There and Back Again

A Traveler's Thoughts on J R R Tolkien

On my bookshelf, wedged between travelogues, folded maps, museum guides, foreign language phrasebooks and photo albums, are Ballantine's paperback editions of The Hobbit (1979), The Fellowship of the Ring, Two Towers and The Return of the King (1978), and a 1977 hardcover of Silmarillion from the author's original British publisher, George Allen & Unwin.

At the front cover, the four paperbacks feature the author's own illustrations of Bilbo riding on a barrel down the Forest River, the bucolic Bag End of Hobbiton, Merry's and Pippin's encounter with Treebeard in Fangorn, and the smoldering Mount Doom seen behind Barad-Dr, the Dark Tower. A portrait of the ebullient Oxford don, pipe in hand, is printed at the back. The Silmarallion jacket bears more of Tolkien's personal drawings, the insignias he created for such First Age characters as Fanor and Lthien Tinviel (above). Each volume shows the tears, folds and creases of many repeated readings over the past quarter-century.


Paintings by J R R Tolkien. George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1937, 1951, 1966

Middle-Earth-mania is sweeping the globe once again, this time with a cinematic bacchanal from New Zealand, and toys from Burger King. Indeed, the strong sentiments stirred anew in this lifelong Tolkien devotee shall not be dismissed, but why here in a travelogue?

Like many precocious young readers overcome with unrealized wanderlust, I embraced The Lord of the Rings as I did The Odyssey, One Thousand and One Nights and Journey to the West a trek into fantastic realms in which we behold our fondest dreams, greatest hopes and deepest passions. Ere we venture forth into our real world, to which we have yet to attain full access (and thus, understanding and appreciation), we find our footing in worlds reassuringly, painstakingly created for us by consummate storytellers.


Paintings by J R R Tolkien. George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1937, 1951, 1966

As I stood for the first time before a Sequoia Semprevirens, I relived the awe of beholding Lothlrien, the elves' only reminder of a place that knew neither death nor decay. While I backpacked along the rocky paths of Gwynedd, Cumbria and Glen Coe, I imagined legions of dwarves and orcs marching to their ancient battlegrounds over and beneath the Misty Mountains. When I drove a group of motley merrymakers in my old Honda across the prairies of South Dakota and Wyoming, the effervescent yet poignant bonds that could be so acutely experienced only at the moment was unlike any Fellowship I would experience hence.

That which stimulate our senses and sinews in real life are all the more vivid and meaningful, once they also move our hearts and minds, as words do.

Charles Weng, 13th December 2001

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