Tuesday Jan. 3, 2017

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When I was a child
I once sat sobbing on the floor
Beside my mother’s piano
As she played and sang
For there was in her singing
A shy yet solemn glory
My smallness could not hold

And when I was asked
Why I was crying
I had no words for it
I only shook my head
And went on crying

Why is it that music
At its most beautiful
Opens a wound in us
An ache a desolation
Deep as a homesickness
For some far-off
And half-forgotten country

I’ve never understood
Why this is so

But there’s an ancient legend
From the other side of the world
That gives away the secret
Of this mysterious sorrow

For centuries on centuries
We have been wandering
But we were made for Paradise
As deer for the forest

And when music comes to us
With its heavenly beauty
It brings us desolation
For when we hear it
We half remember
That lost native country

We dimly remember the fields
Their fragrant windswept clover
The birdsongs in the orchards
The wild white violets in the moss
By the transparent streams

And shining at the heart of it
Is the longed-for beauty
Of the One who waits for us
Who will always wait for us
In those radiant meadows

Yet also came to live with us
And wanders where we wander.

“Music” by Anne Porter from Living Things. © Zoland Books, 2006. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of the writer who created Frodo, Bilbo, Gandalf, and Gollum, and introduced millions of readers to a place called Middle-earth and a magical ring. J.R.R. Tolkien (1892) (books by this author), creator of The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings (1955) trilogy, was born on this day in Bloemfontein, South Africa, the son of a banker and a former missionary.

His family moved to England when he was four and his mother taught him and brother at home. Tolkien was reading by four and learning the rudiments of Latin. His mother had an interest in botany and they roamed the English countryside, with Tolkien illustrating plants and trees. Two of his cousins, Mary and Marjorie, created a secret language called “Animalic.” Tolkien created a more complex one called “Nevbosh,” and later, another called “Naffarin.” Later in life, Tolkien recalled his love for Arthurian legends and said, “I desired dragons with profound desire.” His Aunt Jane had a farm named Bag End.

At 23, he fought with the Lancashire Fusiliers in World War I, he said, because “in those days chaps joined up or were scorned publically. It was a nasty cleft to be in for a young man with too much imagination and little physical courage.” He was wounded and not many of his friends lived. The battles Tolkien endured profoundly influenced his thoughts on the nature of good and evil, ideas he would explore in the saga of Middle-earth.

Tolkien became a professor of Language and Literature at Oxford. It was while paging through a student’s exam booklet that he came across a blank page and suddenly found himself scribbling, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” He started writing an episodic quest about a small, human-like creature with hairy feet named Bilbo, upon whom the fate of civilization rests. He called it The New Hobbit and showed it to his friend C.S. Lewis, who wrote The Chronicles of Narnia. Lewis mentioned the book to an editor friend of his, who passed it along to a publisher. The publisher’s 10-year-old son loved it and the book, The Hobbit, Or There and Back Again, complete with illustrations by Tolkien, was published to wide acclaim (1937). It sold out its first print run in six weeks. Tolkien was surprised by the book’s success. He said, “It’s not even very good for children.” The publisher asked for a sequel.

It took J.R.R. Tolkien either 14 or 17 years to write three books, tapping with two fingers in an attic, that came to be known as the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Three volumes, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King, were published from 1954 to 1955. They came with a 104-page appendix and detailed maps. Linguists praised his invention of the “Elvish” language, noting its consistent roots, sound laws, and inflexions. Critic Edmund Wilson was scornful of the books, though, calling the series, “A children’s book which has somehow gotten out of hand.”

People read much more into the books than Tolkien would admit to. He said: “I don’t like allegories. I never liked Hans Christian Andersen because I knew he was always getting at me.” Pirated paperbacks of The Lord of the Rings began appearing in America during the 1960s and the books, with their ideas about environmentalism and society, were quickly adopted by the counterculture movement. Fan clubs sprang up. College students tacked up posters of Middle-earth on dorm room walls.

Tolkien removed his phone number from the public directory; he was getting too many late-night night calls from readers asking if Frodo had completed his quest or if Balrogs had wings. The book inspired games like Dungeons and Dragons and Dragon Quest, and rock-and-roll bands like Led Zeppelin wrote songs like “Misty Mountain Hop” in homage to Middle-earth. Fans have composed poems using the Elvish language of Quenya, and the books have been made into plays, films, and video games. They have never gone out of print.

The Harvard Lampoon published a parody of The Lord of the Rings called Bored of the Rings (1958), in which Merry and Pippin were known as “Moxie” and “Pepsi.” The BBC ran a show called Hordes of Things (1980). There’s a film called Dork of the Rings (2006), and cartoonist Jeff Smith wrote a 1,500 page graphic novel called Bone inspired by his love of Tolkien’s books. He calls it “Bugs Bunny meets Lord of the Rings.”

About his compassionate, lazy, tiny Hobbits, J.R.R. Tolkien once said: “There is little or no magic about them, except the ordinary everyday sort which helps them to disappear quietly and quickly when large stupid folk like you and me come blundering along, making a noise like elephants which they can hear a mile off. They are inclined to be fat in the stomach; they dress in bright colors (chiefly green and yellow); wear no shoes, because their feet grow natural leathery soles and thick warm brown hair like the stuff on their heads (which is curly); have long clever brown fingers, good-natured faces and laugh deep fruity laughs (especially after dinner which they have twice a day when they can get it).”

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