"Everyone has to go to school," I said, surprised.
"I don't," she said. "I homeschool."
This was one more layer of fascination. Her house, too, was, as I remember it, in a woodsy neighborhood, older and rambling and spacious, very different from the trailer out in the country where I lived. The house was full of books, and little steps and up and down, and there was a fireplace in the den, in front of which her mother kept, and used, a spinning wheel. A spinning wheel! My family didn't have a television, but hers did, and we could watch Mathnet on Square One TV after Brownies. My friend had her own bedroom, which might have been painted purple, while I shared a bedroom with my brother and two sisters. But her name was the same as my sister's, although spelled unusually, and her two younger brothers had the same names as my two younger brothers (well, one of her brothers had my brother's middle name, but close enough), and beyond all these similarities, we liked the same things, and we didn't much care for the things other girls talked about, like fashionable stuff or cliques or boys. We had sleepovers at her house, and we would sit up talking for hours, and then trace the etymology of our conversation and try to follow threads all the way back to our original topic.
She told me one day that she was going to name her first daughter Glinda Galadriel, after the two most powerful, most beautiful, most good sorceresses. Glinda I knew -- everyone had seen The Wizard of Oz -- but I'd never heard of Galadriel. She was surprised. Hadn't I read Lord of the Rings? It was full of adventure, and I would love it, and she would lend it to me if her parents said it was okay.
I have since inherited my grandfather's collection of Tolkien books and appendices and maps and paintings, so I know that he was a buff, but neither of my parents had ever heard of Lord of the Rings. So I set out by myself at age eight with three paperbacks, reading them at night, sitting over the floor heating vent, wrapped in a blanket to trap all the warm air, skimming over the parts I didn't understand, browsing forward to try to find the thread of the plot, often confused and sometimes bored, but, like the hobbits, taking small steps in a strange land and understanding only the parts of it that touched me. My memories of that first reading are vague. I was as surprised as Merry and Pippin to discover that Strider was the returning King. I found the Battle of Pelennor Fields overwhelming and too full of incident. I liked Merry and Pippin best because I could always understand them. They were my viewpoint characters. When I was bewildered, they were bewildered. When I was scared, they were scared. Gandalf and Strider and all the Elves and even Frodo and Sam were doing grownup things I couldn't comprehend, but Merry and Pippin were comfortingly small and basic and just my speed, and they got home after all and did brave things and lived happy uncomplicated lives.
Children are not, in the end, able to maintain the obligations of friendship all alone, and our families didn't have all that much in common. They were more affluent than we, but our dissimilarities were probably mostly religious. Although my family began homeschooling, we joined the Protestant-affliated group of which her mother had spoken dismissively. We were Catholic and they were Unitarian of the stripe that believes that children should be able to make up their own minds about God (or perhaps that's all Unitarians; I don't know). I always had the vaguely uncomfortable feeling that I ought to "witness" to my friend, and yet, not being a member of those Bible Belt denominations which presented their adherents with pre-packaged Come to Jesus scripts, I had no idea how to begin, and so never did. Eventually both of us dropped the Girl Scouts, and I lost touch with her before my family moved to Ohio when I was 12.
This came to mind last night as I read some of the reviews of Peter Jackson's last installment of The Hobbit. Many of them are the kind of delicious rout that reviewers deliver when the blinders have fallen off their eyes, but the Joe Morgenstern in the WSJ had a glowing tribute to the movie, and to all six of Jackson's Tolkien-flavored ventures, which had to be read through the lens of the first and last lines:
The best way I know to give “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” the heartfelt praise it deserves is to acknowledge that I’m anything but a scholar in this field. As a late arrival to the J.R.R. Tolkien canon, I tried my best to keep track of all the characters, intricacies, symbols, nuances, layers and interconnections in Peter Jackson’s Tolkien films, but it wasn’t easy.
...One of the signal achievements of Mr. Jackson and his myriad colleagues in this film is maintaining not only a sense of momentousness but of individual purpose, crisis and tragedy. Martin Freeman’s Bilbo Baggins, touching as ever, is an observer of Thorin’s madness, up to a point; when he finally intercedes, it’s with courage and thrilling clarity. Other stalwarts of the series are present and vividly accounted for: Ian McKellen’s Gandalf; Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel, Orlando Bloom’s Legolas, Evangeline Lilly’s Tauriel and, especially moving for devotees of genre films, Christopher Lee’s Saruman. The six films in Mr. Jackson’s two trilogies have come to constitute a genre unto itself—peerless fantasy, flawlessly rendered.He has not, in other words, read the books. Which of these last mentioned "stalwarts of the series" do not belong in The Hobbit? Which one is cut from whole cloth? Mr. Morgenstern doesn't know, and his review slips into a strange alternate world in which Peter Jackson's computer-generated padding, every moment built up into an epic confrontation completely unmoored from the raison d'etre of its source, becomes the standard of cinematic accomplishment:
The dragon is, of course, born of bits and bytes. The same goes for the contending armies of this climactic tale, in which the races of dwarves, elves and men must unite against a common enemy if Middle-earth is to have a future. Indeed, much of “The Battle of the Five Armies,” like the films that preceded it, could qualify as an animated feature, but that magnifies the awe, rather than diminishes it as in the case of so many middling attractions that depend on mediocre technology. The computer-generated effects here are executed so gorgeously—my favorite is a battle on the ice—and intertwined with such stirring live action, that the film as a whole is seamless, quite astonishing and deeply satisfying.I have better things to do than watch Jackson's stapled and mutilated orc-goblins rampage across a three-story screen laying waste to the remnants of Tolkien's plot, but Darwin will go see it with the guys. Then he'll come back and tell me strange tales, just as he did last year with the second Hobbit movie, when I was nine months pregnant and bedridden, listening in wonder as my husband babbled the most arrant nonsense at me and claimed it was the plot. I had the strangest deja vu, a memory of a child trying to make sense of a book too big for her, trying desperately to hold to an unfamiliar path, only in this case the familiar path had been bulldozed into a smooth triumph of technology, gleaming and senseless.
About ten years ago I Googled and found my old friend, thanks to the unusual spelling of her first name, and found that she'd gone on to high school, and to a prestigious women's college, and was now a teacher at a private school. I sent her an email. I hoped I'd written to the right person, and did she remember me, her friend from Brownies in Blacksburg, Virginia, all those years ago? My family had started homeschooling as well, she might remember, and now I planned to homeschool my own children, and I would always be grateful to her for introducing me to Tolkien. She sent back a pleasant note and said that yes, she did remember me, and that I'd been one of the nicest girls she knew. That was about the end of it, and I was left pondering exactly where the scales had finally balanced on our friendship. You introduced me to Tolkien / You were one of the nicest girls I knew. I suppose being nice, and specifically being nice to someone, is a nice, if unexciting, legacy, and after all, if there's one thing we've learned from Peter Jackson, it's the hollowness of blowing up every moment to it's most epic incarnation. Better to play a small role in a vast drama you can't entirely comprehend than to constantly shine in pixelated moments of created, and forgettable, glory.