J. R. R. Tolkien was born on this day in 1892. I wonder if his parents ever could have guessed looking down at his little apple head that out of it would come one of the greatest cultural influences of the 20th Century. I'm not going to talk about the details of his life or work here; these can easily be looked up elsewhere. I'm going to talk about my history with him, and the impact his work has had on my life.
The first time I became aware of Tolkien's work was in 1973. I was in third grade, and we went to see the high school's production of The Hobbit. I remember being impressed when Bilbo, Gandalf, and the dwarves ran down the aisles, fleeing goblins, and the spookiness of Bilbo's encounter with Gollum. Years later when I attended the same high school I acquired several souvenirs from the drama department, including some pointed hats and the scriptbook of the play.
Still, it was some years before I progressed further. In middle school they had the book of The Hobbit in the library, and I remember passing it by numerous times, noting the strange word, connecting it to the play, of course, but thinking it looked a little advanced for me. Sometime in 7th grade, I think, I buckled down and read it, and then I was hooked.
It was magic. I learned runes. I drew Thorin's Map, again and again. My writing took that "Celtic" look, with curved t's and hooked h's. I really started to try to draw, and my first pictures were of dwarves with long, sloping noses. Gandalf stooping low to find the white stones that marked the path to Rivendell, the spider-haunted gloom of Mirkwood, the deep-throated singing of dwarves in their ancient halls, these were all images that haunted my imagination. I wanted to live in a hobbit hole. When one of my grandmother's customers left behind a copy of The Hobbit in her beauty parlor and she passed it on to me, I was ecstatic. It was one of the first "chapter books" that I ever owned. And in its pages were announced the existence of three other works: the books of The Lord Of The Rings.
They weren't in middle school, and there were no local book stores at the time. But when my elder brother Mike advanced to high school and told me they were there, I bartered a whole year's worth of chores if he could get them for me. And he did. Tolkien became, in the words of Peter S. Beagle, "the center of my secret knowledge." Things really took off . I read them avidly, and was able to pick up a copy of The Tolkien Reader. I'll never forget when a guy noticed it on top of my pile of schoolbooks and said, "Oh. You're one of those people." I didn't know exactly what he meant, if anything. I had no idea of the phenomenon that Tolkien was. In the cultural wilderness of our backwater town, it was just good news from a far country.
Bakshi's movie adaptation of The Lord of the Rings came out in 1978, and for all it's perceived flaws we loved it. I say "we", because I was already being enthusiastically contagious to my brothers. There was an upsurge in Tolkien merchandising, and books, calendars, and action figures were all suddenly more available. Although it could only have been a few short years between the time I first became interested in Tolkien and the publication of The Silmarillion in 1980, it seemed an eternity to me as I yearned for more JRRT. I branched out reading more "Fantasy", and while I had found many good things, LOTR is what I held up as the measuring stick to each one.
With The Silmarillion, I entered what I call the "modern age" of Tolkien. The next years brought the publication of volume after volume of previously unpublished material. Mr. Bliss. Roverandom. The complete twelve volumes of The History Of Middle Earth. Peter Jackson's movie adaptations started coming in 2001, and suddenly Tolkien was on the big radar. Awards for The Book of the Century, The Author of the Century. I felt, somehow, as if my cultural stock had hit the jackpot, that my time and interest had been validated in the only way the world will acknowledge validation. But even if it never had, JRRT would still have been my "secret Magus."
And so J. R. R. Tolkien is one of my people. He is a mentor and a Father in Art. I turn to his opinions and examples again and again, and, even if I do still fumble with the pronunciation of his name, will stoutly defend him and his principles to anyone so foolhardy as to challenge them in my presence. So thank you again, Professor, and Happy Birthday.