Reading that Shapes the Writer: Tolkien (Part 1)

I was 12 the first time I read The Lord of the Rings. I waited until 12 at my oldest sister’s request. She loved the trilogy and she was afraid if I tried reading it too early that a struggle to get through the writing might prejudice me against the story (it was probably good advice, even as a child that was reading well above my grade level).

But by age 12 I was ready, and I read, rabidly, and when I reached the end of The Return of the King I burst into tears because it was over. Then I picked up The Fellowship of the Ring and started all over again. I would read the trilogy yearly for the next ten years.

I’d been prepped to appreciate Tolkien’s mythological storytelling by a love of fairy tales, folk tales, and myths. In them I’d glimpsed the shadow of the mountain – in LotR I found myself on the slopes of the mountain itself.

I was a very fast reader, and very good at skimming text, so I never had a problem with Tolkien’s rambling or pedantry. If something didn’t interest me, I’d skim it until he returned to something more interesting. Honestly, though, most of the time I didn’t mind his digressions and rambles. Part of the charm was feeling immersed in the world-building.

It wasn’t the destination, it was the journey and the companions on that journey.

It was from Tolkien that I learned the importance of writing characters the reader will want to journey with. To this day, if someone asks me about my favorite literary character I will answer Samwise Gamgee, without hesitation. He is the reason I have had a lifelong soft spot for the name Sam.

Sam is not a warrior. Sam is not particularly educated, intellectual or wise. Sam is a gardener – he’s not even an amazing, talented gardener, he’s merely a competent one. So what is it that sets Sam apart in the plethora of protagonists whose journeys I’ve followed?

Sam is so bloody human. He doesn’t make the wisest, most pragmatic choices. He’s not stupid, but he is sometimes impulsive. He experiences a full range of human emotions – anger, jealousy, fear, depression, determination, excitement, happiness, joy – and love.

Sam loves, with his whole being.

He loves gardens, he loves beauty, he loves his friends, he loves Frodo. He’s not aggressive, or competitive, or concerned with a struggle for hierarchy and power. When the One Ring tempts Sam, it can only tempt him by showing him the power to transform Mordor into a beautiful garden.

Despite being a hobbit, Sam is the avatar of what is best and brightest in humanity, and I love him for that.

Sam is what I want to be and what I want to see.

Sam is the reason saving the world is worth the trouble involved.

Part 2

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