The spark for this short memoir comes from the recent speculation that Amazon’s new Tolkien-based show will be set during the Second Age of Middle Earth; a sort of “Young Sauron” if commentators who know far more than me are to be believed. The speculation seems based on the inclusion of certain locations on the teaser map that Amazon has released; places that were gone by the time of the Third Age (in which The Lord of the Rings was set). I find this announcement both exciting (who wouldn’t) and scary (as I’m going to have a lot of catching up to do).
I’ve managed to get through life up until now, knowing virtually nothing of the vast history and mythology that J.R.R. Tolkien created for Middle Earth over the course of his career. I read The Lord of the Rings when I was twelve years old, in the summer holiday between primary and secondary school. It took me a month, reading for many hours each day. I enjoyed it hugely – certainly it made a lasting impression on me and helped shape the person I am today. But I never developed the urge to get into Tolkien any deeper. I never even read The Hobbit – having come to Rings first, I filched enough of the backstory from there, for me not to want to.
There are two reasons that the rest of Tolkien passed me by – the first is that almost none of the Middle Earth background was available at the time (and my budget copy of LotR came without all-but-one of the appendices that had seen print). The Silmarillion, the first post-Tolkien standalone door wedge, didn’t come out until four years later.
The second, and probably more compelling reason is that a bare six months after reading LotR, come that Xmas, I’d started playing Dungeons & Dragons, when one of my school friends obtained, hot off the presses, the Original D&D rule books from the US (indeed it’s only recently that the penny has dropped that I was without doubt, one of the very first D&D players in Europe). As an adolescent, what attraction is there reading the dry history of balrogs, when you can fight your own?! And for many years after, balrog was slang for ‘toilet paper’ in the circles I moved in, the word being almost but not quite ‘bog roll’ Spoonerised. Adolescent indeed.
So for me Tolkien has stayed largely at arm’s length. Shortly after LoTR, I did read some of his smaller pieces; Smith of Wootton Major, Farmer Giles of Ham, Tree and Leaf, et al. The very attraction of these was that they were more Langland than Lothlórien. Over the years, I’ve enjoyed the Bored of the Rings parody (the tolls payable at the ford and the hairy-toe-besotted elf maiden still make me chuckle today), been impressed by the Ralph Bakshi animated movie of the first half of the story and loved Peter Jackson’s adaptation of the whole. Almost mirroring my choice of decades earlier, I steered well clear of Jackson’s bloated Hobbit trilogy that followed it.
Relatively recently, I have become somewhat more familiar with other aspects of Tolkien’s life and works. When I was researching for my biographical sketch of Gerald Ravenscourt Hayes, for example, I delved into the world of the Inklings, and from there received my first, gobsmacking revelation of Middle Earth’s initial raison d’être, as a kind of vast philological laboratory.
As an aside at this point, I might add that like most critical thinking fantasy aficionados, I dismiss as ludicrous the oft-quoted assertion that George R.R. Martin is the American Tolkien. I don’t care how much time Martin has spent on world building (and less than we think is the probable answer, given how much the Westeros fan base seems to have to keep him on track) it can surely be only a drop in the ocean, in terms of both scale and intellectual rigour, as compared with what Tolkien engineered for Middle Earth. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m a huge fan of Martin’s series, I just think this particular comparison is unjustified. As I’ve written elsewhere before, if the Seven Kingdoms has an antecedent, it rather inhabits the low magic, high political intrigue world of E.R. Eddison’s Three Kingdoms, the setting for his Zimiamvian trilogy.
Tolkien’s Weltanschauung was profoundly shaped by two world wars and he was a vocal opponent of Nazism. So it makes me sad, these days, when the authoritarian bigots who increasingly plague our hobby, seek to denounce Tolkien as fascist or racist: presenting his great tale as an alliance of northern white Aryans, doing battle with all of the peoples of colour, united under Sauron. And don’t get me started on what some assert the appearance of the eye of Sauron says about Tolkien’s attitude to women.