This is the fourth in my series on memoir. We are three weeks in to the COVID19 pandemic, so I, like many people, am finding more time to read and think, in spite of the term still grinding on like a virtual glacier. I haven’t found working from home any hardship either—until yesterday, the last day of March, when winter decided to return to Edmonton. So it’s back to more layers while spring decides to hurry up and arrive.
For this fourth in my series, I’m turning to my blog. After I lost my sight in 1974, I started reading in a different way. I began listening to recorded books, and my internal landscape changed radically.
I’m including several links here, all of which grew out of my early reading of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Reading this book was truly formative for me—it introduced story into my life in a different way, and it gave me a new way of seeing the world.
I first posted “A Life-Long Adventure” in June of 2014. It describes my early experiences of reading Tolkien. The second, “In the Company of Hobbits,” first posted in October of 2019, continues the story and describes the influence of Tolkien and C. S. Lewis on my teaching life. “A Visit to Oxford” describes my first visit to Oxford in 2016 with my youngest daughter. This trip was a way for me to explore those places where Tolkien and Lewis lived and worked, which felt for me more like a pilgrimage than anything else. And finally, “A Hobbit Odyssey,” first posted in September of 2019, describes a trip with my eldest daughter, driving down New Zealand’s north island and checking out all the locations dedicated to Peter Jackson’s filmic versions of Lord of the Rings. I’m very lucky to have such indulgent daughters, both of whom have listened to my stories over the years, and both of whom have helped me to explore this part of my life in interesting ways.
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
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.
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!
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.
October 16 saw the sixty-eighth anniversary of the publication of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Lewis published the Narnia books once a year, until The Last Battle appeared in September of 1956. Lewis was also writing his spiritual biography at the time, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life—not to mention whatever else he was writing, as well as performing all the duties and responsibilities of an Oxford tutor.
But why a children’s story? Lewis was a scholar. He wrote about books, he wrote Christian apologetics, and he wrote fiction, but all this was for adults. Lewis had nothing to do with children. So again, why a children’s story?
There are enough books about Lewis around to keep you busily reading for years. Writers of every kind have opinions about Lewis and his life—about Lewis as a child, about his time in the war, about his more than thirty-year relationship with Mrs. Moore, which, interestingly, some writers are unwilling to explore.
Lewis is something of a puzzle. He was gregarious and fond of argument, a man who valued openness and friendship; he also flatly refused to talk about his relationship with Janie Moore with anyone, including his brother, Warnie Lewis.
Why Lewis wrote the Narnia books is perhaps less of a puzzle. He valued myth and story, and he wrote about both. Lewis claimed that he was writing a fairy tale because that was the best expression for what he had to say about Narnia and about Aslan. I’m sure it’s true—for the most part.
Lewis carried with him the memories of living at Little Lee, the house his father had built on the outskirts of Belfast. Lewis’ mother, Flora Hamilton, died in that house when he was nine-years-old. Two weeks after her death, a young Jack was shipped off to a boarding school in Hertfordshire, England.
Such events as the death of a parent have a profound effect on the mind of a child. Lewis had the company of his brother for the first year at boarding school, which he calls Belsen in Surprised by Joy. But his school-life was shadowed by the death of his mother, and the relationship with his father deteriorated until Albert Lewis’ death in 1929.
Something was speaking across the years to Lewis as he created Narnia. It’s no surprise Lewis was writing about his own boyhood as he wrote the Narnia books. There is more of the child-like in Narnia than there is childishness. And in Lewis’ own words: “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally (and often far more) worth reading at the age of fifty” (Lewis, “On Stories”).