I was the book-devouring kind of kid, I’d read EVERYTHING. To breath is to read. I’m lost without a book. If I have a book, I am afraid of nothing. Books to me were/are not words on paper but worlds, where I and my friends – or enemies – dwell.
When I was a teen-ager, my mother introduced me to Tolkien and Middle-Earth, like to so many other books and worlds before and after that. Just now I checked with her, and she agrees she must have gotten first just The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings later, when it came out. We feel we must have read The Hobbit first – for otherwise it would have left a paler memory, fading before the weight of the epic saga. One would have paid more attention to details that will matter more later in The Rings, like Gollum, like the Necromancer, and the music of the dwarves or the door on the mountain would not have made the kind of impression they did.
Because The Hobbit is undoubtedly a homely and comfortable tale, written for children and people who delight in everything childish. Good meals make important landmarks, as do the loads of good advice and educational glimpses into far-off countries and people. One can hear Kipling mutter “best beloved” and see the Fab Five camp with their cans of tongue and pine-apple next door to jolly spies and criminals. Knowing that Tolkien created his world and its dark and deep history long before writing “The Hobbit”, one can only wonder how he managed to see it all from the comfortable and cheerful view-point of Bilbo Baggins so perfectly – the tale never gets wiser than the one who is telling it (and that is not to claim Bilbo isn’t wise, just that his perspective has its natural good-natured limitations – peppered with a dash of Tookish poetry, of course!).
And this surely is an important element of the magic of The Hobbit. One hears the strange music played by the dwarves – I swear I can hear the music, wild and dark and passionate – sounding in the unlikely surroundings of Bilbo’s comfortable and respectable hole, all the wilder, darker and more passionate for that. All things horrible like goblins or trolls or evil spiders remain kind of everyday-horrible with only a hinted dark depth – all things amazing and wonderful like elves or precious stones or magical powers retain a mystery but appear as accessible. Bilbo, that is Tolkien, manages to enlighten everyday with magic and make magic seem something to be enjoyed – every day. Something near at hand.
All of which tells why I read and loved and love The Hobbit; but surely it does not explain why I keep re-reading it? Well, I’m not so sure. I have always read books the same way: I have to know how the story ends. So I read first enough into the story to get an idea what it is all about – then I go and see how it ends. Yes, that’s what I always do. And for every sub-story in a thicker book I do the same. Thus I read books both from the beginning towards the end – and from the end towards the beginning. If the book is worth it, I will also read it all through.
Which means, from the beginning it does not matter the least if I have already read the book, if I know what will happen. Every book I take up I potentially take up with the intention of never stopping to read it. Which means, if I like it, I am committed to it for the rest of my life, for the reasons that made me read it in the first place.
Of course re-reading is never the same. Sometimes I skip entire parts of books. In the Hobbit, I confess I mostly get bored in Mirkwood. Maybe I have wood-elves in my ancestors – but I just cannot see woods as so scary and dark and dreary places. Practically every time I also discover something new, something I did not see before, or, something I saw differently. I change, so the story changes. But no matter what, I always take care to read the beginning from the first smoke-ring to Bilbo running off to adventure and burglary without a handkerchief, hat or money, and the end from Thorin’s last words to him, child of the kindly West, to Bilbo sighing and seeing the road that goes ever on. Every time it seems to me I see deep into something fundamental in life and am touched to my marrow, and all the times of my years are one, despite of the changes.
Then The Lord of the Rings came out and of course my mother bought it the first thing, and life has never been the same. It took me two and a half days to read it, all bound in one paperback volume. I read till I dropped and then woke up with the book, took it to school with me and read through every lesson I dared. I never knew I knew most of it by heart until a decade later it was translated into Finnish and smoke began to rise off my ears and nostrils for every wrongly translated nuance and flavor. (I hankered after learning English half my childhood to be able to wade through my mother’s books, first detective stories and later the fantasy and sci-fi, all in English. When eleven, after just the first lesson at school, I started. Eventually I even began to understand what I was reading. So, Tolkien I read in English, long before it was translated into Finnish.) The Lord of the Rings is a book I do not re-read, for I have never left it – I just turn a page and return and wander again in this world that will always be a fundamental part of me.
Ps: I know Middle-Earth is just the Eastern corner of the World – but I would not go West and leave it, Valinor seems like a paradise where no real hurt nor joy has any meaning. Despite all the heroic tragedy it is built on. I’d rather salt my joy with earthly loss. Middle-Earth forever for me.