Discovering Tolkien


I posted this on my Facebook page on J.R.R. Tolkien’s birthday (Jan 3):

I vividly remember the rather embarrassing way I was introduced to Tolkien. It was the 10th grade and a friend of mine had just finished The Hobbit and was alarmingly excited about it. He couldn’t stop baying on about it and pretty much demanded that I march into the school library and get it myself. So, on my lunch break, I went to the library, checked it out, and started reading. I immediately lost myself in it, to the point where I actually went to the wrong class for the next period. I went into the room, sat down in my usual seat, and continued reading. A few minutes later, I realized people around me were laughing, looked up, and saw that I was in the right room but the wrong class. I quickly beat it out of there to more laughter and jeering. I joined the cult of Tolkien as enthusiastically as my friend and quickly read The Hobbit, I think in two days, started in on the trilogy, and burned through that in record time. The second time through, I ate slower.

A few years later, when I was living at Twin Oaks community, and dealing with early onset of arthritis, I was trying every screwball alternative cure I could find, desperate for any relief. One of these treatments was daily high-dose Epsom salt baths, in scalding hot water. Draws out the toxins, they said. It was like a form of torture. The water boiled me like a lobster and the magnesium sulfate polluted the breathable air around the tub (you were supposed to immerse yourself as deeply as possible). I would have my head just hovering above the surface of the water and there was basically no good air down there. I would get very lightheaded and the sulfurous stink and tang of the salt was nauseating. So to keep me entertained while I underwent this daily ordeal, a friend of mine who was a fellow Tolkien nerd read me the entire trilogy while sitting on the toilet seat next to the tub. He was way more fanatical than I and had memorized many of the Elvish passages, knew proper Elvish pronunciation, and even knew some of the melodies to the songs in the books (and sang them to me). It was a profound experience, and certainly an indelibly memorable one. I would get completely stoned on the rather Hell-like conditions of the bath, zone out, and this incredibly beautiful and beautifully-delivered narrative would float above the caustic cloud filling our little farmhouse bathroom. If I close my eyes now, I can still almost hear his reading voice. And smell the Epsom salt. Lots and lots of Epsom salt.

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