It has been about 46 years since I first read those initial ten words. Tolkien was still a figure of the “literary underground” in 1976 – none of my friends or classmates knew of him – and I was only ten years old.
Tolkien’s name is now a household word, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings now appear near the top of every all-time bestsellers list of books in English, and Peter Jackson’s film franchise based on the books is one of the highest-grossing in history.
The books are still the same today as they were when I first read them, but I am not.
This morning a winter storm dumped a blanket of snow over the region, and I found myself outside shoveling a driveway for the first time in many years – working up a sweat despite the cold as I raced the dropping temperature to get the snow and slush up before it froze into a sheet of ice with the sunset. This evening I built a fire in the fireplace and sat by it, browsing through some of the Professor’s letters and volumes from The History of Middle Earth. This kind of winter day – working outside in the snow and then reading Tolkien by the fire – was a common feature of my boyhood and early adolescence. We lived near Chicago when I first read The Hobbit and began my lifelong journey through Middle Earth, and moved to upstate New York when I was 12: Syracuse at that time averaged 12 feet of snow a year. I was the oldest son: I shoveled a lot of snow.
From as far back as I can remember until after we left New York my parents had homes with wood-burning fireplaces, and my father would buy logs whole by the cord and split them himself – when I was a small child I would watch him work with his axes, sledgehammer, and wedges. In New York we had a large wooded property and he took down several trees himself there, cut them up with a chainsaw, and split them. I remember spending many hours outside with him in the cold on weekends, watching him do this work and helping him as I was able. Soon I learned to split logs myself, although I have never been comfortable wielding a chainsaw.
And of course there was the snow – so much of it to shovel throughout the winter. For weeks and sometimes months, the snow piles left by the plows on either side of the street towered over our heads. It was common for more than a foot to fall during the night. The woodpile and the circle around the giant stump my father used for a splitting block were surrounded by giant snowdrifts – we built forts and igloos in the backyard when we weren’t shoveling or sledding.
By nightfall we would retire indoors and it was usually my job to build and tend the evening fire. This was a job I liked, and it was only as an adult that I noticed that this was the traditional role of Boots, the hero of so many fairy tales – the kid who was always poking around in the ashes. I still enjoy the small ritual of building a fire: checking that the flue is open; cleaning the fireplace ashes if necessary; stacking and arranging tinder, kindling, and firewood; and finally lighting it, sitting back and watching how well it begins. I enjoy spending a few hours before going to bed sitting here, tending it, keeping it going, letting it burn down, and banking it before heading upstairs.
Today as I shoveled snow and later sat by the fire reading from my Tolkien library I thought about aspects of his writing and the world his imagination brought to life, and pondered on why these tales and the work of this man’s mind have meant so much to me. Why I have returned to Tolkien’s writing so much throughout my life, even as I have moved all over the country, married, raised children, pursued and changed careers…. grown much older than the wide-eyed ten year old who first dreamed of walking through Middle Earth with BIlbo.
Do I return to Middle Earth out of a yearning for lost innocence, to remember the unsullied heart of the ten year old that allowed me to embrace and inhabit Middle Earth so wholeheartedly when I first wandered there?
BIlbo and Gandalf were the first characters I encountered in fiction whom I truly loved: still there are no characters I have encountered in a lifetime of reading books for whom I feel so much affection. Is it a matter of timing, due to the impressionable age at which I encountered them, some kind of literary imprinting or bonding?
I read and reread Tolkien’s books cyclically for years, especially in the cold months of the year when I couldn’t spend as much time outside – wandering through the Ages of Middle Earth in my imagination all the winters of my boyhood. I felt wonder for the vastness, beauty, and terror of the Professor’s ancient world, was enthralled by lore and languages, monsters, dragons, elves….hobbits.
Sitting by the fire now as I write, my body tired from the cold and the labor in a familiar way, the old books and their words sending my thoughts and memories down neural pathways burned more than forty years ago, I can still feel a glimmer of that boy somewhere inside.
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born on January 3, 1892 – 130 years ago today.