I first read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy when I was in middle school. First, I had read the Hobbit, a book I checked out from the Mill Road Library, the cover depicting Bilbo and the dwarves safe in the eagle’s nest. As I read of Bilbo’s adventures, I spent minutes, probably hours, looking at that picture, fixing the image of Gandalf and his companions in my memory. I enjoyed the Hobbit, but when it led me to The Lord of the Rings, I quickly discerned that it was entertaining preamble, that the trilogy was actually the real story.
I went ahead and bought the 50th anniversary edition of the trilogy at the grocery store, and immediately set myself to the task of discovering the larger story of Gandalf and Bilbo’s ring, even Gollum’s origin. I found it fascinating that these characters had even more history lurking behind the mere sketches I found in the Hobbit. Just like real people, they belonged to a much larger plan that I started to discern in glimpses. Changing the nature of these characters wasn’t as simple as an editor demanding a new name or a computer delete button wiping away their memory; they existed because the author’s imagination existed, and Tolkien existed becauseGod’s imagination existed. That was the framework Tolkien used while fashioning his world: he was a sub-creator, not someone who invented a totally new world, but an artist imitating a version of the world that already existed. Reading The Lord of the Rings ironically helped me understand the nature of the world I live in; because it is fantasy, it particularly helped me understand, or at least become more aware of, the invisible forces at work all around us. It is a battle between good and evil, a theme often too simplistic to satisfy a modern sensibility. Yet, the good versus evil theme is immensely satisfying, which perhaps explains its appeal to children and young adults. There is a clear winner and loser, a distinct good guy and bad guy. We’d all like to see our world this way, where our best sports heroes don’t compromise their honor with cheating, where those we grow up trusting remain trustworthy. It is a world of absolutes, one that is often shattered once childhood is breached by the realities of fallen humanity. We don’t mind evil people—so long as they are the ones we are fighting against, not the ones we have to love and forgive and accept.
Recently, I’ve been rereading The Lord of the Rings in preparation for a fantasy literature class I will be teaching, and I’ve found it fascinating how different the books feel to me nearly twenty years later. Of course now I’ve seen the Peter Jackson movies, too, so I constantly take note of how the movie stayed or strayed from the original story. Overall, I have wondered how I ever found the soundness of mind to read these books as an adolescent. Tolkien’s writing is thorough, filled with stroke upon stroke of description, punctuated with lengthy histories of a character’s origin or, even worse, an explanation of his entire race. These books were written in a pre-computer era, and I read them for the first time prior to my exposure to the internet and cell phones. So as an adult reading these stories now, I became aware of the extent of my impatience. This is why it is toilsome for us to read Shakespeare or Charles Dickens or Jane Austen today: they were not in any hurry, not the way we are today with text messaging and the internet at our finger tips. But even more, I was reminded why we should train ourselves to read Shakespeare, Dickens, and Austen today: those books force us to operate in a different mode, a mode that does not demand instant gratification, one that accumulates understanding and pleasure through a gradual and persistent unveiling of an idea. A much deeper satisfaction is found in the achievement of such a book. It is a good lesson in slowing down.
Aside from the experience of reading Tolkien’s books, I was also deeply impacted again by the nature of his world. Like most fantasy, The Lord of the Rings imitates a medieval culture and therefore entertains the reader with the experience of existing in a pre-industrial society. That means there are no light switches, no televisions, and it gets cold at night. People really had to depend on one another much more so than we do to today. In fact, privacy was a commodity that few enjoyed. Often we see Frodo or Aragorn or Gandalf escaping somewhere alone into the forest in order to have some thinking time. And their primary form of entertainment, much like today, was storytelling. Their form of storytelling differed sharply from the delivery we are captivated by today, however. Today, our stories come in the form of action-packed, computer-animated movies, video games, or television shows. In Frodo’s day, they told stories while gathered around the campfire, and sometimes they sang their stories. These stories were often historical, sharing with the group details about different races (elves or men, for instance), searching slowly for the origin of the presence of evil in their lives today. This was authentic communication, the kind that needed to happen face-to-face, the kind that could not be replicated through a recording. In Tolkien’s world, events happened only once, and if you did not experience them the first time, you could only hope to hear about them, at best, from someone who had been present.
Finally, what I appreciated as a child, and still appreciate as an adult, is that throughout Tolkien’s quest, he has given us a strong guide in the character of Gandalf. Granted, all members of the Fellowship pitch in their “special” qualities to achieve their common goal (hobbits typically provided lightheartedness, Legolas his bow and nimble feet, Aragorn his tracking skills), but Gandalf is their overseer, whether nearby or from afar. There is something immensely relieving to the mind knowing that someone exists who is an expert and can accomplish what we even in our best efforts would fail at. Gandalf doesn’t change the rules of good and evil (his infrequent magical interventions often protect or promote the party but never entirely accomplish their work), but he subdues evil and navigates its plots with wisdom and self-control. He is a reminder that we are not alone in this difficult journey, that help is at hand if we simply seek it, and that it is possible to be victorious.