Tolkien Month, Day One – My Introduction to J.R.R. Tolkien

by Josh Hanagarne on September 1, 2011

hobbit-book-cover

This was the cover of my first copy of The Hobbit

Tolkien month is here on the blog! Who’s excited? I can’t hear you!  Perhaps I’m the only one excited at all. So be it. Wait! I hear a cheer from the back. Okay, there are two of us.

Well then, you and I are going to have a lot to talk about. Onward.

I was probably six or seven years old when my Grandma Hanagarne came over with my birthday presents: an envelope and a package. The envelope contained what it always contained…a dreary savings bond.

The package also contained what my grandma’s packages usually contained: a book. It was a big one. Not in length–even from an early age I wasn’t really one to be intimidated by the thickness of a book. But this book, The Hobbit, was tall and wide.

The green dust jacket had a picture of an uppity-looking, smug dragon on it.

The Hobbit. I’d never heard of it but that didn’t matter. It was a book and it was mine. I opened the cover as she watched, and out fell a thin brass bookmark with my initials engraved on it.

JH.

“Can I go read it?” I took it up to my room after exclaiming over the wonder of my savings bond, sat on the bed, and slowly the world dissolved around me.

I won’t lie, I didn’t get into the story right away. It didn’t seem quite right to have a dragon on the cover of the book and have the story start with a tea party or dinner or whatever was happening.

I thought it was funny when the dwarves started arriving and Bilbo got flustered. I laughed at their songs as they made a mess of things and kept pouring out of the woods or mines or wherever they were coming from.

But I didn’t really get invested in the story until Bilbo headed out the door into…well, that was the point. I don’t have any earlier memories of reading a book with a Quest in it.

I was reading constantly, but it was Encyclopedia Brown and The Great Brain and Pippi Longstocking and the Ramona books and Harriet The Spy and Charlotte’s Web. None of those characters ever stepped out their front door in quite the same way Bilbo did.

I could not picture myself going out onto our porch and thinking “I have a really long way to go. I am now the official burglar of this expedition, and we’re on our way to steal something from a dragon that lives…how far away is it? I wonder what’s going to happen to me?”

The book had beautiful, full color illustrations as well. I would linger on the pages trying to break each picture into an invisible grid, and then go through the grid from left to right, then up and down, trying to make sure I actually looked at everything in each picture.

I thought the picture of Gollum in the riddles chapter was absolutely terrifying. I couldn’t stop looking at it. I actually still remember one of the riddles, and I haven’t read The Hobbit for years:

Thirty white horses, on a red hill

First they champ, then they stamp

They they are still

Long story short, I read the rest of it quickly and then read it again.

When I started reading more advanced fare than  Are You My Mother? and Where The Wild Things Are, I got out of the habit of rereading books for a while.

I was already aware of how many books there were out there and I could hardly stand the wait between finishing This One and starting That One.

But I reread The Hobbit, and I went through it more slowly the second time. And slower still on the third.

I can’t even really say why. It grabbed me and wouldn’t let me go in a way that no other book had yet.

I was worried when Bilbo thought the trolls were going to eat him. I was afraid when the goblins dragged them down into the caves. I wished I could change my shape when I got to Beorn. I wondered what a spider’s web would feel like if I was stuck in one. I wondered if it would be uncomfortable to sit on a giant pile of gold like Smaug the dragon.

I wondered at just about everything, and maybe that’s what it was. The situations were all thematically familiar, but alien in terms of situations I had experience with.

I have no memory of being aware of The Lord of the Rings at that point, and avid reader or no, I don’t think I would have been up for it.

Goals for this series

I have a lot to say and a lot of articles to write and a whole lot of discussions that I’m excited to have with you, assuming you’re still here at this point.

I think classifying myself as a passionate amateur is still going to be overdoing it. I love Tolkien and I can’t wait to write more about him and his books, but I’m going to need the help of the nitpickers.

This is not going to be scholarship when I write, it’s going to be more like one gigantic, month long fan letter, so don’t fuss too badly if I happen to misspeak about leap years in Numenor or if I don’t get the properties of  Mithril just so.

But! I want to hear about all that stuff as well, so if you want to write a hardcore fan article let me know. If you want to review one of the books, tell me. If you want to submit any original art, I’ll help you make yourself at home here in September. Whatever you can do, just ask if you’re interested.

For my part, you’ll get my thoughts and opinions on Tolkien and his work, but I’m not going to hold myself to any sort of academic standard.

I’ll say what I have to say, let you fill in whatever you like, and hopefully we’ll have fun this month.

Now then, first question: what was your first experience with Tolkien? How old were you? What were your early impressions like?

Tomorrow I’ll talk about the origins of The Hobbit, which will give me a chance to introduce some background about the author.

 

 

{ 36 comments… read them below or add one }

Nikofromdublin September 1, 2011 at 6:29 am

Awesome intro!
def going to read the rest (just know you’re not alone :P )

First exp with Tolkien: The 70′s animations of Hobbit and Lotr
(they used to scare the **** outa me :P , but i still wanted to watch them over and over. Then learned to read (7yo?) (now have a tradition to read hobbit and lotr at least once a year :P )
The thing that really connected me to “the Hobbit” was that Bilbo’s birthday is on the same day as my granddad’s (he gave me The hobbit novel (printed in 50′s) as a present)

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Josh Hanagarne September 1, 2011 at 3:30 pm

Awesome, and there’s another Hobbit-from-a-grandparent gift.

Thanks for jumping in.

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Sarah September 1, 2011 at 6:46 am

My first experience with Tolkien was the day my brothers and I ventured into the attic above the living room for the first time. It’s the kind of attic you have to go through the ceiling in the closet to get to…and my brother came down with a box full of books. The only ones I remember or kept were a matching set of The Lord of the Rings books printed in the 1970′s. My parents both swear they don’t belong to either of them, so it was like they were a gift from the beyond, because, though I didn’t read them right away, it was those 3 worn out, torn copies that I brought with me to my literature class on all things Tolkien almost a decade later.

The actual first words of Tolkien that I read were from the Silmarillion. Not exactly the easiest thing to start with, but the class was going to and since the Silmarillion begins with the very beginning of time you can’t get much earlier than that!

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Josh Hanagarne September 1, 2011 at 3:30 pm

Did you make it through Silmarillion that first time?

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Sarah September 2, 2011 at 6:51 am

I did actually, thankfully we went through it nice and slow for class otherwise I would’ve been burned out!

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Todd September 1, 2011 at 7:32 am

Admittedly, I found Tolkien late. I’d heard about The Hobbit, but fantasy stuff never really seemed to grab my attention. That is until the first LOR movie came out.

I mentioned to my wife and family how much I liked the movie, and that it would be cool to read the series before the other movies came out.

Fast forward a couple of years, and the movie trilogy was about to be completed with the release of ‘Return of the King’. About a month before the release was my birthday, and I received the three-book set.

A number of late nights, reading on every break at work… and even calling in sick one or two days, I managed to finish the last book the night before the movie premiered.

The books were gripping, and contained far, far more than the movies. Peter Jackson did a great job, but far and away, Tolkien is the master of Middle Earth.

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Josh Hanagarne September 1, 2011 at 3:29 pm

“Calling in sick one or two days…”

My kind of reader.

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Blaine Moore September 1, 2011 at 7:46 am

The Hobbit has been and remains my favorite book of all time. I’ve owned at least 10 copies of the book at one time or another, and if I go down in my basement I can think of at least editions that I still have (2 paperbacks that part of a set with the Lord of the Rings plus an annotated version that’s large like the edition you had. I also think that’s the first one that I read when I was 4 or 5 or however old I was when I first read it.)

My father’s bookshelf was my source of early reading material, so I discovered the Lord of the Rings pretty quickly after I’d read the Hobbit. I know that I was 6 years old the first time I read my way through, he had an edition that had all 3 books together.

It was a waste of my time; the Lord of the Rings isn’t a children’s book and I didn’t have enough life experience to have any idea what was going on so I mostly just got really confused. I did read the entire thing though.

The Lord of the Rings made much more sense when I read them again in my early teens, and were a much more enjoyable read when I read them as an adult where I can see the references to the Industrial Revolution and the World Wars.

That said, they don’t have the readability that the Hobbit does, and I can’t even say how many times I’ve read it. I just can’t wait until I have a child old enough to read it to before bed, and I will definitely be buying a large format fully illustrated version for the occasion.

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Josh Hanagarne September 1, 2011 at 3:29 pm

Okay, there’s the first Favorite Book of all Time commenter.

I’m going to agree with you several times this month about readability.

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Toralinda September 1, 2011 at 9:28 am

My first experience with Tolkien was when my father would read to me from The Hobbit before bedtime. I had a whole book full of snippets from chapters of a variety of books and fairy tales, and each night my dad would choose one to read to me. The first time he read the snippet from The Hobbit, I was completely enamored. After that, I would always ask, “Will you read to me about the Hobbit again?”
After he had read the same chapter to me a few times, he finally decided to give that anthology a rest and picked up the real book to start the full story of The Hobbit. After a while, the story just wasn’t coming fast enough for me (only one chapter – or less – per night), so I picked up the book and started reading on my own! That was the beginning of my love affair. =)

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Josh Hanagarne September 1, 2011 at 3:28 pm

Very nice. Do you have any idea what that book of your dad’s was called?

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Paul Andrew Russell September 1, 2011 at 10:18 am

I first read the hobbit when I was at primary school. I was in the last year, which means I was ten years old. In that last year we had access to all the books in the school library.

I remember being mesmerised by the old-fashioned looking cover. It was green, blue and black, with a bit of white, like an old engraving. That cover hooked me. When I read the first few pages and realised the hobbits lived in holes in the ground, with round doors and walls, I was enchanted. I was a kid with a new world to play in.

I read that book twice. It never left my mind. Years later I discovered The Lord of the Rings. I was fifteen, a know-it-all teenager, but I sat and read that book from cover to cover; like I was a child again.

I read it one more time, when I was eighteen. All these years later, I still know the story; much like I still know the stories from the Enchanted Wood and The Faraway Tree I read when I was small. Some stories just stay with a person, as do some authors. Enid Blyton and JRR Tolkien are the two that infected me with a love of books and stories.

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Josh Hanagarne September 1, 2011 at 3:27 pm

I’ve never heard of Blyton. Thanks for the mention.

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Katy September 1, 2011 at 9:51 pm

Never heard of Blyton?! She was my first educator, who taught me that magic is real and dreams can come true. She taught me to love stories and I have saved all of her books so that I can read them to my children, that same as my mum read them to me…

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Paul Andrew Russell September 2, 2011 at 9:23 am

She was of a time, Josh, extremely politically incorrect and not someone you’d want your kids reading in the original form today. Hence they’ve been editing the unsavoury stuff out of the re-releases of her work. What did I know? I was a child. They were just stories to me. Stories that were magical to a child living in a mining village in relative poverty.

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John Sifferman September 1, 2011 at 10:59 am

When the production of the LOTR movies was announced, my father made a family rule that nobody could see the movies until they had first read the books. He had an old set on one of his bookshelves with tattered, faded pages, and worn covers.

I was in high school at the time and wasn’t a bookworm growing up. Everyone was saying the movies were going to be awesome, so I sucked it up and cracked open the Fellowship of the Ring. I’ll be honest, in that, although I found it monotonous at times (they’re STILL traveling!), I enjoyed much of the book.

The Two Towers and Return of the King really sucked me in though – probably because I knew the characters and was starting to identify with their quest. More frequent battles probably helped a bit, too.

I’ve been meaning to read them again for some time now, but I’ve got to devour The Hobbit first.

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Josh Hanagarne September 1, 2011 at 3:27 pm

How many of you were there? Did you guys have any problem sharing?

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John Sifferman September 1, 2011 at 5:43 pm

5 of us – all boys. And what is this sharing you speak of?

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Josh Hanagarne September 2, 2011 at 9:45 am

Sharing the books! I can’t imagine being 5th in line for LOTR.

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Stephanie September 1, 2011 at 11:26 am

My first experience with Tolkien was in my High School Library in 1996. I was 15. I had just finished a fantasy book called Winter of Fire by Sheryl Jordan (Which is sadly out of print.) and I wanted more fantasy. I remember the librarian taking me over to the shelves and showing me The Lord of the Rings books. I hadn’t heard of them but I was immediately intimidated by the cover art depicting battle scenes. I decided not to read them and didn’t pick up The Hobbit until just before Fellowship of the Ring came to theaters. I did really liked The Hobbit, though I found it a little slow-going, and have since wished my librarian had handed me that book first.

I always find it interesting when you get to know someone only to realize weeks or years later that you met them once upon a time. It always feels a little like fate. How would things be different if you had gotten to know them then? That is precisely how I feel about Tolkien.

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Josh Hanagarne September 1, 2011 at 3:26 pm

That’s beautiful. Also, sounds like my kind of librarian.

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Gloriana St. Clair September 1, 2011 at 1:49 pm

For the last three years, I have been reading the entire works of JRRT with three students at Carnegie Mellon University and U. Pittsburgh. We’re down to his translation of Finn and Hengest and 3 essays. We’re eager to hear what experiences others have had. Anyone else who’s read everything?

And I’m also a librarian and my book Tolkien’s Cauldron is on my website.

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Sean Geddes September 1, 2011 at 3:06 pm

I believe I was around 6 or 7 when I was first introduced to the Hobbit, which was also my initial introduction to Tolkein. It wasn’t my first introduction to the idea of setting out on quests in literature however as I had been raised from day one on Arthurian fairytales and the early works of Brian Jaques. The Hobbit still opened up a much greater world of the idea of the heroes journey for me. I was enthralled with the story and more than anything, the world that Tolkein had created. Still am.

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Josh Hanagarne September 1, 2011 at 3:25 pm

I really wish I had heard of Jacques as a kid. I love the books now, but I think they would have slapped my head off back then.

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Sean Geddes September 1, 2011 at 3:50 pm

I owe more to his books than I can ever really describe. They did slap my head off as a kid.

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Sean Geddes September 1, 2011 at 3:42 pm

Shaped my young view of the world.

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Misty September 1, 2011 at 5:51 pm

I was introduced by a friend to a MUD (a text-based computer game) based on Tolkien’s books, long before I ever read them. And much to my shame, I still haven’t read the Lord of the Rings, only The Hobbit. I learned all about the stories, even such that I was able to code areas that were consistent with Tolkien’s theme, but didn’t read The Hobbit until this spring. I watched each movie as it came out.

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Cat Ransom September 2, 2011 at 5:29 am

Hi Josh,
Last year I read a beautiful graphic-novelization to a small group of loyal 4 to 7-year-olds. The 4-year-old was still barely reading but all loved the story and the pictures were awesome. At times they seemed to lose interest but came back to the library every week or expressed disappointment if they missed anything. The story works for the very young if simplified, like this version. But the songs, or at least some of them, remain! I sang them in hardy dwarf style, much to their enjoyment.

I remember staying up many nights (without permission) when I was about 10 to read The Hobbit and the Trilogy. The world Tolkien created was so complete, I felt like a traveler, not just a reader. It was a long way back to my bed and sleep!

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Heather September 2, 2011 at 9:06 am

My introduction to The Hobbit was a really scary cartoon-movie version from the 70s. I read the book AFTER that, though, and liked the book a lot better. I always liked Hobbit-feet, they looked very sturdy and durable. Tolkein got me interested in Norse Mythology shortly thereafter. Up to that point, the only mythology I was familiar with was Greek and Roman, and that was from school.

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Chris B September 2, 2011 at 10:47 am

I must have been 13 or so and I really have no idea how I found the books. I seriously doubt someone recommended them to me so it must have been a mention on one of the off-the-wall counter-culture magazines I was reading (this WAS the late 60′s after all).
But I do remember being really excited when we were studying Norse mythology in history class and I found Bilbo, Gandalf and most of the dwarve’s names in one of the sagas we were reading. Somehow the idea that this made-up world was *connected* to real history just seemed really interesting to me.

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Kira September 2, 2011 at 9:06 pm

Christmas 1981, I got my first copy of LOTR. I try and read it once a year.

My wife got me my second copy for our first wedding anniversary (1992). I had got into the habit of calling her Precious during our first year of marriage: because she was, and always will be ;)

I’m not a fan of the Hobbit, but I do like the Silmarillion.

My favourite character in LOTR is Tom Bombadil. I liked how he set boundaries for his life and was content to live within them.

I don’t like the movies. But, I guess that’s probably to be expected, as I’ve spent so much time reading the book.

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Josh Hanagarne September 3, 2011 at 11:07 am

Wow Kira, I’ve never heard someone say anything very positive about Bombadil. You win the internet today.

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Kira September 3, 2011 at 5:30 pm

Bombadil …

A dude who pranced around a lot
Who wore bright and colourful clothing
Who had a powerful voice that could effect the world around him

Sounds like the ultimate front-man to me! Bombadil is the Freddie Mercury of Middle Earth :)

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Pieter Collier September 4, 2011 at 3:24 pm

While my first experience with Tolkien happened well before I could read, since my eldest brother had told me all about the adventures of Bilbo Baggins when I was still a kid, I do remember very well my first time I read The Lord of the Rings. I was reading “In de Ban van de Ring” in a copy that looked exactly like in this image – this is the Dutch translation of The Lord of the Rings. Back then I did not realise this was a 1st printing, and in fact that did not matter at that moment… I was so impressed by this book that I found it impossible to stop reading. Every night I lay under my sheets with a small flash light and just had to keep reading. Guess many know exactly what I mean!

Since that time I have never stopped reading Tolkien and lost count how many times I have re-read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The second time I experienced a deep love for Tolkien’s works, and maybe even more intense then with the Lord of the Rings, was when I finally read the Silmarillion for the second time (the first time was hard and hardly enjoyable) and since then every time I re-read it The Silmarillion got better, deeper and more intense. At the moment I have started to think that the more I read The Silmarillion and the deeper I digg into it, the more I understand and comprehend, the less I understand how one person was able to create this book in the first place and the more I love the author J.R.R. Tolkien.

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Pieter Collier September 4, 2011 at 3:26 pm

the picture I mention can be found at my website where I have announced Tolkien month… let us hope some Tolkien lovers join the fun!

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Pim September 14, 2011 at 5:55 am

What better topic then Tolkien? I read and fell in love with Lord of The Rings. I read the Hobbit later on. I liked the movies and wonder what the Hobbit will look like on the big screen.

I used to have a lot of fun thinking up actors and filling in the cast. A couple of years ago I bought the children of Hurin, but it wasn’t really the same. I should probably reread LOTR again.

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