13th September 2014
Good writing is not something that requires the reader to be completely passive; it is a dialogue, in which the writer engages the reader in a shared experience, and a journey. For each reader, the experience of a single book will be different. This week I have been working on Nature Mystics for Moon Books again, which will be published later this year, and it has been time to review my relationship with J.R.R. Tolkien. The thing I love most about this project is that it allows me to revisit some old friends, and remind myself why I found them so inspiring in the first place, but look at them from a fresh angle. Some of those relationships were formed long before I found myself on my current path, and Tolkien is one of my longest standing ‘boyfriends’ (of which I have many, and girlfriends too, since to all intents and purposes I am a literary slut).
I first encountered Tolkien as a child. My dad encouraged me to read The Hobbit, which I enjoyed, but did not fully love. But I liked it enough to then look longingly at my Dad’s three volume copy of Lord Of The Rings. One day I dove in, but struggled to get beyond the journey out of the Shire; something in the whole sequence of leaving Bag End to venture out to Bree, and the encounters with Tom Bombadil cut me off. Looking back I think it is because I did not want to leave the Shire, it was such an idyllic place. Like most people, it was not until I was a student that I truly fell for Tolkien. In my third year at university, I ended up sharing a house with a boyfriend and his two flat mates, all of whom were Tolkien mad, and I was encouraged me to return to the books again. This time, I persisted onwards to the Prancing Pony, the first encounters with the Nazgul, and then on to Rivendell, and I had cracked it. From then on I was hooked.
About three years later, those same friends and I moved to London and became a film making collective. In between filming guerrilla shorts and a feature length film in and around London, we would go back home to the flat we shared, and bedtime was ‘Lordy’ time (nothing kinky, I swear!) One of us had a copy of the Radio 4 production of Lord of The Rings, which had the beautifully voiced Robert Stephens as Aragorn, Michael Hordern as Gandalf, John Le Mesurier as Bilbo and Ian Holm as Frodo. The radio play, which had quite a big influence on the much later films, was entrancing; from the Mines of Moria to Helm’s deep and on to Minas Tirith, it really captured the essence of the books beautifully. Each night as we went to sleep, we set up a tape recorder in the hallway, and as we each went into our respective bedrooms, we would leave the doors open and go to sleep listening to the tapes. The only problem came when each tape needed to be turned over, and we would have to take it in turns to tip-toe down the dark hallway to flip the tape over. The worst thing was to finish as Gandalf fell with the Balrog, and, realising everyone else was already asleep, I would have to wait for the next night and the next instalment, all the while knowing that Gandalf the White would return, but being a little bit gutted all the same.
Writing the article for the book has been a timely reminder of that experience, and the spellbinding weaving of folklore that Tolkien managed to create. It is fascinating to go back now and learn a bit about his life, beyond the headlines; the usually cited references to his involvement in the Inklings, and his life as an Oxford don. What appeals to me is his love of languages, his insistence that language without an accompanying body of folklore will become a dead language (cue esperanto), and the details of his life with his wife, who was buried with the simple word ‘Luthien’ as her epitaph. Anyone who has read the story of Beren and Luthien will know how beautifully poetic this is.
Last night I went to sleep with Mr Tolkien for the first time in about fifteen years, and it was wonderful to encounter those old friends again, to be taken back to that time in my life when I had encountered them before, from the relative safety of now. The experience of revisiting an old book-friend is one in which you reflect on your own life, as well as the fictional lives of the characters, it is like a mini-holiday where you try on a different place for size, knowing that you will come home after a short spell, unpack your little suitcase and put things away again.
So I am curious; where did you first encounter Mr Tolkien, and what first made you captivated?