I recently attended a Zoom session in which various Tolkienists, most of whom first read his work when young in the 1980s or 1990s, shared their stories. And I saw a few interesting patterns therein.
A surprising number came from a severe evangelical background. I suggest that we need a taxonomy of these sects, organized by their attitude towards fantasy. Some consider all fantasy to be demonic, and that includes Narnia, the work of C.S. Lewis, the most renowned Christian apologist of the 20th century, but that’s not good enough for them. Some particularly Calvinistic sects oppose fantasy worlds on the grounds that they’re an insult to the divinity by implying that our world is insufficient. (This view may be observed in the wild in John Goldthwaite’s book The Natural History of Make-Believe.) Others allow Lewis, but forbid Tolkien, sometimes because he’s Catholic. Others permit Tolkien as well. Some allow Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, apparently because they know nothing about it and are just going by the title. But they all seem to draw the line at Harry Potter.
With what work one should start reading Tolkien is a vexing question. A number of admirers of The Lord of the Rings dislike The Hobbit, for various reasons, its intrusive (if you don’t like it) narrative voice being a conspicuous one. (I like the narrator myself; I also like Wyke-Smith’s The Marvellous Land of Snergs, which is what taught Tolkien to write that way.) Others who enjoyed The Hobbit get bogged down early on in The Fellowship of the Ring, often getting stuck somewhere around Farmer Maggot, wondering when the story is going to get going. (I find the Black Riders quite excitement enough at that point, and the tension sufficiently taut.) A few happened to pick up The Two Towers first and, rather amazingly, got on with it from there.
One reader said that Narnia was his “gateway drug” to Tolkien, but what he said about Narnia interested me even more. He said he first picked up The Magician’s Nephew but bounced off it, and had more success when he started with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. As a firm advocate of the view that beginning readers of Narnia should always start with The Lion, I cheered at hearing this.
The same reader, when looking after his Tolkien encounter for “more books like this,” was handed The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks. He recognized that it was not much more than a copy of Tolkien, but he enjoyed reading it anyway. Well, it takes all kinds.
Another reader who could not remember a first encounter with Tolkien, having heard his work read aloud by parents before becoming old enough to understand or remember, said, “I can’t imagine what it would be like not to be a Tolkien fan.” Though I was much older at first encounter and remember it well, I entirely agree.
I’ll tell my own story, including my riotous early dealings with The Silmarillion, in a later post.