Some reflections on a life changing book

Today is Bilbo Baggins’s Birthday and yesterday was the 75th anniversary of the publication of The Hobbit.

I found an image of the edition that I first read.

I first read The Hobbit when I was in 7th grade.  I have a clear memory of sneaking some pages during a wood-shop class.   The following summer, having read everything else I could get my hands on and longing intensely for The Silmarillion, I wrote to The Professor at the urging of my grandmother (the one who had given me sets of lp records of Shakespeare plays).  The professor wrote back.   I received his letter, an aerogramme, in September 1973, some days after he had died.  In his letter he wrote that he had to be brief because people were waiting for him in the car.  He went to Bournemouth and he died that same day.  I may have the last thing he ever wrote.

Tolkien’s books were one of those pivotal forces which veered me into a life changing path.

We have little cross-roads to face each day.  Every once in a while, we come to a major cross-road.  Occasionally we know that the choice is a big one.  Sometimes, however, we can only see how important that moment was through the long lens of retrospect.

Books have the power to change us.  They can seriously screw you up and they can seriously shake and sift you into someone new.

Parents: Choose and monitor carefully the books (and movies/shows/games) your children are into.

To get a handle on how to discern about books and children you might try looking at Michael O’Brien’s A Landscape With Dragons: The Battle For Your Child’s Mind.  (US HERE, US Kindle HERE, UK HERE UK Kindle HERE).  I am not entirely in sync with what O’Brien has to say, but overall all his book is useful in determining what books (etc.) are good for your children’s worldview and which could do them harm.

For adults, you might consider also a great book by Benjamin Wiker called 10 Books That Screwed Up the World: And 5 Others That Didn’t Help.  (US HERE, Kindle HERE, UK HERE, UK Kindle HERE).  Bad books can screw up individuals who, in turn and over time, can screw up other writers and then screw up the world.

In any event, celebrate Mr. Baggins’s birthday, perhaps with some ale, and say a prayer for the repose of the soul of J.R.R. Tolkien, a devout Catholic gentleman.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. The summer before the 5th grade, I went to a YMCA camp in a part of the world where the C still meant something. Each night the college kid who was in charge of our cabin would read to us for about 30 minutes after lights out, and he read “The Hobbit.” It changed my life, and somehow I knew it was happening while he read to us.

    When I got home from camp, I asked my mother to take me to a book store (You remember book stores?) to buy my own copy of “The Hobbit”, and what to my wondering eyes should appear but three more books in a boxed set! I did not grow up in a Catholic family, and I very much doubt that I would be a Catholic today — let alone a priest — without Tolkien. Thank you, Professor.

  2. HeatherPA says:

    I have loved reading since I was four years old. I have passed that love to my children and also my husband, who wasn’t a reader until we married and he saw how much I read and how many books I came with :)
    To me, there is nothing like reading a book that has such an impact that one seems to stumble around in a haze for a few days, seemingly viewing the world through a Vaseline smeared lens. O’Brien’s “A Father’s Tale” did that to me last year. Hahaha.
    There appears to be fewer of us around these days. My youngest daughter, who is considering becoming a librarian, states she gets teased at least weekly for being a “book nerd”. Kids are genuinely confused as to why she loves to read books that she isn’t assigned. She loves Justin Fatica’s books, which she “stole” off her oldest brother’s nightstand.
    Bless you, Father.
    PS- we have that exact edition of “The Hobbit” too!

  3. a catechist says:

    A prayer for The Professor, indeed! And I pray regularly for Catholic authors, especially those in the rabidly materialistic field of speculative fiction: Michael Flynn, John Wright, and the mighty, redoubtable Gene Wolfe. Mr. Wolfe was a correspondent of The Professor, too.

  4. Rose in NE says:

    When my kids were little (maybe 11 and 8 yrs. old), we read The Hobbit together, taking turns reading the pages. We loved it. I think my son pretty quickly devoured everything by Tolkien that he could get his hands on.

  5. JonPatrick says:

    Slightly OT but if you go to the link to Amazon for “10 books that screwed up the world” and scroll down to the reviews, one of the reviewers who calls himself “the bishop” has a great comment on those who post bad reviews solely because the author is a Christian. If he really is a bishop, I would like to be in his diocese!

  6. Philangelus says:

    Do you have that letter framed and up on the wall? Because that’s amazing. I’d love to see it.

  7. scarda says:

    Nothing is more powerful to a forming mind than a glorious book, but so few parents and teachers exert themselves to put the best literature into children’s minds, and ultimately into their characters. Inspiring books put permanent marks on characters, and a memory replete with heroes is much better fortified against the attacks of the world.

  8. Cafea Fruor says:

    For me, it was Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. (I didn’t read the Hobbit until much later.) I was maybe ten when I was introduced to Narnia, and I remember that I wanted so very much to be involved in something big like that, something larger than myself and my own little world, and, most importantly, to be on the side of someone good like Aslan. Fabulous stuff!

  9. mamajen says:

    I was an avid reader from a young age, but it took me several tries to get through The Hobbit. I finally read The Lord of the Rings for the first time in college and after that powered right through The Hobbit, wondering why it had taken me so long to become interested. I read that same edition in your picture–it belonged to my dad.

  10. Mariana says:

    I’m in the happy postion of having read The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings first as a Lutheran, and then as a Catholic, it was such a revelation to read the books post-conversion! One for instance is at Crickhollow, when the hobbits have a bath

    Sing hey! for the bath at close of day
    That washes the weary mud away!
    A loon is he that will not sing:
    O! Water Hot is a noble thing!

    and then ‘supper in the kitchen on a table near the fire’ with lots of mushrooms.

    As a Lutheran I was sure cold water was much more virtuous than that Water Hot is a noble thing : ) !

  11. Mariana says:


    You have made my day, my year!!

  12. rcg says:

    That letter story is one of the coolest things I have ever read.

  13. Finarfin says:

    I forgot that it was Bilbo’s birthday today! In that case, if memory serves, it’s also Frodo’s birthday. I have read The Hobbit only once, unfortunately. My access to Tolkien’s legendarium is restricted to The Lord of the Rings and the Silmarilion, for now. I have begun reading Tolkien’s books since 5-6th grade, and it’s certainly influenced me, though I cannot quite put my finger on exactly how. Sometimes things work subtly, just like the wizards. That is so cool, by the way, that you perhaps have the last thing JRR Tolkien wrote.

  14. PAT says:

    The prequel to Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” movie trilogy, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is to be released and in theaters on 14 December 2012. Many of the cast members from “The Lord of the Rings” are in the same roles, including Gandalf (Ian McKellen), Frodo (Elijah Wood), Legolas (Orlando Bloom), Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Saruman (Christopher Lee), old Bilbo (Ian Holm), and Gollum (Andy Serkis). There are two trailers out and available on the trailers page for Apple, and probably some other Web sites.

  15. Matthew78 says:


    As a former Lutheran myself and a convert to Catholicism, I had an experience very similar to yours in regards to reading Tolkien. His works awake in the soul the sense of longing for the otherness, for the transcendence, that so often leads one to the Church, especially through the Eucharist. Perhaps his holy mother Mabel, herself a convert from the Baptist tradition, had some influence in guiding his work after her death. He once said of her: “My own dear mother was a martyr indeed, and it is not to everybody that God grants so easy a way to his great gifts as he did to Hilary and myself, giving us a mother who killed herself with labour and trouble to ensure us keeping the faith.”

  16. Jay E says:

    That is one of the coolest things I have ever heard. I wish I had been alive to write to him. No other books have had such a profound impact on me. They are one of the primary reasons I am a Catholic today.

  17. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    Pater, that was the one I read, too, (in 9th grade) tho the cover fell off my second time thru.

  18. lhuizenga says:

    If possible — if the letter is in a state of repair where you could put in on the glass — you should make a copy and send it to the Wade Center at Wheaton College (501 College Avenue, Wheaton, IL 60187), where they archive a lot of letters and personal memorabilia from CS Lewis, Tolkien, Dorothy Sayers, George MacDonald, et al. It’d be of interest, I think, to researchers.

  19. Scarltherr says:

    Ive read the Hobbit followed by TLOTR every fall since junior high, starting on the first day of the season. I love to be reading Tolkien as the leaves change and the frosts come. I usually prepare a nice roast with mushroom sauce in honor of the trolls’ mutton. And baking bread before reading about the fair white loaves of the elves is a necessity. Fr. Z, I wish you would share, if you can, a scan of your letter. that must be the coolest possession for a Tolkien fan!. By the way, my home-school literature class of junior high aged children will finish Tolkien’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight this week. May God rest his soul.

  20. Johnno says:

    Catholics need to be more involved with and regain pop culture. Were the early Church here today, with the Popes that commissioned and had built the magnificent Cathedrals, stained glass windows, statues, sculptures, music and other works of art that last endearingly to this day… they would be the ones at the forefront of popular entertainment, transforming the culture with the commissioning of comic books, cutting edge video games, high quality Stereoscopic 3-D films and much more with the greatest artisans of our time! This is where your children are, and the Church’s influence is sadly absent from there… It’s time to take it back.

  21. Pingback: Some reflections on a life changing book | Fr. Z’s Blog – What Does The Prayer Really Say? | The Average Catholic

  22. Rich says:

    A scan of that letter from JRRT accompannying the post would be neato…

  23. boko fittleworth says:

    I’m drinking PBR from a can after a long day, and it’s going down easy. To the Professor! Ah, that was a proper fourteen-twenty, that was.

  24. Volanges says:

    I was an avid reader – internet has interfered, I’m afraid – and was introduced to Tolkien by my high school English teacher. Although I greatly enjoyed The Hobbit, I am one of those literal people who never got more out of it than a good story.

    I was never able to make it past the prologue of Lord of the Rings though I own a copy and have attempted it several times. I should really try it again with new eyes.

  25. Mariana says:


    You could just skip the Prologue and start at Chapter 1, When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence,… and read the Prologue later.

  26. Suburbanbanshee says:

    The prologues to LOTR are a funny bit that’s mostly there for those who’ll find it funny; a serious bit for those who aren’t convinced that fantasy is worthwhile or who insist on having trouble understanding the moral of the story; and a comment about the Ace legal-but-unauthorized editions.

    Somewhere, I think Tolkien has a comment about readers feeling free to skip all prologues in both fiction and non-fiction, as they are usually more useful after you’ve read the book. There’s a long tradition of such prologues in fantasy. (For example, Eddison has a huge load of pre-story material that can be usefully skipped, when you first read The Worm Ouroboros.)

  27. Athelstan says:

    “I may have the last thing he ever wrote.”

    Now *that* is a hard one to top.

    I hope you keep that letter very well protected.

    I read The Hobbit at a younger age than that. I enjoyed it so much that I immediately dived into the only other Tolkien work I could get my hands on – The Fellowship of the Ring. I drifted to a halt somewhere during “The Shadow of the Past,” which seemed a good deal more intense or stylistically dense than anything in The Hobbit. But I imagine that the good don did not intend LOTR for most eight year olds.

    A few years later, I picked up Fellowship again, and didn’t stop until I reached the end of the appendices (apparently I was old enough for it to click). For a number of years, revisiting it became an annual pleasure. And reading Humphrey Carpenter’s edited collection of letters became instrumental in my journey back into the Church. But I know I’m not the only one of whom that’s true.

  28. aragonjohn7 says:

    Yay I love lord of the rings !!!

    Fascinating to have something a servant of the Lord wrote before he died Fr.

    God bless

  29. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Dates were important to Tolkien – the Ring destroyed on what, “in the fullness of time, would become” the Feast of the Annunciation, for example – but so was the awareness that the ‘mythopoet’ is a ‘subcreator’ who can never do more than consciously draw on part of the Creation.

    I wonder if it was plan or purely Providence that the Bagginses were born on what “would become” the Feast of, variously, St. Maurice and Companions, and St. Thomas of Villanova, that very admirable Keeper of the Santo Caliz Grail as Archbishop of Valencia (the first in residence for around a century, and following the likes of Rodrigo and Cesare Borgia in the See!)?

    The cover illustration of that edition (with the unauthorial ’emu’s’ or whatever) put me off trying The Hobbit for many a year! Better late than never (who knows, perhaps at just the right time)! Curiously it was an atheist Tolkien fan who finally got me to pay attention…

  30. David Zampino says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this story, Father. I was in 8th grade when I first read “The Hobbit” and just recently re-read it for the umpteenth time. I suspect that I’ve gone through “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Silmarillion” 20+ times each as well. To say nothing of “Farmer Giles”, “Smith of Wooten Major”, “Leaf, by Niggle”, etc., etc.

    Whenever I teach a “Theology 1001” class (like I’m doing now), part of Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories” is required reading, as is “Leaf, by Niggle”.

    I have the good fortune to have access to the library at Marquette University where many of the original manuscripts are archived. One of my most prized possessions is a large photograph of Tolkien, which was given to me by the former Marquette archivist. [Great! I visited the archive with a friend when I was in High School in the ’70s. I have a vivid memory of holding in my hands original manuscripts, drawings, his model of the Book of Marzarbul, reading an unpublished epilogue about Sam finally knowing it was time to go to the havens and over the sea. If I recall correctly, there is also a large collection of things about Abraham Lincoln there, too.]

    A number of years ago, I visited Oxford, and the library in which I was doing research (Pusey House) was literally next door to “The Eagle and Child” pub. I also walked down to the cemetery where the Professor, his wife Edith, and his son, Fr. John Tolkien are buried. I can’t wait to be able to return.

    Thanks again for your story.

  31. Lirioroja says:

    I missed this since I’m offline on the weekends. Ah, this would explain why I have an itch to read The Hobbit again. It’s not just movie mania after all. I did not read Tolkien until I was an adult, however I was a rather young adult having just turned 22 years old when I finally got around to reading the epic tales of Middle Earth. I cried when I finished the trilogy because I didn’t want to say good-bye to my new friends and to this amazing world that almost seemed real. I did walk around in that haze that HeatherPA mentioned. That first Sunday at Mass after reading the trilogy though was a breakthrough for me – thanks to Tolkien the Mass suddenly was more real than anything I’d ever experienced. Every time I read The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, or The Silmarillion I can sense that my view of the world is much more focused.

    I too would love to see a scan of the letter The Professor wrote you. That is such an awesome relic.

  32. smmclaug says:


    I think the answer is fairly simple to why it was such a weariness for you to power through The Hobbit: You were not a boy. It is not an ignoble thing, simply a “difference of temper,” as the Professor himself put it.

  33. Mariana says:

    “…reading an unpublished epilogue about Sam finally knowing it was time to go to the havens and over the sea.”

    Swoon! Please, Father, what did it say?

  34. David Zampino says:

    Father Z.,

    I don’t know when you were last in Milwaukee, but the archives at Marquette have been greatly expanded, as has the Tolkien collection itself. After Christopher Tolkien completed editing his 12-volume “History of Middle-Earth” series, he sent the material which pertained to “The Lord of the Rings” to the Marquette Archives, feeling that to do so was in the “spirit” of the agreement his father had made with Marquette. If you’re ever in the Milwaukee area, please let me know, and I’d be glad to arrange for a tour. (I’d also take you out for a glass of something hobbit-friendly!


    The epilogue has now been published. It is in the volume entitled “Sauron Defeated” which is part of the 12-volume “History of Middle-Earth” series edited by Christopher Tolkien. You also might be interested in “The New Shadow” which was supposed to be a sequel to “The Lord of the Rings” but was abandoned after only 30 pages or so. That can be found in the volume “The Peoples of Middle-Earth”.

    Finally, there is an incredible section in the volume entitled “Morgoth’s Ring” called “Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth” which, believe it or not, discusses the Incarnation!

  35. Imrahil says:

    Dear @Venerator Sti Lot,

    a book with as many battles and true fortitude as the Lord of the Rings and the Feast of the General of the Theban Legion… coincidence?

    Everyone decide for himself.

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