In my Tolkien class, we’ve had a week and a half of background material: an introductory lecture on Tolkien and fantasy, a walk-through of his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” and a lecture on The Hobbit. This Tuesday we finally get into the thing itself as we read the first five chapters of Fellowship, and I’ll likely have something to say about that. But for the time being, here’s one more self-indulgent reminiscence about my relationship with Tolkien’s fiction.
In the fourth year of my B.A. I took a class on C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Seeing that course listed in the York University calendar made me vaguely light-headed, and filled with the dread certainty that I’d never get into the class—surely everyone in the known world (and possibly worlds unknown) would be clamoring for a spot. But I was fortunate: that summer I had an enlistment window very early, and for the first time in my undergraduate career was able to get precisely the schedule I wanted.
The Lewis & Tolkien class was in the winter term, and as it approached I started to feel a slight gnawing unease. I had not picked up either the Narnia novels of The Lord of the Rings since high school; in the three and a half years of my undergrad that had passed, my reading habits, my critical acumen, my preferences and proclivities had all changed—in some cases dramatically. That sort of thing is the bittersweet dimension of a humanities education: if it takes root, if you genuinely learn from your classes and professors and peers, it changes the way you think (which is why I will always champion the value of the humanities). In its most superficial effects, it can teach you to be embarrassed by texts you previously enjoyed, whether they be the novels of Stephen King, or television, or romantic comedies, because you feel (without truly believing) that such texts aren’t worthwhile … but that is mere posturing. More invidious is when those past loves start to seem … well, childish. Or less satisfying or revelatory as you once believed, as your reading and/or viewing sophistication has grown, or simply because you have matured a great deal—to the point where Holden Caulfield no longer speaks fundamental truths but simply comes across to you as an obnoxiously angsty teen.
All this is by way of saying: I was afraid this would be my experience with Tolkien. Would I read LotR and suddenly see its escapism and childishness, its sexism and racism and Kipling-esque imperialist arrogance? A fairly large number of books I had loved when I was younger had so fallen in my estimation with the onslaught of pretentious twenty-something bookishness (some, but not all, have been recuperated as I got older). Would this happen, I worried, with The Lord of the Rings? I was genuinely anxious, for I didn’t think I could deal with it if the novel that had essentially been a defining experience for me—that had, for all intents and purposes, turned me into a student of literature long before I was aware of it—if that novel suddenly appeared to me somehow deficient, or less than I had always felt it to be. I knew instinctively how devastating that would be.
I needn’t have worried. I had decided in advance not to reread LotR in depth, but to skim—I still remembered the novel like the back of my hand, and given what felt at the time like an unreasonable amount of reading for all my classes it seemed not a bad idea to alleviate that load where I could. And in truth, I also felt that if I just skimmed I could avoid the pitfalls of whatever my three and a half years of university English had primed me to see.
It didn’t quite work out that way. Almost as soon as I started reading, I was sucked back into Middle-Earth. As I had not opened the book in about four years—when I had reread it multiple times between grade seven and the end of high school—the story, the characters, the words were like a favourite meal that has long been unavailable, which one tastes again as if for the first time.
And how did I react to the novel, after my three and a half years of literary-critical indoctrination? I had been worried that LotR would suffer the fate of other novels I could no longer take seriously; but if anything, I found I had a far deeper appreciation for Tolkien’s art and craft. Sure, a few things now seemed almost unbearably hokey—most notably, the overly formal greeting and addresses (such phrasings as “What ho, Legolas!” were vaguely cringeworthy)—but the richness of the prose, the compelling story, the complex characters, the moral and ethical drama, and above all the masterful act of creation that Tolkien had engaged in, all quite frankly took my breath away in a manner that had been simply impossible for my twelve-year-old self. I was depressed when I first finished reading LotR way back when because I knew I could never again read it for the first time; reading it after a lengthy absence from it and after I had truly learned to read (or had started to learn, anyway) was about as close as I could come to actually reading it again for the first time.
When I bought my books for that winter term, it was necessary to buy a new copy of LotR. The original copy which my mother had skeptically bought for me was pretty much in tatters. Incessant re-readings over the course of seven years had given the book’s thick spine a deep concavity; the writing on the spine was itself all but illegible from all the creases, scars bestowed by me folding the book open. The front cover had long ago fallen off, and required frequent re-applications of scotch tape to hold it on. The title pages inside, along with about half of the prologue, were long gone, and many of the pages in the middle of the book and become unglued, sticking out from their fellows like errant bookmarks. The quality of the paper itself had degraded, becoming brittle and easily torn at the corners and edges where it had been assaulted by my fingers.
I cannot remember what happened to that copy. I assume I threw it out; I’ve never really been sentimental about individual copies of books—I’m not the kind of person who refrains from cracking spines or who gets irate or anxious about dog-eared pages—but I wish I’d held onto that particular artifact. I would never read it again, to be certain (it would have completely fallen apart back then, never mind today), but it would be nice to still have it as a keepsake.
The edition I bought for that class was identical but for the colour of the cover, which was white. It has weathered the years somewhat better, for the simple reason that it hasn’t been as incessantly re-read as its predecessor. Still, the front cover also fell off, necessitating the same scotch-tape repair. When I ordered books for this term’s course, I had to decide whether to opt for the one-volume edition (now available with handsome red and significantly sturdier covers), or for one of the many, many three-volume editions out. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I chose the single-volume edition for sentimental reasons … knowing that, whatever I chose, it was a good bet the university bookstore would not be making much money off my course, as a significant number of my students probably had their own well-thumbed copies.
Because I am both sentimental and a dork, I took a picture of my desk copy beside my somewhat more battered old copy. If only my original copy was still around to complete the set …