It could be said that my family begins with Tolkien. It begins in early October 1965, with an adventure across California to the foothills, up into the great Sierras and down into Yosemite Valley with its eoten evergreens and golden understory of black oak.
My newlywed parents set about their new life as they meant to go on together - with humble, celebratory abundance. They planned out a honeymoon that would let them see "the great mountains and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls". Already, this story has a familiar ring to it...
From the altar at St. Paul's Catholic Church, to their first supper of roast chicken at the Castro Street apartment, to a train trip across the state, and a bus wending down to a homely cabin, they began their adventure together. October is when the first snows come to the mountains, and Caren had packed a dark quilted jacket that set off the red-gold of her hair. Stephen had packed something special, too - a paperback edition of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit.
Stephen had been an avid fantasy reader since boyhood, and before The Lord of the Rings had reached its tenth publishing anniversary, he had chanced upon paperback editions in a book rack on Market Street in San Francisco and loved them. By choosing to read The Hobbit to his new bride on their honeymoon, my father was setting the style of the family-to-come. There, in Yosemite, as they hiked and biked amid the sugar-pine scented air, my parents were beginning the traditions-to-be, of placing first priority on the quest for beauty in nature, of relishing private feasts, of living rich lives through the sharing of great books.
Tolkien's legendarium is a masterpiece, a grand saga, an epic travelogue, a philological phenomenon, a religious devotional, and for some readers, an invitation into lifelong meditation on the choice of what to do with the time we are given. For my parents, drawing from the same well of faith as the Professor, the choice has been made to spend their lives in a love and kindness that has been felt by everyone within their sphere.
What Caren and Stephen began on their Hobbit Honeymoon continues on like a mountain stream through the family, bringing gifts, refreshment and inspiration to their five children and many grandchildren.
By the time I was born, Tolkien's influence could be felt everywhere. Anyone who grew up in the 1970s and early 80s remembers that immersive fantasy world of Dungeons & Dragons, of Atari Adventure, of shops selling pewter wizard and dragon figurines with their crystal balls, of children's picture books like the Serendipity series or the Gnome books. It was in films. It was in prog rock. Faërie had become highly commercial, and the merits of that can be debated, but it did create an environment of imagination and sub-creativity for children which permitted us to believe beyond the everyday ugly-lamppost world of our highly industrialized society.
At home, my father read me The Hobbit before I could read a chapter book to myself, and a couple of years later, he continued with The Lord of the Rings, night after night, in the small, warm circle of light cast by my bedside lamp. My first memories of Tolkien are of my immediate allegiance with the hobbit folk, the disappearing lights of the elvish feast in Mirkwood, the splendor of Gandalf's fireworks, the long dark of Moria, and the sparkling enchantment of the meeting with Gildor Inglorion above Woodhall.
My family had moved north to the country then, ever in quest of beauty and nature, and I had been given a small plastic sword with a golden scabbard. I carried it with me on all of our hikes through the coast range, convinced that if I were very nimble and quiet, I would glimpse a hobbit around the next pine or oak and he would recognize me as one of the fellowship. I was, after all, Tulip the Hobbit on family game nights at the kitchen table around the Dungeons and Dragons graph paper maze. My elder sister invented her own orcs, called the "feast goblins", whom we had to be ready to defeat wherever they appeared. My big brother gave me my first glimpse of Tolkien art, with his collection of all the Hildebrandt Brothers calendars.
I was utterly terrified of their balrog, but found their warm, vivid depictions mesmeric. In fact, I believe the first Tolkien-inspired illustration I ever did in childhood was a copy of the Hildebrandts' Smaug as a gift for my brother. And I loved the Rankin-Bass Hobbit cartoon as a girl and still do. It may not be perfect, but there is a kernel of the true story in it, a charm, and some very lovely landscape work in the backgrounds.
My family's circumstances were very modest, but one thing we were rich in was books. My three sisters and I played at being Bennets and Marches, and at Christmas, Caren and Stephen created Dickensian feasts of roast beef, Yorkshire pudding and mince pies for friends and family. We were always, always reading, separately and to one another.
My father has an unforgettable reading voice, and my mother is a gifted artist and writer. Storytelling through words and art filled my childhood and I began illustrating my own stories as soon as I could hold some crayons. I was very touched when, many years later, I read that one of Tolkien's most prized possessions was a field guide to local flora, because the first book I ever created as a child was an ode to the flowers my mother taught me.
It's with amazement almost beyond words that I contemplate that in the fall of this year, 2023, the venerable Tolkien Society will be publishing a scholarly book with one of my paintings on the cover. My entire family is dancing the Springle-ring on the table in celebration.
Across the decades since the Hobbit Honeymoon, each member of my family has found something different in Tolkien. At the least provocation, it is a subject all of us will talk about, passionately. My heart goes out to guests of my favorite Tolkien podcast, The Prancing Pony Podcast, when the hosts ask how the people in their lives react to the their love of these works and they respond that they are just tolerated. I wish I could invite them all to a family party, but I suppose this is what Oxonmoot is for.
As for me, there are so many themes in Professor Tolkien's works that have resonated with me as an adult and so much I have learnt from my study of the outstanding Tolkien scholars of our day. The languages are one theme, and I spent my own honeymoon teaching some Sindarin to my groom. The "fundamentally religious and Catholic" origin of The Lord of the Rings has been a subject of prayer and meditation for me, along with the breathtaking beauty of the conception of The Music of the Ainur that began his sub-created world. And I've been dwelling lately on whether Tolkien's reverence for nature could be an effective rallying cry for the downfall of the fossil fuel industry and the healing of Climate Change.
But when I get to my own deepest roots in my family origin story, I find myself still a rather rustic hobbit who is innately attached to comfort and simple beauty. Love, loyalty, mercy, goodness, cheer, plenty of food for all, hardihood in adversity, quiet, and green, growing things are where my heart lives and where I let my mind live in my work as a Tolkien illustrator.
Through the happiness of getting to know other Tolkien readers, I've learned how many of us there are with these hobbit priorities for life. For some of us, it seems it isn't the "fantasy" of Tolkien that captures us, but the longing for a reality of peace and plenty and very simple pleasures. I have been especially gratified to speak with peers who share my view that a key fault of the Jackson films, for all their many successes, is that they are wall-to-wall orcs and ugliness with too little time spent on the periods of what Dr. Veryln Flieger calls "recovery, escape, and consolation" and too few glimpses of the beauty that make Middle-earth (our Earth) so worth saving.
What my parents have taught me is that every new couple can have a Hobbit Honeymoon. Every new family can make reading and talking about good vs. evil a norm and a necessity that helps shape the worldview of children so that they have hobbit hearts and hobbit courage in any Age. Humbleness, kindness, and protection of all that is good can follow, and our debt to J.R.R. Tolkien is immense for sowing so many questions, quests, and ideals into the fertile soil of a few treasured volumes.
I'd like to close by sincerely welcoming all of you to my new website. I feel so blessed to be getting to spend some of the time that's been given to me in illustrating Tolkien's stories that have been so much a part of my family's own tale. I hope you will enjoy looking at my work and that you will always be finding new ways and more room in your life to live as much like a hobbit as you can as often as you can. My parents, I'm sure, had no idea all that they would set in motion with their own adventure to the misty Sierra mountains, but that little act of intention of taking The Hobbit along to share has had some very happy results. Small things can mean so much.