moment that Narnia first came alive for me. I feel like I should, but there is only a vague gap between being unimpressed with The Magician’s Nephew and every single book in that collection being (barely) held together with scotch tape. I also started writing, then, stories that, like Lewis’, involved children from this world having adventures in a fantasy world they blundered or were drawn into. Mostly they featured me and my friends from school.
As all children of a certain age do, I talked endlessly about what fascinated me, and at this point it was all Narnia all the time. Normally, of course, adults listening to such disquisitions tend to have their eyes gloss over, and just nod vaguely until they can politely change the subject or walk away (something I encountered later in life with unwary people who asked me “Oh, so what’s your dissertation about?”). So it was weirdly disconcerting to have one of my father’s friends, a neighbor from across the street, actually listen and ask pointed questions about what I liked about C.S. Lewis. The conversation then took this turn:
ME: So, you like the Narnia books?
HIM: (shrugs) Yeah, they’re OK.
ME: (vaguely offended) They’re “OK”?
HIM: Oh, don’t get me wrong. They’re good. But Lewis is no Tolkien.
ME: What’s … a Tolkien?
HIM: (laughs knowingly) Kid, if you like Narnia, you will love The Lord of the Rings.
He then loaned me, not LotR proper, but a children’s-book version with images from Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 animated film. “See if you like this,” my dad’s friend said, “because the actual novel’s pretty long.” To this day I don’t know why he didn’t just recommend I read The Hobbit—the existence of which I only learned about when I was about halfway through LotR—but the upshot is that my first experience of the story was infused with late-1970s fantasy art. A few examples:
The film was designed to be the first of two, but the second (to the best of my knowledge) never got made, so the storybook ended with Gollum about to lead Sam and Frodo through the secret entrance to Mordor that proved to be Shelob’s lair.
One way or another, the story captivated me. Not long afterwards, I was out with my mother as she ran errands. We stopped at the local mall for a few things, and went to the W.H. Smith (a bookstore I ended up working at for the better part of my high school years). I always loved our outings when we stopped at the bookstore, because I was allowed to choose a book that Mom would buy for me. I was perusing the SF section when a great, huge, black brick of a book caught my eye.
Without thinking, I grabbed it and took it up to where my mother waited by the cash. She looked dubiously at the book, and then at me, obviously more than a little skeptical. “Will you actually read that?” I nodded. “Do you promise?” Again, I nodded.
I don’t think I convinced her, but she bought me the book anyway, even though it was about three times the price of the paperbacks I normally got. Now that is maternal love and faith.
That was late spring of 1984. I finished it some time in early autumn, having spent the better part of the summer engrossed in it. I have few memories of where I was when reading it, except for two. That summer I went to a friend of my parents’ cottage with my father, brother, and a friend of mine from school. On the drive home, it was a sunny, sultry summer day; my friend was listening to his walkman and dozing, but I was in the midst of the battle of Helm’s Deep. Even now when I reread those sections—even, bizarrely, when I watch those sequences in the film of The Two Towers—I have a vivid sense-memory of hot summer air buffeting through open car windows, the smell of dust and asphalt and pine trees, the vague memory of those trees as a green blur outside the car windows, and the incessant sounds of Credence Clearwater Revival, which was my father’s choice for that summer’s road trip soundtrack.
My second memory was reading the last line of the final chapter. It was autumn, and I was in my room. Sam Gamgee returned from seeing Frodo off at the Grey Havens, and sadly walked into Bag End. He sat down, settled his daughter into his lap, and sighed to his wife, “Well, I’m back.”
Before I go on, I just want to say: as much as I loved the LotR films, I will never forgive Peter Jackson for not ending on that specific note. He came so damn close: Sam walking down the lane to Bag End, his daughter coming out to greet him, a happy/sad moment with his whole family by the door … I suppose I am being picky, because he got the spirit of the moment exactly right. I was just rotted that he didn’t give the emotional punch I was waiting for with the words.
“Well, I’m back.” Wow, was I miserable for at least two weeks after that. And then even more miserable after I found my way to the chronology in LotR’s appendices, which as I discovered did not merely recount the events leading up to the novel and then the events of the novel itself, but the next one hundred and twenty years or so after the end, in which we learn about the golden reign of King Elessar and the prosperous lives led by Merry, Pippin, and Sam in the Shire. And then I came to this last entry:
In this year on March 1st came at last the passing of King Elessar. It is said that the beds of Meriadoc and Peregrin were set beside the bed of the great king. The Legolas built a ship in Ithilien, and sailed down the Anduin and so over Sea; and with him, it is said, went Gimli the Dwarf. And when that ship passed an end was come in Middle-Earth of the Fellowship of the Ring.
I kid you not: writing this passage out, I am tearing up.
Not quite thirty years ago when I read this passage for the first time, I was devastated. Because I knew that, however much I might reread this extraordinary novel, I would never again read it for the first time. I suspect that anyone who is an inveterate reader like me can point to an experience like this: a moment in which your experience of a story knocks something loose inside you and you feel yourself somehow change. I don’t think there is a word for it, because it isn’t the same thing as the experience of the sublime (though it can have sublime elements). It’s more as if the borders of who you are and what you know expand, and expand shockingly enough that it is actually felt, almost physically, rather than sensed.
If anyone reading this post wants to respond: what story changed your world? And why?
That is all for now. Up next: part two of my LotR reading experience, and some thoughts on The Silmarillion.