The Road Goes Ever On and On

imagesThe BBC are in the middle of a series of programmes on both Radio and Television about music written for film. This has caused great excitement in our house because we are all enthusiastic lovers of the big theme and there is no music more likely to provide fine examples than that written for the cinema.

At the moment we are taking an enforced break from listening to a two hour concert on Radio 3; enforced because they are playing Malcolm Arnold’s score for David Lean’s film The Bridge on the River Kwai and I can’t listen to that without crying.  My Dad was a Far East Prisoner of War and was invited to the premiere when the film first opened in England.  But it was a time in his life that he never talked about and I cannot go back to the film in any shape or form because I know that for him it was so much more than a fictional depiction.

However, earlier in the concert there was a selection of the music for Peter Jackson’s film of The Lord of the Rings and listening to that made me realise the extent to which that book has permeated the whole of my life.  I’m sure if we stop and think about it all of us who are committed readers have books like that, books that seem to have accompanied us wherever we go and whatever we might be doing.  For me it is Tolkien’s epic tale of Middle-Earth.

Of course, it helps that I happen to live in The Shire and that I’m surrounded by landmarks that Tolkien wove into his landscape.  I walk in the shadow of one of the two towers almost every day of my life.  However, I didn’t know that when the book was first recommended to me by an English teacher when I was thirteen.  It wasn’t available in paperback and I couldn’t possibly have afforded it in hard cover so I had to keep taking it out of the library on extended loan until Christmas arrived and I could ask Santa Claus for my own copy.  Those same three books, which will be fifty years in my possession this coming December, are still sitting on my shelves, battered and scarred not only by my reading but by that of the numerous pupils and students to whom I’ve lent them over the intervening decades. And, the story that they tell, the characters that they bring to life has simply become part and parcel of who I am.

I have read The Hobbit to successive classes of ten and eleven year olds; I have written essays on the nature of the peoples of Middle-Earth and how their manifestation differs from that of other fantasy authors and I have supervised two decades worth of students as they wrote their own dissertations on the novels.  But more than that, I have carried around with me the notion of Frodo and Gandalf and Sam and Strider and Legolas and Gimli and Galadriel and Faramir wherever I have gone, almost as if they were part of my own character and I have certainly measured my own actions and responses and those of others against the examples provided by the way in which Tolkien explores the morality of the people involved in the epic struggle against the evil of Mordor.

Over the years I have encountered the story in different manifestations.  I loved the Radio version that the BBC made back sometime in the eighties. I have it on CD and even now if I have days when I’m too ill to read I can still get great comfort from putting it on and being swept out of The Shire and onto that road that goes ever on and on until Sauron is defeated and the Hobbits are able to return home, albeit never  again to be quite the same individuals that set out on that gloomy September day.  Jackson’s film, particularly The Two Towers, annoys me intensely in parts but even that captures the essence of the characters and the magnitude of the physical and emotional task that lies before them.  It cannot dull the life of the people that Tolkien created and who have walked my path alongside me for these past fifty years as friends and fellow travellers.  My knowledge of and immersion in The Lord of the Rings is simply part of who I am.

I’m sure that I’m not the only one who feels this way about a particular book.  In fact, I’ve met someone who I know would claim the same thing for Moby Dick.  So, I wonder, do you have a book that is part of your identity in this way and if so what is it and why is it so powerful in your life.  I would love to know.

23 thoughts on “The Road Goes Ever On and On

  1. Well, of course LOTR and The Hobbit are part of my identity, and it’s a shared identity. We named our daughter partly for the queen of Acquitaine and partly for the flower of Lorien. One of the things my husband is doing now that both our children are off at college is sending them an email, starting next Wednesday, about where Frodo is on that particular day.

    Another book that is part of my identity is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The car I drive is named The Heart of Gold. I have a “Don’t Panic” button on my office door (cut out from an old poster advertising my service) and a towel in the office closet, just in case.

    Like you, I like The Two Towers film the best of the three, and my favorite of the Adams books is actually The Restaurant at the End of the Universe.

    1. I think what your husband is doing is absolutely stunning. I only wish more parents brought their children up surrounded by the world of fiction. I hope yours appreciate just how lucky they are.

  2. Though like you Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” are books which form part of my identity, another fantasy world (created by author Sheri Tepper) does come close. It’s “The True Game Series,” which has 3 original books about the male hero, 3 books about the (male) hero’s girlfriend/later mate, and 3 books about the hero’s mother (whose name, as she is a shape-changer, is Mavin Manyshaped). This series is like a sort of updated Tolkien in that it has an equally “big” world, and many innovative and interesting creatures and life forms, but it gives the women much bigger and more forceful roles. It also has some modern concerns woven into it, such as keeping the world ecologically pure, and etc. Have a go at it if you can find it; it’s very vibrant and entertaining (I think Amazon might have the books, though they tend to be on the expensive side because they are old. But maybe you can get some old copies at one of their sale prices). And thanks for featuring Tolkien–he was the first in many ways.

    1. Tepper is a name I’ve come across when I’ve been studying children’s literature and the fantasy world but she hasn’t really caught on in the UK. Nevertheless, when I checked her out on Amazon her work is fairly easy to access and a lot of it is available as ebooks so perhaps next time I simply want to be swept away to another universe I shall try her out.

  3. I relate totally, LOTR is part of my identity. I was read The Hobbit by my father and then I read LOTR by myself (several times). I remember explaining it to my friends and playing being Gandalf in the French equivalent of UK Year 6. Ever since I regularly think about it and find new echoes in it, as if it was a piece of mythology that made sense in our world. I can think of no other book that shaped me as much, and I’ll try to catch up on the BBC program too!

    1. I think the reason it has so much resonance in our own world is because Tolkien based it so firmly in a mythology that really did have resonance for the Scandinavian peoples. For me it is what makes the world so secure and the same is true of Alan Garner’s work as well. Do you know ‘The Weirdstone of Brisingamen’ and ‘The Moon of Gomrath’? They’re well worth looking out for.

  4. Another LOTR devotee here. I loved the films, though – the characters largely fitted in well with my own imagined ones, and dropping the whole Tom Bombadil thing really worked for me since I tend to skip past that when re-reading the books.

    Gatsby would be the book that has most become a part of me, I think. I read it when I was about twenty, in one sitting because it was impossible to stop, and have re-read it a million times since. It’s a reference point for me – about class, privilege, idolatry, victimhood – and about story-telling, quality of writing, emotionalism etc etc. Gatsby himself earned a place in my heart and is one of the few literary characters who walks with me wherever I go.

    1. I’m fascinated by what you have to say about ‘Gatsby’. I’ve just read it for the second time, forty years or so after first making its acquaintance. It was the book we read for this year’s book and film meeting of our reading group and we spent last Sunday discussing the novel and the Redford film. It is without a doubt a great book but I have so many problems with the whole concept of the American Dream that I suspect I will never be anything other than cynical about it.

    1. You probably have to be introduced to it as a teenager, Ali. But surely there must be some book that has accompanied you through a large portion of your life because it speaks to something in the very essence of your nature?

  5. I love LOTR, but not keen on the films. They just didn’t match my imagination – apart from Gandalf that is. I first read the books when I was at school, like you I borrowed the books from the library and only bought a copy when I went to college – it was the book to read then! Since then I’ve re-read it again and again. I was so disappointed Tom Bombadil was in the film but then again not as my image is intact. I’ve had to work hard to not see whatever his name is as Frodo!

    1. It’s interesting that the BBC radio version cut Bombadil as well. I’ve always wondered if Tolkien put him in intending to develop that strand of the story later and then came up with Treebeard and let Bombadil drop.

  6. Love, love love LOTR! I first read it when I was about 13 and was blown away. Have you listened to the audiobooks read by Rob Inglis? He does a marvelous job, sings all the songs and everything. I also like the music from the movie. I saw a short documentary on it, maybe it was an extra on one of the DVDs, where Howard Shore talks about composing and the various themes,etc. It was great and gave me a whole new respect for movie music. Other books that are really important to me and part include Great Expectations and Mrs Dalloway and a book of poetry by Adrienne Rich The Dream of a Common Language.

    1. I have a got a version on audiobook but I’m not sure who the reader is; I must check. I have a rather ambiguous relationship with ‘Great Expectations’. I think it’s a superb book but I can never read it without wanting to take Pip and slap him. He becomes such an obnoxious little snob! Herbert Pocket for me every time:)

      1. Pip does become a snob but I first read the book when I was 14 and rooted for Pip to come to his senses and I loved it ever since. Funny how it is that many of the books we love most we read when young.

  7. I too grew up with LOTR – I’m still in love with Aragorn, but as I grow older I find a different literary vision attracts me even more – and that is the power of the sea. I live in the shires in the middle of England, but for two years during my first job, I lived by the sea – and I have a deep yearning somewhere in me to return to the sea. So all those books like Moby Dick which having read last year, I now appreciate as so influential, and re-reading The Shipping News this year make me, earth-bound as I am, long for the elemental nature of the sea. Perhaps I need to go on a cruise! 🙂

    1. I do understand that love of water but I’m not sure I could live full time with the power of the sea. Rivers I love but the sea is so powerful I think I would feel intimidated.

  8. For me, To Kill A Mockingbird and Les Miserables have been the most influential books in my life. Both contain elements of the nobility of the human spirit.

    1. I bow my head in shame and admit that I have never read To Kill A Mocking Bird, but I agree that Les Miserables is one of the great novels of all time.

  9. It is Bridge on the River Kwai that I want to comment on. Maybe… it’s sequel. But first off, my heart goes to your father who had gone through much sufferings. This film I saw at the Toronto International Film Festival is based on the memoir of British soldier Eric Lomax, a POW and slave worker on the ‘Death Railway’ in SE Asia, after the Japanese captured Singapore. The film realistically portrays the torture and sufferings, and what’s poignant is its ending, where Lomax went back to seek out his Japanese tormentor. The film is called The Railway Man, with Colin Firth as an older Lomax and Nicole Kidman as his wife Patti, who is still alive and attended the Film Festival. Here’s an article on the screening, just thought you might be interested to read it.

    1. Thanks Arti, that’s kind of you. In fact, I have a friend whose father was with Lomax and so I’ve both read the book and seen the film. In some ways Dad was lucky. He was also at the fall of Singapore and like the other prisoners spent six moths in Changi Jail. The first group to be sent out on work detachment were those who went up into Burma on the railways. Dad was in the second group, who were sent to Korea to work stoking the boilers in steel foundries. It was awful work but nowhere near as bad as working on the railway. Had he been in that first group I doubt I would be here.

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