Books and Travel, Part 1: Birmingham and J. R. R. Tolkien

We’re on a month-long trip in the UK, mostly in Scotland. The trip started with books, those of J. R. R. Tolkien. My husband is a long-time Tolkien fan, often about the less-read items by “The Professor” as he’s often called, and especially the scholarly pieces about language and maps. Three years ago or so I gave him a membership in the Tolkien Society. This year the society celebrated its fiftieth anniversary with the Tolkien 2019 festival.. About 400 people from all over the world gathered in Birmingham. It was an interesting adventure. We heard lectures from Tolkien scholars of all varieties. There was a wonderful presentation of Tolkien’s little book about life, death, and friendship titled Leaf by Niggle. We heard a concert from The People’s Orchestra, an amateur group of musicians from all over the West Midlands. They played parts of the scores from The Lord of the Rings films.

One fun item was doing three-minute bits for an audio archive at Marquette University. Many years ago Marquette (in Milwaukee, Wisconsin) bought all of Tolkien’s papers and so has been the stewards of them ever since. The archivist thought it would be fun to have a record of how people first got to Tolkien and why they enjoy his writing. The goal is to have 4000 entries, a match with one story in the Ring books. There were three questions: When did you first read Tolkien? Why do you enjoy it? What does it mean for you? I talked about the winter of 1971-1972 in Minneapolis when several of us read The Fellowship of the Ring aloud by a fire with great cups of tea. My ongoing interest in Tolkien has mostly to do with his connection with the group known as “The Inklings”: C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, Owen Barfield, Gervase Matthews and, although she did not meet with them regularly, Dorothy L. Sayers. Sayers is my main interest, but it is fascinating to read and learn all the ways they connect. I also named how they have all influenced me theologically in my life as a Lutheran pastor.

Although everything was very interesting, there was a kind of “in-crowd” feel to it. That’s to be expected, I think, with any committed volunteer group that has, at its heart, people with a passion for a particular thing. All the meetings and events take place in the UK, so those of us who don’t travel for those are a bit on the outside. That changed for us at the banquet on Friday night. The table at which we sat included a couple from Lincolnshire who were 40-year members of the society and who had first met at a society meeting. And we had a wonderful conversation with a delightful young couple who are more recent members. They both are at the University of Birmingham, he on the staff and she as a professor of economics. She had moved to Birmingham from France for this job, and then discovered the Tolkien Society. She had first read the books when she was 9 and had continued her interest. They were such fun to be with, and the banquet gave us a new sense of inclusion among this very interesting group of people. I mentioned the “in-crowd” feel, and the young woman had an interesting observation. There are lots of “fandom” groups these days for almost every actor, singer, movie and book series. She said that many of those groups divide into particular interests: costumes for acting role, fans of the text/story, fans of the presentation (song, book, film), and that there isn’t a lot of connection or crossover. She noted that, in contrast, the Tolkien Society is completely inclusive, and that’s one thing she likes about it. I think that fits with the world of Middle Earth that Tolkien created, where Hobbits, Elves, and Dwarves learn how to live and work together in fellowship.

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