Hearing the horns of Rohan
-- Edie Head
I first encountered Tolkien in 1963, searching in the library for something to read to my children. The Hobbit looked interesting. I took it home and that night, after the baby girls were tucked into bed, started reading it to my boys, then aged 5 and 7. They loved it. So did I. When I took it back, I asked the librarian if Tolkien had written anything else, and was very disappointed to learn that he hadn't.
At the time, my husband was head of the religious education committee at the Unitarian church we attended. The committee had decided that the Bibles that were the traditional gift to graduates of the junior Sunday School were not being read or appreciated by the 8 year olds, and was looking for something the children would like better. I immediately started lobbying for The Hobbit. I urged that the values Mr. Baggins demonstrated on his adventure were exactly those values we hoped our children would learn. The committee agreed, and that spring our older boy got a Hobbit, instead of a Bible. It was, after all, the Sixties, and we were Unitarians.
Not many months later, I saw in the Letters section of the Sunday NY Times references to another work by Tolkien. I squeezed enough money out of the grocery budget, and the next time I could get to a bookstore, bought the Ace edition of The Lord of the Rings.. Fortunately, my husband was out of town on business for a few days, so I could read all night. During the day I read with a baby on my hip. It took me four days and nights. As I plodded hopelessly up Mount Doom with Frodo, the lesson was seared into my soul that all God requires of us is that we do the very best we can, and if we do that, giving every ounce we have, and it isn't quite enough, Grace will get us through. The evening after I finished it, I sat the boys down and started reading it to them. It took a few months, and for the only time in my parenting career, I had perfect kids. If they started to misbehave, all I had to do was say "If you don't behave, I won't read tonight
" Worked like a charm.
I read the books again, then again. When the girls were older, I started to read to them, but they wriggled and squirmed while the boys hung over the back of the couch, entranced again. After a few tries, I told the boys they were old enough to read it for themselves if they wanted to, but I wasn't going to waste it on the girls. (The girls both read it on their own a few years later.) And of course, I read it again. Then I put it on the shelf, knowing I would get back to it one day. I met lots of people who knew and loved the books, even a couple who had named their little girl Arwen. But never anyone who was as passionate about it as I was. Someone in those years asked me who in the books I identified with, and I said "I'm the Lady in Beorn's hall." He thought a minute, then said, "But there is no lady in Beorn's hall!" "Oh yes, there is," I said, "she just didn't get into the books."
I identified with Beorn because I was born with a dual consciousness, Native American and Anglo, and the Indian identification was much the stronger; I understood bear power. I felt a great longing for what C. S. Lewis called "Joy"; I called it "Home", but it wasn't as simple for me as it was for him. He found it first in Nordic mythology; I found it in the Indian world, in books before I ever met an Indian, later with 'real' Indians. Some years ago, I wrote a poem describing how I felt as a child:
A stranger and afraid
Lewis was looking for Joy, but I was looking for Home, with all that entails. When I found Tolkien, there in Middle-earth was that feeling of Home that I had only found with Indians before. It was my first intimation that there could be a Home for me that wasn't Indian. The Horns of Rohan joined the Indian Eagles as my symbols of God's working in the world. While were-bears are Norse, they are also Indian; I could connect with bear power in both worlds. Much later, studying Aikido, I learned that bear power was identical to chi. Tolkien's themes are universal. You don't have to be Norse (though I am) or Japanese to connect with them. That's why there are translations into 38 other languages.
In a world I never made.
I go to school, I go to church,
I play their games, I read their books.
I sit in the bathtub and look at my dead white skin
and shudder in disgust.
Somewhere there must be tipis,
Children who know my games,
Grownups who worship my gods,
People who laugh at the things I think are funny.
Where are they? Am I the only one?
I live in their world. I have to. Mine is gone.
How did I get here?
What Trickster shook his wooden bowl and sent one die
spinning through time and space to be me;
A stranger and afraid
In a world I never made.
Grandfather, Great Spirit, pity me.
All my relatives, all my relatives --
But there are no more relatives for me any more, any where.
One little Lakota girl
Lonely and afraid
In a world I never made.
For me, each rereading spotlighted new steps on the spiritual path. And my path wandered mightily! The lessons I learned from Tolkien saw me through Native American, Buddhist, Wiccan, Muslim and other traditions, and they all contributed to my growth. Elizabeth Goudge was another guide; I remember reading one of her novels and thinking "This woman knows the same things I do about spirituality, but how can she? She's a Christian, and Christians don't know anything about spirituality!" I didn't know then that Tolkien was Catholic, and had filled his books with Christian values-- and spirituality.
When The Silmarillion came out I found it hard to read; I got through it only from a sense of duty. I read Unfinished Tales and the two volumes of The Book of Lost Tales but couldn't see what the latter had to do with The Lord of the Rings, my real passion. I didn't even know that The History of Middle-earth was being published; I was too busy earning a living, going to grad school, just living, to pay attention to what was happening in the world of Tolkien studies. I went to the Ralph Bakshi movie and hated it; how foolish to think Tolkien could be transferred to the screen! I loaned my three paperbacks to someone, and they didn't come back. I hadn't read them for a few years, but I couldn't not have Tolkien on my bookshelves. When I was in England in the 80's, I bought a one volume paperback Lord of the Rings, and was distressed to find that it did not include the appendices. I bought an American paperback Return just for the appendices. And there my relationship with Tolkien stood for over a decade.
It was Peter Jackson, of course, who reignited that relationship. I seriously considered not even seeing the first film. I am not a movie-goer, I loved the books and I didn't want any more awful caricatures of Tolkien's wonderful creation jostling the real thing in my head. But the reviews were good, and I couldn't resist, and I fell in love again. I spend every Christmas with my older daughter and her family in Arizona; it's the way I keep connected with her three teenagers. So I saw the movies first with them, and it has been a wonderful bonding experience. I am not a TV or video watcher, so it didn't occur to me to rent Fellowship. But dear friends who knew how I loved Tolkien rented it when I came to visit, and a new world opened up. Not only could I read the books, as often as I wanted to, but I could watch the movies too.
I went back to the beginning, read The Silmarillion and The Hobbit to get in training, read The Lord of the Rings, then used the interlibrary loan system to find all twelve volumes of The History of Middle-earth. I was ready for The Two Towers! When we walked out of the theater after watching it, my daughter looked at me and said "Mom! I've never seen you looking so happy!" I replied "I can't die till the next one comes out." She was horrified. Made perfect sense to me. When we went to see The Return of the King , I forgot to take a handkerchief. My grandson went to the men's room and got a handful of paper towels for me. That's devotion.
One of my granddaughters, who is 7 now, loves Tolkien almost as much as I do. When we were leaving the theater after watching The Return of the King, she said, "Can we come back tomorrow?" We did. I have been reading The Lord of the Rings to her for what seems like a very long time (we don't get to see each other often enough). Last summer, after finishing a chapter, we talked about Middle-earth, and she told me how much she likes Legolas. I agreed that I really like him too, but that I like Gandalf even more. She looked at me speculatively, nodded, and said "Yes, he'd make a good husband for you!" I didn't tell her about McKellen. And she wouldn't understand about Beorn yet, either.
One of the under-appreciated aspects of Tolkien, I think, is the way he managed to create living, breathing, flesh and blood archetypes. One of the amazing things about Peter Jackson's opus is the perfection of his casting of those archetypes. It doesn't bother me that my granddaughter is in love with Legolas; what better archetype to shape her burgeoning understanding of what a man should be? And what better exemplar of a mature man for our times than Viggo's Aragorn, the "parfit gentil knight" and poet king?
I bought some of the great new Tolkien books that came with the films, and one of them was The People's Guide to J. R. R. Tolkien. That led me to TheOneRing.net (I who could barely figure out how to access email, and had never done a search!) And that, just last fall, opened a world of wonderful people who love the things I love, who believe in the values dear to me. The level of intelligence, depth of understanding, commitment to the values I hold dear, has just blown me away. I learned, as Purtill comments in Myth, Morality and Religion, that Tolkien lovers are "nice people". There are those who would see that as a put down, but we know better; because it is our experience too, and we agree. About the time I discovered TORn, I was very ill, and spent some time in the hospital, then more in convalescence. I discovered during my illness that the only thing I could do was read, and the only thing I wanted to read was Tolkien. I found that love and loyalty, courage and commitment, are healing. I found that beautiful language soothes the unquiet spirit, and brings rest. I'm well again. Thank God, and thank Tolkien.
One hospital morning had been spent in painful, intrusive procedures. The nurse who took me back to my room took pity on me, and offered to braid my hair. As she worked with the long, wispy strands, I commented that I have Gollum hair. She said "What's Gollum hair?" "Have you read The Lord of the Rings?" "No, but I saw part of one of the movies. What's it about, anyway? Does the Ring mean something, or is it just a ring?" So there I sat, exhausted, hurting, foggy with painkillers, expounding on the meaning of The Lord of the Rings. At first I thought this surreal situation could only happen to me, but no, there are others
I have been trying to understand why I, and millions of other readers and viewers, have such a strong response to Tolkien's work. I have encountered many reasons in the GreenBooks articles, some of them good and doubtless true, but I am not satisfied. In The Gospel According to Tolkien, Ralph Woods comments that his students often respond to reading Tolkien by saying that it makes them "feel clean". Yes! Our popular culture is a sewer; we're told that's so because people pay for filth. But clearly that's not the only thing they pay for! And it's not only our music that offends. Some years ago I started wondering why I could no longer bring myself to read "good" modern fiction. How much suburban adultery can you wade through without getting sick to your stomach? Though I respect some of Freud's accomplishment, I think he was a disaster for 20th century fiction. The triumphs of realism and nihilism have also been disasters.
A recent book review (by someone who is paying attention) in Publisher's Weekly asked the question "Is Western art's post-Romantic veneration of the destructive, alienated outsider--from Oedipus to Travis Bickle -- in any way answerable for the real destruction our culture brings into being?" I think it is. The critics tell us that the scope of fiction is ever expanding, but to me it seems that it's narrowing down to nothing but the results of a bad psychoanalysis. And the authors who are dealing with the critical issues of our time (Ursula K. LeGuin, Sherri Tepper, etc) are dismissed as escapists. In spite of the condemnation of the critics, every time a poll is taken in any English speaking country, Tolkien and his work are named the most loved author and book of our time. It must be incredibly galling to be a literary critic, sure of your taste and judgement, wondering why millions of people love what you know is junk, and barely thousands read what you know is Art! As Ursula K. LeGuin commented (speaking of the Tolkien haters), there's no accounting for taste--or incapacity!
Then why is Tolkien so amazingly popular? And Harry Potter? I think it is because they strengthen personhood (in guest author Maureen Stewart's terminology). They inspire readers to be on the side of Gandalf and Dumbledore. They touch the idealism that our cultural mavens ridicule. They make readers feel good about aligning themselves with The Good, and considering the possibility that there is something meant for us and our lives. They sound the horns of Rohan, and people in the 21st century respond.
The reasons for Tolkien's astounding popularity are nowhere better spelled out than in his Letters, which contain some of his most inspiring writing. In 1971, he wrote to an admirer about The Lord of the Rings:
"Looking back on the wholly unexpected things that have followed its publication-- beginning at once with the appearance of Vol. I--I feel as if an ever darkening sky over our present world had been suddenly pierced, the clouds rolled back, and an almost forgotten sunlight had poured down again. As if indeed the horns of Hope had been heard again, as Pippin heard them suddenly at the absolute nadir of the fortunes of the West. But How? and Why? I think I can now guess what Gandalf would reply.
Perhaps the tide is turning. Perhaps Tolkien was meant to contribute to that turning. Perhaps Peter Jackson was meant to bring millions more to catch the turn of the tide. Watching the extended version DVDs, you can't escape the thought that for many of those involved this was more a spiritual journey than a routine film project. Perhaps the good people who brought us TORn were meant to create a space for the film crew to keep closely in tune with Tolkien's vision. Perhaps you were meant to read this. And that, as Gandalf said, is a comforting thought. I had almost given up hope, but Elessar and Arwen and all their court have returned it to me. When next you see a star, listen for the Horns of Rohan.
"A few years ago I was visited in Oxford by a man whose name I have forgotten (though I believe he was well known). He had been much struck by the curious way in which many old pictures seemed to him to have been designed to illustrate The Lord of the Rings long before its time. He brought one or two reproductions. I think he wanted at first simply to discover whether my imagination had fed on pictures, as it clearly had been by certain kinds of literature and languages. When it became obvious that, unless I was a liar, I had never seen the pictures before and was not well acquainted with pictorial Art, he fell silent. I became aware that he was looking fixedly at me. Suddenly he said: 'Of course you don't suppose, do you, that you wrote all that book yourself?'
"Pure Gandalf! I was too well acquainted with G. to expose myself rashly, or to ask what he meant. I think I said 'No, I don't suppose so any longer.' I have never since been able to suppose so."
In the years I was not reading Tolkien, I was investigating many other spiritual systems. Finally, as Jung advised, I returned to the native system of my own culture. The good professor would be horrified by my quirky Anglicanism, but he was one of the teachers who led me back to Christianity. At many times in my life, when I have been on the verge of giving up, the memory of Frodo plodding on has come to my rescue. The mythology of my culture doesn't do for me any more what mythology is supposed to do, but that's okay, because the mythology Tolkien created for England does do it. Every time I read those books, my soul is strengthened, my faith that Frodo was meant to survive, and so am I, returns.
Once I read Tolkien after a long period of wrestling with the existential questions; does God exist and if he does how can the world be so awful and does anything really matter? As I came to the great eucatastrophe in the chapter "The Steward and the King," I found tears streaming down my cheeks. I thought, "What is wrong with me? I wasn't this moved the first time I read it and didn't know how it turned out!" As I cried, I realized that I had broken through my dark night of the soul, and knew that the only thing that matters is faith, and faith is the knowledge that God is, and that however impossible it seems, it will all come right in the end. When I described my experience to an Episcopal priest who is also a deep student of Zen, she said "If what you experienced isn't Satori, then I don't know what Satori is." Tolkien's work is my koan, and forty years of struggling with it has brought me through Mordor, and back to the Shire. I know that a star shines on me every time I read Tolkien. May it shine also on you, in Middle-earth, and in the Undying Lands.
-- Edie Head
Please send your comments and insights to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I welcome dialogue.