Thursday, November 29, 2012

JRR Tolkien and a Long-Expected Journey

"'Well, now we're off at last!' said Frodo. They shouldered their packs and took up their sticks, and walked round the corner to the west side of Bag End. 'Good-bye!' said Frodo, looking at the dark blank windows. He waved his hand, and then turned and (following Bilbo, if he had known it) hurried after Peregrin down the garden-path.They jumped over the low place in the hedge at the bottom and took to the fields, passing into the darkness like a rustle in the grasses." 
The Fellowship of the Ring, Chapter 3: Three Is Company

My mom’s finally moving out of the house where I grew up, from ages 9 to 21, to downsize her life and make her expenses and lifestyle more manageable. She deserves the break, especially now that we, her children, are fully engaged in the process of making our own lives and establishing our own households. Still, the bite of change stings a little when you clean out the attic, or when you walk down the hall and see everything cleaned up and dusted off for the eyes of potential buyers. This is your youth, suddenly repackaged and commodified. This is farewell to that vain hope that someday you might be able to return to this sanctuary, a time and a place that wasn't laden with the demands and frustrations of adulthood.

Cleaning the attic was the foremost item on the agenda over Thanksgiving, and I ran across the traces of many childhood amusements and escapes… decks of tarot cards, old comic books, photographs of best friends and first loves. The whole effort was sustained by our nostalgia, our sense of personal history in watching these things pass before us to go to other storage, or thrift stores or trash cans. Every time you handle an object that you haven’t touched in a decade, you feel the texture and permanence of your past, vibrating up through your fingers.

I was lucky, though. In the silt of farewell, I found the gold dust of rediscovery, a trace of an old interest that I could actually follow back to its source, at least for a moment. That was a small hoard of old maps, books, figurines, and calendars from my years of desperate, hopeless love for the work of JRR Tolkien. On some other recent visit, I had already rescued my whole Tolkien library – The Hobbit, the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, and a third-party book called The Tolkien Bestiary. Now, over Thanksgiving, I rediscovered the accessories and artifacts that were pure Middle Earth fetish objects, free of the weight of words and commitment.

I think the calendars are the most personally poignant of these artifacts. There is a great history of wall calendars illustrated with scenes from Tolkien’s works, which I was collecting long before Peter Jackson’s three films came around to infect Tolkienism with the faces of celebrities. There was John Howe’s 2001 calendar, and 2002’s calendar illustrated by Ted Nasmith, both of which were engorged with rich, intense paintings… but these calendars already had a sort of concept-art feeling to them, with theatrically-staged, dramatically-lit images that seemed to gesture toward the films that were coming out around the same time.


The real treasure was a 1994 calendar, illustrated by Michael Kaluta, that was obviously the first Tolkien calendar I had ever owned. Kaluta’s images are wild, expressive drawings, toned with broad spreads of color, not given to dramatic gradients or realistic chiaroscuro. In every scene, some figure seems to be seized with the tremors of an inner demon, from Boromir at the Council of Elrond to the Orc at Helm’s Deep, thrashing in the ecstasy of battle, a sort of tortured non-sequitur who’s burst into the foreground of the layered landscape. Kaluta’s lines are sketchy and complex, and whether he paints mere figures or elaborate three-dimensional spaces, he seems to be working intensely in two dimensions, pressing pandemonium into the confines of the page, though it seems to spill back out at the edges.

Since last weekend, I’ve been struggling with the question: what do I do with them? Do I just scan every page? Do I rip out my favorites and hang them up in our front room? Do I store the ravaged calendars somewhere obscure around my place in Bushwick, so I can discover them again when we move to a new apartment? At any rate, I'd stopped drawing or painting for a while, and these calendars made me suddenly start thinking about it again.

Strange, isn't it, how a little encounter like that, a chance meeting with a few emotionally-charged artifacts, can cause sudden swerves and turbulence in the inertia of everyday life?

The other Tolkien artifact I found that struck me was a map of Middle Earth I had bought at some point, a big glossy spread folded like a highway map and tucked in a card-stock cover. It certainly wasn't as beautiful as Michael Kaluta's calendar, looking more like standard decorative art assembled to indulge a consumer fan base, but it's full of information -- exactly the thing to hook us fanboys -- and this is what drove me to stick it in my suitcase to take back with me to Brooklyn. This map had an interior, a network of references and entry points, constellations of associations and emotions encoded into place names. It made me want to go back to that world.

I'm very lucky, in this regard, that Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is coming out in fourteen days. I might have picked up the books anyway, but with this film coming into view on the horizon, it's like Middle Earth is beckoning me back, promising a festival in my honor. Jackson did an exceptional job of giving life to that world, better than any of us expected, and when I saw his Fellowship of the Ring back in 2001, I felt like I had already met the characters on the screen and already visited those places he had brought to life.

It's hard to believe it was that long ago. As Frodo left Bag End with the Ring in Jackson's adaptation, so I was leaving that home in Collegeville -- the same home that my mom's finally moving out of -- for my first year in college. Like Frodo, that was the end of my time as a steady resident of that particular household. For the past 11 years, I've been making new homes in new cities, carrying the wisdom of that old house with me into each new community. And mom is finally leaving that house, too, just as Bilbo is leaving The Shire in another Tolkien adaptation. It's uncanny how our lives and our stories echo one another.

So now, suddenly, I'm back to drawing and painting a little bit. More importantly, I'm back to reading Tolkien's stories, for the first time since I was 12... I started The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring simultaneously, intending to get through the first third of the former book before the movie comes out on December 14th (it turned out to be a very easy goal). Every night, before I go to bed, I feel those stirrings again -- the feeling of safety and habitation, as if my apartment was a little Hobbit hole in the Shire, and simultaneously, I feel a sense of displacement, like I'm lost in the great landscape of my own life, separated from the comforts of a childhood home. Both of those feelings resonate through these Tolkien books, alternating and colliding in my sentimental brain.

It's great that I can go back to the world of Middle Earth so easily. That's one of the great comforts of an imaginary universe... you can pick up the book, and you'll go right back there, to whatever degree you can abandon yourself to the story. My real childhood home, that house in Collegeville, won't be so easy to return to once somebody else owns it. As with Bilbo and Frodo when they left the Shire, I'll always hereafter be a stranger there. That home isn't an open door, eternally waiting for me in case I need to go back to being a sheltered 12-year-old fantasy nerd again. Rather, it's the bank of a river that I've had to cross on the way to kingdoms where I've had larger parts to play.

So, instead of counting on that home being there, a site for escape and nostalgia, it's up to me to carry it with me into the new homes that I create... my encampments and conquests in the strange land of adulthood, this new fantasy where I've lost myself once again.

No comments: