I want to see mountains again, Gandalf – mountains…I might find somewhere quiet where I can finish my book.
– J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
It’s the Children’s Book Council of Australia’s Book Week, something I should probably have known about but didn’t until I saw Tansy Rayner Roberts’s post ‘Book Week Blog Challenge’ on her blog here at http://tansyrr.com/tansywp/book-week-blog-challenge/. Her idea is to celebrate Book Week by blogging about the books of her childhood and collating the posts of any bloggers who want to contribute to the same theme. It is a FANTASTIC IDEA. I get to ramble through the yellowed, nostalgia-scented pages of my favourite childhood books and rant about how marvellous the authors are. How fun is that?
The thing is, the books you read when you’re small are important. They will probably affect the way you read for the rest of your life, whether you realise it or not. They create a world of personal touch points, more so now than maybe any other point in literary history. I mean, look back a century or so and many people couldn’t actually read, or if they could, the only books they were likely to own were schoolbooks, the Bible, a few classics if they were lucky. Meanwhile the classically educated upper class, at least in the West, were likely to share a familiarity with the same works. Everyone had to know their Shakespeare, their Chaucer, their Dickens, walking the straight and narrow road to a collective literary identity. Not so much now. There are a million genre off-shoots to explore, mainstream paperbacks sharing a paper and ink ecosystem with small press and self-publishing. A reader burrowed into the endless caverns of fantasy or romance or crime is, in my opinion at least, just as relevant as those who walk the highlands of Tolstoy and Woolf.
My point is, this is a world that is teeming with stories. Every kid will be drawn to something different. I was the sort of child who learned to read more or less by osmosis. For context’s sake, the house where I grew up had books in almost every room, crammed into the limited number of shelves with increasing creativity. When we ran out of space for bookcases, we put one in front of a window. Because who needs sunlight when you have nowhere to put your history section? The first thing I can remember playing with is this thick brick of a book that I used to carry everywhere. I couldn’t actually read it. I still can’t. It’s an anthology of early Middle English verse and prose, for pity’s sake, but the little three or four year old me just loved the way it looked and felt in my hands. I suppose for a book to count as the favourite of my childhood, however, I should have managed to get past the front cover.
So what to choose? There are so many. I read so much Enid Blyton that for a while I made a serious attempt to rebrand dinner as ‘supper’ (yes, it failed). I competed with my siblings over who could finish reading each Harry Potter first and drew up my own broom catalogues, inventing my own models to exist alongside the Nimbus Two Thousands and Silver Arrows. I pilfered my mother’s copy of Margaret Mahy’s Raging Robots and Unruly Uncles and kept borrowing the Wonderland sequel Through the Looking Glass until she broke down and gave me one. More than once I re-read my way through the entire series of Laura Ingalls Wilder books, plotting survival techniques for a long winter that might have come in handy if I had lived on the Dakota prairies but ended up being a little superfluous in south-east Queensland, where temperatures dipping below 20ºC are our cue to dig out the woolies.
If I have to choose, though, and choose just one book to define my childhood, it must be The Hobbit.
I was a lucky child. My mother read to us so much when we were little that my brain must have accepted it as aural wallpaper, because I don’t really remember any of it. The only thing that I have concrete memories of hearing read aloud is Tolkien. I don’t know whether she’s reading Hobbit or The Fellowship of the Ring in those memories – yes, she read us both – but it was Hobbit that stuck with me. It’s the first book I can remember reading for myself. I can remember thinking something along the lines of ‘Finally! I can read the best bits as many times as I want!’ I did, too. Still do.
I love so much about Hobbit. I love the homesick dwarves singing of the mountains while Bilbo listens, bewildered but more than a little seduced by the adventure of it all. I love the mutton-hating trolls and mocking elves and foul-tempered goblins, who have serious territorial issues and make up sadistic rhymes to scare their prisoners like subterranean rappers. I love the riddles in the dark and the spiders in Mirkwood. And who reads that book without warming to Smaug, a dragon who is ancient and intelligent and actually just wants to sleep now he’s collected all the gold for miles around. Talk about a cushy retirement – until the dwarves turn up with their burglar, that is. I love the politics of it all, how good people do bad things and scary people can do good ones. Most of all I love that battle at the end. The Eagles are coming, the Eagles are coming…
There is a film version coming out in December. I have my doubts. Dividing the story into two parts, let alone the rumoured three, sounds a really stupid idea from where I stand – this is not LOTR and trying to make it more epic than it is could very easily wreck the gentle charm that makes me love it. I’ll be watching it anyway, of course, because Peter Jackson has made it and after watching the LOTR trilogy as many times as I have, including deleted scenes and documentary footage, I have immense faith in his abilities where interpreting Tolkien is concerned. I really, really hope he makes it work.
Even if he does, though, even if he brings it to life with such remarkable aplomb no one ever dares approach that book for a remake throughout the remainder of cinematic history, it won’t be my Hobbit. Every time I pick up that book, you see, I step into the world I made inside my head when I first read it. In that world – probably somewhere in Mirkwood – there’s a little girl who dreamed mountains out of printed paper. Mountains that soar skyward where the Eagles fly, with roots so deep even the goblins don’t know where they end. Mountains out of a myth.
I have always loved books. I always will. But it’s books like The Hobbit that remind me why.