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.

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.

Summer Travels

This summer, I had the good fortune to visit some fascinating places. I’m prairie born and bread—used to open spaces, long summer evenings, and cold winters. But I love the ocean and had the chance to visit more than one.
In May, I travelled with a friend to Newfoundland, where we drove from the ferry landing at Port Aux Basque to Cape Spear, the eastern-most point of North America.
I returned to the east coast in June, visiting Prince Edward Island for a conference, where I took the Hippo, an amphibious vehicle that tours historical Charlottetown, then drives straight out into the Charlottetown Harbour.
Finally, in July, I met one of my daughters in New Zealand, where we spend a week touring the North Island before flying to Melbourne. We had the chance one day to drive part of the Great Ocean Road, built by Australian war vets after the first World War. We also visited the Moonlit Sanctuary, where we had the chance to meet some local wildlife. All in all, a summer I will remember.

Postcard from New Zealand,The Ruakuri Caves

We enter the cave, the sunlight disappearing behind us. Our guide tells us to take the spiral to the bottom: the spiral is a ramp that descends twenty metres to our first check-point inside the Ruakuri Caves. These are limestone caves near Waitoma, New Zealand.
Our guide is Jim, a good natured, white-haired Kiwi, who clearly loves these caves. Water falls from the distant roof onto a block of limestone, made porous by the dripping water, and Jim has us rinse our hands in the stream, a symbolic cleansing to honour the Maori people who discovered these caves four centuries ago. Then, we begin our descent.
We follow the path, a metal grating that takes us over chasms and along the wall of the cave as we move deeper under the hill. The metal sidewalk has a rail—not high enough, as far as I’m concerned. Jim tells us about the different limestone formations, the stalactites and curtains of stone that festoon the walls. In dryer sections, the limestone hardens into coral-like patterns, but here, the water drips from the roof and sometimes pools on the floor. It’s all owing to the action of water, says Jim. And one day, he says, these caverns will collapse, leaving a deep gorge behind. But for now, the water drips and runs, adding to and changing these flowing walls. As we move, the sound echoes from all around, the air sometimes going dead as we crouch to shuffle through a narrow passage from one cavern to the next.
Jim brings us to a platform, cantilevered over a twenty metre drop into the main cavern. Here, he shows us the glow-worms that live in these caves. As he turns out the lights, the ceiling looks as though it’s dotted with stars. Fully 99% of these creature’s lives are dedicated to feeding and cocooning. Once they emerge, they have less than forty-eight hours to mate and begin the cycle over again. I stand in a corner of the platform. I grip the rail to either side, listening to Jim’s enthusiastic account of these insects, simultaneously hearing the rushing of water from far below and half-imagining the drop and what lies lower down.
Again, we go deeper, until, finally, we stand on another platform over a stream, one-hundred and sixty metres deep. I think of the caves of which I’ve read—places where dark things creep, or unnameable creatures hide in corners and listen to the silence. I listen, too—listen hard. Down here, I’m away from every familiar sound I know, save the sound of water. Without the water, the silence is absolute. It’s then that Jim tells us about the giant eels that live in the stream—more than two metres long, that have names, and that are sometimes fed by the guides. I want him to be kidding.
I’ve lost track of time down here, but finally, we begin to make our way back up. Jim keeps track of us. He shows us the Mirror Pool, where Andy Serkis of LotR fame learned how to be Gollum; he tells us about the ghost walk, where your shadow runs ahead of you into the darkness. On and on, through narrow twisting passages where we have to bend nearly double to avoid the stone of the ceiling. Finally, we arrive back at the limestone block beneath the falling water and the spiral that will take us back up into the sunlight. We emerge from the caves and everyone exclaims at the light. The sun shines brightly in the cool, winter air. I hear birds, the sighing of trees, and feel the wind on my face. The familiar world demands our attention, but we won’t forget the Ruakuri Caves.

A Postcard from New Zealand, The Man on the Mountain

We follow a path and steep steps going up the side of the hill. A tall, fibrous plant grows everywhere here. The educational centre at the parking lot tells us that the Maori peoples used this plant to make baskets, mats, and clothing. After passing a soccer field, we begin the climb up the side of the volcano.
My daughter and I are climbing Mangere Mountain, an extinct volcano near Auckland, New Zealand. This is one of nearly fifty extinct volcanos in and around Auckland. We climb higher along the rim, and we can see the remains of the terraces the Maori people built around the inside of the ancient crater for growing food. As we get to the highest point of the rim, we can see down one side across the city to the harbour, and on the other down into the centre of the volcano, where the lava dome is visible as a hummock of land.
As we stand, a man joins us on the rim. He walks with a staff, a twisted length of wood that he says was gifted to him by a Maori friend. He shows me the staff.
“My friend made this,” says the man, “and he just handed it to me and said it’s yours.”
The man has a long beard, with eyebrows to match. He is full of information about this place, this long-dead volcano that was sacred to the people who lived here.
He stands and explains the view, the harbour to the south and west and other volcanos in the distance. He says the lava dome at the centre of the volcano, with the two smaller craters to either side makes the inside of the crater look like a face.
“they call it the face of the god,” the man says, and he shows me the Maori symbol he wears around his neck. He tells us he is from the English midlands, and came to New Zealand eighteen years before, following is sister
We thank him and shake hands. We tell him our names, and he bids us a good journey. And as we walk away down the rim, we look back, and the man is no where to be seen. It occurs to me later, he never told us his name.