When I was in junior high, I stumbled across an odd looking paperback amongst the school library shelves. A fat little man with curly black hair, dressed in medieval garb and holding a sword was being stalked by a hairless creature with bulbous green eyes in a cave. It was, and still might be, one of the ugliest book covers I’ve ever seen. But it did its job. I plucked it from the shelf, intrigued. I’d never heard of this book, The Hobbit, or its author, J. R. R. Tolkien. Little did I know just how much that book with the horrid little cover would change my life.
I don’t remember how long it took me to read The Hobbit, but I do recall a good portion of a rainy day spent curled up with a blanket on our shabby couch devouring page after page, chapter after chapter. I’m a pluviophile, completely enamored with dreary, rainy days and the coziness they can bring, and that is probably in no small part due to that warm memory.
I didn’t read Tolkien again until I was in 10th grade. I started with Fellowship of the Ring and then moved on to The Two Towers. I took a pause between 10th and 11th grade, about halfway through the second book. So much happened that summer and fall of 2001 that I was just a bit distracted. A tropical storm, Allison, had decimated my hometown and flooded our house twice. We moved into a motel for several months while the house was being repaired. And I was still in the motel when school started and 9/11 happened. My step-dad kept Fox News on the tv day and night after that. I went to bed each night with the voices of angry talking heads ringing through my ears and woke up each morning to more of the same. I had a hard enough time concentrating on my school work and not much of a chance to read for pleasure.
Thankfully we were back in our house after Halloween, and Fellowship of the Ring was set to be released just before Christmas. That put me in the mood to finally finish the books. I read them between my schoolwork and, to be honest, in place of some of my schoolwork. I hated my AP American Lit class. I found the readings so drab and dull and I let my grades slip while I lost myself in Tolkien. One spring day as I sat in the back of my English class, the sky blue and bright and radiant through the window, I read the last line of The Lord of the Rings:
“He drew a deep breath. ‘Well, I’m back,’ he said.”
I closed the book quietly and looked about in a daze, at the other students, the teacher, the walls, the board. I’d been gone for nearly two years and, just like Samwise Gamgee, I was finally back as well.
It was, and still is, an odd feeling that I’ve never experienced since. Despite everything that had gone on in my life personally and in the world at large, there had been some part of me that had been absent from it all. Some part of my being had truly been through the dark Mines of Moria, experienced the breathtaking beauty of Lothlorien, and had eaten lembas bread as I trekked miles upon miles to Mount Doom. I’d been there, right alongside Sam and Frodo, experiencing it all.
I think what The Lord of the Rings showed me was the miraculous, supernatural power of a story to create worlds so real and true and vivid and to reach through the words on a page into a reader’s heart and transport them elsewhere. Growing up in a turbulent, dysfunctional home, being able to escape through stories has been a gift I’ve always treasured. That stories could provide escape and hope and healing is a wonder to me, and I am ever so grateful to Tolkien for showing me that miracle.