Books Culture

Tales from the Bookshelf: The Lord of the Rings

There’s something deeply ironic in the fact that, when asked which of my hundreds of books is most precious to me, I immediately turn to The Lord of the Rings.

In fact, I turn to a whole shelf of my bookcase dedicated to J. R. R. Tolkien’s body of work — his legendarium. Over the years I’ve built up quite a collection, from secondhand bookstore gems to gifts from friends and family. All of my books bear memories, but this miniature library holds the most personal significance in my life.

My collection began with a copy of The Hobbit. It’s not much — the movie tie-in edition released in the early 2000s with a still from Fellowship on the cover: Bilbo stepping out of the doorway of Bag End, inviting the reader to step out with him and plunge into adventure. On the inside cover, my dad’s handwriting, as illegible as runes, wishes me a ‘Happy Christmas 2010’. Whenever I flip the pages, I can smell smoke and fear, saltwater tears, honey and joy. I have returned again and again to this old friend of a book, including during my Oxford interview week, when more than a few of my own tears hit its pages.

Beside The Hobbit are three more tie-in editions. They started off as a matching boxset; now their pages have turned sepia and their covers have been torn away. Bearing slightly less wear and tear is a big hardback, with leather the colour of pinot noir and a black jacket embossed with gilt sigils. Initially too heavy for my hands to hold, it contains all three parts of The Lord of the Rings. It contains a whole world.

The spine of my faded paperback Silmarillion is creased and worn by multiple rereads, corners folded down and cover peeling off. There’s a stain which is either Tippex or toothpaste down its side — it must be an affront to book snobs who refuse to show their books the love they’re due. As I open it, a folded A4 page slips out; chronology notes and a family tree pencilled in my thirteen year old chicken-scratch as I immersed myself in the book the way I now treat my degree in history. I wouldn’t say they’re fine literary criticism — one name has “he’s ginger” noted beside it.

In stark contrast is the jewel of my little hoard: a ‘deluxe’ edition. It may look unassuming within its dull box, but beneath the lid is a tome fit for the library of a king. Midnight black, with mottled insides and a for-edge speckled with emerald green ink, the cover is crowned by the symbols of Tolkien’s Numenor, and the character Aragorn — a character who, to anyone who’s read the books, represents the hope that this story inspires in so many people, myself included. It’s rare enough that I’ve been unable to find other copies online.

I’ve never been brave enough to read this copy all the way through, but sometimes I’ll turn its silk pages and unfurl the maps sealed within it, pore over their blood red and black lines and imagine myself escaping mundanity to walk the contours of Tolkien’s world.

Completing the circle (the ring…?) I’ve nicked dad’s old second edition Silmarillion, a portal back to the 1970s reverence of the legendarium, which I dragged out of the attic along with a very stylish pair of flared denim and purple velvet jeans. I still remember my joy when I first made the connection between his beloved Led Zeppelin and Tolkien for myself (Ramble On, as well as various other songs, if you’re interested).  

The shelf also houses Unfinished Tales, and the other texts compiled by Tolkien’s son Christopher. They’re knitted together from the author’s notes and ideas throughout his life, influenced by his wealth of knowledge of languages and archaic cultures, from Beowulf to the Finnish Kullervo. They’re stories seeped in stories, bearing a history that is at once cultural, textual, and personal to me. I’ve spent years absorbed in their yellowing pages.

There’s even a floppy-cover copy of Tolkien’s treatise on literature, On Fairy Stories, that I picked up in an outlet books shop for a couple of pounds. It’s a text which I had to listen to two podcasts to fully understand. But now that I do, I’ve become more informed about Tolkien’s idea of the author’s task, and it has shaped my own identity as a writer. The book watches over me as I tackle my own novels. I’m also hoping for a eucatastrophe to end COVID-19 — look up the word!

A quote from Fellowship has been floating around the internet recently. Even my mum (who thinks my obsession is mildly ridiculous) emailed it on to me:

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

These are words I’ve read dozens of times, in dozens of formats, and now they’re giving solace to more people than ever before. I think the profound, comforting relevance of the quote — to today’s locked down society, as to Tolkien’s war-torn youth, and the socio-economic uncertainty of the 70s — speaks to why I prize my copies of Tolkien’s legendarium over any other of my myriad books. Not only do they trigger a Proust-worthy train of memory, but they’ve been with me throughout the hills and troughs of my life, and they’ve given me hope.

In the end, it doesn’t matter which edition of a book you’re reading. The books themselves change. The world changes too.

But the stories remain the same.

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You can read more of Helena’s writing on Instagram at: @helenarambles