In the gaze of the other

"My mistress' eyes are nothing…"

National Tolkien Reading Day

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Guess I missed it yesterday, the day devoted to reading Tolkien. And while I would not have read any Tolkien, I would have paid honor in some way as he is one of my most influential writers. Not so much for style or even content as timing.

My earliest reading memory is tied to him. In sixth grade, the reading light went on. Somehow it struck me that with a dictionary and determination, I could read just about anything. I had proven it by trudging my way through The Hobbit, an assigned reading by my ambitious sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Allgrove. Though I begrudged that woman many things while sitting long days in her class, reading Edgar Allen Poe stories to us was not one of them–nor assigning us Tolkien.

She was ambitious for us 11 year olds, and I took up the challenge. Reading The Hobbit was painstakingly difficult but I had a profound sense of accomplishment and enlightenment after finishing the book. Not so much for the story, which reached me in mere wispy shadows at the corners of my imagination, thin strands of plot but thick with magical atmosphere and mystery. More so that I had cracked some code or found the secret password and entered the club. I could read hard books.

After that I ventured into many books, too many to count. I am a reader. I attribute that love to Tolkien who lured me with mystery. My attempt to do the same for my own children did not work as well. I found an amazing illustrated text of The Hobbit for kids, drawings that plucked the fright out of the spider scene or the eerie from Gollum. But it bored and frightened my kids. They were not six graders yet. Maybe premature. They did not even see the movie when it came out. I surely did.

Tolkien totally enveloped my world when I was fifteen, the year I read the trilogy. The Lord of the Rings not only captivated my imagination, but yanked at the seams of longing and teenage angst. The darkness of that book was my own darkness, deep and well traveled. The torture of that darkness produced by the most majestically fabulous language spoke everything to me: horror and beauty. 

I lived in Middle Earth, at the edge of Mordor, in the realm of invisibility that was becoming more and more addictive. The landscape was my own insecurities and sorrow as I traveled through the tunnel from sad teenager to savvy teenager. By the time the ring was tossed into the abyss, I had come out of my own cave to see that the world was brighter than I imagined. I lost some of my perpetual glum, which I wore like the makeup other girls wore to make them–in their minds–more socially acceptable and attractive.

I learned to speak Elvish. My best friend and I spent one Halloween in a cemetary drinking Schmidts beer (a little over a buck a six pack back then) and smoking hash scaring the shit out of each other with visions of Mordor. I lived this world not only while I read the books but in the long aftermath of its lingering imaginative aroma. I hated finishing the books, my long, long absorption in the world coming to an abrupt end.

My love for The Lord of the Rings and Tolkien stayed with me like a first love. The untainted visions and preserved excitement of total disappearance into another world were sacred to me, so much so that when the movies came out, I refused to see them. I did not want my own mental creations of the characters to be displaced by someone else’s casting. I wanted nothing to do with that.

Until I entered graduate school for the second time at the age of 43. I went back to school to get a PhD in Comparative Literature at the University of California at Riverside on a fellowship. One professor in the program took a special interest in me and invited me to a small group of three students to do an independent studies course in flash fiction under her tutelage. After I agreed, the course turned out to be a delving into the holocaust and feminism, two subjects I wanted to avoid.

Interestingly, the course reading list included The Lord of the Rings. When I saw that title, I became both excited and anguished. Did I want to spoil the specially preserved place of that book that I read purely for pelasure and out of curiosity by dissecting it until the juices were totally bled out of the words?

The same books from 1975, yellowed with decades of shelf time, came to my aid in 2003. It was like a time warp. I read the books as if for the first time and enjoyed them without critical interference, which was my wont 28 years later with a couple of literature degrees under my belt and several teaching years. As is often the case with acquired analytical expertise, the innocence of a subject under analysis is lost when the invisible lines of creation are exposed.

But that did not happen with The Lord of the Rings. And even after taking some wild bent roller coaster ride of a term paper outlining the underlying sexual tension of the menage a trois between hobbits and gollum-like creatures (Oy, don’t ask), I had fun reading the book even while destroying its innocence with interpretive analysis. It was the easiest paper to write, and I had the most fun writing it, unparalleled to any before or after.

But I still refused to see the movies for months afterward–until I did. I had the director’s cut of all three of them. I sat down in pj’s for the weekend and dove in. And yes, my initial impressions and imagined beings have been displaced but the movies were faithful and enchanting. I admired Jackson’s devotion to the spirit of the text. I was once again immersed in the world with its strange and wonderful journey, mine once again. 

Tolkien has taken me far, stretched me through the years. I am forever indebted to him and his creations far more than I can express in my own plebian words. And though I am not a dedicated fan of fantasy adventure novels (though I have read a fair amount of them), I attribute Tolkien to both my love of reading and my disinterest in most fantasy adventure stories. I had trouble getting through all of the Harry Potter books. In every fantasy story I have read since, I recognize some “borrowing” from Tolkien. 

He was the master after all. He set the prototype. Everything after cannot be but some poor imitation, switch-up or clear avoidance of everything he imagined. The greats do that: pull us along and then intimidate the hell out of us. Thanks J.R.R. I am always reading you, regardless of book in hand or not. Cheers!

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