Thursday, December 09, 2004

Tolkien and Homelessness

Springfield, Oregon, 1971. It was very dark, very narrow. I emerged at twilight to wander through the hills, through black oak trees and high grass that was pale white under the stars.

The sign of our connection was the stars. Tolkien understood them as I did: A glimpse of a country that had never fallen under evil and doubt. William Blake is dear to me, but I find his stars, the spear-carriers of cruel Nobodaddy, preposterous. How he could look at the stars and see that, I don't know. Cruel cold indifferent stars, I suppose -- Dickens saw them that way too -- but to me they have always, always been heart-piercingly beautiful. I want to die under the stars. Their country is the real country, of which this, under the breeding sun, is a travesty.

Always the sense that I was not fit for this world. An awkward foreigner. The ordinary tasks of life that people of the sun did carelessly and easily were ordeals for me. Making a phone call. Chatting about the weather. Learning to drive. I did not want to do them, they never came easy to me, and even when I learned them I could forget how in the blink of an eye. In the middle of conversation I would stall, staring at the face or the phone as though I had never ever seen such a thing before. A light would turn green, and I would know that I was supposed to set the car back in motion, but I would have no idea how to do it.

Under the stars, those things never mattered.

I don't think I ever thought of myself as helpless or powerless. I thought of myself as Peter Beagle's Schmendrick, the magician whose famous master finally told him that "your uselessness and incompetence are so monumental, it can only mean that a power far greater than mine must dwell in you -- only it is working backwards at the moment."

I think of my situation in those years as precarious. Maybe I was tougher than I think; maybe I would have come through in any case. But my sense of it, looking back, is that I lived close to disaster, and that I could have pitched into it at any time. I lived outside of Springfield, Oregon, as full of hate as a water-balloon is full of water. When I read the news, a few years ago, of Kip Kinkel taking his gun to his Springfield highschool and slaughtering his classmates, all my sympathy was with him. My heart went out to him. I conscientiously evoked sympathy for the children killed, and their parents -- I was a parent myself by then, and I had lost friends and relatives to murderous violence: I knew the cost of these things -- but that was work of the head. My heart was with Kip, a creature of the night forced to walk under an alien sun. I thank God that I did not in those days have a father to helpfully buy me a gun. Anything could have broken that balloon.

Tolkien guided me out of that hatred and despair. The fact that I was Smeagol, hating the sun and everyone who lived under it, was immediately obvious to me; the fact that I was Frodo, as well, gradually became so. If John Ronald Reuel had come to me undisguised, as a Catholic talking about sin and temptation, I would have never have listened to him. But he came in a Pagan guise, and he was clearly in love with the natural world. No critic I know of (not that I've kept up) has ever commented on the single most obvious and surprising fact about the Lord of the Rings -- that it's a fifteen-hundred-page close narrative of a walk outdoors. And people read it. Nobody, I think, ever wrote better descriptions of sky and wood and open hill than Tolkien. So the fact that he was a Catholic, with a deeply Christian (if maybe heretical) message, was invisible to me. I could hear what he had to say.

The message was, that God is deliberately breaking us. That we are tested beyond our strength. That we are, and will remain, foreigners in this world, however much we love it.

Tolkien has many flaws. Maybe fatal ones, I don't know -- maybe he won't survive this century. He has the mild down-to-the-marrow sexism and racism of the culture he grew up in. He has no invention, although that's what he's often praised for. His plots and countries are pastiche, cobbled together from a dozen mythologies. He launches into a painfully pompous pseudo-biblical "high style" at the drop of a hat. If his nations were not mercifully disguised as "long ago and far away" the fact that he was so economically and politically silly as to, for instance, think that Franco was a blessing to Spain, would be obvious. His noble houses of Rohan and Gondor float on a terrain empty of peasants, with no visible means of support. He understands nothing ot the economics of class or imperialism.

But no one, maybe, has better understood and expressed the homelessness of the modern age. Tolkien's childhood was ahead of its time. His father died early, and his mother had to move repeatedly. He knew no home. As a fatherless Catholic, born South African, he was always an outsider in England. He had no roots, but he longed for them, and put that longing into story so vividly that the homeless, rootless Americans who made him really popular have always believed that the Shire was a representation of the safe, cosy Old World that Tolkien really knew and belonged in. In fact Tolkien appealed to Americans not because he was different from them, but because he was the same. He lived in the same noisy, ugly, industrialized world we do, in cheap suburbs, among desecrated landscapes. He yearned for a lost home in the Green World, just as we do.

What I learned from Tolkien, ultimately, was that nobody is home. There is no one at ease, here. We are all exiles, and this alienation that looks like it keeps us apart is in fact exactly what we have in common. It took me years to understand all of that, but I understood immediately that one person -- just one -- understood my homelessness. And that was what I most desperately needed.

I don't know how many times I've read the Lord of the Rings. I lost count at forty. I've read it aloud to my kids, repeatedly. I understand, intellectually, that there are better novelists and poets than Tolkien. But I also know that no one will ever mean more to me.

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