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24 MILES FROM MIDDLE EARTH
By Nils Visser
Once upon a teaching career, feeling particularly self-confident and boastful, I dared a favourite sophomore class at a school in the Amsterdam suburb called the Bijlmer to name a book. That book, whatever you choose, provided it’s not way below your level, we will read and I will teach. It was a spur of the moment thing and not all that advisable really. They might have chosen Wuthering Heights for example, a book I was assigned to read in 1986 and haven’t quite managed to finish yet. Worse, the lassies outnumbered the lads, and at the time I was still blissfully unaware of the Twilight hype but I came pretty close to having to analyse a school prom involving vampires. Don’t get me wrong, I seriously dig vampires. But not sissy vampires that go to High School Proms without causing Carrie-sized bloodbaths. None-the-less, the offer stood and was in recognition of their patience with the book I’d picked to read as a collective at the beginning of the year, as well as being an optimistic expectation that they would be motivated to read something of their own choice.
The sophomore class exceeded all my expectations and made my day, in fact, it was one of the happiest days of my life. They wanted to read The Hobbit.
Previously you and I looked at setting and decided that sometimes the setting becomes a character in its own right, such as Wonderland and various islands. There are no superlatives to describe how J.R.R. Tolkien surpasses all that to create a super-setting which is nothing more than an entire world. No other authors have come even near to the incredible detailed make-believe world created by Tolkien, a world called Middle Earth. He created tens of thousands of years of history and more languages than you can wave a magic heirloom sword at. Perhaps, within storytelling in general, George Lucas comes close with his huge Star Wars galaxy filled with long histories, thousands of alien worlds and tens of thousands of creatures and the like. However, in comparison to Middle Earth the Star Wars Galaxy remains superficial, if only because of the incredible detail in which Tolkien records the annals of Middle Earth, the majority of which never makes it into the published stories, but which prop up the temporary suspense of disbelief required for the stories to work.
As such Middle Earth becomes a surprisingly realistic location, one that can be visited rather than merely imagined. In fact, I go there quite often, but this isn’t surprising since Middle Earth is only 24 miles from my house.
One of the major secrets of Middle Earth as a Fantasy setting, as far as I can make out, is that most of it is so incredibly familiar. It’s like looking through a somewhat distorted mirror, things appear strange yet oddly recognizable and therefore comfortable, snug even. The Shire folk, for example, are very much a shorter and more hairy footed version of Middle England during peacetime. Content with a pipe, a pint and friendly banter they are, in general, unconcerned with the outside world, their needs are simple, good food on the table and pleasant company to break bread with. Complexity exists only in keeping track of extended family relations and the art of giving gifts.
The more outlandish creatures in Middle Earth may not be the types you’re likely to run into at your friendly corner shop, but even they are not as alien as they might first appear. Tolkien knew his history, he specialised in the Anglo-Saxons but cast his net far wider than that. His intention was to create a mythical background where he perceived the English had none or little in comparison to, say, the Scandinavians with their meddlesome, noisy and powerful gods or the Celts with their incredibly rich lore. Almost all of the fantasy creatures in Middle Earth are archetypal and therefore recognizable, even if it’s only on a subconscious level.
One of the most obvious races with one foot on Earth and one foot on Middle Earth are the Elves. We ourselves encounter them first as children, in the form of cute pixy sized flower folk which inhabit our forests and woods. As we grow up the lucky ones amongst us realize the Fey Folk are still all around:
Over hill, over dale,
Thorough bush, thorough brier,
Over park, over pale,
Thorough flood, thorough fire,
I do wander everywhere,
Swifter than the moon's sphere;
(From A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by William Shakespeare)
However, we also realize that the Elves are not the innocent and harmless creatures of childhood’s perception. The Fair Folk can be narcissistic to the extreme, totally oblivious of the effects their antics have on the human world, witness the marital troubles of Oberon and Titania. Their mischief, described in detail by Robin Goodfellow alias Puck, ranges from harmless pranks to actions which could have more severe consequences, as if they can either not tell the difference or don’t particularly care. It is not for nought that we all learn, as part of our cultural heritage, never to accept food or drink should we happen to stray into a Fairy Hall, because once you tuck into Elven F&B there’s no telling when and where you will wake up.
Worse, Elves can have a serious mean streak. Take, for example, that well known song Scarborough Fair. Some of the original lyrics teach us a great deal about the wanton cruelty of the Fair Folk.
(Copy and paste into a new window: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cNajUkcGr9M )
To prove true love, a woman is instructed to find an acre of fertile land betwixt the sea and the beach and plough all of it with a dandelion thorn. The land must then be sown with spirits unborn and reaped with a leather sickle. The crop gathered in flowers made of heather, weaved onto Unicorne bone, dyed with a rock’s blood and then she must bring a funeral shirt to her lover there where the banshee sings. This place is to be reached by means of flight, for which angel wings are to be used, i.e. she’s going to have to kill herself, the funeral shirt isn’t meant for her Elven lover but for herself.
Now that is what we could call high maintenance.
Nonetheless, it could be worth it because Elves are said to be beautiful and encounters with them fairly erotic. There’s a reason La Belle Dame Sans Merci managed to trap all that many knights, princes and kings in her web:
I met a lady in the meads
Full beautiful, a faery's child;
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.
I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long;
For sideways would she lean, and sing
A faery's song.
I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She look'd at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan.
She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna dew;
And sure in language strange she said,
I love thee true.
She took me to her elfin grot,
And there she gaz'd and sighed deep,
And there I shut her wild sad eyes--
So kiss'd to sleep.
(From La Belle Dame Sans Merci, by John Keats).
(Take a break from reading, open the following link on a new page, close your eyes and just listen to the whole tale).
To me the Fair Folk are sexy by definition, which isn’t due to any deviational defects on my own account , I blame Shakespeare. When I was fifteen we read A Midsummer Night’s Dream at school and teacher thought it would be a good idea to go see the play performed in the flesh. This wasn’t just a good idea, it was an absolute stroke of genius, for this particular performance had apparently been strapped for cash, which they solved by allocating Titania and her fairies mere strips of silk to wrap around their hips, and partially covering the rest of the five actresses with a teeny bit of symbolic body paint. We, the usually noisy and rowdy boys, were spellbound, enthralled, bewitched, beguiled, enraptured, mesmerized and riveted. The Genius of the Bard is that I still am. Having become a senior citizen when I passed the 40 mark, I´m deeply appreciative of the fact that if Bottom with his pompous pretentions at cleverness, coarse habits and ass’s head can score the Queen of Fairies then I’m still in there with half a chance.
Considering all of the above, are we in for any surprises when we encounter the Elven folk in Middle Earth? Not particularly, cold and distant at times, warm and caring at other times, decidedly magical and on intellectual planes beyond our comprehension. We know this lot, have known them since childhood and hopefully they’ll be there till the end times.
Hang on, I hear you say, sexual content? In Middle Earth? Aye, read the appendices, the Silmarillion, other background works. The Aragorn-Arwen conversations that so offended so-called `purists´ can be found in there word for word.
Want more sex? No problem. In a tribute to the Finnish Kalevala saga The Children of Húrin features the meeting of Túrin Turambar and Niënor aka Níniel, and their rather complicated relational issues. To tell you more would be a serious spoiler, you´ll have to rely on my word that it´s fairly sordid and involves nudity and intercourse.
Moreover, the Tale of Beren and Lúthien features a sensual dance which the Elven Lúthien performs for the human Beren in the woods. Besides a reference to the Welsh tale of Culhwch and Olwen, the dance is apparently autobiographical as well. At any rate, Tolkien compared his own love for his Edith to the love story of Beren and Lúthien to judge by the association literally carved on their gravestone.
So much for the Elves and our recognition and possible association with Middle Earth´s version of the Sidhe. As said, these we are quick to recognize, where others may take more time. Take the Drúedain, for example, the Púkel-men as the humans call them, or Woodwoses. These too have deep roots in English culture and history. If you´ve ever seen the carved head of a Green Man in church or Cathedral then you´ve encountered these archetypal primitive wild men. If you´ve ever watched Morris Dancing you probably saw the Green Man, or Woodwose, as well, as he is one of the main `characters´ in the story conveyed by the Morris Dancers, as a Robin Goodfellow he is often associated with either the mischievous fairy Puck as well as May Day´s Robin Hood. As Woodwose this archetype is less well known, so much recognition would be subconscious. As Puck or Robin Hood the iconic identity is far stronger and may even be subject of conscious identification.
Other aspects found specifically in The Hobbit have similar roots, the Dwarves for example, but also, of course, Gandalf the Grey, an incarnation of Merlin later to return to us as Obi Wan Kenobi and Dumbledore. Tales of Dragons abound (St George!) so Smaug´s presence is almost natural, and there are Scandinavian roots for the trolls and goblins. Beorn seems to be a combination of the Anglo-Saxon hero Beowulf and Anglo-Saxon Shamanic traditions which included a strong emphasis on shape shifting into animalistic forms.
Did the kids in the sophomore class like The Hobbit? Some didn't, dismissing it with that arrogant adolescent "whatever" nonchalance. Mind you, those kids don't like anything at all, give them free ice-cream and they'd figure out a complaint. So I ignore them. The others, well, we got carried away of course. I ended up writing out their report cards in Runic script (there were a few puzzled parents) and they started handing in stuff written in Runic as well. So we were definitely swept up in the story.
As for the 24 miles from Middle Earth: I wasn’t around when Middle Earth was conceived, but if I had been, then I would have heard the epic bombastic and morbid soundtrack thundering incessantly to the southeast and east of my semi-derelict farmhouse in France, a mere two dozen miles from the Somme battlefield. Where Middle Earth was born.
The Battle of the Somme was truly a very bloody chapter of the First World War, and Tolkien´s regiment, the 11th Battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers, was stationed in the Northern Sector during the 1916 campaign.
Tolkien survived, but two of his closest friends, Robert Gilson and Geoffrey Bache Smith, perished in the fighting. Together with Christopher Wiseman the four had formed the TCBS, the Tea Club and Barrovian Society at school, a fellowship of four talented lads intent on changing the world. In an almost prophetic letter to Tolkien Smith bade him “May you say the things that I have tried to say long after I am not there to say them, if such be my lot,” fully believing that the TCBS “had been granted some spark of fire that was destined to kindle a new light in the world…The death of one of its members cannot…dissolve.”
In order to retain his sanity during the overwhelming scenes of death, decay and violence around him, Tolkien started scribbling in his notebook, composing the never to be finished The Book of Lost Tales, much of which would later be in cooperated into The Silmarillion. Tolkien wrote whenever he could, “in huts full of blasphemy and smut, or by candlelight in bell-tents, even down in dugouts under shell fire”. To his son Christopher he wrote: "I took to 'escapism': or really transforming experience into another form and symbol with Morgoth and Orcs and the Eldalië (representing beauty and grace of life and artefact) and so on; and it has stood me in good stead in many hard years since, and I still draw on the conceptions then hammered out."
Middle Earth was born out of the pure hell that was trench warfare, and though most of the countryside around Thiepval is now seemingly at peace one feels very small there, continuously aware of the enormous bravery and sacrifice made by the fighting men who died in, on and at those fields in their tens of thousands. A visit to the Canadian memorial to the Newfoundlanders further to the north of Tolkien´s position is very advisable. Like Vimy, north of Arras and also permanently gifted to the Canada by France, the landscape has been left intact, showing the incredible scarring by thousands of impact craters large and small, as well as allowing a walk through the old trenches. When you´ve reached the far side of this part of Canada, turn around, look back. It took about five minutes to walk over a few fields on the slope of a ridge that took the British and Commonwealth forces four months to cross in 1916. Think on that when you walk back, in essence tracing the steps of Frodo and Sam across the ravaged landscape of Mordor.
Because that landscape too, dear reader, holds a puzzling element of familiarity. You´d think –hope- Sauron´s blasted heaps and pits were something from a place of pure fantasy. Well, think again as you look at the pictures below and realize how much literature is influenced by the world around the author, the world around us, and how, in turn we are influenced by literature, whole or in crumbs, lodged in our collective memories.
Now go away, I´m weeping.