Monday, September 22, 2008

There and Back Again

Finally, once again, it's autumn. This is absolutely my favorite time of year (followed very closely by winter) and even though I don't really get to experience it, living in this flat humid place of Florida, I'm still thrilled when it rolls around because, if anything, I know that things will be cooling off, somewhat, in the next couple of months. The anticipation of cooler (and hopefully chilly) temperatures definitely improves my outlook on life, in general; although, I still find it, at times, disheartening to be missing out on the changing foliage, the overcast days, the brisk breezes that subtly suggest the coming of winter and, most simply, the overall feel of the season. However, out of all the things that come to mind and have meaning for me during this time of year, the one thing that I can pretty much always guarantee for myself is the reading of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. I know, I know, I'm a geek but what can I do? I just accept it and move on.

Here's a little history (and, yes, I've previously mentioned some of this): I first read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings when I was in 6th grade after having them recommended to me by Mr. B. who, as you may remember, would eventually become one of my favorite and definitely most influential teachers. Early in the year during a laid back afternoon session, Mr. B. had challenged the class with the solving of several riddles which, we later learned, were taken from the 5th chapter of The Hobbit, Riddles in the Dark, which detailed the finding of the Ring and Bilbo's one and only meeting with Gollum. Mr. B. briefly described the book and after hearing him make several more references (trolls, spiders and Smaug), I asked him about reading it. By this time Mr. B. was pretty well acquainted with my preferences in genres, my imagination and, most importantly, my reading comprehension, so the following day he brought me a copy and told me that he was fairly certain I would speed through it with no problems, but he wasn't sure if I was ready for The Lord of the Rings. What's this you say? There's more to the story than I was lead to believe and I'm being challenged to read it? That was my initial reaction but, of course, Mr. B. explained to me that the real story was The Lord of the Rings and it was much more intricately woven using a writing style considerably evolved from the "children's story" aspect of The Hobbit. He told me to read The Hobbit and if I found it enjoyable, I should then attempt The Lord of the Rings because, even if I didn't grasp the full scope of story but made it all the way through, there was practically a universal preordination that I would read them again.

Intrigued and anxious I set out on an adventure that ended up taking most of the remaining school year. Mr. B. had been right and I had made it through The Hobbit in no time and then, after a short conversation concerning our views of the book, I started on the trilogy and found myself in a world for which I was completely unprepared. The previous story (or extended prologue, if you prefer) was a light, almost fairytale romp with dark elements that could only be seen from the proper perspective while looking through or around the obvious Brothers Grimm elements. Granted, the prospect of being eaten by giant spiders could be considered frightening, but I was much more interested and disturbed by the darkness (the Necromancer) that Gandalf went off to deal with but would hardly speak of. So, by the time I had finished the 2nd chapter of the trilogy, The Shadow of the Past, I was aware that I was in store for a tale that was significantly more intense and carried the possibility of grim consequences for a world that I was beginning to truly appreciate and feel comfortable in. As the books progressed, the story that unfolded was one reminiscent of an overcast day whose cover is rarely penetrated by small and fleeting rays of sunlight. Basically, I was in heaven. When I reached the end, I was sad that it was over but I was extremely pleased that the conclusion remained somewhat subdued and free from rainbows and unicorns. In talking with Mr. B. afterwards, he was happy to acknowledge my accomplishment and the fact that I had a solid grasp on the essence of the story, and he was also quick to point out that I should continue to read extracurricular books and never let myself become cut off from the wonders of words. Mr. B.'s final words of wisdom to me that day came back to the the story of the Ring: he suggested that the next time I read them (which he knew I would), I should do it when school was out and before life started to catch up with me. Maybe I'm being presumptuous, but I look forward to a time when I might be able to give someone a piece of advice whose true meaning will take years to manifest.

Roughly a year and half later (8th grade), my mother gave me the red leatherette collector's edition of The Lord of the Rings for Christmas and, being the geek that I am, it immediately became one of my prized possessions. Heeding Mr. B.'s advice, I placed the tome prominently on display and waited until the school year was complete, the summer was before me and life was still comfortably in the distance before I began the adventure of the Ring for a second time. I remember hot, South Carolina afternoons and making my way outside for a couple of hours of reading, the sound of the brutally dry grass as it crunched underfoot and the green metal lawn chair that rested in the shade of a small tree in our front yard. The chair's identical twin often sat unshaded on the opposite side of the tree and was usually approached tentatively, if at all, by anyone wearing shorts, because it only took an instant to discover the damage that could be done to the backs of one's legs by the dark metal, with it's faux weave pattern, after an hour or two in direct sunlight. To the left of the shaded chair was a small ring of stones that had once been a flower bed, but the flowers were long since gone and all that remained was an area of dry matted weeds that were all flaxen in color, and had it not been for the small birdbath with peeling paint located at it's center, only a stone inscribed "unless" would have been needed to invoke the Lorax. A few feet in front of the flowerbed, my father had set a large aluminum flag pole into the ground which, after having lost his initial interest and considering the fact that he felt it, like most of his other notions, should be maintained by someone else, often stood barren, rising starkly into the air like a shining finger pointed accusingly at the heavens. I also remember being thankful that our house was located as it was: elevated and several miles outside of town, with the nearest road being a little less than a quarter of a mile in the distance and no neighbors to speak of, which meant that my afternoons reading in the shade were rather isolated and quiet, with the only
sounds being that of the rustling leaves, the "ting-ting" of the metal clips tapping against the empty flag pole and my mother's wind chimes ringing in the distance as the periodic summer breezes blew across our hilltop home.

With the hot summer days continuing to lazily drift by, I remained resolute in my steady and methodical absorption of the trilogy, hoping that my dedication would make up for lack of experience when it came to identifying any important literary morsels that might normally be overlooked in a desultory exploration. Rather than try to read as much as I could on any given day, I would limit myself to two or three chapters, often going back and re-reading sections until I was satisfied I hadn't missed anything pertinent and had a perfect understanding of what had transpired. As the end approached, I had to fight the inclination to read slower in an effort to draw out the finale and postpone my departure from a place to which I had developed a heartfelt connection - a pattern that I have continued to repeat with each subsequent reading. Eventually I sadly acknowledged to myself that there was no getting around it any longer, so I settled in to finish the last chapter and with each page growing substantially heavier, in conjunction with my heart, I slowly worked my way to the end of the journey and the parting from my friends, and as I read the final line where Sam says, "Well, I'm back," I knew that I was no longer the same person I had been at the outset; the story had changed me as fundamentally as it had the characters.

Even though I was an avid reader long before having heard of The Lord of the Rings, I'll be the first to admit that my scope of reading was extremely limited. I had initially embarked on the path of a reader in an effort to emulate my older brother whom I idolized (except, of course, when he made me suffer the typical indignities of little brotherhood). Considering that he was eight years older than me, my choices for doing as I saw him do were limited because, for the most part, his hobbies, his friends, the places he went and, without a doubt, his school classes were all very much beyond me, not to mention the physical differences eight years made. Fortunately, the one thing that I did see on an extremely regular basis was his time spent reading, and that was something I could easily do, and although 2nd and 3rd grade reading choices can be somewhat limited, in my opinion, my exposure to my brother's comic books, MAD magazines, Warren publications (Eerie, Creepy and Vampirella) and science fiction paperbacks (the one's that I could understand) set me on a course to truly becoming a reader, increased my reading comprehension far beyond that of my classmates and, most importantly, made me feel as if I was being like my big brother. As time passed I continued to read the sci-fi/horror genres, literally judging books by their covers and never attempting to expand my experiences beyond the already familiar, which is why I felt so enlightened at the end of my second trip through Middle-earth. The reoccurring themes of things not always being what they seem, and there being more to something than meets the eye, had far deeper meaning to me than merely how they applied to the story. I was struck by how the same ideas applied to other things and how, without a proper open mind, patience to thoroughly examine and allow for all to be revealed or a willingness to see from other perspectives, so many things that might prove memorable could be missed, forever.

As the summer leading to my first days of high school drew to a close, I had continued to read while trying to remain mindful of expanding my literary horizons. My bright red copy of The Lord of the Rings, always plainly visible in my room, served as a constant reminder that reading was like mining, in that worthless rubble surrounds all of the most precious stones (fiction or non-fiction), meaning that much sifting must be done in order to find the items worth keeping. A large portion of what I read that summer, and over the next few years, was worthless rubble, but I did uncover a few gems which remain with me to this day. My time spent trying to read with expanding concepts has continued steadily, aside from a few brief lapses, because of the trilogy, and I have amassed a large list of favorites that register on some mysterious internal emotional scale. Not surprisingly, some of the most important books in my life have been those that, once I reached a point of listening to and respecting the learned opinions of others, have been deemed classics (old and new) or, at least, exemplary, and other standouts which I refuse to part with were discovered completely by accident during a random buying spree which I occasionally do just to shake things up a bit. Other books have a life of their own along with personal emotional attachment, such as The Pillars of the Earth, which was given to me by my exceptional friend, Lisa, 15 years ago. But that's another story.

After returning to The Lord of the Rings in my senior year of high school for my term paper, life, unfortunately, caught up with me, for more years than I like to think about, and while my reading continued, it was some time before I was able to make the comfortable journey back to the safe haven of Middle-earth. As fate would have it and after casting a semblance of Gollum into my own internal Mt. Doom, I was, at long last, able to return to one of my favorite literary strongholds, but, unfortunately, I found myself facing a bit of a quandary. It was February of 2000, I had been doing quite a lot of reading over the past year or so about some Peter Jackson guy (I had seen The Frighteners), and I knew the first film of the trilogy would be released in December of 2001, with the second film planned for release the following December and the third the year after, in 2003. Did I want to read the entire story so soon before the films or wait until closer to the release date, with the hope that life wouldn't rear it's ugly head in the meantime? After much going back and forth, I decided on a compromise. I read The Hobbit and the entire trilogy and then, for the next three Novembers, before the release of each film, I read the corresponding book, again. It was the reading of the individual books during the month of November that stuck in my head as an identifier with a specific time of year, because, for me, the overall internal tone of the books had always been, as I've previously mentioned, like that of an overcast day or, more specifically, one of autumn. That point was driven home over the next two years during the Thanksgiving holidays when I felt as if I had missed something but couldn't quite put my finger on it. Shortly thereafter, I walked outside one morning and was greeted by a rare Florida winter-like day (curiously, in my head and in my apartment, it's aways autumn or winter), and it was then that I realized how my mind had set up an internal calendar around The Lord of the Rings. So, the following year (2005), a week or so into September, I started The Hobbit with the intention of beginning The Fellowship of the Ring on September 22 to correspond with the birthday of Bilbo and Frodo in the first chapter, A Long-Expected Party. My plan was to have the trilogy read before the Thanksgiving holidays, so that I could then enjoy the three movies, once again, during my break from work (geek boy, I know). Needless to say, the plan worked perfectly, as it did the following year, as well. Last year, the reading proceeded as usual but, because of an unfortunate interference, the films were postponed until Christmas, which was just as well.

Now, another year has flown by with a speed whose exponential increase is somehow mystically linked to my age, but instead of being melancholy and dwelling on the paradoxical passage of time, I am pleased to be, once again, stepping into the tale of the Ring and I look forward to visiting all of the splendid characters that are a part of the odyssey. The past year has been a typical one, with no surprises and no tragedies and I've done my utmost to remain true to who I am by constantly challenging myself, in familiar and unfamiliar ways, and endeavoring to be a decent person focused on finding comfort in simple, but personally meaningful, ways. I don't always succeed, but, then again, things that are easy to accomplish never seem to be as
satisfying as the things that require more effort, however, it is satisfying to know that I have a few steadfast friends scattered about who, along with my countless literary comrades, help keep me motivated, entertained and, on very good days, humble. It is also quite satisfying to have something like the world of Middle-earth to act as a catalyst for fond memories, each year remembering things from the past as the story progresses, while simultaneously creating new memories that will be recalled and looked upon in future readings, and although I've been there, and back again, many times, I hope this is a ritual I can enjoy up to, at least, my eleventy-first birthday.

And speaking of birthdays, it is September 22 and high time I stop my rambling and bring an end to this mental meandering. Bilbo and Frodo await, and as I sit here contemplating my return trip into an extremely pleasant territory, a familiar affection washes over me and I know that when I open the book, in a few short moments, I'll be smiling as I think, "Well, I'm back."