Once in a while, I hear from somebody who has never read The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. Maybe they saw the films, and that was enough for them, or they couldn’t stomach the prose. This lost experience is indeed a sad thing in my book.
Looking back to the first experience as a reader of Tolkien, I was just a hobbit myself. Having moved frequently, school to school, state to state, all I wanted to do was hibernate in my bedroom. Every day of school was a day in Goblin Town, as if teachers were the weaponsmiths of a Goblin military-industrial complex, and we were all getting beaten and shaped into tools for a permanent wartime economy. Or something like that. I wasn’t the only person to make this connection later in life; see, for instance, David Foster Wallace’s “The Soul is Not a Smithy.”
But one day, my mom put a book into my hands. She had just bought it from Waldenbooks after working the lunch shift.
I looked at the cover. A rider on a barrel, floating out of the woods toward a bend in a certain windy, running river. And beyond? Another river bend with the sun in the sky.
Mom told me just to read it–“You’ll love it.”
Yeah right. I hated reading. My goblin overseers had conditioned me to associate books with supervised labor, sometimes in a cubicle, most times in an open office.
I began paging through the book skeptically. Then I saw the maps. Not the boring old maps that make your eyes glaze over with countless routes and exits, but maps with mountains and forests and rivers.
And then: “What is this hole in the ground?” I asked her: me, the little brat. Or perhaps, a little brat well on his way to being remade into a goblin.
Holding her ground, my mom said, “Keep reading.”
Sure. I decided to do my duty and comply with her (re)quest. Swish, smack!
My eyes scanned each sentence balefully. I’ll show her, or so I thought. But by the time I got to the second page, I had to sit down.
Finding the nearest place to sit, a couch in the living room, and without taking my eyes from the page, without stopping reading, without speaking aloud, I journeyed onwards into The Hobbit.
It was as if I had been struck by lightning!
For the next few days, I jumped out of bed hours before school just to read a couple of chapters.
On the bus to and from Goblin Town, I reread those pages. I began paying more attention to the world. The moon and the stars. Trees. Hills. I studied the maps.
In class, teachers thwarted my studies. To them, I was doodling on paper. Distracted. I had gone off into the Blue.
Little did they know at the time that I was practicing Dwarvish rune craft. I was preparing years ahead of my time for a life of adventure. And for those shining three days when I first began reading The Hobbit my breakfast of Eggo Waffles was not Eggo Waffles. First, they turned into Beorn’s honey cakes. And then in Lake-town, they were “cram,” a kind of biscuit made by the Men of Lake-town to eat on long journeys. And still a few days later, when my mom brought home The Fellowship of the Ring, my waffles turned into lembas, or Elven waybread. With magic words, Tolkien had the alchemical power to turn food-like products into food for mariners of the starry night.
Ever since that first, magical reading of Tolkien’s legendarium, I have returned to these stories every few years for guidance and comfort. These are the shining timeless stories that nourish the soul in times of famine and darkness.
And it was Tolkien who broke the Goblin spell that had shackled book reading to forced labor in my mind, and in a flash, I was able to remember all the bedtime stories my mother used to read to me.