OK, I must confess, as a teenager I flirted with prog rock. My friends were fans of Genesis, ELP and the like and, since the main topic of conversation was the “hidden meaning” of all those pretentious lyrics, I had little choice. Anyway, I was doing music A-level, which taught me that if music sounded boring it must be worth listening to again. And again, and again. (If only I'd spent my sixth-form years listening to Bowie. I quickly made up for lost time after leaving school. A year or so later, studying music at university, I was transcribing early church music by day, while pogo-ing with the best of them to Slaughter and the Dogs by night).
The other cultural “must have” among my school peer group was a copy of Lord of the Rings. This, I resisted. Some of my friends read it, others flicked through it, in awe of the hundreds of pages of dense prose. I resisted it. I might have cultivated an appreciation of indifferent music in order to belong, but I didn't want to be seen as a fully paid-up hippy. The general assumption was that a book as thick as the paperback one-volume edition must be wise and good. Mine was that a book, that thick, about hobbits, elves and wizards must be, well, shite.
When I got married a few years later, a group of school-friends clubbed together and bought us a hardback three-volume copy of the blessed book as a wedding present. By then I was into The Velvet Underground, The Clash (for the, er, meaningful lyrics) and The Sex Pistols (for the raw energy). It was safe to read Tolkien.
Come the millennium, there were the inevitable, slightly -even very- silly discussions in the media as to what was the greatest novel of the twentieth century. (If nothing else, they serve as a reminder to read and enjoy things for what they are). There was a straight high-brow, low-brow split: it was either Joyce's Ulysses or - Lord of the Rings. I -silly sod- remember feeling very smug and yes, a tad elitist. I had read and rated both of them.
I had one reservation about Ulysses: Finnegans Wake, I reflected, was perhaps just a nose ahead. (I had read it by then - smugness knew no bounds). As for Lord of the Rings, my greatest reservation was (and still is) Sam and Frodo's seemingly endless traipse through the Emin Muil and Mordor, punctuated by Sam's servile words of encouragement: “It's not far Mr Frodo... Imagine what it must be like now in The Shire Mr Frodo... Oh, Mr Frodo... Mr Frodo!... etc.” I have read the book out loud from cover-to-cover twice and I can't quote it from memory, but it does go something like that. (It is, I think, the weakest thing about the film too, apart from the improbably narrow ledges on the cliffs and making The Shire look like Tellytubby-land).
Perhaps I'm even being unfair to Tolkien here. As he explained:
My Sam Gamgee is indeed a reflexion of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914 war, and recognized as so far superior to myself.
Lord of the Rings is the psychodrama of a man who had experienced the trenches of the First World War. I know this is an almost commonplace thing to say about the book now, but when you read it in that light the book gains its third dimension. It's teleological view of the world and its class perspective are unlikely to endear it to Guardian readers like myself but, despite the fact that it's a fantasy, it redeems itself many times over for me by its rootedness in experience. Take Sam's first sight of an enemy corpse:
It was Sam's first view of a battle of Men against Men, and he did not like it much. He was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man's name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil at heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace.
(I had forgotten about this passage: I came across it in an interesting online article about Tolkien and the war).
If the trek across the Emyn Muil is always the low-point for me, there are certainly high points to make up for it. I must admit to getting goose-pimples whenever I even think about the business with the sword when Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli come across the Riders of Rohan for the first time (The Two Towers, Chapter 2). I was going to quote the passage but that would be unfair to it. Standing alone, it reads like cod fantasy. Tolkien the Anglo-Saxon scholar goes to a lot of trouble to prepare the scene and the fate of that world turns upon its outcome.
There are many more: the coming of the Balrog, the death of Boromir, the madness of Denethor (magnificently conveyed by John Noble in the film version), the relationship between Legolas and Gimli, Lorien... I could go on, but I won't . Not only is this post beginning to sound dangerously geeky, but it's years since I read it, and I'm getting the urge to start again. Time for a cold shower.