Friday 7 June 2019

Your story of discovering Tolkien and Lewis

William Wildblood tells an unusual and interesting story about how he came to read Tolkien and Lewis as a child:

I was a bookish child and two of my grandmother's sisters, both regarded by the family as rather dotty (which they were), came to my rescue. It was they who every birthday and Christmas from the age of 8 until about 12 gave me The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings and most of the Narnia stories. I devoured these avidly and when my parents died I recuperated my early hardback copies from their house and I still have them. In this way it was basically two slightly eccentric old ladies, one of whom, Viola, was a tipsy poet constantly in debt who sold the family portraits to finance a whiskey habit while the other, Ursula, started her adulthood by running off to Paris with the actor Claude Rains before moving to Italy and ending up after a divorce super-devout and going to mass every day at Westminster Cathedral, who injected some imagination into my prosaic childhood. The more responsible members of the family, fond as I was of them, did not. Perhaps there’s a moral there somewhere.

Readers are invited to contribute their own analogous accounts of discovery...


Anonymous said...

Wow - what a story! Prosaically, my dad got given s copy of the Ballantine Hobbit by an office colleague when Tolkien was suddenly popular in the late 1960s, and liked it well enough, but the emus and whatnot on the cover quite put me off (thanks, Illustrator!), and I think 'Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics' was my first - wonderful! - Tolkien, in Donald K. Fry's The Beowulf Poet: A Collection of Critical Essays (1968), as a teenager. My first Lewis was The Abolition of Man thanks to Duncan Williams's Trousered Apes: Sick Literature in a Sick Society (1973), also in high school, but, before or after 'The Monsters and the Critics' I cannot clearly recall.

David Llewellyn Dodds

David Smith said...

I had a summer job - 1964 it was, between Junior and Senior year of High School (in These United States) - at the local Country Club, helping maintain the tony clay tennis courts. Saw a paper copy of The Hobbit on a chair next to the courts first thing in the morning. It must have been left overnight, and when it was still there at the end of my shift, around 1600, it went home with me. The title was somehow familiar, when I finished it I got all the books of the trilogy and read them to death - over and over, then gradually just once a year, then not at all for a while, now back to once through every year or two.

BTW, the latest "reCAPTCHA" effort to determine that I'm actually a human is phenomenally annoying! Took longer to prove that I wasn't a robot than to write my comment!

Wurmbrand said...

A few weeks ago, I started a discussion on the "Day I Discovered Tolkien" at a public online forum, and one contributor, Teresa Edgerton, submitted this really lovely account:

I read a review of the books in Seventeen magazine and thought they sounded interesting. So one day after school when I stopped by the Co-Op market (a dingy, depressing place—but they sold books!) across the street to browse the spinning book racks at the front of the store before walking home, and saw the Ballentine edition of The Return of the King I snatched it up. The book cover did not appeal; I bought the book because of the review. They didn't have the other two books in the trilogy, though, and reading the synopsis at the front of the one I had after I got home (or more likely reading as I walked home) convinced me that I should read those first. And having read the synopsis I was very, very eager to do so! So after dinner my mother took me off to find the other two volumes that evening. It was too late to go looking for a bookstore (most US retail establishments closed at around 5 o'clock back then) so we went to two or three drug stores in the vicinity. My parents were very sympathetic to my reading habit, bless them. We did find and buy The Two Towers, but of course that still left me unable to start reading the series, which was frustrating.

In the morning, before I left for school, my mother promised to call all the bookstores in the area and find out if one of them had The Fellowship of the Ring. She promised to pick me up after school so we could go get the book if she was successful. She did find a shop that had it, tucked into the same shopping center as the Co-Op market. (It looked like a toy store from the outside, so I'd never been in. If I had known they sold books, too, I probably would have gone there instead of the market in the first place and saved us the frantic search.) I It was the Ace edition, so didn't match the other two books that I had, but much I cared about having a matched set—I was ready to read those books as soon as I could! Which I began to do as soon as we reached home. So that was the next few days devoted to reading The Lord of the Rings after school and in bed when I should have been sleeping, and probably every moment I could snatch during classes.

I don't know if I would remember all these details if it wasn't for finding the books in reverse order and all the searching we had to do as a result. Although maybe I would, because reading the trilogy was such a remarkable experience and changed my future so profoundly.

It was some months later before I happened to see The Hobbit on display in the book department in one of the big discount department stores and of course bought it at once.

--So far Teresa's account.

Dale Nelson

Wurmbrand said...

My own discovery of Lewis and Tolkien goes like this.

Life with Tolkien's books began in late 1966 or very early 1967. I was 11 years old and already a public library haunter. I went to the new Coos Bay, Oregon, public library.

I ventured into the adult section of the library and my eyes were caught by a display or Tolkien paperbacks beneath one or both of the Ballantine posters. One was a map, the other a "travel poster," both designed by Barbara Remington, who was responsible for the emu Hobbit that put David off (but not me!).

The books looked science fiction-y to me. ("Fantasy" was hardly a publishing term then.) I decided to check out The Hobbit. It connected with an interest I'm quite sure I already had in Norse mythology and folklore (trolls!).

So far as I remember, I discovered the Narnian books, around 1968, through no more sophisticated a method than just going from shelf to shelf in the children's section and looking at titles on the spines of books. "C. S. Lewis" became an appealing author name, and I found Out of the Silent Planet in the adult section before long, I suppose.

Dale Nelson

Keri Ford said...

Here's mine, I haven't proof read it, but I appreciate the impetus you gave me to write this:

Luke said...

I heard about Tolkien when the movies were in theaters. I was also around 8 then.
Up to that point, my reading was Hardy Boys books, the Sunday comics, and books which my father chose to read to us. He was in the Air Force, the backseater in an F4G, and read mostly military novels to us. There was a series about the Flying Tigers I think,
he would make airplane noises and perform the dogfights with his hands.
Anyway, there weren't a lot of books in my house either. One day, some of my friends told me about the Lord of the Rings movie they had seen. It was an adaptation of a book. Since the movie was PG13 I knew I wouldn't be allowed to watch it. My friends were so excited after the movie though, I had to know what it was about.
So when I saw the Lord of the Rings in a christian book store, and that there were two, I was very happy. I didn't think twice about it. My mother bought them, and on the car ride home I began to read the Two Towers. I was very stirred by the death of Boromir, and loved the Rohirrim. And I couldn't wait to finish the Return of the King, and find out if Aragorn would go to Minas Tirith.
About a year later I was given the Hobbit and the Fellowship by my mother.
(She found them at an estate sale, where she was looking for dishes.)
And I confess, I did skip the prologue.

The Chronicles of Narnia were suggested as additional reading in the back pages of the LOTR trilogy, which was how I learned about Lewis. When I was 10, I received the entire Narnia series. I read the Silver Chair first. The cover looked cooler than the others.


Bruce Charlton said...

@Dale - Great story. It also shows what a difference the availability of relatively cheap paperback editions makes - because in the UK (1973) there were only hardbacks and a big, expensive single volume paperback (which lacked nearly all of the appendices and fold-out maps). So - like most Brits of my generation, I suspect - I first encountered and re-read LotR in library copies; and my discovery was via/ after first reading the much more widely/ cheaply distributed Hobbit.

Bruce Charlton said...

@David. It's fascinating that you can in memory actually picture the copy of the book.

I too hate the word verification systems - but I have, in the past, been flooded with spam without it. However these things sometimes changes, so I've switched it off again as an experiment. If you are 'logged in' to Google, it doesn't happen.

Bruce Charlton said...

@David LD - I should have guessed that You (of all people) would come to Tolkien via The Monsters and the Critics! - that seems very characateristic! The child is father to the man...

Bruce Charlton said...

@Keri - That's very enjoyable - you captured the way that a great book can open-out a new way of thinking, with permanent effect.

You have also inspired me to have another go at Lilith (I wasn't drawn-into Phantastes).

Bruce Charlton said...

@Luke - I enjoy a quest narrative like this, perhaps especially when the quest is in 'the wrong order'! It's interesting that some people I've come across were compelled by corcumstances to read LotR in the 'wrong' order; but it still had (at least) the same strength of impact on them, and a lot more than average.

Bruce Charlton said...

Given the role of cover illustrations in some of these stories; some commenters may interested by an earlier post:

Keri Ford said...

Bruce, you picked up on what I was trying to say, Tolkien was transformative for me. I have read Phantastes a few times and liked it, but always thought Lilith a much greater book, there is a strength of imagination in Lilith, it was one of MacDonald's last books while Phantastes was one of his first. I hope you like it, it really is a unique book.

Felix M said...

I was about 14 years old and killing some time in the public library. I picked up a children's magazine which had an extract from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I was entranced and read all the Narnia books in the following week.

A bit later, I realised that the author had also written The Great Divorce (I had read my father's copy). And then I read the entire Lewis corpus ...

Dexter said...

I lived in Australia from 1965 to 1975. My parents owned the 1966 paperback edition of The Hobbit (with the death of Smaug on the cover). I still have it - one of the few childhood books I still have. My school library had the 1968 single volume paperback edition of LOTR, which I remember smelled good and had very thin pages. The library put a sticker in the front that said "You must be at least 10 to read this book." I remember this distinctly because I was not 10 when I read it, and that gave me an extra naughty thrill. In the late 70s I got the paperbacks in the slipcase, another treasured childhood possession that I still have.

The Mines of Moria made a huge impression on me when I first read it. I used to dream about it. Possibly this was why the library said you had to be 10 to read it. =)

Bruce Charlton said...

@Felix - I suppose we have nowadays got used to reading extracts (eg with Kindle) - it's the best way of evaluating a book; far more reliable than cover art and blurb!

@Dexter - I wonder if there is a lasting difference between the appreciations of those who read such books at different ages - i was in my early-middle teens.

@Anonymous - I don;t publish anon comments (see side bar) - but you could resubmit with a pseudonym if you wish.

seriouslypleasedropit said...

Tolkien---my mother, who had read The Hobbit and TLotR in her youth, gave me a copy of The Hobbit, which I devoured (I devoured everything back then). When I was older I received a brand-new set of LotR.

I was very lucky.

Matthew T said...

I find this comment thread to be interesting - I don't suppose I have any idea how I came to Tolkien or Lewis. I'm reminded how it's been one of the most loathesome things to me about evangelical subculture that everyone is supposed to have a good story about how they "came to Christ".

I suppose that all I can say is that my older brother had a copy of LotR and so I ended up reading it too. In fact, I still have "his" copy of it, and can see it on my shelf right now - sorry, bro!

(I still have your guitar too, by the way, I expect it's "mine" by now...)

As for Lewis, I am likewise not sure. I vaguely seem to recall being read LW&W in school, but did not grasp the Christian symbolism at that time and developed no especial love for it. I think that I may have come to them after becoming a Christian as an adult.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Matthew - I think it's more that many people actually have such stories - especially about Tolkien, rather than that they should have them. I have a book of famous Fantasy authors who each were invited to contribute an essay on what Tolkien meant to them, and a high proportion begin with a slice of autobiography concerning how they came across LotR. It's just that kind of book.

Anonymous said...

Following up on Keri's post and comments, and yours, I still haven't reread Phantastes, but rereading Lilith after a couple decades (and a lot of other MacDonald and Inkings in between), I liked it more thoroughly and easily, and would heartily encourage giving it a try - wow, what a book!

David Llewellyn Dodds

Geir said...

In the 3rd year at the university, I met with an old friend from college days. More than anyone else he introduced me to progressive rock artists, and we played prog and jazz together and were in the same marching band. So he invited me to his student flat this Friday evening and while we sat there and I guessed on new artists he introduced to me, he also talked warmly about The Lord of the Rings. I had heard about it briefly in my college days, and dismissed it as some adventure book for younger readers, but he insisted it was so great that I had to borrow it. But no, first I had to read The Hobbit. OK, I wandered back to my own flat, and the next day I began reading it. I of course read straight through it, and that evening I visited my friend again, with the purpose of borrowing the main thing. I brought them home that night and began reading early Sunday morning. I read the whole day and until 2 or 3 at night, only interrupted by small visits to my neighbor student to tell how the story proceeded. On the Monday I woke up and started reading at 9, and really did little else and finished the book at approx. 5 in the morning. It was one of the greatest reading experiences of my life, and I have every several years repeated the experience. Needless to say, I have a Tolkien shelf at home and have also made visits to Oxford.

I discovered Lewis in the 1st year at the university, in that boom of paperbacks being published in the latter half of the 70s and which were sold by the local Christian students society. I was very found of his apologetics, his books on literature and some of his fiction, but of course find Chesterton much more substantial and fitting to my own temper. I didn't enjoy the Narnia books the same way as Tolkien, and especially because I think that an author is not permitted to kill his own persons. But I have been to Lewis's house and viewed the original wardrobe before it was sold to the US, to Wheaton College I think. Needless to say I also have a Lewis shelf at home.

Bruce Charlton said...

@G - Great stories.