And by favourite I mean two thirds of all the stories he tells about me as a child. (The other being the time I harassed an unfamiliar woman in the supermarket for buying cigarettes.)
The first was on holiday in Fiji and my recall of it is so dim and the number of times it has been told mean it’s probably now a false memory.
Apparently, one sunny afternoon, I wandered away from the kids area, propped myself up on a stool at the poolside bar and commenced ordering “cocktails” (fire engines). The Fijians behind the bar, being possibly the most child-friendly nationality in the world, were only too happy to oblige in between fits of laughter.
I was only discovered again when the father of the family we were travelling with came to the bar and I offered to buy him a drink. (Picking up doctors in hotel bars. Begin as you mean to continue.)
The second was later in that year and I do remember it.
From personal observation rather than experience, it seems that, for the first ten years or so, child-related discussions between middle class parents are a thinly veiled game of oneupmanship (which is probably why my father remembers this incident).
This being summer in Australia, we were having a barbecue at our house. One of the attendant dads asks my father if I’m reading independently yet. At that moment I walk by, carrying a copy of Fellowship of the Ring, my finger keeping my place in the middle of the book. Needless to say, my father won that round of “friendly conversation”.
And The Lord of The Rings was indeed the first ‘proper’ book I independently read -if not independently comprehended. Since that first time it has probably had a dozen or so read-throughs. In fact, in some sense I am always reading it.
Having attempted it so early on, the characters and places emerge from that foggy place that is right at the very edge of your long term memory, sitting somewhere near the smell of your favourite babysitter and the sound of colouring pencils on paper. They are fragmentary because I failed to understand a lot of it and because I failed to understand it a long time ago.
What this means is I only have a handful of memories that are pre-Middle Earth. It’s a strange kind of brainwashing -like realising as an adult that you somehow accidentally raised yourself as a Mormon in a Jewish family. It is probably my defining narrative. I have moved countries because of it. In a literal sense it serves the same function in my life as a Bible or Koran. Because, in Tolkien’s own words, it has “enchanted” me:
Faerie contains many things besides elves and fays and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants or dragons; it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are one in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted.
And yes, I’m aware of the criticisms of Middle Earth: that it’s an elitist, sexist, technophobic, Tory fantasy of a rose-tinted world. But you know what?
I live in a severely compromised biosphere under a constitutional monarch whose uncle (and possibly father) was pro-Hitler at a time when a miniscule ruling minority, mostly male, can apparently get away with all but destroying civilisation and condemn generations to penury and neglect. Our ‘elected’ leaders are entirely corrupted by exposure to extreme wealth and power while our one hope that things can get better lies with a tiny group of commoners camped out in front of the looming towers of faceless global power who might yet win.
What should I be reading?!
Besides, guiding narratives -be they Hebrew or Elvish- must be so much more than mere, dreary reportage if they are to fulfill their role. Here he is again:
We have come from God, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed only by myth-making, only by becoming ‘sub-creator’ and inventing stories, can Man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall.
Our myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily towards the true harbour, while materialistic ‘progress’ leads only to a yawning abyss and the Iron Crown of the power of evil.
So yes. A visit to this complex yet unassuming man’s grave was a must. We had spent the afternoon before in the pub where he and C.S Lewis and the other inklings would meet and drink and smoke and read to each other. It’s quite easy to get a feel for the personality who created hobbits in a place like that. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect at the grave site. He is buried with the enduring love of his life. Would there be more of Tolkien-the-husband as opposed to Tolkien-the-nerdy-linguist?
The overwhelming feeling at the gravesite -as you can probably tell- is one of gratitude.
Clearly I’m not the first person to have had their life changed by this man’s writing.
Gratitude is certainly what I felt -and expressed- standing there in the last few minutes of cold January sunshine.
Gratitude and peace of mind. It’s a good graveyard, if that makes sense. (This blog has a magical audience so I know that makes sense.)
As we parked and made our way through the tombstones we could see a few people coming to visit their relatives. The space was active in a living kind of way and quiet in a dead kind of way. A good place for Catholic bones to rest.
So maybe that was it? Maybe I couldn’t pick up on anything because there’s nothing to pick up on? He’s buried there with the love of his life; the Lúthien to his Beren. Complete. Finished.
I express my gratitude, promise to write this post, and make my way back to the car. There is no one else in this corner of the graveyard so the only sounds are our footsteps on the path back to the drive.
Then I feel it. He would have walked along this path after putting Edith in the ground. Tears appear. I wanted Tolkien-the-man and I got Tolkien-the-heartbroken, clinging to faith and decorum, walking the longest few dozen yards of his life since the Somme.
Suddenly feeling a little ghoulish -a risk I go to significant pain to avoid as a respectful necrotourist- I hurry back to the car.
It was later, over dinner, that it occurred to me this little glimpse is actually quite touching. You have to work to find the heart in Tolkien. He wrote what is probably one of the most moving love stories of the postwar period and then buried the entire thing in the book’s appendices. Both in life after death -like all good Englishmen of his era- he seems to evade emotional engagement with strangers.
As an outsider, trying to find an entry point into the life of an idol is only ever going to yield tiny fragments. But perhaps that is appropriate? This is the man who gave us the story of tiny things -hobbits, rings, riddles- that shape the entire world.
And with that, let’s close with the first ‘tiny thing’… a charm for the forgotten Old English angel that inspired Eärendil. When he first saw the words in a ninth century poem he writes “I felt a very curious thrill as if something had stirred in me, half-awakened from sleep. There was something very remote and strange and beautiful behind these words, something far beyond ancient English.” His biographer, Humphrey Carpenter, says that it was this little fragment that “marked the beginning of Tolkien’s own mythology.”
So I suppose, in a way, it marks the beginning of mine too.
Eala Earendel engla beorhtast
Ofer middangeard monnum sended
Hail Earendel, brightest of angels
Above middle-earth sent unto men