Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Small Lives

When I was a banged and befreckled Brownie, 'round about third grade, I made a friend in my troop. She had glasses and curly hair and maybe pierced ears, and was bright and self-confident and talked about interesting things, and most wonderful, she didn't go to school.

"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.


Melanie Bettinelli said...

Thank you for this. It's really lovely and I wish I had some observation that rose to the occasion, but I'll just say I appreciate especially your attention to the small things.

bearing said...

I have a similar strange feeling about a boy I went to elementary school with. Youngest child from a wealthy family, he was constantly in trouble with teachers for being a smartass; he ran with a bad crowd outside school but was in the gifted-talented classes with me inside school, he had already developed a drug problem by fifth or sixth grade. One day, via a wandering oral book report that probably received a poor grade from our teacher, he introduced the class -- and me -- to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. (Don't laugh, I'm not trying to draw an equivalence with Tolkein).

Nearly a decade later, across a table in the college dining hall, I began a rambling fanboy-fangirl conversation about Douglas Adams's universe with this guy I barely knew from down the hall that continued out the door and into the night and all over campus. The two of us met Douglas Adams once, when he came to speak and sign his nonfiction book Last Chance to See. Later we got married.

I know what happened to the boy in my fifth grade class, who had been pulled from public school and sent to private high school, and who I last saw in a chance encounter around tenth grade, driving a beater car past my school bus stop. My mother kept track of such news from my hometown. He started a small retail business in Cincinnati in his early twenties. It was doing pretty well. But he died suddenly at age twenty-five.

I think of him often. He is one of a small handful of departed people that I pray for by name at every Mass.

Enbrethiliel said...


(Reposting this because I originally wrote it under the wrong post.)

I wasn't a very good friend to the girl who first introduced me to Tolkien. (She was genuinely interested in forging a bond with me; I found her really clingy.) We continued to go to the same school for years after I "dumped" her, and I was able to apologise before we finally graduated. She bore no ill will toward me--but gosh, was I happy for the grace of asking for forgiveness!

Anyway, I was also a terrible reader. She lent me her well-worn copy of The Fellowship of the Ring because she thought it was the most amazing book ever written . . . and I really just didn't get it. =/ To this day, I can't reread the first few chapters without some embarrassment at my younger self.