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Friday, November 06, 2015

My Favourite Adventure Fiction: Tolkien

When I was at uni, everyone said, "What! You haven't read Lord Of The Rings?" That included some of my lecturers. One of the students was doing her Honours Thesis on it.

It was an interesting situation, too, because would you believe she had been told that it wasn't academic enough for a thesis! Uh huh. A novel with a whole lot of reference to language and classic literature, inspired by mediaeval works, a whole "mythology for England", written by a university professor and it wasn't academic enough. Fortunately the English professor, who was a Tolkien nut, agreed to supervise her thesis. Professor Brown had a Tolkien manuscript which had been written as a Christmas gift for someone and bound. It was a Piers Plowman pastiche about the exams at Oxford. He would hand it around reverently in tutorials. (Those were the days when a tutorial group was about five or six students) I emailed Tom Shippey, Tolkien expert, about it some years ago, and he said Tolkien was always doing that sort of thing and he himself had found a Chaucer one in a filing cabinet.

Well, I thought I really should check it out - I hadn't even read The Hobbit at the time - and bought a three-volume Allen and Unwin boxed set at the uni bookshop.

It ended up taking me quite a while to get into. I never finished it when I was at uni. I did read The Hobbit. But one year, when I was going to Sorrento for a few days during the end of year holidays I took the first volume with me. I was exhausted after a long, long year at school - trust me on this, teachers who have to spend the year dealing with the dramas and emotions of other people's children need their break! I just wanted to lie on the beach and read. I didn't even want to try out any of the Sorrento tourist things that the hostel owner was trying to tell me about for the benefit of a tourist guide journalist who was listening.

So I took my copy of Fellowship Of The Ring to the beach to read... and was swept away, if not literally(though I might have been if I had kept reading while the tide was coming in).

So, there's this hobbit, right, who discovers that the ring his uncle Bilbo has left him before heading off to an Elven artist colony is the one belonging to the ultimate Dark Lord. He has been searching for it for centuries and somehow his minions now know who has it. The hobbit has to run.

And thus began an adventure that made me excited, afraid for my lovely hobbit and his friends, laugh, cry, love... This time, I ended up reading all three volumes, including the Appendices which told you more about what was happening, what had happened before, how it all ended for various characters, explained the languages in the novel. LOTR became my comfort reading. I start a new chapter and think, "Oh, good, this is where they meet Aragorn!" I've bought some of the History Of Middle-Earth volumes and read those cover to cover too.

I loved the characters, I loved that even ordinary people who love peace and quiet and home and their gardens can be heroes.

There weren't many female characters in it, but they were formidable, whether a Saxon-like shield maiden or the unpleasant old lady hobbit who stands up to the invader's bullies, is imprisoned and suddenly finds herself a village heroine after a lifetime of nobody liking her.

 I thought the world-building was amazing. If you were dropped into this universe, you could quite comfortably settle in to any of the places described except maybe Mordor, and that would be fine if you were happy to be an Orc. I mean that you could find your way around and if you mixed with Elves, Tolkien has even made it possible for you to speak the language. Few writers can do that kind of immersive world building. I know I can't. 

The Hobbit is a delight I can read and reread even now. My nephew Max is a big hulking(nerdy!) teenager now, but when he was much younger, his father was reading it to him at bed time. Not that he couldn't have read and enjoyed it himself, but there's something comforting about being read to. And one day we were out together and sitting in the park by the Shrine. He mentioned it was his bed time reading and I had a copy in my bag and there I was, on a bright Melbourne summer day reading him the chapter he was on, "Riddles In The Dark". (He doesn't hang out with me these days, alas, but even he asked if we could go to the final Hobbit movie together)

I now have an enhanced copy in ebook, which has a lot of extras, including Tolkien singing some of the songs. That's one thing print books can't do.

I know there are books out there with cover blurb comparing them to Tolkien, but sorry! There's nothing like Tolkien and anything that tries is bound to fail. It's why I prefer my adventures to be set in space these days, or in real historical settings. 

What do you think? 

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