Disaster Redeemed: The Lifeline of Tolkien's Landscapes
It can often seem that nothing can redeem the great disasters that occur within our lives; yet there are always a few small things.
When I was seven years old, I lived in bliss in a small town in South Yorkshire, on the edge of the magnificently bleak Peak District and the howling moors. My world was woven from happy family routines and bordered by the deep valley in which the town nestled - I rarely saw beyond the brink of its hills. For me, a mysterious ‘North’ lay over the top of the wind-blown hill opposite; all the other directions of the compass were just a blur, with green woods and running streams between me and the far horizon, where tall, white towers glimmered almost beyond the edge of sight. Indeed, for a brief time, before we bought an atlas with maps, I believed that England consisted more or less of the landscape that I had experienced and that there were only two other countries or places in the world - one was Spain, so far away that it didn’t matter, and the other was Antarctica, a region so remote and so full of magical imagery that it mattered very much. My father told me that in Antarctica was an immense wall of ice, which no one had ever climbed, but that on the other side of it people dwelled still, because there lay the glittering lights of the city of Atlantis.
As a more mundane geography began to impinge, the world then resolved into continents which the atlas showed to be confusingly similar to the eye: I was befuddled for years by the resemblance between the ‘U.S.S.R’ and the ‘U.S.A’. Having watched a black and white film with gangsters in it, I remember naively asking whether all the crooks lived in America.
That unfortunate atlas also gave me the first clues of the great disaster that was about to befall us, for within its pages could be found a map of South Australia, featuring a ‘Y’ of roads connecting townships with which we would become familiar. My father had fallen for what I still think was a gigantic scam run by the Australian government, to lure English families to its industrial regions where skilled labour was in short supply. We were bombarded with leaflets and brochures and slide shows about the glorious outdoor life to be had in Australia - and the enticement was magnified by what seemed a very generous offer: for the price of only £10 - approximately a week’s wages back then - a whole family with all its goods could be shipped over to the thriving townships showed on the map, equipped with a well-paid job and spacious rented accommodation, able to begin a new life, free from the dire class struggles of modern Britain, a life full of sunshine and healthy pursuits, free education and liberation from the past.
The ‘Y’ on the map was our destination. What ensued was a journey which seemed to me then, and still seems to me now, a voyage from Paradise to the borders of Hell. I watched as my childhood was either thrown away or packed into boxes; I suffered deeply traumatic goodbyes; and we travelled by train to a miserable hotel in London and then on to Southampton, where we, along with dozens of other families, caught a converted Italian warship and sailed across the seas to Australia, a six-week journey which was only saved from being utterly hateful by the fact that I seemed to be the only one on board who didn’t suffer from seasickness.
We had many adventures on the way. But in truth the whole thing felt like the death of Adventure itself: we passed from a landscape of white clouds, green fields, running streams and children’s laughter to one of searing cloudless horizons, red deserts, dried, forsaken creek beds and sorrowful weeping. The thriving townships turned out to be grim shanty towns; the well-paid job promised to my father was revealed to be a grimy, slave-driven schedule of hard, physical work in extreme temperatures; the spacious rented accommodation was a tiny tin-roofed shack in a few square yards of dry sand. It was a new life, removed from class struggles but hollow; the sun was so strong that it bleached away life and meaning; the outdoors, formerly a place of beauty and birdsong, became a hostile alien world, inhabited by poisonous creatures that science had yet to categorise.
But redemptive factors emerged: when I found Tolkien, six years later as part of a school reading list, I understood him. When he described the Shire in The Lord of the Rings, I recognised it from memory:
A bright fire was on the hearth, but the sun was warm, and the wind was in the South. Everything looked fresh, and the new green of Spring was shimmering in the fields and on the tips of the trees’ fingers.
Indeed, part of the landscape seemed eerily familiar to me:
Three Elf-towers of immemorial age were still to be seen on the Tower Hills beyond the western marches. They shone far off in the moonlight. The tallest was furthest away, standing alone upon a green mound. The Hobbits of the Westfarthing said that one could see the Sea from the lop of that tower; but no Hobbit had ever been known to climb it. Indeed, few Hobbits had ever seen or sailed upon the Sea, and fewer still had ever returned to report it.
There had been white towers visible from the back windows of our house, far off in the West, and I had never understood their origin. Wherever I had wandered in England - which hadn’t been very far as a child - it seemed Tolkien had wandered too:
The leaves of trees were glistening, and every twig was dripping; the grass was grey with cold dew. Everything was still, and far-away noises seemed near and clear: fowls chattering in a yard, someone closing a door of a distant house.
The geography of Tolkien’s Middle-earth, especially the lands to the North and West, were like a tonic to me after years in the sun-baked desert - I had not yet encountered any other author who not only captured what I remembered in words, but obviously loved what he was describing as much, at least, as I did:
‘Now let the song begin! Let us sing together Of sun, stars, moon and mist, rain and cloudy weather, Light on the budding leaf, dew on the feather, Wind on the open hill, bells on the heather, Reeds by the shady pool, lilies on the water: Old Tom Bombadil and the River-daughter!’
Of course, as the quest proceeded and the One Ring was taken into Mordor, the descriptions of the environment came uncannily close to what I was directly experiencing at the time:
And here things still grew, harsh, twisted, bitter, struggling for life. In the glens of the Morgai on the other side of the valley low scrubby trees lurked and clung, coarse grey grass-tussocks fought with the stones, and withered mosses crawled on them; and everywhere great writhing, tangled brambles sprawled. Some had long stabbing thorns, some hooked barbs that rent like knives. The sullen shrivelled leaves of a past year hung on them, grating and rattling in the sad airs, but their maggot-ridden buds were only just opening. Flies, dun or grey, or black, marked like orcs with a red eye-shaped blotch, buzzed and stung; and above the briar thickets clouds of hungry midges danced and reeled.
Australia was full of such things: flies that stung, nameless spiders with strange markings, families of scorpions, foot-long red centipedes with what appeared to be curved stings on their tails. Only too well did I track with Frodo on his long journey towards Mount Doom, itself reminiscent of the nearby steelworks which belched out its thick smoke and clouds of red dust every day.
Understanding Tolkien was a lifeline that shone in that darkness much like the elven ropes shone for Frodo and Sam on their quest. I’m quite certain that reading him, and a few other authors who captured the spirit of the countryside of England, helped me return here eventually. Now I live a few hundred yards away from my starting point, in that small town in the valley, from where I can see from my window a pointy stone finger marking an ancient barrow, hear the rain-laden winds whistling in from the moors, and watch the peaceful cows eating their fill of the emerald-green grass.
One great disaster was almost redeemed in full, really, on reflection.