… of a dream about reality
Once upon a time, there was a man called Johan.
He had a rich imagination and he loved reading, just like his two good friends Gerard and Hans. They were always involved in some or other discussion about philosophy or a book they were reading, so that at some point someone jokingly referred to them as “The Three Prophets.” They could appreciate the humor: somewhere in a photo album, there’s still a picture of the three of them posing on the top of a hill, wearing trench coats and silhouetted against a dramatic cloud sky, with that title calligraphed underneath.
Johan would have loved to go to the university, but after Johan’s father had suddenly become ill and passed away, they were on a tight budget. This were the years between the war and the introduction of the state pension, so after high school Johan had find a job to support his mother and sisters.
Gerard worked in a bookstore, and one morning something in the shipment of new books caught his attention. The book’s title read The Fellowship of the Ring and the dust jacket stood out because of a striking, stylized red eye in a black circle. He flipped through the pages and read a few fragments here and there until he heard the owner of the store come in. Quickly he jotted down the title of the book and the name of the writer.
On his way home he visited Johan, but declined the offer to come in for a cup of tea.
“Thanks, but we’re having an early dinner today … I just dropped by to tell you about this book that came in today. It’s a kind of fantastic novel, written by one John Ronald Tolkien, an Oxford professor. I thought you might enjoy it … here …”
He produced a scrap of paper and handed it over. “I’ll reserve a copy for you just in case, okay?”
Johan took well to the book. So well in fact, that he couldn’t put it down – and neither could Gwendelin, the girl he had just started to date. After they had finished The Fellowship of The Ring they could hardly wait for the sequel. When The Two Towers finally came out, Gwen was recovering from a flu. They took turns reading: Johan brought her the book on his way to work in the morning, and picked it up again when he went home.
Tolkien enchanted Johan for life, and through Tolkien he got to know Beowulf, the Kalevala and the Arthur myths – and of course, anything else by Tolkien that was published: Leaf by Niggle, Smith of Wootton-Major, and so on.
Johan and Gwen married a few years after The return of the King. They moved into a apartment, and then into a terraced house with a garden. They had several children, and Johan could hardly wait for them to pass beyond the Dick Bruna booklets so he could read The Hobbit to them at bedtime. So, to a wide-eyed audience, Mr. Balings was reluctantly dragged into an adventure by a wizard and a lengthy concourse of dwarves with funny names. They were too young to really get the gist of the story that first time, but that only added to the magic. After all, there is nothing more exciting than being initiated into something that’s still mostly beyond you.
Lotte, their firstborn daughter, inherited her father’s receptivity for Tolkien’s enchantment most strongly, although she did not realize it at the time. As soon as she was old enough (or probably a bit before that) she climbed on a chair, pulled The Fellowship of The Ring from the shelf and started reading about Bilbo’s eleventy-first birthday party. The story was sometimes complicated, sometimes quite creepy – especially that crawling hand in the Barrow-downs! – but the magic of those grand vistas, a world that seemed to be much bigger than than what laid beyond their own blue front door – that needed no explanation.
One day during dinner, Johan remarked:
“Did you know that Tolkien felt that he didn’t ‘invent’ his stories, but that he rather ‘discovered’ them?”
“You mean, like how an explorer discovers something that was unknown before?”
“Yes, maybe something like that.”
Although this remark didn’t surprise Lotte at the time – you can expect authors to be at least a little eccentric, don’t you, especially if they’re a professor as well! – she never forgot it.
A voyage upon a vague and wandering quest
Of course, she read other books as well: Paul Biegel and especially Tonke Dragt wrote wonderfully captivating stories, but Tolkien has always remained the greatest wizard, second to none.
When she was reading The Lord of the Ring for the second time, she noticed something peculiar. It’s supposedly quite common for people to imagine whatever they are reading, but Lotte wasn’t re-imagining the story itself. She became aware of a landscape that seemed to be related to Tolkien’s story in a generic sense, but not to anything within it in particular.
It was not “seeing” in the usual sense, but it was clear enough to draw. The perspective was like from the top of a hill that, to her left turned into a mountain range that lost itself in the distance into the mist, and a rolling landscape stretched out in front of her and to the right. The light seemed to come from a sun close to the horizon to her right. She didn’t see the sun itself as if it was outside the frame.
It was a strikingly beautiful scene that invoked a sense of longing for that reason alone, but it came also with strange deja-vu-like familiarity and a host of feelings that she couldn’t find a word. She felt attracted to it and wondered about it, but presently accepted it as something that apparently was part of the experience of reading Tolkien.
That landscape appeared every time she read Tolkien, and the feelings that it invoked became more pronounced over time. It felt like a memory of something great that is about to break through, and the sense of haunting familiarity became so intense that it almost felt like sadness. Yet all the time it remained so strange and unlike everyday experience that she couldn’t find words to describe it, and hence she didn’t mention it to anyone.
She also occasionally experienced something similar in other situations, like one sultry autumn evening when she was lying on her back in a lawn, staring at the brilliant stars up there until it seemed as if she was floating in the space between the stars … a tiny speck in a huge universe. It wasn’t scary as all, but rather felt familiar, just like that mountain landscape. As if in that great perspective all fears and worries disappeared.
Johan and Gwen both came from Catholic families. Although that belief was the background of their worldview they were very liberal about it.
For Lotte, going to church felt halfway homely and boring. She felt a certain affection for it, but the stories from the Bible that it revolved around seemed sterile and incapable to incite any sense of involvement. When she was in church, she turned her attention inwards, eager for something similar to what Tolkien did, but it remained silent. No matter how hard she tried, Middle Earth felt much more alive and real than those solemn reports about apostles, set between the desert rocks and olive trees.
She realised that that was not the intended effect: those Bible stories were supposed to be ‘real’ and those of Tolkien ‘made up.’ But it felt the other way around. Maybe she had missed something essential, although she couldn’t figure out what. She asked Johan about it, and he earnestly told her that he had trouble with that as well.
“Faith is a gift,” he said, “it’s not something that you can acquire at will.”
Apparently they lacked that gift.
For a thirteen year old girl this was even harder to talk about than it was for an adult. It wasn’t until much later that she heard from Gwen how much her father loved long philosophical discussions, even though the Three Prophets hardly saw one another any longer due to family obligations and other life events. One of Gwen’s brothers, Joost, had become a priest and lived as a monk in a Trappist monastery. He and Johan were well matched discussion-wise, but at a certain point Joost had resigned as a priest, and thereafter they didn’t meet as often as before. Much later, when Lotte talked about it with Gwen, she felt sad that neither Johan nor herself had considered talking to one another about these things, no matter how understandable that was in the circumstances.
Anyway, little girls grow up. Lotte finished high school and moved to another town to study. The Silmarillion had been released a few years before, then Unfinished Tales, and now there was The Book of Lost Tales. Johan was possibly even more enthralled by those stories than by The Lord of the Rings thirty years earlier; but in those years Lotte’s attention was mostly occupied by trying to build up her life. Those books don’t run away, she thought.
But a few years later something else happened. Something unimaginable.
Johan passed away unexpectedly. It was a tough blow.
The reaper never asks – he mows, as Simon Carmiggelt wrote.
As a child you take everything for granted. Oftentimes you only become aware of something when it’s no longer there.
Johan had his quirks, he could be moody at times. But through her grief, Lotte realised what an extraordinary father Johan had been. Despite that she had wanted to share so much more with him, the feeling of gratefulness that he had been finally prevailed. Or, just like that wordless, timeless wonder that Tolkien invoked in her: how he would always be there.
But Finrod walks with Finarfin his father beneath the trees in Eldamar.
— The Silmarillion, “Of Beren and Lúthien”
Yet they would not in despair retreat
In the years that followed, Lotte realised that she had not only inherited Johan’s sensitivity, but also his inability (or unwillingness) to adapt to the spirit of the times. It was as if they only partially belonged to this world.
It’s not that she felt lost, but there was always the sense that something essential was missing.
Which was true, of course. The mundane world out there was sorely lacking that sense of kinship and belonging that she knew from her internal landscape, so it was no wonder that she turned towards it like a compass needle to the magnetic North Pole.
She wasn’t consciously aware of it, though. The problem was that she did not understand what that landscape meant. And even if she had understood it, she wouldn’t have known what to do with it.
After she had realised at a young age that faith was not given to her, it seemed to her that only rationality remained as a honest and consistent mode of thinking.
And sure enough, as a child she had been insatiably curious about practically everything (except economics), and she had even dreamt of studying astronomy for a while. For a while at least, she felt that rationality was all she needed.
However, rationality had a major downside: it allowed no room for frivolities such as inner landscapes. That was bad news for what she had shared with her father, and what had been her most profound motive in trying to make sense of her existence. Those daydreams should be dismissed to the nursery, or better yet, to the trash.
Although this trivialisation of what had been most dear to her was painful, she couldn’t give up rationality either because there was no viable alternative available. Even if “believing” had been given to her, that would have made little difference, because the church is not particularly fond of parishioners with landscapes in their heads, either.
It’s one thing to get something like that thrown into your lap; but knowing what to do with it is something completely different, even if the clue to finding your way around this dilemma is only a hair’s width away. So, on she went through the flatlands, and the story could very well have ended there.
But you can’t write a story that is so closely intertwined with Tolkien and then let it get bogged down in The Great Artefact (1) without a eucatastrophic (2) turn.
However, in spite of its current status as a trifle, that inner vision stubbornly continued to appear whenever Lotte took the time and effort to summon it. It even acquired another dimension when a film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings was made that featured dialogues in Sindarin and Quenya. Because it looked so enchanting even when printed on paper, she had tried as a teenager to learn more about those elvish languages from the appendices of The Return of the King, alas without much success. To hear it being spoken was the fulfilment of a dream.
Around that time, she lived in Canada for a few years. Maybe it was the change of perspective, or the fact that she had learned Zen meditation; but something seemed to change. Her thoughts became more clear and it felt as if she was more in control of her life. To her surprise, the sensation of timeless kinship manifested more and more often, even apart from consciously summoning the inner vision of the landscape, until it seemed as if there was some sort of golden glow about the world around her. And one day, after watching the entire extended trilogy in one weekend, she thought: “If someone made credible dialogues in Sindarin for that movie, maybe I could do the same?”
Indeed, she could. Not only had Christopher Tolkien published his father’s linguistic notes, someone had even worked out a language course for Sindarin. Lotte immediately signed up for the Elfling mailing list on Yahoo and found a study partner to work their way through Pedin Edhellen together (3).
She soon noticed that most members on the list had a linguistic motive for studying the languages, and there were also some who condescendingly dismissed the kind of feelings she had as girlish romantic longings.
This surprised her, because Tolkien himself seemed to be motivated by an enchantment quite similar to what she knew so well. She posted a message to that effect to the list, illustrated with several quotes from Tolkien’s letters. Afterwards she couldn’t remember much about what the reactions had been like, mostly because she received one email that she would never forget.
I bow not yet before the Iron Crown, nor cast my own small golden sceptre down
It was a strange message.
John, the sender, had noticed Lotte’s message to the list and asked her if she was interested in meeting a group of people who had something similar in mind.
Lotte hesitated, mostly because she was aware of the existence of several “new age” groups that used elements of Tolkien’s legendarium in their syncretic potluck with the indiscriminating avidity of Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster set loose in a confectionery.
And that was about the last thing she needed.
However, John’s email didn’t set off her balderdash-detector, so she decided to respond to his email. His subsequent answer seemed serious and honest, and a conversation ensued. John shared her aversion to new-age-stuff. Like herself, he was smart and well-versed in rational thinking, and had at some point run into rationality’s limitations.
After about three weeks she decided that there was no harm in trying. John responded enthusiastically and asked if he could give her a number of assignments that he hoped would be a useful introduction.
“Let’s have it,” Lotte said.
The assignment included reading The Book of Lost Tales and some parts of Morgoth’s Ring.
John also sent her a spoken lecture (4) by one Stephan Hoeller.
Meanwhile, studying Sindarin went so well that she tried her hand at writing poetry in Sindarin.
Stephan Hoeller turned out to be a Gnostic bishop. He way of speaking immediately reminded her of Johan, and his sense of humor and self-mockery was refreshing and unique for someone who talks about spiritual / religious subjects.
The lecture’s subject was, of course, Tolkien. Mr. Hoeller spoke with great respect about what he called “one of the greatest enchanters of our time”.
And, almost in passing, he said something that changed everything for Lotte, like the effect of a single seed crystal on a supersaturated solution. He explained that our culture has lost the notion of “something that is not a fact but nevertheless true”.
That was the core of the matter. It’s easily written down and maybe even seemingly trivial – but once you realise what it means, it changes everything.
She realised that equating true en factual essentially invalidates a significant part of human experience; and that this has been the default mode of thinking for most people in our culture for the last 150 or so years.
However, conversely it also meant that accepting non-factual truths (again) is the key to (re)gain access to that area of experience.
The problem was that by now it had become extremely difficult to do that.
As she realized this, she was keenly aware that her rational mind was gasping for breath with indignation while at the same time another part of her experienced an unprecedented feeling of joyful liberation, so acute that I’ best leave it to John Ronald to describe it:
And when Sam heard that he laughed aloud for sheer delight, and he stood up and cried, “O great glory and splendour! And all my wishes have come true!” And then he wept.
And all the host laughed and wept, and in the midst of their merriment and tears the clear voice of the minstrel rose like silver and gold, and all men were hushed. And he sang to them, now in the elven tongue, now in the speech of the West, until their hearts, wounded with sweet words, overflowed, and their joy was like swords, and they passed in thought out to regions where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness.
The Return of the King – the Field of Cormallen
An image occurred to her: she was in a sort of inn, filled of people. They had been there for so long that all memory of an outside world had been lost. But why would anyone bother: the company was good, conversations were intelligent, and the food and drink was plentiful. Yet, on a certain day, Lotte noticed that the table at which she was sitting was near the wall of the barroom. She noticed a door set in that wall that she had never noticed before. She couldn’t contain her curiosity and got up. Carefully and a bit apprehensive, she walked towards the door, put her hand on the handle and pushed it down to open the door. As it opened slowly, it revealed a wide landscape stretching out into the distance. It was the image she had seen countless times as in a dream, every time she read Tolkien.
Only, it wasn’t a dream anymore. It was part of the world – her world.
She walked down the stairs and into the landscape.
But as it goes with these stories, that wasn’t the end of it, because it’s just a piece of a much bigger story.
She soon understood that in a culture that a priori classifies the experience of Faërie as balderdash, it’s near impossible to talk with others about such experiences in a meaningful way; and that includes those who are receptive to the stories that come from those experiences.
One day Gwen told her that her brother Joost, the priest-monk, had once admitted to Johan that he (and many others in the church with him) couldn’t communicate what their experience was really like – for what Lotte felt was the exact same reason.
“So, let me see it I’ve got this straight … “, Lotte thought to herself, “… just think of it: here’s a bunch that has told themselves that what is most dear to them is lie, over and over an over, until they all believed it …”
Now she knew what to do with the time that was given to her.
1) Great Artefact: exclusive rational world vision that excludes any transcendence (JRR Tolkien, Mythopoeia)
2) Eucatastrophe: a liberating, positive turn that takes place against all reasonable expectations
3) Pedin Edhellen: “I speak Elvish”, title of a Sindarin course compiled by Thorsten Renk
4) lecture available here, transcription here