Can you believe that my Tolkien Reading Group turns four-year-old today?
I hardly can. When I started reading Tolkien for a reading challenge four years ago, I never dreamed of this.
As I’ve told elsewhere, in the summer of 2017, I took up a reading challenge on Litsy – the #LotRChapteraDay – to read Tolkien’s major works one chapter a day. I almost missed that one, but in the end, I jumped into it and loved it. So much so that once the challenge was over, a few of us kept reading with the aim to read Tolkien, one chapter a day, for at least one year. We called ourselves #YearOfTolkien, and it was that group that plunged into reading The History of Middle-earth.
On our second anniversary, in the middle of reading HoME, we took up our official name #FellowshipOfTolkien and kept reading HoME to the last volume, which we finished last April, after some three years and a half.
I’m almost emotional as we celebrate our fourth anniversary today. Never had I imagined to come this far with this group of dedicated Tolkien’s readers, but this is one of the many gifts Tolkien has given me.
Sharing our love for Tolkien and his work is always good. I’m part of many different Tolkien’s groups, yet I think that a Tolkien reading group has something special about it. Besides, words were Tolkien’s love and his gift to us. I feel that sharing them is the most meaningful experience for a fan.
Being a reader means sharing the experience
First of all, I should say that reading groups are always great for a reader. Yes, reading might feel like a solitary activity, but I firmly believe that it’s in sharing that we truly fulfil our state as readers. It’s by raving about our favourite books and authors, sharing our favourite quotes, exchanging impressions about what we loved most, hated most, what disappointed us, and why we turn reading into a life experience.
It starts by reading alone, but it blooms by sharing.
So, if you are a reader, I urge you to try being part of a reading group. I’m sure you’ll love it.
Why a Tolkien Reading Group is so special
Yet, I think that belonging to a Tolkien Reading Group is its own experience.
It’s undeniable that few literary worlds are as vast and complex as Middle-earth. For me, it’s precisely Middle-earth’s complexity that makes a shared reading more meaningful. There are so many layers, so many nuisances to it. Other readers will catch details and meanings I might miss. Besides, I might see details and meanings others might miss. And so, by sharing, the experience enlarges.
And yet, there is still more to it.
1. The challenge to read the material
Tolkien wrote a lot, a lot, a lot more than just The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. We know that for some readers, even reading The Lord of the Rings is challenging.
But being part of a buddy reading helps greatly. When I first took part in the #LotRChapteraDay challenge, many of the readers (and there were tens of us at the beginning) were going to read The Lord of the Rings for the first time. Many were not Tolkien fans. They were readers curious about this classic but intimidated by the sheer size of the book.
Reading that first part of the challenge – and by this, I mean The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit – was its own experience. Such a great number took part and so many shared thoughts and quotes.
I could see that for many, being part of the buddy reading carried them along, where some might have dropped off if they had read alone (and in fact, some said that they had attempted to read the book alone but didn’t keep up). First-time readers found motivations to keep reading in the comments of veterans of the book, and veterans (like myself) found refreshing insight in the comments of first-time readers.
It was an altogether fantastic experience, and I’m so grateful I had the opportunity to be part of it.
But one thing is reading a classic book by Tolkien, and another is being a Tolkien reader.
The great majority of the readers who started the challenge read all through The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit but then dropped off on The Silmarillion.
I expected it. The Silmarillion is such a strange book.
But the strength and the richness of the group still worked for me. The readers who remained read through Tolkien’s minor stories (at the time The Children of Húrin and Beren and Lúthien, as well as more of his children’s stories), but it was after this that the true magic happened for me.
Only a few of us remained at that point, and we decided to go on and read The Unfinished Tales and then The Book of Lost Tales. I’m sure I’d have read those books by myself, sooner or later. But The Book of Lost Tales is the beginning of The History of Middle-earth, and when we finished it, it was only normal to go on.
You know, that was where buddy-reading made a difference for me. I would have probably read all the books we had read previously (in fact, I had already read most of them), but I don’t think I’d have ever found the motivation to read HoME on my own. Not the entire collection of 12 books.
Being part of the #FellowshipOfTolkien gave me that motivation. Reading together, commenting, sharing thoughts and quotes. The enthusiasm and the dedication of the other readers in the group multiplied my own motivation and enthusiasm.
Reading HoME is a substantial investment of time and energy. I’m quite sure that without the #FellowshipOfTolkien, I would have probably read only part of it – and it would have been a crime because HoME is beautiful.
This is the magic of a Tolkien Reading Group. There’s so much to read and sometimes, only a group fuels the motivation to find time to read all that material and then rave about it, as we did.
If you are a Tolkien enthusiast, I wish you to find your reading group, which could be us, if you want. You can find us on Litsy under the #FellowshipOfTolkien hashtag.
It was Tolkien’s intent that every reader had the opportunity to experience Middle-earth in their own way, so he left space enough for any reader to enter and manoeuvre inside his world as they saw fit.
Tolkien’s fans refer to this with the name Tolkien himself gave it: applicability.
Like all authors, Tolkien did have a vision of his world. He created it with something in mind, expressing themes close to his heart and including lots and lots of personal experiences. But he made a conscious effort not to impose his vision on the reader, leaving space for other visions. Tolkien’s interpretation of Middle-earth isn’t the only possible interpretation. This is so not just by accident or natural storytelling characteristics, but specifically because its creator wanted it.
Tolkien invites us into Middle-earth to make it our home. We are invited to use our thoughts and experiences to colour that world. A particular element of the story might suggest a specific meaning or memory to one reader and something entirely different to another – and both interpretations are legit and acceptable.
This is what makes Middle-earth such a universal experience for me, the reason why so many people and cultures see themselves in Tolkien’s work. Even cultures Tolkien never consciously considered may indeed be reflected by his work because he left the space for those cultures to enter and find their space there.
Can you see now why a buddy reading of Tolkien’s work might be so meaningful? Every reader brings his/her own experience and thoughts and offers his/her personal view of the stories. In this way, it is possible to try and guess what Tolkien meant by the different elements of the story (maybe also knowing a little of Tolkien’s biography) but also discover interpretations we might have never thought out ourselves. Of course, we don’t need to agree with all of them, but I’ve found that even the interpretations I don’t agree with have given me something positive, some understanding I never saw before.
And this, I feel, is something very much Tolkienesque.
3. Sharing beyond reading
The beauty of a reading group is that we can share far more than reading.
Of course, I already knew this. I’ve been a member of different Tolkien groups for almost two decades, both in-person and online. I’ve done any kind of stuff with my Tolkien group in Verona: we went to seminars, medieval festivals, birthday parties, we’ve met in the city for the sake of it.
But during this pandemic, I’ve discovered a way to meet online and sharing our interests that was totally new to me and gave me more than I ever expected.
I first experienced this last September with the first Oxonmoot online. Sure, I knew I could participate in online events, but Oxonmoot blew my mind. I was with a friend – I from my couch in Italy and she for hers in Kansas. We had a hoot of a time. We enjoyed ourselves immensely, attending the same speeches together, commenting via WhatsApp, sometimes participating in the chat. Sure, it wasn’t like in person, but it was still a surprisingly enriching experience. Its own experience, worth making.
Being part of a reading group is this too: finding all the possible ways to enjoy our beloved authors. And this may bring unexpected experiences, maybe even experiences we might have never tried otherwise.
Be part of a reading group!
I do know readers who resist being part of a reading group, and they all put out the same reasons: I don’t have time, I wouldn’t keep up with the schedule, I can do it on my own anytime I want.
These were all excuses I put out too when I first heard about the #LotRChapteraDay challenge. I’m happy I caved in. I did find the time (it wasn’t too hard). I did keep up with the schedule (and even when I fell behind, I manage to catch up, it’s not as hard as one might think). And yes, I could have reread The Lord of the Rings whenever I wanted, but in fact, I hadn’t read it for some ten years at that point. I’ve read it almost three more times in these four years.
Think about it in this way: let alone what you might not be able to do, and instead think at all the wonderful things a buddy reading will give you.
I love my Tolkien Reading Group. It has made my life so much richer. Celebrating our 4th anniversary is an unexpected gift.
Make the same gift to yourself. Find your special group of readers, whoever your favourite author is. Enjoy it to the fullest. Experiment with them and enjoy every minute. It is one of the joys in life.