The Literary Year: 03 January
Let's begin with a confession today, which would have been JRR Tolkien's 129th birthday - nearly as ancient as the Old Took or Bilbo himself!
Right, brace yourselves, the thing is ... well, the first time I tried to read The Lord of the Rings (1954) it ended up on my DNF pile. That's Did Not Finish, for the uninitiated. So, the thing is, I was 13, and my parents bought me a fat single volume to chew on. What can I say? It just didn't grab me, and about 6 months and less than 100 pages in (I remember that Frodo was still in The Shire), I abandoned it.
The story doesn't end there ...
Obviously, I'm having to cast my mind back quite a bit now, but I believe it was less than a year later that I felt randomly motivated to give it another try. Something clicked, and the rest is history - The Lord of the Rings is probably my most re-read novel, and The Hobbit (1937) a much-loved favourite, too. To the extent that when Peter Jackson and his team came to film the books, I was actually nervous about going to see them, in case he spoiled Middle-Earth for me. I loved the LOTR trilogy, but ... another confession If nothing else, my relationship with the books bears out some of my wild theories about how we evolve as personalities, and the serendipitous idea of 'right book, right time', which I often champion.
The two novels are very different in style, even though they inhabit the same fictional setting. Whereas The Hobbit reads very much like a children's book, complete with a friendly, avuncular narrative voice, LOTR is written in a far grander, more formal, epic style, which might puzzle or dismay fans of the films. Stick with it, though, or revisit it - it's utterly majestic.
One thing both novels have in common is the unguessed-at resilience and quiet bravery of 'little people', if you pardon the pun. Amongst the grandeur and lofty themes, I'm also interested in the idea that pity, sympathy for a fellow being, can effect massive change for the better.
By other authors:
Fans of the epic might enjoy Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf (1999).
Stephen Donaldson's 'Thomas Covenant' books are what I might call 'grown up' fantasy, featuring a 'hero' defined by his disbelief in the wonderful Land that he is transported to. They come with a 'Parental Advisory', though, for an instance of sexual violence.
Terry Brooks' 'Shannara' series were influenced by Tolkien - perhaps a little too much in the first novel, but by the second, The Elfstones of Shannara (1982), Brooks seems to get into his stride as an individual writer.
Finally, for anyone interested in a PDF download of the resource I created, here you go: