Peoria, Tazewell, And Woodford: Here, There & Everywhere

To The Professor: J.R.R. Tolkien’s 123rd birthday


Mike Foster, Metamora, Illinois:

The first Tolkien work I read was “The Fellowship of the Ring over the 1973-74 Illinois Central College winter break, rapidly followed by The Two Towers and The Return of the King. I had turned 27 that Dec. 28.

Sad to say, I was not part of the mid-Sixties Tolkien boom, stalling out at the house of Tom Bombadil on the first try and “The Council of Elrond” on the second. Stalled I stayed until I was in my third year of teaching at Illinois Central College in East Peoria, whose faculty I had joined upon completing my English M.A. at Marquette in 1971.

At an English department meeting, the college president noted that traditional survey literature classes were declining in enrollment and that a remedy to that would be prudent. By the end of the meeting I had created a syllabus for Lit. 240: Fantasy Literature, featuring Tolkien (who I’d never read fully), C.S. Lewis, J.M. Barrie, T.H. White, Lewis Carroll, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market,” medieval ballads, “Merlin’s Prophecy,” and “The Land of Cockaigne.” The new course was accepted and offered for the coming spring term.

So now it was time to read those aged Tolkien paperbacks at last, since my students-to-be almost certainly had done so. And so I did over Christmas break.

You know what happened because it happened to most of you: for the first time but not the last, The Lord of the Rings revealed itself as arguably the best novel ever written and certainly the best mythopoeic story.

Rookie that I was, I wrongly thought that, like C.S. Lewis’ Ransom trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring was a discrete part of related stories that could be enjoyed separately. Wrong, Mr. Professor Man.

My fantasy literature class evolved into one on Tolkien alone in 1978 by student request. I taught it until a Balrog dean stifled it from 1997 until he was cast down into darkness and a newer, wiser dean revived it in 2001. I taught the JRRT course until I retired in 2005, reviving it for Bradley University in the fall terms of 2006 and 2008.

The first eight chapters featuring the four hobbits BA (Before Aragorn) are full of favorite scenes. Pressing harder, I will say the first pages of “A Long-Expected Party,” for those were the first I read when began studying Tolkien’s manuscripts in Marquette University’s Archives & Special collections during the summer of ’77 when I was 30. Paul Gratke, the archivist, asked we where I wished to begin and I said, “At the beginning,”

So when he brought out the holograph of chapter one and I saw the first page, with an ornate initial “W” beginning the sentence “When Mr, Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton,” I thought “This is it. This is what my whole life of loving and studying and teach literature has been leading me to.”

Thirty-eight years later, I feel the same.

“Far above the Ephel Duath in the West the sky was still dim and pale. There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end, the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was a light and high beauty for ever beyond its teach.” The Return of the King, chapter 2, “The Land of Shadow,” p. 922. (VI.ii.992)

In The Four Loves, Tolkien’s friend C.S. Lewis writes:

“Friendship arises out of mere Companionship when two or more of the companions discover that they have in common some insight or interest or even taste which the others do not share and which, till that moment, each believed to be his own unique treasure (or burden).  The typical expression of opening Friendship would be something like, ‘What? You too?  I thought I was the only one’.”[i]

With Tolkien, we discover we are not the only ones, but one of a legion.

Reducing The Lord of the Rings to a Christian allegory similar to C.S. Lewis’ Narnian tales is hardly satisfactory. One need not share the author’s faith to cherish his tale. Many other things are at work in it: Tolkien’s love of trees and loathing of technology, his enjoyment of good food, good friends, good cheer, and good beer, his evocation of the “little England” of the shires, his experiences in the trenches of World War One.

I have so many friends who are folks that I’d’ve never met if not for JRRT. Some of them contribute their own Tolkien tales below.

Perhaps the reason Tolkien has been popular with so many readers of such different backgrounds was the same then as it is now: The Lord of the Rings is, first, last and always, a great story.  Its themes—friendship, choice, power, nature, loss, salvation—are not of one time, but for all time.  The Road goes ever on.”

Matt Fisher, Greensburg Pennsylvania:

“1. What & when was the first Tolkien work that you read?

I first read The Hobbit in the summer of 1973 (when I was 13 years old), followed by all three volumes of The Lord of the Rings in the same summer.

2. A favorite scene?

Several immediately came to mind when I read this question: the time at Rivendell, the journey through Moria, the scouring of the Shire. But these are only a few of what I would consider favorite scenes.

3. A favorite line?

It’s been too long since I have read The Lord of the Rings for me to answer this question easily. I need to go back and re-read it.

4. Why should people read Tolkien?

Tolkien brings together so many different things in one work – questions of good and evil, what it means to try our best under conditions where we will almost certainly fail, war, pain, suffering, nobility. He does this in a way that draws both from old sources and traditions (Beowulf, the “Northern” thing) and modern events (e.g.,World War I). Tolkien’s work does what all great literature does; reading it enlarges our hearts, our imaginations, and our spirits. It changes our lives; reading Tolkien certainly changed mine. And it does that first and foremost through story, through myth.”

Dr. Adam Schwartz, Front Royal, Virginia:

The Fellowship Of The Ring, September 1995

Sam and Frodo on Mt. Doom after the destruction of the one ring, “at the end of all things.”

“Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among elves and dwarves and another among men.”

Tolkien renders the struggle between good and evil in a way that reveals the heroism and holiness of humility, disclosing that it is through love of home, nature,and friends that one gains the courage to renounce the will to power.”

Dr.  Amy Amendt-Raduege, Bellingham, Washington:

  1. An excerpt from The Hobbit (“Riddles in the Dark”) was in our 6th grade reader; I read the entire book in seventh grade, and then begged my parents for The Lord of the Rings when I was in eighth grade.  They wouldn’t buy it, so I used my Christmas money to buy the set for myself.
  2. “The Window on the West”
  1.   “…in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing:  there was light and high beauty forever beyond its reach”  (The Return of the King, VI, ii, 901).
  2. Because, in the end, The Lord of the Rings is about hope and the power that ordinary people still have to do extraordinary things, and that is worth remembering in an age when we are constantly bombarded by a media telling us only of how Good has failed.

Jennifer McDaniel, Peoria, Illinois:

“Sometime in the late 1970’s during my ninth year of life, I recall sneaking to my parent’s towering bookshelves to shiftily lift out what seemed the tomb of all paperbacks. This shelf was not off limits to me or my sisters, yet I knew I had crossed a boundary from the world of children’s picture books into the impermissible adult world by seeking out this cracked and worn volume.

My parents had never read this cluster of books, which were lent and recommended by a family friend, and I had no idea where to start. But I picked the volume that read The Two Towers for its cover drawing of the quaint and magical land I desired to enter. Unwittingly, I began one of the greatest tales told in the middle, and, confused albeit enamored, I traveled with Frodo and Sam for many chapters before surrendering to the overwhelming vocabulary and perforated story line. The book went back on the shelf, unfinished, but not forgotten.

A few years later, I ploughed through The Hobbit, and then the books of the Rings in order. I had discovered a story about humanity and kindness, resolve and perseverance, of the excruciating beauty of utter despair and silver glimmers of hope. Culminating toward the end of the hero’s journey, at Mount Doom, where poor Frodo is but a mere wraith of the hobbit he thought himself to be, he says:

“No taste of food, no feel of water, no sound of wind, no memory of tree or grass or flower, no image of moon or star are left to me. I am naked in the dark, Sam, and there is no veil between me and the wheel of fire. I begin to see it even with my waking eyes, and all else fades.”

We surely know that despair. Perhaps at some point in our life, it took a Samwise Gamgee to point us to the star of hope -Tolkien’s Stella Maris, his Galadriel, his Catholic faith and the starlight of Earendil – that jerks us into reluctant resolve to continue on.

There is good in the world and it is worth fighting for. If that is not reason enough to savor the provincial flavors of Frodo’s and our youth groping its way into a larger, more complex world, I do not know what is. This is no fantasy novel, but an ungarmented depiction of the best, humblest humanity coping in the worst of times.

I could not have known this at age nine, when life was fresh with more hope and less despair. But Tolkien’s steadily crafted words resonate for me now and ever.”


Rozanna Smith, Pekin, Illinois:

The Fellowship of the Ring, late 2004, although I vaguely remember reading part of the Hobbit at a younger age

Tom Bombadil rescuing Pippin and Merry from Old Man Willow is the scene that has stuck with me the most over the years

Gandalf : “You ought to go quietly, and you ought to go soon.”

In a world where popular fiction seems to be written with current events in mind, Tolkien is timeless and classic. It’s not easy to read, but it is easy to get lost in and become a part of the story.”

Deborah Sabo, Fayetteville Arkansas:


The Hobbit, 1965. One of my favorite scenes is the arrival of the Rohirrim at the battle of the Pelennor Fields—the horns in the distance when all seems lost. A favorite line, “The green earth, say you? That is a mighty matter of legend, though you tread it under the light of day.” (Spoken by Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Book III, Chapter 2.) I think people should read Tolkien for their own reasons, not for mine. But anyone who is nourished by the beauty and diversity of the English language—anyone who enjoys a rich and complex tale that plumbs unexpected psychological depths of “simple” characters, awakens landscapes etched with the marks of history, and that speaks to some of the most fundamental questions of human existence while at the same time never forgetting to engage with that most urgent question of “what happens next”—such a reader will not go away hungry.”

Dr. Donald T. Williams, Toccoa, Georgia:

“First book:  The Fellowship of the Ring, summer, 1968.

Favorite scene:  “The Field of Cormallen” when the minstrel begs leave to sing the lay of Frodo the Nine-Fingered and the Ring of Doom and Sam bursts into tears.

Favorite line:  “How shall a man judge what to do in such times?”  —  Eomer of Rohan.  “As he has ever judged.  Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear, nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men.”  —  Aragorn Dunadan

Why should people read Tolkien?  Because they will find in him more of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty incarnated per square inch of text than they will find in any other modern writer (with the possible exception of his friend C. S. Lewis).”



Anne Giffels, Chicago, Illinois:

“I first read “The Hobbit” in 1973.  I was assigned it to read by my ninth grade English teacher.  I was enchanted.

Oh, so many favorite episodes.  If I had to pick one, it would be the “Shadow of the Past” chapter.  I loved filling in the gaps.

Again, too many favorite lines..  Thorin: “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”

What is brilliant about Tolkien is that he can tell a wonderful story, while still teasing us that there is a larger story in the background.  You always want more.”

Garry Leonberger, Baton Rouge, Louisiana:

“I first read The Hobbit when I was nine years old, which would have been in 1995.

I think my favorite scene would have to be when Bilbo returns to Smaug’s lair in the mountain only to find the dragon very much awake and aware of his presence and earlier theft. The sheer power, both physical as psychological, that the dragon has, radiates through the words off the page, and yet Bilbo holds his own against the great monster. The poetic language Bilbo uses here in his riddle-like speech is entertaining, and also shows how far Bilbo has come from the chubby little Baggins who once occupied Bag End, and the danger of the dragon is palpable throughout.

A favorite line?:

“My armour is like tenfold shields, my teeth are swords, my claws spears, the shock of my tail is a thunderbolt, my wings a hurricane, and my breath death.”

The Hobbit, ch. 12, “Inside Information.”

Tolkien’s use of both descriptive language and poetry, both in song and elevated speech, is positively delightful. The pictures he paints with words light your imagination with a fire few others can spark. And, perhaps most of all, his world pulls you in, ever deeper, as if saying, “Oh, if you enjoyed this, wait until you see this, hear this story, meet this character,” and there is always more to discover and explore.”

Tom Burson, Rochester, Minnesota:

“I read The Hobbit first during my college [Bradley University] years.

I don’t have the books so can’t give you a direct quote.

The music is fascinating in the movies. I am sure someone has done a dissertation on the music by Howard Shore. He uses many leitmotifs like Wagner and his rich and varied orchestrations and instruments give it a wonderful richness like the Wagner Ring cycle.

I am more familiar with the movie versions and like Wagner and Verdi the drama and the music is intertwined making it something quite different than the original books. It would be wonderful to know what Tolkien would think of these wonderful cinematic realizations.

I hope he would approve, not being a purist myself.

Being very short, I approve of hobbits and dwarves.”

Harm J. Schelhaas, Amsterdam, The Netherlands:

  1. The Hobbit (in Dutch), April 1975.
  1. In “The Houses of Healing,” especially the scene with the herb-master. – [LR 5

VIII], esp. [LR 5 VIII:64-70]

  1. “Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among

Dwarves and Elves and another among Men. It is a man’s part to discern them, as much

in the Golden Wood as in his own house.” – Aragorn in Rohan [LR 3 II:175]

  1. While Tolkien’s stories are timeless as myths, and give us the opportunity to

contemplate human values, independent of whatever may burden us in our daily lives

in the here and now.

Linda Sailor, Washington, Illinois:

“1. The Hobbit, sometime in the early 1980’s.
2. The riddle scene with Gollum.
3. “Thief, thief, thief! Baggins! We hates it, we hates it, we hates it for ever!”
4. Tolkien had a way of creating worlds like no other writer. He designed Middle-earth, came up with all of the fantasy inhabitants, drew maps, created languages, timelines, and backstories. His stories were so well-written that he made the impossible appear to be possible. By the time I’d finished reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, I felt as though I had stepped into Tolkien’s make-believe land. I found it to be as real as my own mundane life. That was and is the magic of J.R.R. Tolkien.”




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