Thursday, December 06, 2001

Trips to Middle-Earth prove to be hobbit-forming

I was in seventh grade when I first stumbled into Middle Earth.

It was a rainy day, and I was looking for something to read. For as long as I can remember I've been a voracious reader. At the time, I was a big fan of Edgar Allan Poe and S.E. Hinton - and I was also probably reading a lot of really bad television and movie tie-ins.

As I perused the options on my bookshelf, one novel seemed to stand out. It was one I'd passed over dozens of times - "The Hobbit" by J.R.R. Tolkien. I was familiar with the cartoon version, and I thought it was a "kiddie" book. But for some reason, on this day, I paused and took it from the shelf.

From the opening lines, I was hooked:

"In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort."

I quickly became lost in Tolkien's world, devouring the book faster than I'd ever read any other novel. For a while, Tolkien was all I wanted to talk about - and truth be told, even today when the subject comes up I'm pretty expansive.

I begged for the three later volumes that made up "The Lord of the Rings" and tore through them as well. They were darker, more serious books that revolved around an ominous passage that's becoming well known to moviegoers:

One ring to rule them all,

One ring to find them,

One ring to bring them all,

And in the darkness bind them.

Discovering Tolkien altered my reading habits completely. It gave me an appetite for fantastic worlds where wizards cast their spells and dragons roamed the skies. Almost 16 years later, that hasn't changed.

For a while I had an annual appointment to visit Middle Earth. To get lost in a world where I didn't have to worry about homework and grades - or later, deadlines and bills. My original paperback copies of the books are dog-eared, stained and worn until the covers are nearly unrecognizable from the years of reading. But as more unread books stacked up and less time became available for reading, I drifted away from my annual ritual.

When the promotion for the new "Fellowship of the Ring" movie began to reach a fever pitch a short time ago, I realized it had been five or six years since I last visited Tolkien's land of furry-footed hobbits. It was time to get reacquainted.

I went to the bookshelf, letting my fingers roam lovingly over the leather-bound edition of "The Hobbit." Then, I paused at the gorgeously illustrated omnibus edition of "The Lord of the Rings" that had been a Christmas gift from Jerri several years ago. I picked it up and flipped through, looking at the fantastic illustrations. But something just didn't seem right.

Placing the book back on the shelf, I realized what it was. I went to the storage building and shuffled around in the old ammo crates that hold my book collection. In a few minutes, I had located what I was looking for - an ancient golden-covered edition of "The Hobbit," which I called well worn and others might call "ratty."

The spine is unreadable, many of the pages are water-damaged and stained with what appears to be Kool-Aid, the pages that aren't stained are yellowed and the cover is bent and torn. Still, it felt comfortable in my hands, and it seemed only fitting for my first visit back to Middle Earth after a long absence.

A little more digging produced similar versions of "The Fellowship of the Ring," "The Two Towers" and "The Return of the King," all in various shades of the rainbow - and with various colors of stains. I was all set, and Middle Earth was waiting, very much as I remembered it.

Walking the road to Rivendell with Frodo, Sam and Strider was like getting reacquainted with a few old, good friends. But the reunion also added to my doubts about the movie adaptation that hits theaters in a couple of weeks.

I have to admit my concerns are a little selfish. Though millions of people have read Tolkien's books, they've always been a very personal thing to me. I've always enjoyed the idea that my Middle Earth is not quite like anyone else's - and vice versa. In a lot of ways, I also think most "Lord of the Rings" fans feel a little bit of elitist snobbery towards those who haven't shared the experience.

The film, though, makes Tolkien's world accessible to everyone - which is not a bad thing. But it also gives everyone the same image and vision of Middle Earth - which may be a bad thing.

I can't contain my excitement about seeing my favorite story of all time come to life on the screen, and those around me are probably getting sick of hearing me talk about it. But underneath, there's still that nagging doubt, despite the fact that everything I've seen about the film looks outstanding.

For now, I'll continue my journey through Tolkien's realms. I'll revel in the experiences and adventures for a last time before everyone shares in the same vision. One last walk through the barrow downs with Tom Bombadil. One last flight over the treacherous bridge in Khazad-dum as Gandalf battles the Balrog at the other end. One last rest beneath the golden trees of Lothlorien.

On Dec. 19, everyone can share in these experiences. But until then, they're all mine.

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