Tolkien to the rescue (as usual)

A confession: I am generally not my Best Self during the holidays. Car trips, visiting, shopping, surprises, small talk, knitting on a deadline, car repairs, cooking for crowds, late nights, baking on a deadline, bored children–none of these are forms of torture I particularly enjoy. Others seem to exit the Christmas season rosy-cheeked and glowing with the memories (although who exactly are those people? No one I know). I start the new year snarling with fatigue and ready to hibernate, not launch a new teaching term.

My favourite part of Holidays 2014 was something that happened by accident, between all the scheduled bustle, whenever my family was too pooped to do anything else. Over 6 or 7 evenings we watched all 3 instalments of the Lord of the Rings.

Oh, Legolas.
Oh, Legolas.

Remember how these were the longest movies you ever sat through, three Christmases in a row, as they were released in theatres? Well, the home media versions of these movies were extended by 30, 45 and 51 minutes respectively. Epic in length as well as scope.

There was more LOTR waiting for us whenever all 4 of us were available to watch TV together for an hour or two (=a surprisingly elusive set of circumstances when you’re dealing with one tween boy, one teen boy, one perennial putterer and one asocial, Grinch-like writer).

For me the real pleasure was watching my boys watch these movies. Son #2 cuddled close and revelled in the (many, digressive) comic Hobbit moments. When poor Sam was framed by Gollum for eating all the lembas bread, I caught Son #1 hunching forward on the sofa, hands tucked into his armpits, commenting, “That’s so sketch!” I believe he may have even put down his iPod a couple of times.

I’ve written before about my adoration of Tolkien–the band of adventurers, the joy of return, the digressive narrative, and how these things feed the (pre)adolescent souls of boys. But lately I’m realizing the extent to which this long- form, archetypal adventure feeds my soul, too. Fortifies me against everyday drudgeries (e.g., small talk, cooking) and helps me dream big, write wild.

A resolution, then, for 2015: READ MORE EPIC FANTASY. Any recommendations?

joy of return

We were glad when Frodo finally got chased across the Ford of Rivendell.  We’d been getting pretty Bored of the Rings, actually, what with all the walking, waiting and worrying the hobbits had been doing since Bree.  In fact I’d been forced to read two Hardy Boys and a Bone before we–and by “we” I mean my 11-yr-old, whose recent panoply of psychological tests is pointing to the possibility of ADHD and making me desperate to keep the bedtime ritual alive–were ready to commit to Tolkien again.

But then, at last, Gandalf came back!  And I could see it all over the kid: the pleasure of reunion.  His face tilted towards me a little, his eyes slid closed for a moment, and then he gazed up at the ceiling with lashes aflutter and the hint of a smile.  Where have you been, Frodo demands, and boy did we ever want to know the answer to that one.

And then, gift upon gifts, Glóin appears at the feast.  “He’s the one from The Hobbit!”  Yup, and he’s here for a hug, basically.  Catching us up, filling us in.  Reuniting us with the characters we’d left behind.

This son of mine has always preferred things he knows well to new things.  Mastery over novelty has been his mode since he was old enough to beeline for the marble-tumble maze in the children’s museum and elbow the other toddlers out of the way.  I knew better than to plan a playdate at that venue: the other mom and her charge would invariably move on to another display, as you’re meant to do in a museum, while I was left to the paperback and travel-mug cappuccino I’d laid by in my purse (not a bad timekiller, pre-smartphone).

Dr. Tolkien knows these joys of repetition.  He knows the boy-reader’s desire not just to chart new territory but to visit old haunts.  It’s closure, I suppose.  When I teach closure I remind my students that it’s not just the tying up of loose plot threads but an emotional thing–the reader’s sense of satisfaction, of the story having paid off (and too much tidiness can be as dissatisfying as ragged ends, can provoke a feeling of cheapness or having been patronized).

There was lots of closure in The Hobbit already but we get more denouement still in Fellowship, not just in the plodding catchup with Bilbo at the start but each time a forgotten character like Glóin pops in to share his news, or Gandalf returns with more gossip.  Hearing from old friends offers respite from the relentless quest.  The reunion scene promises that no disaster will befall Frodo in the next few pages, at least (maybe an important assurance, at bedtime?).  And it plumps up the fictional world most deliciously, suggesting that each group in the hero’s past has continued to live an evolving and three-dimensional existence, whether narrated or not.

Post-closure?  Meta-closure?  Whatever it is, it’s working for us.  Thanks again, J. R. R.!

Tolkien’s traumas

Last weekend I was trying to plow through a whole pile of books on women’s pacifist writings from World War I (the folly of trying to meet a research deadline at the end of a teaching term).  But I got distracted by Mark Heberle’s essay* on the way J. R. R. Tolkien’s WWI experience spurred and influenced his fantasy writing.  The “shadow of war” Tolkien describes as having hijacked his youth is felt throughout Middle Earth in the form of Mordor’s shadow and the Eye of Sauron peering ominously at the hobbits’ doings.

More specifically, Heberle traces how Tolkien found early solace for dislocation and orphanhood in the dragon-slaying tales he invented as a child.  The young writer then became fascinated with language.  An obsession with one obscure, Anglo-Saxon word in particular, Earendel, prompted Tolkien to create a whole suite of fantasy stories to “house” it and other words he discovered or made up.

It’s a remarkable testament to the healing power of stories.  Trauma studies has observed that the process of telling one’s story, and especially of finding a sympathetic audience for it, is integral to recovery.  Instead of simply describing his losses to a therapist or family member, Tolkien went way further: he transmuted his pain into heroic fantasy, and in so doing created a story that resonates with readers of all ages and tastes.

I was surprised at Haberle’s revelation that Tolkein “later regretted the way in which the narrative voice [particularly in The Hobbit] is almost overly familiar and intimate.”  This grandfatherly voice is my single favorite thing about his books, so I’m glad it slipped past Tolkien’s inner censor, even if it embarrassed him later on.

*Heberle, Mark. “Tolkien, Trauma, Childhood, Fantasy.” in Under Fire: Childhood in the Shadow of War.  Ed. Elizabeth Goodenough and Andrea Immel.  Detroit, MI: Wayne State UP, 2008.  129-42.

the original

My dad read me The Hobbit when I was ten years old.  I barely remembered the story, from back then–just the pleasantness of the together-time, and the fact that my little brother got scared at one point and left the room.

But when I read Eragon to my own ten-year-old, I kept having deja vu.  By the time we got to the scene with the precarious ledge around the lake leading to the dwarves’ caves, where the menacing battle-trolls are bearing down on the heroes, I remembered where I’d heard it before.

So I pulled out The Hobbit.  Some of it we read aloud, and some we listened to in the car (a strategem I should add to the list for reluctant readers) after I downloaded the audiobook.  And yup: this book clearly struck the precedent for all kinds of fantasy that has followed it.  Some of Dr. Tolkien’s bar-setting renditions of mythological motifs include the unlikely hero, the band of helpers, the magical object, tunnelling into the dark, riddling with the enemy, thieving from the hoard, and rescue from the skies.

But in my opinion Tolkien’s highest accomplishment is his narrative voice: that benevolent, fatherly, omniscient voice that guides us with wisdom and humor through Bilbo’s adventure.  And when it comes to voice, a truer inheritor of Tolkien than the author of the Eragon books is Neil Gaiman. 

Reading The Graveyard Book aloud, as with The Hobbit, I felt powerful and wise, like I was wearing the mantle of a fireside grandfather.  

If you (or your kids) are dragon fans, or series fans, you’ll read Paolini sooner or later.  But don’t let The Hobbit give you the slip.  And regardless of your tastes in fiction, don’t pass up The Graveyard Book–it’s very, very special.