Wellington International is apparently among the least popular airports for commercial pilots due to its preposterously short runway. Coming down from Auckland or across from Sydney you sort of hang a left over the Cook Straight -considered by Captain Cook himself to be probably the most dangerous 12 miles of water he'd ever encountered- and drop like a stone. A very bouncy stone that sometimes doesn't make it back to earth like some of the planes in this video.
Before your crazy descent you get a pretty good look over what most of you would immediately recognise as the Misty Mountains. I certainly recognised them as such the first time I flew into Wellington the weekend Return of the King won all its Oscars.... I'd been skiing in them a bunch of times before and they still looked more like Middle Earth than New Zealand. They looked about half and half when we bounced into Wellington two weeks ago.
Sometimes I'm not sure when my hyperactive Tolkienesque imagination strays into full-blow hallucination or whether there is a dividing line at all. There have only been a few states of consciousness more altered than the first time I saw Fellowship of the Ring. The sensation was stronger than any LSD dose I've had and more joyous than all but the first time I tried MDMA. The sensation was only topped the first time I heard the soundtrack to Return of the King which I probably heard before any of you.
Preposterous as it seems in today's music world, there was a time when albums were embargoed. The CDs or whatever would show up at retailers and you couldn't begin selling them until a specified day. Straight out of college, I was hired to help launch Sydney's first ever Virgin Megastore. One morning, when I was opening up around 7am I saw the delivery of the embargoed soundtrack in the secure delivery area. This particular Megastore was in the old Reserve Bank building. It was beautiful and cavernous and I had it all to myself. In went the CD.
Across the sea, a pale moon rises.
The ships have come to carry you home.
Walking among the pillars with a clandestine Annie Lennox song blaring, just at the time when my desire to live in New Zealand felt about as easy to ignore as heroin withdrawal was particularly interesting. There was something in the moody finality -entirely due to Lennox as Jackson and Walsh can't write song lyrics to save their lives- that seemed personally symbolic... like the actual sound was activating a ritual process.
The genesis for this post began in Miami last month when Chris published the first of his brilliant series on Elizabeth Fraser. For me it was a week of some fairly big life changes that will become evident on this blog over time, but it was also accompanied by some very odd syncs... like coming down to breakfast the morning after reading Chris's post to hear Teardrop playing in a poolside restaurant better known for Rihanna (both her music and her person).
Where he sees the possibility of some deliberate witchcraft being deployed, I see something slightly different. The mythic components involved in Buckley's death are so huge that I'd like to propose a slightly amended hypothesis: the accidental triggering of some Mythic/Ritual form by some undoubtedly 'sensitive' and possibly 'fully cognisant' people. (Lennox herself is similarly close to Caledonian witch material, if you ask me. Born on Christmas Day, no less.) Picture yourself walking into an abandoned fun fair one evening and having the whole thing creepily whir to life around you. That's what I think happened and that was also the sensation when I first heard Into the West. Incidentally, it's also why I think initiation rituals are just triggers rather than initiations in and of themselves. Do this at least once and your entire incarnation becomes one triggered fun fair after another. Further evidence for this in borderline-witch Elisabeth Fraser's case? She sang the Lament for Gandalf.
I appreciate this may mean more to me than most of you but there is something hugely Sibylline about the whole thing and Tolkien may well have agreed with me. Gandalf is a potent and hugely complex mythic form garbed in 'fiction'. He is not 'just' Odin but he also is, he is not 'just' a archangel but he also is, he is not 'just' Merlin but he also is. Tolkien famously said that his Catholicism was on every page of Lord of the Rings which I think is most noticeable in his view of destiny. But it is also more explicit than that.
He wrote that his Catholicism informed LOTR unconsciously at first and then consciously. This is nowhere more evident than in the Elvish devotion to Elbereth -and the hobbits multiple, spontaneous invocations of her. Who is Elbereth? From Sam's invocation in Cirith Ungol:
A Elbereth Gilthoniel, o menel palan-diriel, le nallon sí di-nguruthos!
"O Elbereth Starkindler, from heaven gazing far, to thee I cry now beneath the shadow of death."
So she is the Queen of Heaven, a personal devotional favourite of Tolkien. Mary, Queen of Heaven, Mary Star of the Sea, is not only Isis... it's Isis who never even bothered to get changed out of her Egyptian garb. Have a hymn:
Hail, Queen of Heaven, the ocean star, Guide of the wanderer here below,
Thrown on life's surge, we claim thy care, Save us from peril and from woe.
Mother of Christ, Star of the sea Pray for the wanderer, pray for me.
O gentle, chaste, and spotless Maid, We sinners make our prayers through thee;
Remind thy Son that He has paid The price of our iniquity.
Virgin most pure, Star of the sea, Pray for the sinner, pray for me.
Here's a sermon from St Bernard of Clairvaux:
“[Mary is] that glorious star which… cast its radiance over the whole world, the star whose splendor rejoices heaven, terrifies hell, and sheds its mild and beneficent influence on the poor exiles of earth… O you who find yourself tossed about by the storms of life; turn not your eyes from the brightness of this Star, if you would not be overwhelmed by its boisterous waves. If the winds of temptations rise, if you fall among the rocks of tribulations, look up at the Star, call on Mary.”
Now here is Tolkien in a letter to Father Robert Murray:
I know exactly what you mean, by the order of Grace; and of course, by your references to Our Lady, upon which, all my own small perception of beauty, both in majesty and simplicity is founded. The Lord of the Rings is, of course, a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. I have cut practically all references to anything like “Religion”, to cults and practices in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and symbolism. However, that is very clumsily put, and sounds more self-important than I feel. For, as a matter of fact, I have consciously planned very little; and should chiefly be grateful for having been brought up (since I was eight) in a Faith that has nourished me, and taught me all the little that I know...
He wrote previously that the reason he dislikes allegory so much is that it is so clumsy that it more often kills the thing it is trying to convey. (*cough cough* Aslan *cough cough*) What is most interesting here is his confession of how little he consciously planned. Famously, the first inkling (geddit?) of hobbits landed in his head while he was marking exams. Somebody's very much spinning somewhere. His own sense of Mary was very Vatican I... dusty and Latin and delicious. (Vatican II was a disaster magicians are still struggling to come to terms with.)
Let's look at those two things together. In the same decade that a bunch of paedo bureaucrats made the questionable decision to strip all the sexy, sexy magic out of Catholicism, maps of Middle Earth went up in college dorm rooms across the western world. The dragon and the Queen of Heaven got a new forwarding address. Should this surprise you in a century that opened with the Crowleyite return of the star goddess, progressed with pulp horror, pivoted on the rockets of his devotee and a businessman's flying saucers and ended with the rise of the internet and the return of Frodo to cinemas? There are some potent imaginal adjustments going on here that we do not really have the language to adequately process. Speaking of... let's return to New Zealand.
How much of my first few months living in New Zealand all those years ago was a Tolkienesque hallucination was a question that it took until this trip to even attempt to answer. Part of it was that 'accidentally triggering a fun fair' thing, to be sure. Because I want to be clear, despite whatever crappy Air New Zealand ads you might see, Aotearoa is decidedly its own place. It isn't Middle Earth. Given that the landscape is so potently soaked in Maori and Polynesian legend it is pretty close to full-blown racism to see the Waikato as the Shire, for instance. But, in my case at least, it turns out that full blown racism was the key to the explanation I have sought for over ten years. Let me explain.
Here is my grandfather showing a dead crocodile to the Duke of Edinburgh in New Guinea back when he used to run part of it.
Let me see if I can find a more racist one. Oh, I know. Here they are, now with the Queen's cousin/husband actually pointing at black people.
Now onto Nauru. Here's my grandfather doing something colonial. This may have been at his farewell, actually.
Anyway, you get the idea. I've banged on before about my family's Pacific connections and how my earliest memories are of Fiji and Samoa and such. And so as we sat on Waikane beach, eating terakihi and watching the sun set over Kapiti Island, a glimmer of explanation occurred to me. Maybe my kiwi love has something to do with that very early childhood/family thing?
Maybe. But it wasn't enough to explain it. The drive up the North Island from Wellington to Auckland -via Mordor- was too emotive to be reduced to a singular explanation. It 'hurt' with a mixture of nostalgia and pleasure too much. Bends in the road, familiar vistas... they were too arresting for such reductions.
There were some strange cycles; beginnings and endings; to my return to New Zealand. My closest kiwi friend missed my welcome drinks because her father had died suddenly and she was back home for the funeral that was happening at the exact same time. My first mentor -who worked for the company I work for now in London- was leaving the company he hired me into that kickstarted my career. And the dreams! New Zealand was definitely doing its ghostly fun fair thing.
In a way that only people who know Auckland would understand, it had just finished pouring with rain to the point of almost hailing, immediately followed up sunshine so warm that the roads begin to steam, and I was walking through Albert Park to meet a dear friend/old flatmate at the house across from Eden Park (sacred ground!). Great drops of water dripped from large tropical flowers and some city gardeners were trimming fronds from palm trees. That smell. That unmistakably Polynesian smell.
Realisation dawned. Tolkien's stated aim was to restore a mythology -an astral landscape- to England. My own familial astral landscape is decidedly Pacific. (Although I still maintain that I am objectively rather than subjectively correct that the afterlife smells like Fiji.) What happens when you overlay these two fuzzily-real astral landscapes and then move there?
If one's entire life can be mapped to Frodo's experience of overcoming Original Sin, thus defeating the Devil and earning eternity in the afterlife, then my move to New Zealand was The Hobbit: a bildungsroman that built the particular adult that I became. The reason the films retain so much personal resonance is because you genuinely could not custom-build a more appropriate astral landscape for me. A Polynesian Middle Earth. In this physical and mental space I discovered my adult independence, found love, started my career and... became me, basically. When I am sick -as I am now- my dreamscape is a tropical Middle Earth (give or take the odd spaceship). I got to physically live in it for six years.
There is an unmistakable experience of freedom in the cosmic sense of the word when you move to a foreign country with no safety net and things start to work out slightly. I remember in my early days in Auckland having days off work and no friends. I would get up and just walk. I would climb volcanoes. If I died it would probably take days for my parents to be notified because no one knew me or anything about me. (Especially as I rarely had credit on my shitty pre-internet mobile phone.)
That emotion is pretty hard to beat and even harder to recapture. As were drove our rental car back to Auckland airport a few days ago, we approached the turnoff that -had we not taken it- would have seen us driving south out of the city and into La Nouvelle Zealand Profonde. There was a genuine Thelma and Louise moment where I seriously considered doing so, where I very briefly considered chasing that same bildungsroman freedom. But it would not have worked out. The trouble with coming-of-age journeys is that they end when you get to Age. There is no going back and, in the end, that's okay.
So we took the turnoff and boarded our (air) ship into the west.