Words At Their Best In The Worst of Times

I’ve been tackling some pretty complex topics in my writing lately… our historical moment, patriarchal masculinity, Trump, the (d)evolution of citizenship and the climate crisis. They’re all facets of the ‘whole catastrophe’ our country and planet face these days. Epic times we’re in really, right?

Last night, I put my twin boys to bed, leaving them to the twenty minutes of reading they do before the night delivers them to their 10 year old’s dreams. Both of them buried their noses in their respective, fantasy fiction books, Charlie opening up the massively heavy, tiny-fonted Lord of the Rings trilogy. To my astonishment, given today’s video-game obsessed culture, he is forging forward, mid-way, now, through this 1200 page tome.

Not knowing when the dawn will come, I open every door. — Emily Dickenson

Returning from their room, I found my husband searching through Netflix for a movie to watch together. He had honed in on a sweet, indie flick about the meaning of life, love and relationships, (gotta love that my husband likes chick-flicks!) After watching the preview and thinking it a good candidate, my son Charlie still on my mind, I reminded him: “Didn’t you say something earlier about watching that biopic about Tolkien?” “Yea,” he said, “I did want to see it that, but,” knowing the movie would likely be longer and war-heavy he responded, “that’s probably a pretty demanding movie for this hour.” His cursor hung over the white triangle on the screen. I got it. It had been a long day and a soft landing looked appealing, but something in me rallied. “C’mon, let’s go for it,” I said, making the case that it’ll help us enter Charlie’s universe.

What I didn’t share, but my husband also knew, is that three generations of my English born family had carried both World Wars’ searing psychic scars. They had been passed down through these generations to me and, in a very different form now, to the book my son held in his hands that evening, reading by nightlight.

Before long, we were gripped, scene by scene, as the various chapters of Tolkien’s life were told. To be sure, no movie can capture the full truth of a life and Tolkein may well have had disdained this one’s depiction given his antipathy for connections between his novels and the wars. But the spirit of the man who’s novels earned him the title ‘father of the high fantasy genre’ appeared convincingly to us as the narrative unfolded.

Across the historic landscape of the movie, we were introduced to the coordinates in this wildly imaginative man’s world that were connected — through the people he knew, the tragedies he faced, and the loves of his life — to the pages of his books. We meet reference points for the character of Samwise Gangee, we see the foundation in the bond between Tolkein’s friends and his deep contemplation on “fellowship,” we are taken, backstage, to the operatic performance of Wagner’s Ring Cycle and, of course, we see the contours of the gruesome orcs and Smaug on the cataclysmic battlefields of France. The movie, like Tolkein’s tales, felt epic, covering the territory of truly epic times.

Reflecting on my own use of words in today’s epic times as a writer, (albeit in much humbler form), I consider how many destructive words we see each day cast on the battle-fields of our nation’s psyche, levelled across governing institutions and borders, sharpening racial and patriarchal divisions and tragically chronicling states ravaged by wildfires, hurricanes and floods. After watching this movie, I found myself drawing parallels between the biblical scale of destruction and utter confusion rising out of the World Wars and the similar, but different, destruction and confusion we face today. While we don’t share the full scale of violent death, there is a darkness here that many have likened to the distorted, dark times of the early 20th century.

After the film ended, I found my attention centered, perhaps reassured even, (given our bleak horizon), by one, essential truth communicated in the movie, however. A truth that we might be wise, as writers, to remember in these dark times. It was something the movie captured about the simple and quintessential purpose of language that, when used creatively and courageously, can serve us in facing our all-too-human trauma and despair.

A soldier carrying a gun walks away from the camera across a muddy battelefield
Image by Stijn Swinnen (Pixabay)

Tolkien’s 20th Century Battleground for The Meaning of Words

The movie, Tolkein, has a central narrative that revolves largely around the author’s effort, while fighting trench-fever, to make his way across the front lines of a treacherous battlefield, (likely the Somme), to find his dearest friend, Geoffrey Bache Smith. He had received a letter in the trenches from Geoffrey’s mother saying that she had not heard from him in weeks. After reading it, Tolkein resolved to find him; he was a man, after all, who knew all too well the price of loss and the battle we face to preserve love against the draw of our darkest impulses, hopelessness and despair.

Tolkein lost his father to illness early in his childhood and was orphaned at the age of 12 when his devoted and beloved mother died due to complications related to, at the time, untreatable diabetes. Under the care of a Catholic priest, he was granted a scholarship to an elite school in Birmingham. There, he met Geoffrey, a boy who carried in his quiet, young heart, a poet’s commitment to words as the vessel for gaining intimacy with the great power and fragility of human experience. They were poets together, sharing a love of language, with Tolkein, of course, becoming a future philologist who invented the language he enfolded throughout the magical kingdoms of his books.

Later, while at Oxford University, Tokien and Geoffrey’s friendship deepened and expanded to include two other young men, Rob Gilson, and Christopher Wiseman. They formed a pact together, or “fellowship,” committed — above all else — to bringing art, poetry, music and imagination to life. The movie chronicles their vow to forge forms of culture that would give meaning to our human experience, especially in its darkest, most hellish hours. This passion for the arts came at a cost for the four men. It marked them in British society as softer, inferior specimens of masculinity, but their north star guided them forward, through harsh, patriarchal hierarchies during their pre-WW I, Oxford years.

We can’t enchant the world, which makes its own magic; but we can enchant ourselves by paying deep attention. — Diane Ackerman

The relationship between Tolkein and Smith is poignantly captured in the movie in a moment when Smith consoles Tolkein after he learns that the love of his life, (the woman he would eventually marry), was betrothed to another man. Smith, with unusual wisdom for such a young man, lovingly reassures his friend as they sit together watching a fencing match. The unrequited love that burns in your heart, Smith shares, is like no other. It is as alive on the day it was born as the day your heart is broken. There is no fiercer love than this. In so sharing, Smith reveals his own capacity to stand in the fire of life’s great disappointments, feeling the truth of humanity there, perhaps more so than anywhere else. Tolkien listens to his friend, this his second wrenching loss of a much-loved woman in his life, and in the silence that follows, he reaches his hand over to rest on the hand of his friend. Expressed in the exchange, we see language used at its best, in the service of the deepest of human connections, a love shared with, and then without, words.

Poetry is not only the dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundation for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of that which has never been before. — Audre Lorde

Flashing between this scene and the narrative where Tolkein forges forward through the trenches, the movie shows us the efforts the young author was willing to go to to find this friend. While I’ve not been able to confirm that this journey, as depicted, actually happened, it is no stretch to those who have read Tolkien’s books to see him there, forging forward through the trenches, like Frodo and Bilbo, beset with mustard gas and flame-throwers that came down on him like dragon’s breath, spewing fire into the perilous dugouts. More than once, Tolkien is depicted collapsing, fighting his trench-fever, navigating bullets in the cold, wet waters, spilling out with the blood of his countrymen. This scene, as depicted, is no doubt a cinematic version of hell, but we understand it to express the extent of Tolkien’s quest to find his friend, a determination fueled by the love and wisdom he and Smith shared, a wisdom about words, communication and its role bringing meaning to our human experience.

The movie’s most horrific scene takes place when Tolkien finally receives the message from a solider, (the touchstone character for Samwise Gamgee), that Goeffrey has been found. Tolkien’s hope surges for a final push, but fearing Smith has just jumped the trench to charge into the oncoming gun-fire, he climbs up as well, calling out his friend’s name. Amidst the din and cataclysmic destruction around him, he calls and calls, searching desperately across the killing fields in this hell-realm beyond reason, bombs exploding, bodies collapsing, a scene so horrific that the capacity for language in such a space would seem irreversibly lost. Nonetheless, Tolkien, calls out as a man driven not against an enemy by counter-phobic, prideful patriotism, but by the battle to insist on the survival of the human heart, to demand, as his poet friend had, that our conscious grasp of the truest meaning of life must be preserved, even in life’s most crushing and mindless iterations.

Towards the movie’s end, we learn that Geoffrey Smith was killed on the battlefields at Somme. Tolkien meets with Smith’s mother on returning to England, urging her to allow him to publish Smith’s poetry posthumously with Tolkein writing the forward. She agrees, and Geoffrey Bache Smith’s ’soft’ words of human truth… survive him.

As the movie depicts it, life’s value for Tolkein lives in relationship, in preserving a faith in connection and in the heart’s survival against the terrors of our bodies on the bleakest front lines of self-destruction. Not surprisingly, writer Stratford Caldecott interpreted the power of invisibility in Tolkien’s ring as the “ability to destroy all natural human relationships and identity.” Evil, then, is the loss of connection with what makes us human and it is the film’s suggestion that Tolkien’s love of the poet, of language, is what ‘resurrects’ us.

An adolescent boy with a thoughtful, open, questioning expression looks into the camera
Image by Katie Moum (Unsplash)

21st Century Madness: Holding a Line for the Future

After the movie ended, my husband and I shared our impressions and ‘wows,’ swallowed up as they would soon be by our sleep. Tolkein’s life was epic, we agreed, his novels equally so, and the breadth of what he addressed, vast. He spoke to a 20th-century world beset by two wars that exposed the horrific extremes to which we, as humans, can fall. His battle as a writer was to fight, with undying love, along-side ‘the poet’ for the right and noble use of language, not to divide us from one another, but to return us, as individuals, and in community, to our deepest selves.

Several hours after I had fallen asleep, I woke up in the dead of night. Watching the shadows of windswept trees on the ceiling, registering the risk that wind caries each year in the wild-fire seasons in Northern California, I found myself thinking about a simple and essential gift I had been given by my foray into the world of J.R. Tolkein: That words only matter because of the meaning they carry, the way they connect us to the world, offering a passageway to the resilience of the human heart. Words, as Tolkien and his dear friend Geoffrey knew, are the notes of a human song, a song we must sing in spite of the great fears we forge in ourselves, fears we resist facing … a song we sing to help us face the truth in the service of honoring and illuminating the life we are given.

Sixty-five years after The Lord of the Rings was written, my son puts his copy of the book down. It is long past his twenty minutes of allotted reading time. His eyelids sink lower as he falls asleep. Charlie is a quiet, tender, solid boy who still welcomes the pleasure of a good cuddle and loves math and sports. He is growing up in a country seized by a cultural backlash that rejects softness in men, a culture confused about who, and what, boys and men are meant to be. It is a country cast in the shadow of a President who, himself raised under the traumatized, patriarchal logic of military discipline, uses words daily-hourly-as weapons.

When power leads a man towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. — J.F. Kennedy

Each night, Charlie forges forward through the next page of that thick, heavy epic, digesting the words that chronicle the adventures of a Fellowship. He takes a step forward in Frodo’s shoes as that noble, courageous hobbit following his guidance on his journey towards the Two Towers. The words he reads are drawn from experiences on the 20th-century killing fields of Europe, words that form stories I pray will offer him a touchstone for the human hardships he is inheriting on this planet. They are words that chronicle our self-forgetting, the lengths we go to to protect ourselves from heartbreak and the lengths we must go to, still, to stand in that heartache and taste the truest, hardest taste of what it is to be human.

Lying awake, I find my prayer: May my son find himself on those pages, a ten-year-old boy in 2019, illuminated by words that illuminate in the dark. May he learn the simple and essential truth that words are here to connect us, they are the first language of the heart.

…Sometimes, as a writer, I ask myself, why do I write? There are more words in circulation today than at any other time in human history, more words and we are living at such a pace we have less and less time to read them! This night, though, my answer was simple: I write for my love of the poet on the battlefield. I write to remind myself to meet language as a gift that supports connection. I write to honor this simple, essential truth in these dark times. I write to use language wisely in the service of life.

A small but complex spring blossom opens on a leafless branch
Image by Alaric Duan (Unsplash)

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