Today marks the 125th birthday of one of the most influential names in literature and pop culture: J.R.R. Tolkien, author of the Lord of the Rings saga and countless other stories. To celebrate, we’re doing a special retrospective edition of Author Spotlight. Because we can’t interview the great author himself, we’ve spoken with three different readers—Kristoffer, a history buff; Gene, a full-time mom; and Ish, our own Fully Booked staff writer—who share one thing in common: their love for Tolkien and his works.
When did you read your first Tolkien book? Which book was it, and what was the experience like?
Kristoffer: I was in my 3rd Year in High School, 2001, when I read my first Tolkien book—The Lord of the Rings omnibus—sent to me by my Dad from the States. It was quite thick, with the movie cover of a silhouette of a Ringwraith in the dark. I started reading it and aimed at finishing The Lord of the Rings before The Fellowship of the Ring movie came out in theater. The Fellowship of the Ring was my first introduction to Tolkien, which was a bummer because I found it really dragging. But the world building and the fictional languages of the Elves fascinated me.
Gene: The Hobbit. Around 2000, while I was in college. I tried to read the book before the first of the films was released. I was told The Hobbit is lighter compared to the other books and that it came first. I loved it and decided to continue on to The Lord of the Rings. I just remember I had to stop reading for a week when Gandalf fell with Balrog because I was so upset. And this is before I knew of and fell in love with Ian McKellen playing the role. I felt the descriptions in the book were so long-winded. But when there’s action, it was so intense. You get to know the characters well and when you’re done with all the books, you want more.
Ish: I read my first Tolkien book, The Hobbit, back in high school. It was for a book report and we had to answer questions in character (I chose Thorin Oakenshield, of course). Most fun I ever had in that class.
It’s been more than 60 years since The Lord of the Rings was first published but its appeal has been so far enduring. Why do you think this epic narrative resonates in the 21st century?
Kristoffer: I think what resonated most to me was how a beautiful, fair world of the Elves was passing away, how the world was broken by a great evil, and yet despite that, the Good endured, and mysterious forces unseen converge making the unlikely (the Good winning) happen. I love the theme of how the Wise never had the answers. It was the lowly Hobbits, who rose from “their quiet fields to shake the towers and counsels of the Great” that had it all along. The Fellowship’s members were of a broken breed—from the hobbits who were unsure of their part in the larger war, to an heir to a broken kingly lineage. The entire Middle-earth in Lord of the Rings feels so old, and so broken because of these stories, just like our world. Then you encounter this line that grips you forever:
“The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.”
Gene: Sounds simplistic but I guess it still resonates because it’s about struggle. And we’re all always struggling with something so you can always equate something in the story with whatever you’re currently dealing with. Bad boss and/or boyfriend = Saruman and/or Sauron. Weird guy in the barkada or office = Gollum. Destroying self doubt & achieving whatever goal (ex. finding job) = getting to Mordor & destroying The Ring. Or you can go a bigger and see parallels in the current national or global situation. Struggle is a constant in everybody’s life, in any century.
Maybe also because the world (of Middle Earth) is so complete. It’s almost overwhelming. You just look at the map and you can’t even grasp how many more untold stories are there. There’s a lot of material in the book to expound on and talk about. So people just didn’t stop talking about it since it got published. People also didn’t stop talking in Elvish, Dwarvish and Orcs’ black speech.
Ish: Not only does the series have elves, dwarves, ents, and other magical creatures and places, and not to mention, a ton of adventure, it also shows us how Frodo needed everyone around him to accomplish his goal. It also showed us the lengths his allies went through just to see his mission completed. Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, Merry and Pippin, and of course, the ever-loyal Samwise Gamgee, all put their lives on the line so that Frodo could reach Mordor and throw the One Ring into the fiery pits of Mount Doom.
Whereas most protagonists have super powers or are masters of different martial arts and can use different type of weapons, Frodo only had his will and his friends to rely on (and even then, his will failed him more than once as he gave into the temptation of wearing the One Ring on more than one occasion). It’s a trait that I think resonates with the readers because it teaches us that we do not need to be a Superman or a Captain America or a Son Goku in order to be a hero, we can be normal human beings and still save the world.
How has Tolkien’s work influenced fantasy narratives? How has it influenced your personal reading?
Kristoffer: Well, I mentioned before that I find Tolkien’s style a little bit dragging, because I found out, when reading 2 of his biographies, that he nearly never finished the stories because of how extensive and detailed the world of Arda was. And that reflected in his wordy descriptions of places and situations, especially in LOTR. But I got past that and what enamored me most was precisely that extensive world building—of how alien and at the same time how familiar this world was. That Tolkien quirk taught me to be more patient in reading, and to allow the book to make its words grow into you. I can liken the experience to the patience and slowness of walking—one of those daily activities Tolkien and Lewis did, as did the Fellowship in the entire LOTR. Something is lost when one reads Tolkien books in a hurry. That’s why I would always describe reading Tolkien as sort of an immersion in a world he had created.
Gene: I think he greatly influenced many writers on how to create that “complete world.” The more modern versions would be Harry Potter, Game of Thrones; even Star Trek and Star Wars. My husband plays Dungeons and Dragons and apparently they have a notebook that has kept track of the narrative since their college days. I think that’s sort of in a similar vein. I believe Tolkien and his friend C.S. Lewis really raised the bar in terms of really developing characters and worlds to get lost in. I don’t think it really influenced my personal reading. I just read whatever I feel like and it’s so varied. But I’m glad Tolkien has influenced some fantastic writers (be it for film or paper) to create and make available to me their work.
Ish: Many works of fiction have tried to emulate, or at least were influenced heavily, by Tolkien’s work. Examples of which are the Sword of Shannara series and the Inheritance Cycle. I have read the Inheritance Cycle, as well as the Artemis Fowl series. Both have the element of language to it, in the way that characters can speak in elven or dwarven, or some other language, and I’ve always attributed that as influenced by Tolkien. And to add to that, having had the ability to write about characters within the same universe but in timelines thousands of years apart, Tolkien’s ability to write such an epic and have his readers immersed in the world of Middle-earth is something most writers can only dream of. It’s a standard to which other books are held.
Where would you make your home in Middle-earth?
Kristoffer: Rivendell, always. With all its libraries, the waterfalls, the elves residing there, the organic Elvish architecture, and, oh, the Shards of Narsil. I think I have acquired Bilbo’s amazement of the place. The movie perfectly captured it.
Gene: Rivendell. Because it seems like they’re all so organized and clean. They probably have a local government system that works. I have a daughter. I bet they have a nice playground for her, nice free public schools. Also I took a Buzzfeed test and it said I should live in Rivendell. And you know how Buzzfeed is so spot on with important life decisions like that. (Sarcasm.)
Ish: Rivendell, of course. The peace and quiet, and not to mention the magic, that pervades all throughout Rivendell is the ideal place for me. Add to that the centuries worth of knowledge accrued by the elves over the course of their very long lives can be found there. Not the least, to live among such graceful creatures is definitely a dream yearned for.
If you could have a chat with Tolkien, what would you ask or say to him?
Kristoffer: I read from the History of Middle-earth volumes that for Tolkien, Gold was a bad element. Hence, mithril, or silver was good. The Ring of Power was made of gold. The crown of Gondor (in the movie) was made of silver. I’m quite curious why Tolkien had that perception of Gold. I also want to ask him, what happens when Men goes past the Halls of Mandos, if he has any speculations on the matter.
Gene: I would ask, “Have you seen the LOTR movies? What do you think?” I know I read somewhere that the only cast member he met was Christopher Lee and that he was actually given some form of blessing to play Gandalf not Saruman. Christopher Tolkien has been vocal about being very unhappy with the movies. I’m curious if his dad would feel the same way.
Ish: I would ask him about what comes after LOTR. He has the history of Middle-earth already, what about what comes after, much like Episodes 7-9 in Star Wars.
Describe Middle-earth in three words.
Kristoffer: A familiar friend.
Gene: A great adventure. Or…sore hobbit feet. But people may not like that.
Ish: Rules them all.
We’d love to know what you think, too! Join the discussion and share your thoughts in the comments.
Kristoffer L. Pasion is a history researcher of the National Historical Commission of the Philippines, currently finishing his MA History at the University of the Philippines Diliman. He blogs about Philippine history (indiohistorian.tumblr.com), having been a finalist in the 2015 Philippine Blogging Awards.
Gene Villaseran is a former advertising account manager, pre-school teacher, and theme park content developer. She is now doing what she loves best—being mom to her daughter Momo.
Ish is a member of the Fully Booked family and is the resident LOTR/Star Wars geek. He loves the phenomenon of language, and would like to be able to hold a conversation in Quenya. Or French.
[Thoughts and views expressed in this article are those of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fully Booked. Then again, we love our writers anyway.]