Happy Birthday, Bilbo

Today is the 77th anniversary of the publication of The Hobbit. I was going to post a small review of this book, or a little bit about what it means to me, but everyone in Hobbiton is doing the same thing today. This is going to go in a slightly different direction.

I discovered The Hobbit entirely on my own when I was 8. I was in a pilot AIT program (Academically Interested and Talented), it was winter in Michigan (that curious season that lasts roughly from October to May I think that might have been the year I wore a snowsuit under my Hallowe’en costume…) and we were in the library waiting for a bus to take us… somewhere. Not sure if school had been canceled halfway through, or if we were spending recess inside because of the snowstorm (which should alone tell anyone from the midwest exactly how bad the storm was), but for whatever reason, it was an extra library period which meant I could not have been happier. Sometime during that half-hour wait, I found a brown library-bound book that featured wonderful glossy illustrations of Dwarves, and Dragons on Treasure Piles, and other magical things. I brought it home and read it along with my Dad; I read a chapter during the day, and he read one at night.

A little while later, one of my Mom’s friends, who was something of a pleasant hippie who loved opera and weird fantasy told me that there was even more to the story than that one book, and she gave me a very tattered and well-loved copy of The Fellowship of the Ring. Yes, I might have been a little young for it, and I confess to skipping over parts of it during that first reading, but the story absolutely enthralled and enchanted me. Everything in my life then was either Star Wars (which was NOT called “A New Hope,” though word-of-mouth among the kids of my time spread concepts like “The Journal of the Whills,” and “The Clone Wars” and Obi-Wan beating Darth Vader (who also was nobody’s father, not that we knew of) in a lightsaber duel) or Tolkien. I fell hard for it, and a lot of my childhood memories are still linked to which chapter I was reading. I’m not entirely sure of what my parents thought of me reading adult fantasy, but they never said anything to me, not that I can remember.

Someone who did say something to me was a man I still think of as my foster Uncle. My blood kin were all on the west coast at the time, so my parents adopted other families; Bob and Sue were my parents’ age, they had two boys my age, and I can barely remember a time when I didn’t know them. We saw each other at least weekly, if not more, we eventually went to the same church, and he and my Dad played guitar together. They were definitely family, so far as I was concerned.

One thing I didn’t know about Bob, though, was that he was a die-hard Lord of the Rings fan. Not until he saw me reading The Fellowship of the Ring and didn’t believe that an 8-year-old actually was reading and understanding that book. I don’t remember exactly what he asked me, but I do know he quizzed me on what had happened so far. From that moment on, he became my fantasy book buddy; the worlds of Pern and Prydain and The Land (of Thomas Covenant) I explored directly because of him. He also gave me a nicer boxed set of the four Lord of the Rings books, and this brings me to what I’m rather obliquely going to write about.

The books had prefaces and introductions, including one by Peter S Beagle (whom I’d later come to love as the author behind The Last Unicorn) that told me that “FRODO LIVES!” was common graffiti in NYC. But in the blurbs from various publishers in the front of The Two Towers (then and now my favourite of the trilogy, though the film version of The Return of the King is by far the best of that series) there was one that stuck with me all these years.

This… is not for children; nor is it for whimsy-lovers and Alice quoters. Neither is it a dead moral apparatus festooned with poesy… It is an extraordinary work-pure excitement, unencumbered narrative, moral warmth, barefaced rejoicing in beauty, but excitement most of all; yet a serious and scrupulous fiction, nothing cozy, no little visits to one’s childhood.

Boy, did that piss me off when I read it. I was a child, I was reading it. Who was this silly grown-up to tell me the book wasn’t for me? (I feel the same way now when I read an Internet article titled something like “Five Things You’re Wrong About” or “Six Ways You’re Stupid about History” or such.) If anything, I think that quote made me want to read it even more. And yes, there were parts where it was a long slog, especially for a kid who just wanted to read about dragons and Nazgûl and Gollum, but I finished it, absolutely amazed at the ending. And the second ending. And the third ending. I still feel a little cheated when a fantasy novel ends at the death of the Big Bad, and the heroes dont go back and perform their own version of The Scouring of the Shire. And another thing Bob did for me was tell me that I’d read the books multiple times, and he was definitely right about that. In fact, I’m gearing up for another reading, since it’s been about ten years since the last. My fantasy tastes have changed so much since that dark winter in snowy Michigan, but I’ll still always hold that series dear to my heart.

Still, that blurb stuck with me, and years later, thanks to the magic of Rivendell… err, I mean, of the Internet, I was able to find the entire review. It’s short, too short, perhaps. But in its few paragraphs we get a glimpse into what fantasy fiction was like before LOTR hit the shelves. Adult CJ understands (now) that the writer wasn’t trying to cut down precocious children (even the ones who thought they were way more literary than they really were) but rather to tell people that, not only were they not too old to read fairy stories, but they were old enough.

Here’s the essay. Also, if you don’t recognise the works he compares the book to, do yourself a favour and check them out. Some of them are greatly flawed, but it’s nice to see the influence they had on Professor Tolkien and his world.

And now I think I’m going to pull down one of Tolkien’s poems and let myself wander Middle-Earth once more.

Donald Barr:  Shadowy World of Men and Hobbits

 

 

 

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