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 thinking about oceans this week. I’ve been lucky enough to have visited many bodies of water, and I always have a particular feeling near the water, as though my cells are responding to the pull of the tide and the rotation of the moon.
I’ve clambered with my youngest daughter over the rocks of a fallen tower on a beach near St. Andrews, Scotland. Before us, the North Sea pounds and foams, and on the far edge of the horizon, my daughter points to the coast of Norway. I think about Norway, long ago, about the Vikings who came across that sea in their long boats to terrorize Britain and Europe.
I’ve visited Cape Spear, Newfoundland, the farthest eastern point of North America, and stood and listened to the relentless pounding of the surf. John Cabot visited here as well—sailing from Bristol in 1497. They say he circled the island and may have made landfall on southern Labrador.
I’ve driven with my eldest daughter along the southeast coast of Australia, where the Tasman Sea becomes the Southern Ocean. We stop the car and climb down to the beach, and I stand and imagine the expanse of water that lies between me and the southern icecap.
My parents took us as a family to visit the west coast when we were kids. This was one of the biggest trips we did in those days—camping all the way, save for one night in a motel because of pouring rain. We made it out to Vancouver Island and up to Rathtrevor Beach. Because the bay was shallow, I learned about the tide, and watched with fascination as the water washed nearer and nearer in the afternoon. I would come down to the beach in the morning, stopping to look at the flotsam left by the withdrawing tide—driftwood, trailing seaweed, and broken shells. To my eight-year-old eye, the beach simply looked uncovered, as though someone had just drawn back the water like a blanket.
But it was at Long Beach in Pacific Rim National Park, where the Pacific Ocean runs smack into the island, that I had my first sight of the real ocean. At first I thought it terrifying and chaotic. It was vast and moving and overwhelmed my child’s brain. But as I got used to the beach in all its parts, I began to accept it, if not understand it. We played along the beach, gathering debris to build sandcastles near the water. we would suddenly abandon that work to run into the shocking water, where we felt the huge draw and wash of the waves. Hot sun, wind, and saltwater—it all gathers into that first memory of the ocean, which I find again every time I visit the water.
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!
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.
Every summer, my friend Tom and I find a place to walk and enjoy the natural world. Last year, it was Newfoundland, but we don’t usually stray so far afield. This year we decided on the bird sanctuary near Tofield, just east of Edmonton.
It’s a short drive, as far as Alberta drives go, and we find the entrance to the sanctuary around noon. We pass through two gates and park in a farmer’s field to begin our walk. The rain has been absolutely incessant this summer, and this is one of the few sunny days in more than a week.
Good shoes, rain gear, and water are necessary on such a walk, but bugspray is essential in these woods. We follow what appears to be an old car track. The sun is out, and the trees are thick to either side of the path. We tramp along, me with my white cane and Tom with his walking stick. We talk, at first about the woods, the sound of the wind in the trees, and that we expected to hear more birds. We soon begin talking about books—books we’ve read, books we are reading
We walk for maybe two kilometres until we come to the bird observatory. Tents are set up to one side of the building, which turns out to be a group of teens enjoying a week of birding at the sanctuary.
Inside, we meet a lovely young woman who works at the observatory. She explains the work they do, showing us into what looks like a living room, where a whole crew is gathering for lunch. Apparently, the observatory has already started its fall migration banding program.
It’s a relief to be inside and away from the mosquitoes, but we don’t stay. We get some directions: they tell us the summer rains have flooded the paths nearer Beaverhill Lake, but we can take another path out to Lister Lake where we will find a rise that overlooks the marsh. And off we go.
We pass another set of birders on our way—this small group led by another young woman who stops to say hello. We ask about the practice of netting and banding small birds, and she explains how it’s done and how records are kept. No gloves and sharp beaks means sore hands and fingers for these birders.
As we get closer to Lister Lake, the path shows more evidence of flooding—the mud and water here is deep enough to lose a boot if we’re not careful. We have to move off the path, which is now under water, and make our way through the bush that crowds either side.
Eventually, we come to a low hill that overlooks the lake. Its more a marsh than a lake—crowded with cattails and bulrushes, with bits of open water among the reeds. We stop and listen. A deep silence underpins the sounds of the marsh—bird calls, the splashing of ducks, and the rattle of reeds in the breeze. The silence of this land has a quality, a shape left by retreating glaciers and countless days of sun and rain and snow. And this is, in part, what we came here to find, and what we will take with us when we leave.
In August of 2015, I made my first trip to Scotland with my youngest daughter. She was moving to the UK on a working/visa, and I went along to experience my ancestral home and visit Oxford, the home of two of my literary heroes, J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis.
Our first day in Glasgow, I wrote:
“August 16, 2015: I’m not sure what I was expecting on coming here. I was expecting to feel as though I was in a strange place. It doesn’t feel strange at all—different, but not strange.”
We spent five days in Glasgow that first trip. We stayed in an Air BnB on Queen Margret Drive, just above North Star, a small café run by a lovely couple. Every morning, I went down to the café and got coffee. I would stand outside the flat, having my coffee and smoking, while the life of the street passed by.
I wrote several pieces on that and subsequent trips to Scotland, including Encountering the Literary,A Visit to Hadrian’s Wall, and the Glasgow Connection to Harry Potter. And, of course, there are always Scottish castles.
I have been a father now longer than I’ve been anything else in my life. It’s a parent’s job to guide his or her children, but my children have guided me on adventures where I might not have gone on my own. It’s my youngest I have to thank for my Caledonian connection.