Originally posted on The Forbidden Pool:

Last week the Tolkien group I am in,  the Grey Haven’s group, read the chapter in The Fellowship of the Ring about the Barrow Downs. Shortly before this meeting, Bill, a fellow member had asked what a “Barrow” was, and I told him about all those mounds in many countries, including Sweden, where men raised mounds over their famous dead, sometimes calling them “barrows”. The Old Mounds of Uppsala, is in fact one of my favorite places in the world because of its ancient, rich and multifaceted history around this place of cult, faith, cruelty and hope.

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But during that meeting I started thinking about why, in Tolkien’s text, the Witch King of Angmar chose to send evil spirits (called “barrow wights”) to possess the old bones of once good and brave kings and chieftains who had fought against him and his forces in the wars. I realize that…

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The Grey Havens meet Neil Gaiman on his last book signing tour

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I decided to cross post our meeting with Neil Gaiman from my blog “The Forbidden Pool”, because all of us who went were of The Grey Havens Group and had such wonderful discussions in various nooks and crannies and pauses because of that. And also because Gaiman is a great lover of Tolkien’s work and was obviously very influenced by him as a writer. Lately I contemplated this after re-reading Smith of Wooton Major with the Grey Havens Group, and realizing what a tribute to this little gem of Tolkien’s that Gaiman’s Stardust  is.

I remember the moment when I held a book by Neil Gaiman in my hand for the first time, it was in the early 90′s and it was “Preludes and Nocturnes”, the first Sandman album, and while you sometimes have no idea that a book or set of stories will change your life, sometimes you can feel a tingle deep within signalling that things will never be the same. This was such a moment. Oddly, it wasn’t any of my nerdy friends who got me into Sandman, but rather a very odd (even by geek standards) girl I took a class with in college. She always behaved like the biggest introvert in the world, and when there was a concert by a band she liked (unfailingly something deeply subcultural and undergroundsy) she would insist on going alone, so she could experience it to the fullest. For some reason she sometimes came and talked to me about art and gave me book and music recommendations though, and for that I will always be grateful, because she told me about Neil Gaiman and Sandman. Coming to think of it…this girl, with her abrupt ways and intent stare, would herself have been an excellent and very interesting character in a book by Gaiman.

The ten Sandman books along with the ones about Death and The Books of Magic will always be up there on my 100-list of most important books in my life. That’s a big percentage that Mr. Gaiman influences my reading life with as a writer.

After that came his novels and he became more and more famous, and suddenly in the later half of the 90′s his name started to travel outside of geek culture, and film adaptations of Coraline and Stardust helped all of that along. I saw Gaiman in London back all those lives ago, and it was such a small crowd in comparison to the 1000 people who gathered at the Tattered Cover bookstore in Denver yesterday. I have a feeling that if Mr. Gaiman could clone himself and sign more, or if the bookstore held more people, they could have easily sold several thousand tickets. The event yesterday was the end of an era, as Gaiman said himself. This is the last book tour he takes where he visits bookstores. He will in the future do talks/reads in theaters and bigger auditoriums, and maybe it’s my imagination, but I thought I heard a hint of regret in his voice when he said that. On the one hand I’m sure it’s great to be a writer-rockstar of sorts, but on the other, I do remember him as a nerdy younger man, talking about comic books at the Forbidden Planet in London. That person is still there, Gaiman is pretty much the same when it comes to genuine passion and an unfeigned drive to share that passion with others.

Me and my friends were lucky, because we belonged to the 300 guests who could be in the room with the author when he talked, the rest of the ticketed fans had to wait outside and watch the event on tv monitors. Later though, the author would faithfully and with great stamina sign books for everybody.

Gaiman talked about how he had started writing his most recent book “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” because he missed his wife (Amanda Palmer) so much, and how the raw text was done in about 4 months because of the isolation and drive he felt. And then he spoke more on the writing process and how it differs much depending on “how long the piece of string of the story is”, and also depending on what state of mind your life circumstances leave you in. When his father had passed away, Gaiman wrote the Doctor Who episode “The Doctor’s Wife” frantically during one single plane trip, and didn’t remember much of the process afterward.

The writer also touched, with great humor, on the difference in how media approaches him today compared to how they used to. For years, there was a deafening silence (except from the usual fan base) whenever a book of his came out, and even as recent as with the Graveyard Book, The New York Times didn’t review it until after they realized that it had won the Newbery Medal. …On the other hand, nowadays the writer gets such odd questions from media as: “Who are your favorite designers?” At that point in the story Gaiman smirked a bit and mumbled to us “If I knew who designed the black leather jacket, I’d put a shrine up for them”.

Mr. Gaiman also took some questions, some of the most amusing answers were:

“Having a hobby that could kill you” (on what is the best thing about keeping bees – apart from the honey)

” In adult fiction you can leave the boring bits in” (on the difference between writing YA fiction and adult fiction)

I also realized that I need to re-read the Graveyard book, because it has a great great great grand niece of Lettie Hempstock’s in it, and I remember a quote from Gaiman’s newest book, where one of the Hempstock women tells the protagonist that there are several descendants of the three originals out wandering the world, and that these are pretty phenomenal women in their own right. I am also looking forward to a story of Gaiman’s called “How the Marquis got his coat back” that will be published next year in an anthology. To everybody who’ve read and liked Neverwhere, this is exciting news.

All in all, the hour and half blew by, and I was glad that I was at the event with my friends from the Grey Havens. Kelly, Donna, Kim, Kate, Clay, Sarah, Stant and Jessica. We were in the first 15% of the people who got to meet the author for signing, but we had done a lot of waiting to be where we were, and entertaining each other with book recommendations and anecdotes about reading helped making it all special.

When it was my turn to have my books signed by Mr. Gaiman, I gave him my old Sandman album “Season of Mists” (one of my favorites) and told him that I had read him since the Sandman days. We talked for a few moments about Forbidden Planet and those days, and I admit that I was shy and starstruck, thinking that this nice man must be very weary from all the talk with thousands of people already. So I was about to leave, and in answer to his “it was lovely to meet you” I heard myself saying “yes, Neil, it was really so wonderful to meet you too”. I *never* call authors by their first name, unless I know them (at least as in having been properly introduced), or am in some unique interviewing situation. I always felt that the young men who gather around scifi cult authors or comic book writers at cons and chummily call them by first name just because they love their work, were a little embarrassing. But there it was, it slipped out on its own. Neil Gaiman looked at me in a very warm sort of way and held out his hand to me, I took it, and he held it for a moment in both of his. And that was it.

I don’t even feel ashamed for being a little teary while walking away with my friends after this. He is a very nice guy, and he had other warm moments with other fans, but this one will always be mine.

Only a man who has been a great fan of writing himself through all his life has this type of humble warmth, and that is Neil Gaiman. One of the most overlooked and subtle things that Gaiman does constantly, all the time and often, is to read the books and short stories of unknown new writers and say kind things about their stories and promote them. He does it with people that are not know at all, and many many have gotten a boost in those hard initial years because of this generous writer and book lover.

ETA: It’s funny how some people will remind us of favorite characters from beloved authors. My friend Kelly, who founded the Grey Havens Group really reminds me of Gaiman’s character “Death” from Sandman. She can pull off looking like her visually, with some hair gel and gothy makeup…but amazingly enough it’s primarily on the inside that the real resemblance is, and not that many can pull that off.

At the Harbor of the Grey Havens, I clung on to the Pier for dear Life (Or The Art of not Letting Go)

Recently we had a meeting with the Grey Havens, discussing the very end chapter of the trilogy, “The Grey Havens,” concluding an era in our Group’s book discussions of the trilogy, spanning over more than two years.

There was a sense of nostalgia in the air during the discussion and we touched upon what the chapter symbolizes. When Kelly/Badgaladriel mentioned that a key theme in this part of The Return of the King was to be able to let go of things, many people around the table nodded in agreement. I could even feel my own head nod, even though at the same time, I was struck by a familiar sense of shame while thinking about the end of the trilogy and the aspect of “letting go.”

Later, toward the end of the meeting, I cleared my throat and said that I was going to tell everybody a secret that I hadn’t told a single blessed soul before in my life. The time seemed right.

After I told them, many broke out laughing kindly, one very positive individual even said “That’s awesome!” And I realized that I had certainly done the right thing to tell the story of my own farewell process with the Lord of the Rings trilogy. My shameful secret was something to smile at in recognition – perhaps a little extreme and childish, but very human.

So, here is the story of what happened when I had finished reading The Return of the King, many years ago:

I read The Lord of the Rings when I was about ten years old, and suffice to say it changed my life – it certainly changed my reading patterns, but also many other things. The last chapter was my first real experience with a melancholic ending. I had read sad endings – mainly remembering H.C. Andersen’s tales (which I loved), but even if those stories sometimes made me cry, they never had the time to let me get so profoundly attached to fictional characters over such lengthy periods, as I had with Tolkien’s books.

I was sad and confused and there was real actual loss flowing through my system, and I had no idea how to handle it. Worst of all, I had no one to talk to about it!

If I had read the books for the first time in high school, I’d probably been able to sniff out some other nerd and sit and gripe about it, but in elementary school I knew no one of my own age who had read these books, and my poor hard working parents would probably had looked at me as if I had just arrived from Pluto, had I tried to discuss my longing for hobbits, wizards and elves with them.

I did however have a childhood friend named Helen, who didn’t read any books, but who loved listening to stories if you told them to her. Helen and I had spent our first school years in a rougher part of town, and after my parents finally could afford to move to greener parts and buy a house, she often came over on weekends and school holidays and lived with us for days.

So, I started to tell Helen the magical and epic story of Frodo and the Ring of Power.

It was great! Just like a support circle for grieving family members, only Helen didn’t suspect what kind of emotional service she provided for me. I didn’t read the books out loud, instead I had memorized large chunks of the chapters so well, that I could quote long passages from favorite poems, and phrase moods, happenings and descriptions in a completely faithful (but slightly abbreviated) way. I was a veritable one-girl theater company. There was one voice for Gandalf, one for Frodo, and awful, awful voices for the orcs and monsters. Gollum got a really tiring accent and the voice of Saruman proved very challenging, as I had to make it slimy and enticing at the same time. I don’t know how well I managed according to peer review, but I do know that Helen was mesmerized by the show.

Every evening one part was performed/told, often with a cliffhanger at the end, and Helen was frustrated and distraught when she had to go home and perhaps wait weeks to hear the next part.

I particularly remember that she loved the chapter with the Balrog and my hissing, growling sound effects and descriptions of the whip and the flaming blade and everybody’s reaction to Gandalf falling. I think I performed “The Bridge of Khazad-Dûm” three times for her.

But gradually the inevitable ending came closer and I could see the chapter about the Grey Havens approaching. Helen was already affected by Frodo having aches and being so passive and philosophical, we couldn’t express our feelings on this matter very well, but she did say: what is wrong with Frodo?? And I felt a knot in my stomach just thinking about performing all those farewells and the tears and the unavoidable demise.

I couldn’t do it. Frodo got healed (in fairness it took some time). Gandalf didn’t leave, and I totally made Galadriel the super-queen of the ugliest part of Middle-earth where she prettified the living daylights out of it. Oh, and the hobbits all went on adventurous quests where they helped Strider to be king in all those remote regions of the former kingdom. Also, I was very busy marrying off all kinds of characters without knowing a single blessed thing about their love life. Gimli for instance, got a very handsome wife, covered in jewels.

It can certainly be argued that it was a heavy burden for a 10-year-old to hold such huge and beloved characters in her hands without slipping. But if I let go, they would sail away forever and die on me!

Of Course I slipped, I understood just how much when Helen started to be less and less eager to hear the night time stories (my voices were probably not as good anymore either). We hadn’t started watching any geeky tv series yet, but she reacted exactly like someone would do if their favorite show had gone on for ten seasons too long and changed script writer for the worse. I knew that it was only a matter of time before the deathblow would fall and she would say that it was boring and she wouldn’t have any part of it anymore.

I realized that the only solution was sadly to do exactly what I had tried so hard for months to avoid. We needed to go to the Grey Havens, and I needed to create such an epic ending, that it would be worthy of a song!

What can I say…she cried, I cried, a Greek choir probably cried under the sofa-bed.  And that was the end of the one-child-nerd theater show. Never again would I be so emo, not even when I was goth for a few years, and never again would I try to honor any other author’s creations in the way I tried to honor  the ones of Professor Tolkien. Only great literature can bring out those traits in a reader, and only the clingiest of readers would go to such lengths as my ten year old self did back in the day, to hold on to the pier of “The Grey Havens,” instead of just getting myself on that patiently waiting ship.