This summer, I took a class on J.R.R. Tolkien, which involved rereading most of the Tolkien oeuvre. I know, my life is so hard. It was one of the more joyful assignments I have had and conversation about the books has rippled out from the classroom into many other corners of my life.
And since this was one of the most significant reading experiences of my year, I thought I'd take some time to reflect on how I found these old friends this time around.
What surprised me most about The Hobbit this time around was the amount of sympathy I had for Bilbo at the beginning. 12 year old Frankie thought he was being a wet blanket about the whole adventuring thing. 26 year old Frankie was totally with him on the rude, unexpected house guest front. Seriously, a bunch of people you've never met show up and start eating your food and throwing your shit around?
No. Not cool. Frankly, I salute Bilbo for keeping it together as well as he does.
I loved seeing how Tolkien uses Bilbo's genealogy throughout the book to explain why Bilbo makes certain choices, framing his decisions as the conflict between his adventuresome, Tookish side and his homebody, Baggins side. What a genius way to externalize an internal conflict - and a totally approachable way to illustrate inner ambivalence to children.
This is also a genuinely funny book. Throughout Tolkien's Middle-earth cycle, I was struck by Tolkien's very dry sense of humor. He does a particularly nice job of funneling his commentary through Bilbo's inner thoughts and I especially enjoyed the sheer annoyance that Bilbo feels over the standoff between Thorin and the men of Dale/Elf king.
This was probably my favorite reread, since I didn't remember very much about the book from the first time around. It was a delight to rediscover its pleasures.
I know that this corner of Tolkien's work doesn't appeal to everyone. Not everyone enjoys reading made up history and mythology, but I find this fictional version of non-fiction delectable. My only real revelation on this reread was that since I'm much more familiar with Tolkien lore than I used to be, I didn't have to check the family trees as often. I still loved The Silmarillion and I love that I will probably make new connections every time I read it.
Whew. Y'all. I forgot how amazing this book really is. I had tried to read it when I was about 12, after The Hobbit, and struck out. Once the movies came out and helped me get into the plot (and assured me that they weren't going to be hanging out with Tom Bombadil for 1000 pages), I breezed through LOTR, primarily to find out what was going to happen. Consequently, the impact of the prose was pretty fuzzy in my memory and I didn't pay much attention to the thematic content. This time I did, and y'all...
It's breathtaking. Tolkien's prose is truly beautiful - the details he lavishes in painting the landscapes are gorgeous and his linguistic interests shine through in the perfection of his word choice. His themes are consistently woven throughout the narrative: never too heavy-handed, but omnipresent to give weight to even the smallest scene or interaction.
And even though I knew exactly what was going to happen, I found myself crying on multiple occasions (OMG, Theoden? All the goodbyes at the end? The Grey Havens?). In the library. With people awkwardly walking away from me.
Whatevs. LOTR was an amazing reread, one that I would love to revisit every couple of years for as long as I'm reading.
There are a lot of great things contained in this collection of smaller Tolkien writings, but the stand out for me was Leaf by Niggle. I'm not sure that I had ever read this short story before, but seriously, it is one of the best allegories I have ever encountered. Considering how much Tolkien is known for disdaining allegory, he hits one out of the park with this story. LBN should be required reading for anyone interested in thinking about how a short story can deliver a wallop of a punch to a reader. Truly, it is an example of a perfect short story.
The bottom line? I wasn't sure if Tolkien's work would stand up to intense scrutiny and rereading. But my fears were unfounded: his oeuvre deepens and opens out with rereading. If you've only been through these books once, I'd highly recommend revisiting them, especially The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. They really do hold up.