Tiffany asked, “Is it… hard, being a goddess?”

‘It has its good days,’ said Anoia.  She stood with her cigarette cupped at the elbow by her other hand, holding the flaming, sparking thing close to her face.  Now she took a sharp pull, raised her head and blew a cloud of smoke out to join the smog on the ceiling.  Sparks fell out of it like rain.  ‘I haven’t been doing drawers long.  I used to be a volcano goddess.’

‘Really?’ said Tiffany.  ‘I’d never have guessed.’

‘Oh, yes.  It was good work, apart from the screaming,’ said Anoia, and then added, in a bitter tone of voice: ‘Ha! And the god of storms was always raining on my lava.  That’s men for you dear. They rain on your lava.’

Wintersmith, by Terry Pratchett

City Dweller

In The Hobbit Party, the authors discuss Tolkien’s nostalgia for his childhood, country home, and his aversion to the Industrial Revolution.  I am definitely a product of that Industrial Revolution.

 I just read the section in The Fellowship of the Ring where the hobbits meet Old Man Willow and Tom Bombadil.  First the hobbits find themselves blocked from going their desired pathway, instead the bramble only clears for them when they head in the opposite direction.  Then the hobbits become very sleepy.  Merry and Pippin fall asleep at the base of Old Man Willow and it swallows them with its roots. Frodo falls asleep while sitting on a root over the river, and the tree knocks him into the water and then holds him under. 

As someone who grew up in the desert (El Paso, TX), the oppressive, suffocating feeling of deep forest described by Tolkien is completely foreign to me.  Furthermore, as a life-long city girl, the power of the natural world to consume the products of human civilization is equally foreign.  As I read this section I tried to imagine what it would be like to live at the edge of wilderness.  Even the hobbits who live in an agrarian society, which is governed by mother nature, are uncomfortable in the Old Forest. Goldberry invites the Hobbits into Tom Bombadil’s home, saying:

‘Come dear folk!’ she said, taking Frodo by the hand. ‘Laugh and be merry! I am Goldberry, daughter of the River.’  Then lightly she passed them and closing the door she turned her back to it, with her white arms spread out across it.  ‘Let us shut out the night!’ she said.  ‘For you are still afraid, perhaps, of mist and tree-shadows and deep water, and untame things…’

My best understanding of “untame things” comes from when I worked as a dog trainer.    Dogs are domesticated because they look to humans for guidance.  No other animal does that.  So when I first heard Patricia McConnell’s story about her encounter with a wolf-dog hybrid, it just clarified, for me, the difference between a domestic dog and a wild animal:

Instead of taking back the chew toy he stopped and looked straight up into my eyes with a cold, hard stare. I remember every pixel of his face as he, like lightening, bit down hard on my right hand. It was the second most painful bite I’ve ever had, but it was more the calculated message behind the bite that shook me most. “Don’t you EVER touch my stuff again.”

I used to have a dog who would sometimes growl and threaten to bite if I approached her while she was eating, but I could trade her for something better and she would snap out of it and become my sweet dog again.  That growling was abnormal for her, but it would be totally normal from a wolf, or a wolf-dog hybrid.  I could communicate with my dog when she was in that state– it took a lot of work, but eventually she learned to trust me, because she essentially needed me.  She needed a human to care for her.   There’s no communicating with a wild animal, you’re either a threat, food, or something to ignore.  That communication barrier is frightening because there’s no way to compromise, and that’s the same barrier that the Hobbits had with Old Man Willow.  The tree decided they were a threat and attacked, only Tom Bombadil could stop it, because he’s the “master.”  We never learn what Tolkien meant by that.

The Hobbit, Long Time Coming

After starting The Hobbit Party, I had to finally read The Hobbit.  Growing up, I read many terrible science fiction and fantasy novels.  In high school, I discovered Terry Pratchett and he has been one of my favorite authors throughout every stage of my life so far.

The Hobbit was this weird thing… I actively avoided reading it for many years.  My dad suggested I read it when I was little, and he must have caught me in a mood, because I refused.  It’s so strange because I inherited my taste in books, movies, TV shows, etc., from my Dad, so if he recommended something to me, I would probably like it.  He suggested I read I,Robot by Isaac Asimov and I loved it. (Will Smith ruined it!)

When Peter Jackson’s LotR movies came out, we went to see them together.  I wanted to see the movies before reading the books because I knew the books would be better.  I’ve made a habit of this.  If I read the book first, I end up sitting through the whole movie cataloging all the differences and it’s not fun.  After The Two Towers, I couldn’t wait anymore, so I had to read the whole series to find out what happened.  That was the first and only time I have read The Lord of the Rings series.  I also read most of The Silmarillion.  Still refused to read The Hobbit.

Then, Peter Jackson did a trilogy of The Hobbit.  Now that I’ve seen the movie–or, 2 out of 3 at least– I can read the book.  So I did.

I have definitely missed out on some kind of magic by waiting until adulthood to read The Hobbit.  Part of the problem is that Terry Pratchett has satirized so much of Tolkien’s work, in a loving and respectful way, that The Hobbit didn’t hold anything new for me.  That was compounded by my having already seen the movies and read some detailed literary criticism.  If I ever have kids, we are going to read all of Tolkien’s work while they’re young enough to feel the magic.

Reading Slowly

I want to re-read The Lord of the Rings before continuing with The Hobbit Party. I’ve been slowly reading The Fellowship of the Ring.  As I started to dig in, I thought, “So this is what it’s like to read a book that wasn’t written for the sake of being made into a movie.”  It’s a book written to be a book.  I have been reading YA fiction (Divergent, The Maze Runner), fast-paced, plot-driven, dystopic novels.  I love the genre, but those books are not very good.  They needed one more editorial pass through, more plot-structure… the stories are good and the futuristic worlds are vivid, but the publishing seemed rushed so that the author and publisher could collect on the movie rights.

The Lord of the Rings, however, was written for readers who will spend many afternoons, basking in the sunshine, and absorbing the multi-layered narrative.

Neal Stephenson writes book-books.  Whenever I read Stephenson, I’m always surprised and delighted.  I feel like my brain gets a workout. That’s the point of reading: to be introduced to new ideas/worlds/concepts.  The fast-paced, plot-driven books are exciting, but they tend to feed me what I already know I like.  Reading The Fellowship of the Ring, for the first time in over 10 years, I’m having a hard time getting motivated to sit still for several hours to enjoy it– because several hours is what it will take.  I need to be willing to shut out my world: my Facebook arguments, the political news and commentary, my bills, my job search, my volunteer work… all of that has to be blocked out, so that I can focus on the journey with Frodo.

I get the sense that this kind of book isn’t what I need right now.  As an adolescent, I loved escaping into my books.  As an adult, I love my independent life– I don’t need to escape.  So why bother slogging through the trilogy?  Well, I want to find what the book offers besides escapism, maybe a better understanding of the English language, or Western culture.  Maybe I will enjoy the discipline of shutting out the world, taking in every sentence, reading slowly.