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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.

The Struggle in Writing Memoir

For me, writing memoir is both reflection and exploration. I usually have some event in mind when I begin a piece, but writing about my own experiences can take me in awkward and often painful directions. The question I avoid when writing memoir is why I do it in the first place.
Writing memoir explores personal experiences, which you intend to put on display for other people. If you didn’t intend other people to read it, then you’d be writing a journal. Setting aside this element of public display, the question remains: what in your experience has in it something valuable for other people? This is where I often bog down.
As I struggle through a piece of memoir, I sometimes hear myself ask, why would anyone care? Such a question only results in paralysis. So I avoid it—for the most part. I do think, however, that the sharing of experience is not only a fundamental human quality, it’s a psychological necessity.
Have you ever heard the story of the man who never shared? He collected experiences, one after another, gobbling them down like cake and never sharing them with anyone. Well, he grew so full of his own experiences that one day he simply burst—popped like a balloon. His neighbours found tatty bits of his experiences lying all over, but they were so shredded and jumbled that no one could ever make any sense of them. So they swept up the bits and just forgot about him and went on with their lives.
That’s not really a story, but it does illustrate my point. To be human is to share one’s life. The risk lies in the sharing and how the sharing will be received.
Earlier this year, I had a piece accepted by Ponder Review, which appeared in Volume 2, Issue 1 of the magazine. The piece is called “My Father Walking,” a short memoir I wrote about my dad, who died in 2005. I’ve written several pieces on my dad, the first of which, “On Smoking,” appeared in Hippocampus Magazine in August, 2017. Here’s an excerpt from “My Father Walking.” I hope you find in it something that resonates with your own life.

“My Father Walking”
William Thompson, 2018

My father is the only moving thing on the street. It’s a day in early fall—the grass a faded green, the maples a golden yellow and already dropping leaves on this October afternoon. My father walks with a determined stride, as though he is unconsciously wanting to get away from something, or needing to get somewhere. I want to hold him there in that push-me-pull-me present, the world rolling beneath his feet as he walks.
It’s the jacket—the forest-green jacket he wears that fixes him in both my child’s eye and mind’s eye. I’m standing in front of the house and watching him walk. He is carrying a case of beer in his left hand. The weight of the case throws off his gait, just enough to emphasize that determined stride. He seems painfully visible to the world, but I’m the only one who watches.
It’s either an early Friday evening or late Saturday afternoon. Remembering it, I can’t be sure either way. But my father only went to the liquor store on those days—usually on Fridays, the end of his workweek, the beginning of the two days of the week he was free of his job, with just his wife and kids to populate and trouble his landscape with arguments, chores, and noise—always noise.

Those Girl Heroes

Girl heroes are a prominent part of children’s and young adult literature—they have been for over a century. Katniss from The Hunger Games, Bella from Twilight, and Elsa from Frozen are only three such girl heroes to find their way into popular culture in the last decade. The popularity of such characters, however, raises questions.
Consider, for a moment. Katniss is thrown into an arena where she has to kill other young people, and she becomes a post-traumatic wreck by the third book in the series. Bella is largely a passive character, who chooses to become a vampire by … which book I can’t remember. As for Elsa, she is a Disney princess who chooses isolation, builds a giant ice castle, and inadvertently creates an endless winter. Such girl heroes get caught up in violence, questionable relationships, or, just … causing endless winters.
I find The Hunger Games compelling, and I love Frozen. I couldn’t bring myself to finish even the second book in the Twilight series—largely because of the turgid prose and ridiculous characters. That’s just me. I always love discovering new girl heroes, but I have my favourites, too. L. M. Montgomery’s Anne is one of those favourites.
Last June, I attended the Lucy Maud Montgomery and Reading conference in Charlottetown, PEI. I love visiting Prince Edward Island—the people there are more open and friendlier than anywhere I’ve visited. But I also enjoy this conference more than most. I shouldn’t be, but I’m always surprised at how much people love Lucy Maud Montgomery—the Anne books, in particular. This conference happens every two years, and it was good to catch up with people I met at earlier conferences and talk about Montgomery. I also tried to have fun—going for an historical ride on the Hippo, an amphibious vehicle that tours downtown Charlottetown before heading into the harbor.
I presented on how Anne’s language comes from the books she’s read, and how her use of that language informs and defines her place in Avonlea. Oddly enough, Anne doesn’t refer directly to that many texts: she’s caught reading Ben-Hur by her teacher, and she and her friends enact the story of Elaine from Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. Anne reads novels, but don’t forget, this is a bad thing in turn-of-the-century Canada—or anywhere else, for that matter.
Anne is a girl hero. She has the beginnings of a love interest by the end of the first book, but she doesn’t fully understand her feelings for Gilbert until the end of the third book in the series—a far cry from characters like Katniss or Bella. At the same time, Anne is more like Hermione from Harry Potter: interested in books and scholastically ambitious.
I’m sure my love of girl heroes comes from having raised two daughters. And perhaps because I’m a father, the girl heroes that most appeal to me are those who face difficult, if not necessarily life-threatening issues, and grapple with difficult, if not problematic relationships. This is probably why I love characters such as Anne, Meg from L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, and Tenar from LeGuin’s Earthsea cycle. Girl heroes of the twenty-first century often fall into a type—the teenage misfit, who suddenly finds herself the object of at least one young man’s attention—and often two. Katniss and Bella are both good examples of such a type. Types aside, I will always enjoy meeting new girl heroes, but I will always have my favourites.

New Fiction, An Apocalyptic Fairy Tale

A couple of years ago, I was rereading some Grimms’ fairy tales, and I wondered what these stories would be like if they were set at a time when society had collapsed. IN other words, what if I took these stories and put them in an apocalyptic context. Then, I wrote “Hansel and Greta.”
I’ve written this sort of thing before. In the early days of this blog, I wrote a collection of fractured fairy tales that offered new ways to look at older tales, such as “Red Riding Hood, Again Revisited” and “Mr. Wolf and The Seven Kids, An Urban Fairy Tale.” That collection is called Fractured and Other Fairy Tales. These stories are aimed more at kids, and I had my own daughters in mind when I wrote them.
In retelling Grimms’ stories as apocalyptic fairy tales, I have a different audience in mind. These are not stories for children; they are bleak and often violent, and, well, grim in the strictest sense of the word. Having said that, I’ve tried to maintain the spirit of the original tales, in as much as I’m able.
“Hansel and Greta” is the first of these stories to find a home. I must have sent it to a dozen journals before Laura Mansfield and Feast picked it up. Feast is an eclectic online journal about food based in Manchester, UK, and the latest issue is called Consuming Children. Thank you to Laura and the people at Feast for publishing the story. I’m especially grateful that Laura saw the piece as something she could include. Enjoy the story, check out the rest of the journal, and, as always, post any comments.

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.