Authors: Karen Haber
Tags: #Fantasy Literature, #Irish, #Middle Earth (Imaginary Place), #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Welsh, #Fantasy Fiction, #History and Criticism, #General, #American, #Books & Reading, #Scottish, #European, #English, #Literary Criticism
Book 2, Chapter I: “Many Meetings”
But more challenging to me was that this writer wrote about things that mattered, and he did not scruple to say so. If you take what someone else has stolen, can it ever be truly yours? What matters more, loyalty to your friends or preventing widespread bloodshed? There were issues of what comprised real courage, and when did doing what was right become more important than doing what was glorious. Bilbo was a simple character, good-hearted and honest, yet complex in that he faced decisions where happily ever after extended beyond a question of personal gain or safety.
The ending was not what I had expected. Surely Bilbo had deserved to be the flamboyant hero, the slayer of the dragon? And the dwarves! I had expected Thorin to indeed finish as King Under the Mountain, with all the dragon’s gold, and his companions all intact. What had become of the requisite Happily Ever After, in which everything finishes exactly as it was at the beginning of the story, only better?
Clearly, this writer who had chummed me in with a “once upon a time” beginning was up to something.
I picked up
The Fellowship of the Ring
with the impression that I now knew what to expect of Tolkien. I was wrong. Almost at once, I was swept from the deceptively ordinary birthday party preparations into the darkness and intrigue of ancient magic. A subtle change in both language and tone gave fair warning that I had stepped past the interface of “fairy tale” into the darkness and intrigue of ancient magic. Issues I thought had been resolved in
were revealed as but the tip of the iceberg. Even characters I thought I knew suddenly showed a greater depth of being.
Gandalf was more than an irascible wizard; he was a force moving in this world, a power to be reckoned with. Bilbo’s indecisiveness about the Ring troubled me. If Tolkien had not already convinced me to care deeply about that character, that dilemma would not have been such a harbinger of things to come.
Tolkien had warned me that one could step out into the road and simply be swept away by it, carried off to parts not only unknown, but unimagined. His words took me, and for three volumes, spanning six books, I was his. I had read long books before. I had read series of books about the same characters. But (and this may seem inconceivable to current fantasy readers) this was my first encounter with a trilogy, a single story told in three volumes. Never before had I read one work that spanned so many pages. The impact was much greater than, “Wow, this is really a long story.” To my way of thinking, the story and my experience of it were all too brief. Tolkein had been allowed the pages and the sheer number of words required to flesh out this world. I had experienced the depth that fantasy could have. For years afterward, other fantasy books, no matter how profound, would seem shallow in comparison. I would hunger for the richness of prose that took its time to tell the story, not as efficiently as possible, but as intricately as the tale deserved.
So that was the gauntlet that had been thrown down before me as a potential writer. Could I do what he had done? Could I create fantasy that had a moving, intricate plot, a rich setting, and characters that stepped off the page and into the reader’s heart? The bar had been raised.
And knowing instinctively that the bar had been raised, my first two sensations were all the more disheartening. I’d finished reading The Lord of the Rings, and there was no more of it to devour. And I feared I’d never again find anything that would satisfy me as it had.
A bit of digression: I was not alone in this reaction. The most common comments I’ve heard from readers of my generation who were likewise thunderstruck by Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings are that they had never read anything like it, and that they immediately tried to find more books like it. Some even immediately sat down and tried to write books “just like that” in the hopes of satisfying their own hunger for more. So, in a sense, he sent a whole generation of us forth on a quest. We were doomed to fail, of course. There was not, and simply is not, anything that is “just like” The Lord of the Rings. But because I didn’t know that, I and others like me plunged into the search wholeheartedly. Like many a quest for the magnificently elusive, the ultimate significance was not that I didn’t find my grail, but that I went forth, wholeheartedly seeking.
Of course, I read Tolkien’s “lesser” works:
Farmer Giles of Ham and The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, Tree and Leaf
Smith of Wooton Major
. I researched the works that Tolkien said had inspired him: Sir
Gawain and the Green Knight
. Icelandic Sagas. I was suddenly mining whole new sections of the public library. I had been a voracious and indiscriminate reader all my life. English teachers had sought in vain to instill in me some appreciation for “literature.” Required reading lists and formulaic book report requirements hadn’t done it. But with one shot, J. R. R. Tolkien had injected it straight into my heart. I think that by stepping back, past the recent layer of American literature, even past what I had been introduced to as English literature, I suddenly came to a place where I was connecting with Story itself. Stripped of setting and literary devices that had become too familiar to me, I suddenly came to traces of the raw essence that had powered Tolkien’s work.
Earlier, I mentioned that I feel I read Tolkien at precisely the right time in my life. Prior to that time, he would have touched me, but not as deeply. I would not have been ready to hear him. Later, I might perhaps have been too jaded and disaffected to take the stories into my heart. But he struck a chord with me, and sent me on my quest. I carried his stories with me into high school, a difficult four years for me, where they were both my armor and my retreat.
I began to encounter other Tolkien readers who had also claimed the books as their own. I recall a birthday tea held one September 22 in honor of Bilbo’s birthday. The school, somewhat puzzled, allowed us to use the nurse’s room, for no other space was free for us. (We certainly could not be allowed to take tea into the library!) It was attended by two other Tolkein aficionados, the school librarian and myself. It was a self-congratulatory in-group of people who had discovered the finest of literature. I did not know any of the other attendees well, and yet it was very easy to acknowledge that a strong bond existed nonetheless.
In college, I encountered a different phenomenon. I was sent “outside” for college, off to Denver University in the “lower forty-eight.” Culture shock was pretty jolting for this Alaskan kid. The smog made my eyelashes fall out. The dining-hall diet, bereft of moose and caribou, and with what seemed to me only a modicum of red meat, left me anemic. But most shocking of all were those people who seemed to think that Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings belonged to them. Foolish mortals. I knew it was mine, all mine, in a way they could never even comprehend. A girl who insisted her friends should call her Galadriel, and a short young man who tried to convince himself and others that he was likely part-hobbit, appalled me. Were they out of their minds? It was literary sacrilege.
You could not enter Tolkien’s world that way, smearing its glory onto yourself and attempting to take it over. The only possible entry was to come into it as reader, as honored guest. The words were to be experienced as Story, not tried on like ill-fitting Halloween costumes. The depth of offense I felt still comes back to me after all those years. It was not, I told myself, at all the same as the way I signed notes to myself as Smeagol. Even if my more-knowing friends occassionally referred to me by that name, I knew I was not Smeagol. Smeagol was simply one of the keys, a character that opened the story to me. I would never think of dressing as Smeagol or publicly proclaiming that I truly was Smeagol.
It is strange to think that, in some ways, my love of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings became a barrier. I couldn’t talk about Tolkien to those people, any more than I could discuss his work with those benighted fools who insisted that it was all symbolism, that Frodo was Christ sacrificed by Bilbo the Father. Refused to be distracted by such ridiculous notions. I knew I had to keep my focus. The Lord of the Rings was The Lord of the Rings, not a pattern for my life or an alternate religion.
I had to understand it as Story.
All through those years, and throughout my college experiences, my quest continued. Like a gold-panner, following that elusive trace of “color” up-stream, I sifted my reading for the bits and pieces of pure element, looking for the mother lode of Story. I don’t know when it happened, but after a time the object of my quest shifted and became, not to find something “just like” Tolkien, but to tap the sources from which this magical work had come.
It is a quest that continues for me, up to this very day and hour. In the thirty-odd years of that seeking, I’ve slowly come to discover that the shards of Story that I am looking for are not necessarily buried in the literature of the distant past, or even on the shelves of libraries. With my painstakingly assembled templates, I can now discern those elements in any number of disparate places. I’ve collected pieces from the old fairy tales that were always so dear to me, and heard the clear ringing of Story in the bragging tales told in sailor bars.
Even more thrilling to me is when I pick up a new book by one of my contemporaries and discover that someone else not only has succeeded at tapping that ultimate Story source, but has deployed it with the trifold foundation of solid plot, detailed setting, and genuine characters. Almost without exception, I discover that I have just encountered someone who, like myself, embarked on a quest after reading Tolkien. The quest has borne fruit for me, not in that I ever found anything “just like” Tolkien but that I had his works as a touchstone to help me distinguish True Story from the Verbiage of the Week.
In the long years since I first hid in a meat cache and journeyed all through Middle-earth, I’ve heard a great deal of criticism of Tolkien. That he has “no strong female characters,” that the books move too slowly, that he does not tell us enough about what the characters are feeling and thinking are perhaps the most common complaints. Some of this strikes me, quite frankly, as the criticism of those who want writers of a different time and place to miraculously conform to what is considered politically correct now. Some strike me as a complaint of readers wishing that all writers wrote in what we consider to be a “simple, modern style.” I continue to be astonished by people who tell me that they couldn’t get past the third chapter, or that they were bored, or could find no character to identify with. Sometimes I am left wondering if we have read the same books at all. But perhaps in the end it all comes down to discovering his magic at the right place and time in your own life. If that is so, then all I can say is that I am grateful that I was the recipient of that miraculous coincidence of time and situation.
He has left his mark on me. Even after all the years, the bar he raised for my writing is still as high. I am still striving to leap it as effortlessly and cleanly as he did. I still come away with bruised shins, but the drive to attempt it has not diminished. Likewise, I continue to quest for Story, though these days I accept that I will never find anything “exactly like” J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The only possible fix for that hunger is to pick up those worn hardbacks again and once more enter into a world that has perhaps become more familiar but no less wondrous to me over the years.
And as I wonder whether I have said all I want to say here, the perfect coincidence occurs. It is one of those deus ex machina happenings that good editors throw out and life throws at us near constantly. A sharp hammering at the door downstairs interrupts my quiet morning with my computer and my cup of coffee. No sign of dwarves nor wizards with staffs denting my front door, but only the UPS man who has thoughtfully left a package just far enough away from the threshold that I have to go out barefoot on the frozen porch to claim it.
I don’t hesitate. Stenciled down the side of it is “TITLE: J. R. R. Tolkien.” It has come from overseas. I drag it in and haul it upstairs to my office before tearing into it. Treasures long awaited come to light. HarperCollins hardbacks with the Alan Lee illustrations;
and a delicious fat single hardback containing The Lord of the Rings in one volume with gleaming dust jackets in a sturdy box. Slit the wrap with a thumbnail and pull them out to heft the books. I open one, testing the sturdiness of the binding. Ah. A good print size. I lean closer and smell the delicious scent of new book. Well, these should get me through another thirty years. What else? A paperback of
Farmer Giles of Ham
, embellished exactly as it should be with Pauline Bayne’s art. And at the bottom a boxed edition of
, in a very portable size, including postcards with Tolkien’s art and an unfolding map with images by John Howe. It also includes a CD of Tolkien reading from his work, which could become a supplement to my well-preserved LP of him reading Elvish. I think I intended this last one as a Christmas gift for someone, but at the moment I can’t recall for whom, and the CD is already playing. The familiar rich voice fills my office, and suddenly Gollum is “looking out of his pale lamp-like eyes” as he paddles his little boat on the underground lake. Too late. This is mine, My Precious, and I doubt it will ever be gift-wrapped and placed under a tree.
I open the handy little edition of
The Hobbit and
thumb through it. Hmm. They have appended the first chapter of
The Fellowship of the Ring
to the end, as a teaser. I am not sure I approve. Yet there, on the last page of the book, like a benediction, is a promise for me. Gandalf speaks to me: “Good-bye now! Take care of yourself! Look out for me, especially at unlikely times!”
Indeed. I think I always shall.
THE LORD OF