I was a peculiar child. Every Christmas season, instead of begging my parents for new dolls, princess tiaras, or a pony, I’d always write down “books” at the top of my Christmas list. To my eternal disappointment, every year my mother gave me stuff I needed: a new coat or shoes, a new dress for church, or the ever-dreaded socks. My mother doesn’t read for pleasure and never understood my fascination with words. “They’re not real,” she’d tell me when I told her about Captain Ahab’s white whale or Beth’s death in Little Women, “Why do you care so much?”
Twenty years later, that question still haunts me. Why do I care so much? Why do I cry for fictional characters? Why invest myself so much in a world that’s not real?
I blame my father.
I was seven-years-old the first time I read The Hobbit. Although my mother was unwilling to indulge my obsession for fiction, my father did. I had tossed aside The Chronicles of Narnia and The Little House on the Prairie series. I read things like The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Three Musketeers, but at the age of 7 I didn’t understand them, nor did I want to. One Christmas, my father handed me a crudely wrapped present. “Don’t tell your mother,” he whispered.
Inside was a beat-up, torn, and crinkled paperback edition of Tolkien’s story of Bilbo Baggins.
It had been my father’s first copy of the book too. Truthfully, the book didn’t impress me. It looked old and musty–two things a seven-year-old is very picky about. But that night, when my father tucked me into bed, he read me the first few pages, and to date my favorite childhood memory is my dad sitting next to my bed and reading, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”
My parents don’t know this, but that night I stayed up all night to finish reading the book. Perhaps I’ll never be able to describe the exact reason I fell in love with hobbits rather than Narnians, but somewhere along the way Bilbo Baggins became a good friend.
I’ve been a Tolkienite ever since.
When The Fellowship of the Ring launched into theaters in 2001, I created my own fellowship. I gathered the Tolkienites around me, and though some of us have parted ways, my best friend is still Frodo to me. We saw The Return of the King ten times in theaters, and more often than not our text messaging conversation are comprised solely of Tolkien quotes. In my house, I have paintings and sculptures and prints created and gifted by her over the years. I own a copy of Eowyn’s dress. I have the staff of Gandalf the White. I wear the One Ring around my neck most days. I speak splatterings of Elvish.I have a Tolkien symbol tattooed on my back.
And still the question lingers: why do I care so much?
In graduate school, I managed to focus most of my long essays on Tolkien’s life and works. (I was lucky enough to study under a veritable Tolkien expert).
And my mother’s question still niggles the back of my mind.
Why do I care?
I know that a hobbit is considered “of age”‘ at 33, but I don’t remember the name of my cousin’s baby. I know that niphredil is a type of flower that grows in Lothlorien, but I can’t remember the last time I changed the oil in my car. I can name all thirteen dwarves but not Santa’s reindeer.
Why do I know these things but not my driver’s license number?
My dad likes to say that my imagination is too large for my brain and so the nitty gritty details of reality are replaced by magic rings and wizards.
I like to think that he’s right.
The Christmas season is here, and that means it’s time for me to reread The Hobbit, the way most people reread A Christmas Carol at this time of year. I’ve done this every Christmas since I first received the book, and now that I’m older (and hopefully wiser), I can finally answer my mother’s question. Over the past two decades, this question has morphed into the crux of my way of life. “Why do I care” encompasses my existence. In translation: “Why did I study literature?” or “why research this author?” or, more recently, “why do I write?”
Why do I care? I don’t know if there’s a word in the English language for it. Middle-earth, Tolkien’s dream, makes my world a better place. It feeds my mind, nourishes my soul, and quenches my thirst for adventure. Why do I care? Because Bilbo, Frodo, Gandalf, and Aragorn–they make me care.
So merry Christmas, and here’s a gift from me to you. Go and find a book that will make you care about dragons and magic and adventure.
P.S. My mother did eventually come around to my reading ways. She even bought me the 50th anniversary edition of The Lord of the Rings.
Disclaimer: I own none of the images or vid clips.
- The Collectress is Thankful For… (acollectivemind.wordpress.com)
- J.R.R. Tolkien biopic in the works (marquee.blogs.cnn.com)
- Elevenses And Then Some: How To Prepare A Feast Fit For A Hobbit (npr.org)