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Conversation with a Newbie

Robert Xavier and I have known each other for two years. I have spent those 2 years, 24 months, 104 weeks, 730 days (however you want to measure it) slowly infiltrating his mind with all things Tolkien.

"You’ve got to play this awesome boardgame, Robert."

"Come with us on opening night to see this movie, Robert."

"I got you a Saruman action figure for Christmas, Robert."

"You’ve got to read this, Robert."

On and on I kept going, ad infinitum, until my poor friend has been pretty much driven out of his mind. Well, not really. He was such a good sport about it. He has been quiet and patient, I must admit. I bought him The Hobbit and LOTR for his birthday. Now he is on the other side of that mammoth reading, having finished the last page of "The Grey Havens" yesterday.

This is our conversation about what he just read. He is a new reader who never walked down this path before.... I would like to think a whole new experience has opened up for him. I suppose this is just a moment of sharing. And I want all of you out there to remember what it was like when you were him, once long ago (or not so long ago).

We sit in my room, while my kitten (named Pounamu) chases the toy that Robert dangles in front of him. Yes, he’s named after my New Zealand necklace, which he loves to chase.

Quickbeam: Are you torturing my cat?

Robert: Yeah. Laughs. (continues to drag the cat toy across the room, little black paws flying after it).

Q: So I guess I should ask first: how much did you really want to read this yourself? Or did you feel like everyone was pressuring you?

R: No, I’ve always been a fantasy fan. And I’ve always wanted to read it. But my stack of "Read This Next" books is a mile high. But I took this long to read it because I was poisoned by that awful Sword of Shannara novel by Terry Brooks. I read that as a kid.

Q: And that you turned you off so much that you were suspect of fantasy after that? I mean, you thought Tolkien would be another....

R: ....predictable dime-store novel?

Q: Well, yeah, I’ve read it. I was encouraged by all those kids in Junior High School who already knew what kind of fantasy books I was reading. They all told me, "If you like that Tolkien stuff you gotta read this too."

R: I think I found it at a garage sale. For like 25 cents. It was a waste of 25 cents.

Q: Laughs loudly. Indeed. Don’t hold back, man. But seriously, Robert, were you aware there was a whole subculture surrounding the works of Tolkien?

R: Yes, I was.

Q: Did we spook you? Just a little bit?

R: No. You’re just medieval Trekkies.

Q: That’s funny. Sorta. Do I smell a stereotype?

R: Well, it’s not a bad thing! You are groups of people who are both inspired by visions of a better world.

Q: That hits me every time I read Tolkien. There is such a clear depiction of the world as I would like it to be. You know what I mean?

R: Yes.

Q: And what quality drew you into The Lord of the Rings as you read?

R: Everything was part of the story. The environment was as much a character as the characters. There were not only three-dimensional people, there was a sense of "wholeness" about the world they inhabited. Even the trees were characters! Even the caves were characters, personified by Moria. And one communicated with the other. The caves spoke to Gimli. The trees spoke to Legolas. Shadowfax spoke to Gandalf. Even Shelob was "royalty"....

Q: Royalty?

R: Was she not the queen who birthed the spiders in The Hobbit? She was even called Her Majesty. She had her own history.

Q: I remember one of those Orcs in the Tower of Cirith Ungol calling her that. But yeah, I get what you’re saying. There is a fully-realized universe that inhabits the story, more than the story inhabits a fictional construct. Which is the way most fantasy authors write.

R: That’s why it wasn’t like a Terry Brooks novel. Yes, Tolkien did not patronize his readership with "morality plays." Good and evil were already a given. He just showed where strength and heroism could be found.

Q: Where?

R: They could be found anywhere.

Q: Like in the hobbits?

R: Yes. Right. The most unlikely of creatures to carry the burdens of the world. And like Strider actually becoming the King who returned.

Q: Okay, lame as it may be, I have to ask this: Which character did you feel most connected to?

R: Either Gandalf or Sam. I can’t really pick one. Gandalf was and remains the most mysterious character. And Sam because clearly he was the most important person to the Quest. It was his undying loyalty that got Frodo to Mt. Doom.... he saved Frodo how many times?

Q: Those are my two favorite characters, as well. Great minds think alike. And were you emotional when you read the last few pages? I get very, very sad.

R: Nostalgic. Like I was coming home, finally, after having been away for a long trip. It was a sense of melancholy that the trip was over, after all those interesting people I met. It also felt Arthurian. Like how the Arthurian cycle is about the advent of science as the Age of Magic dies. That’s all about the advent of Man. Doesn’t Gandalf say there will be many more Men in this Age, speaking of the times yet to come in Middle-earth?

Q: You are very astute. Do you get why people are so into this story?

R: Yeah. Lots of different reasons.

Q: How much were you into it? Was it what you hoped it would be? Did I not promise you an incredibly fulfilling read?

R: Yes, I already knew it would be. Any artist, musician, writer, who has a group of rabidly loyal fans.... to me that means there’s something there. I knew something special was in store. And yes it was everything I expected. Which is saying A LOT! Very rarely are my expectations built up so high that they can actually be fulfilled.

Q: I’m sure people have been telling you about it since you were very young. Would you have enjoyed the experience at 12 as much as you did now at 36?

R: I would have enjoyed it differently I think. I probably would have read the Hobbit with greater speed as a child (And conversely would have had more trouble getting through LOTR). If I were much younger, I imagine me having a bit of difficulty comprehending the greater history that was behind everything but I would have loved the story in itself. But I’m so glad I read it when I was older.

Q: Did seeing the movie color your visualization as you read along?

R: It was only for the first book. But yes, it really did. That’s both a good and a bad thing: it was harder for me to make Fellowship my own, because the movie was so strong visually. But that’s somewhat of a tribute to Peter Jackson. Never has a movie done that to me before. And as I read into the later two volumes, I really did make them my own (and enjoyed them more I think).

Q: What about the story did you really love the most? What did you read and say to yourself, "Wow, that’s brilliant."

R: The sense of wholeness. Everything FIT. You know, there was not a single thing that was so dynamic that it just stood out on its own. It was the work as a whole. It was a complete circle. The history behind every character, and every landmark, and every object was brilliant. The story had such realism. I don’t use that word "brilliant" very much.

Q: I know. I have to confess. Sharing this book is a big thing for me. It helps me share a connection with people. Do you know what I mean?

R: Yes.

Q: I’m closer to my older brother than anyone else in the family. He’s read all of the works by Tolkien and we share an incredible bond. Not much else in common between us, frankly, but we always see many things eye to eye because of the Professor. Would you recommend this story to others – much like I do – to share something special with them?

R: Well of course! I already do. Unfortunately I hear complaints like: "Oh, it’s such a big book...." This is the age of sound bites and fast-edits on MTV. Reading a big book is a lot of work.

Q: Don’t you think Tolkien wanted his readers to be "up to the challenge?"

R: I think he expected it.

Q: Okay. Big silly geeky question here: Would you like to leave this world and go to Middle-earth? If you really could?

R: Only if the people the I knew where there. Gandalf, Frodo, and Sam. One doesn’t go through Middle-earth without a guided tour!

Q: In closing, what do you feel in your heart now that you’re on the other side?

R: I feel as though I’ve traveled and met people I can aspire to be more like. Particularly the wisdom of Gandalf and the mercifulness of Frodo; the bravery of Aragorn, and the persistence of the Hobbits, the loyalty of Sam. Legolas’ connection with Nature. Combine all the qualities of the Nine members of the Fellowship and you’d have the perfect person. And I really feel the need to travel again. Someday.

Q: Go on your own Quest, as it were?

R: I’ll know it when it happens.

And as the clock strikes midnight, we end our little talk.

There is one last burst of energy from the kitten as he pounces across the bed, grappling the string toy for dear life. Robert goes out to the porch to have a cigarette. I decide not to lecture him this time on what a filthy habit it is. He and I already see things in a mutual light, even more so now, and it doesn’t need to be said.

I read him this last paragraph and he laughs, saying, "Smoking the pipeweed is a very Middle-earth custom, is it not?"

I decide to shut up and save the file.

Much too hasty,

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Past Limbs
An Open Letter to the Screen Actors Guild
Review: The Return of the King
Kingly Proof
For the Love of Arwen
The Atlantis Connection
Noble Is As Noble Does
Send in the Penguins
War! What is it Good For?
In Defense of Philippa Boyens
Movie Review - The Two Towers
The Final Word
Very, Very, Very Impatient
Book Review: The Annotated Hobbit
Finding a Hobbit’s Voice
Conversation with a Newbie
Inside Information
The Silver Lining
Movie Review - Fellowship of the Ring
Where the Stars are Strange: Part V
Where the Stars are Strange: Part IV
Where the Stars are Strange: Part III
Where the Stars are Strange: Part II
Where the Stars are Strange: Part I
The Spectacular Cannes Footage
Comic-Con International 2001
An Open Letter to Jeffrey Wells
The Shadow of Racism
All About Sam
The Game’s the Thing!
Who’s Spiking Who?
The 2000 Vote: Gandalf or Saruman?
Tolkien’s Greatest Hits
Return to The Furthest Reaches
The Furthest Reaches
True Fans, Truly Obsessed
"Yes, Elanor, there really is a Gandalf"
…And In the Closet Bind Them
Welcome to Merchandising Hell
In Defense of Escapism
Out on a Limb Home


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