Last year, I started doing some posts on my origins and influences as a writer: the things throughout my life that made me want to write or that made me want to write fantasy. I’ve talked about making up my own stories to go with musical theater cast albums, girl sleuths who probably influenced the kinds of heroines I write, Star Wars and how it woke my imagination in a big way, and children’s fantasy.
In sixth grade, I hit two things that had a huge impact on me. I’m not entirely sure exactly which came first because they were both in the same semester. That fall, I discovered J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis (and at the time I didn’t know there was any connection between them).
I’d already read The Hobbit in fourth grade, when the animated TV version was on and my fourth-grade teacher read the book out loud to the class (and then I got impatient with the chapter-a-day pace, checked the book out of the library, and read the whole thing). But I hadn’t followed up with other books by the same author or even other books like that. I didn’t really think in genres then. I liked books about certain things or by certain authors, but I didn’t group books into categories. There were witch books and books with elves and books with talking horses, but I didn’t consider that they were all part of a larger category of fantasy.
Though I suppose one reason I didn’t find more books by Tolkien was that in fourth grade, I was using the elementary school library and the children’s department (its own room) in the post library, and I don’t think they generally put The Lord of the Rings in the children’s section. But when we moved to Germany right before I started fifth grade, the American school was divided up in an odd way. Kindergarten through third grade were in one campus and fourth through eighth grades were in another campus. That meant that our school library included books for older readers. I saw The Hobbit on the shelf, remembered liking it, and then saw that there were other books in that “series” and checked out The Fellowship of the Ring.
I was instantly hooked, though I must confess that my favorite part of that series is still the beginning, up until the party splits up. I just liked the travelogue through the world and getting to Rivendell. I wasn’t as fond of it as it got more serious and gritty. Still, I tore through all three books, then got very excited when I saw that they’d made a movie (the animated version), begged my dad to take me when it came to the base theater, then was very disappointed, especially when it just ended midway through the story. Still, the way they depicted the Ringwraiths was gloriously creepy.
Since I discovered the Narnia books at around the same time (though I think that will be its own post), this launched me into fantasy as a genre. I wanted more books about other worlds where magic was real. It was kind of like the fairy tale settings of the Disney movies, but made bigger, richer, and more real. I think my mental writing was still focused on Star Wars-related things at that time, but there were definitely some seeds planted.
I re-read the series in college when I was taking a parageography course and the professor referred to the books often, and I found it rather slow going. It’s funny, I tore through them when I was 11, but when I was 21 they were difficult. I think I may do another read next winter — they’re definitely fall/winter books for me, something to read with a cup of hot tea and a fire in the fireplace. I’m curious what I’ll think of them after seeing the more recent movies, after learning a lot more about Tolkien, and with many more years of life, reading, and writing experience.
There’s been some Internet noise lately after a clickbait blogger with an agenda picked up some tweets by an author I know about the disproportionate amount of shelf space given to Tolkien. It does seem odd how much shelf space this very old series gets in the chain bookstores, given that you can easily find all these books at any library and at any used bookstore. I don’t know who’s buying all these new copies. Maybe nice collector’s editions with lovely illustrations and leather binding, but paperbacks? I’m always tempted to hide a little bookmark in the backs of the books on the shelves full of Tolkien so I can monitor and see if those copies are actually selling or if they’re just taking up shelf space. I find it frustrating because the last few times I’ve gone to a store to buy a fantasy novel, a new release that really should be in the store, all I find are shelves full of “classics.” I hate buying books on Amazon, so when a new book I want in print comes out, I go to a bookstore. And then I usually end up coming home and buying on Amazon because the bookstore doesn’t have it but does have a shelf or two of Tolkien. Given the financials of the chain stores, I’m not sure they’re making the best merchandising decisions. But it’s dangerous to do anything that hurts the feelings of the manbaby whiners on the Internet. Apparently, it got brutal.
Pro tip: Even if someone outright insults your favorite author, it does not merit a death threat. Suggesting that maybe bookstores should devote a little more shelf space to something newer definitely doesn’t merit death threats or even attacks and insults.
And as influential as The Lord of the Rings was in forming my reading taste, I must say that if it’s still your pinnacle of fantasy, maybe you should read more widely. I really side-eye any bookstore staff recommendation tags for Tolkien. I would hope that a) a bookseller would have read more widely and recently and b) they wouldn’t waste that promotional opportunity on showcasing something that anyone who hasn’t been living under a rock has already heard of. And bookstores might make more money if they actually stocked things that you can’t find shelves full of in any used bookstore.