My first experience with Tolkien occured some 25 years ago when, as a fifth-grader, my teacher had us listen to the audio version of The Hobbit in class. I was hooked. Later I asked my mother to check out The Hobbit from its (misplaced) location in the adult section of the public library so I could read it again on my own.
It wasn't until I reached middle school that I graduated to The Lord of the Rings. I enjoyed it very much, although I remember skimming certain chapters and even skipping entire passages ("The Council of Elrond," "In the House of Tom Bombadil," the songs/poetry, the Appendices, etc.), since I was mostly interested in the adventure. So when I re-read The Lord of The Rings in high school it was like I was experiencing it for the first time. Although I missed many of its deeper themes during this second reading, I gained a greater appreciation for the world Tolkien had created, which seemed weightier and more real than the other fantasy I was reading at that time.
However, after high school I took a long (and not entirely voluntary) break from Tolkien. In college I became absorbed in my required English syllabus. Writers like Hemingway, T.S. Eliot, Yeats, Shakespeare, Tennyson, Euripedes, etc., filled my time, and my "casual" reading suffered. My battered paperback copies of Tolkien sat on the shelf, and waited.
It was in 1996 or so, a span of 7-8 years from my last reading, when I finally returned to Middle-Earth. I had decided to change my path of becoming a high school teacher, a difficult decision that I reached during long, solitary walks through a town forest with Tolkien as my companion. Around this time I started to understand and appreciate the deeper meanings of "The Road," of which mine had certainly taken some unexpected turns.
Later, while working the third-shift as a security guard, I recall walking the grounds of an under-construction condominium on the shores of Lake Champlain in Vermont with The Fellowship of the Ring tucked into my coat pocket, a chill wind blowing through the skeletal structure of the unfinished building. The courage and fortitude of the hobbits helped get me through that and another, equally awful job as an insurance salesman. Sam and Frodo's trek through Mordor made me realize that my lot in life wasn't so bad, and that, if I saw it through, something better would be waiting at the end.
During these and other rough times in my life, the escape and wisdom I found within The Lord of the Rings was a blessed salve. So too were its lessons. Here are a few:
- From Sam, I learned the value of sacrifice and loyalty. And how to face grim times with a smile and a sense of humor.
- From Frodo, I learned the importance of seeing your assigned tasks through to the end, disagreeable though they may be, and the virtue of self-effacing heroism.
- From Aragorn, I learned that assuming the crown of responsibility is required of grown-ups, and that retreat from obligation is dishonorable.
- From Theoden, I learned that dying on a battlefield to stave off the forces of darkness is preferable to wasting away in old age :).
Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan, once remarked that his famous barbarian "stalked full grown out of oblivion and set me at work recording the saga of his adventures." Likewise, Middle-Earth feels like a real place, and The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion historic texts. Instead of a creator of a fictitous universe, Tolkien to me seems to be a chronicler of some dim and remote, and yet actual, "once upon a time."