I grew up in a house filled with books.
A lot of them stood there for a long time, patiently waiting for me, before I finally read them. Watership Down was one of them; The Silmarillion was another. It had always stood there, on my mother’s Tolkien shelf, probably the first German edition of it (which is extremely strange, as the entire rest of my mother’s Tolkien shelf was in English). I can’t remember the conversation that must have happened, but since I took so long for me to read it and my mother doesn’t like it, it’s clear that I asked her what it was and if it might be relevant to my interests, and she answered that it was cumbersome and confusing and not like the Lord of the Rings at all. So it remained there until I was sixteen, sullen in its brown fabric cover (the dustjacket had been lost for as long as I can remember; I wonder what it looked like).
When I was sixteen, I went to a new school, where I encountered my first real fellow nerds. They read Fantasy books, and they role-played. I had never heard of RPGs, but they introduced me to them, and I took to them like a house on fire. We played MERP (Middle-earth Role-Playing), and the Gamemaster had never read any Tolkien, and a fellow gamer and I constantly reminded him of it. That fellow gamer did something I was not used to: He kept bringing up Tolkien lore I had never heard about. I had grown up on Tolkien. It was inconceivable that anyone should outquote me. I asked him how he knew all these things, and he told me it was all in the Silmarillion.
So I took out the brown hardcover from my mother’s bookshelf and read it in one go.
I distinctly remember that first reading. It was reading for knowledge, not for pleasure. I kept making notes of things to make use of in RPGs, and struggled with all the names. Some stories touched me (Maedhros was already one of them) but I remember feeling that I was missing something essential.
I reread it, almost as soon as I had finished it. This book had something to say to me, and I had missed it the first time around. I wanted to find it. I wrote down excerpts and lists of Valar and Elves.
Then the English version fell into my hands, and I was blown away, and remain so.
The German version is cumbersome, and bone-dry. In retrospect, it’s surprising I ever got through it. The English one is like music. It’s a composition that has been honed for so long that its language feels effortless and virtuoso. Beneath a single line, a single paragraph of text, there are whole worlds to be found. This is what amazes me every time I talk about the Silmarillion with others: Tolkien hardly characterises. His characters have very little dialogue. And yet the tiny bits that are there on paper resonate with everyone in the same way.
It took Tolkien a lifetime to write, and I’m happy to spend a lifetime reading it.
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