A Time of Peace – In memory of J.R.R. Tolkien, August 2002

by Jan 20, 2004Essays

It is time to sleep, but as often happens now, he is not tired. He thinks wryly that he is old indeed; the elderly, it seems, sleep through the days and lie awake at night. Certainly this has been happening to him more often than ever of late.
The house is very quiet. Next to the bed, he can hear the dry, regular ticking of the clock on the wall. That clock has marked the time in this house since the children were born, and it still shows no sign of stopping. He is in sympathy with it; both are old, but determined not to give up yet.
He lies on his back, feeling the gentle pressure of the pillows against the back of his head. He is aware again of missing his wife’s presence; it has been five years since she passed, but he is still not entirely accustomed to the fact that she is not beside him. He misses the regular sound of her breathing which, on other sleepless nights, encouraged him finally to follow her into somnolence.
A strange but familiar sensation begins to steal over him. It comes to him often at night when he lies awake; he begins to lose his awareness of the distinction between past and present, and instead perceives time as if a span of years may exist in a single moment. Images from his past rise before him and flow together beyond the boundaries of time. He surrenders himself to them peacefully, becoming almost a spectator of his own life, waiting for them to take him where they will.
He faces Jack across the small wooden table. The pub is nearly empty but for the two of them. It will not be long before curfew is called, and this is part of the reason why few people are out; but not many people venture out at night at all in these times.
“Have you heard, Tolkien?” Jack’s voice is caustic and tired, edged with bitterness. “Our noble foolish Britons have decided that we shall win this war. The Nazi wolf is at the door; he is forcing his way through it, burning our cities, killing our men by the thousands on land, at sea and in the air. He has surrounded us without hope of escape. But still our good people are congregating in the streets, singing `There’ll Always Be an England.'” Jack shakes his head grimly and raises his mug to his lips. As he swallows the ale, the fitful glow of the firelight lends a ruddy tinge to his worn face. He places the mug back on the table and continues, “You and I are too old for this. We never should have seen one war, much less two.”
“But nonetheless we are seeing them, Jack.” His own voice is heavy, without heat. He realizes that he is weighted with a weariness that rest will not cure. “My sons are being swallowed up by the same madness that I thought we destroyed thirty years ago. I can bear the sacrifices I made then – the world I loved, the life I hoped for, my peace. But I do not think I can bear to see my sons having to make the same sacrifices. I know that I would sooner be dead myself than lose them. But this is the age we live in.”
He stops speaking and turns to look at the fire. The flames move and shift, throwing dancing shadows on the stone floor. For a while there is no sound but the muted crackling of the burning logs. Then he hears his voice adding quietly,
“And you and I are still alive, Jack, in spite of everything. Perhaps our people are not as foolish as you think. Perhaps there will always be an England.”
He turns back to the table and finds that Jack has been watching him. He meets his friend’s eyes and sees his understanding. Without needing to speak of it, he knows that they both realize why they chose to brave the darkness and meet tonight. They are only two aging men talking in a pub; but through them, something is being kept alive.
The image fades, leaving him alone. That was the beginning of the second of the great wars he was to see in his lifetime. It astonishes him now to think that there was a time in his life when he had been entirely untouched by war. Such a young fool you were, he tells himself. You thought you knew what the world was – but you could not have been more wrong. Unbidden, a new picture rises to his mind: a small, simple room that he has not seen for many years.
Early spring sunshine in England, the isle of rain, is rare indeed. The light streams through the window and spreads across his desk, touching his papers and the open book with gold.
Outside, the grass and trees are revelling in the unaccustomed brightness after grey days of rain. The outdoors are a riot of green and birdsong, and before long there will be bursts of color as flowers come into bloom.
The brightness in the air seems to be the visible expression of the brightness in his spirit. He has been up and at work since dawn, but he is not tired. His paper is nearly done, the study with which he will complete his degree. For weeks, months, his mind has been full of the wild music of the Old Icelandic texts; in no other language on earth can there be found such luminous, resonant beauty. He has devoted all of his strength and love to this study, and now at the time of its completion he feels both proud delight and a touch of sadness. He has never felt so alive as he has been on the course of this beautiful journey, and he can only hope to experience something like it again before he dies.
And now, with his studies finished… he has not allowed himself to think of it before, focusing instead on his work. But now her face comes into his mind and he does not turn away from it. Edith. She has waited for him; she chose to wait, though there were others who would willingly have married her. He cannot fully understand why she, with her beauty, her warmth, her lively intelligence, should love him; he is not much to look at, quiet, reserved, given to daydreaming. But the thought of her fills him with a trembling joy; she will marry him, they will create a life together. For some reason, he remembers now the vague rumor he has heard of a coming war; but this is too far away to trouble him.
He leans back in the chair and stretches luxuriously. It is a beautiful morning, in all possible ways. He looks down at the gold-lit papers on his desk. The smile that lights his face is a greeting to the beginning of life.
And that was the boy as he was when the war found him. Into it he went with his dreams, his loves, his devotion to the service of that which was beautiful – and you, poor lad, you found that nothing was as you had believed.
A day of searing heat. Under a harsh sun the earth is packed in a hard mass the color of baked clay. The sky is glaring blue and there is no green to be seen anywhere on the empty stretch of ground.
His back is pressed against the wall of the trench and he listens to the dull booming roar outside. In his mind he can see the shells falling, cracking the solid earth open, exploding and sending up clouds of acrid dust. He feels nothing but the earth at his back, shaking with the impact of the explosions, the tight boots on his feet and the cold metal stock of the rifle in his hands.
He thinks of nothing. His body is tense, waiting for the order to go over the top. He will hear it and obey, leaving behind the safety of the trench, throwing himself up over the earthworks into the dead stretch of no man’s land. He will be one of a swarm of tiny ants scurrying over the ground under the glaring yellow eye above. If he meets his death there, it will make no difference. It means nothing when an ant dies.
He does not feel and he is not afraid. His body will fight to survive, but his mind is indifferent. He has no thoughts except the image of the caked earth and dust clouds of no man’s land. Perhaps he will survive long enough to reach the next trench; perhaps not. He waits for the order to be given.
But that day he lived. The desperate run across no man’s land is gone from his mind now; it was gone that very day, as soon as the next trench was gained. This is how soldiers survived – forget the past, all that happened weeks or days or even hours ago, if you wish to stay sane. Otherwise the thought of what could have happened to you, or what did happen to a mate or a friend, will overwhelm you.
He can remember nothing until that day’s end. But now it is not that nightfall that comes to him, but another night, a later time. And it is not the beginning of night but its end, as he awakens from some indefinite dream and finds that it will not return.
Sleep is impossible. He raises himself on his elbow and gropes on the bedside table for his glasses – the feat is finding them when he cannot see them. He feels the touch of cold metal frames under his palm and quickly closes his hand about the elusive object. He settles the glasses on his nose and the world springs suddenly into sharp focus. With the disappearance of the blurry, hazy edges around the objects in the bedroom, the last traces of weariness are dispelled from his mind.
He peers at the clock on the wall on his side of the bed. Five-thirty: soon it will be dawn, and with first light the planes will return. Each day he listens to them roaring overhead in ceaseless holding patterns, serving as a constant reminder that peace has been banished from the world. If they are there for his protection, guarding the sky from the terrible Germans, he would sooner be unprotected.
He despises the planes. They are instruments of destruction that allow men to fly and hurl weapons at those who crawl beneath them on the ground. Man has invented yet another way to give hurt and instill fear. Why is it that the ingenuity of man’s mind is so often given to evil when it is capable of such good? This paradox never ceases to confound him. And now it is said that these planes are necessary to the war effort, that England’s matchless RAF will bring about victory in the end. But already it is clear that there will be no real victor in this war or any war. Perhaps the Germans will sue for peace. But whether they do or not, the earth has been torn and blasted by the conflict and men’s lives have been destroyed by the thousands. Where is the victory there?
And Christopher. Christopher’s letter came yesterday and he must reply to it at once, this morning – no doubt it was thinking of this that woke him so early. He will try to write while there is still a little peace, before the planes return. Christopher, the youngest and gentlest of the three boys, most like his father in temperament and calling – why should he have been made a servant to these hideous mechanical birds of prey? Better to have been a foot soldier; there is only so much destruction a man on foot may cause, but the power of the planes seems limitless. Father, Thy will be done. If it please Thee, bring my sons home.
He lowers his feet slowly to the floor. A needle of pain pricks at his spine; the stiffness seems a bit worse each morning. He releases his weight gradually from the mattress to keep from jostling it and waking Edith, who is still asleep. Treading carefully to avoid the squeaking floorboards, he crosses barefoot to his writing desk and sits down. The paper and pen are already set out, waiting.
Christopher’s letter was full of news of the camp and his reconnaissance flights. He can hear that his son is being pulled into the world of war, that grim reality without time or grounding in space. The boy is cut off from the world he knew and may already be starting to forget the life he left.
He will hold on to his son. The war has not struck so hard or lingered so long that he has himself forgotten what it is simply to live. That is a lesson that he learned well in his own war, long ago now. The hollyhocks and snapdragons are blooming in the garden behind the house. The milk is delivered to the front stoop in the morning. Priscilla makes tea every afternoon at three, and sometimes in the evenings, he and Jack engage in literary debate. They go on living and breathing, regardless of the roar of planes overhead and shelling at the front. It is this that he must tell his son.
He draws a sheet of paper toward him and picks up the pen. “My dearest Chris,” he begins.
And Christopher did come home in the end. Dearest Chris – my most trusted assistant and critic. I believe he gave too much of himself to my work and spared not enough for his own; but I could have asked for no better help.
Now with the thought of his long-beloved work comes the memory he sought earlier. He follows it as it leads him back into the trenches.
Night has come down and now the air is cool. Even in the trench, where he and his mates lie on their bedrolls to sleep as best they can, the cool air moves slowly about them and brings them a breath of peace.
He is not asleep. He can hear the regular breathing of the others around him that have long since passed into dreamless unconsciousness. But he is not tired; there is no sleep in him tonight.
He survived today. But for how much longer he will hold onto life he does not know or care. He does not think of the run across no man’s land today, or yesterday’s march or what will come tomorrow. He does not think of his home, his family or the woman he loves; these things are long ago, the belongings of a stranger. He is a man without past or future, for whom time and memory are meaningless. What do such things matter when death is always present, and may reach out to seize him at any moment, as it has so many others?
Instead he holds in his mind the image of a black velvet sky studded with points of pure white fire. He is watching a story unfold, the creation of a world of his own imagining, far outside time and space. The sky is an open expanse across which a fair, slender hand strews stars. She is a lady, a queen whose hand carries light. Now into his mind comes a single word, like the liquid tone of a bell, and he knows that he has heard her name.
That, perhaps, was the beginning. Strange that something he cared for so deeply should have been born out of such suffering. The story that he had begun to tell that night had remained in his mind for forty years and more, growing and changing, and from it had sprung many of the creations he valued most.
And there was another critic besides Christopher who had read those creations; praised, edited, argued over or dismissed them entirely. The old man feels laughter rising in his throat as he remembers. Jack, my friend. They had been in some ways very different; their religions alone had afforded countless hours of debate. He, the devout Catholic, and Jack, the staunch Protestant, had argued long and vociferously over the merits of the priesthood, the value of ceremonial rites, and the meaning of communion. They had teased, antagonized and jokingly insulted each other; but through it all they had both known that they shared the most fundamental element of religion: an unswerving faith in God.
They had argued over their work as well. He had been Jack’s critic as Jack had been his, and they had defended their works staunchly, even against each other. But we kept each other honest, didn’t we, he thinks. And each pushed the other to exceed his best efforts. At least, I know you did me – and I like to think I did as much for you.
“Have you read it?” he asks.
“Of course,” Jack answers curtly. “You know that I’ll read anything of yours you ask.”
Jack’s stony face mobilizes suddenly into an outraged scowl that is almost a snarl.
“I don’t understand you, Tolkien!” he snaps. “You, with your talent, your matchless imagination, your beautiful lyrical prose that most of these so-called writers can’t even conceive of — ” he pauses just long enough to draw breath – “why in the name of heaven are you, of all people, wasting your time writing fairy-stories about silly little half-sized creatures? Why?” The torrent of words has run out and Jack, his fire temporarily extinguished, sits glaring at him in silence.
“Have you quite finished?” he asks quietly. His voice quivers with suppressed amusement.
“Yes. Now what have you got to say for yourself?”
The laughter ebbs out of his voice as he answers, still calmly and quietly.
“Now, see here, Lewis,” he says. “You know that I have long valued your opinion in all matters pertaining to your craft and mine. But I do not acknowledge your right or anyone else’s to dictate what type of story I shall write, or to tell me that I may not write a fairy-tale for my children. And if it comes to criticism of chosen genre, may I ask why you insist on making up stories about bizarre aberrations of science that neither you nor I can understand?”
This shaft has gone home; he can see the barest flicker of consternation in Jack’s eyes.
“The proper name for such stories, Tolkien, is science-fiction, and I’ll thank you to use it,” Jack says shortly.
“And I’ll thank you, Lewis, to call my `half-sized creatures’ by the name I gave them,” he answers levelly.
Now laughter is rising into Jack’s eyes and a smile is twitching at the corners of his mouth.
“Very well, incorrigible Papist,” Jack says.
“Very well, obdurate Calvinist.”
And now they are both laughing, and Jack reaches across the table to shake his hand.
“And so the literary titans survive yet another battle of wills,” Jack says. “Well, so be it – I to my science-fiction and you to your fairy tales. But someday we shall put our heads together, and then what a story we will produce.”
“You know that I am always here,” he answers. “I shall be ready to collaborate any time you ask.”
And I wish you were here now, Jack, the old man says to the younger face in his mind. A pair of crotchety old fools we were, betting on which of us would outlast the other. And you won that bet, old lad, for I’ve outlasted you a year now. He smiles slightly, sadly, and shakes his head. And I am sorry for that.
That was the reason they had stood together during the second Great War. They were two writers whose work lay in the creation of other and better worlds, two men who believed in the existence and wisdom of God. They could both conceive of a better time and find hope that such a time would come. That night in the pub, long ago, they had met to urge each other never to forget what should be; to go on fighting to save the best of what remained in a world sinking rapidly into madness.
And they had already survived such madness once. We had to begin again after we came home from the front; we had to learn again how to live when all we had believed in seemed to be destroyed.
He stands still on the station platform as the crowd swirls around him. He is aware of their voices, the rich voices of home, thick with their uniquely English music. He catches no individual words, but lets the tones of their speech flow over him, as he tries to remember where he is and where he is going.
He recalls the reflection that looked at him out of the station mirror before he left his last stop. He had felt a remote curiosity, as if some former version of himself reminded him that there had been a time when his appearance had mattered to him. He had gone to the mirror, wondering what those who waited for him would see when he came home.
He had been surprised to see that his face was so little changed. It was the first time since he had been at the front that he had looked properly at himself, and he saw the same fair, tousled hair, the same clear hazel eyes, the high cheekbones and square jaw that had belonged to the young student. The only changes were a set to his mouth and a weariness about his eyes that seemed too old for a young man.
But they would know him; the old man, his guardian, who had waited so long and so anxiously for his return, and Edith. His beloved Edith, who had ceased to seem real to him in those endless days of desperate struggle for life, who had become only a fragment of his dreams. The two who loved him would know him. But could they understand that he no longer knew them, that in order to survive, he had forgotten who they were? He had left his body to fight for survival on the battlefield and allowed his mind to run free in the visions of another world, until the world he had left was no longer real to him. How could he make them understand?
The sudden motion of the train leaving the platform pulls him out of his thoughts. He cannot wait about any longer; it is time to go home. He bends down and picks up his kit from the ground next to him. He grips it firmly, smoothes the heavy cloth of his army jacket, and leaves the platform with the quick, firm step of a soldier.
He is growing tired now. His thoughts are coming more slowly. He had married Edith at last, three years later than he had hoped during that final year of his studies. How changed he had been; but she had still loved him. And he learned that even in the face of destruction, loves held long do not die easily.
It is a smooth shift in his mind from the memory of that station to the memory of another, many years later but still long ago.
The train doors open. His anxious eyes sweep over the blur of unfamiliar faces as passengers stream onto the platform. Where is his son? He has waited, prayed so long for the boy’s return. He cannot wait longer.
And now suddenly Michael is there, standing on the platform with the bag slung over his shoulder. The boy is tall, taller than he remembers, it seems. His son looks like a man – but his eyes are searching, weary, the eyes of a lost child.
In an instant he is moving, cutting through the crowd to the platform. He does not see the people hurrying around him. His eyes are fixed on his son, who has not yet seen him. He does not notice if he bumps against people, and could not stop to apologize if he did notice. And now Mick’s eyes have found him. The boy is moving forward to the edge of the platform; a smile is struggling to form on his face. “Father… Father…”
He reaches the platform and now at last his arms are around his son, holding him tightly. He can feel Mick’s arms clinging to him like those of a child who has woken out of a nightmare, clinging to the only certain safety in a terrifying and desolate world. He hears his own voice trembling with emotion as he says quietly, “Thank God. At last you’ve come home.”
“Father.” Mick’s voice is tight, choked. “I am sorry, Father. It was almost over, but I couldn’t bear it. I couldn’t. I thought I’d go mad… I’m sorry.”
“You have nothing to be sorry for, my dearest boy,” he answers gently. “Men were not meant to witness or withstand such horrors. Your presence here means more to me than any heroism at the front ever could.”
His son says nothing, but holds on to him more tightly. For some moments they remain as they are, unaware of the people moving around them. Now he says quietly,
“Come now, Mick. It’s time we went home.”
His thoughts are fading rapidly now as sleep comes upon him, but still he sees their faces in his mind: Mick, the second son; John the eldest; Christopher the youngest and last to come home. He sees them as they were when they came back together, when the war was at last over. Each bore a burden that had not been his before leaving to fight; Mick especially, whose nerves had been destroyed by the fighting and who had had to be discharged, not long before the end.
Then their faces drift away, to be replaced by the sight of the familiar room in which he lies. The flow of memories has now stopped altogether. He is quiet, at peace. Once again he realizes that he has lived through much; he is now very old. The knowledge that he is now at the end of his time is always with him, but he accepts it without fear. He did all that he could with the world as he found it; he survived the worst it gave him, and began life again not only once, but twice. Now his work is done. If the world is to be changed, it will be done by other hands.
Weariness overtakes him at last. He closes his eyes and drifts quietly into sleep.


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