How I Came to Tolkien

[I just came across this post in my drafts folder. It was written late this past summer, and was definitely meant for publication then. Apparently I missed that part of the blogging process…so here it is, four months late but no less accurate.]

 

I grew up on The Hobbit. I don’t remember the first time it was read to me as a small child, but I do know it interested me enough to want to hear it again when my mother read it to my younger brother. Later, at age seven, my dad began reading The Lord of the Rings to my sister and I in the evenings before bed, in honor of the release of the first film of the trilogy. My dad would fall asleep while he read, and I would take the book from him and continue reading aloud. I couldn’t pronounce most of the names of people or places, and didn’t know the meanings of many of the big words Tolkien used, but I loved them all the same. They felt sophisticated, and old, and beautiful, and the knots they tied in my tongue weren’t painful – only intriguing.

After that initial introduction, I returned to The Lord of the Rings several times. I read it to myself and again to my sister. I wrote out paragraphs from Lothlórien and Ithilien in my copy book to practice my handwriting–I can still point out the exact passages. I engaged in contests against myself, having someone read a sentence out of the book and trying to guess from what chapter it came. I got it wrong far more times than I got it right.

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My interest soon faded, however, and I began to turn to other books more geared towards my age. In particular, I devoured Tamora Pierce’s books. A librarian introduced me to Keladry of Mindelan, and I fell in love. Here in Pierce’s Tortall was a world like none I had never encountered before. Keladry’s battle to be accepted as a page, squire, and lady knight was different from anything small, homeschooled me had ever experienced, and it fascinated me. These books too had far-reaching fantasy worlds and characters with complicated names, but they were easy to digest, and much more entertaining.

Pierce’s Tortall made up most of my engagement with fantasy for several years. But as I read more of Pierce’s books, I began to feel that they were missing something. The abundance of Magic disturbed me–the Gift was a strange force, part natural phenomenon and part tool, used for personal gain by those who could control it and overpowering and hurting those who couldn’t. Its dark side seemed stronger and vaster than its light. It offered too many shortcuts to those who could use it well, and though it had drawbacks, it still seemed like cheating. It was beautiful, but in a bewitching way that felt half wrong. Tortall became a guilty pleasure, and I finished each book feeling a little dissatisfied.

It was about this time that I was deemed old enough to see Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings film trilogy with a friend. I vividly remember that night, sitting huddled on the floor of my friend’s bedroom, reeling from the shock of my discovery: Middle-earth was real.

That week, I checked The Silmarillion out of the library, and had read it, Unfinished Tales, and parts one and two of The Book of Lost Tales (the only other books by Tolkien our library had) by age fifteen, as well as re-reading The Lord of the Rings many times in between, memorizing a slew of Elvish greetings, and beginning to teach myself Tengwar. I was caught.

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Tolkien’s works sunk into my mind and captured my imagination entirely. He seemed to understand my discomfort with Pierce’s sort of magic, the kind that wavered between hurting people and making everything easy for them. Middle-earth offered me a new way of understanding the fantastic: Enchantment. Galadriel’s confusion over Sam’s use of the phrase “Elvish magic” taught me the difference between this Enchantment and Pierce’s magical Gift. As Tolkien writes in his essay “On Fairy-stories,” “Enchantment…in its purity [is] artistic in desire and purpose. Magic…is not an art but a technique; its desire is power in this world, domination of things and wills.” In Middle-earth I found Art, and thus Enchantment. In Tortall, I found Technique, and thus Magic. I found I preferred the Enchantment, and could wholly love it without guilt.

I still have very fond memories of my adventures in Tortall. They were many, and Pierce’s writing taught me to love the fantastic and shaped my own view of magic as a force. But in Tolkien’s Middle-earth I found a world that I could grow into, and that would continue to expand before me as I grew older. Tolkien dashed all my hopes of ever writing a half-decent fantasy story myself–I could never live up to the astronomically high bar his beloved legendarium has set–but he also taught me that I don’t need to. Enchantment is not like the magic of Tortall–it exists in the Primary World, and thus one needn’t make believe in order to find it.

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