It is written in my life-blood, such as that is,
thick or thin; and I can no other. I fear it must
stand or fall as it substantially is.
(Tolkien on The Lord of the Rings, 1947)
When I look back at how Tolkien’s books entered my life, I like to think that it was a chance meeting, if chance you call it. Even though the first ever Middle-earth volumes had appeared on my bookshelf much earlier than I actually read them, their time came later rather than sooner. The wait was worthwhile, though.
When I began studying English Philology at university, with English being my second language, I dived headlong into the world of everything philology-wise: grammar, vocabulary, phonetics, language history, culture and, of course, literature. Not only did we read a lot of books, but we also attended numerous lectures on English literature. I believe it was during one of such occasions when we were briefly told about J. R. R. Tolkien and his special place in the English literature.
In those days it was not unusual for different publishers, fairs or small second-hand retailers to come to our university with a great variety of books. It was sometime at the beginning of my second year when several boxes with second-hand books were dropped on the tables in the main hall. A lot of students crowded around the potential treasure: needless to say, we were keen on reading and tried to get our hands on as many foreign books as it was humanly possible.
That day, with the books on the tables and us around them, my first proper meeting with Tolkien occurred. Diving into one of the boxes, I emerged with the three-volume The Lord of the Rings set. My knowledge of what the story was about was vague, but not entirely non-existent. However, familiar name and title aside, something in those books attracted me, made me grab them first thing without the bother of looking through the entire box contents. The volumes were rather battered, but I was not to be parted with them. Before I knew what was happening, the books had gone into my bag and the money — into the seller’s wallet.
When I got home, I was hoping to spend an evening reading my newly found treasure. Imagine my disappointment when I made a nice cup of tea, made myself comfortable in the armchair, opened The Fellowship of the Ring and…. was totally beaten by the language. Remember, that at that time I was a new student of philology and my immature knowledge of English did not stand the test of Tolkien’s elevated style. The books went straight to the bookshelf and had to spend quite a long time there before storming into my life again.
Many years after that failed attempt to read The Lord of the Rings I was already a teacher of English with a degree, working at a language school and enjoying more than just substantial knowledge of the language. It was then that I decided to revisit those three volumes. By that time they had acquired a rather nice smell of ageing books and elegantly yellowing pages. After doing some research, I started with The Hobbit, though. It took me a week of late-night reads with tea and promises of “just one more chapter” to finish the tale and be irrevocably enchanted by it. That enchantment was solidified by The Lord of the Rings.
Thus those old books finally got their due attention and respect. I still remember that first acquaintance with the mighty tale fondly. In late evenings, after a day at work, only this story mattered: everything else was secondary. I was following Frodo and the company on their perilous journeys and living through the adventure with them. My head was dizzy with details and names, but I knew I was discovering my kind of story, something I had been waiting for, something I had really needed. Language was another matter. After so many years of working with English closely, I was able to enjoy every tiny turn of phrase, every hidden meaning, every between-the-lines hint. Do you know such a feeling when you read a sentence and pause just to breath a bit because of how brilliantly it is written? I definitely do, and it was the Professor who introduced me to such linguistic delights.
In the Foreword to the Second Edition Tolkien wrote: “The prime motive was the desire of a tale-teller to try his hand at a really long story that would hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times maybe excite them or deeply move them” (Fellowship of the Ring, p. xvi). Ican say for sure that The Lord of the Rings did all these to me. I was amused and delighted, moved and excited, enchanted and saddened. What’s more, it was a bridge to my fascination with The Silmarillion and a revival of a more profound interest in language matters that had been dormant for a while.
I have read The Lord of the Rings many time and I know I will be reading it again and again. This tale never gets old, never gets boring. There are many things I am grateful to my university for, and The Lord of the Rings is one of them.
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