My first exposure to Tolkien is lost in the mist of my early childhood memories. It was either from a substitute teacher reading The Hobbit to the English lang. class at Aloe Ridge Primary School, or it was the first view of my brother’s paperback tome of The Lord of the Rings trilogy at our home on the veldt. Either way, this would have been in the early 1970s in South Africa, when I was ten or eleven years old.
While listening to The Hobbit being read out loud was delightful, it was my first reading of LOTR that was truly wondrous. As a young lad, my non-fiction reading consisted of typical boys’ stories like the Adventure series (by Willard Price) and The Hardy Boys books, which have not withstood the test of time well. The Lord of the Rings was something that felt entirely different. It is hard to describe now, looking back over 50 years, but there was a thrill there, a tingling, an exciting otherworldly yet earthy deep-rooted quality to it. It was not just another adventure story; it was a totally immersive entry into an earlier age. And it has proved to be timeless.
While I am not one who has any skill in dissecting prose, I found Tolkien’s writing style entrancing. I loved how his style varied as the situations demanded, going between plain language and childlike to a noble, archaic, almost biblical King James tone. I loved the details that he brought to Middle-earth, to the varied peoples and their languages, to the fantastic creatures, to the natural history and to the geography. Nevertheless, there was enough unsaid that the whole of it could not be fully grasped. It was a world to be lost in.
In 1977, after seven years in South Africa, we–the three brothers (our sister had already left the fold) and our parents–returned to Canada. It was a time of great anticipation and excitement. Our memories were still firmly nestled in the culture of late 1960s Ontario, where we lived in a lovely old house on a forest preserve. Our imaginations were fixated on an idealized era of our lives that probably never really existed. However, our destination was not eastern Canada, but the wild west, Alberta, where oil money promised jobs for my father and oldest brother. Instead, there was an unexpected culture shock, a quick fall from high expectations to feelings of alienation. Our father struggled to find work, despite his experience. We struggled to fit in at school and at church, to fit in with what often seemed to be an indifferent and, in some ways, a cruder society. After only seven years away, we were socially no longer compatible with the country we were returning to. We were essentially lost and lonely and each of us dealt (or not) with the estrangement in our own ways.
My response was to take refuge in libraries, in books and in the imagination. I escaped into thoughts of living off the land, as an independent homesteader. I read fantasy and science fiction which inspired me to write my own stories, often dark. Most of all, I escaped into the pages of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. I escaped into Middle-earth.
Not long after we returned to Canada, The Silmarillion was released (1977) and I quickly added it to my little library. It was a darker, deeper and older view of Middle-earth. which I found–at that time–even more engrossing than LOTR. I became increasingly curious about the author, J. R.R. Tolkien. What kind of a man wrote books like this, this creator of massive imagined mythology? What were the influences that contributed to the legendarium?
In the biography, Tolkien was to comment on the sources of his imaginative work with, “One writes such a story not out of the leaves of trees still to be observed … but it grows like a seed in the dark out of the leaf-mould of the mind”2.
I wanted to learn more about the leaf-mold.
At the time the best resource for understanding Tolkien’s life was Humphrey Carpenter’s Tolkien biography, which introduced me to some of Tolkien’s interests as a youth. He enjoyed the fairy stories of Andrew Lang, in particular the Red Fairy Book and its final tale, the story of Sigurd and the Dragon. Early in his life, he discovered the “strange appeal” of the Welsh language. His early schooling was in the Classics, that is the language and history of the Greeks and Romans. He developed a pleasure in creating languages and writing poetry, He enjoyed the historic romances of William Morris and the fantasies of George McDonald, particularly the Curdy books. As he grew older, he discovered the Icelandic Sagas and the Finnish Kalevala. He became enamoured with old Germanic languages: Gothic, Old Norse and Old English. He came to the love (which he shared with C.S. Lewis) of “Northernness”– the early myths, legends and sagas of the people of North-western Europe. Then there was the comradery of the Inklings; Owen Barfield and Hugo Dyson, but especially C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams. At each stage of learning more about Tolkien, I was introduced to another branch of literary investigations. I collected the books (often second-hand) that influenced him, and to a lesser degree, those that influenced C.S. Lewis. I also began to gather books that reflected a broader view of the northern European medieval legacy that both were inspired by. Thus, Tolkien’s life became the root of my personal library.
Although my library today goes beyond Tolkien’s influence, I remember fondly those early days of book collecting and reading and how it brought me closer to understanding the mind of the man and the mythology he created, indeed, I can see a tree-like branching out of my interests from that time on that were rooted in Tolkien and the legendarium he created. Looking up at one of those shelves even now, I feel it radiating a sense of comfort and inclusion, but still with the tingling expectation of excitement and discovery as I lurch into Middle-earth once more.
The Road goes ever on and on,
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.3
Just released a few days ago (31 January 2023), The second edition of Tolkien’s Library: An Annotated Checklist by Oronzo Cilli. This is the sourcebook for knowing what Tolkien had on his shelves throughout his life. I’ve just bought the Kindle edition, and I am looking forward to perusing it over the next few days.
1 The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, Letter 45.
2 J.R.R. Tolkien: a biography by Humphrey Carpenter. 1977 (pg. 182)
3 The Fellowship of the Ring, “A Long-expected Party”