A conversation I was having online led me to a further step in understanding why I like Tolkien, what made him special the way other authors were not. When I was a youngster and said I liked Tolkien, friends and other well-meaning people would direct me for further reading to sword and sorcery like Howard and Leiber, and later to the Tolclones like Brooks and Eddings. But despite the obvious superficial similarities of setting, I did not enjoy these other authors at all. And I've been spending the over forty years since then wondering, why not?
I've come up with various reasons for this - the morality of Tolkien's stories and characters, the quality of his prose - but now I have what is perhaps a different other one.
The conversation started with Star Wars, the original one. My reaction to that movie at the time was a shrug and a "not bad." If it had been up to me, it would have been noted and then quickly forgotten. (Since then, my opinion of it has only gone down, especially as I've learned how to recognize in the struggles of the actors how bad the dialogue is.) But my friend reported being cheered by the discovery that other people liked SF too.
That didn't hit me. The problem was that Star Wars was not the kind of SF I was interested in reading. Demotic space opera, which is what it was, had never appealed to me. But that didn't mean that I was a real highbrow SF reader either: high literary and experimental authors like Delany, Ellison, or Russ were not really my cuppa. I liked authors with a plainer storytelling style but equally rich content. Le Guin above all, but also among then-contemporary younger authors the likes of McIntyre, Silverberg, Zelazny. Well, Zelazny's prose was pretty ornate, but it was a kind of ornateness I could see my way through.
Same was true with fantasy. The newer fantasies I liked had different kinds of settings than Tolkien, but shared his need for a moral sense, for depth of character and creation, and especially in the last a sense of the mythic. Earthsea (Le Guin again), Watership Down, McKillip. (No, Star Wars isn't mythic in that sense. It's plug-and-play Campbellian hero. Myths are imbued and organic.)
So that's where I was in my thinking. What led me to my new realization was remembering that the SF movie of my youth which gave me the "wow" that Star Wars gave others was 2001. No, I didn't claim to understand it at the age of 12 (and in fact I think even most adults didn't). What I did perceive was that it meant something and wasn't just random nonsense. As most of my media consumption at that age was children's lit and silly 1960s tv comedy shows, I craved something that stretched my capacity to understand it. The only tv show I saw in childhood that I yearned to see again when I was older was Patrick McGoohan's The Prisoner, because it stretched me: it was beyond my ability to fully understand it at 11, and I thought I'd appreciate it better when I was older. In the case of The Prisoner, I was able to see it again a decade later when I was in college (no videocassette releases yet then), at which time sure enough it clarified itself for me, though still posing tantalizing questions. As for 2001, the mystery of that was clarified for me a year or two after the film when I read Arthur C. Clarke's novel, which Explained All. But it didn't crush the movie into simplicity for me, just rendered it graspable.
The point is, all these things were neither trivial on the one hand nor pretentious on the other. They had substance, substance whose presence could be perceived by the youthful and unsophisticated viewer/reader even if that person could not understand or analyze that substance. Maturity or further study, or both, would lead to greater enlightenment, and that meant, incidentally but inherently, that the work would repay multiple encounters.
And all this was true of The Lord of the Rings. It wasn't as mysterious or hard to understand as some of these others, but it did demand sophisticated understanding. And that's why I loved and admired it.