Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for October 19th, 2007

In the summer between grades five and six, I discovered the works of J. R. R. Tolkien. The encounter inspired a love of fantasy and science fiction that endures to this day.

I was always precocious reader. By the end of Grade 1, I was devouring the Hardy Boy books. by Grade 2, I had discovered Alexander Dumas and historical fiction, and I first read Moby Dick in Grade 3. This precociousness alarmed my mother, who had at least one conference with my teacher, and eventually decided that, if I came across anything remotely racy, I would probably just skip over it. It also meant that I was so busy reading works like Mutiny on the Bounty that I missed a number of children’s classics until in the early years of high school, including Harriet the Spy, The Wind in the Willows, and, of course, Tolkien’s The Hobbit.

I was a first generation book addict, with nothing except the occasional suggestion from the school librarian to indicate that I was missing a wealth of treasures. I wouldn’t even have known The Wizard of Oz except for the movie and the fact that I played the Cowardly Lion in the class play (a most moving performance, I thought, in which I had a mane that made me look like a dandelion, and developed the business of wiping my eyes with the tip of my tail when I pretended to cry),

I do remember hearing my brother talk about his teacher reading The Hobbit to his class. And in grade five, I saw a black and white sketch in a school book club catalog showing Frodo and Sam on Mount Doom, and was intrigued. What were the Hobbits mentioned in the caption? They didn’t seem much different than humans to me. But, at the same time, stripped to a couple of sentences, the plot seemed ludicrous.

That summer, I came across a paperback three volume set of The Lord of the Rings with the abstract cover full of banners and snake-like heads. But the price was high for my allowance, and I put it aside. That was at The Bookstall, where I lived during many long summer afternoons of my childhood.

The owner seemed to appreciate my enthusiasm, and tolerated my horde of unbought treasures. Yet, every once and a while, his patience thinned, and I had to make at least an effort to buy what I had reserved. Cunningly, I said that I would take the first volume, figuring to satisfy the owner’s strange insistence on making sales without too much financial damage to myself.

As I rode home on my bicycle, I stopped every few blocks to read a page or two. By the time I got home, I was thoroughly hooked, and descended to the downstairs basement that I was using that summer to read stretched out on my bed.

That was on Friday afternoon. I must have had dinner and other meals on Saturday, but what I mostly remember is constantly shifting position on the bed, physically restless yet so unable to put the book down that I might been a fool of a Took snared by Sauron’s glance in the Palantir.

The experience remains vivid now, and is the main source of my contempt for those who dismiss Tolkien as an archaic or mediocre writer. Those terms might apply to all but the best of his poetry, but, for me, Tolkien remains the universal standard for atmosphere and building tension. Opening with the forced cheeriness of a children’s tale, Tolkien slowly drops those tones, until suddenly, without realizing quite how you got there, you are in a middle of an altogether more dangerous story, and are afraid to go to the washroom without turning on the lights in the hopes of warding off the Black Riders. And that night, I heard a cat’s yowl a few yards over that left me lying awake, half-expecting to hear the sound of horses’ hooves coming down the street. The Black Riders might be looking for hobbits, I was thinking, but they would probably be just as happy with children.

Twenty-six hours after I bought the first volume, I had finished it, and was ready for more. I spent a sleepless night in anticipation, and cycled down to The Bookstall only to find that it was closed on Sundays. I’m not sure how I lasted the day, let alone the night, with my tormented thoughts that somehow the other volumes might have been sold in my absence, but on Monday morning I was on the doorstep at opening time. This time, I bought both the remaining volumes, having learned my lesson. Two days later, I had finished both, and was seriously debating starting again – something I have almost never done at any age.

For the rest of the summer, I was wild about Tolkien. I read his other works, including The Hobbit, but most of them were like methadone to a serious addict – satisfying, but missing something. I drew my own maps of the areas beyond the edges of Tolkien’s maps, and searched the story and the appendices for hooks to hang a story on. I fantasized about one day backpacking to Oxford and meeting Tolkien in his study. But none of it was enough. In desperation, I started branching out into other fantasy and science fiction writers like Fritz Leiber and Robert Heinlein, and so a lifelong taste was born.

My appreciation of literature has broadened since then to include the classics, foreign literature, graphic novels and selected mysteries. Yet for all the discoveries that have delighted me, none quite compared to those four days in which I read Tolkien for the first time.

When, shortly after, I began to have my first crushes on the girls in my class, the feeling wasn’t strange at all. I’d already experienced that intensity of emotions in the pages of three paperback books.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »