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.

New Fiction, This Time a Folktale

I have a story out this month. This one is a fairy tale, “The Bronze Egg.” I’ve written fractured fairy tales, and what I call apocalyptic fairy tales. But this one is an honest to goodness folktale—published this month in a collection of original fairy tales called Fantasia Fairy Tales. You can find the eBook here.

When my kids were small, we told stories at bedtime. I tried getting print-braille books for us to read from the CNIB library, which I did, but they came so infrequently that I needed to find another way to satisfy my children’s appetite for stories. I found an old anthology of stories from my first children’s literature course. I then found books of fairy tales and retold them to my kids. When I ran out of stories I had learned, I made them up; and when I was too tired to make them up, I cobbled them together out of anything and everything I’d ever read.
My interest in fairy tales has never waned. They appear in my courses, and I talk about them with students. I continue to write them, and I love to read them.
They are, even now, a guide to living—at least metaphorically:

1. Don’t wander off the path.
2. Avoid strangers who might want to eat or enslave you.
3. Be weary of seemingly helpless old people who want to lock you in a cage or a cupboard.
4. Beware of those close to you who suffer excessive jealousy.
5. and always—always always—be kind to animals.

Adventures with Alice

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you ca’n’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”
(Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, “Pig and Pepper”)

The start of classes has me thinking about some favourite books. This term, I’m teaching a class in British fantasy. We’re starting the course with George MacDonald’s The Light Princess, but I’m also thinking about Lewis Carroll and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

The Beggar Maid is the most infamous of the photographs Lewis Carroll took of Alice Liddell. The Liddell children, daughters to Henry George Liddell, dean of Christ Church at Oxford University, accompanied Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson) and Robinson Duckworth on a day of boating in July 1862.
Lewis amused his companions by telling them the story of Alice’s Adventures Underground. You can read Lewis’s account of the day in his diary entry of 4 July 1862. Carroll had known the Liddell children since 1856. While critics have had cause to question the nature of Carroll’s relationship with Alice Liddell in the last one hundred-fifty years, no one can deny the impact of the fictional Alice and her adventures on popular culture.
I’ve always had something of a problem with Alice. I never particularly liked the book, but I didn’t know why. So, I started teaching it. I found plenty to discuss with students about Alice—the way she navigates Wonderland, the impossible and chaotic geography of the place, and the mad creatures she meets along the way.
Many critics identify Alice’s Adventures as marking the beginning of the Golden Age of Children’s Literature. One of the best introductions to this period of children’s books is, still, I think, Humphrey Carpenter’s Secret Gardens: A Study of the Golden Age of Children’s Literature. Carpenter brings the same slightly quirky, yet probing spirit to his examination of this period as he does to his biography of J. R. R. Tolkien and his book about Tolkien, C. S. Lewis and the Inklings.
Whatever else Alice does when she appears in 1865, she changes the way we read and understand kid’s books. I resist calling Alice’s Adventures a fantasy—the book is many things, but I wouldn’t call it that. It’s absurd, it’s chaotic, it’s nonsensical, and the book is coloured by desire, appetite, and bizarre anxieties. Like Carroll himself and his relationship with Alice Liddell, the book is a puzzle.
IN the summer of 2018, my eldest daughter and I had the chance to visit the Alice in Wonderland Exhibit in Melbourne. The exhibit included photographs, puppets, costumes, film sets, and almost every way in which Alice has entered the popular imagination in the last hundred years. It was astounding, strange, disconcerting, and a little overwhelming. More than anything else, the exhibit reinforced for me the puzzle that is Alice and her adventures down the rabbit-hole.

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: Remembering Back to School

People are back to school this week. The trains and buses will be crowded, and the schoolyards near my house will once again echo with the yelling and screaming of kids—one of the most familiar and recognizable sounds I know.
For me, the term starts on Wednesday. I’m teaching a course in British fantasy, and I’m using Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in my first-year classes, something I’ve never done before. It should be interesting to see what my first years think of studying Harry Potter in their first-year writing class.
Here’s a piece I wrote two years ago at the beginning of the school year—“Remembering Back to School.” It’s memoir, and it carries that bitter-sweet tang of nostalgia I always feel at the start of term. Here’s something from Harry Potter to get you in the mood as well:

Whispers followed Harry from the moment he left his dormitory the next day. People lining up outside classrooms stood on tip¬toe to get a look at him, or doubled back to pass him in the corridors again, staring. Harry wished they wouldn’t, because he was trying to concentrate on finding his way to classes.
There were a hundred and forty-two staircases at Hogwarts: wide, sweeping ones; narrow, rickety ones; some that led some¬where different on a Friday; some with a vanishing step halfway up that you had to remember to jump. Then there were doors that wouldn’t open unless you asked politely, or tickled them in exactly the right place, and doors that weren’t really doors at all, but solid walls just pretending. It was also very hard to remember where any¬thing was, because it all seemed to move around a lot. The people in the portraits kept going to visit each other, and Harry was sure the coats of armor could walk.
The ghosts didn’t help, either. It was always a nasty shock when one of them glided suddenly through a door you were trying to open. Nearly Headless Nick was always happy to point new Gryffindors in the right direction, but Peeves the Poltergeist was worth two locked doors and a trick staircase if you met him when you were late for class. He would drop wastepaper baskets on your head, pull rugs from under your feet, pelt you with bits of chalk, or sneak up behind you, invisible, grab your nose, and screech, “GOT YOUR CONK!”
(Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Chapter 8, “The Potions Master”)

Dust to Dust

Some of my reading this summer has included Philip Pullman. I’m rereading His Dark Materials trilogy so I can finally read The Book of Dust, La Belle Sauvage, which came out in 2017. I didn’t want to just jump back into Pullman’s world without reminding myself of the earlier series.
Apparently, Pullman’s next novel in the new series, The Secret Commonwealth, featuring the return of Lyra Belacqua, comes out this October. And in other Pullman news, His Dark Materials is soon to be a show on HBO.
Reading The Golden compass and revisiting Lyra’s Oxford got me thinking about my own first trip to Oxford. I say first because I’m planning to go back. You can read about that visit here and here.
Pullman is a fine writer, and he is also a fine reader. Years ago, Pullman visited Edmonton and gave a reading at Ft. Edmonton Park, as part of the TALES Storytelling Festival. I remember he read from The Subtle Knife—a compelling reading that left me feeling a little breathless. In spite of that experience, His Dark Materials has never been a favourite for me, but who knows—maybe this reread will inspire me anew.