My contribution to pre-opening frenzy for The Two Towers this week (the Peter Jackson film opens on December 18 in the U. S. to remarkable anticipation, I note for posterity) will be a series of essays about my relationship to the books. I’ll begin with my earliest recollection of Tolkien.
The primary storybook of my earliest childhood was “The Golden Treasury of Children’s Literature,” edited by Brenda and Louis Untermeyer, which I am fortunate enough to retain a copy of today. It’s a good-sized book, about 9-by-12 inches, hardback, and running to 544 pages.
Profusely illustrated by a wide variety of mid-century commercial artists, the book introduced me to hundreds of stories and authors, including C. S. Lewis, Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, Aesop, the Grimms, Bradbury, Milne, L. Frank Baum, and on and on.
The Tolkien excerpt is the opening chapter of The Hobbit, in which Gandalf calls upon Bilbo at Bag-End in the company of a party of Dwarves, who proceed to help themselves to the discombobulated Baggins’ larder and to sing a memorable song:
Chip the gasses and crack the plates!
Blunt the knives and bend the forks!
That’s what Bilbo Baggins hates –
Smash the bottles and burn the corks!
and so forth.
The excerpt concludes before Bilbo leaves Hobbiton on his way to meet Smaug, but it had a profound effect on me, much more pronounced than the other stories in the book. I was surprised upon rereading it in the last year that the lavish descriptive passages detailing the precise appearance of a flame-lit hobbit-hole’s parlor and dining facilities I recall so well appear no where in the chapter.
The basic information is present, but the Bag-End of my mind is the product of my own imagination, not Professor Tolkien’s.
My father remains an animated performer when reading aloud, making up stories for children, or teaching his classes at UNC, and I suppose that his concurrent reading of both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings while I was very young strongly informed his recountings of this chapter to myself and my sister as children.
Despite this, I have no direct memory of my father reading this specific chapter to us as children, although I know he must have.
My first appearance on television came sometime between 1969 and 1971 on a local station in West Lafayette, Indiana, presumably the Purdue University affiliated public channel. Rather incomprehensibly, one day, my parents asked us if we wanted to appear on a children’s show which consisted, as I recall, of children being read to by young adults.
I have direct and clear recollections of listening to this chapter of The Hobbit under bright television lights while on a set which featured brightly colored oversize models of children’s wooden spelling blocks. I know that my father had read this to us in the past because my recollection of the event includes my disappointment in the comparatively colorless performance of the young woman who read to us that day.