On Reading The Lord of the Rings

Jo Walton on the effect on the susceptible of early exposure to The Lord of the Rings.

Reading The Lord of the Rings immediately after [reading The Hobbit] was like being thrown into deep magical water which I fortunately learned to breathe, but from which I have never truly emerged.

It’s true, you don’t come back from that kind of immersion unchanged, if you come back at all…

I first read The Hobbit when I was about 8 after a wise school teacher gave me a copy at the end-of-year prize giving. The book with the prize plate is long gone alas, a victim of the damp in my mother’s basement. But I still remember the delight with which I read it. And my joy when I found The Lord of the Rings in the library. Very little of my first reading of LotR is still with me. Merry and Pippin with a dying Boromir, Treebeard, Gandalf’s return to Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli. The wonderfully named chapter, Flotsam and Jetsam, Pippin and Merry lying in the rubble of Isengard smoking and Gandalf exclaiming, “Get up you tomfool of a Took…and where in the name of wonder in all this ruin is Treebeard?” Frodo, “alive but taken by the enemy.” at the end of The Two Towers. This last sentence caused me some pain because I finished The Two Towers then had to wait, suspended with Frodo, until we next made the hour-long journey to Dunedin and the nearest public library.

When I acquired my own one volume edition of Lord of the Rings, I skipped out on playing with friends after school to start reading it, and kept on reading whenever I could fit it in, until I finished the book about a week later. And then I found that I wasn’t ready to leave Middle Earth, so I simply started again. I read it solidly, over and over for a couple of months, completing it 7 or 8 or 10 times, before I could bring myself to stop.

Even after I’d stopped reading it, Middle Earth came along with me. It seemed so solid, so real, and so much more wonderful than my own world. I wanted to walk off into the forest around my home and never come back. And I suppose in a sense, I never did return. I don’t know how many times I’ve read LotR – 20, 30, more even – enough times that the book is a deeply familiar part of my memories of my life.

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