It took me three tries to read The Lord of the Rings the first time through.
I tried once after finishing The Hobbit my freshman year of high school, and I tried again a couple of months later. I kept getting stuck at Tom Bombadil, and the immense amount of detail thrown into the text overwhelmed me. I tried again a third time when Elijah Wood's face called out to me from a shelf on the library. The movie was coming out, I'd seen that epic trilogy teaser*, and it was time to finally conquer the thing. So I tried again, and I finally made it past Bombadil, and once I was in Bree and there was Strider, I was done for. That was it. I was in love for life.
*Watching that trailer again for the first time in years put goosebumps over my entire body, and I remembered exactly where I was and who I was with the first time I saw it.
The strangest thing about these books is that the first time you read them, it's very difficult. There's names and histories and songs and Tolkien just throws them out there with no explanation. You get the impression that there's this vast world you'll never be able to grasp. But upon re-read, everything is clearer, and the more I re-read them, the more I understand his world. It's like how when you've never been to a place before and it seems to take forever to get there, and everything is unfamiliar, but then every time you return to that place, time moves faster, you recognize your surroundings. That's what it's like to read Tolkien. It feels real and physical, like the geography of Middle Earth is just there, waiting for you.
There's a real sense of history to Tolkien's famously intricate and old-fashioned prose that gives the trilogy a sense of maturity that is missing from almost all fantasy published since. Tolkien's Middle Earth is a real place, where joy is touched by constant sadness, and nothing lasts forever. The Lord of the Rings is as much elegy as it is celebration. The book itself mourns for the passing of an age, but we as its readers are simply sad that it never actually existed in the first place. But perhaps Peter S. Beagle said it best, in his introduction to the book in 1973:
"For in the end it is Middle-Earth and its dwellers that we love, not Tolkien's considerable gifts in showing it to us. I said once that the world he charts was there long before him, and I still believe it. He is a great enough magician to tap our most common nightmares, daydreams and twilight fancies, but he never invented them either: he found them a place to live, a green alternative to each day's madness here in a poisoned world. We are raised to honor all the wrong explorers and discoverers - thieves planting flags, murderers carrying crosses. Let us at last praise the colonizers of dreams."
[First read, September 2001]