Talking ’bout Tolkien

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door,” he used to say. “You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

— Chapter III, The Fellowship of the Ring.

I first heard about J R R Tolkien in 1967, from a fellow student who brazenly flourished under my nose her three hardback volumes of The Lord of the Rings given by her parents. She enthused about it so much that, when the one-volume paperback (minus the appendices) came out in 1968 I promptly bought myself a copy from my rapidly-depleting student grant and first immersed myself properly in Middle-earth.

How had I not heard of him before, or his works? — because by this time the third edition of The Hobbit had been published in 1966, and hobbitomania was starting to make itself manifest in popular culture — and yet all of that had somehow passed me by. I am one of those who barely remembers the sixties because I sleepwalked my way through them, and for a few decades more.

Anyway, that was the start of my involvement with the work of what Paul Kocher called the Master of Middle-earth. I read The Lord of the Rings pretty much every ten years or so until my 1968 edition with its Pauline Baynes cover eventually fell apart: sometime, probably in the new millennium as the Jackson trilogy opened in the cinemas, I acquired a pre-loved 1993 edition with appendices and a John Howe illustration of Gandalf on the cover.

I mention all this now that I’ve embarked on what I estimate will my sixth read of LOTR, as I seem to have missed out on my scheduled Middle-earth visit in the 2010s. Since 1968 I’ve acquired a fair few commentaries and atlases, along with a few other of Tolkien’s writings, and I’ll be using some of these commentaries to help inform my reading, whether to agree or to demur from their speculations or conclusions.

If it doesn’t pain you too much I shall be making progress reports on this journey over some weeks and months. I shall try hard to find something new to say that isn’t either hackneyed or trite, and I’ll aim to post about some of the commentaries before the glue in the binding cracks fatally, to repost or link to some of my earlier reviews and discussions — in fact I shall be doing a lot of talking about Tolkien.

#TalkingTolkien

J R R Tolkien 1892-1973

Oh, and today is International Unicorn Day, apparently, so I’ll leave you with my unicorn warning triangle, the idea pinched from a road sign in the far west of Wales.

Calmgrove logo © C A Lovegrove

49 thoughts on “Talking ’bout Tolkien

    1. I can only hope my discussions will do your appreciation of the work justice, Nick as I can’t promise any great revelations or massive insights—but I’ll try my best! Impressed by your annual reads, though, I could never manage those; and I’ve not even got round to tackling The Silmarillion

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    1. LOTR is a lot less frivolous than the start of The Hobbit, but the final third of the earlier foray into Middle-earth already has the feel of a saga that epitomises most of the trilogy, with its menace and darkness almost eclipsing the jolliness of Bilbo’s adventure. I’ll see if I can persuade you that LOTR is worth another try! 🙂

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      1. I do plan on picking it up again. With LOTR, I felt sometimes that I wasn’t getting my head around all that was happening. I have a friend who said it worked for her on her third read, so I still have time 🙂

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    1. I haven’t, Bart, but I read your concluding comments on your post on LOTR and it sounds useful. At some stage I hope to address the issue of free will which you discuss in admirable detail with supportive quotes, though not necessarily at the depths you delved!

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  1. I’ll never forget reading Lord of the Rings. I didn’t discover it till I was in my twenties, and I started reading it on Good Friday of the Easter Break. I read it non-stop, except for falling asleep every now and again, and the Ex, who had many good qualities, understood completely, fed the child, cooked the meals and did the washing up while I read and read and read until I finished it on Easter Tuesday. It’s a magical memory for me, being wholly absorbed in Tolkien’s world.

    So I’m looking forward to your thoughts about it!

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    1. What an understanding Ex, Lisa, to recognise that total immersion is an ideal way to appreciate LOTR! I did something similar with my first experience of it as a student, skipping a few lectures to get to the end (though much about that period gets hazier with every passing year). I’m taking it at a more considered pace this time round…

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    1. I think the gap between the fifth and my present read is down to repeated views of the extended edition of the movies, Maddalena, so I’m trying to distance myself from Jackson’s vision by absorbing Tolkien’s descriptions a bit more than I’ve been accustomed to! I hope to pause every so often, with diversions to supporting works, in my attempt to have a balanced consideration, though whether I succeed or not is another matter.

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  2. I look forward to reading these posts. I’ve read LOTR three times well spaced out (feels like more though due to films and other discussion though), and am probably due my next full re-read in about 5 or so years. A blogging friends sent me the Tolkien and the Critics book recently, so maybe I’ll read that sooner.

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    1. I read Tolkien and the Critics some while ago — pre review blog, anyway — and my memory is that, though it’s an early essay collection, there are several insights that I found suitably corrective. As a preparation for a reread it’s certainly worth exploring, Annabel.

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  3. I remember leaning into a conversation my neighbor Greg was having with a group of people as we waited for the bus during fifth grade. Greg was recounting his teacher’s reading of The Hobbit that day to a large group of interested children. It became a daily passion for me and for many of us. Eventually I found my way to a copy of the book itself.

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  4. I discovered The Lord of the Rings in my middle school library. For a while I had the idea that there might be other book series just as wonderful sitting there on the shelf, unknown to me. After years of reading, that’s turned out not quite true, but it’s been worth the exploration.

    I live with a person who has read almost all of the Tolkien criticism extant, and he highly recommends Tom Shippey and Verlyn Flieger.

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    1. I’ve had the Shippey and Flieger recommended to me before, but I never got round to chasing it up, maybe now or soon will be the time!

      Thanks, Jeanne, there have been a few others following in Tolkien’s footsteps but they rarely have the impact his magnum opus had, and a good proportion are just plain derivative, with a few honorable exceptions like Le Guin or Patricia McKillip. I still have a LOTR precursor republished in the wake of Middle-earth’s popularity, William Morris’s The Well at World’s End, which I should revisit some time.

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  5. Willl follow this with interest, Chris! I started on my Tolkien journey when I was 11 or so. Having exhausted the Narnia books, a family friend sent us a copy of The Hobbit and my dad and I were hooked. We borrowed lovely second edition hardbacks from the library (with fold out maps!) and read the lot. I eventually got my own paperback editions in my 20s and have the series more times that I know. However, I was moved to pick up a cheapish and rather battered set of those same hardbacks a few years back in tribute to my late dad. I’d like to read them again, but I’m a little scared of getting immersed….

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    1. Oh, that’s a lovely memory of your sharing the books with your dad. 😊 My enjoyment over the years has been a solitary one, sadly, but hopefully sharing my thoughts this time round will render the experience a kind of virtual fellowship and, who knows, maybe help you conquer your fear of immersing yourself again!

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  6. I remember taking a literature class in college, and the very austere, conservative professor showed a picture of Tolkien smoking in his library. I announced that one of my main goals in life was to acquire a library that I could smoke a pipe in. She very quickly flipped to the next slide.

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  7. Ooooh I love a bit of Tolkien! It’s funny, I used to get the urge to read LOTR every autumn. The birds start flying south, the air turns crisp and cold and and I start longing to step outside my own front door and be carried off into the wilds of Middle Earth again! Nowadays I still feel it every year but only read them every few years. I look forward to your insights!

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    1. I think that your habit of reading LOTR every autumn was apt, especially as the hobbits set off at the September equinox, getting to Mount Doom on 25th March, around the spring equinox and the old way of counting the start of the year.

      Yesterday, when I’d got to the bit where the hobbits and Strider were approaching Weathertop, we saw a flock of swallows over the bridge at Crickhowell refuelling as they hoovered up insects over the river before, we assume, going on to Ireland (Welsh swallows and housemartins usually arrive early May) so that felt auspicious!

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      1. That’s interesting. It makes sense. Tolkien does bring a strong sense of time and place to LOTR.
        Your swallow sighting sounds lovely. It’s great to see things waking up again this year.

        PS: I don’t know if you’ve seen this before, but I thought it was interesting…

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        1. No, I hadn’t come across this particular map before, Jo, but it does align well with my mental map of how the geography of Tolkien’s Middle-earth overlaid that of his historical and literary influences.

          By the way I would add to this map the land of Wales, which may well have inspired aspects of the Shire — in particular Buckland and Crickhollow, as this review of a paper suggests: https://wp.me/s2oNj1-buckland

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            1. The owner of a terraced cottage for rent at the bottom of Crickhowell’s Bridge Street has actually named it ‘Crickhollow’… I think that’s conclusive!!! 😁

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  8. I’m going to follow with great interest! I’ve never read LOTR but live with 3 die hard fans and went to a very interesting exhibition in Oxford a couple of years ago, which almost got me reading as well!

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    1. Somebody said there are two types of readers: those who have read LOTR and those who are going to read LOTR… Maybe we need a third category—those who follow with great interest?! 🙂 I hope you’ll be in all of them at some stage. 😊

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        1. Is that maybe as in me saying “Maybe I’ll read George R R Martin’s A Sing of Ice and Fire some time … ” while knowing that’s probably never going to happen?! 🙂

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