Re-reading Tolkien 1: why?

tolkein2When I sat down to start thinking through the new second-year undergraduate module – called Genre and the Fantastic – I will be teaching next academic year, I realised that it was more than two-thirds of my life ago that I last read The Lord of the Rings. So even though I will not be teaching it, I figure I should probably give it another go. (I was bored stiff by the films – the only aspect of them I could admire was Sean Bean having the good sense to get out of them two films before I did – and just cannot bring myself to watch The Hobbit movies.)

My introduction to Tolkien came aged 11. We moved to Plymouth right at the start of 1980, when I had just two terms of junior school left to go. At my new school, Hyde Park Juniors,  my teacher – Mr Willis, I think his name was – was already partway through reading The Hobbit aloud to the class, a little bit every day (memory tells me it was just before lunchtime, though I am sure there was a wider convention of reading aloud just before home time). I was immediately gripped, even though I had no idea who all those bleeding dwarfs were, and promptly got a copy from the small local library at Pounds House and read it in a couple of days.

Then – this was the real triumph – I persuaded the main librarian (who was an sf and fantasy fan, to judge by the stock) to let me take out all three hardback volumes of LotR (the white ones, with the fold-out bible-paper maps intact). These were the first books I ever took out from the adult section of a library. I had them for four weeks, and it took me until the last day to finish the last of the appendices (well before Mr Lewis had finished reading The Hobbit to the class).

I persuaded my new best friend, Stuart, that he should read them.  This was a foolish thing to do as he did not read as quickly as me, and so I had to wait forever to borrow them again. (Actually, it was not quite that bad as I bullied him into returning each volume with me once he had finished it and took it back out myself.) I managed to read library copies three times that year, but only because I persuaded my mum to let me join the central library too. There was a fight with the main librarian there as to whether I was old enough to take them out, which I won by persuading my mum that Tolkien was a friend of CS Lewis (my parents approved of him because Aslan was Jesus) and so she came with me to convince the librarian.

(Later that year, I lost the battle with parents over seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark or reading Campbell Black’s novelisation because they were obviously blasphemous. Fortunately, Stuart had a copy of the book I could borrow – and my parents had no qualms a couple of years later with me going to see the even more horrendously racist and notoriously violent Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which had required a whole new cinema certificate in the UK.)

I read The Hobbit three or four times in 1980 as well but right away began to find it too childish. I have not read it since 1981. I read LotR maybe once or twice a year for three years, but probably as early as 1981 I was beginning to find the opening chapters – until the Tom Bombadil nonsense is done with – childish and twee and tiresome. I also got through The Silmarillion a couple of times, only really enjoying any of it on the second go, and the first volume of The Book of Lost Tales.

When I tried to read LotR near the end of 1983, I had grown to hate it.

I was fifteen. Already a sophisticated man of the world.

So anyway, over the next couple of months, I will be re-reading The Hobbit (in fact, I just finished the first chapter, which is hilarious) and The Lord of the Rings (I just got through all the various notes on the text and Tolkien’s foreword to the second edition yesterday when I figured I should probably read The Hobbit first), and I will post about the experience occasionally as I go.

The Tookish part of me is curious about undertaking such an adventure through dimly remembered lands; the Baggins part knows I will probably regret it.

Re-reading Tolkien 2

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