The first time anyone told me about his work, I was in ninth grade at what was then Shaler Area Junior High School. My history teacher, and another guy in the class, had just read Lord of the Rings, and told me about it. To them, it was a wondrous tale of wizards, goblins, elves, and fantastical creatures.
To my fourteen-year-old brain, the way they told it, it sounded like one of the stupidest things I'd ever heard.
As it turned out, I left the public school system the next year for Shady Side Academy, which was a different world altogether. Shaler Junior high had about twelve hundred kids in two grades; Shady Side's Senior school graduated classes of a hundred or less. Instead of a monstrosity of building, we had an actual campus, with grass and trees and multiple buildings, one that could pass for a small college. In fact, Shady Side used to make extra money during the summer by renting out the campus to film productions that needed a college. It passed for Harvard in more than one Lifetime Movie with Valerie Bertinelli. Or so I'm told, as Lifetime Television is incompatible with testosterone or mandrogen or any of those other masculine hormones.
Academic standards were a lot higher, reflected in a required reading list. The public schools considered themselves lucky if they could anyone to read the back of the cereal box, but Shady Side demanded that one read from a list of novels over the summer.
That was how I was introduced to such varied authors as Chaim Potok, Ray Bradbury, and Aldous Huxley.
I entered in the Tenth Grade, or what Shady Side called, in the English tradition, IV Form. Among the books on the list for that year was The Hobbit.
Well, the cover looked harmless.
Inside I found that it was the prelude to that silly story of elves and goblins and midgets with furry feat that I'd heard so much about the previous year. I also found that I liked it, and along with Bradbury's The Illustrated Man and Potok's The Chosen, it is among the books I remember most from the summer before going to Shady Side.
Also, I might add, remember most fondly.
I didn't quite fit in with the majority of the Shady Side student body, who were rich, athletic preppies. I was none of the above. Before the year was over, my circle of friends consisted primarily of teacher's kids, who therefore went on scholarship as I did, the artistic types, and other assorted geeks, nerds and outcasts.
One of them, who turned out to be my best friend, was the best guitarist I knew, and both incredibly intelligent and well-read. He told me that there was no use saying that I was educated until I'd read Lord of the Rings. It wasn't on the reading list, and it wasn't a formal requirement for graduation, but it was necessary if one wasn't going to be viewed as a complete illiterate idiot.
Actually, he was right. Not only that, it was thoroughly enjoyable, and opened a whole new world of fantasy literature to someone who'd been, more or less, a science fiction purist until reading The Hobbit.
I followed that up by reading The Silmarilion in V Form. As a semi-finished, posthumously-published work, I didn't compare with The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings, an opinion that I still hold. Yet I could see its value as a part of the Middle Earth mythos, and if anything, I appreciated the major works even more.
That all occurred between 1975 and 1977, long before the germination of the Lord of the Rings film trilogy. A lot of younger enthusiasts probably know the work entirely from the movies, but for readers of my generation, and those before, our appreciation of Tolkien came from the books, with the films being the culmination, not the start, of our Middle Earth experience.
In fact, back in prep school, I knew some who did not relish the prospect of having the images painted in their imaginations by Tolkien, spoiled by seeing Lord of the Rings made into film, by any director, in any medium, live action or animation. One friend even refused to look at SPI's War of the Ring trilogy of wargames, lest Redmond Simonsen's art spoil the images in his own head.
Of course at the time, we could not anticipate the invention of computer-generated graphics, or the deft, respectful tough of Peter Jackson in directing the trilogy. So when they came out, I did not have just a happy viewing experience at a new movie; it was gratification that the film versions, probably inevitable in any case, were done right.
To this day though, I regard Lord of the Rings as literature first, literature experienced at a transitional, at times turbulent part of my life, and at an age when I could probably experience it best. The movies are mainly a great bonus to the aging adult that I became.