The Stories that Matter

- by Lillian Stewart Carl

September 22 is the shared birthday of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, protagonists of J.R.R.Tolkien’s masterpieces The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

September 29 is the date that Bilbo and Frodo went with the elves into the West, leaving Middle Earth forever. “…and the sails were drawn up, and the wind blew, and slowly the ship slipped away down the long grey firth; and the light of the glass of Galadriel that Frodo bore glimmered and was lost.”

Pardon me while I sniff and dab at my eyes. There’s a reason, over and beyond the bittersweet fall of the year, why I always feel a delicious melancholy in September. It’s this story. It’s The Story

I first read The Lord of the Rings in my teens, more than a few years ago, and wanted nothing more than to forsake the suburban streets of Ohio and crawl through the pages into Middle Earth. I remember writing a poem of typical teen angst, ending “Rohan, Rohan, the clear sound of the horns in the dawn!”

Any angst I have now is of the adult variety, but I still cry at that scene from The Return of the King, where Gandalf and Shadowfax make their stand in the broken gates of Minas Tirith, where the Rohirrim, led by doomed Theoden and fey Eowyn, charge down onto the field of hopelessness as the dawn breaks, and as black sails unfurl not in despair but in a hope that returns just when all seems darkest.

This is not the only scene that brings a lump to my throat and tears to my eyes. But then, as Gandalf says, “I will not say do not weep, for not all tears are an evil.”

I’ve read The Lord of the Rings over and over again, sometimes re-reading a scene many times trying to grasp how Tolkien’s writing, no more than black marks on a piece of paper, can contain inimitable imagery that illuminates vast landscapes and capture the truth of his world. And yet, no matter how many times I re-read my favorite passages, they’re still fresh.

Recently I re-read my first published fantasy novels. I was appalled to discover I’d used several Tolkien-esque phrases—quite unconsciously, as much of his prose is now rooted in my soul. My more recent novels are set in this present-day world, giving me the chance to have characters find each other when one of them uses the word “mathom”, for example, or makes a reference to Black Riders. No matter how contemporary the settings, though, I try to write my novels with the awareness of another world beyond this one, of depths of history and breadth of legend, that I learned from Tolkien.

With the awareness of time passing and things fading and people stepping off-stage even as The Story goes on, and ever on, down from the door where it began . . .

Lucifer's Crown

Lucifer's Crown

My contemporary spiritual thriller Lucifer’s Crown is the novel most heavily influenced by Tolkien, albeit in a very subtle ways. Tolkien’s reverence for the natural world and for language are both important parts of the story (and are acknowledged as such by one of the main characters), while the moral choices his characters make are reflected, however dimly, in the choices made by mine. The theme of the book is The Story, in the same way Sam talks about The Story at the end of The Two Towers film, a passage based on one in the book The Return of the King:

“It’s like in the great stories. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened?

“But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer.

“Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something. Even if you were too small to understand why. But I think I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.

“That there’s some good in this world. And it’s worth fighting for.”

You should have seen me come up out of my seat in the theater when I heard that bit of dialog! And yet I began writing this book in 1995, before the films were more than a maniacal gleam in director Peter Jackson’s eye.

Despite his occasional blunder, Jackson (and Howard Shore, who wrote the brilliant, evocative music) not only captured but heightened the emotion, the spirit, the imagery, the poetry—the reality beyond our own—that I love so much in The Lord of the Rings. There’s nothing like having the greatest possible material to work with, a story that really matters.

To quote my friend who first introduced me to The Lord of the Rings, f/sf writer Lois McMaster Bujold: “‘And he sang to them… 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’” is no bad epitaph for a writer. I could crawl on my knees through broken glass for the gift of words that pierce like those.”

One of the dedications at the front of Lucifer’s Crown is “To J. R .R. Tolkien, whose Story has enriched my life”. Whether it has taught me how to enrich the lives of others, in a much smaller way, I cannot say. I can only hope so.

4 comments

  1. As someone who has read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings half a dozen times or more (and isn’t it about time to read ‘em again?), I really loved this entry. I’ll be looking for Lucifer’s Crown now…

    Thanks!

  2. Thank you, Michael. I’m afraid Lucifer’s Crown is officially out of print, but it’s available as an electronic download from Fictionwise.com, and as a trade paperback from me — I have a stack in my closet. :-)

  3. I have The Lord of the Rings trilogy book and it is BIG, lol. I should read it again soon.

  4. Lillian – Right on! Tolkein was and is a huge influence on me as a reader, writer, and human being. LotR continues to inspire me. I have no idea how many times I’ve read it. Like you, in my younger years I wanted to run away to Middle Earth. (Heck, maybe I still do! Maybe that’s why I’m writing fantasy…)