Thursday, October 1, 2020

Return to Middle Earth

This has been a year for comfort reading – for reading the books that you find pleasurable no matter how many times you’ve read them before, no matter how many times you may have thought that you really ought to be reading something else.  There will be other years for other reading.

I’ve read all of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series this year, including (for the first time) the radio scripts.  I’ve read all of Christopher Moore (if you haven’t read Lamb you’re missing out, but they’re all worth your time).  At some point I may well take a long walk through the Discworld, again, in order because that’s just the kind of nerd I am.  Or perhaps Jasper Fforde.  Maybe both.

But for now I am once again reading The Lord of the Rings.

There was a time in my life that I did that annually, dropping into Middle Earth for Bilbo’s “eleventy-first” birthday party and then trekking across field and forest, mountain and city only to return to the Shire when all was done.  I loved the elves most of all and still do, despite Terry Pratchett’s thoughtful criticisms of the conceits behind them.  I can still write in Tengwar, in both the Noldorin and Sindarin fashion.  Tom Bombadil has always struck me as goofy and superfluous, Arnor as tragic, and Minas Tirith a much more interesting place than Edoras.

The Silmarillion was my favorite book for many years and The Hobbit is a much quicker book to read, but it was The Lord of the Rings that I read first and to which I returned, year after year, even in years when I didn’t read the others.

It’s probably one of the reasons I’m a professional historian today.  Nobody does backstory like Tolkien.  You get drawn down into the deeper wells of his world and you never really leave, and eventually you realize that you can do the same thing with the world we live in.

There are issues with The Lord of the Rings, as there are with all books.  With a few exceptions women have almost no substantive role to play in Middle Earth – an odd thing in a book so obsessed with genealogy and lineage.  The language can be a bit stilted.  The academic roots of the story shine through more than a few times.  On and on.

But it was and remains a favorite, a place to which I can return and remain, regardless of the outside world.

I first read the books separately, checked out of my local library one at a time, and then decided I wanted to own my own copy.  At the time there was a small independent bookstore in the shopping center not all that far from my house, and there they had the one-volume red slipcased version with a fold-out map at the end.  It was $40, which was a princely sum of money for a 7th-grader in the summer of 1980.

My mom let me come with her to the county courthouse from time to time that summer and do research for her as she worked, searching property titles before the annual tax sale.  I learned how to do real research for this book, which is another thing that set me on the path toward being a historian I suppose.  For this she paid me a dollar an hour out of her own pocket, and after a few weeks I had enough to buy the book.  I rode my bike up to the bookstore – maybe three miles or so through what passed for traffic in the suburbs of Philadelphia – and came home with my treasure.

I promptly disappeared into my room until I had finished reading it, sprawled across my bed with the radio on, working my way through Middle Earth once again.  I still think of Frodo Baggins every time I hear the Rolling Stones sing Shattered.

The book came already smelling the way that old books do, and forty years later it still does.  

It tells a story where the good triumphs, though not completely and not forever.  The Shadow will always return, after all.  There is a strong melancholy streak throughout the story, of beautiful things fading away and being forgotten, of victories turned hollow, of last stands and old friends, of the fragility of what exists and how easily it can fall apart.  But there is also the counterpoint of doing all you can in the face of such things, of the importance of the small and the powerless and the overlooked, of the power of memory and the idea that the good can still win, if only for the moment, but there’s always a next moment and we get to say who wins that one too.

These are good things to remember.


LucyInDisguise said...

I'm going with 57. Not for any discernable reason, but I believe (without any reasonable evidence, I might add ...) that the very first book review that I ever read or actually paid attention to was around 57 years ago. The title of that book was Dirt Track Summer. It was the first book I ever bought. I loved that book so much I joined a book of the month club. My mother had some thoughts about that.

However: I have to say that the best review of a book (or, in this case, a series of books) that I have ever encountered is the one that you have here so eloquently produced.

If I didn't already own it, I'd go out and buy it just on the strength of what you've written here!

Mayhap you have a potential 2nd income source in the offing?



David said...

Well, thanks!

I can't say I'd object to a side income reviewing books, and if there any publishers (preferably SF/F) out there who are reading this and looking for reviewers, I say drop me a line and let's talk.

On the other hand, it helps to really love a book, both as a story and as a physical artifact. And, to be honest, as part of your own story.

Dirt Track Summer must have been quite a book to spark that kind of interest and commitment from you (BotMC!). Why on earth would your mother object to this?

My parents encouraged me to read from the get go, and this is something I passed on to my own children. They always knew they could cadge a book out of me, no matter what I had already told them we wouldn't buy, and we read stories together long after they were able to read them for themselves.

I suppose that's worth another post in itself.

LucyInDisguise said...

Well, you can use me as a character reference.

A somewhat recent re-read of Dirt Track Summer revealed that is was precisely what it was intended to be - a book targeted at pre-teen boys - and as such it had the desired effect.

As for the book club thing (and in my mother’s defense) - if you do the math you’ll find that the year was 1963 - not a stellar year for the whole ‘book of the month club’ thing. And, I was 10. And, I didn’t have my mother’s permission (or guidance - the 1st book was a, shall we say, not kid-friendly romance novel targeted for women in their 30’s). And, my mother was also sparing with my sisters’ brand new memberships in the RCA music club and as such was, ahhh, “not in the mood to deal with” me.

What I got as a much more appropriate replacement was a library card and a bookmobile that parked across the street every Friday for the remainder of the time we lived in that house.



Julie Morris said...

I loved Lamb but have been disappointed in other books by Moore. Hanging my head in shame I have not read any of The Lord of The Rings. I even think I have 2 of them. Since my book club has disbanded until spring I should have time to delve into them. Didn’t he learn Finnish so he could read The Kalevala?

David said...

@Lucy -

Well, I suppose that makes more sense about your mother then. Encouraging reading is the larger overall goal, and if she had a better way to do that then good for her (and you!). I looked up that book on Amazon and it's going for $931. That's ... impressive.

I'm glad that the book did what it was meant to do. I get very tired of people criticizing books like that for not being Great Art. I think people should read whatever they want to read - it's the reading that matters. I had a student once who apologized - actually apologized - for reading mostly romance novels instead of more substantive things. Nonsense! Read the romance novels. Eventually you'll move on to other things. And if not, they're reading and reading is one of the best things a person can do.

@Julie -

Well, I suppose people react differently to books. My favorites were Lamb, A Dirty Job (and its sequel, Secondhand Souls), and Sacre Bleu. If those aren't your thing, well, at least you were willing to give him a shot. :)

Tolkien was a linguist by trade, so it wouldn't surprise me that he learned Finnish (a notoriously tricky language) to do that. I think there's a lot of Finnish in his Dwarf languages, anyway. LOTR is worth reading - it's a great story and a cultural touchstone in many ways - but it was written 75 years ago by a guy who came of age in Edwardian England and it shows. It starts slowly, and then builds. I wish you well with it!

LucyInDisguise said...

Wow. I honestly believed you were shittin' me about the price. My copy is the hardcover in like-new condition. Currently listed at $851.00. Not sure I could part with it - but at that price, I'm gonna hafta think on it a bit ... although my great-grandson will probably have a better shot at it.


David said...

$851? That's, what, almost 10% off! What a bargain! ;)

I'm always amazed at what becomes expensive. In grad school we learned very quickly to make friends with the department secretary if we wanted to get anything done (plus she was actually a very nice person), but there were a couple of professors who never learned that lesson and who, therefore, never got the free books that the publishers would send to them now and then. This is how I ended up with a copy of a volume of John Adams' papers - part of a series that some publisher was putting out. Years later I decided I wanted to put it on a book-swap app that I had joined and discovered it was worth about $300. I took it off the app, thinking I'd just sell it, but I'm not sure I ever have. I should find it again. Who knows what it is worth now. Maybe more. Maybe not anything. It's a good story, though.