by Mary Ann Gwinn
Seattle Times book editor
One requirement in the life of a pushing-50 parent is to share things with your kids that involve sitting. Better yet, lying down. Preferably with a nice cozy blanket over your aching joints. This search for the sedentary may account for why my husband and I have spent two months (and counting) reading our 7- and 9-year-old boys The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien.
We just passed the halfway point (1,008 pages, not counting appendices!), and I feel at times as if it will never end. But they’re hooked. After watching them hang on to every word of a three-page-long bardic poem, I wondered: What’s going on here? I found some clues in a new book, J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century by T.A. Shippey (Houghton Mifflin, $26).
Shippey, now a professor at St. Louis University, taught at Oxford with Tolkien. To put it mildly – he’s a fan. While it’s mostly a bracing book, there are sections on word derivations that are an insomniac’s best friend.
But in a year when the movie version of The Lord of the Rings will fire the imaginations of filmgoers worldwide during the holiday season, Tolkien – who he was, what he did and how he did it – bears some thinking about.
J.R.R. Tolkien was a word scholar, a professor of philology at Oxford. He knew Old Norse, old and middle English, Welsh and every other ancient tongue of England forward, backward and inside out. The guy could get lost on the way to work pondering where the name of his street came from.
He was a straight arrow. “He remained all his life a committed Christian and Catholic, and died, two years after his wife, in 1973. No extramarital affairs, no sexual oddities, no scandals, strange accusations or political involvements – nothing, in a way, for a poor biographer to get his teeth into,” Shippey writes.
He published The Lord of the Rings – here’s one for all you late bloomers – when he was 62.
But 40 years earlier, something had happened to Tolkien that would darken the colors of his imagination. He shipped out to World War I, and fought in some of the worst of it. His mother had died when he was 12, and he never really knew his father, who had died when he was 4.
By the end of the war, all his closest friends were dead.
The man who had seen too much began to write fantasy. As the years went by, his knowledge of ancient myths and tongues impelled him to create an imaginative world that Tolkien believed had really existed – if not in reality, in the deep recesses of the brain where humans struggle to resolve the sublime and the horrible.
Tolkien’s clues to the old world lay in names of mythical characters of northern Europe. The dwarves, elves and trolls who people Tolkien’s Middle Earth all sprang from a common mythology of the Scandinavian countries, old Germany and England, Tolkien asserted. Beliefs in these ancient folk were suppressed by foreign missionaries, foreign literacy and Christianity, but English speakers still say dwarf, Germans Zwerg and Icelanders dvergr, all referring to a short, feisty, avaricious, metallurgically adept critter.
That ancient, largely unrecorded world “existed before fairy tale, a merciless world without a Geneva Convention,” Shippey writes. Altruism could get you killed. Give the wrong answer to the dragon’s riddle, and you went up in smoke.
Plowing through The Lord of the Rings, I wonder that anyone could ever think of it as a children’s book. Frodo the Hobbit’s comfy world in Bag End is swept away forever, as he embarks on a struggle to destroy the horrid Ring. Sometimes he battles himself, fighting the Ring’s spell, the promise of unlimited power. Sometimes the struggle is external, as the villain Sauron sends out all the hounds of hell in an effort to get back the Ring.
But what does all this have to do with our cleaned-up, shined-up modern world? Plenty, says Shippey. He notes that Tolkien is just one author in a troop of war-ravaged veterans that included George Orwell, Kurt Vonnegut, William Golding and C.S. Lewis. They all used fantasy to sort out their own encounters with contemporary evil, personified in modern Sauron-like tools of annihilation such as carpet-bombing, chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, genocide and the massacre of noncombatants.
And what does this have to do with my beloved and sheltered 7- and 9-year-olds? Good question. Here’s my thought:
Kids know that the world is a tough place. The well-intentioned parent shields his or her child from bullies and unfairness. We teach them kindness, gentleness and selflessness (but buff up that homework, dear, because there are only so many slots at Harvard).
But children know something: There’s a roaring darkness out there. One recent day I tried to explain, at my older son’s request, Hiroshima. The look on his face is not one I will soon forget.
Kids are looking for a way to sort it out, to create a place where good does triumph, where there’s no homelessness, let alone a Chechnya. Tolkien gives kids (of all ages) something to hang those hopes on, just as the ancient tale tellers did. It’s a powerful myth – so powerful that it keeps repeating itself. Think about the brothers-in-arms of Tolkien’s munificent wizard, Gandalf. There’s Harry Potter’s Dumbledore; T.S. White’s Merlin; George Lucas’ Obi-Wan Kenobi.
And this December, when the lines stretch around the corner for the movie version of The Lord of the Rings, consider this truism: In the quest for good guys to counterbalance the bad, there is really nothing new under the sun.