At Grey Havens last night, watching a film of JRR Tolkien in 1968, we discussed where we were at that moment in our various lives. All of our various wandering pasts seemed both wonderfully bright and wonderfully blurry. When we gather to talk at Grey Havens, we often tell one another the strange epic tales of how our paths have become woven together upon the enchanted shores of Middle-earth.
In this story I return to 1966. When my family returned to the States from Puerto Rico in 1966, I felt disoriented and strangely empty. An invisible essence that floated somewhere between my body and my shadow – giving both a magical weight – had detached itself from my inner self and I had left it behind on the island. Without this intangible sense of presence, I thought I might never be a real person again.
I was eleven in the early summer of 1966 when I lost my soul, when we boarded an airliner in San Juan, and when we landed at JFK in New York City. My disorientation intensified as I tried to focus on a television there in the terminal, but couldn’t. While we had been away television commercials had become supersonic, booming around in the excited box. I couldn’t seem to attach my thoughts to any scene in specific – the rampage of imagery that had become America sped by too quickly.
A long sunlit journey followed. The hot summer sun felt cool after our years in the humid tropics. We spent the summer watching television in a house in Nebraska. This house, I thought, had a haunted basement with someone else’s mislaid soul. I felt afraid. Would this lost spirit notice the empty seat formerly occupied by my soul? What if it sat down inside me? I escaped this awful fate when we set forth for Missouri. In a hilly city beside a river I slept in a cupboard until my mother bought our first house in a nearby forest.
The original stone house had been built maybe a century earlier. It sat on a high crest in the forest, looking vaguely southward. To reach it, a narrow gravel road crept from pothole to pothole among deep ravines and green ridges. The land had long endured this stubborn road, but wanted it to disappear. So it kept disintegrating, as if slowly falling asleep – and it had to be awakened and reminded of its duty to find our house in the forest.
Part of the land had been eminent-domained for the nation’s new power-grid. Running across the face of the land, ominous high voltage power lines lay sulking upon great metal towers. I always resented those towers and the swathe they made, splintering the forest in a vast rage, striding on dubious electric errands from one burning city to the next.
The most recent owners had added several wings onto the old stone house and had very industriously thrown in an encirclement of outbuildings and ponds. By the time they finished their labors, the house had become a rambling woodland mansion, decrepit and vague about what it would do next.
When we moved in, my parents and siblings took over the house and its grounds, and I took over the forest. Our realms seemed to overlap only incidentally. I sometimes glimpsed them as I wandered in the woods. The house appeared beneath the leaves and there were figures moving from door to door, making their way up and down the road, bent upon mysterious errands.
In the spring of 1967 I found I could lie down in the grass when the wind blew and I could close my eyes and imagine that we had never left Puerto Rico. The wind rushing in the trees might be surf. With the endless Caribbean trade winds blowing through my soul far off, this little breeze in Missouri could almost make me real again, outlining me like the silhouette of an echo.
I missed Puerto Rico but I had a forest to explore. The hilly terrain unrolled long oak slopes from swerving cedar ridges. Lofty trees stood still among deep leaves. Several wistful creek-beds had fallen asleep at the bottom of steep ravines, dreaming of little trickling streams. At the heart of the land a delicate waterfall leaped into a hidden pool. Flitting from stone to stone under the leaves, one day I found a patch of fossils – my science teacher identified them as the remains of crinoids, residents of the primordial seas covering this part of the earth long ago, ancestral to sea lilies and feather stars.
Millions of years later, early in the summer of 1967, my oldest brother returned from college with JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings in hand. I read it with great delight and I didn’t stop reading it for the next three years. We had a deaf dog then. Her first owners had saddled her with the uninspired name of “Sally.” She loved nosing about in our various ponds and along the shores, trotting everywhere in her grimy white coat searching for frogs and insects. Oblivious to the sound of her indiscriminant delight, she produced loud gulping noises when she swallowed. My brothers laughed and rechristened her “Gollum.”
We also had a tiny plastic blue boat just large enough for one person, and we took turns riding in it, paddling around our main pond all summer, talking about Middle-earth. I thought I understood Frodo’s weariness in Middle-earth; I sympathized with restless Legolas in his forest kingdom. I roamed with Gollum in shadowy woods at the bottom of a long-vanished sea. At the end of the year my brothers gave me the new Rolling Stones album. I tore off the wrapping paper and felt delighted to see that the psychedelic sixties had magically transformed the Stones into 3D medieval minstrels of Middle-earth.
A week later we resumed our journeying and I found myself trudging through a cold winter world in the far north. The wind howled. The snow didn’t ever seem to settle anywhere. I wore a long black hooded coat. In that wintry realm at the edge of Middle-earth, delving into the mysteries of selfhood – the secret places you go to find out who you are – I read The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit and I listened to Their Satanic Majesties Request. I learned to play chess with one of my brothers – we had medieval chess pieces that reminded me of Gondor.
And one day in 1968 JRR Tolkien met with a BBC producer and they made a film. And Tolkien didn’t necessarily feel very happy about it, but he went along with the idea anyway. He talked about trees and he sipped a beer and he watched some fireworks one night. And in the spring the BBC broadcast the show, and maybe Tolkien liked seeing himself on television over on his side of the world.
And one day on my side of the world my parents wanted me to take a short trip with them to the Souris River. I put down my book and I turned off the record player and I got in the car. I felt vaguely tense. Driving that day to the Souris River, we sat together in the car on the same journey, but we all felt opaque to one another, as if we just happened to cross paths that afternoon.
The Souris River, as it turned out, proved a quite magical realm. Beautifully sculptured rifts unexpectedly disclosed a rolling velvet landscape. I got out of the car. I looked down at the slowly gleaming river. I trekked down a steep bank. I stood beside the swerving edges of water. I heard my father’s voice calling to me.
At Grey Havens our tales unfold into the meandering epic stories that we always share in our gatherings. And in this story I lost my soul. And I found Middle-earth. And one day I returned to Puerto Rico. And the airplane door opened. And the humid trade winds rushed to greet me. And there was an invisible essence. And there was an empty chair. And at the end of this particular story, my lost soul sat down inside me.