Tolkien Reading Day 2023: A Software Adventure
Like you, I’ve been a fan of Lord of the Rings for a long time. In fact, I hardly remember any time where the words “Hobbit”, “Shire”, “Gandalf”, and “precious” weren’t part of my vocabulary.
So, what better day to reminisce and honor some fond Middle Earth memories than Tolkien Reading Day?
Tolkien Reading Day is organized by the Tolkien Society, and happens every March 25th, ever since 2003.
They describe this as a day to “encourage fans to celebrate and promote the life and works of J.R.R. Tolkien by reading favourite passages”
BTW: You may wonder what’s so special about March 25th and why they chose this date – Check out this link to find out: https://www.tolkiensociety.org/society/events/reading-day/
Hint: it may (or may not) have something to do with Sauron!
I think my first real exposure to Tolkien was seeing parts of the 1978 Bakshi Lord of the Rings in re-runs on cable. It was animated, but way more gritty-serious than regular kids' cartoons. I also recall being pretty scared of the Ringwraith scenes, and when Boromir had his encounter with the Uruk-hai.
Bakshi used rotoscoping, a technique in which scenes are first shot in live-action, then they trace animation directly onto the film by hand – so the “cartoon” movements of the bad guys were especially realistic and terrifying!
What was with the “kids” movies of the 1970s and 1980s being so scary anyway? Murdering rabbits in Watership Down, animal friends abandoning you in Dot and the Kangaroo, the many horror movie moments of The Last Unicorn, the orphan producing event of the parents-blowing-up-ending in Time Bandits, just to name a few.
Rankin/Bass also produced an animated version of “The Hobbit” in 1977. I remember seeing parts of this on reruns as well. Definitely more young-kid appropriate, though the quality of the animation was nowhere near that of the Bakshi production.
The most concrete early Tolkien memory I have, however, is playing The Hobbit: A Software Adventure computer game on the Apple IIe as a pre-teen.
It was a text-based adventure (“Interactive Fiction” as it has come to be known) with occasional cut-scene illustrations in glorious “Double Hi-Res” resolution of 560x192 pixels in a whopping 16 colors! Each of these scenes, since they had to be loaded from floppy disk, would take several seconds to render, but oh, when you heard that floppy drive start to whir (and grind and honk), you knew you were in for a visual treat!
I know you’re asking yourself, “Yeah, but how much memory did that sweet beast pack under the hood?” 64 KB – that’s “Kilobytes”, not “MB” or “GB”. Of course, we were sensible folk back then and upgraded it to a full 128 KB with Apple’s “Extended 80-Column Text Card”. 80 entire columns across your monochrome monitor – what a dream!
This was the type of game you had to type into a “parser” what you wanted to do. “Go north”, “pick up the rock”, “help, I don’t know how to play this damn game”, etc.
Apparently, this game had a very advanced parser for its day – instead of typing just verb-noun, you could type things like: “ask Gandalf about the curious map then take sword and kill troll with it”. The parser was complex and intuitive, introducing pronouns, adverbs (”viciously attack the goblin”), punctuation and prepositions and allowing the player to interact with the game world in ways not previously possible.
These text-based games were unforgiving in certain ways too – if you walked into a dark cave and had no light, you didn’t get a description … and you most likely died. This particular game even tracked time, so different options (and deaths) would open up to you during day or night.
Also, they didn’t typically have maps, so you learned very quickly to create your own, because, you guessed it, you would get lost … and die.
But most of all they could be brutal about “do-overs”. There wasn’t any manually saving your progress or having multiple save slots to choose from. In fact, they would often save the progress automatically – so if you got yourself into a pickle, you couldn’t go back, or re-load from your previous choice.
When I suspected I was going to die, I would try to flip the power switch off as fast as I could before the game could auto-save me into a hopeless spot! Then came the tedious process of taking that disk out, putting in the load disk, waiting 5 noisy minutes for it to start up, and then trying a different parser command. Ah, the things we do for love.
What I now appreciate about these interactive fiction (IF) games is they had the side benefit of teaching you to read critically, think logically, visualize spatially, and force you to use your imagination - since the graphics were spare to none.
Visions of playing The Hobbit: A Software Adventure from decades ago still rattle around within my soul as scattered memories - visiting Elrond’s Last Homely House in Rivendell, outsmarting 3 hungry Trolls, and having a riddle-battle with Gollum.
But here is what was uber cool – the game came with an ACTUAL COPY of The Hobbit book!
For a while, the book remained hidden within the game box, lying there in wait for its next master.
“And some things that should not have been forgotten were lost. History became legend. Legend became myth. And for two and a half thousand [computer game deaths], the [book] passed out of all knowledge.”
Then, one day, getting frustrated with all my dying in the game, I figured the book MUST hold some clues as to greener choices I could make instead of my poor red ones. So, I started reading it . . .
. . . and have never stopped reading Tolkien since.
Here’s my original copy of The Hobbit from that long-ago-discarded Apple IIe computer game. I’ve dusted it off and will give it a little read today.
I’m glad I kept it – in fact, even with all the newer, more beautifully designed copies of The Hobbit I have collected over the years, this one will always have my heart for stoking the love of fantasy, for introducing me to literary Tolkien … and for being a constant reminder of all those vicarious deaths in its Software Adventure companion.
Which Tolkien work are you going to read today?
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(Featuring artwork from Clyde Caldwell & Luke Eidenschink!)