Tolkien of Their Affection : Group Celebrates 25 years of Honoring the Fantasy Author

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Walking into Glen Goodknight's living room is much like strolling through a J.R.R. Tolkien novel. Scores of Tolkien characters live here--if only in framed depictions on walls and in the vivid imagination of Goodknight's weekly Tolkien discussion groups.

The group is one of three that have met in the area since the 1960s, when Tolkien's books "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy were cult favorites.

With a handful of Tolkien faithful circling the room as Goodknight intones Tolkien passages, the author's characters and scenes, drawn in vibrant oils and pastels, seem to come alive.

A white castle, tucked away in a mountainous forest, wreathed in mist, hangs above the fireplace. Tolkien himself is found nearby, poster-size, and his assorted characters--Gandalf, King Theoden, Eowyn, Bilbo and Frodo--romp and battle mystical forces near the entryway.

Largely through Goodknight's personal dedication, this is shaping up as a banner year for the late Oxford University professor and fantasy novelist who was born 100 years ago.

Just back from a weeklong Tolkien centenary celebration he organized in Oxford, England, Goodknight is gearing up for yet another party.

On Sunday, the Monterey Park resident will play host to the 25th celebration of his Mythopoeic Society, an international literary organization he founded to study and promote the works of authors Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams.

The event, from 1:30 to 6 p.m. at the South Pasadena Public Library, will focus mainly on Tolkien, who with Lewis and Williams were members of an Oxford University literary circle known as the Inklings. Mythopoeic, Greek for "myth making," merged with the Tolkien Society of America in 1972, and now has 900 members in 15 countries who gather annually for a four-day conference.

Goodknight's celebration will feature a reading from the "The Lord of the Rings' " epilogue, which is not scheduled to be published in the United States until November. The epilogue is the ninth volume of a 12-volume set being published posthumously by Christopher Tolkien, the author's son and literary executor. J.R.R. Tolkien died in 1973 at the age of 81.

For Tolkien devotees eager to learn more of hobbits--the short, furry-footed creatures who reside in Middle-earth, battle evil forces and crave "pipe-weed" (not marijuana, as imagined by readers in the 1960s when the books were highly popular)--the reading is a hallowed event.

"The epilogue tells what happens 20 years after the end of the book, tying up loose ends of many characters," said Goodknight, 50, who can sometimes be seen at celebrations dressed as Elrond, a favorite Tolkien character who resides in a magical refuge named Rivendell. "It's a very poignant and moving passage."

Goodknight's celebration will begin with a picnic on the library's lawn, followed by music, a slide show of highlights from the Oxford convention and readings.

Goodknight--whose 20-year-old daughter, Arwen, is named for a Tolkien character--suggests arriving costumed as a favorite Tolkien character. "And in the Hobbit tradition, bring your own food and drink, enough for yourself and someone who might wander by," said Goodknight, a teacher at Union Avenue Elementary near downtown Los Angeles.

Tolkien's books, now with 55 million copies in print translated into 32 languages, paved the way for the fantasy genre, which now makes up 10% of all paperback fiction sales. Tolkien began "The Hobbit" as a story he told his children, later publishing the book in 1937.

"The Lord of the Rings," a trilogy, was published in 1954. The Anglo-Saxon language scholar also wrote "The Silmarillion," a novel about Middle-earth history. Williams, the least known of the three authors studied by the society, published seven novels and two volumes of poetry that deal with the supernatural.

"All three of the authors' books are popular because of their optimistic viewpoint," said Goodknight, who often shares Tolkien's works with his pupils. "They teach us not to despair and to enjoy the good in life, despite the discouragement of the bleak world that's often presented to us."

Other readers have become entranced with the elaborate Runic language systems that are the foundations for Tolkien's books.

"It was the language of Middle-earth that came to Tolkien first, before the plot lines and the characters," said Paul Nolan Hyde, director of the Institute of Religion in Los Angeles and linguistic editor of Mythopoeic's quarterly publication, Mythlore. "He invented a world where those languages could be spoken, where they would work."

Like other Tolkien readers, Hyde has proved his passion for the author in extraordinary ways, including scores of essays that detail "phonological superstructures" and the "morphological elements" of Tolkien's invented languages.

Mythlore, a slick, 70-page journal dedicated to Tolkien, Lewis and Williams, is packed with essays that probe hidden meanings in the authors' works. The Tolkien centenary issue is filled with tributes lauding the impact the author has made on readers.

One reader completed an exhaustive glossary of Tolkien's fictional words; another rereads Tolkien's books annually. Glendale resident Paula DiSante said she became a "different person" after she "inhaled the book" in high school.

"I find the works very cinematic, very visual and fun to interpret in my own way," said DiSante, an artist who has completed 40 drawings depicting Tolkien scenes for Mythlore. "I really love the characters and love the idea of a pseudo-medieval quest. It's the feeling of romantic adventure that keeps me rereading his books."

Goodknight publishes Mythlore from his home, a sort of Tolkien museum with about 700 Tolkien books published in 29 languages. "I'm only missing the Armenian, Moldavian and Faroese (spoken on islands near Iceland) versions," Goodknight said.

Goodknight first read Tolkien's works in 1957.

"I had been reading science fiction in high school, but Tolkien was a total shock and revelation to me," he said. "Tolkien simply writes a very good story--the huge background and settings of his books really overtook me. I searched for a year for similar books before finding the 'Narnia Chronicles' by C.S. Lewis."

He endured 10 years of "frustrating isolation" until he organized a birthday party for Tolkien's central hobbit characters, Bilbo and Frodo. Held at a park near his home, the 1967 celebration marked the founding of his society.

During the 1960s, about a dozen Tolkien discussion groups met in Southern California. Now, just three such groups meet monthly, all in the San Gabriel Valley.

Goodknight said he often encounters others who label readers of fantasy fiction as escapists.

"Some people say, 'Why are you wasting your time with this stuff? It's not real life,' " Goodknight said. "But in one of his essays, Tolkien asks the burning question: 'Why should a man be scorned, if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home?'

"I think the prison he talks about is this limited, materialistic viewpoint of the world we have. Through his books, Tolkien is revealing the deep-seated human desire to escape from that way of living. He sees life from a higher level."

For Goodknight, Tolkien's writing is like the key to the prison door. "By reading and being absorbed in fantasy, we're not deserting the real world, we're trying to make it better by opening up new and higher vistas."

For more information on the Mythopoeic Society, its 25th anniversary celebration or area Tolkien discussion groups: (818) 571-7727.

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