With all the J.R.R. Tolkien fandom recently renewed, I wish I could say it was the professor’s written creation of Middle-earth that first drew me in. If I were a better man, I could say that I was given The Hobbit and/or The Lord of the Rings as a child, or else found the books at a library, or perhaps stumbled upon a copy in a dusty attic.
I can’t even credit Peter Jackson, director of the original three The Lord of the Rings films and now the forthcoming The Hobbit two-part, for introducing me to Middle-earth.
Rather, Rings film soundtrack composer Howard Shore receives that credit.
Plus a guy named Daniel, in college. That was in fall 2001, mere months before the first of the films released on Dec. 19, 2001. With him, and my brother Dave, I saw the first film, on Jan. 5, 2002.
First, I wish to stress that I did read the first book before seeing the film. My brother, alas! finished Fellowship literally as we pulled into the theater parking lot. So why my “alas”? Well, fans know: the Fellowship film’s ending has a significant plot development that was only included in The Two Towers book!
So, yes, the d____ of B______ took him just a bit by surprise.
Also, it so happens that this date, Jan. 5, was exactly ten years ago, from this column’s release date. Needless to say, I’ve gotten caught up on my fandom, and can recite dates and places, critique people who call the books a “trilogy,” and speak minimal Elvish like the rest of them (at least, enough Elvish not to starve or miss the restrooms if ever my plane was detained in their fair country). In fact, I share a birthday with Aragorn (March 1) and my wife and I happened to first meet on Frodo’s and Bilbo’s birthday (Sept. 22).
Still, I started late in my Middle-earth questings. And now, ten years after seeing the first LotR film, I’m trying to remember how come I waited so long.
Myths about Middle-earth
I grew up homeschooled, but not in the kind of homeschool culture that either dislikes all fantasy or, perhaps worse, simply sees no use for it. Thus I became a Narnia fan fairly early, at age 10. Maybe it was the “these are sort-of secret Christian books” concept (partially true!) that allowed C.S. Lewis entrance. But as for his colleague, Tolkien? I’d never heard of him, Middle-earth, or brave Hobbits and an evil volcano of destruction.
One memory comes to mind. I was visiting the house of homeschooling friends. Like most homeschoolers, they had shelves full of books. Three of them were The Lord of the Rings paperbacks. On the first’s cover, I believe, was a picture of a long-bearded wizard and a little man. They seemed to be in a cave (Bilbo’s house, I’m sure), and in the dark.
Here’s where it — and by it, I mean I — gets very silly. Based on that single cover photo, and the back cover’s description of some perilous threat and quest in a place called Middle-earth, I made a brilliant deduction worthy of Sherlock Holmes himself:
Ah. Must be set at the center of the earth, with weirdness and dark tunnels. Sounds dull.
And despite my friends’ lauding of this series, I paid it no attention for years after.
My next memory of Middle-earth mentions comes from summer 2001, when I saw, in the Parade magazine with a Sunday newspaper, a brief paragraph about how ambitious the films would be. Some director in New Zealand was making them, all three of them, at once. Financers were pouring their money, and artists their hearts, into the project.
Somehow that impressed me, enough to remain in my mind until now …
The legend comes to life
Then I never heard about the films until later that year. Daniel, from the same college as I (though not in the same classes or direction), was a huge fan. Yet a friend’s enthusiasm hadn’t sold me before, and this one’s excitement only partially aroused my interest. It still sounded too “classical” to me, even if I now knew the story was not all underground in the literal middle of our Earth. I had my Narnia. Why add another fantasy world?
Now I’m not sure what happened. I didn’t get ahold of the books. At this point, I don’t think I had even seen the first film’s teaser. But somehow, I did wind up on the internet — a groundbreaking new kind, called “high speed,” available only at school — and at a site called FilmTracks. I’d hung out there because I had just gotten into film scores, such as The Prince of Egypt music, and a few others. The Fellowship of the Ring score was here also (and believe it or not, this is very nearly the exact same page, with few text updates and almost no changes to the web design itself). Clips were available, in a primitive and strange format that you old-timers may remember as “RealAudio.” I listened.
That clip, “The Prophecy,” is no longer listed there. It was from the first score release, and for a prologue that isn’t even in the film. Yet I listened. Only thirty seconds.
It took me.
I’m not sure how else to explain it, even after I’ve since heard that track, and the complete score by Howard Shore, multiple times. At first I almost didn’t like it. It was … classical. Dark, ancient, and mysterious. … Then it was transcendent. And magnificent.
Soon I not only let my dislike fade. I loved this music.
And the scent of it. Yes, that’s what I remember. A deep, rich, woodsy scent. Maybe it came from some opening into this majestic world.
There in that college computer room, I first entered Middle-earth.
How were you introduced to this world? How did you first journey to Middle-earth, either by the original book series, films, or film soundtracks?