Monday, May 28, 2012
LOTR: Walking Out for Frodo
My first encounter with Lord of the Rings was unexpected and brief. It was a random pull from the shelf in the high school library, and I had barely learned a thing concerning hobbits before a certain Mr F (who put me on to An American Tragedy and All the King's Men) ambled by, raised an eyebrow, and said, "Don't get lost in there." Having no idea what Lord of the Rings was, or why I might get lost, the comment was mysterious to me. I read on for a bit, discovered that hobbits lived in holes and didn't like Big People, put the book back on the shelf and forgot about the whole thing.
Three years later I was legally barred from that particular library, but I managed to stumble across Tolkien again at the local used book store. Thinking it a strange coincidence I parted with my ten dollar bill and toted Middle Earth home in my 95 Dodge Neon. I was lost before the day was out.
This happened the day before I started work at a cabinet factory. Freshly thrown out of school, with no skills to claim, my dad forced my hand by getting me a job on the floor. I remember laughing when I saw the Special Qualifications box on the application -- I wrote "I have functioning motor skills" and that proved impressive enough. It was ten hour nights, cutting and stacking wood, Chuck Wagon sandwiches, smoking in the road, sanding the wood that was cut and stacked, another smoke in the parking lot, stacking the wood that was sanded, and going home. My first real job. I still had a hippie mop of hair and a healthy stoner glaze, and to the convicts and rednecks I worked with I must have looked like a queer city ghost.
And after every shift I beat ass home to rejoin the great adventure of the Third Age of Middle Earth. (After stopping by the McD's drivethru for my standard $12.34 order, which I gag to recall. I believe it was a number one with an extra McMuffin, an extra hashbrown, a sausage McGrittle and two burritos with picante sauce.) Covered in sweat and sawdust, belly full of grease, I'd grab up Lord of the Rings from its post by my alarm clock and read until the sun rose and spelled me into a sleep. Old Man Willow, Tom Bombadil, Strider -- they were equal parts vivid and surreal, walking an invisible line between this world and others. The encounter with the Wights on the Barrow Downs and the naked frolicking afterwards was something straight out of the mists of someone else's dream, seamless and strange and peaceful. And the Council of Elrond, where characters popped out of every corner of Middle Earth -- they seemed so real because they came and went without ado, so ephemeral for the same reason. The whole edifice was built at the crossroads of the Epic and the Myth, and my dreams were dark and colorful.
I'll never be able to separate the smell of sanded wood from Middle Earth. The memories are linked for good. While I was pushing marked cuts of wood through the table saw my head was in the Shire or Rivendell or Moria, and while I was reading those pages I reeked of wood and varnish. The knots in the wood began to look like the back of Frodo's head, or a muddied map of Bree. And when I looked around the factory, at the metal teeth of the machines of industry, I couldn't help but think that I might be slaving for the wrong side of a different war.
All of that, and I only worked at that place for two weeks. The third Monday rolled around, they told us that we'd be working twelve hour days instead of ten, and that was the end of it. I remember exactly what I said to the floor guy: "Hey, man. I'm not cut out for this shit. I'm gonna go." He agreed with me before I even got the words out. I'm not sure how I justified it to myself at the time -- probably something like, "I'm too awesome for labor" -- but looking back I know exactly why. The previous night I had just witnessed the fall of Gandalf at the Bridge of Kazadum, the fellowship was entering Lothlorien, and I had to see Frodo through to the other side.
"Don't get lost in there," some guy told me once.
Well, so I got lost. Lost in Fangorn, lost in Rohan, lost Helm's Deep and the Dead Marshes and Pellenor and Cirith Ungol and Minas Tirith. Call it escapism if you want; I call it the raw creative force. Every other book that I've ever read, I can imagine it once as an empty page. I can't do that with LOTR, the same way I can't figure my way through the big bang. Frodo just IS. How could he NOT BE? Whatever forces are driving the universe, I think the same one hammered out us that hammered out Middle Earth.
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