Reading it continually ever since

While I was in Oxford for a logic conference this week I took some time out to go to the Bodleian’s Tolkein exhibition at the Weston library. It’s a nice little display of Tolkein’s manuscripts, original artwork and correspondence, and of some bits and pieces illustrating his life as a student, as an officer in the war and later as professor and author.

What’s most striking is how early in his life Tolkein began working on stories and poems about the world of The Lord of the Rings. An original (though much inspired by Norse and Finnish mythology) aesthetic seems to have come to him fully-formed in his late teens which he then spends the rest of his life exploring.

The selection of correspondence on display is particularly delightful. Here is an off-the-cuff scrawl of appreciation from Iris Murdoch. Below, a typewritten letter from a slightly pompous 19 year old—one Terrence Pratchett. And, along a bit, several sheets on royal paper from (then Crown Princess) Margrethe of Denmark, who went on to illustrate Danish editions of Tolkein’s works. The future queen writes to say “how much pleasure I have derived” from The Lord of the Rings, “It is no exaggeration to say I have been reading it ever since.”

Haven’t we all? Well, sort of. I read The Lord of the Rings multiple times between the ages of 10 and 15. But unlike The Hobbit, which I return to again and again as a near-perfect piece of children’s literature, I’ve left The Lord of the Rings alone for the last 15 years. Why? Well, like a lot of nerdy, bookish young people I aspired to sophisticated intellectualism and high fantasy didn’t fit that picture of myself. High fantasy—or any fantasy aimed at adults—was, frankly, naff. Nobody got laid at the Games Workshop.1

But at the end of last year I was sad and ill and feeling sorry for myself. Casting my eye along my bookshelves my gaze was returned by one single lidless red eye. Why not, I thought? I read the whole trilogy (except the songs) in about a week. It wasn’t really as I remembered it at all—it stands up rather well,2 though there were a few surprises in store.

The first surprise was that Peter Jackson’s films have replaced the books as the canonical version of the story that lives in my head. The second was that Rivendell and Rohan have completely swapped places between top and bottom in my personal ranking of Middle Earth territories (in favour of Rohan).3

But the biggest surprise was that it isn’t that naff at all. In fact it’s really rather beautiful, especially once we’ve got the Council of Elrond out of the way and the journey proper has begun. None of the cringeworthy stuff I associate with high fantasy was present. There are no in-depth explanations of magic systems or lengthy taxonomies of the races of Middle Earth (in the main text). The names of people and places feel natural not arbitrary. The plot is surprisingly pacy; a story that feels epic fits comfortably inside 1000 pages, after which time George R. R. Martin’s characters are thinking about putting on their boots.

So I was pleased to go to the exhibition by way of making my peace with old J.R.R. He’s inspired an awful lot of dross, but I believe his own work will stand the test of time. I’m happy about that because one other thing I took away from the exhibit was that he seemed like a genuinely nice man, in love with literature and sharing it, kind to children and readers, troubled by war &c.

All-in-all it’s a very pleasant way to spend an hour if you happen to be in Oxford. Entry is free, though ticketed. It runs until the end of October.

  1. In all probability the people down at the Games Workshop probably got laid plenty, just as soon as they’d undone all their buckles. It wasn’t what I had in mind though. ↩︎

  2. Except the aforementioned songs and, of course, Tom Bombadil (who was never good in the first place). ↩︎

  3. I once had a strop over a game of Lord of the Rings Monopoloy because I couldn’t buy the Rivendell squares and had to settle for Rohan. Who wants to live in Rohan? Horses are horrible and smelly and the horselords are dim and impulsive, more concerned with honour and alliances than good tactics. Rivendell was the place for me, full of books and cleverness and bittersweet melancholy. What a twat. On re-reading, the Riders of Rohan are obviously the best people in the Lord of the Rings (and it’s clear Tolkein agrees, they most obviously reflect the heroic ideal of his beloved Beowulf & the Norse myths). The Rivendell elves are the most awful patrician elites, they’re the libs of Middle Earth. Aragorn was an idiot to choose Arwen over Éowyn imo. ↩︎

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