§ What J.R.R. Tolkien's works mean to me,
and how they have affected my life:
Once there lived a simple, gentle British university professor who loved fantasy and wrote down what he fantasized in books for all to read and enjoy, for all time to come. Sounds like the beginning of a fairy tale? No, such a man actually did live, and wrote some of the best fantasy tales of all time. Such a man was John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973).
I cannot attempt to cover the full biographical details of JRR Tolkien's life here, for that would be a task of thousands of hours, and has already been done by others. (For links to biographical information on J.R.R. Tolkien, see the "Some J.R.R. Tolkien resources:" section below.) Instead, I will focus here on what Tolkien and his works mean to me, and how they have effected my life.
I first read Tolkien in the cafeteria in Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa California, during lunch one day, back in 1977. Another student had left a copy of The Fellowship Of The Ring (the first volume of The Lord Of The Rings) lying on a table. I was intrigued by the cover art (the road winding through Bywater and Hobbiton on its way up the Hill to Bag End). I picked the book up and opened it at random. I still remember the first words to hit my eye:
'You are a set of deceitful scoundrels!' he said, turning to the others. 'But bless you!' he laughed, getting up and waving his arms, 'I give in. I will take Gildor's advice. If the danger were not so dark, I should dance for joy. Even so, I cannot help feeling happy; happier than I have felt for a long time. I had dreaded this evening.'
Who was the speaker? Who was he talking to? Who is "Gildor"? What is this dark danger than looms over the speaker? I just had to find out! I was hooked for life.
Sometime around 1978 I acquired a copy of The Lord Of The Rings and set to reading it. This was during a very dark time in my life when I was homeless for eighteen months, living on the streets, back in 1977 and 1978. Books, especially fantasy tales, were a route of escape from the hell which was my life at the time. The two novels that captivated my imagination the most during those days were The Dream Quest Of Unknown Kadath by HP Lovecraft, and The Lord Of The Rings by JRR Tolkien. But it was Tolkien's work that had the most profound impact.
The thing I found most alluring in The Lord Of The Rings is its ethical values: truth, honesty, honor, love, loyalty, friendship, charity, and their opposites. The novel may involve battles fought with swords and spears, but the real battles were being fought within the mind of each participant. Watch Boromir as he is slowly overcome by lust for power. Watch Saruman succumb to ambition. Watch Samwise desperately cling to love and loyalty above all else. Values, ethics, motivations, and goals are the most powerful elements in this tale, to me. The rest (battles, etc.) can be found in any cheap paperback adventure tale. But Tolkien's genius took an "adventure story", used it as a skeleton, then fleshed-out the skeleton with richly detailed characters and fascinating ethical and spiritual dilemmas. The result is a masterpiece ranking with the best fiction of all time.
Another thing that I found alluring about Tolkien's works is the lack of encroachment of the mundane trivialities of everyday life into his tales. What is "important" in our outer world does not even enter into Tolkien's world. No traffic jams here. No people cutting each other off on the freeway. No smog marring the sky. No cut-throat business competition. No office buildings. No hurrying executives carrying briefcases. None of the clap-trap that we think of as being "important" in our outer world. Tolkien's world is a simpler, more honest world, lacking most of the insanities and imbalances which mar our modern world.
Another alluring thing in Tolkien's work is the picturesqueness of his world: places, people (human, hobbits, dwarves, elves, ents, etc.), creatures (wargs, orcs, wights, wraiths, etc.), plants (athelas, pipeweed, forest trees, etc.), landscapes, villages, ruins, barrows, hills, fields, mines -- all are described in piquant, poignant detail. It's like stepping into a whole other world. I suspect this has been one of Tolkien's biggest appeals to people over the decades: he provides an inner world to escape into when the outer world becomes unendurable.
Yet another great thing about Tolkien's stories is great sense of emotional "rightness". His characters dare to say aloud what they feel, and what we, deep down inside us, wish we had the courage to come out and say. His characters also often dare to do what we wish we secretly yearn to do, and this includes both good and evil yearnings. He makes no bones about the fact that sometimes, doing what you wish is very evil. But his characters explore both the good and the evil within them. (Consider Boromir succumbing to his urge to take the Ring from Frodo -- who amongst us can deny that some perverse part of our mind is yelling, "Yah! Take the ring from the pompous little brat! Kick his ass!" While some other part of our mind is terrified for Frodo and is yelling "Run, Frodo! Escape from this evil mad-man!") All is exposed for us to see: love and hate, good and evil, beauty and ugliness -- Tolkien doesn't shirk from any of it.
And last but not least, yet another great thing about Tolkien's works is his invented languages. Beautiful, lilting, lyrical languages like Sindar and Quenya; rugged, robust languages such as Khazad and Rohirim; ugly, foul languages such as The Black Tongue. Some of these Tolkien didn't just alliterate, he actually created glyph sets (Runes, Tengwar, etc.) as well as vocabularies and grammars. This shouldn't really come as a surprise, because Tolkien was, after all, a professor of Old and Middle English at Oxford University. Language was his profession. And yet, he went way beyond what other linguists have accomplished: he didn't just study existing languages, but created several new ones of his own. That is astonishing even for a professor of linguistics.
So as you can see, there are many reasons I love the works of JRR Tolkien. I highly recommend them to everyone. Read them! Start with The Silmarillion, then read The Hobbit, the The Lord Of The Rings. Then read his his Unfinished Tales, published posthumously by his son, Christopher Tolkien. Once you start reading Tolkien's works, you will wonder why it took you so long to get around to reading them, and how you ever survived without them.