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

September 24, 1992|R. DANIEL FOSTER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAN GABRIEL VALLEY — 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.

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