How Tolkien became part of my life. Is he part of yours?

Forty years after I first encountered the work of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, I am still on a wonderful journey of discovery in his world.

I had moment to think about it on the weekend when my wife and I passed through Miramar, Wellington and stopped at the ‘Weta Cave’. It’s a store run by Weta Workshop, who made the props for Peter Jackson’s adaptations of Tolkien’s work.  In typical Kiwi fashion it’s in an unprepossessing building of late 1930s austerity construction.

Weta Cave - unprepossessing ordinariness masking the home of something truly extraordinary.
Weta Cave – unprepossessing ordinariness masking the home of something truly extraordinary.

Most of the buildings in the area are like this. It’s the heart of Peter Jackson’s movie-making empire. You wouldn’t think so, to look at it. But that’s the magic of movies for you.

It's all in an ordinary industrial-style street.
It’s all in an ordinary industrial-style street. I don’t know if these warehouses, directly opposite Jackson’s post-production building, are part of the studio or not, though interesting drumming noises were coming out of them when I took this photo.

Though the Park Road Post Production building is pretty impressive.

I took this from the street.
I took this from the street.

The visit – coupled with last week’s viewing of The Hobbit movie – got me thinking. I wouldn’t call myself a ‘fan’. I approach Tolkien with a critical eye, I don’t consume every word.  Each volume in my copy of The Lord of The Rings is from a totally different paperback edition and I’ve never bothered to get any of the different illustrated, one-volume or ‘collectors’ versions issued since.

But I like his created world and his writing very much indeed, and have ever since I was eight or nine – about as long,  in fact, that I’ve been writing myself.

It was the Pauline Baynes map that captured me first. Her artwork  was evidently frowned upon by Tolkien himself. But it spoke of adventure, of exploration – of the unknown. I wanted to experience that magic – to live that world. I started imagining. A little later, I read The Hobbit. And I was hooked. I still have that copy of the book, the third edition paperback with Tolkien’s own ‘Death of Smaug’ sketch as cover art. It’s totally battered. I don’t know how often I’ve read it. Lots.

A year or two after that I read The Lord Of The Rings. And read it again. And again. And again. And many times again after that. I’ve read it only twice since I was a teenager – but I can still pretty much quote passages from it.

Check out the battering. Is my copy of 'The Hobbit' much-loved, or what?
Check out the wear and tear. Is my copy of ‘The Hobbit’ much-loved, or what?

Tolkien’s work spoke to me on many levels. He conveyed a sense of wonder on an epic scale, yet in terms that brought that wonder back to ‘ordinary’ through the hobbits. I could share their sense of discovery, of growth, as the world unfolded for them – and which they had to find the strength to handle.

Later, as I learned more about literature and writing, I came to realise just how much of the essence of the western mind Tolkien had put into his work. My enjoyment of his world became a journey of discovery – re-awakening a sense of wonder when I read his material.

I am still on that journey, and it is a wonderful journey indeed.

How about you? Are you a Tolkien enthusiast? What drew you to his work? And if he’s not your cup of tea – well, what doesn’t appeal? It’s all valid. I don’t like some of his material myself, actually – too inaccessible, too academic; or written in ways that don’t capture. As I say, I approach this with a critical eye – not adulating fandom. But what he imagined remains very much a part of my life.

What are your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013


8 thoughts on “How Tolkien became part of my life. Is he part of yours?

  1. I wouldn’t say I’m an enthusiast, but I’ve long had an appreciation for his work and a deep love for the world he created. I was introduced to The Hobbit when I was 8 years old. Our teacher suggested we should watch the Rankin/Bass animated production of it in TV, so I did, but not knowing what to expect. I thought it was awesome and read the book right after that.

    My early attempts to get through The Lord of the Rings were a different matter, as it’s a pretty heavy read. Even today, the writing style isn’t what I normally prefer when I read for entertainment, but the whole thing somehow transcends the prose to become something magical and enduring. Truly a monumental achievement.

    1. I have only ever seen snippets of that original Hobbit movie, but gather it was a lot closer to the book than the Jackson edition. I have always been intrigued by Tolkien’s style; he varied it, sometimes quite significantly. A lot of his material – espeially the latter part of LOTR and much fo the Silmarillion – was written in what I can only call ‘epic’ terms, not all of which I could get into either. He apparently said, once, that to write a proper epic story one had to first be able to write it as an epic poem; and that, I suppose, influenced the way he went about it.

      1. I haven’t seen that old movie since I was a kid, so I don’t know how well it would hold up. I remember that it had the occasional musical number, specially created for that production, that I’m sure I’d think was questionable at best 🙂

        I think I’ll have to take another look at The Silmarillion. My only attempt at it was back when I was maybe 12 or so, and I just couldn’t do it then. But now that I’m older and a writer dealing with world-building, I’d expect to get much more out of it then I did then.

  2. Hi Matthew,

    SoundEagle would like to commend you on your willingness and proclivity to adopt a more detached approach to literary literacy in which one could distance (or repress) oneself from being entangled, ensnared or even enslaved by the maddening crowd, the herd mentality, the mythologizing of figureheads, the trappings of popular (sub)cultures, and the cult of celebrity —- yet without taking away the merits and potency of a subject matter under discussion or scrutiny.

    Happy February to you!

  3. I may or may not have tried reading The Silmarillion; regardless, it was a long time ago. Your response to the first comment was quite helpful, as you are always, but your point about an epic story being told first as an epic poem is illuminating, especially in LOTR. I agree that not all of Tolkien goes down smoothly but maybe it is the epic flavor that keeps one engaged. I suspect this is true for me but until your words, I don’t know that I recognized it. Thanks, Matthew! I may try The Silmarillion at some point…I may.


    1. Good luck! I did read the Silmarillion, years ago, but found it a bit of a wade-through. Have not read it since. It is unquestionably epic, and by design. I find it remarkable that Tolkien not only conceived of a ‘created mythology’, specifically for England which, he felt, lacked one – but then brought it to reality…and his legendarium has, I think, become very much a part of the western mind since, holding much the same place, I think, in many hearts and minds that the Nordic and European mythologies from which he drew did in older times. A dream, in one man’s mind – that has indeed come to a true reality.

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