A Visit to Hobbiton



The green fields, intense blue sky, and forty odd hobbit-holes scattered over the landscape is enough to make you think you’ve arrived in Middle-Earth. Tolkien might have even approved. But as I walked past gardens and little round doors, I had to remind myself this place is Peter Jackson’s vision of a world conceived by one of the twentieth century’s most imaginative minds.
When the first of the Lord of the Rings films came out in 2001, I was excited but oddly apprehensive. As a Tolkien fan, I wasn’t worried that Peter Jackson was going to destroy the story for me; I was anticipating the release of the film, like millions of others. But mixed with my anticipation was the feeling this book, that for me had always been a private experience, was suddenly going to be there as a film, for anyone to talk about and critique. It was irrational, I know, but it bothered me at the time.
I got over it. The Fellowship was certainly my favourite of the Lord of the Rings films, but I watched and enjoyed them all. The Hobbit films were different. I felt more jaded—why did Peter Jackson need to stretch the story into three films? It struck me as more a commercial than an artistic decision.
While I wasn’t the only one disappointed with The Hobbit films, I’d rather have them than not. And with all of the films now out, it seemed appropriate that I managed to finally visit the film set in New Zealand over Christmas.
2015 was certainly my year for Tolkien related trips. Last August, I had the chance to visit Oxford. My daughter and I drove down from Glasgow, and we stayed at Magdalen College. We visited the Kilns, where C. S. Lewis lived and died, and we drove down North Moore Road, where Tolkien lived with his family. We wandered the college, walked Adison’s Walk, and visited The Eagle and Child, where the Inklings met weekly. Visiting Hobbiton over Christmas was fun, and I was excited to go, but it wasn’t the literary pilgrimage that Oxford was.
We had to drive down to Matamata from just outside Auckland, and we were late for our tour. The people at the I-Site in Matamata were helpful and got us onto the next bus. It’s a walking tour through the village, and I kept missing stuff our guide said because we lingered to look and talk about the hobbit-holes. It was interesting, and I kept reminding myself this was Peter Jackson’s Hobbiton—not that it wasn’t inspired. It was rustic and quaint, detailed and thoughtfully constructed.
On we went, making the walk up the hill, until we stood in front of Bilbo’s gate, hung with the sign, No Admittance Except on Party Business. There we were—in front of Bag End, Bilbo’s hobbit-hole, where the stories began. But the sign identified this as the Bag End of Lord of the Rings—years after Bilbo’s adventures that took him into the east, over the Misty Mountains, where he met Gollum and found the ring; and into Mirkwood, where he fought and killed spiders; and finally, to the Lonely Mountain, where he talked to a dragon.
Our tour guide pressed on. We walked down the hill and found ourselves in the field, with the party tree standing at one end. One addition to the Party field, which I thought very unlike Tolkien, was a Maypole, standing about half way down the field. Tolkien would, of course, been familiar with the Maypole, but he was assiduous in avoiding anything about sex in his books.
The end of the tour brought us to The Green Dragon, the inn where you can sit down, have lunch by the fire as you sip your mug of beer. We lined up outside and got a free glass of ginger beer, then went inside to look around the inn.
There’s a cat that lives in The Green Dragon. My daughter spotted it right away, sleeping near the hearth.
“That cat was here the last time I visited,” she said. “That was three years ago!”
Visiting Hobbiton was a little like watching the commentaries for the Lord of the Rings films. I’d never watched commentaries before, and I learned much about how films were made. Visiting Hobbiton was getting a peek at how Peter Jackson created the films. You can’t, for example, go inside any of the hobbit-holes—not really. One of the doors opens, and you can walk inside, but any of the inside scenes were shot in a studio in Wellington. It was fun to see, but I was strongly reminded that all of this went into creating the illusion of the films.
And there’s the difference, I think. Reading the books is not an illusion. Tolkien himself understood the difference, although he wasn’t referring to his own books when he wrote his essay “On Faerie Stories.”
Tolkien writes:
“The storymaker, as subcreator, makes a secondary world which the listener can enter– Inside what he relates is true.  It accords with the laws of that world; you, therefore, believe it, while you are, as it were, inside.  The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken.  The magic, or rather art, has failed.  You are then out in the primary world again, looking at the little abortive secondary world from outside.”
A reader’s willingness to accept a secondary world Tolkien calls secondary belief. The process of subcreation makes his books the experience they are. They are real—for as long as you are willing to accept the reality of that world. This kind of engagement doesn’t work for everyone, but it was certainly my experience as an eleven year-old kid discovering Tolkien’s world for the first time, an experience I have again and again, whenever I read the books.

A Visit to Oxford, Part II


My daughter and I had six days in Oxford, three of which we used for day-trips—one to Stonehenge and two into London. Our final day in Oxford we dedicated to Lewis and Tolkien. On the Saturday, we got a bus on the High Street and headed to our car-park. The plan was to visit the places where Lewis and Tolkien had lived.
The Kilns is the house where Jack Lewis lived with Warnie, his brother, Mrs. Moore and her daughter Maureen. They purchased the house together in 1930, which is around the same time that Lewis was becoming a Christian—something that happened over the period of several years. The Kilns is outside of Oxford at Headington Quarry, but we found the house in only a few minutes.
Parking the car along a side street, we walked into what is now called Lewis Close—the short street leading up to the house and nature preserve. The house is unremarkable. It’s a quiet house on a quiet street. The place is maintained privately by the C. S. Lewis Foundation, so we weren’t able to get inside. I didn’t mind, particularly. This is the house where Lewis lived, and died, November 22, 1963.
We crossed the street and entered the park. The park has a pond—they call it a lake—and we walked about for a while. I was a little distressed at the amount of litter, and I got stung by nettles. A young family was also making their way through the park—a boy, apparently with the name of Jack, tagging along behind. Leaving the park, I feltsomehow let down, but I wasn’t sure why.
What exactly did you expect? I asked myself.
We stopped at the house once more, and I kept looking for the connection I wanted to feel. This was the place I had read so much about. This was the place where Lewis had lived for over thirty years.
Back at the car, we plugged Tolkien’s old address into the satnav and headed for Northmoor Road. And there, in not very long, was the house, number 22, one of two houses on this street where Tolkien lived with his family. The houses were tall and brick, and not the sort of place you would think the author of Lord of the Rings would live. But Tolkien, even more than Lewis, lived an ordinary life—married with four children, and working hard to raise a family.
After Northmoor Road, it was back to the car-park and Magdalen College. We wanted to look around the college grounds. We had to enter through the porter’s door again, but this time it seemed more normal—two lovely young women nodding and smiling, and handing us a leaflet on C. S. Lewis.
We found New Building right away, the building where Lewis lived on campus, and the place where the Inklings gathered in Lewis’ rooms on Thursday evenings. We wandered around inside another of the buildings, passing other visitors and students looking for their classrooms. A wedding was going on inside one of the courtyards, and the bells rang out from Magdalen Tower.
We saved Adison’s Walk for last. It’s a peaceful path encircling a deer park in the centre. Trees border the path, and a little river runs along one side. As I walked along, I thought of Tolkien, Lewis, and Hugo Dyson walking here in September of 1931. It was late, after an Inklings meeting, and the three men walked and talked of myth.
In a letter to his life-long friend, Arthur Greeves, Lewis wrote of that night:
Now what Dyson and Tolkien showed me was this: that if I met the idea of sacrifice in a Pagan story I didn’t mind it at all: again, that if I met the idea of a god sacrificing himself to himself I liked it very much and was mysteriously moved by it: again, that the idea of the dying and reviving god (Balder, Adonis, Bacchus) similarly moved me provided I met it anywhere except in the Gospels. The reason was that in Pagan stories I was prepared to feel the myth as profound and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp even though I could not say in cold prose ’what it meant’. … Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: ….
I felt closer to Lewis and Tolkien on Addison’s Walk than I had anywhere else. Maybe it was the quiet, broken only by the sound of bells from the college—or maybe the relative solitude of this place gave me the chance to fully appreciate where I was. It wasn’t Narnia or Middle-Earth, but I was finally getting a glimpse into the lives of these men who lived very structured lives: teaching, reading, and researching; meeting with friends often to talk and drink and smoke, arguing about religion, philosophy, and pedagogy; and finally retreating into their imaginations to create and write into being the worlds that so many have come to love.
Lewis, C. S. C. S. Lewis, Collected Letters, Volume 1: Family Letters, 1905 to 1931. Ed. Walter Hooper. London: Harper Collins Publishers, 2000. 975-76. Print.

A Visit to Oxford, Part I


Reading about Lewis, Tolkien, and the other Inklings is something I’ve done for many years. I finally had the chance to visit Oxford this last August with my daughter, taking the time to visit Magdalen College where Lewis taught and lived, and to think about these men living their lives in Oxford more than half a century ago.
My daughter and I arrived in Oxford late on a rainy Monday. We had to leave our car in a car-park and take a bus into the city. Because it was late—nearly midnight—and we were tired and hungry, the whole thing seemed surreal to me. We got directions from our helpful bus driver, and set out to find the porter’s door where we could pick up our keys. We had reserved two rooms in the residence at Magdalen College.
Did I say it was rainy and dark?—that we were tired and hungry? We hauled our suitcases along the imposing wall of the college, past occasionally by groups of drunken students—something I later learned has been a feature of the city for more than five hundred years.
We were lost. We were definitely at the college, but where was the door? We crossed the High Street, and my daughter spotted a darkened door in the forbidding stone wall of the college. It was unmarked, but there seemed no other entrance. WE went to it and rang the bell. A wizened little man let us in, and we told him we had booked rooms at the college. He shuffled around until he found our names, then handed over two sets of keys.
I’m in a Dickens novel, my tired brain said. I knew I was in a Dickens novel; if I were in a Harry Potter novel, things would seem even weirder.
We finally got into our rooms, and in a moment of weakness I wished desperately I was at home, and not in this strange place.
Sleep, coffee, and a full English breakfast the next morning made Oxford look much friendlier. It was still raining, but a rainy morning with the street full of people was much different from what we had met with the night before. The place we found to eat was The Rose—a snug little café down High Street from Magdalen. We went back to that café several times over the next few days.
We spent the first day wandering about Oxford. We had a bus tour of the town, which was helpful and informative. We spent time in the Ashmolean Museum, which was a nice way to escape the busy streets and the rain. We walked until we found The Eagle and Child, the pub where the Inklings met, often on Tuesday mornings, and called by them The Bird and Baby. We went back to the pub that night for dinner, and as we ate, I tried to imagine Lewis, Tolkien, and the other Inklings sitting here, drinking and smoking and having spirited conversations.
As we walked back to our rooms, evening was settling fast. It had stopped raining, and the streets and pubs were filling with people. As we walked, I had to reconcile my sense of the past with this busy, vibrant present. Oxford has been a centre of learning in England and Europe since the eleventh century. Its history is long, and Lewis, Tolkien, and the other Inklings are only a small part of that history, but I was intent on discovering something of them while I was here.

Travels in Britain, a Literary Pilgrimage


For the last five years, I’ve been trying to arrange a trip to the UK. I finally managed it, and now I’m here. The last time I tried to travel to Britain, I had to cancel because of family matters. That was for a Harry Potter conference in Scotland. Much of the travelling I’ve done recently is like that—taking trips to places, but always to a conference. Travelling to conferences means that you need to attend sessions, and you get less of a chance to see the place you’re visiting.
This time it’s different. I’m travelling with my daughter, and we are hitting as many interesting sites as we can. Because so much of my reading and academic work is tied to this island, my trip feels as much a literary pilgrimage as it does a holiday. We’ve already seen many places in and around Glasgow, but so far my favourite has been visiting the antonine Wall near Falkirk.
The Antonine Wall is a roman Wall built around 142 C.E., which was a way for the romans to try to push their territory into what they called Caledonia. Unlike Hadrian’s Wall, a hundred miles to the south, the Antonine Wall was a turf wall built on a stone foundation. The foundation remains, but little else. You can also find the remains of a roman fort known as rough castle nearby. The romans abandoned the wall after only eight years, withdrawing south to Hadrian’s Wall.
We got spectacularly lost trying to find the wall—missing a sign, and getting sent in circles by the ubiquitous round-abouts, which seem to be the favoured way of moving traffic here. Once we found the site of Rough Castle and the Antonine Wall, we got out of the car and began to wander. There’s a dog park on the other side of the wall, and people were out walking dogs or jogging in the late afternoon.
There I was, my hands on the wall—an ancient foundation, now covered with moss and grasses, built nearly two millennia ago by the romans. We walked farther on to the site of the fort, and I stood on the remains of the rampart, and thought about the romans and their efforts to push their way into this country. Who knows what the peoples of northern Britain thought of these southern invaders. We of course can speculate, and I could feel my imagination running away with the possibilities. I thought of Tolkien as we followed a path lined with large stones leading to the fort, , and standing on the old rampart I thought of the books I’ve read by rosemary Sutcliff—books such as The Eagle of the Ninth, in which Marcus and Esca, his friend and former body slave, journey into the north to discover the fate of the lost Ninth Legion.
The hills, the quiet, and the ancient stones covered in grasses fill me with an emotion I can’t articulate. The place itself inspires the imagination, but I also feel a connection to the landscape and its people through the books I’ve read that were in turn inspired by these same places and their histories.

Discovering Anne, An Outsider’s Perspective


I’m spending time reading, writing, and thinking about Anne Shirley these days. Spending time is probably an overstatement. The middle of the winter term doesn’t allow much besides marking and preparing for classes. However, I was reminded recently that I have this interest in Anne and Lucy Maud Montgomery, and I sometimes wonder how I got here.
When I was twenty-one and thought I knew something about books and reading, I walked into my parent’s living room to find them engrossed in the television. A girl was on the screen announcing that her name was Anne Shirley—Anne with an E, no less.
Who the hell is Anne Shirley, I thought.
When I asked, my mother gave me a look. “We’re watching Anne of Green Gables.” I left the room.
Anne of Green Gableswas a title I had encountered variously over the years—both at home and at school. It was a girl’s book, as far as I could tell. My sister read it, and that was enough of a reason for me never to touch it.
By the time I was in my late twenties, had read a good deal more, and had begun to realize I knew much less than I thought, I encountered the book again, this time in a graduate seminar with my earliest mentor in children’s literature—Jon Stott of the University of Alberta.
I had taken a course from Jon in my third year as an English student, and his enthusiasm and love for kid’s books pointed out a new direction for my life. I had always loved books such as The Hobbit and The Narnia Chronicles, but thinking of children’s books as a field of study was yet unknown territory. I did an honours tutorial with Jon on Lloyd Alexander, and I took a course with him while finishing my MA. He introduced me again to Anne Shirley. There she was, red-haired and talkative, but since encountering Anne last, I had developed a soft spot for redheads because of my own, then a two-year-old.
I don’t remember liking the book all that much at the time, but something happened over the next few years: Anne, and Montgomery, began to get inside my life. I read more books in the series. I started tutoring a children’s literature course by distance, and Annewas on the reading list. Once they were in school, my kids fell in love with Road to Avonlea—watching it every day after school. It wasn’t Anne of Green Gables this time, but there was that little town again with all of its problems and charm. It was sucking me in.
Not until I began teaching Anne in the classroom did things begin to shift significantly. I found I loved the book. I watched the Kevin Sullivan film; I went on in the classroom at length about Anne’s language, her mistakes, her quirks, and how sometimes, just like Marilla, I wish she would hold her tongue.
My children’s literature classes are generally populated by female students, and every year the Annefans would come forward. I had grown to love the book and the character, but these were young women who grew up with Anne Shirley, and had an attachment to the book born out of that particular sense of discovery that goes with being a young reader. I knew I had to tread carefully.
Having also grown up enough to have an adult relationship with my sister, I talked to her about Anne. She was still a fan. She often reread the books, and she introduced me to another Montgomery character, Emily from Emily of New Moon. I read that series as well. Frankly, I was expecting more Anne, but, no—this was a different character altogether.
Around this time, while I was trying to sort out my academic life, I came across a call for panel proposals on Montgomery. I thought I would send something in. It was rejected, but it gave me a sense of what I was up against and what I was trying to do. Then I heard about the Lucy Maud conference in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, and I went.
It happened to be the one-hundredth anniversary of the publication of Anne of Green Gables. I flew to Prince Edward Island, and discovered something I wasn’t expecting. Charlottetown was lovely, and I was immediately struck by the place and its people. My first evening in town, I walked down Queen Street in a soft, warm rain. Rain in Edmonton tends to be cold, sharp, and drenching. The people I encountered were interesting and friendly—and I do mean friendly. I found a place to eat, and I had seafood. The next few days gave me more information about Anne and Lucy Maud than I could ever take in.
After that conference, I decided to enter the world of Montgomery scholarship. It was like walking unknowingly up to a hole in the ground. It can’t be that deep, I thought, and jumped in.
I haven’t hit bottom yet. Five conferences, four trips to PEI, and one senior level seminar on Montgomery later, I can say that I know more about Lucy Maud than I ever thought there was to know, and many academics I’ve met know much more.
In spite of all the time reading and writing about Anne, I’ve always felt like a bit of an outsider in the world of Anne and Lucy Maud. It came home to me in a forceful way at one of the LMM conferences in Charlottetown. I was with a small group at the banquet, lining up for food. I was getting more and more attached to this island, and I said, casually, “Maybe I’ll move out here and become an islander as well.”
My words were met by a short, shocked silence. “You can’t become an islander,” was the immediate chorus in reply.
I was a little taken aback. My hosts explained to me that you are only ever born an islander. You can live on PEI for your entire life, but if you weren’t born there, then you are never an islander. You “come from away.”
That left me feeling rather deflated, and the comment stuck with me for the next year. One day, again reading and thinking about Anne, I had a revelation: Anne comes from away. She was born in Bolingbroke, Nova Scotia, which meant that Anne, too, was an outsider and always would be. Anne, the girl who comes from away, was my refrain until the next time I visited PEI. I still feel like something of an outsider to the world of Anne and Lucy Maud, but I’ve also taken no little satisfaction in knowing I shared this much with the talkative redhead who has become so much a part of my life.

A Visit to Charlottetown, PEI


One of the best things about the biennial Lucy Maud Montgomery conference is that it happens in Charlottetown. One of the best things about Charlottetown is going to the Lucy Maud conference.
Not entirely true. I went to see the musical Anne and gilbert the Thursday evening of my stay. The Guild, a theatre on the corner of Richmond St. in downtown Charlottetown—across the street from the Confederation Centre in one direction and the Anne of Green Gables Store in the other—is an intimate venue where the front row is essentially part of the stage. This year, Ellen Denny of London, Ontario, played Anne, and Patrick Cook of St. John’s, Newfoundland, played Gilbert, two very fine and energetic actors. This was one of the liveliest musicals I’ve ever seen, and I used to hate musicals.
I loved the show, but even better was having Ellen Denny and Patrick Cook show up at the Saturday evening banquet at the conference as part of a birthday surprise for one of the conference participants. Ellen Denny was sitting beside me, and I did my utmost to act as though I wasn’t thrilled at her choice of seats.
I correct myself. Many exciting things can happen in Charlottetown besides attending the Lucy Maud conference. I can’t oversell this place. It’s one of the oldest cities in the country, its streets are crowded with interesting shops, pubs, and coffee shops; its people are kind and helpful in a way I’ve rarely seen, and they really will go out of their way on your behalf. I was looking for a bank one afternoon, and this fellow, who happened to be eating lunch in his car, got out—leaving the door open with the keys in the ignition—to lead me around the corner and down the street to the door of the bank.
It’s not as though people aren’t friendly or helpful in Edmonton. They are. But in Charlottetown, the people seem to have fewer barriers when it comes to strangers. It’s all part of the island culture.
They have an expression on the island. If you aren’t an islander, then you “come from away.” If you come from away, then you will never be an islander. But neither are you a stranger. If you visit the island, you are a guest, and you will meet with the same kindness and respect granted to friends and family.
But back to the conference. We had four days of talking about Lucy Maud, Anne, Rilla, and many, many other characters from Montgomery’s body of work. And then there are the journals—five decades worth—which means we have more information about Lucy Maud’s personal life and writing habits than any other writer I can think of, save maybe Samuel Johnson.
The theme of this year’s conference was Montgomery and War. She only wrote one book about the Great War—Rilla of Ingleside. Nonetheless, the conference presentations and conversation ranged all over the Lucy Maud map: from food, to spirituality, to post traumatic stress disorder, to patriotism, to women and the Red Cross. We talked about Montgomery’s struggle with depression, her grief over the death of her beloved cousin Frede Campbell, and her decade-long series of court battles with L. C. Page, the original publisher of Anne of Green Gables in 1908.
I always learn something new at these conferences. I learned, for example, that Montgomery collected reviews of her books and pasted them into scrapbooks. A curious habit. But as Ben Lefebvre, co-organizer of the conference and editor of The L. M. Montgomery Reader, said to me in a hallway conversation, Montgomery was “the author of her own career.”
Montgomery’s short stories, her poetry, her many novels, as well as her scrapbooks, letters, and journals provide an endless number of discussion points, no matter the topic. I wondered if this conference would be more limited than those in the past because of the theme. But no. And more and more, scholars and professionals are bringing an interdisciplinary perspective to the conference. I, for one, had a child psychiatrist from Melbourne on my panel about trauma.
If you are an Anne fan, there’s much more to read and discover in Montgomery’s books—Emily Star, for one. If you aren’t an Anne fan, then try the journals. Life writing is entirely its own genre, and Montgomery provides interesting historical and cultural insights into life on Prince Edward Island and Ontario, not to mention Canada. Montgomery visited the UK during her honeymoon, but As far as I know, the farthest west of Ontario Montgomery travelled was Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, to visit her father, but she had friends and family all over Canada, the States, and the UK.
I fell into the world of Montgomery by accident. I didn’t read Anne of Green Gables until I was in my thirties—and I saw the film first. I don’t know how long I’ll stay in this world, but just like Charlottetown, it’s a fascinating place to visit.