A very long time ago, I read The Hobbit. I was hooked from the start, and when I got to the second half, where it suddenly becomes darker and tragic and achingly old, I was somewhat more than hooked. I went to find the school librarian. Look, I said, it says there’s another one, it says there’s a sequel. Where is it? You’re too young, she said.
A few years later, we were moving to the country. We put everything in boxes. Some hadn’t even been unpacked from our last move. On the top of one of them, I found the book – an enormous dusty paperback, fatter than a Bible. I might just keep hold of this one, I said.
I didn’t like it in the country to begin with. But I liked the elves. I read it slowly, the year I turned twelve. When it started falling apart, I covered it in plastic. I remember so clearly reaching the end of it as I sat in my parents’ threadbare armchair on a quiet afternoon. ‘”Well, I’m back,” he said.’ No, I thought, no, you can’t be. And the book in my lap transformed from a thing of magic to a heavy lump of soft, worn paper.
After that, I read it again and again. The last time was in the holidays after I graduated from High School. I read it in three days straight, and appreciated the battle scenes for the first time. I was afraid I loved it more than God.
In recent years, I have become somewhat ashamed of my youthful Tolkien fixation. I went to a session on him at the International Medieval Congress in Leeds a couple of years back, and it was dreadful. Laboured re-hashings of the way Tolkien based his monsters and everything else on medieval sources. (Yes this actually is interesting I suppose, but not when it’s already been talked about to death. More interesting is why, and what are the implications of his choices…) The unconcealed eagerness in the eyes of the Tolkien enthusiasts made me feel a little ill. They were talking about his creations as though they actually exist.
But we watched the movies again recently. And I thought – I’m glad he wrote that story. And I’m glad they made those films. Even if the elves aren’t quite as beautiful as I had imagined.
ps. Tolkien taught at Leeds, you know. Yep, my university. Even if he didn’t like it much, and scurried back down to Oxford as often as he could.