Back in the spring and summer of 1981, when Bag End and the Misty Mountain were still just a twinkle in Peter Jackson’s eye, the BBC broadcast an epic adaptation of JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings on Radio 4. Twenty-six weekly instalments, each stuffed like a rich plum pudding with the succulent voices of English luvvies, laced with an operatic musical score from the late, great Stephen Oliver. For me and my younger brothers and sister those thirteen hours became the regular refrain in the soundtrack of our childhood (along with John Denver’s Take me Home, Country Roads and the Neil Diamond Jazz Singer LP) because my Dad recorded each episode onto cassette and we listened to them over and over, for the next ten years.
It was no mean feat for my Dad to get each episode recorded with the precision that he did because The Lord of the Rings was broadcast on Sundays at noon, and, for reasons that no-one in my family can now remember but which may have had something to do with my parents’ unholy desire to regularly dump us kids at Mrs Hoare’s Sunday School (The Headmistress of the village primary was a Mrs Hooker—that was how we rolled in the village of Bramber circa 1981), we were obliged to be a church-going family on every fourth Sunday of the month. And if you think that was a long sentence, you should have heard some of the sermons delivered by our lovely, but slightly doddery vicar. Sometimes church over-ran, and during those LOTR-on-the-radio months my dad would get very twisty and turny in his pew. There would be much flicking up of sleeve to stare at watch, copious finger drumming on hymnals, and eventually, to my Mum’s shame, Dad would slip out of the end of our pew, make a kind of inappropriate genuflection (we were C of E) and skulk off towards the heavy wooden doors that lead to freedom. How we envied him.
I was eleven years old in 1981 and had already read The Hobbit in Mr Lloyd’s class during the first year of Juniors. Oh, Mr Lloyd, where are you now? You weren’t the teacher who taught me to read, but you were the one who taught me to love reading. For an entire term you ended each school day by reading out loud a chapter from The Hobbit, and the class sat spellbound as your Welsh lilt intoned the adventures of Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf and their dwarf companions. We thrilled to the descriptions of Mirkwood and the murderous spiders, we laughed at the names of the dwarves, and our stomachs rumbled at the descriptions of Bilbo’s famous larder. You didn’t get to the end of the book though; one day you just said that if we wanted to find out what happened we’d have to finish the book for ourselves. A canny move that filmmaker Peter Jackson would go on to adopt years later in his own dealings with the book.
By the time The Lord of the Rings was on the radio both my brothers had also passed through Mr Lloyd’s class and discovered The Hobbit for themselves, and John, who would have been about nine at the time, had taken up the gauntlet and run with it, embarking on The Lord of the Rings itself, much to my parents’ pride and my petty chagrin. I eventually read it when I was about thirteen, which meant that while most of my contemporaries were passing around well-thumbed copies of Hello God, it’s me Margaret, I was getting my romantic kicks from the courtship of shieldmaiden Eowyn and battle-scarred Faramir, not to mention lusting over Strider and wandering around in the woods near my home dreaming about Elves. I was a Tolkien Geek, when it was in no way chic to be a geek.
As we grew up, I think all four of us went through various Tolkien denial periods. We laughed along with the school friends who said The Hobbit was for little kids, and openly jeered the Dungeons and Dragons lunchtime club. We certainly didn’t broadcast the fact that on rainy Sunday afternoons or long car journeys we still liked to listen to those Lord of the Rings tapes, or that Tolkien infused our lives at home. Dad’s new car was christened Shadowfax after Gandalf’s miraculous horse—a lot to live up to for a pre-loved Peugeot 305, and the family goldfish was of course Frodo. Dad collected beautifully-illustrated books of Tolkien’s world and we pored over them, taking it in turns to sit in the tub chair in his study surrounded by his country music collection and science fiction journals. Okay, so it was a shady family secret but it kept us kids happy in the days before social media and the Xbox. But the years passed and one by one the four of us left home. University happened, falling in love, moving to far away cities to start new lives with new friends. The Lord of the Rings tapes grew dusty on Dad’s study shelf. Or I assume they did, because to be honest I was too busy being sophisticated and ironic in London to have cared all that much at the time.
And then Peter Jackson came along. I can’t remember who it was who suggested that we all went to see The Fellowship of the Ring together, and at first it seemed like a crazy idea—we all lived in different towns and the only date everyone could make was Christmas Eve. Traffic would be bad, Dad warned, the turkey wouldn’t cook itself Mum chipped in. “But we have to go,” somebody whined. And so we did, and it was brilliant. We did it again the next year and the one after that. It was a new family ritual at a time when the old ones were quietly dying out. In fact, though we didn’t realise it at the time, going to see The Return of the King in 2003 was probably the last time all six of us went out together as a family without the additions of girlfriends, boyfriends, wives and husbands. A line of Womersleys in the middle of a multiplex in Brighton. And even though Mum fell asleep before the trailers had finished and Dad grumbled about the parking it felt great to be there.
Last year when the first part of The Hobbit came out only my sister Helen was available to go and see it with me. Dexter, of course, is much too young and his Dad is definitely not a Tolkien fan. Perhaps he senses that he can never compete with the power of The One Ring, and so has decided to leave well alone. Helen was a little bit pregnant this time last year; in fact she did well to last the entire film—which as we all know is luxuriantly long—without a loo break. She hadn’t however realised that the film was only the first one in a trilogy, and confessed to becoming a bit panicky when the film was into its third hour and The Company had still to reach Mirkwood. We both loved the film and berated our brothers afterwards in texts and emails for not being able to come too.
A year later and I have two more beautiful nieces, but no-one to go to the cinema with—the youngest generation is still too young, and their parents and grandparents too tired or busy or both. A couple of years ago Dad sold his hardback copies of The Lord of the Rings at a local auction, I wish I had known he was going to do that because I would definitely have placed a bid, and nobody is quite sure what happened to the tapes. But the obsession lives on, at least for me—and so does my old Mr Lloyd-era copy of The Hobbit which I am currently re-reading and loving all over again. If you haven’t read it, then you really, really should. But if you do and you don’t like it—please don’t tell me.
Whichever book you’re reading this Christmas I hope it inspires and transports you, and Mr Lloyd, wherever you are, Hapus Nadolig and thank you.