After twenty years of participating in online discussions about the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, I feel no need for a retrospective. I rather feel like a traveler on Bilbo’s ever on-going road. Nearly every day I receive new questions from people who reveal a deep delight in Tolkien’s work that goes beyond “I loved this story” and “this book is so cool”. The journey of discovery extends beyond discovering a lost street map for Tharbad or a name list for the Maiaric warriors of the Host of Valinor. These things in themselves matter little to most people but are precious shiny objects for a dedicated few who immerse themselves in a corner of Middle-earth.
Discovery for the Tolkien enthusiast begins with the first realization that a passage you have read before means more than you originally believed it did, or that it somehow reveals details you missed. This is the same path of discovery for all authors’ readers but though I have invested many hours in studying the worlds of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Andre Norton, Poul Anderson — all very fine, classic writers who cut new ground for science fiction and fantasy — I have yet to match the length of my journey into Tolkien’s imagination. I am not sure I know how the path of discovery ends for any of these authors but my path for Tolkien is laden with treasures that would make the thief of Baghdad leave his path. I have left mine many times.
For me much of the discovery came as a result of the curiosity expressed by others. There is a story in Wired, for example, where the reporter who interviewed me writes “when I entered his tiny, bare office, Martinez was hunched over a laptop, answering an email about the references to lions in Middle-earth, of which there is one”. That interview took place over 10 years ago and though no one has asked me about lions since then I have received (and hopefully answered satisfactorily) many questions since then, thousands of them. I cannot begin to list all the questions. I wish I had safely recorded all the answers for most of them have been lost to multiple hard drive failures (I once even lost a backup on the same day I lost my computer).
I never would have thought, when I picked up a copy of The Lord of the Rings in 1975, that I would still be reading the story to this day, scouring its pages for trivia that seem all but trivial to the people who want to know who, how, where, when, and why about all things Tolkien and Middle-earth. By 1998 I had read the book 300 times. I have no idea of how many times I have read it since. Reading The Lord of the Rings seems almost as fresh and new for me today as it did nearly forty years ago because then I was looking for something new to read and today I am looking for something new in what I have read.
When I was 15 it was my quest for something to relieve my boredom that led me to Tolkien. Today it is someone else’s quest for a satisfying answer to a nagging question that leads me back to Tolkien. I have become a conduit for curiosity that charges me and sustains me. Reader curiosity is the Force that surrounds me and gives me my power. I cannot help but feel there are other Jedi in this universe who, like me, travel the galaxy of Tolkien’s imagination on adventures for the greater good — the good of sharing, of reassuring and affirming, of destroying illusions and misunderstandings. But, of course, there are some who might say we serve the Dark Side for with our answers we tear down dreams, draw lines between extremes of opinion, and (un)wittingly sustain the Powers of Commercialization.
I am not on the scholar’s journey. I am not on the fan’s journey. I am not on the critic’s journey. I am on the Universal Journey, the journey which begins nowhere and ends nowhere. It is no more my journey than it was Tolkien’s for he, too, was driven in large part by questions. He knew nothing about Queen Beruthiel when Aragorn first mentioned her name in the dark tunnels of Moria; but before he died he had answered several questions about her life story. The questions empowered Tolkien’s story-telling and so the stories grew and grew. Somewhere in the beginning — and there was a beginning — Tolkien simply began telling a story. But at some point after that the Journey began and he received his first question.
The incessant questioning is addictive. You look forward to receiving the next question. You wonder if you can meet the challenge of finding an answer. Because some of my own readers write fan fiction or role-playing adventures I even dare contrive answers, with what I hope is a proper context, for the world Tolkien created has grown beyond his measure and his dreams. In Letter No. 131 (which may, in my experience, be the most heavily cited and debated letter Tolkien wrote) the Professor said:
Do not laugh! But once upon a time (my crest has long since fallen) I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story-the larger founded on the lesser in contact with the earth, the lesser drawing splendour from the vast backcloths – which I could dedicate simply to: to England; to my country. It should possess the tone and quality that I desired, somewhat cool and clear, be redolent of our ‘air’ (the clime and soil of the North West, meaning Britain and the hither parts of Europe: not Italy or the Aegean, still less the East), and, while possessing (if I could achieve it) the fair elusive beauty that some call Celtic (though it is rarely found in genuine ancient Celtic things), it should be ‘high’, purged of the gross, and fit for the more adult mind of a land long now steeped in poetry. I would draw some of the great tales in fullness, and leave many only placed in the scheme, and sketched. The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama. Absurd.
He missed the mark for people do not attempt to extend The Book of Lost Tales or the mythology it attempts to construct on behalf of England. And yet here today people are indeed “wielding paint and music and drama” to extend the mythology of Middle-earth. But they are also wielding words. The words are far-reaching thanks to the experience of shared imagination, empowered by the Internet but not created by it. We were sharing words decades ago with fanzines, magazines, books, plays, role-playing, and much, much more. The sharing continues and is part of the Universal Journey.
One looks forward not only to each new question but also to the new possibilities the question raises. For we never quite imagine the story the same way twice when we seek to understand it better. We reconsider possible meanings and implications each time a new detail is revealed about a name, a plot element, or a relationship between two characters. And the inescapable conflict between Opinion and Fact ultimately leads to new interpretations and attempts at logical extrapolation as people become emotionally attached to certain ideas. The quest to prove an idea correct has powered many a traveler’s Journey on the Path; it matters not so much who believes whom in the end as that we find new treasures along the way and pass them on to others.
I can’t say that I view this as some metaphorical journey into self-discovery. Certainly I have grown in unexpected ways as a side effect of taking this journey with others, but the Journey itself is a very addictive force. It consumes all before it and threshes them like wheat in a windstorm for some who undertake the Journey fall away from the path, and some who undertake it are driven from the path. They do not return, either sated or frustrated.
I do think it is important that we acknowledge the Journey. Each traveler finds his own meaning in it. One cannot step on this path but that it profoundly affects our life, even if only for the time it takes to read the book and reach the end with a fully satisfied feeling. But I am not sure anyone does finish the book fully satisfied. There are those who say they have no questions, but in time, as the years pass by, I hear their steps upon the path. Something changes and suddenly — perhaps because their children are curious — they are there beside me, seeking answers from an ever-yielding cornucopia of imagination. There is no need to say anything for we both know why we are here and it is good to have company on this road.