Friday 27 October 2017

Roots and branches of reading Lord of the Rings, aged 14

Reading the Lord of the Rings (LotR) aged 14 was probably the most significant abstract (non-personal) event in my life. It led to many changes of interests - some of which I describe below; but I have been reflecting on what it was that led-up-to LotR. Or rather, to The Hobbit - since it was the Hobbit which first grabbed me, and moving-on LotR was a consequence of The Hobbit.

An incomplete list of the life-dominating interests which stemmed directly from the transformative effect of Lord of the Rings would include (but not be restricted to):

1. History, and historical novels - especially English history
2. Traditional agriculture, and the idea of self-sufficiency
3. Medieval, Tudor and Folk music
4. Learning and reading Middle English literature
5. Appreciation of landscape - especially woods and streams
6. Folklore, myths and legends
7. Other fantasy books
8. Literary biography and criticism (via exploring this in relation to Tolkien himself)
9. Utopian politics - William Morris type agrarianism
10. Environmentalism - what was then called 'ecology'.

But what led up to The Hobbit. I had enjoyed fairy stories as a child (mostly Andrew Lang's collections named after various colours) - but not especially. I had read and enjoyed a couple of Narnia books, but not enough to complete the series.

Indeed, aged 12-13, most of my reading was about aeroplanes and war - especially the second world war. I read a lot of the Biggles stories (by Captain WE Johns) and then memoirs of various famous pilots, and of specific operations... I think my favourite books were 633 Squadron by Frederick E Smith and The Dam Busters by Paul Brickhill. All a very long way away from Tolkien...

I had heard of The Hobbit a few years before, and been played a tape of a little bit of it - and been intrigued by the 'fairy tale for adults'; but not enough to read it.

What really got to me read the Hobbit was my then infatuation with Progressive Rock music - e.g. Jethro Tull, Led Zeppelin, Hawkwind and - especially - Tyrannosaurus Rex featuring Marc Bolan on guitar and vocals, and Steve Peregrine Took on bongos and other percussion... Bolan was fascinated by faery and magic - and transmitted this to me - it was looking for 'more of the same' that was what got me to read The Hobbit.

A particular friend of that time, called Roy, was the decisive factor: he had access (via an older brother) to LPs of progressive rock, and he had also read and loved both the Hobbit and LotR; so it is Roy who was the real key.

We lost touch not long after, and - if he is alive and remembers me at all - I don't suppose he has any idea how massively and permanently he changed my life!


Mark Moncrieff said...

Professor Charlton

An interesting piece, however you have quite understandably confused two different books.

Paul Brickhill wrote 617 squadron, 633 squadron was by Frederick E. Smith, which was also made into a film.

Mark Moncrieff

Keri Ford said...

I too was 14 when i discovered the Hobbit and the the Lord of the Rings. Before then I'd only read Tintin, Asterix and Lucky Luke. It was a momentous event, i had never had that kind of intense internal experience before with the absorption and concentration that were such a part of it. It was very much a founding experience and certainly opened avenues for me that I needed.

Also interesting although I'm not now aware how much influence music had on me reading Tolkien, I don't think much as he was read in my family, but Progressive Rock music was what I listened to at the time. I said above that reading Tolkien was a unique internal experience, it was preceded by intense listening experiences to Yes Close to the Edge particularly and Jethro Tull, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd. Strangely enough T Rex's Get it On had made a big impact on me aged 9 when I got an early hits compilation Twenty Solid Gold Hits vol 2. It wasn't till much later that I came to love Tyrannosaurus Rex.

I'm doing a local radio programme called Romantic Retro that features popular music from the late 60s to early 80s which had a certain romantic intensity.

It's hard for me to say how Tolkien effected my interests overall. But I did re read him and he did remain significant to me and it has been fascinating to me in recent years to discover the Inklings and deepen my appreciation of Tolkien and that his vision was that interior was anterior and that when going back into the past it becomes increasingly mythic and poetic.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Mark - Thanks for the correction - It seems I was conflating two favourite books, which I have now put into the text separately.

Bruce Charlton said...


You might be interested by these earlier memoirs

This story by Marc Bolan (read by DJ John Peel) was on one of his albums and encourage me to read The Hobbit

Although somewhat cringe-inducing nowadays; I think it can be seen that Bolan had a real flair with words, at this point in his career - and a love of the magical.

Chiu ChunLing said...

I'm enough younger to have no specific memory of having read The Hobbit a "first time". Then again, I don't generally remember any external motivation for reading any of the various examples of good literature I've encountered in my life, and little enough of the circumstances around me when I read them (I enjoyed some amusingly light literature on audiobook, and for those books I remembered what I was doing while listening to them for the first time, an amusingly holographic experience when I was re-reading them later).

Wurmbrand said...

hen the door of the Coos Bay, Oregon, public library closed behind me that day in (probably) the second half of 1966, my pre-Tolkien world had just moments of existence left.

Once through the doorway, one turned right, to the children's section, or left to the adult section. If, aged 11, I poked around the children's section first, then the moment that day when I crossed over to the adult section (not for the first time) was a turning point in my life.

A memory: the Ballantine Tolkien paperbacks displayed with the Barbara Remington Middle-earth map and/or the "Come to Middle-earth!" poster. The artwork caught my eye. I liked it (still do). Back then, it looked science-fictiony to me.

So I read The Hobbit. It connected with my existing love of Scandinavian mythology and folklore. As a boy, Tolkien desired dragons with a great desire. I desired trolls. (Look at the troll-drawings by Werenskiold and Kittelsen, in the Asbjornsen and Moe collection of Norwegian Folk Tales.) True, Tolkien's trolls talk like Cockneys. But they have the authentic troll-qualities of ill-gotten wealth, largeness, stupidity, coarseness, and dangerous appetite. Yes, I relished the hobbit, the dwarves, the wizard, the dragon-talk. It seems people usually don't say much about Bert, William, and Tom, though; but I was delighted: something new for me about trolls.

And in a book displayed in the adult section! Who could have expected such a thing?

-- That's something I wrote five years ago, but I would add to it that this was, or was connected with, an early experience of what could be called poetic consciousness. I am quite sure that reading Tolkien interacted, in my imagination, with the experience of clouds and sunlight, damp woods, ferns, quietness, the pleasure of walking. Tolkien's writing helped to give me the place in which I lived. I don't remember that I ever played at being a hobbit, nor did I try to write Middle-earth stories of my own. This was a matter not so much of the literary-creative imagination but of something more basic.

Happily for me, I also took to the Narnian books. Too, I discovered Denys Watkins-Pitchford's (BB's) The Little Grey Men in the library. These too provided experiences of poetic consciousness. It was actually, I suppose, the BB book that most affected my play at the time.

It was a pleasure to read your (too brief) account here, Dr. Charlton.

Dale Nelson "Wurmbrand"

Bruce Charlton said...

@W - That's great! I discovered the Little Grey Men (and its sequel) post-Tolkien, and I also liked it a lot

I think it would be interesting to ask other readers of this blog to write comments about their own Tolkien first moments... I'll try it soon.

William Wildblood said...

Reading The Lord of the Rings at around the age of 11 or 12 was seminal for me too. In fact it almost felt like a life saver as it showed me that there was something out there that corresponded to what I felt in here. Along with other books (among which was The Little Grey Men), but more than any other, it really opened up my imagination but perhaps best of all it helped me to see that there could be people as noble as Aragorn or as wise as Gandalf, as self-sacrificing as Frodo, as good and true as Sam and so on. Goodness and truth really did exist. I don't think Tolkien gets enough credit for restoring 20th century's man's belief in the fundamental integrity of Man.

Obviously his female characters are not so pronounced but the wisdom of Galadriel and the heroism of Eowyn ennoble the female archetype in the same way that the male archetype is ennobled by the male characters.

a_probst said...

Sadly the most important book I read at 14 was Nineteen Eighty-Four.


That was followed about six months later at 15 by Brave New World.


At least, a few months after that, I read Out of the Silent Planet.

Wurmbrand said...

I wish there were a whole book of people writing about their discovery of Tolkien and how it affected them -- especially by people who discovered Tolkien before the television Hobbit and the LOTR movies.

Bruce Charlton said...

Some more comments from the Bruce Charlton's Notions blog:

Blogger Neal said...

Like you, it fueled a lifelong fascination with traditional agriculture and what I may term home œconomy. The Shire, for all its provincialism, has emerged as my this-worldly ideal of community, if unattainable.

I've also ventured far back into William Morris' works, on the authority that they inspired Tolkien's writings; and I've read a lot of Arthurian and mediæval texts as a result. I know I've encountered many ideas as a result of second-hand influences, filtered through Jethro Tull, Led Zeppelin, and others.

I don't trust machines, which I can only imagine stems from Tolkien's own expressed distaste, via the scouring of the Shire. This has led to many years' research into technology and its effects.

(As an aside, if you have enjoyed Tolkien's Warwickshire village in the 1860s (his acknowledged model for the Shire), I recommend George Sturt's The Wheelwright's Shop for a lovely reminiscence of the last edge before the industrial revolution overtook craftsmanship.)

4 November 2017 at 21:06

Blogger Bix Cvvv said...

Stephen C. said: I've enjoyed the comments on this so I will add my own. In elementary school, at the age of 8 or 9, someone told me the Hobbit - that book in school one-room library with a wonderful green cover, one of the few books I had ever seen with a natural color (in this case, something between the dark green of oak tree leaves and slightly less dark green maple tree leaves in midsummer) was a children's book but also something like a grown-up book: that it was too "advanced" for me, but that when I was older, I would enjoy it. So I waited a couple months to get older and, one day, worried that when I was old enough, it would be checked out to someone else, I checked it out.

Loved it from page one. It was as if someone loved the nice things in life - trees and grass and people (even if the people were hobbits and eagles and dwarves) more than I had imagined anybody ever had, as if somebody understood all those beautiful illustrations and copies of paintings (elves sliding down moonbeams, the backgrounds of paintings of the Madonna, vast empty woods, ancient trees) that I had seen, even at that young age, and it was as if someone was able to explain why they were important.

I was, however, as a child, instinctively and innocently (and correctly, I still think) repulsed by the profoundly unkind choice to give the trolls a Cockney accent (I knew a couple of Cockneys, very nice people, in real life) and bothered that the author was mostly too lazy to tell us how the dwarves - (particularly Kili and Fili, for some obscure reason) - were different from each other (I was born into a large family and to this day I can't help feeling a temptation to genuine unChristian contempt for anybody who thinks it is "funny" that people in large families seem indistinguishable, to those who are lazy and do not care, from each other).

When I read the Lord of the Rings, a couple years later, I had no complaints. The lazy humor was gone (and in fact there was a subtle but unmistakeable apology, for those who were as sensitive as me, for the anti-Cockney humor in the Hobbit) and the main flaw of the Hobbit, namely the lack of individuation among the fellowship of Bilbo and Gandalf and the dwarves, was completely absent from the Lord of the Rings - to this day I do not know how Tolkien was able to make every single member of the Fellowship, and so many others, such well described individuals. The man (Tolkien) must have had a very good heart, after all.

When I read the first edition of the Letters of Tolkien, a few years later, I felt profoundly grateful for the Christian love this person had experienced, and had tried to express.

5 November 2017 at 00:04

Bruce Charlton said...

@W - There is a very good book somewhat like this, but only of fantasy writers: Meditations on Middle Earth.