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24106Re: Tolkien as a gateway drug

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  • Westermeyer GS11 Paul W
    Feb 6, 2013
      This is great question, as with others, Tolkien wasn't my 'gateway' either. :)

      The first great love of my reading life was history, specifically military history, and more specifically WWII. I LOVED reading anything WWII in 4th grade. That eventually led to my reading some of Howard Pyle's works on King Arthur and Robin Hood, as I just ran out of WWII and even WWI books in my parents small book collection and the almost as small rural elementary school library. We didn't have a Public Library out in the country where I lived, back then.

      In 6th grade, at one of those school book sales I got a copy of Lloyd Alexander's _The High King_, the end of his Prydain series. I loved it, and started looking for more fantasy. I don't recall the exact order but in middle school I discovered both Tolkien and AD&D near simultaneously, and I began the habit I have now of rereading Tolkien every year. I then expanded to ancient history (especially loved the Gallic Wars and Bullfinch) and historical fiction but the school library had little fantasy beyond Tolkien. I recall when they finally opened a small branch library in my town I was over-joyed to discover David Edding's Belgariad, and once I could drive and thus finally get to the suburbs and the mall I discovered bookstores and started really engaging with fantasy literature.

      I was disappointed when I was younger that I could find so few of the books listed in Gygax's AD&D DMG appendix on fantasy literature, but I've been slowly reading my way through it over the years.

      Looking back, Tolkien has impacted me most profoundly, but there are other writers not far behind. Lloyd Alexander's Prydain series, Susan Cooper's Dark is Rising Series, the first three books of LeGuin's Earthsea series, and Mary Stewart's Merlin trilogy all top the list for fantasy authors; Alexander Dumas' Three Musketeers, Wyss' Swiss Family Roberston, ERB's Tarzan, and Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea are the most influential classics for me.

      It is interesting to see my children grow up in a house filled with books (very unlike my own childhood) and with a father who obsessively promotes reading. They seem to be good readers, and have their own tastes. My daughter complains we have nothing to read, because she doesn't want to read any of the hundreds of fantasy, history, or adventure tales - she prefers 'modern' tales with little supernatural elment unless it is vampires or werewolves. My son, in 4th grade, seems as obsessed with military history as I was at that age - he liked it when I read the Hobbit to him at bedtime, and loved the movie (I didn't) and likes Alexander's Prydain series, which I am reading to him at night now, but on his own he goes for the history books. I wonder if he will become fascinated with Tolkien as he gets older.

      Paul Westermeyer
      Historian, History Division
      Marine Corps University

      "The first law for the historian is that he shall never dare utter an untruth. The second is that he shall suppress nothing that is true. Moreover, there shall be no suspicion of partiality in his writing, or of malice." Marcus Tullius Cicero, De Oratore, II.XV,62

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