Tag Archives: magic

On rereading Tolkien

My dear family gave me a new copy of The Lord of the Rings for my birthday. As those of you who have read my blog for a while know, I love books. Physical books, books that have weight and weathered pages and ancient stains and tired spines.

Unfortunately, books wear out in direct proportion to the love they’ve experienced through their lives. My original paperback copies of the trilogy are tattered, to put it kindly. The final straw was losing the last few pages of The Return of the King. I’ll keep them all, of course, but I now also have a shiny new hardcover version of the entire set in one volume.

So I’m reading it again. It’s been a very very long time. Yes, there are things in Middle Earth that are not as I would like them, as a woman reader in 2013. It doesn’t change the fact that I lived in these books when I was younger. I would read from beginning to end and then immediately start over again. I even had a record (yes, record, you know, vinyl, round, with grooves) of Tolkien himself reading some of the poems, in English and Elvish.

Back then, I wasn’t all that excited by Frodo’s journey. I liked the battles, the big ones. I liked everyone charging into the fray, and not all of them returning. Frodo? He simply continued forward. He endured. Everything rested on his shoulders, but they were very plain little shoulders.

I started thinking about that again a few years ago, when I read this post on PTSD. Somewhere along the way my feelings had changed. I still loved the sheer bigness of the action, but it was Frodo that seemed more compelling. That terrible weight he carried, that doggedness in continuing on, that sense of bone-deep weariness, with everything.

And at the very end, after traveling with Sam one last time, with Sam in tears as he says that he thought that Frodo would stay and enjoy the Shire forever, Frodo says this: “So I thought too, once. But I have been hurt too deeply, Sam. I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.”

Writing, the kind of writing that catches hold of readers in some inescapable way, often grows from troubled gardens. For me, the glory of Tolkien’s work is not so much in the details of orcs and elves and wargs, but in the sense of cost behind it all. That the action doesn’t end with a battle, or with the destruction of the ring, but with a return home to a country that no longer fits, with coming to terms with the things lost along the way to victory while always feeling gratitude for what was saved. The sort of writing that likely grew out of Tolkien’s experience of World War I.

At its best, fantasy is so much more than cool beings in fabulous places. It’s an invitation into life in all its splendor and messiness and pain and wonder. It acknowledges that magic and loss can walk hand in hand, not just in books, but in our lives as well.

The place of magic

To start, a story.

Once upon a time, I went through midwifery training. Homebirth midwifery, to be precise. We had a small class, we all knew each other, and when one member became pregnant, it was exciting. At the time she called to give me the news, I was baking. I don’t remember what, other than it called for many eggs. I was there on the phone with her as I cracked the first egg. It was double-yolked. This was exciting, too. I’d never, in a life full of baking, come across a double-yolked egg.

On to the next egg. Also double-yolked. I suggested to the woman on the phone that perhaps we were being given a signal that she would have twins. We laughed.

The entire dozen eggs all had double yolks.

I didn’t see her again until she had a baby shower. I had to make food for the shower. Again, no memory of what. The one thing I do recall is that it required eggs, and I had a fresh dozen, and every single one was double-yolked. I wanted to suggest more strongly that she would have twins, but I didn’t. Being a novice at anything, midwifery included, can make one reluctant to challenge those more experienced.

Then I got the call that she’d given birth. Surprise! Twins!

That story can be explained in many different ways. If one chooses the scientific approach, then there is the fact that we were buying our eggs from a local farm, and had gotten extra large eggs each time. In all likelihood, double yolks will make up a higher percentage of larger eggs, and the same hens were laying throughout that year. It is not magic. It is probability and science, with a strong dash of coincidence.

Life, at least my life, is full of stories like that. On the one side is science, on the other, magic. A seed is a perfectly crafted genetic vessel. It is also an unbelievably beautiful piece of magic–life waiting to be called forth by the touch of water and heat. A birth is an event choreographed by physics and anatomical design and complex biochemical pathways. But I’ve never been present at one where I did not also experience the sense that something beyond simple descent and rotation occurred. Life is full of spaces that both can and cannot be explained with textbooks and models.

As a writer, I’m rarely drawn to creating complete new worlds. The simple reason for this is that I’m in a state of ceaseless wonder over what exists in this one. A new cicada’s wings unfurling, the path a fire travels, the wingprints of an owl left in the snow by a mouse’s tracks–all of them balanced on that divide between the commonplace and the extraordinary.

A story comes to town

The truth about blog posts is this: when I’m writing, really writing, the last thing in the world I want to write about is writing. The act of sitting in front of a computer screen takes on a different meaning. Don’t use those words, my brain whispers to me. Use the other ones. Tell me a story.

Story mind is unlike anything else. Story mind is when you fall asleep at night still half in a scene, and wake up the next morning muttering dialogue. It’s demanding and impossible and utterly seductive. It’s something your family learns to see in your eyes, most likely with a bit of disappointment.

For me, story mind is magic. Not revision, not all the things that happen once the draft is complete, but those moments when everything comes at a feverish pace, and the story feels born of something entirely outside your own imagination.

I haven’t watched this talk in a while. I loved it when I saw it a few years back. Elizabeth Gilbert, 2009, TED. Try it out, if you haven’t already.

A beginning, an end

I vanished this week. I was at a birth, and then I was home, sleeping. It was the last birth I expect to attend, aside from any I might go to as personal favors, so it was a bittersweet experience.

There are all sorts of parallels to be drawn between birth and writing, but it feels artificial to sit down and list them. For today, let’s just leave it at one: both are incredibly complex and individual experiences, and it cheapens them to reduce them to merely mechanical events. I may have more to say about it at some future point, but not now.

I can say one other thing. I’ve been present at enough births that I could be somewhat jaded about the process. I’m not. Having a thorough understanding of the mechanics of labor in no way diminishes the “Holy Sarsaparilla!” moment of birth. (Please note that sarsaparilla is not the word that I would actually use, but I do try to be accommodating in my word choices.) Anyone looking for evidence of magic in the world, hang out at a few births, any species, and see what you find.

I’ll be back tomorrow with a story recommendation for the week.

Book magic revisted

A story of a book.

I was a homeschooled child back when homeschooling was relatively uncommon. There weren’t many other homeschooled kids for me to connect with where we lived. I was an introverted kid in thrift store clothes who didn’t go to school, and in the apartment complex where we lived none of those things were particularly cool.

What I did have, besides books, were penpals. Other homeschooled kids from other places, all of whom wanted to connect with kids like themselves. I didn’t save their letters, and I no longer remember most of their names. Jacques, who drew me a picture of a horse…I remember him. And Aaron. I remember Aaron’s name because there is a book on my shelf whose flyleaf bears this inscription: To Jenny, love Aaron Christmas 1980

The book is The Island of the Grass King, by Nancy Willard. It’s a white hardcover, its edges a little battered but otherwise in good shape for its age. It’s become one of the books I pull out when the kids are sick and I need to settle in for an afternoon of reading some illness away.

The story is of Anatole, whose grandmother has asthma and is in need of a special fennel she once had that eases her breathing better than inhalers. A wish made on a rainbow (and a Sears catalog) sends Anatole on a journey with a talking cat, an animated silver teapot, and a girl made of glass. It’s one of those books that never quite takes you to the places you expect it to–full of magic and surprise, and a bit of The Tempest as well.

It’s also a story that, until recently, no one else I knew had ever read. I’ve mentioned it to so many people, and none of them have ever even heard of it, let alone read it.

Enter Desdemona. (Her name’s not Desdemona, but I think she’d like a code name, so I’ve given her one.) A year or so ago she asked me for recommendations for books to read with her kids. I included The Island of the Grass King on my list, as I usually do. She hadn’t read it, as is always the case.

But Desdemona loves stories, and she has a touching faith in my recommendations. She tracked the book down at a local library and read it and LOVED it. Now she hunts for copies in used book stores just to have them on hand for birthday presents. If The Island of the Grass King suddenly returns to print, I fully expect it will be the result of Desdemona’s devotion.

For me, the magic of that book is in the story, but also in Aaron’s signature in the front, and the memory of what it meant to receive the gift so many years ago. It’s in the times my feverish daughter begged me to keep reading it, and in Desdemona and her quest, and in the thrill of seeing book and reader find each other.

It delights me.