On Tolkien

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes, a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring . . . .
—J.R.R. Tolkien

I went to see the movie Tolkien this weekend. My thoughts, while sitting in the darkened cinema, watching it play:

Story is magic.

Reading aloud is magic.

Words are magic.

All are part of writing magic. 

Whatever critics may say of the movie, however accurate it may or may not be in depicting the early life of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, as a writer, I loved it. For me it beautifully captured the way a writer’s mind works.

When young John Ronald sat by the fireplace, utterly captivated by his mother’s reading and enactment of a dragon, I could relate to how the book and her voice spurred images to life in his mind. How flickering shadows on the walls, thrown by a candle carousel, took on the shapes of  mythological beings, how story played in his brain as vividly as this movie played in mine. I understood how these images stayed with him long after his mother died, after he landed as an orphan in a boarding house, even how they grew nearer, larger, clearer on the battlefields of the first World War while he succumbed to trench fever. I admired the artistry of the shadowy images recurring onscreen as part of Tolkien’s memory, recognizing: That is exactly what images DO. Once they spring to mind, they are THERE. They lurk, they submerge, they resurface. They’re never gone; they settle and swirl about again, waiting, waiting, waiting always, for the solidity of a page.

I loved how the movie emphasized the young Tolkien’s passion for words, particularly in a romantically-charged scene with Edith Bratt, who would become his wife. Tolkien speaks of the beauty of the phrase “cellar door.” He is enraptured by the sound of it. Edith tells him that it is not the sound of  a word that gives it beauty, but its meaning—what the word stands for, all that it connotes. This is reiterated in a scene with Tolkien and Joseph Wright, Professor of Comparative Philology at Oxford, on the mightiness of ships, buildings, civilizations, history, all summed up in a three-letter word: oak. Connotations, connections, deep, deep roots, power . . . in language, in phrasing, in a single word . . . is this not an ancient alchemy that writers come to know? 

And, at the same time, how captivating is the story of an orphaned boy making it to Oxford, himself becoming a renowned professor of philology (the study of the structure and historical development of language, if ever you’re a contestant on Jeopardy!). It’s the story of a man overcoming circumstances and being a genius, the roots of which run back to Tolkien’s childhood, to the Latin his mother taught him, to the stories his mother read aloud to him.

—Story.  The apogee of language, of words. The ultimate form for which language and words exist. The creative force, perhaps, that calls them, drives them . . .

In the final scene of the movie, Professor Tolkien sits at a desk before an empty page and begins to write a now-famous line. I’ve read his own account of this: he was grading examinations, mind-numbing, “soul-destroying” work, when he discovered a blank page in an examination booklet. Without knowing why, he wrote on it: In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. This instantly reminded me of J.K. Rowling, how the idea of Harry Potter just “fell into her head” as she was riding a train. The genesis, the magical conception, of story;  it does not exist, but then, inexplicably, in the blinking of an eye, it does, and the world is changed by it. The Tolkien Society relates that after the professor wrote that line out of nowhere, he then needed to know: What was a Hobbit? Why did it live in a hole? To find out, Tolkien began to tell the story to his children . . . and thus, eventually, was born the archetype of all modern fantasy.

The old that is strong does not wither. Deep roots are not reached by the frost. From the ashes, a fire shall be woken. A light from the shadows shall spring . . . yes. It seems to me that in these words of his lies proof that old stories Tolkien began learning as a child remained strong in him; they didn’t wither. They sparked in him an unquenchable fire. Those roots of his love for language, quests, myth, survived the freeze of profound loss. His memories, experiences, the images from his childhood onward, all are the shadows, the ashes, from which his own stories spring.

So it is with writers.

Even if all who write are not Tolkien.

It’s still magic.

Why I Write 2018

Fossil - Aurora

Pterorhytis conradi fossil murex snail shell, Croatan Formation, Lower Pleistocene. James St. JohnCC BY

It has been said that we are the sum total of our experiences (B.J. Neblett).

Our experiences are our story. Who we are. And why.

We are, therefore, our stories.

I write to tell mine.

I write because stories lie buried within me. I write to dig them out, to examine them, to find their value.

I write because ideas continually deposit themselves on top of one another like fine sediment in my mind. I am always sifting, sifting, finding the bits with meaning, determining how these random pieces connect to one another, for they surely and always do.

I write because my words will remain when I do not, imprints of my time on Earth. In the summers of my childhood, I walked little country roads covered with rejects from a local phosphate mine, gravel of shell and coral skeleton from epochs as old as Time itself. As my shoes crunched over this gravel I sometimes discovered primeval treasures—sharks’ teeth, whale ear bones, vertebrae—remnants of life gone before, lying there in my own shadow.

I write because I also walk upon all the books, all the words I’ve read in my lifetime. Within these layers upon layers of ever-deepening strata, too, lie treasures: phrases, emotions, images—again, remnants of life gone before, stowed away in the depths of my mind like the fossil bits in my childhood pockets. I carry with me always the impressions of other writers, the echo of their voices.

I write because I hear the echo of shoes scurrying in hallways, young voices calling my name: When I stop and turn, the children are there, eyes bright, faces glowing, asking a breathless question: “When are you coming to write with us again?”

I write to help them find their own treasures within, because their voices, their experiences, their stories matter; their existence matters, and they need to know it.

I write to preserve. To leave a record of those I’ve loved who’ve gone before, to celebrate those living and loving now. To share little fragments of hope, of peace, of pressing on, of rising above. My stories are my fossils, with or without value to the few who find them. No matter. They have immense value to me while I live them. They are my writing identity. My human identity.

I write because humans think and remember in story, because humanity is defined and connected by story. The sum total of our shared experience.

I am a storyteller.

And so I write.

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Another writing celebration: This is my 200th post published on Lit Bits and Pieces.