Lest WE Forget, Remembrance Day, 2019

This day, November 11, 2019, we honour those who have lost their lives in military conflicts around the world. Nations fight wars. Women, children, and men die as a result; families are displaced, and survivers are left to find their lives amidst the wreckage.

From, L. M. Montgomery’s Rilla of Ingleside: Walter’s Last Letter (Chapter XXIII)
“Rilla, the Piper will pipe me ‘west’ tomorrow. I feel sure of this. And Rilla, I’m not afraid. When you hear the news, remember that. I’ve won my own freedom here—freedom from all fear. I shall never be afraid of anything again—not of death—nor of life, if after all, I am to go on living. And life, I think, would be the harder of the two to face—for it could never be beautiful for me again. There would always be such horrible things to remember—things that would make life ugly and painful always for me. I could never forget them. But whether it’s life or death, I’m not afraid, Rilla-my-Rilla, and I am not sorry that I came. I’m satisfied. I’ll never write the poems I once dreamed of writing—but I’ve helped to make Canada safe for the poets of the future—for the workers of the future—ay, and the dreamers, too—for if no man dreams, there will be nothing for the workers to fulfil—the future, not of Canada only but of the world—when the ‘red rain’ of Langemarck and Verdun shall have brought forth a golden harvest—not in a year or two, as some foolishly think, but a generation later, when the seed sown now shall have had time to germinate and grow. Yes, I’m glad I came, Rilla. It isn’t only the fate of the little sea-born island I love that is in the balance—nor of Canada nor of England. It’s the fate of mankind. That is what we’re fighting for. And we shall win—never for a moment doubt that, Rilla. For it isn’t only the living who are fighting—the dead are fighting too. Such an army cannot be defeated.”
“Is there laughter in your face yet, Rilla? I hope so. The world will need laughter and courage more than ever in the years that will come next. I don’t want to preach—this isn’t any time for it. But I just want to say something that may help you over the worst when you hear that I’ve gone ‘west.’ I’ve a premonition about you, Rilla, as well as about myself. I think Ken will go back to you—and that there are long years of happiness for you by-and-by. And you will tell your children of the Idea we fought and died for—teach them it must be lived for as well as died for, else the price paid for it will have been given for nought. This will be part of your work, Rilla. And if you—all you girls back in the homeland—do it, then we who don’t come back will know that you have not ‘broken faith’ with us.”
“I meant to write to Una tonight, too, but I won’t have time now. Read this letter to her and tell her it’s really meant for you both—you two dear, fine loyal girls. Tomorrow, when we go over the top—I’ll think of you both—of your laughter, Rilla-my-Rilla, and the steadfastness in Una’s blue eyes—somehow I see those eyes very plainly tonight, too. Yes, you’ll both keep faith—I’m sure of that—you and Una. And so—goodnight. We go over the top at dawn.”

A Friendship and a Great War

C. S. Lewis met J. R. R. Tolkien on May 11, 1926, during an English faculty meeting at Merton College. Lewis was a tutor in the English faculty at Magdalen College at the time. He had already discovered a love of northern myths through his boyhood friendship with Arthur Greeves, but he had yet to publish a book of fantasy. Tolkien was a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Merton College. He was a father and husband, but it would be over ten years before he published The Hobbit, and decades before the first volume of Lord of the Rings would appear.
It was a Tuesday. Here’s what Lewis writes in his diary about that first meeting:
“I had a talk with him [Tolkien] afterwards. He is a smooth, pale, fluent little chap—can’t read Spenser because of the forms—thinks the language is the real thing in the school—thinks all literature is written for the amusement of men between thirty and forty…. No harm in him: only needs a smack or so.”
This friendship would become important in both men’s lives, both creatively and academically, but it also would become the basis for the Inklings, a group of Oxford intellectuals, who met regularly for almost two decades.
An experience Lewis and Tolkien also had in common was the Great War. They didn’t know one another at the time, but the war had a profound effect on both men and their writing. You can read more about their experience of the war in Joseph Loconte’s A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War. A documentary is also in production, and you can see the trailer here.
I have taken great joy in reading about Lewis and Tolkien and their friendship over the years. Loconte’s book is only one of many. And I do wonder sometimes—what would it have been like to join Lewis, Tolkien, and their friends, as they gathered on a Tuesday morning at The Eagle and Child to discuss books and writing. I’m sure I wouldn’t have got a word in edgeways, but it would have been something to just listen

In the company of Hobbits

I first encountered J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit when I was eleven. It was the fall of 1974. I was in the hospital, and two women from the schoolboard brought me an open-reel tape recorder, which was the size of a small toaster-oven. It was barely six weeks since I had lost my sight in a car accident that summer.
I hadn’t been much of a reader before I lost my sight, but I became one afterwards. And reading The Hobbit was like nothing I’d ever experienced. Perhaps my brain was simply starved for stimulus in that hospital room, but I found myself fully entering bilbo’s world. I could see the Misty Mountains marching across the horizon, and I was haunted by the figure of Gollum, lurking beneath those mountains, down there in the dark, hissing and muttering as he worried over his Precious. A year later, I got hold of Lord of the Rings, and the world of Middle-Earth opened up for me in new and astonishing ways.
I’ve read the books now more times than I can remember. I’ve watched and rewatched the films—both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. I’ve visited Middle-Earth—at least Peter Jackson’s Middle-Earth—and I’ve knocked on a hobbit door. I’ve stood beneath a tree in Rivendell, and I’ve even met a hobbit.

When I now teach The Hobbit in my children’s literature classes, I’m able to talk endlessly about Tolkien, about the writing of the books, and about Tolkien’s life in Oxford and his friendship with C. S. Lewis and the other Inklings. We talk about Bilbo as a burglar and all the creatures he encounters on his adventure—the trolls, the elves, Gollum, Beorn, the Wood Elves, the Lake men, and Smaug. We look at the structure of the book, and we explore the dragon sickness and what it means for the characters.
Visiting Oxford with my daughter in 2015 and seeing where Tolkien and Lewis lived and worked was for me a kind of literary hero worship in which I don’t often indulge. My daughter and I found Tolkien’s house on Northmore Road; we then parked and visited the Kilns, where Lewis lived with his brother Warnie and Mrs. Moore. We took a walk in the small park attached to the Kilns, and as we circled the pond, I thought a little longingly and a little sadly about these writers who have shaped my life so fully. They are landmarks on the map of my reading life; they have helped form my friendships, and they’ve influenced both my writing and my reading. And each time I return to The Hobbit, part of me is swept back once again to when I first read the book and felt the wonder and poignancy of discovering that country for the first time.

Remembering Oxford

I’m about to begin Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage, The Book of Dust. Like The Golden Compass, La Belle Sauvage begins in Pullman’s imaginary Oxford. Every fall, I seem to revisit Oxford, if not in the flesh, then through my favourite books and authors.

C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien both worked and lived in Oxford for most of their adult lives. My first visit to Oxford had my daughter and me arriving late on a rainy August evening, wandering up and down the High street and looking for the Porter’s lodge to Magdalen College. You can read about that trip here and here. Enjoy!

Photo taken on a trip to Oxford, August, 2015.

So Long to Summer

The summer is coming to an end, and there are always things in my world to tell me fall is coming. The school year is now a week away, and everyone is gearing up. September and the beginning of the year has dictated my life for more than thirty years, and here it comes again.
I try to use these points in the year to reflect and think about where I’ve been and where I’m going next. I use the summer to read books I don’t normally read during the term, although this summer I’ve been rereading more than usual.
I started the summer with the Percy Jackson books—always a fun read—and I spent part of July rereading the Lockwood and Co. series. I returned to Pullman’s His Dark Materials, but did that because I’m teaching The Golden Compass this fall, and I want to move onto Pullman’s next series, The Book of Dust. I read M. K. Humes’s The Merlin Prophecy series, and I returned to a favourite author, Bernard Cornwell, to read The War of the Wolf, the eleventh book in The Last Kingdom series.
Some people never reread books, but I do it all the time. The summer can often be hard for me—I tend to get depressed. It’s as though I have seasonal affective disorder in reverse. This has to do with the accident that took my sight, which happened in the middle of August in 1974. This is part of the reason why I’ve taken to writing memoir. Writing about that event in my life has helped me to, in part, reframe it—to rewrite the story of what happened. Earlier this year, “Running Blind” appeared in The Real Story, and “Fractured” should appear this fall. Both of these pieces attempt to talk about the adjustment I had to make as an eleven-year-old who lost his sight. I have two other pieces in circulation, “My Cowboy Cousin” and “Standing by My Cousin’s Grave, May, 2016.” Both these pieces talk about the death of my cousin Graham in the same accident that took my sight.
My other big challenge this summer was writing two academic articles, one on Anne of Green Gables and the other on C. S. Lewis. Academic writing has always been far more difficult for me than any other kind of writing. It’s just hard. I’ve also had something of a block for nearly three years. Faced with these commitments, I had to find a different way to write academically. I took the advice of my therapist. She always tells me that if things become overwhelming, then break them down into smaller and smaller pieces. If, for example, your anxiety is so crippling that it prevents you from getting through your day, then take one piece at a time—have a shower and get ready to leave the house, then celebrate the accomplishment. By the way, this method has been invaluable to me over the years.
That’s what I did. I took the stuff I had written about Anne, and I broke it down into short sections. Some were only two or three-hundred words. I relied on my hard-won sense of discipline to get me started, and I worked on these various bits until I could start assembling them into a larger whole. It worked. I ended up with an eight-thousand-word chapter, which I submitted in August.
I’ve spent much of my life feeling badly about those things I couldn’t manage and those things I couldn’t complete. My sense of guilt as a result has helped prevent me from doing other things I’ve wanted to try. I’m learning, slowly, that the energy required to feel badly, regretful, or guilty is energy that could be spent in learning something new or to undo old habits. Think of it as rewriting the story. You don’t want the story to end with the hero wandering forever in the wilderness—what sort of ending is that? Better to have her find her way back home, or, better yet, find a new home. Either way, such endings allow you to close off those old stories and begin anew.

Caledonia on My Mind

In August of 2015, I made my first trip to Scotland with my youngest daughter. She was moving to the UK on a working/visa, and I went along to experience my ancestral home and visit Oxford, the home of two of my literary heroes, J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis.
Our first day in Glasgow, I wrote:
“August 16, 2015: I’m not sure what I was expecting on coming here. I was expecting to feel as though I was in a strange place. It doesn’t feel strange at all—different, but not strange.”
We spent five days in Glasgow that first trip. We stayed in an Air BnB on Queen Margret Drive, just above North Star, a small café run by a lovely couple. Every morning, I went down to the café and got coffee. I would stand outside the flat, having my coffee and smoking, while the life of the street passed by.
I wrote several pieces on that and subsequent trips to Scotland, including Encountering the Literary, A Visit to Hadrian’s Wall, and the Glasgow Connection to Harry Potter. And, of course, there are always Scottish castles.
I have been a father now longer than I’ve been anything else in my life. It’s a parent’s job to guide his or her children, but my children have guided me on adventures where I might not have gone on my own. It’s my youngest I have to thank for my Caledonian connection.