on reading Tolkien
December 19, 2012
Observing people’s reactions to The Hobbit around and about this here Internet, it’s pretty clear that many people have a deep, personal, and powerful relationship to the book. Their parents read it to them when they were small. It’s the book that brought them to fantasy. I’ve gotten to wondering how unusual — or not — my own relationship to the book is. Because to be honest, I’m not a fan. I recognize it’s a classic, it’s a fine novel certainly. But I don’t have any kind of deep personal relationship with it.
My parents are strict science fictionist. Growing up, we got lots of Star Trek and the Heinlein juveniles, but not a lot of fantasy. They never read The Hobbit to us. Actually, I’m not sure if they’ve even read The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings, even though Mom and Dad are both avid readers. (Mom, want to chime in?) They’re just not fantasy readers — pretty much the only fantasy they read is mine. All the fantasy I’ve read, I did on my own, and it was Ray Bradbury and Robin McKinley who made me love fantasy.
What this means is my first introductions to Tolkien were the Bass-Rankin animated Hobbit and Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings. What this means is that I really hated The Hobbit. The Bass-Rankin film? Couldn’t stand it. Hobbits were these weird apple-headed creatures who were kinda boring and obsessive — like that creepy neighbor down the street — and the songs were twee. I really wanted to like it. But gah. No. Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings, however, intrigued the hell out of me. I mean, it had ELVES. (Don’t judge me, please.)
When I finally picked up The Hobbit, I had a really hard time getting through it. It was all creepy apple-headed people and twee songs. But Lord of the Rings…ah yes. Elves. Except I really wanted to skip all the chapters with Hobbits in them so I could go back to reading about Elves. (Again, don’t judge me.) And what does all this mean? When I discovered The Silmarillion, it became my favorite Tolkien book because it was all Elves and no Hobbits.
I will be forever grateful to Peter Jackson for rehabilitating my mental image of Hobbits and making them awesome. I’m now able to go back to the books and read them for what they are, rather than imprinting on whatever horrible images the Bass-Rankin film managed to shove into my brain without meaning to.
I’ve only read the whole shebang twice — once as a teenager, and again starting ten years ago so I could compare to the movies. My take on them was quite a bit different. As a teenager, I read them and wanted to be an elf. (It’s really hard being a teenage girl, but elves are automatically awesome. Therefore, if I were an elf, I would be awesome. Just trying to explain my teenage reasoning on the matter.) Years later, I read them and thought, “These people are all going to need therapy.” (And then I immediately wrote “Strife Lingers in Memory,” now available in John Joseph Adam’s anthology Epic. End commercial plug.)
Lots of people for whom The Hobbit has been their favorite book since they were wee sproglings, who re-read it all every year, are awfully emotional about the movie. On the one hand, I’m grateful to be able to experience the movie without the emotional investment. On the other hand — how wonderful, to have a book mean so much. And this book means so much to so many people, it’s amazing, really.
I imagine if a movie ever gets made of The Blue Sword I’ll know what the true Hobbit fans are going through right now.