Meditations on Middle-earth: Lisa Goldstein
[ Extract from "The Myth-Maker" by Lisa Goldstein, to be published in Meditations on Middle-earth, edited by Karen Haber (St. Martins Press, ISBN 0-312-27536-6, $24.95, November 2001). All rights reserved. Used by permission of Karen Haber. Watch for more previews from this fascinating book! ]
I first read J.R.R. Tolkien in the eighth grade, when a classmate of mine gave a book report on The Lord of the Rings. I was impressed by her passion, by her clear delight in the book, and so -- despite the fact that she gave away the ending -- I borrowed a copy of The Fellowship of the Ring from a friend. (I have remembered the name of the girl who gave the book report from that day to this, and if I ever meet her again I mean to have words with her about giving away that ending.)
My friend was still working on the second volume when I finished the first. I was distraught. What had happened to Gandalf? I ran to the corner drugstore and got The Two Towers: this remains fixed in my mind as one of the first times I ever bought a book.
I ended up reading the series every year of my adolescence. I read it until those first paperbacks wore out; I read it until I practically memorized it and -- unfortunately -- could not look at it again for a long while, having become familiar with every twist and turn, every poetic phrase.
I learned later that I wasn't the only one. I even read a book once where, to demonstrate what a nerd one of the characters was, the author mentions that he read The Lord of the Rings every year.
Okay, so we're nerds. I made myself a cloak once; I even went out with a guy who called himself Bilbo. Guilty. But what the author of this book -- I can't remember the title, but it was mainstream, obviously -- failed to understand is how powerful The Lord of the Rings actually is.
The question, though, is why. Why do people read and reread these books? Why are they so powerful? What do we get from them that we can't get anywhere else? How did one man working alone manage to call into being an entire genre, an entire publishing industry?
My guess is that it's because we need myth. Not just because myths are entertaining stories, or because some of them come attached with a moral. We *need* them, the way we need vitamins or sunlight.