It started when I saw the new movie of The Hobbit. Although I was in the middle of another book at the time–a new book, adult fiction, just the kind I always think I should read to keep up with my field–I couldn’t help it; I started to re-read The Hobbit. Never mind that I’ve probably read it upwards of a dozen times. I was completely enchanted, and I’m sorry (sort of) to say that I ditched the other book altogether.
After finishing The Hobbit, I wanted to remain in the world of honor and heroes for a while, and to re-visit some old friends. What to read next? I could’ve read The Lord of the Rings again, for the umpteenth time, but I just did that last summer. It occurred to me to re-read Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles: The Book of Three; The Black Cauldron; The Castle of Llyr; Taran Wanderer and The High King. I loved them as a child, and I handsell them whenever I can, but I’d forgotten much about them. I thought I could handsell them even better if I re-read them. Or maybe this was just an excuse to journey back to Prydain, land of Taran, the Assistant Pig-Keeper who wants to be a hero, and his endearing companions Fflewdur Fflam, the wandering bard; shaggy, amusing, loyal Gurgi; and, of course, the feisty Princess Eilonwy of the red-gold hair, with whom I always (naturally) identified.
As I read these childhood favorites, I’m amazed at the integrity and loyalty of the characters. No wonder they feel like old friends. I would be lucky indeed to have friends so true and faithful.
Reading these books reminds me of friends who introduced me to them, or with whom I experienced them. My sister and I read The Hobbit at our parents’ recommendation, and we learned of The Lord of the Rings from our friend Jim, who lived in our barn at the time. He was a tall, lanky teen with a restless spirit and had just moved away from home. Jim had some books in old milk crates in the barn, and when he heard we loved The Hobbit, he offered to loan us his set of The Lord of the Rings. Excited, we asked him who his favorite character was. “Strider,” he said. We were puzzled–we hadn’t met Strider in The Hobbit–but after encountering him, we could see why our part-wild friend liked this Ranger who lived outdoors and wandered up and down The Wild.
I don’t remember who introduced us to the Prydain Chronicles, or if we found them on our own at the library. I do remember going to the Disney movie The Black Cauldron with our friend Staci. Afterwards, the three of us talked often of “crunchings and munchings,” just as hungry Gurgi does in the story. So as I re-read these books, I think of Staci, who is my oldest friend. Though I haven’t seen her since we were teenagers, we keep in touch on Facebook, and it’s wonderful to have a friend who’s known me this long–practically as good as being part of Taran’s band of companions.
I also recall how the landscape Bilbo and the dwarves journeyed through in The Hobbit was, in my mind, very much like the northeastern Oregon landscape of my childhood. The Misty Mountains in the book took the shape of the Blue Mountains, and I imagined Mirkwood as an evergreen forest, regardless of how it is described as a dense deciduous forest. I had never encountered one. My native landscape permeated the story, and the story permeated my landscape to the point where I almost expected to meet dwarves, hobbits, or maybe a wizard going about their business in our mountain valley.
That’s something I treasure about books read in childhood. They get into your mind and heart in a way I haven’t experienced with books read as an adult. As a child, I consumed stories and they became part of me. The characters’ struggles, desires and triumphs became my own. When Taran apprenticed to a potter in Taran Wanderer, it filled me with a lifetime longing to do the same and compelled me to take pottery classes in high school and college. The determination and tenacity of Tolkien’s humble hobbits has encouraged me on many voyages and adventures, including backpacking trips in the mountains and my wonderful but sometimes homesick college trip to England, where I saw the landscape Tolkien had in his mind when he wrote his books!
Now I’d love to hear from you: what are some of your childhood favorites? How did they become part of your life?
Amanda MacNaughton started reading when she was four and hasn’t been able to give up the habit, so she’s had plenty of time to make book friends. She now works as a bookseller at Paulina Springs Books in Sisters and Redmond, where one of her favorite parts of her job is introducing people to new book friends.