Whenever I read J.R.R. Tolkien, I hear the voice of my dad.
Dad’s not English. He’s never been to Oxford. But from my third-grade year forward, he was my guide to Middle-Earth. Sometimes even with a book in our hands.
We could be driving through the Rockies on a rainy spring day and the words would come. “Feels like the Misty Mountains, doesn’t it?”
A fishing trip among tall trees might have us wondering if an Ent had lived there.
Even now, a briefly seen valley may become Rivendell for a moment, or a gently rolling hill evoke the Shire.
Dad welded two worlds into one. And that’s a gift I can never repay.
It’s a gift I think Professor Tolkien would have appreciated greatly.
Tolkien knew the power of story better than most. He believed sub-creation was man’s special gift, the ability to create worlds of dream within the world of fact and make them seem vivid and real. Not built from rock, or stream, or fire, but from words.
No. Not just from words. From words shared.
And that, really, is the key.
Whenever anyone tells me they “don’t get Tolkien,” I always ask them to try reading aloud. That’s partly because Tolkien chose words like a painter chooses colors, and only by glorying in their sound and reveling in their beauty can the full portrait really be seen.
But there’s another reason, too. A story requires a teller and a listener. By speaking the words aloud, one to another, the story comes to belong to both people and to take on a meaning beyond the ink of the page.
Poor Bilbo certainly found it so, as the Dwarves sang a story of their own.
“As they sang, the hobbit felt the love of beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and by magic moving through him, a fierce and jealous love, the desire of the hearts of dwarves,” we are told in The Hobbit. “Then something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick.”
My inner Took woke up a long time ago. He’s not been very restful since. And I can thank both my Dad and Professor Tolkien for that.
We, too, made the story ours.
When I was in third grade, we began to read The Hobbit together. The words took on a life – and, occasionally, a bit of annotation as Dad explained what it meant to have Thorin’s armor “rent” or how to pronounce “quay.”
We then began the Quest. And a long quest it was. Reading nights got irregular for a while and we spent 10 years exploring the winding road of The Lord of the Rings. Long enough that, when we finished the final chapter in my senior year of high school and found our early memories fuzzy, we immediately plunged in again and read the saga through in a year. (The third time, after we gave Dad a fresh set of the books for Christmas, was for pure pleasure.)
The story had become more than characters, more than plot. It had become a part of our lives, overlaying the world around us like fog on the Barrow-Downs or sunlight on Lothlorien.
It had come to life. And I think that’s what Tolkien intended.
So now, on the eve of Bilbo’s vanishment and Frodo’s great quest, I look down the Road and smile. Now I have led others on the Quest. Now I, too, have spoken the words to ears that had never heard an Elf or listen to a Dwarf sing.
I, too, have given life to the story.
And if it lives with my father’s voice rolling beneath my words – well, so much the better.