I can pinpoint a lot of books that inspired me to write and draw at an early age, but few have been more influential than the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, so it’s fitting to begin in Middle Earth. My first memory of these books came at the age of eight, when my dad read me The Hobbit out loud. We were traveling at the time, and we were taking a red-eye plane flight when we reached the iconic scene when the goblins are setting fire to the trees where Thorin and Company are hiding. My dad has never been one to do things halfway, so he belted out for all our fellow passengers to hear: Fifteen birds in five fir trees, their feathers were fanned in a fiery breeze! I was mortified at the time, of course, but now it’s the most vivid thing I picture about that scene.
The Hobbit was my first literary love. I read it every year throughout my childhood, but the first time I picked up Lord of the Rings, full of the afterglow of the Battle of Five Armies, I cracked my head on the sudden shift in tone and voice. I couldn’t get past the Council of Elrond. Through middle school, I shied away from LotR, until the momentous occasion occurred—there were going to be movies. Well, I couldn’t go see a movie in good faith without having read the book, could I? So I crept back to my copy of Fellowship of the Ring. I read it, set it down, saw the movie, came back, read it again, and then polished off The Two Towers and Return of the King in just a few days. I think it helped to have a face to put with each character.
Thus began the true era of The Lord of the Rings for me. I was blessed in high school with a group of unabashedly nerdy friends, and we fed off each other’s nerdtastic energy like bees on honey. I quickly consumed The Silmarillion and Book of Lost Tales, and later Unfinished Tales. I drew, I wrote, I dreamed, I created, I more or less drove my parents to insanity until I graduated high school and moved out of the house.
(To be clear, despite my love for Lee Pace and Martin Freeman, The Hobbit films were a huge disappointment for me. I thought they were made with far less integrity than LotR, and I mostly try to ignore them.)
The obsession continued through college and grad school, though it did change in nature, becoming a bit less fangirly and more scholarly (think Implications of the Abduction of Celebrían and the Nuances of Quenya vs Sindarin). But most importantly, it drove me to research and to write. I dove into the depths of the appendices and The Silmarillion to create stories of my own within Tolkien’s world (see: Abduction of Celebrían, above).
Now, fanfiction gets a bad rap, stigmatized as weird erotica and half-baked Mary Sues. Writers: don’t let this stop you. Fanfiction is an amazing incubator for a budding author. It eliminates some of the legwork of creating your own world and characters, and as a result, it allows you to find your voice, learn how to build a successful story arc, and, if you do it right, RESEARCH!! I researched the heck out of my works even though I knew I was never going to publish or share them.
So fanfiction gave me a foundation and a playground to let my writing skills run around and fall down and get dirty. But after a while, I began to feel the constraints of working within someone else’s world. Let’s be real, there’s not a whole lot of space for women in Middle Earth. Sure, you have a few notable characters (including my favorite, Eowyn), but they’re auxiliary at best. It’s a boy’s story at heart. Gender egalitarianism and its influence on my work is a post for a different day, so let’s leave it with me being tired of feeling sidelined in this world I loved so much.
This frustration fed directly into the creation of Woodwalker and its sequels. The stories then gained a life of their own which drove them away from the Tolkien-esque feel I started out with, but the underlying foundation is still there—adventure, long journeys, distinct cultures, and skilled characters (the majority of which are women, hey-ooo!).
So, thank you, J.R.R. Tolkien. You inspired me, like so many other artists and writers, to find my own Middle Earth, though I’ll venture to say none of us will ever achieve the same kind of depth and cultural shift. In fact, clever readers might notice a distinct nod to Tolkien as my mentor in the pages of Woodwalker. Can you find it?
Emily B. Martin
Author and Illustrator