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The Lord of the Rings

by Jonathan 19 Comments

Ballantine's 1965 The Lord of the Rings covers (Art by Barbara Remington)

I grew up in a family that adored all things Lord of the Rings. When I was 7 or 8 the poster that you see above hung in my room, though I really had no idea what it was all about. I remember watching The Hobbit (Rankin and Bass) on our Zenith. The only channel we got was NBC (WGAL TV out of Lancaster, PA) and thankfully, they carried The Hobbit.

I loved the story. To an 8-year-old, it was perfect. Fairly uncomplicated, dwarves, villains, dragons and, of course, hobbits. About that time, my father purchased this for my mother:

It was as heavy as any bible I’d ever seen and the pages were just as thin. It was pretty, but beyond the sweet foldout maps, the whole thing seemed beyond me.

I was around 12 when I actually read The Hobbit. This edition:

I loved this even more than I enjoyed the animated Hobbit.

And the maps! I couldn’t get enough of Tolkien’s maps. See for yourself:

From The Hobbit collectors edition - how cool are those runes?

All of Middle Earth right there at your fingertips.

I thought I was ready for The Lord of the Rings when I was 14 or 15. I delved into The Fellowship of the Ring. I think George RR Martin sums up the beginning best:

Dipping into the fat red paperback during my bus ride home, I began to wonder if I had not made a mistake. Fellowship did not seem like proper heroic fantasy at all. What the hell was all this stuff about pipe-weed? Robert E. Howard’s stories usually opened with a giant serpent slithering by or an axe cleaving someone’s head in two. Tolkien opened his with a birthday party. And these hobbits with their hairy feet and love of ‘taters seemed to have escaped from a Peter Rabbit book. Conan would hack a bloody path right through the Shire, end to end, I remembered thinking…

Yet I kept on reading. I almost gave up at Tom Bombadil, when people started going, “Hey! Come derry dol! Tom Bombadillo!” By the time I got to Weathertop, Tolkien had me.

from Dreamsongs Volume 1, pp.365-366

I kept reading as well, and I was hooked. The pace picked up: Bree, Weathertop, The Mines of Moria and so on. But then everything came to a grinding halt after “Helm’s Deep” chapter. The Dead Marshes seemed interminable and I put the books down. I’m sure it had a lot to do with the fact that I really had no idea what the hell was going on between the action. What did I care about Eowyn’s inner turmoil or Arwen’s struggle between immortality and death? I’m not sure I was even aware of those things.

In short, I got bored.

I felt immense guilt.  How could I not love these books? My whole family loved them. They named their cats after the characters. I’d sat through the Bakshi movie (I’m not sure that helped). Why wasn’t this resonating?

About six years later I started over again and finally read the whole thing at the urging of  my friend Jesse. And I enjoyed it.  However, it was when I read it again after seeing Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring, almost ten years later that I finally grew to appreciate what Tolkien had done. I couldn’t get enough of Middle-Earth history. I read the Silmarillion — and loved it (well, after the creation myth anyway). I thought it would be cool to be a Tolkien scholar and immerse myself in that world.

An aside: In preparation for the movie, I had my wife read Fellowship and we went to see the movie. Unfortunately, I had thought Boromir died in the Fellowship book and she was not prepared for that whole thing. Wish I had caught that one.

I’ve read The Lord of the Rings twice more since then and with each reading grow to love it even more. Certainly the lens of time helps a great deal to fully appreciate Tolkien’s work. But I also think reading it more than once goes a long way as well. Like any good work of art, you find things you didn’t notice the first time around and it’s always a pleasant surprise.