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Skies of Rohan - For those who desire dragons

Desirers of Dragons - by Julia R. Piggin

There's a place called Middle-Earth where there is no rock 'n' roll and no television - yet it is the place, above all others, that thousands of teenagers would most like to visit. Their hunger for the journey is shared by thousands of adults - there is no generation gap among Middle-earth tourists. Young, old, or in-between, they are drawn irresistibly to its wonders: ancient, terraced cities whose towers gleam with gold; a homey town where citizens live in comfortably furnished underground burrows; a forest where malicious trees gulp down unwary travelers; a marsh where the faces of warriors dead a thousand years peer up through the slimy water; a country ruled by an evil lord where black shadows eternally hide the sun.

There is only one route to Middle-earth, and that is through a book called The Lord of the Rings, 13,000 pages divided into three volumes: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King. There is also a shorter, earlier story that takes place in Middle-Earth; it's called The Hobbit. Now in paperback as well as hardcover, editions of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are booming best-sellers throughout America, and are the most talked-about and carried-about books in college dormitories and high school corridors.

Their author is a retired professor and a recognized authority on ancient northern European languages. His name is John Ronald Rueul Tolkien - Professor J.R.R. Tolkien, for until 1959 he taught English Language and Literature at Oxford University in England. As a boy in the English Midlands, Tolkien recalled he "desired dragons with a profound desire." As a man, he created, out of a rare combination of imagination, scholarship, a love of games, and a magical way with words, a world in which dragons lived. He called that world Middle-earth, which is the Modern English translation of an Old English word, Middangeart, that meant "inhabitated lands between the seas." Though it is impossible to pinpoint its exact location, Middle-earth seems to be a part of our own planet, at an earlier period in time, before man was dominant. Tolkien's books purport to be chapters of the history of Middle-earth in the Third Age.

To the dragons, dwarfs, and goblins familiar to readers of Scandinavian mythology and fairy tales, Tolkien added some new beings. Perhaps the most endearing are the hobbits - short, furry-footed, man-like creatures who live underground, love bright colors, and feel deprived unless they can eat six plentiful meals every day. Other Middle-earth inhabitants include an ancient race of slow-spoken, treelike graybeards; some tall, gray-eyed immortal elves; a rough ranger who turns out to be a long-exiled king; an ages-old ballad singer whose word is law in the great forest where he lives; eerie, headless shapes who wheel through the night mounted on huge birds and freeze the air with their cries; and dozens of other strange, sometimes horrifying, sometimes lovable, creatures.

Each Middle-earth group lives in a region whose geography is carefully charted, and each has a distinctive culture and philosophy of life. Each is accounted for in a detailed history, and the families of its leaders are traced in a lengthy genealogy. And each has its own language, related to, but different from, other Middle-earth languages. Tolkien has worked these languages out so carefully, providing alphabets and explaining grammar, that it is possible to learn to read and write the strange scripts - and many people have.

As a result, Middle-earth is an intensely real place - so real, that once other "desirers of dragons" enter it, they find it impossible to live wholly outside it. They become homesick patriots; and learning High Elvish, Sindar, or even the evil Black Speech is just one of the ways in which they express their patriotism. Tolkien fans may also wear buttons on which Middle-earth messages are printed, such as "Gandalf for President" or "Frodo Lives" - references to main characters. They may post maps of Middle-earth on the walls of their rooms. But the truest mark of a LotRian (a name for Tolkien lovers derived from the title, The Lord of the Rings) is tireless reading and re-reading of The Lord of the Rings, and a burning zeal to get other people to read it. Many have read it 20 or 30 times - plus between-times browzing. More than just a reader, the LotRian considers himself a participant. As critic Peter Beagle puts it, "Middle-earth is a world that J.R.R. Tolkien has explored and chronicled - do not say created, for it was always there."

Middle-earth was "discovered" in 1937 when Professor Tolkien was persuaded by some of his friends to publish The Hobbit, a book he had written years before, when his children were young. He did not, he says firmly, write it for them, although he admits using them as an excuse. Actually, Middle-earth had been born in his mind when hospitalized after the Battle of the Somme, during World War I, he whiled away his convalescence by inventing a language. It was a revival of a childhood hobby, which had turned into a serious vocation when he studied ancient languages at Oxford before the war. The new language was at first only an absorbing game. Then, realizing that true languages grow out of the need to communicate ideas, Tolkien began to construct a mythology to make the language necessary. First, he imagined a beautiful, immortal woman who gave up her gift of eternal life to marry a human king. Gradually, other inhabitants of her world - Middle-earth - began to take shape in his mind.

One day in the 1930's, Tolkien was correcting some dull exam papers. Without thinking much about it, he turned over a blank sheet and wrote, "In a hold in the ground there lived a hobbit." He didn't know what a hobbit was, but one soon appeared on the busy screen of his mind. It turned out to be a plump-stomached, cheerful creature like a very short man, except that its bare feet were leather-soled and furry-topped. The hobbit's name was Bilbo, and he lived in a burrow in a part of Middle-earth called the Shire, which rather resembled Tolkien's childhood home (Born in South Africa, Tolkien was brought to England at age three).

As the story of The Hobbit unfolds, comfort-loving Bilbo is persuaded by Gandalf, a powerful wizard, to go with a band of dwarfs on a treasure-hunt in the far mountains. On the way, he gets lost and finds a ring cherished by a debased little cannibal named Gollum, who lives in a cave near an underground river. Innocently, Bilbo slips on the ring and finds that it makes him invisible. After a series of toe-hair-curling adventures, he comes back to the Shire and takes up his lazy life again, using the ring only when he wants to hide from unwelcome visitors.

Childish? Tolkien himself says that the story "was written in a bad style . . . as if one were talking to children," a style which his own children didn't like at all. But The Hobbit was taken up by a group of intellectual adults who found it strangely stirring. Tolkien could no more leave Middle-earth when he finished The Hobbit than his LotRians can today. In his mind, over the next fourteen years, was growing a sequel - a haunting story that would thrill and enchant any "desirer of dragons". It was the story of Bilbo's Ring, and what happened after Gandalf discovered that it was not merely a useful magic tool, but was an object of grave significance.

The Ring is a master-ring which controls nine others, held by the leaders of the various peoples of Middle-earth. If the evil Lord Sauron, who once owned it but lost it in an ancient war, can get it back , he will have power over the world, and light and good will die together. To prevent this catastrophe, the Ring must be destroyed. The terrible task of destroying it, in a special, incredibly difficult way, falls to Frodo, Bilbo's nephew, who must develop the strength to withstand the Ring's corrupting power. The Lord of the Rings is the story of Frodo's "quest", the perils and enemies that beset him, and the price he pays for carrying the ominous talisman.

What is the appeal of The Lord of the Rings? The answer, of course, is "it depends on who you are." Many people feel it is a morality story on the good-versus-evil theme. It has also been compared to the tales of King Arthur and other historic "quest" stories - except that in Tolkien the mystical object must be destroyed, not rediscovered. Theologians see strong religious overtones. They feel that Frodo's sacrifice to save the world from Sauron has echoes of the Bible. Some more lighthearted readers say it's just a bang-up western, with good guys and bad guys - there's even a land in it called Westernesse. Others, consider it pure escape. Richard Plotz divides LotRians into several categories. First, he says, there are "the science fiction fans", who love Tolkien's inventiveness. Then there are the literay scholars, who like to trace Tolkien's motifs back to the great epics of the ancient past, like the Anglo-Saxon story of Beowulf and the Norse Eddas. A third group of LotRians, are the "game players". "Game Players", according to Richard, like to "fool around" with material in the book - to figure out the languages and learn to write them, to chart the genealogies of the characters and study the histories of the Ages and lands. "Science fiction people do this, too," Richard adds, "but they take themselves too seriously."

That's something Tolkien, himself, is against, also. The Lord of the Rings, the author insists, has no meaning except exactly what's written in its pages. He denies that it is allegorical in any sense, or that it has any connection with religion - except that he is religious, and he wrote it. He would prefer not to classify it; but if a pigeonhole must be selected, he'll take "fairy story". The fairy tale, he says, is "one of the highest forms of literature and quite erroneously associated with children." Tolkien defines a fairy tale as one that touches on or uses Faerie - and Faerie is a place, like Middle-earth. "Faerie," Tolkien says, "holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky, and the earth, and all things that are in it; tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted."

The word "escape" bothers some of his followers, but it doesn't offend Tolkien at all. In fact, he writes, the gifts which fairy stories offer the reader are Recovery, Escape, and Consolation. "Recovery" he defines as "a regaining - regaining of a clear view," which does not mean "seeing things as they are" but rather "as we are (or were) meant to see them - as things apart from ourselves." "Escape," he says, "is one of the main functions of fairy stories. In what the misusers call Real Life, Escape is evidently, as a rule, very practical, and may even be heroic. Why should a man be scorned, he asks, if he is in prison and tries to get out and go home?"

Linked closely to Escape, in Tolkien's view, is Consolation, the joy of the happy ending, or, more correctly, "the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous 'turn'." He cites an old Scottish fairy tale, The Black Bull of Norway, as an example. In this story, Consolation comes after years of anguished searching and disappointment, when a young girl finds her knight and wins his love. "It is a sudden and miraculous grace," Tolkien says, " never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of. . . sorrow and failure; the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat; giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond all the walls of the world, poignant as grief."

Anyone who has struggled, with the valient Frodo, across Middle-earth to the final triumph, knows what Tolkien means.

"Desirers of Dragons" was first printed in Practical English magazine - 1967

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