Saturday 24 November 2012

Tolkien's influence on my life


I read the Hobbit when I was, I think, 13 years old; and it was a few months before I moved on to read LotR.

The delay was because I liked the Hobbit so much that I wanted more of the same, especially, more of Bilbo - and I didn't like the idea that he would only be a character at the beginning.

Anyway, when I eventually read LotR I was completely smitten. For the rest of my school days I would re-read and re-read and also looked at everything else by or about Tolkien available to me at the time.


As I recall, I did not re-read Tolkien so much in my twenties and early thirties - and the return was triggered by Tom Shippey's Road to Middle Earth.

This era of neglect now seems to me a dark time in my life.

My young adult neglect of Tolkien seems like evidence of corruption and decline (certainly not of maturity!).


Anyway, reading LotR aged 13 opened-up many worlds for me.

Firstly, the world of grown-up literature - the first authors I read were Bernard Shaw, and Robert Graves - specifically the I Claudius and Claudius the God books; because Tolkien also made me want to read more history.

I also read history proper, and especially the history of Anglo Saxon times, and of farming and country life.

Then I became generally interested in the whole business of rural England - for instance the oral history of Akenfield by Ronald Blythe, the work of George Ewart Evans, and the memoirs of Evesham Vale farmer Fred Archer (I didn't realize Tolkien's brother Hilary was at that time still a fruit grower in Evesham).


Considerations of life in The Shire meant that I became interested in Self Sufficiency (John Seymour), the Small is Beautiful movement with Fritz Schumacher and the budding 'Ecology' (now 'Green') movement - also William Morris's stories of a medieval socialist utopia (Dream of John Ball, News from Nowhere); and Thoreau's Walden.


Tolkien's 'medievalism' and use of song led to an interest in Folk Music - which included not just watching and listening, but also participation and a little bit of arranging of unaccompanied song and dance; and then classical music, beginning with Bach and Telemann (because of their use of the recorder! which I regarded for some reason as a Tolkien instrument).


All these strands came together in an interest in myth, legend and fairy story.

And I read other 'fantasy' writers - some written before and some after Tolkien - but only found something of what I sought in Alan Garner and Lloyd Alexander.


Also, I learned a little of Tolkien's professional work, and this (plus good fortune of having a well trained English teacher) led to me reading Chaucer, Gawain and the Green Knight and some other Middle English poetry. This was, in fact, my first interest in poetry - I went from medieval poems to the more modern.


There was probably even more in the way of influence. And of course there were other preceding and subsequent interests, not related to Tolkien and often hostile in spirit to the above - for example a love of the 18th century era of England in its architecture and lifestyle, and of PG Wodehouse; and of science.


But suffice to say that reading Tolkien age thirteen was the door to self-conscious adulthood for me; and I could not have wished for a better door.

My main regret is that Tolkien did not influence me even more, and throughout my whole life; because, of course, I tried to ignore completely Tolkien's Christianity until I was moving into late middle age - not very many years ago - when at last I recognized that this was the deepest element of all in Tolkien's great works.

So, just about the one area of life in which I did not allow Tolkien to influence me at all was religion; specifically my own complete lack of religion.




dearieme said...

If you are still interested in the history of the countryside, the man to read is Oliver Rackham. As well as instructing you in many things that have happened, he demolishes many of the factoids long passed off as the history of the British, especially English, countryside. Top man.

SonofMoses said...

Dear Bruce,
Perhaps the big question here (an elephant the contours of which you may not be able to assess at such (still) close quarters) is to what extent this exposure to T. was undermining the system of leftist ideas you had adopted.

To put it another way, how much do you think T. made you amenable to conversion, preparing you, however subtly, for that turnaround?

Samson J. said...

he demolishes many of the factoids long passed off as the history of the British, especially English, countryside

Can you give any examples? Maybe I'll give him a read.

Bruce Charlton said...

@SoM - very substantially, as I have stated somewhere or another. It was, to be specific, the Athrabeth story in History of Middle Earth - Morgoth's Ring - and writing this essay:

This was one of the key factors (there were several). And of course, there was a prolonged leading up to that.

dearieme said...


Medieval England was heavily wooded.

A forest is, or was, woodland.

The woods were felled for iron-making so people had to turn to coke.

The woods were felled for shipbuilding.

The Tudors were faced with a timber famine.

The deer of the forests were preserved by ferocious punishments of poachers.

Much ancient woodland was cleared in the First World War.

Much ancient woodland was cleared in the Second World War.

You can clear a wood by felling the trees.

You can destroy woods by burning them.

The Scottish Highlands were covered into historical times by a mighty Caledonian Wood.

The hedges of England are mainly only three centuries old, or younger.

Britannia tumbled down largely into regrowth woodland after the legions left.

The Fens were first drained by the Dutch engineers of the seventeenth century.

The Normans were a bad lot.

(I made up the last one.)

Samson J. said...

A forest is, or was, woodland.

I'm not sure I understand this one - to me a forest certainly is a woodland! But anyway you've really intrigued me now, because it so happens that (perhaps weirdly) one of my favourite, most interesting facts about Europe is its lack of large forests like we have in Canada. Can you recommend a specific Rackham work?

David said...

Just found this website and thought if you didn't know about it, may be if interest to you:

Bruce Charlton said...

@David - I have come across it, but am happy to link.

This is a good monthly roundup of Tolkien on the web.