Of Hobbits, Elves, and Magic Rings
My favorite books of all time are J.R.R. Tolkien's books about Middle-earth. I'm referring not only to The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, but also to The Silmarillion, and Tolkien's earlier writings about Middle-earth, collected in Unfinished Tales and The History of Middle-earth. Tolkien created more than just a story, or a collection of stories, or even a mythology. In his works, he created an entire world, with its own history, geography, cultures, and languages.
I was introduced to that world as a young child, in a very unlikely way: the Rankin/Bass animated adaptation of The Hobbit. Our church had a library in the back with a selection of movies to check out. Often, we would get movies about saints or Bible stories. But one week, we got The Hobbit. I don't remember much about my first impressions of this film. The one thing I do remember is how strange I found a particular folksy song that kept playing throughout the movie. It just didn't seem to fit the tone of the rest of the story. That song was "The Greatest Adventure," and the reason it didn't seem to fit is because it is the only song in the film with lyrics not taken from the book. I've included a link to the song below. (The first 20 seconds or so should be enough to illustrate my point. If you're able to make it all the way through, I applaud you.)
We found out that there was a sequel to The Hobbit, another Rankin/Bass movie called The Return of the King. You might be thinking, "Wait, what about The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers?" Well, Rankin and Bass did not adapt those stories. So instead, the viewer jumps 77 years into the future, into the middle of a new story. I remember wondering where Bilbo was. Apparently this Frodo character we were following was related to him, because the two had the same last name (Baggins). A few details of that movie stuck with me - I remember singing "Where there's a whip, there's a way" with my brothers from time to time - but for the most part, I forgot about both of those Rankin/Bass movies for a long time.
Fast forward to middle school. I was very excited about the Harry Potter books, and the forthcoming adaptation of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. (Don't worry, there will be a whole post about Harry Potter in the future.) Meanwhile, another fantasy work was being adapted for the big screen - The Fellowship of the Ring. The theatrical release passed me by, but I remember my older brother Michael being excited about it, and wanting to rent it as soon as it was released on home video. He encouraged me to read the book before seeing the movie, so I got started.
I was able to finish each of the books before seeing the respective movie. Somewhere in there, I read The Hobbit for school. So I didn't read everything in the proper order, but I did get the whole story. Since I was watching the films and reading the books all in the same time, they both influenced each other. Sometimes an actor's portrayal of a character onscreen colored my perception of that character on the page, so I wasn't able to notice all of the changes from the books to the movie. There were some obvious changes, though - no Tom Bombadil, no Glorfindel, a weaker Faramir character, and no conflict in the Shire at the end of the story. Still, I really enjoyed the story, both in the books, and on the screen.
A few years after finishing the books, I decided to read a book called The Silmarillion. J.R.R. Tolkien's son Christopher had edited together many of his father's writings about the early history of Middle-earth, and released it after his father's death. Unfortunately, I didn't even make it a tenth of the way into the book. I got to a point where it was listing off a bunch of elves and their children and grandchildren, and I gave up. The story was not told the same way as The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. And there were way too many characters to keep track of.
Over the next several years, I watched and re-watched the trilogy of films, and reread the books maybe once. I heard a few rumors about Peter Jackson making a movie of The Hobbit, but it never seemed to go anywhere. Until it was finally announced that he would be making not one, but two Hobbit movies. (Eventually, of course, the two movies became three.) As production began, I started to look for podcasts about The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. I stumbled across one by a man named Corey Olson, a.k.a. "the Tolkien Professor." He spoke about Tolkien's works in a way I hadn't heard before. He read the text closely to get insights about characters, themes, and other details of Middle-earth. It reinvigorated my love for Tolkien.
I discovered that he had put together a series of podcast episodes about The Silmarillion, discussing the book chapter by chapter. So I decided to try to read the book again. I don't know if it was because I was older, or because I decided to not worry about keeping track of every character name and geographical region, but I liked it a lot more this time. As Jess and I were reading before bed, I was particularly struck by a certain passage (the attack on the Two Trees of Valinor by Melkor and Ungoliant), and I read it out loud to her. The I found myself explaining what The Two Trees were, and who Melkor was, and who Ungoliant was, until finally I asked, "Do you want me to read it to you from the beginning?"
That's how I ended up reading the whole book. I would be reading one chapter when I read by myself, and reading an earlier chapter to Jess. If Jess had any questions about characters, I'd usually be able to answer them for her.
Once I was done with The Silmarillion, I reread The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. It was really cool to see all the times Tolkien referred to events or people from The Silmarillion, which hadn't been published yet.
I sought out more information about how Tolkien went about creating his world. I listened to the Tolkien Professor's podcasts, read books and articles about Tolkien, and read The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, a collection of letters he had written to family members, friends, publishers, and fans, about his life and his writing. I learned more and more about the themes Tolkien had integrated into his writing - mortality, the problem of evil, the value of suffering, the importance of mercy. I saw how his faith influenced his work. There were similarities between lembas bread and the Eucharist. Three of the main characters - Frodo, Gandalf, and Aragorn - were Christ figures, in three different ways. Jesus Christ had three major roles in his life on Earth - three ways in which he fulfilled the Old Testament - priest, prophet, and king. And Frodo, Gandalf, and Aragorn fulfilled those roles in The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien's writing made the leap from being books I happened to enjoy, to my favorite books of all time.
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My pick for this week is any of J.R.R. Tolkien's books. Specifically, I recommend The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, and The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. If you are interested in buying any of these, please use the links included in this section. This will send a small portion of the profits my way (at no extra cost to you), to help offset the costs of this website.
The Hobbit is a great introduction to Middle-earth, for a variety of reasons. The first is that it is the easiest to read, since Tolkien wrote it as a children's book. That also makes it ideal for reading it to your children. I have read portions of The Hobbit to Timmy. Of course, he's only two, so it's not like he has really absorbed any of the story. I do look forward to reading it to him when he's a little older, though.
The second is that it can be enjoyed as a self-contained story. Any connections to the wider world and history of Middle-earth are secondary to the story. Tolkien only gives backstory if it is immediately relevant to a character or plot point.
And finally, it's just a fantastic story, which evolves as the narrative unfolds. What begins as a simple quest for treasure - split into semi-contained episodes of adventure (an encounter with trolls, a trip through a goblin city, an escape from giant spiders) - becomes a story about different groups of people overcoming their stubborn ways to work towards a common goal. And of course there's Bilbo's personal development throughout the story, from grocer to burglar, to use Glóin's terms. You can find The Hobbit in physical form here. Or, if you'd like the ebook, click here.
The Lord of the Rings
After the wide commercial success of The Hobbit, Tolkien's publisher asked him to write a sequel. Tolkien would have preferred to finish and release his epic history of Middle-earth, The Silmarillion, but none of the publishers he spoke to were very enthusiastic about that project. As a result, his sequel - The Lord of the Rings - ended up moving the story forward, while also bringing in many elements from The Silmarillion as backstory.
The story starts with four Hobbits - one of them Bilbo's "nephew" (he's actually Bilbo's second cousin once removed, or something like that, but "nephew" is easier) - journeying from the pastoral Shire to the Elvish realm of Rivendell. From there, they enter into the larger events going on in the world, as kingdoms fight back against the forces of evil. The Hobbits serve as the lens through which we view these larger-than-life heroes and events. But they also serve to show how humble and seemingly unimportant people can influence the course of history.
One of the coolest concepts or literary devices used by Tolkien in this book is eucatastrophe - which is the sudden and unexpected turn from certain doom to a happy ending. This turn brings the reader to tears, because it brings together the emotions of sorrow and joy. In the story of human history, Tolkien claimed that the eucatastrophe was the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, who saved us from our sins.
While The Lord of the Rings is often considered to be a trilogy of books (it was, after all, released as three separate books), J.R.R. Tolkien originally intended it to be one novel, split into six parts (Book I through Book VI). So when you finish The Fellowship of the Ring or The Two Towers, it may not feel like you've finished a story. There are also several appendices at the end of The Return of the King that refer back to chapters from the other two books. For those reasons, I prefer reading The Lord of the Rings in a single volume. You can find the physical copy here, or the ebook version here.
This one is a bit of a harder sell. Many Tolkien fans, myself included, start reading The Silmarillion once, quickly get overwhelmed, and then give up. For those people, I have some tips:
1. Don't get hung up on all the names. The Silmarillion has a lot of characters mentioned, but not all of them are important. You won't need to remember every single Vala or Maia or son of Fëanor. Just take each story as it comes. When you're reading the story of Beren and Luthien, it's not vital that you remember whether Orodreth is a son of Finarfin or Fingolfin; you'll still be able to enjoy the story. Read the book for the main stories, and then if you want to read it again, you can worry about the details on the second or third reading.
2. Don't worry too much about the geography. Tolkien spends a whole chapter describing the various mountain ranges, valleys, forests, and rivers. I won't say skip that chapter, but maybe just skim it. You can always glance at the map later if you're confused about where things are. Or you can just enjoy the story, and save the details for subsequent readings.
This book was edited together (by J.R.R. Tolkien's son Christopher) from many different passages, of differing styles. So some parts read like summaries of historical events, and other stories are told more dramatically. And it's worth reading the drier passages to get to the richer ones, because it feels like these events actually happened, in some long-forgotten country. Take this passage for example: "Then Fingolfin beheld (as it seemed to him) the utter ruin of the Noldor, and the defeat beyond redress of all their houses; and filled with wrath and despair he mounted upon Rochallor his great horse and rode forth alone, and none might restrain him. He passed over Dor-nu-Fauglith like a wind amid the dust, and all that beheld his onset fled in amaze, thinking that Oromë himself was come: for a great madness of rage was upon him, so that his eyes shone like the eyes of the Valar. Thus he came alone to Angband's gates, and he sounded his horn, and smote once more upon the brazen doors, and challenged Morgoth to come forth to single combat. And Morgoth came." Does that not just give you chills? Well, maybe if you don't know who Morgoth is, or Oromë, or Fingolfin. But trust me, there is some awesome stuff in this book: honor, jealousy, revenge, hope, despair, feats of bravery, true love, curses, destiny, werewolves (but not like the Wolfman), giant spiders, and even a talking dog (which, believe me, is even cooler than it sounds)! You can find the physical copy here, and the ebook here.
The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien
This was a fascinating read. It contains a collection of letters Tolkien sent throughout his life. There are letters he wrote to his wife and children, which give some insight into his family life and his values. There are the conversations he had with his publisher while working on The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. There's a particularly awesome letter he sent to a German publishing company after they asked whether he had Jewish ancestry. This was during the rise of Nazism, and Tolkien's response to their attempted discrimination will make you punch the air in triumph.
Then there are a whole host of letters he sends to inquiring fans of The Lord of the Rings, answering their questions about how the Ring works, the differences between Men and Elves, whether Frodo succeeded or failed in his mission, etc. You can find the physical copy here, and the ebook here.
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