Happy Birthday, J.R.R. Tolkien (1892 – 1973)

Today is Tolkien's birthday. Facebook reminded me that, seven years ago today, I posted this personal story about how I discovered The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. I thought I would share it here on Boing Boing.

I vividly remember the rather embarrassing way I was introduced to J.R.R. Tolkien. It was the 10th grade and a friend of mine had just finished reading 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 check it out. So, during my lunch period, I went to the library, checked it out, and began reading it right there.

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 at my usual desk, and buried my head in the book. A few minutes later, I realized people around me were staring and laughing. I looked up and saw that I was in the right room but the wrong period. I quickly beat it out of there to more laughter and jeering.

I joined the cult of Tolkien that day and became as fanatical as my friend. I read The Hobbit in maybe two days, started in on the trilogy, and gulped that down in record time. The second time through, I ate much slower.

A few years later, when I was living at Twin Oaks Community, and dealing with the early onset of spinal arthritis, I was trying every screwball alternative cure I could find, desperate for any form of 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 red 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 over 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.

Jim was way more fanatical than I and had memorized the Elvish passages, knew proper Elvish pronunciation, and even knew the melodies to the songs in the books (and sang them to me). It was a profound experience and an indelible memory. I would get completely stoned on the rather hellish conditions of the bath, zone out, and this incredibly beautiful, and beautifully-delivered, prose would float above the caustic cloud filling our little communal farmhouse bathroom.

If I close my eyes now, I can still almost hear Jim's reading voice and Elvish singing. And smell the Epsom salt. Lots and lots of Epsom salt.

Image: J.R.R. Tolkien's cover art for The Hobbit.