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I did not enjoy sixth grade.

As I've written elsewhere, my folks had moved from a solidly middle class suburb of Cleveland with excellent schools to a small town in the Blue Ridge Mountains that was still fighting the Civil War.  I went from New Math to ten year old textbooks in less than a week, and from being a class star to a nasty little Northern girl who didn't know how to curtsy or say "yes ma'am" or "no ma'am."  

Fifth grade had been a horror show - the teacher openly disliked me, and not only didn't stop me from being bullied, but joined in.  Add in that I came down with tonsillitis and was out long enough that the girls in the class lost the little prize for good attendance thanks to me and the class asthmatic, and I was not precisely popular.

Sixth grade was somewhat better thanks to a staff of kind and generous teachers, particularly Mrs. Mashburn (Social Studies) and Mr. Kenney (Language Arts).  They treated me like a human being, and I really do think that they kept me sane.

And then there was the story I found in my Language Arts textbooks.  I don't recall us actually studying this story, which was actually a chapter in a longer book, so I must have read it on my own.  The chapter was about a lost traveler who had become separated from his companions.  He was lost in a mine, and against his better instincts had agreed to a wager with a local who had agreed to lead him to safety if he lost.  Of course the wager went wrong, and the chapter ended with the traveler having to dash past his enemies out of the mine into an unknown land, alone and separated from his friends.

The book was, of course JRR Tolkien's first book, The Hobbit.  The chapter was "Riddles in the Dark," which included Bilbo's discovery of the Ring, his riddle contest with Gollum, and his escape from the halls of the Goblin King.  I can truly say that reading it changed my life.

For those who haven't read The Hobbit, it tells the tale of how Gandalf the Grey recruited Bilbo Baggins from his quiet life at Bag End and took him on an adventure to Erebor, the Lonely Mountain, to reclaim a Dwarven kingdom from the evil dragon Smaug.  It's clearly written for children, with simpler language and a more linear plot than Tolkien's masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings, and though much less cloying than the early Narnia books, it occasionally succumbs to the annoying tweeness "and now I shall tell you a lovely story" narration that mars so much mid-century British children's fiction.  It's not nearly as long as LOTR, and readers who expect the same sort of adult adventure will be bewildered (or possibly disappointed) to find that the first published chunk of Tolkien's legendarium is written for ten year olds.

Those who dismiss The Hobbit as merely a children's book are missing a rare opportunity to see How It All Began.  I don't mean that Tolkien's imaginative work began with The Hobbit - he began work on what became Middle-Earth around the time of the Great War and originally had no intention of writing a children's book set in the same world as his serious work of subcreation.  However, what became LOTR did originate with Bilbo's adventures.

Consider what The Hobbit introduced to Tolkien's world:

- Hobbits, aka the solid Little Folk who allow the reader to experience the deeds of the Great and the Wise.

- Gandalf the Grey, greatest of the Maiar, and the whole concept of the Istari, the Wizards sent by the Valar to Middle-Earth to assist the Free Peoples.

- Sauron, known in this book as the evil Necromancer who has corrupted Mirkwood from his home at Dol Guldur.

- Gollum, the tragic fallen Halfling whose obsession with his Precious leads to his downfall and the salvation of Middle-Earth.

- The Rings of Power themselves.

As juvenile as some scenes are - you have no idea how much I hope that Peter Jackson does not include the silly-ass Elves singing silly music hall songs to Bilbo and the Dwarves - those who seek the origins of LOTR will find them here.

And there are some passages and concepts that are as good as anything Tolkien ever wrote:  

- The great comic set piece of Bilbo's peaceful little hobbit-hole being invaded by Dwarves.

- The thrush and the moon-silver map.

- Bard's attack on Smaug.

- The Battle of Five Armies.

- The death of a significant character, who goes out with the dignity and courage of later Tolkien heroes like Theoden.

- And of course, "Riddles in the Dark," the chapter that I read all those years ago.

The Hobbit grabbed my little eleven year old imagination and has yet to release it.  I hadn't yet chosen a favorite type of literature, but once I encountered Bilbo, the Dwarves, Gandalf, and the Ring, I was hooked on SF, fantasy, and all related genres for life; I'm writing this diary with the Captain America soundtrack loaded on my iPod, and if you think I would have even known who Captain America was without the forty years of reading, viewing, and writing fantasy, science fiction, and comics that began with "Riddles in the Dark," well, you would be incorrect.  

My friends, my writing, my hobbies, my scholarship - all of it stems on some level from that momentous day in 1971 when I first met Bilbo Baggins, Esq., and Gollum.  If you haven't read The Hobbit, give it a try.  I can't guarantee that it will change your life, but you never know.

Readers & Book Lovers Series Schedule

DAY TIME (EST/EDT) Series Name Editor(s)
SUN 6:00 PM Young Reader's Pavilion The Book Bear
Sun (hiatus) 9:30 PM SciFi/Fantasy Book Club quarkstomper
Bi-Monthly Sun Midnight Reading Ramblings don mikulecky
MON 8:00 PM Monday Murder Mystery Susan from 29
Mon 11:00 PM My Favorite Books/Authors edrie, MichiganChet
alternate Tuesdays 8:00AM LGBT Literature Texdude50, Dave in Northridge
Tue 10:00 PM Contemporary Fiction Views bookgirl
WED 7:30 AM WAYR? plf515
Wed 8:00 PM Bookflurries Bookchat cfk
THU 8:00 PM Write On! SensibleShoes
alternate Thu 11:00 PM Audiobooks Club SoCaliana
FRI 8:00 AM Books That Changed My Life Diana in NoVa
SAT (fourth each month) 11:00 AM Windy City Bookworm Chitown Kev
Sat 9:00 PM Books So Bad They're Good Ellid

 

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