It was with great pleasure that I sat down, on the comfiest chair in my house, to begin reading both The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings. It has been about 9 years since I read them last and, to my joy, they were every bit as enchanting and magical as I remember. Standing at 1332 pages, cumulatively, it is no short feat to read. However, with a world as engrossing, a writing style as engaging and with a childlike nostalgia driving me onwards, I was unable to resist tackling the works in two weeks.
It was my original intention to attempt a review, of both books, within this article. It should, however, be clear by now that I can only offer a positive recommendation. Instead, I will endeavour to explain why I am so captivated by these books, why I love them so much, and how they shaped my tastes in literature, and perhaps life, today.
For me, reading Tolkien is more of an experience than an activity, one which can be adequately completed passively. This is primarily due to Tolkien’s style of writing, which, much like a powerful yet serene river, carries you along; it requires no effort to allow the narrative to transport you to the Shire, Mirkwood or even Mordor. I vividly remember, when visiting family in Branscombe, Devon, seeing my cousin place down The Fellowship of the Ring. Picking it up some time later, flicking through the pages, I was enthralled. From the first mention of Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End, to the setting off over the hills of Emyn Muil, into the Land of Shadow, I could hardly bear to put the book down. My enjoyment was rivalled by only my dismay and frustration that the book seemed to conclude without a decisive end; it felt unfinished. I would, initially, be disgusted with this seemingly inconclusive, yet so beautiful, novel. Until, of course, I found out that it was only the beginning of a trilogy, with even more mythology and depth than I ever could have imagined. Then, at a later date, I re-discovered the films, as more than something my parents watched, but the filmatic adaptation of this legendarium I so loved.
Since that early experience, Tolkien both ruined and kickstarted fantasy literature for me. Game of Thrones, a superficially fantastic fantasy, was unable to measure up to the height of a mere hobbit, in my eyes, let alone the heights of the Misty Mountains and the story as a whole. Watching the HBO GoT left me with a poignant sense of missing out, knowing that Tolkien’s own creations only have a distant Amazon show on the horizon (one which I impatiently await and pray will not be a let down). Even the BBC’s recent, and excellent, His Dark Materials had me wondering if the ‘subtle knife’ could have been forged better by Celebrimbor. This sombre speculation turned to relative enmity at the revelation that Sir Philip Pullman called Tolkien’s LoTR ‘frivolous’. In my mind, Tolkien defined classic fantasy and acted as a pioneer for most of what we see post-Middle Earth. Similar to Boromir and Aragon clearing way for the rest of the fellowship of the ring, through the snows of Caradhras, Tolkien cleared a creative path through which many others have subsequently walked.
Speaking of paths followed, another of Tolkien’s influences over me was my creature comforts. I might not have second breakfasts, but something about the dynamic of a cosy home, and all of its assorted reassurances, with a potential adventure waiting just on the doorstep, has always captivated me. As a result, I have always tried to embrace that philosophy of knowing when to relax, but also recognising when to step outside of your safe space and engage with the challenges the world has to offer, dragons and all. Another key tenet Tolkien has left me is the importance of friendship; there is nothing more important than comradery. However, this does not simply mean covering for your friends ‘no matter what’, but even challenging them to grow or opposing some of their negative behaviours, which, as humans and not elves (not that they are flawless either), we all have. We see this in LoTR and The Hobbit, where (spoilers!!!) both Bilbo and Frodo have to deal with close friends – Thorin and Boromir respectively- who have been corrupted, and remind them of the right course of action. But, the true ideal Tolkien sets, I think, is Samwise. Despite Frodo’s ill treatment at certain points of the narrative, Samwise recognises the overwhelming pressure Frodo is under and, though it would be easier for him to prematurely return to the Shire, as Frodo repeatedly asks him to do, he soldiers on, not for glory but for his friend. It goes without saying that we all would like a Samwise in our life and we all should strive to be like him. I should make clear that friendship does not just mean lads (relatedly, I would like to have seen more women in the Fellowship, but Tolkien was a product of his time, as we all are, and I respect the vision as it stands). Friends can be your parents, your significant other, your pets or even (if you’re so inclined) your house plants…. they too deserve the green-fingered Sam. As a man who ‘by 1918 [had] all but one of [his] close friends […] dead’, I think Mr. Tolkien understood all too well how important friends are for your quality of life. It is for these reasons that I regard friendship as one of the pillars of a good life, the good life. You don’t always have to get on with your friends, but as long as they have your best interests at heart, they are indispensable, a fact illustrated movingly in Lord of The Rings and The Hobbit.
With these two epics behind me, I turn now to uncharted territory, a new adventure: The Silmarillion. I am aware that this origin story is vastly different, and supposedly more opaque, than either of the aforementioned books. Yet, with my experience of Tolkien so far, I am confident that, no matter how long it takes me to ‘wander’ through my next Middle-Earth read, I am not ‘lost’.