Number six on my list of the ten books that have most influenced me is actually a series four books that I first read in junior high school. After buying a copy of The Hobbit, I managed to get a matching copy of The Fellowship of the Ring. Then I did the same with The Two Towers and The Return of the King. I have no idea how many times I’ve read them, but those copies sit on my shelf today, still ready to make my heart pound and keep me awake all night. I’m afraid that to read them again, I’ll have to buy a new set. The ones I have are tattered and brittle, and I’m a hard, occasionally violent, reader. (Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain and Stephen King’s The Dark Tower finale both got hurled across the room when I finished them. I’m pretty sure none of Tolkien’s books are in danger, but still.)
1 – Carry on, Mr. Bowditch — Jean Lee Latham
2 – My Side of the Mountain — Jean Craighead George
3 – North to Freedom — Anne Holm
4 – The Black Cauldron — Lloyd Alexander
5 – A Separate Peace — John Knowles
6 – The Hobbit/The Lord of the Rings — JRR Tolkein
7 – All the King’s Men — Robert Penn Warren
8 – Atlas Shrugged — Ayn Rand
9 – East of Eden — John Steinbeck
10- The Old Man and the Sea — Ernest Hemingway
Many of my FB friends did the same ten book challenge, and Tolkien showed up on almost every list – nerds and jocks, teachers and bankers, male and female, readers of fantasy and lovers of bodice-rippers. I’m not surprised. From the opening sentence of The Hobbit, Tolkien creates a world that, for many, is more real than the one we live in, and he fills it with characters more alive and engaging than many people I know. Add in his gift for plot building and storytelling, and you’ve got a classic that most people will enjoy, even if they’re not fantasy nerds.
As a teenager in junior high school, I loved having the ability to run off to another world whenever I had some free time. Tolkien painted pictures in my head and taught me lessons about never quitting and always doing the right thing. He also showed me that the best ending for a character, a scene, or even a story isn’t always the warm and fuzzy one. Also, I’ve always been a fast reader, and Tolkien’s dense prose kept me engaged far longer than anything I’d ever read. I’m pretty sure the happiest moments of my junior high career were the ones spent either actually in Middle Earth, or the ones spent in the school library talking with fellow readers about my adventures there. I’ve reread The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy a few times as an adult, and it seems they get even better with age. I’ve also enjoyed the most recent movie incarnations. They’re not bad, in my opinion, though I’m not crazy about a new plotline in The Hobbit trilogy of flicks.
One thing I’ve realized since the last time I finished The Return of the King is how much Tolkien influenced me as a writer. His attention to detail was nearly unbelievable, and he never shied from doing the work of getting the details right. If Elven conversation was important to the story, he created an Elven language, complete with grammar rules, idioms, and conjugations. Dwarves have a big part? Create a language for them. Does the whole of Middle Earth need a foundation to rest on? Write The Silmarillion.
As a reader, that attention to detail gave me the confidence to immerse myself completely in a fictional world, knowing the writer would take care of me. As writers, most of us tend to write what we like to read, and one day I realized that I’m somewhere on the other side of anal when it comes to details about my characters, settings, and stories. I may use an entire legal pad to develop a main character, going back even through parents and grandparents. I know my characters are going to do what they want to do instead of what I need them to do, but I have better control if I know why they act in a particular way, and I can only know that if I know everything about what makes a character tick. Also, I have no confidence in my ability to make a reader see a scene completely that I see only partially. Some writers have that talent, but I need to know the details before I can communicate them.
Now, please don’t assume from these ramblings that I would ever compare myself to JRR Tolkien. I wouldn’t. But, he has helped me, over the years, to know what good writing is and what I like about it, and that’s a pretty fine foundation for any writer to build on.
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