Sunday, December 09, 2007

An Oxford Panegyric

Well, my daughter and my wife are asleep, and so you, faithful readers, get a post. I really ought to be writing a paper on the Jewish influences on St. Jerome, but it will wait for a little bit while I compose this update. Months ago, my sister-in-law posted on her 'blog about the books that had most affected her life. This sparked much conversation in my circles, with my wife and my brother posting concerning their books, and my mother and uncle discussing what would and wouldn't make their list. I was certainly involved in this process and spent some time thinking of a list. Ultimately, I did not end up making a list for a number of reasons. I understood the impetus behind making the list, and I even tried to do so. Abraham in Egypt, The Phantom Tollbooth, and even Scaramouche fought for their position on my list. There were, however, too many books that affected me on too many levels to be able, in the end to make any sort of coherent books. In the end I scrapped my lists, grateful for the thoughts the exercise had provoked, but still somehow unwilling to commit myself. I just chose to to content myself with a somewhat weak, "I am all that I have read" and move on with my life.

However, there was one book, one author, who continually made all my lists, whether they were books I loved as a child, books that affected the way I think, or just my favorite books. He is a large part of the reason that I am now an Oxonian, he is part of why I chose my current field and vocation, and he has a profound influence upon my life that he would likely find a little bit bemusing. Regardless, I would be remiss if I did not write something about him here, in tribute to my being at Oxford. I have been trying to write this post, or something similar, since the idea of book lists was first suggested to me. I have not done so till now, since I really have not been taking the time to update this 'blog like I ought to. However, as my post of two weeks ago and this post together will hopefully illustrate, I am returned to a more regular writing.

Enough apologia. Whenever I am asked who my favorite author is, the answer is always the same. J. R. R. Tolkien. Whenever I am asked what my favorite book is I say The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien. I am actually somewhat embarrassed by this fact. Others of my acquaintance, when discussing their favorite books include books that have had a profound influence on them, or books of philosophy (for example, my mother included Buber's Ich und Du, my brother included Kierkegaard and existentialism. My wife even included Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, although she also included Anne of Green Gables). All I had to show for myself were a series of fantasy books. Excellent fantasy books, but just fiction all the same. Because I am slightly embarrassed of my love and appreciation for Tolkien, I have never actually expressed in words why I love The Lord of Rings so much, and why it has had such a powerful effect upon me. So, faithful readers, you are learning of it as fast as I can articulate it.

My Uncle talks of masters and teachers, those who have gone before and instruct you, usually through their writings. You become their disciple through reading and the consideration of their writings. He and I share a master in C. S. Lewis, another Oxonian and friend of Prof. Tolkien. Yet I was brought to Jack (as Lewis was called by his friends and is often referred to by his afficiandos and disciples) by Tolkien, at least indirectly. I had read Narnia, of course, a number of times. My mother had given me Mere Christianity to read, but I had never been able to read it. She then gave me The Screwtape Letters, which I opened to discover the dedication: To J. R. R. Tolkien. I read from there, and grew to love and appreciate all that Jack has written. However, my love of Jack grew from my love of Tolkien.

When Jack reviewed The Lord of the Rings, he famously said, "Here are beauties which pierce like a sword or burn like cold iron." My soul had been pierced and burned by this book. I have read it again and again (I actually haven't read it yet this cycle, because I left my copy at home, and the local library has had all of its copies checked out for months). I have a feel for Middle Earth and visual grasp on the text and the characters (which was sometimes enhanced by Peter Jackson, but never superseded). I have strong mental images of most, if not all of the characters, and love to read this book. Every time I role-play or try my hand at fiction it is with Tolkien's theory of sub-creation in my mind. I remember when I first learned of sub-creation and the reality of fantasy and Fairy stories espoused by Prof. Tolkien, I had found a kindred soul, and I latched on to that idea, and have not to this day let it go.

I apologize, faithful reader, for I am having more difficulty writing this post than I thought I would. It turns out it is very difficult for me to articulate the influence The Lord of the Rings and Prof. Tolkien have had on me. Let me just say that I would likely not have applied to the University of Oxford if not for the influence of Jack and Tolkien. In some ways my studying here is a homage to these men. Also, in my chosen field I love Semitics and Philology. Tolkien wasn't Semiticist (not by a long shot), but he was a philologist, and so I share somewhat in his love of language. My decision to be a college professor was shaped by an early love of Prof. Tolkien, so I suppose that could be an influence also.

I am afraid I must leave you now with this post, insufficient though it may be. I had envisioned, as the title indicates, a well-written focused panegyric of a man whose writings and life have helped me become who I am today, occasioned by my time at his university. Instead you have been treated with the discursive, inarticulate ramblings of a Tolkien groupie who likes The Lord of the Rings because it helps him in his escapism. So be it. I suspect both are true. As Tolkien himself said, "The wise speak only of what they know."



Von Schenck said...


Each of your posts is a gem to read. They are both thoughtful and insightful. I am glad to learn about your love of Tolkien and it's influence on your life. I am glad you are an Oxonian(I probably spelled that wrong) it gives me a great opportunity to boast of my friends at Oxford. Not that I boast much.
We look forward to your return to the states. Berkley isn't to far away from Moab and what not.

I'll admit I love Tolkien as well. There is something primeval about it and magical. My introduction though came by ways of the fruits of imitators. D&D fantasy built on elves, dwarves, and hobbits that in my desire I traced them back to the root.
My love of C.S. Lewis came from a small fifth grade class library that had an old dogeared copy that the teacher had intended to throw out. I also loved the PBS specials and later I loved Jacks more in depth works. I still guide myself by the precepts found in the ,Four Loves.

Anyway I am glad to hear of you my friend

RoseE said...

My experience with Tolkien has not been as broad or as deep as yours, but I love him nonetheless. And you're right, it's hard to articulate why. Maybe it's because of how safe I feel in Middle-Earth, as though I'm coming home. Maybe because of the dignity and worth he gives to every character, from Gandalf to Frodo to Fili and Kili. Maybe it's because of the echoes I hear of Beowulf, of the Chanson de Roland, of World War II, of all that makes Britian what it is, that resonate through the text. Maybe it's because when I dream of heaven, I see white shores and a far green country.

Tolkien gets into your soul somehow. When I first read The Lord of the Rings, I remember wandering through my life feeling just like Frodo; I'd come back from my adventure with a wound that would never really heal. I think ever since that book was published, that wound has been nagging at the collective mind of the English-speaking world--that little aching desire to go back to Middle-Earth.

Love Tolkien, and be not ashamed. He's one of the greatest things we have.