|My well loved boxed set of The Lord of the Rings|
Over at Professor Pope, the good Professor is facilitating a reading and discussion of The Hobbit, a few chapters at a time. Rereading the book and thinking about both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings has me thinking of my first encounters with J.R.R. Tolkien's world.
In 1978 I was 6 years old. The film version of The Lord of the Rings by director Ralph Bakshi was released. A few of my aunts and uncles were Tolkien fanatics, and they organized a big party to go see the film (on what I suspect was opening weekend). I found myself with several of my cousins, aunts, uncles, and their friends, in a packed movie theater, watching an animated film that didn't make much sense to me but I loved it anyway. There were cool monsters, elves, dwarves, some little people called hobbits, and lots of sword fighting. For a long time afterwords, my cousin and I spent many days playing in the woods behind our houses, pretending we were Strider and Legolas, out hunting orcs and Ringwraiths.
At some point in the next year or so, I came across a boxed set of the novels at the house of some of my parents friends. This was a revelation, as I didn't realize that there were books that the movie was based upon. Now I could find out what happened to Frodo and Sam! Somewhere in all of this, I saw the animated version of The Hobbit, which I seem to remember watching on TV every year around Thanksgiving, just before the Christmas cartoon specials began airing. For my 8th birthday I was given the very same set of books I had found (apparently, I talked about it quite a bit to the owners of the books, and read a few pages of them whenever I was at their house), a well read set that I still own, in a great gold foil covered box. I immediately read The Hobbit that summer, and to this day it remains my favorite of Tolkien's works. While I love the fantastic and complex story of The Lord of the Rings, the intimacy of The Hobbit has always appealed to me more.
But the rest of this post isn't about The Hobbit. It's about the next one in that set of 4 books, and a particular event that can recall with clarity 30 years later...
So here I was, an 8 year old kid who was reading anything and everything he could get his hands on. I had just been given the 4 books that were the source of the movie that had captivated me a few years earlier (the only other movie to captivate me to this degree was Star Wars). School started in the fall, 3rd grade. I used to get dropped off in the morning by my dad and I would sit outside the classroom and read until the teacher arrived. At some point I started reading The Fellowship of the Ring. Quite a massive book for a 3rd grader, right? It was slow going but I was making my way through it, trading it off with other, more typical, reading for a kid my age whenever I got bogged down with it and wanted to read something else.
One morning I was sitting in the hallway reading The Fellowship when the teacher arrived, about 30 minutes before the school day started. I recall this very clearly, as what happened next was at that point the biggest shock of my life. My teacher, Ms. Kohlman (a tall, wiry, gray hair in a bun lady who didn't seem to like kids very much), asked what I was reading. I proudly held the book up, smiling, expecting to be complemented for reading a book that was above my reading level. She looked at it, scowled, and took the book out of my hand, telling me "You aren't old enough to be reading that." She disappeared into the classroom with my book, leaving me standing in the hall, stunned with disbelief at what just happened. I went into the classroom, almost in tears, and asked when I could have my book back. Her response? "You won't. You aren't old enough." This was supposed to encourage me to read? A teacher punishing a kid for wanting to read something difficult, something that he obviously loved?
That night I told my parents, and I remember them being mad. Mad because she had taken it away and told me I wasn't getting it back, and even madder that she told me I couldn't read the book. My parents were always encouraging me to read, and the more challenging the book, the better. My mom, an elementary school teacher, was quite upset, as this was not just some random teacher telling a kid he couldn't read a book, but her kid's teacher telling him he couldn't read a book. I don't remember exactly what happened the next day, but I do know my mom went in and had a long talk with my teacher, and I got my book back that night. I was allowed to keep reading the book at school, and never heard another word from the teacher about what I was reading. Eventually, after quite a few weeks, I finished The Fellowship of the Ring. And even if I didn't understand some of it, or thought parts of it were boring, I loved it.