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Looking for reflections on a WNY-inspired Tolkien Reading Day

Sean Kirst

"I wish it need not have happened in my time," said Frodo.

"So do I," said Gandalf, "and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us."

– JRR Tolkien, "The Fellowship of the Ring"

Today is worldwide JRR Tolkien Reading Day. For several reasons, it has a particular connection to Western New York, and it seems as if the communal down time of our "flattening the curve" solitude creates an unusual reason and opportunity for taking part, though I guess the starting point is this:

I feel a certain obligation, in the best sense of the word, to recognize this day and its roots. The international Tolkien Society credits me with coming up with the idea in 2002, based on a longtime affinity to Tolkien and his "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy.

That connection was triggered by childhood memories of the landscape and fortunes of Dunkirk and Lackawanna and Buffalo, the mesh of industrial struggle, deep beauty and aching loss that I explained a couple of years ago in a piece for The Buffalo News.

Sean Kirst: Worldwide Tolkien Reading Day, some Buffalo inspiration, your thoughts on Middle-earth

Reading the books as a kid, the description of the smoke and fumes of Mordor brought me straight to an old steel plant I could see from a downstairs window, a block away in Dunkirk – and even more so to Route 5 and Bethlehem Steel in Lackawanna. As for great buildings and towers of Middle-Earth, abandoned to the weeds, they reminded me all too much of so many lost landmarks throughout the region.

In that way – as with many devotees of Tolkien – "The Lord of the Rings" came to feel almost like an expression of place and family, exactly the kind of books in which I search for pieces of meaning now.

Beyond all else, the recurring message of the books includes the idea of selflessness as an inseparable part of community, as well as the notion that an everyday gardener like Samwise Gamgee – you can see his equivalent showing up for work right now at clinics and food banks and other spots throughout the nation – can have a major impact on the course of great events.

Traditionally, I team up with a couple of old friends, Jim B. Johnson and John Mariani, to organize an Upstate gathering for Reading Day in Syracuse, the birthplace of the event, where fellow pilgrims join together annually to shoot the breeze about why they love Tolkien and then to read aloud from some portion of the trilogy.

The old stone stairs, before repair, at Devil's Hole State Park: A regional landscape that evokes Tolkien's work. (Derek Gee/The Buffalo News)

We will not, of course, be holding that event while we are on this side of a cultural shutdown focused on saving especially fragile lives. But if you appreciate Tolkien and know his work – if you are moved by themes of hope, loss and isolation, of temptation and redemption – it seems as though this is as good a moment as any for a digital gathering centered here, and built around this question:

Why do you love Tolkien? What brought you to his work? And what passages from his books seem especially fitting to the solitude and struggle we are experiencing as one extended community, right now?

You can email me at skirst@buffnews.com, or leave your thoughts below, as a comment.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. You can read more of his work in this archive.

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