On Writing Memoir, Part 4, Reading

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.

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.

From the Blog Archive, Visiting New Zealand

Our Edmonton summer is reminding me of a New Zealand winter, save for the longer evenings. Here are some highlights from my trip to New Zealand’s North Island with my daughter last year.

• We both love waterfalls, so we stopped to visit Hunua Falls, not far outside of Auckland.

• My daughter had the idea to visit some caves. I’ve never gone caving before, and going more than a hundred metres underground in the Ruakuri Caves near Waitomo was an amazing, if slightly unnerving experience.
These caves are limestone, and when they collapse, after a hundred thousand years or so, they create deep gorges, where it’s also fun to walk and crawl.

• And, of course, we had to visit Hobbiton—one more time, ending up at the Green Dragon Inn, which is a great way to end the tour of Peter Jackson’s Shire.

A Hobbit Odyssey

Our first day in Auckland has us clearing out of the place we spent the night, then going in search of coffee. Luckily for us, a bakery café is just across the street. It has WiFi, which our room didn’t have. The coffee and breakfast sandwiches make us feel like humans again—I rediscover my favourite coffee, a long black. We decide to spend the morning exploring before beginning our trip down New Zealand’s North Island.
This trip is the chance to spend time with my eldest daughter, but it’s also the chance to find things hobbit related on the North Island. My kids are used to this. In 2016, I made a pilgrimage to Oxford with my youngest daughter to see where C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien lived and worked. I’m lucky to have such indulgent daughters.
We begin our drive south. Our first stop is Hamilton. On the way, we stop and walk at Hunua Falls. The area is beautiful—lush and green—and we take a trail down to the falls. But it’s winter here, so we can’t linger. We need to get to Hamilton before it gets dark.
Hamilton is our jumping off point to Hobbiton. The film set of Peter Jackson’s Hobbiton is the first real stop along this hobbit odyssey.
The day is fine—bright sun and cool air. We arrive in Matamata before 11:00, wander into town and get coffee. We’ve been to Hobbiton before, and this time, we will drive rather than take the tour bus—for one thing, this will give me more time in the gift shop. The tour is lovely, and it’s good to revisit the set. I can feel like one of Tolkien’s creatures as we walk down paths passed hobbit doors of every colour, stopping to knock and see whose home. And the tour ends at The Green Dragon, where we sit with our mugs of ginger beer and plan our visit to the gift shop and how we will spend the rest of the day.

In the next few days, we drive south. WE stop at the Ruakuri Caves to take a tour. A hundred metres down, our guide shows us the Mirror Pool, where Andy Serkis practiced for his role as Gollum in An Unexpected Journey, the first of Jackson’s Hobbit films.
We drive passed Mr Ngauruhoe, part of the Tongariro Crossing, and the setting for Mt Doom, but the rain hides the volcano. Finally, we arrive in Wellington, where we visit the Weta Workshop, where artists created thousands of props and costumes for the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films. I check out a display of chain male, from dwarven male to mithril; I heft the mace used by the actor who played Azog.
We have two more places to visit around Wellington before departing New Zealand. There are many more LotR sites to visit, but we only have so much time. The cool, winter weather has been holding all the way down the North Island, but here in Wellington, it’s raining.
We drive to the banks of the Hutt River, where the fellowship launched their boats after leaving Lothlorien. We walk along a gravel road that borders the river, but Nothing of the set is left, so we have to imagine the company climbing into their boats as the rain pelts down.

Our final stop is Rivendell in Kaitoke Regional Park. Again, nothing remains of the film set, but something of Middle-Earth lingers here beneath these trees. You can find signposts marking where Aragorn and Arwin stood on the bridge, and where Gandalf walked with Bilbo. You can cross the stream on a swinging bridge and walk through the Rivendell arch.
As we follow the paths beneath the dripping trees, With the sound of the stream filling the spaces beneath the branches, I’m struck by the mystery of this place, and I’m glad our Hobbit Odyssey has brought us to this final stop.