Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme selected by the Tolkien Society is Hope and Courage. The primary goal is to promote the reading of the works of J.R R. Tolkien! To celebrate, Pages Unbound will be hosting two weeks of Tolkien-related posts. In addition to our own thoughts, we will be featuring a number of guest posts!
Oh what a night, late December back in 2001. The cold and the snow. Being bundled up tight in our winter coats as we walked to the car. The excitement and joy as my freshman year of undergrad reached Christmas break and Missy, my best friend from high school, was home on leave. But what I remember most from this particular night is turning to Missy – who had the same stunned look on her face – as the credits started to roll on The Fellowship of the Ring. We were absolutely certain we’d missed something. That couldn’t be the end. Frodo and Sam crest the ridge, see Mordor, and the movie just…stopped. It would be six years before Iron Man made post-credit scenes a thing but we stayed in our seats until they turned the house lights on. You see, we were “those people,” watching Peter Jackson’s film never having read Tolkien’s novels. So Missy and I were expecting a trilogy like Star Wars with three distinct chapters but found ourselves at the beginning of one loooong story whose ending we wouldn’t see until December of 2003.
You may be a bit surprised by that last sentence, given the title of this piece. You may’ve expected I’d go out the next day, buy the books, and begin reading Tolkien’s epic for the first time. I’m not sure why I didn’t. I never shied away from large books and I enjoyed reading fantasy (Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series and Steven Brust’s The Book of Jhereg were favorites). Maybe it’s as simple as sometimes we define ourselves by what we don’t watch or read. For example, I’ve never seen Titanic or Avatar (unless you count Dances with Wolves or Pocahontas or Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest or any movie where a white soldier from an industrial society befriends a group of indigenous people and fights alongside them against the military machine out to destroy them) and I’m okay with never seeing them. But that wasn’t the case with reading The Lord of the Rings.
I really enjoyed The Fellowship of the Ring and I excitedly watched The Two Towers and The Return of the King, marathoning the other films before seeing the newest. But I never felt the urge to read the books. In college a good friend told me the first sixty pages or so of The Fellowship of the Ring just described rolling Hobbit hills and the action really doesn’t pick up until they get to the Prancing Pony. That felt like…a lot when I already had – and enjoyed! – the films. (I should note, in no way am I judging anyone who just loves The Lord of the Rings as movies. Go you! I see you, appreciate you, and validate you :). Heck, I was you until…well, that’s what this story is all about.)
I grant this is an odd setup for a piece that’s part of Pages Unbound’s Tolkien Reading Event. But the reading’s coming! Trust me! In fact, it’s in the very next paragraph. See? Your patience paid off!
I would find a reason to finally read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings about seven or eight years later. After undergrad I was working as a youth minister (take that everyone who questioned my religious studies degree! I was employed with that (and still am) before my social studies ed. certificate got me anywhere). I had completed an epic six week Theology of Star Wars event with my youth group kids. Each week we’d meet in the basement of the church, watch a Star Wars film (The Phantom Menace through Return of the Jedi (judge me if you want but the story works so much better – especially theologically – in that order)), have pizza, and deconstruct all the theology and mythology in the movies. The kids LOVED it and our conversations ran past our meeting end time every week. Once we were finished, they asked to do it again and I said I’d be happy to – I just needed another theologically rich film series. Several kids suggested The Lord of the Rings! It was a great idea…with just one problem.
I still hadn’t read the books.
And yes, it was a film discussion and not a book discussion, but could I – in good faith and with academic integrity – teach films based on books when I hadn’t read the books myself?
No, it turns out I couldn’t. But I was intimidated! It wasn’t the size of the books but their reputation. Even writing as a part of the Tolkien Reading Event has me antsy. Briana and Krysta are amazing people and I know I’m welcome here :). And I know the readership they’ve cultivated on Pages Unbound is warm and welcoming, too! But I judge myself based on my sense of my knowledge of the world and mystique of Tolkien. It was jumping into that world more than those books that had me a li’l anxious when I decided to finally read The Lord of the Rings.
Does that make sense? Maybe you can sympathize. Or maybe it’s just a “me thing.” My therapist once remarked she was surprised, given the way my anxiety disorder presents itself, that I didn’t become a therapist myself. She said when someone’s anxiety is like mine, they often choose therapy as a profession to help redirect some of that anxiety around their own life into thinking about others’ lives. But for me, I redirect that anxiety by diving into popular culture and deconstructing and analyzing everything. The way I think, write, and teach about Marvel, Doctor Who, DC, or Star Wars refocuses my anxious parts and lets them obsess over something else.
But The Lord of the Rings has never been one of the narratives I do this with and thus I always feel like a stranger in a strange land when it comes to talking about The Lord of the Rings. And I definitely felt that way about teaching the films! However, for my youth group kiddos and in the service of great discussions, I opened The Fellowship of the Ring for the very first time, pen and notebook beside me, and was off.
As will come as no surprise to anyone reading a Tolkien Reading Event piece, I really enjoyed it! As will also come as no surprise to anyone reading a Tolkien Reading Event piece, I was blown away by how much more was in the books than in the films! (See? I’m doing it again, presuming everyone who will read this is far more knowledgeable with Tolkien than I am. This is what gatekeeping yourself looks like.) When it came time to discuss the films with my youth group kids, a lot of the conversations began with our talking about what we saw in the movies and then my adding some of the more detailed theology Tolkien did with the books. We compared and contrasted. We discussed the (potentially) different aims of Tolkien and Jackson. We discussed the different narrative natures of novels and films. I remained far less comfortable with The Lord of the Rings than I was with Star Wars but that’s part of what made it so memorable for me. The kids who’d read Tolkien loved it! And for those who didn’t, who knows? Maybe I helped plant the seeds for their own reading adventure someday.
Though some kids were straight-up just there for movies and pizza XD.
To quote Obi-Wan Kenobi (hmm, should I be quoting Gandalf?), finally reading The Lord of the Rings was like, “taking [my] first step into a larger world.” I felt the way I did when I first watched Doctor Who or Star Wars or first read Kurt Vonnegut or Arthur Conan Doyle. Here was this HUGE piece of culture with legions of devoted fans which has influenced SO MANY THINGS I love and I was finally experiencing it for myself! I had parts holding anxiety around this for sure. And I had parts which doubted my “academic qualifications” only having read the books once. But most of all I felt excited to finally know, to have finally read my way through Middle-earth myself. Of course the worldbuilding was as complex and complete as I’d heard. Of course the characters were more developed than in the films and had adventures I never knew of. Of course there were people like Tom Bombadil and Goldberry, Old Man Willow, the Barrow Wight, or Glorfindel who I’d never met before. All I’d heard about the books was true. But now I had experienced it for myself.
For all my self-criticism and self-judgment around my knowledge of or comfort with Tolkien’s world, The Lord of the Rings has given me two uniquely wonderful memories. I will never forget wading into all that anxiety in the service of learning something new and having a better conversation with my youth group kids. Nor will I ever forget that snowy night when Missy and I, still kids ourselves, first entered the world of Middle-earth together. For all the anxiety I put on myself about “knowing” or “understanding” or “belonging in” the world of The Lord of the Rings, at its heart it’s just a story. Stories pull us in, bind us together, ignite our imaginations, and fill our hearts. That’s why we think, talk, and write so much about the ones we love! That selfsame love and all it produces can make jumping into a beloved universe a li’l intimidating. But it isn’t a hindrance, not really. It’s certainly not a reason to avoid a brilliant story.
No matter how out of the loop you may feel, the story can still do it’s job, all your anxieties aside, if you’re open to it. It did for me! No matter how hard I tried to “judge” my relationship with Tolkien’s work, it pulled me in. The memory of reading The Lord of the Rings binds me to my time as a youth minister just as the memory of seeing The Fellowship of the Ring for the first time binds me to Missy. Opening that book for the first time, just like settling down into the theatre on that cold December night, left a mark on my imagination and filled my heart with beautiful memories. What a very special time for me, as I remember what a night.
About the Author
Michael J. Miller is the author of The Heart of a Superhero: Considering the Prophetic Dimension of Modern Superhero Comics, an upcoming volume in Claremont Press’ Religion and Comics Series. When not teaching courses on religion and popular culture, you can find him at My Comic Relief where he writes and rambles about comics, Doctor Who, books, movies, TV, and whatever else pops into his head. Should it be your thing, you can also follow him on Twitter @My_ComicRelief.
12 thoughts on “My First Trip to Middle-earth: Why I Read The Lord of the Rings for the First Time (Guest Post by Michael)”
I know when I started reading The Hobbit/Lord of the Rings- high school; however don’t know what made me want to start reading them. At least, I know what I know I fell in love with the series
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*when, not want*
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There’s nothing quite like falling in love with a series :). I think it’s one of life’s most exciting gifts! I never read ‘The Lord of the Rings’ in high school (obviously, from the post XD) but I did have a teacher who taught us the Hero’s Journey using Star Wars alongside the ‘Odyssey’ and that blew my mind. I can’t believe I never read ‘The Hobbit’ though! Many of the English teachers at my high school taught it but mine never did. I’m not sure how I missed it ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. But I did eventually read it after I read LOTR.
It seems more logical to read The Hobbit before Lord of the Rings- after all, that is the right order. One of the series I read in high school that I read for fun
The only books that drove me nuts in high school were the required ones. Except a few exceptions- there were a select few that I did enjoy or loved
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I thought about reading ‘The Hobbit’ first! The completist in me wanted to but then I didn’t know if it would be as essential for what I was doing with my youth group kiddos. It’s a decision that still haunts me!
I have mixed feelings on the books we were required to read. I’d say I enjoyed most of them. Some even went on to become my favorites! But certain ones – ‘The Bridge of San Luis Rey’ in particular – I’m still angry I had to read. Halfway through that book I was happy the bridge had fallen because I was so over reading about them XD.
Meh. I read The Hobbit first and didn’t like it that much and almost didn’t bother with LotR. Luckily LotR is such a different read, but someone had to convince me of that to get me to pick it up! (And I still don’t love The Hobbit as much, even though I’m sure I’m supposed to dote on it as a Tolkien fan.)
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I had a similar experience when I read it. I enjoyed it…but I didn’t love it. It didn’t pull me in or dazzle me the way LOTR did. Now I’d be far more likely to pickup and reread all of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ than I would be to reread ‘The Hobbit.’ Though I’m not as big a Tolkien fan as you so most likely the expectation of my doting is lesser ;D.
This is such a great story! I read the books when I was about 12, after having seen The Fellowship of the Ring movie (on DVD, not in theaters) first. I just enjoyed the movie and wanted to read the books next!
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Thank you :). I know so many people who saw the first movie and then went on to read the books…but for whatever reason that didn’t happen with me. Maybe it was the business of my freshman year? As I was writing this post I was even more surprised I didn’t go on to read them right away because that cliffhanger killed me! So, in retrospect, it’s even more surprising I never read them. And I didn’t meet the friend who sort of (blasphemously) steered me away from reading them until a couple years later! It is one of the great mysteries of my life…
Haha! I read the post and thought, “I would have read the book if the cliffhanger was that suspenseful!” It’s a nice little loophole while you wait for the next film!
Interestingly, I do remember some reviews/article seeming baffled that the movie just ended. I guess it’s hard to remember, but we didn’t always have so many series being adapted into films. And because LotR was written as one book, of course, FotR doesn’t have a nice tidy ending point like most books in series do!
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I remember a classmate in school who was purposely not reading RotK until the movie came out, which I thought was a bit weird. Why would you want to see what happens in the movie first? lol
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That was it! I had such little knowledge of LOTR that I didn’t realize it was essentially one big book. Again, I have no idea how I missed reading it in high school when I loved fantasy novels so much. Also, almost all of my peers at least read ‘The Hobbit’ in English class but none of my teachers chose it so I didn’t even get that traditional high school intro to Tolkien’s works.
Whenever we figure out the whole time travel thing (provided it doesn’t cause a paradox), I’d like to go back and ask 2001 me why he just waited three years to see how the story ended XD.