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There’s No Wrong Way … to read a Tolkien (or is there?)

"…you’ve got a very expressive face, Anne; your thoughts just come out on it like print." --L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Avonlea

That sentence sums up the opposite of the way I feel about books by Tolkien and his cohort Lewis. The print rolls into my head and somehow gets turned into thoughts. Whether any of the credit of that is due to my imagination or whether it all lies at the door of the author is a moot point–either way, the type contained inside any of the volumes put out by either good professor is by far the most "expressive" I know. Why then do so many people seem to have so much trouble with word pictures that I take for granted?

I don’t want to chafe anybody’s nose, but some of the questions we get here at Green Books just baffle me. I read my email and think, "How could anybody not get that?" It isn’t only strangers. Friends of mine, dear friends, after slogging ponderously through Lord of the Rings primarily to please me, are totally nonplussed and sometimes confused. I like to explain, but sometimes a sliver a fear creeps in that beloved JRRT is not the end-all, be-all author that I’ve believed he is. Things that are perfectly clear to me seem totally obscure to them, and it worries me.

I must be fair. I’ve been reading this stuff since I was less than ten years old. There is a major difference in the absorption capacity of a ten-year-old compared with, say, a twenty-seven-year-old. Kids take things for granted. Gandalf fell in a hole? Okay, but he will come back. Gandalf came back? Woo. Bilbo is stuck in a mountain? Okay, but he’ll get out. It’s like when I first saw Star Wars–the old trilogy–I had the misfortune to see Return of the Jedi in the theaters before I’d seen The Empire Strikes Back. (Gasp! from the crowd. Relax, I was very little, not master of my own destiny, and my parents had other priorities than renting Empire before we went to see Jedi. I never even saw A New Hope in theaters the first time around, only on HBO. Anyway, we now return you to your regularly scheduled column…) So when Yoda confirmed that Darth Vader was Luke’s father, I just took it in stride. (Oh wait, did I spoil it for any of you youngsters who never saw the old stuff before seeing the new schlock? Sorry… back to the regularly scheduled column again…) The ripping moment of truth in Empire was no big deal when I finally saw it… hey, I already knew the DNA results. Anyway, back to my point, which is that from reading Lord of the Rings over and over again at a young age, Tolkien’s world became ingrained so deeply that I never had to stop and think about how something worked. What are the Grey Havens? Duh. That seems to be the first question the lost ask, both on the site and in my life: What are the Havens? Do they just get on the boat to die? Aargh!

So I have to wonder. Does Tolkien not make this clear? I have a hard time telling, because it seems like I’ve known these things all my life. It’s hard for me to go back now and try to read with a cleaner slate, try to see where the knowledge actually comes from. It’s like knowing a Bible story even if you haven’t picked up your Bible since fourth-grade Sunday school. You just know; you learned it long enough ago that it’ll never trickle out of the sieve that is now your grown-up mind. (Oh sorry, maybe that’s just MY mind that is the sieve.)

Well, to go on being fair. I’ve talked in (several) other places how Tolkien just isn’t to some people’s taste. What I said before was that it wasn’t to the tastes of people who don’t like fantasy. What I see now is that it also is not to the tastes of people who like certain kinds of fantasy and don’t like others. Stephen King is a fantasy writer. Surprised? He is. It’s just that his fantasies are like tales of the Grimm brothers were to their original audiences: contemporary people with modern language and culture, thrust into outrageously abnormal circumstances. The people the Grimms told their tales to knew wicked stepmothers and cruel poverty; we the Stephen King audience know most of his folks too. Both sets of characters are then put into situations their audiences could only imagine. Tolkien is a different kind of fantasy altogether–a throwback to another age and culture, one that moderns find it difficult to relate to, because unlike in King, we have to conjure from our imaginations not only the situations, but also the characters. Medievals, of course, would have latched right on, no problem–they knew about boats, long journeys on horses and on foot, and meeting danger along the way. Tolkien would’ve been their Stephen King.

How do you read Tolkien?

Race through it, devouring every word at the speed of light? Soak it up as you go? Torturously make yourself finish a book to please a friend? Read it for the zillionth time and find yourself … zoning out?

That last is happening to me, folks. I hate to admit it, but I haven’t read the whole text of Lord of the Rings in at least two years. The last few times I’ve picked up one of the books (to read it rather than to find the answer to a question), I’ve found that I could read a whole page without realizing it. The sad fact is–and I know I’m not alone–you give me a line of Tolkien and the odds are high that I could quote you the next line. This kind of takes a little of the brainwork out of the reading, if you see what I mean. My mind starts to wander, and then it’s All Over. I blink when I get to the bottom of the page and have to skip up a couple of lines to see which scene I’m in.

I almost envy those who are now reading for the first few times. Almost. J I wouldn’t trade my ingrained knowledge for anything; it’s what enables me to take part in this most cool of web sites and share thoughts and ideas with all you good people, in addition to just being darn nifty stories to carry around in my head. And one of these days, should I have a child or even somebody else my age to whom to read aloud, the brainwork will come back as I work to make it as real to that person as it is to me.

Which is seriously real. Remember, the print rolls in, thoughts come out. When I was a little girl, after my dad had read Rings to us for the first time and I had read it through at least once for myself, on subsequent readings I found myself skipping Book IV, the second half of The Two Towers. It was just too sad! Sméagol was positively pathetic. I hoped so hard for his total redemption that I almost cried when he betrayed them to Shelob and did cry at the last pitiful confrontation with Sam. So as a little girl, I cheated and skipped on to happier times, the butt-kicking on the Pelennor and the saving of all in the Houses of Healing.

However you read your Tolkien and however much you retain, remember this. I am not some kind of Tipper book-banning censorship advocate, but I do believe in two things: 1) garbage in, garbage out, and 2) the power to choose your influences. And I say for all of us that love Tolkien that I firmly believe our choice of his work as anchor stories says something about ourselves, our ideals, and our hopes. However we may quarrel over whether Balrogs have wings or whether it was Éowyn’s or Merry’s stroke that killed the Witch-king, there are various things, good things, in Tolkien that appeal to us: purity, heroism, idealism, goodness, greatness, and most of all, as Anne of Avonlea would say, "scope for the imagination."

Just a few rambling thoughts this time, dear readers. May you always read Tolkien well!


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