I discovered The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings when I was around 11 or 12. My family had taken an inexpensive apartment in Far Rockaway for the summer, in a grey, ordinary two-story frame house with a sagging porch and lush honeysuckle growing on a trellis near the swing that was perfect for reading and dreaming. We had only a few rooms upstairs and shared a bathroom, but it was as far away from our apartment building in Washington Heights as I could ever remember going.
My father and older brother were working in the city and drove out on weekends. It was just my mom and me, and my own days were spent reading, enjoying the beach, going to the library, seeing an occasional movie, heading to the bakery for cinnamon-y, gooey "lady fingers" -- and not much else.
Being off from school for months was heaven. I was a library devotee during the school year, borrowing half a dozen books every week and always preferred what I had chosen for myself to our assigned reading in class, which never had the same variety. A chef friend told me recently that she feels a sense of magic and transcendence when she visits a city market in her large metropolis; well, that's what I often felt in libraries if they were turn-of-the-century. Their age, their spaciousness, their serried ranks of books invoked awe.
During the summer, I didn't have school reading to compete with my own -- what a relief! Though I read my first James Bond novel when I was 12, that summer sticks in my mind because of Tolkien. I don't recall anyone recommending the books to me, I think I just found them in the science fiction/fantasy section of the library. I'd been reading science fiction and fantasy for years, and I, Robot was one of my favorite books. My first attempt at fiction, in second grade, was a story about an alien landing on earth.
But Tolkien took my love of fantasy to a whole new level and enthralled barely describes how I felt. Some days my mother could barely get me to leave the room where I sprawled across the white chenille cover lost in elves and goblins and hobbits. Nothing outside of that room could offer me more than Tolkien did, not even the bakery. I kept those library books as long as I could, devouring them.
While I've now seen Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movie trilogy many times and the first installment of The Hobbit, I've never reread the books since that distant summer, though friends do all the time. But I recently turned to The Hobbit when I was down with a killer migraine and couldn't concentrate on anything. I'd been reading much more serious books and felt my brain needed surcease.
Reading it wasn't exactly like meeting an old friend, because I didn't remember most of the book. But that didn't matter, because opening up the book and diving in, I felt welcomed by the narrative voice which is so very wise and warm -- and wry. Did I catch the narrator's humor when I was 12? I certainly got the incongruities. I remember re-reading the first chapter in which the dwarves descend on Bilbo's house demanding food and assuming he's the burglar they need for their adventure. So much chaos, so much uproar! It was hilarious, and in line with the slapstick I loved in old Abbot and Costello or Three Stooges routines. Both my parents were sticklers for doing things properly, which meant their way, and my mother was a neat freak, so picturing Bilbo's house turned upside down gave me a real charge.
I was surprised while re-reading the book that I didn't recall much about goblins and Orcs and many of the perils Bilbo and his troop of dwarf adventurers encounter on the way to Smaug's lair. Those scenes and conversations seemed new, or at least unfamiliar. I was very struck, though, by what I did remember, and by what must have affected me most decades ago: Bilbo's resourcefulness in fooling Gollum and fooling the dragon. In each case, the small, clever Hobbit outwits a nasty, ferocious enemy. This must have deeply appealed to me as a bookish, picked-on kid with a tough older brother. What fantasy catharsis!
Even better was the profound appreciation and respect Bilbo earned from the dwarves, something Gandalf predicted would happen. This arc echoed in a way what happens to D'Artagnan in another book of my childhood, The Three Musketeers. The Gascon youth arrives in Paris where he's mocked for his horse and his country ways, but eventually he becomes the equal of the Musketeers he fights with, and admired by no less than Cardinal Richelieu. That book, however, is not as much a stranger as The Hobbit because I re-read it every few years and still have the edition I discovered as a kid prowling my parents' bookshelves.
Both of them, The Hobbit and The Three Musketeers, taught me what every would-be author should learn: how to drive a plot forward; the importance of creating memorable characters; and the joy of surrendering to a story that really won't let you go.
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