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Derek Coleman: J.R.R. Tolkien takes readers on a journey

Sep. 23, 2012 @ 12:11 AM

I guess you could say I am an avid reader. I read the newspapers daily, but I also devour copious amounts of fiction, liberally interspersed with history. If I can find a historical fiction book that combines them both, it usually grips me and I am distracted until I’ve read it from cover to cover. When I’m done, I put it on my book shelves and I may, perhaps months or even years later, occasionally go back to read a favorite passage or two. It is extremely rare that I read a whole book more than once or twice. I guess knowing the ending takes away some of the enjoyment.

At times I will read almost anything. I used to read a lot of science fiction, but to me, the speed of human progress seems to have made much of modern sci-fi more like a technical manual than a novel. My interest in the subject waned some years ago and I’ve never been much into the fantasy genre that seemed to replace the old sci fi. Despite my usual preferences, however, my all-time favorite book is a fantasy novel, one which, together with its three sequels, I have read over and over again.

 I read the first of these four books when I was about 12 years old. My dad bought it for me, I think for Christmas one year. From the moment I opened it, it grabbed my interest like no other book had, not until I discovered the rest of the books in this series and found they were even more gripping, that is. That first copy is long gone, I have owned several sets of these same books over the years and at least two other copies of the first one have, quite literally, fallen apart due to continuous use and re-reading.

That book was “The Hobbit” by J. R. R. Tolkien, which was first published exactly 75 years ago today. When it first appeared, it was an immediate hit, winning a prize from the New York Herald Tribune for best juvenile fiction and receiving a nomination for the Carnegie Medal, a British literary award made each year for an outstanding new book for children or young adults.

At the time the Hobbit was published, Tolkien was 45 years old and a professor of Anglo Saxon at Oxford University, one of Britain’s most prestigious colleges. Much of his childhood, however, was spent in Birmingham, the city that I came from. Perhaps that is one of the reasons I feel such an affinity for his writing. Writers are supposed to write about what they know and Tolkien certainly did. He played as a child in a place called King’s Heath, where I lived for many years and then he moved to Sarehole and Rednal, where my brother still lives. I was very familiar with the mill at Sarehole where he spent part of his childhood and I walked the wooded banks of the River Cole where he played many times. Descriptions of both of these places appear under other names in either the Hobbit or the Lord of the Rings trilogy that followed it.

At the time Tolkien lived at these sites, they were country villages surrounded by farms; but now the urban sprawl of the city of Birmingham has taken them over, yet they have still retained much of their character. The valley of the Cole and the mill are recognizable and indeed, the grounds around the mill, now called the Shire Country Park, are used to hold an annual Tolkien festival known as the “Middle-earth Weekend.” This year’s was held in May and, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Hobbit’s publication, was the most spectacular to date with exhibitions, re-enactors, rides and concessions. The event is usually crowded with wizards of various hues, hobbits and elves as well as the occasional Orc look-alike mingling with the people and adding to the fun. Details can be found at www.shireproductions.co.uk/middle.htm.

I don’t know what it is about Tolkien’s writing that makes it so fascinating for me and millions like me. It’s not just the quality of the prose, I think it’s more the overall story, its pace and the way it’s written. That’s why the Lord of the Rings trilogy translated to some of the most successful movies of all time; the plot is superb. Lori and I watch these movies quite often. If anything, she is more of a fan than I am and we cannot wait to see “The Hobbit” sequel by the same director when it comes out in December.

Derek Coleman is a part-time writer who is a native of England and who now lives in Hurricane, W.Va. He can be reached at tallderek@hotmail.com.

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