Response: Literary Pilgrimages

A few weeks ago, James of James Reads Books posted a Sunday Salon about literary pilgrimages. James defines literary pilgrimage as a “trip taken specifically for book related reasons” that “involves staying away from home at least one night”. I left a comment about my own journeys, but I’d like to share more here.

New York City

In May 2012 I took a short trip with my aunt and uncle to New York City. I didn’t consider the trip a literary pilgrimage at the time, though it does fit the definition as the primary purpose of the trip was to visit the 5th Avenue library along with a number of bookstores. This was the first really spectacluar library I ever visited. My favourite bookstore was a children’s booktore, Books of Wonder, home to a wide selection of new books, rare books, signed books, and other related paraphernalia. Visiting McNally Jackson was a neat experience, as my city is home to the flagship McNally Robinson. I also thought the Scholastic Store was a lot of fun – younger me would have spent the whole day there. Walking past the big publishing houses gave me a bit of tingle, thinking about what goes on inside those buildings (the romanticized bit, where wonderful stories are coming together to be shared with the world). Even though the trip lasted only four days and I was ill the whole time (which meant I didn’t manage do everything I wanted to), I did visit the sites I wanted to see most. New York is one of the few cities I definitely intend to visit again in the future. 

Oxford

Last August I visited Oxford. Unlike New York, I considered the trip a literary pilgrimage from its conception. The primary purpose was to do some Tolkien-related site-seeing (including visiting his grave – I never visit graves, but this was important to me), and to do other children’s literature related site-seeing. I do realize that Tolkien would likely have thought this sort of ‘tourism’ absurd. For my part, I will say the experience of visiting locations is, for me, less about knowing the author and more about knowing the place that gave birth to these stories. I also wanted to pay my respects, as I believe Tolkien accomplished an incredible feat in the creation of his mythology, which has come to be deeply important to me. This website offers a 360° virtual tour of a number of Oxford locations important to Tolkien.

On the morning of my first full day in the city, I visited Blackwell‘s Art and Poster Shop, In the Music shop, and the Norrington Room (click for another incredible 360° view!). I have to agree with their self-description as “one of the finest bookshops in the world”. I spent an hour browsing just in the Norrington Room – so many niche academic books I would never find elsewhere! And there were still three more floors to explore. I returned to the store every day during my stay, increasing my TBR list by ~20%. After lunch, I took a 2.5 hour river cruise down the Thames. I’m certainly not the target audience of this company, but they offered what I was looking for and I had a very nice time, chatting with an elderly woman and the boat operator.  In the afternoon, I visited Tolkien’s home on Northmoor Road and his grave.  Looking back, I can’t believe I did all this in one day! 

I decided to walk to Wolvercote Cemetery, stopping by Tolkien’s house at 20 Northmoor Road on the way. The man at the hostel, whom I asked for bus directions, thought I was crazy when I told him I would just walk, but I knew it wouldn’t take me more than an hour and I love to walk through a beautiful city. As I began my walk, I felt a bit unprepared. I realized I wanted to bring something so I stopped in a flower shop along the way and picked up a little jar of flowers. Shortly after I left the shop, it began to rain heavily. I nearly made it to Tolkien’s house, but the rain was strong and I didn’t want my flowers to get too damaged so I stopped just on the streetcorner for a bit under a tree, then continued when the rain lightened.

  I paused just for a moment outside his house. It’s in a quiet residential area, and people still live in the home. I felt an odd, un-recreatable sensation – if you’ve visited a place you’ve only seen in photographs or met someone you’ve only seen on television, I think you’ll know what I mean.
I spent nearly an hour and a half here, sitting on a nearby bench, alone with my thoughts, then listening to audio recordings of Tolkien reading LotR, and finally reading The Hobbit to myself. I left a small note. This was the closest I could come to saying thank-you to Tolkien. Again, it’s hard to describe what this meant to me or how I felt, but I’m so grateful that I had this opportunity. When I left, another girl who reminded me of myself approached the grave. I found this very uplifting, a reminder that I’m not the only one who feels this way.
Left: The Eagle and Child pub (AKA the Bird and Baby), where the Inklings often met to share their works. Right: Tolkien’s last home in Oxford, near Merton College.
 

I wanted to take the City of Oxford’s Tolkien walking tour, but that wasn’t offered when I was there, so I took the general tour University and City tour. Happily, Exeter College – where Tolkien completed his undergrad – was a part of this tour. Above are photos of Exeter’s dining hall and a bronze bust of Tolkien, sculpted by his daughter-in-law, in Exter’s chapel.

Afterwards, I headed back to the Bodleian Library for another tour. Again, I would have loved to take the extended tour including the reading rooms, but it wasn’t offered when I was there. I did the standard tour, which still included some fantastic sights! Don’t skip this one if you’re a library lover (or a fan of the Harry Potter films – even I recognized some of the locations). The Magical Books exhibit on at the Bodleian at the time more than made up for anything I felt I missed out on. Including numerous pieces of original Tolkien artwork from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, the exhibit “takes as its theme the work of some of the foremost modern exponents of children’s fantasy literature”. His works spellbound me – being able to view them up close and in person was just as moving an experience as visiting his graveside was. It is hard to describe this feeling without sounding fanatical – again, for me, it goes deeper than thinking “Whoa, Tolkien touched this!”. Hmm…it’s the notion that many years ago he created those works, that he saw them from where I saw them, and that he looked at them and thought of how they represented his stories many years ago, as I do so now. Well, I don’t know. Maybe in the end I am just a bit fanatical (please forgive me, Professor Tolkien). If you know what I’m trying to describe, please help me out in the comments!

 
 On my final day in Oxford, I spent a lot of time walking around the University Parks. Above are photos of Tolkien’s bench and two trees planted to represent the Trees of Light from The Silmarillion, installed by the Tolkien Society and the Mythopoeic Society in 1992. Telperion is a silver-leaved maple and Laurelin is a false acacia.

Visiting Oxford was my great literary pilgrimage. I would love to live there someday. I hope to take a literary pilgrimage to Paris in the future, to feed my presently-dormant interest in the Lost Generation and begin to explore French literature. Have you ever taken a literary pilgrimage, or made a special book-related trip? Do you have any plans for one? Please share!

Response: Thoughts on J.R.R. Tolkien

Yesterday, I read two articles about J.R.R. Tolkien that contextualized his work in ways I hadn’t considered before. Both articles gave me a sudden sense of clarity on the topic, so I thought I would note my response to each article here. I intend to make this a regular feature – since I no longer have to do any academic writing for university, I’m directing my thinking power here! Please check out the original articles if they sound interesting (both are short, under 800 words).

***

Article: Michaels, Sean. “On J.R.R. Tolkien.” National Post. Postmedia Network Inc., 23 Apr. 2014. Web. 

Response: It is very difficult for me to chose a favourite book. If someone asks, there are a number of other books I will say before The Lord of the Rings (although I will usually say The Hobbit). I think this is because Tolkien’s creation of Middle-Earth is too dear to me – I don’t want to start a conversation with someone who doesn’t have the same level of passion or involvement with his works because I could never convey in words what Tolkien’s creation means to me. Other high fantasy, medieval fantasy, whatever genre label one places on Tolkienesque works nowadays, does not appeal to me. Michaels notes the human depths of Tolkien’s books that “set his Middle-Earth apart from Robert Jordan’s Westlands or George R.R. Martin’s Westeros”. Both series I have tried to read, and, while the plot lines of A Song of Fire and Ice appeal to me, they are not books I could ever become invested in in the same manner I am invested in Tolkien’s books. Michaels describes a process of distancing from Tolkien and high fantasy, towards “magical realists” and “contemporary fiction”. These are answers I would give if someone were to ask my favourite genre; I would never answer ‘high fantasy’. Michaels describes everything I love about such genres: “surreal fables”, “dreamlike or uncanny” stories, “grounded in […] reality”. What I found most comforting about Michaels’ article is that here is someone like me, who adores Tolkien, who finds great inspiration in Tolkien, but does not find the need to try to mimic his work. You can love Tolkien but not high fantasy, and you can love surreal contemporary fiction, and you can let both work together to fuel your creativity. I sometimes struggle in reconciling my seemingly dissimilar taste in books – this article reminds me of what those books have in common that drew me to them.

*** 
Article: Cook, Simon J. “On Tolkien Fundamentalism.” Web log post. Tolkien Library. 23 Apr. 2014. Web.
Response: Cook’s article takes on the popular question of how much Tolkien fundamentalism is too much. He uses as an example the introduction of Tauriel in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. He frames his consideration by looking at where Tolkien initially drew inspiration for Gandalf and the dwarves, in the Old Norse Poetic Edda. He observes “Tolkien’s stories are embedded in the fragments of much older stories” and asks “For surely Tolkien’s entire legendarium is the product of rather similar ‘creative engagement’ with older literary forms?” I think Cook clearly puts into perspective ideas of fundamentalism when he concludes with the question, “Is the discovery of Gandalf the wizard in the ‘Catalogue of Dwarves’ of the Völupsá any more (or less) justified than the discovery of Tauriel in the text of The Hobbit?”. In asking this, he takes us beyond our narrow view of popular 1930s children’s novel –> 2010s popular action-adventure movie and reminds us of the greater tradition of finding in inspiration in earlier creative works.

However, to begin to answer Cook’s question about “where we establish red lines in the creative adaptation of Tolkien’s work”, I would suggest that he uses the concept of adaptation too loosely. One should not overlook the fact that Jackson’s films are not just loosely inspired by The Hobbit. They are meant to be a direct adaptation of the story. To clarify my use of adaptation, I would say The Hobbit novel is not an adaptation of the Poetic Edda; it is merely a work inspired by it. I think one can argue for a bit more fundamentalism when a work is meant to be ‘adapted from’ rather than ‘inspired by’. In my ideal world, I would be an extreme Tolkien fundamentalist. I would want to see a movie exactly true to the book. But I know that’s not realistic, and I know modifications and adaptations and reinterpretations and additions can still make a great movie. Keeping this in consideration, I like the addition of Tauriel (if I don’t like the romantic angles that go with it…).

Back on topic – I think Cook’s article is a great starting point for a discussion of Tolkien fundamentalism. While I argue there is a difference between Peter Jackson’s films as an adaption of The Hobbit and The Hobbit as an ‘adaptation’ of the Poetic, I don’t think that difference is as a great as we fans sometimes make it out to be.  

***
If you have any thoughts on these subjects, please share! Even if you’re not a Tolkien fan, I’d like to hear what you think about the now ever-so-common adaptation of books to movies, and where you personally feel lines should be drawn.