My discovery of Tolkien was chiefly through my brother. Like a lot of younger siblings I suppose, I idolised my elder ones – him in particular, and spent many of my earlier years hanging on his every word. Things changed, as they inevitably do when we both became older and in turn desired more personal space, literally and figuratively. But for five or six years we shared a room and lived in each other’s heads, after a fashion. Second-hand I learned about machines, history (wars, mainly), school ground politics and the exploits of his friends (who all seemed so much more daring and clever and funny than mine). I learned about which music was best and what happened in movies I wasn’t allowed to stay up and watch, and in the dim orange bedside lamplight of our room I learned scarier things too. The "Bomb" that mankind had made which could destroy anything, but couldn’t be disposed of itself (“you couldn’t even shoot it into space”), and of course I was told the story of The Lord of the Rings.
This is the edition we had at home – bought, I think, by him as a school prize in third form. The cover drew me in, seemingly infinite in perspective and possibility – a window into a mountainous and green world framed by arching trees, with strange creatures (Gollum?) playing among their roots. The potted version of the story I was told had Gandalf the Wizard, a Hobbit called Frodo and a creature called Gollum who plotted secretly to himself to steal back the Ring, and a cool Elf called Legolas. And it had Orcs “evil things like goblins, but with faces like a mix of men and animals”, and their shadowy overlord “Soaron”, the real Lord of the Rings who watched over everything in a tower on the other side of Middle Earth. Expressive gesticulating hands casting shadows over the bedroom walls, and increasingly hushed tones after the lights went out; somehow it’s this version which has stayed with me – gripping, imaginative, as full of possibility as that book jacket, far more than the book I eventually read and read again, or the film adaptations I watched. None of them conveyed the same mystery or creepiness or heroism that my brother was able to over those summer nights, not long before we’d move into our own rooms and everything would change again.
In times to come I’d be relayed more stories – synopses of whatever he’d been watching – Monty Python, Rocky Horror, The Who’s Tommy, and after that his D&D games with some of those self-same schoolmates (God how I envied him!) All of them eventually discovered by me in time, but somehow diminished with it. First time is always the best, and so many of them never lived up to those early lights-out re-tellings. I still think he's one of the best storytellers I know, and so this post is for him.
Happy birthday, big brother.