Cultivating his garden

When I was a child I wanted to be a cartographer. I drew maps of my surroundings – bedroom, home, neighborhood, city, country, continent – ​​with “Here be dragons” additions, features of the books I loved. Those books had little in common but for one thing: they had to have a map in the endpapers. The one with the best maps was The Lord of the Rings. Growing up in a disputed, over-territorialized place like Northern Ireland perhaps instilled in me a fascination with space and a desire to escape reality for the refuge of, as Tolkien put it, the “secondary world”. Yet, when I was on the brink of becoming a teenager, something wrenched me back into the primary sphere. It was half the fear of ridicule and half the more personal anxiety that I might be drawn into a fantasy world, never to find my way out again.

Over the next thirty years I thought little of Tolkien’s trilogy, until one day, in the middle of the pandemic, I received a phone call. I had a sudden foreboding and only when I saw that it was from my mother in Derry did I answer. Both of my parents had tested positive for Covid-19. I tried to reassure her with clichés and statistics, but she was having none of it. “Your father is very ill. I’m worried. He doesn’t sound right. He’s lying upstairs with a fever. He won’t close the window and the curtains are blowing out over the street for everyone to see.” My father was a former bodybuilder who still went to the gym. He had no underlying conditions. He was in good health and several years from retirement. He worked outside as a gardener-groundsman for the council. In the pit of my stomach I knew he would never be well again.

The first time my mother took him to the hospital, they sent him away with a mild painkiller. The second time he was raced off to a high-dependency unit, then intensive care. I received an ominous “come home” message. Heathrow airport was virtually empty. I grabbed a copy of The Lord of the Rings, thinking he might need distraction. The hospital doors were locked, however. As it turned out, he was well past the point of being able to read anything.

The first time they induced a coma, it almost felt like a relief. My father’s constitution was “as strong as an ox”, but he suffered complications (stroke, pulmonary fibrosis, pneumonia). They talked about using him as a case study. Feeling powerless and bereft, I tried to color his dreams, which appeared troubled, convulsive. I made playlists of his favorite music. I read, and recorded, long passages from literature – tales of sea voyages, the poetry of the Romantics, explorations of the wilds – for the nurses to play to him, in the hope that this would take him out of his confinement or his ease mind. At some point I turned to The Lord of the Rings. It was a different book to the one I’d read in childhood. Then I had skipped past the interminable journey scenes to get to the battles. Now I found myself doing the opposite, leaving out the orcs and dragons, and enjoying the scenes on foot with their wayfaring human tempo. Forced to excise the orcs, battles and much of the dialogue in my recordings, I focused on the hobbits’ progress from forest to mountain, marsh and cavern, and rediscovered some of the best nature writing of the midcentury.

Suspension of disbelief in The Lord of the Rings is possible because of the points at which Tolkien’s hand-drawn map of Middle-earth overlaps with our world. The author himself resolutely maintained that the novel was not an allegory. In his 1936 essay on Beowulf he against critical analysis; myth “dies before it can be dissected.” But at the same time he knew that no writer is “unaffected by his experience”; Any fictional landscape is limned by a model or a memory, just as the otherworld of dreams is constructed from the debris of the day. The shire, for instance, resembles Sarehole, an outer suburb of Birmingham where Tolkien spent his childhood. (“It was a kind of lost paradise. There was an old mill that really did grind corn, with two millers, a great big pond with swans on it”, he told an interviewer in 1966,) And plenty of familiar features in the surrounding landscape appear to make their way into the books, from the two towers of Edgbaston Pumping Station and Perrott’s Folly to the cavernous hollows, or “scowles”, of the Forest of Dean, probably the originals for the hobbit-holes of Middle-earth .

Tolkien was an academic medievalist and linguist, but he was also a commonsense sceptic, fearful of the dead hand of the authoritative account and the narrowing that comes with explanation. Enigmas keep stories alive. The demystifying of the world by the “rational” risks taking from it all that is of inexplicable, even sacred, value. Tolkien’s Shire resonates so deeply because it has more to do with time than place. It is childhood. “I always knew it would go”, he wrote, “and it did.”

In The Lord of the Rings the fall from prelapsarian grace is brought about by war and its concomitant industrialization, leaving “everyone the poorer, many bereaved or maimed and millions dead, and only one thing triumphant: the Machines”. If it is a hymn to nature, it is also one of the greatest indictments of its destruction. Tolkien could write it because he’d been there. Again, it is possible to map his trilogy against the real-world catastrophe of the First World War, which is (most obviously) present in the no man’s land of the Dead Marshes (in “The Two Towers”), where “nothing lived [and] the gasping pools were choked with ash and crawling muds.” Tolkien saw horror and suffered loss. “By 1918, all but one of my close friends were dead”, he wrote in the preface to the second edition. There was honor both in the fulfillment of duty and the preservation of conscience: “I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.” In the penultimate chapter of the final volume, the hobbits come home to discover the Scouring of the Shire, an echo of Tolkien’s disgust at “development” that squanders the sacrifices of those at the front. “’This is worse than Mordor!’ said Sam. ‘Much worse in a way. It comes home to you, as they say; because it is home, and you remember it before it was all ruined.””

Tolkien also saw how grand plans – political and economic – dehumanize their enacters. He saw the temptation and corruption behind it all, symbolized by the One Ring. “‘Power’ is an ominous and sinister word in all these tales”, he noted in a letter to Milton Waldman. And to his son he confessed that he “lean[ed] more and more to Anarchy” given “not one in a million is fit for [power], and least of all those who seek the opportunity.” There was hope: Tolkien knew that evil was solipsistic, seeing the world only through its own distorted prism, and therefore vulnerable. Yet he harbored no illusions about the cost of confronting it. Frodo is broken by his experiences, as by a war: “There is no real going back. Though I may come to the Shire, it will not seem the same; for I shall not be the same.”

I excised these passages from the account I read to my father. He, too, knew conflict and its consequences. He’d been imprisoned as a teenage paramilitary during the Troubles, having stood against the army in which both his grandfather and father served. After that he turned his back on violence and ideology, became a gardener and developed that “close friendship with the earth” Tolkien extolled. I hoped, in the passages I recorded, that I could help him revisit the places that gave him peace.

In the end, of course, I’ve no idea what he thought or how he felt. Due to his tracheostomy, he never spoke a word again. He spent six months in ICU, during which time we could not physically visit him: all contact was through smartphones and recordings. It was only in the last four days of his life, when they finally knew there was no hope of recovery, and restrictions had eased comparatively, that my family were allowed in. I spent the last four nights at his side until he died. There had to be a closed casket. Some experiences test language to breaking point, and Tolkien knew this. As Gandalf says in The Lord of the Rings: “It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till.”

Tolkien’s epic began as bedtime stories for his children, so it feels appropriate that I should now be reading The Lord of the Rings to my own son, who is as taken with the endpapers as I was, and stares enchanted at Middle-earth. You share these experiences with your children to help them make a map of their own world: neither to escape it nor, as I feared, to lose it once altogether, but to inhabit it more imaginatively, and fully.

Darran Andersonis the author ofImaginary Cities2015, andInventory: A river, a city, a family2020

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