I came across my first copy of “The Fellowship of the Rings” from J.R.R. Tolkein’s “The Lord of the Rings” in 1974, when I was fourteen, while browsing a musty old used bookstore in London with my father. He mentioned the book in passing and I picked it up, curious. Since we were headed for Germany in a few days, I decided to buy the entire set, so that I would have something to read while in Germany. Little did I know that these books would turn over my world and grab a hold of something in my heart that to this day has never left.
The summer of 1974 etched itself into my memories in a way no stretch of time ever did before or since. It was the summer that my parents toured Scotland and left my brother Teja and me with my grandparents in Hannover, Germany. My grandfather, grandmother, and great aunt, whom we called respectively “Opa”, “Oma”, and “Tante Luise”, had planned a summer of travel and adventure for us. We spent a few days at a pension in the Harz mountains, where Opa took us on long walks in the woods and my imagination bloomed with images of Elves and Dwarves and Dryads among the great oaks. For two weeks we stayed at a summer camp along the northern Elbe River, where I fell in love with my first girlfriend (and one of my oldest friends) and experienced my first kiss. In Hannover Teja and I took skulling lessons on the broad expanse of the artificial lake, the Masch See. In my grandparents’ apartment the rooms filled with the aroma of boiled German potatoes, rolled cabbage, fresh sauerkraut, and rotisserie chicken. The grandfather clock on the wall chimed on the hour. The coal cellar at the bottom of the echoing wooden stairwell wafted up its breath of chilly air and the acrid smell of carbon and stored gunny sacks of potatoes. The voices of my grandparents and great aunt fluted through the rooms as they bantered, laughed, and bickered in German, a language that carries the texture of time and warmth for me. And all the while, whenever I had a chance to sit or lie back uninterrupted, the Tolkein books occupied my attention and loyalties. The world of the Ring sank so deep that, one evening, while walking back with my newly returned parents, from an outdoor Handel concert at the Herrenausen Gardens, I could swear I glimpsed a band of Dwarves marching amidst the woods surrounding the Gardens.
It took me years to recognize that something about Hannover stuck with me and described a solidity in my world that the actual sifting of day-to-day experiences never seemed to coalesce. While writing my travel book about bicycling through Europe alone in 1987 it came to me just how much the spirit of the people and the town of my birth rubbed off onto my inner chalkboard. I came to realize that much as you might like to imagine that your past is a blank, or that the places you sojourn in or pass through never leave traces, in reality all the places you awake in draw scratches in the slate that forms you. Each place speaks through both its landmarks and the voices of the people and creatures that you have encounters with. It is as Gregory Bateson described in “The Ecology of Mind”: all existence is a shifting of balance… nothing that happens is without significance or consequence.
While exchanging comments with Fujiko Suda over her recent viewing of the first movie “The Fellowship of the Ring” and her observation that in both the movie and the books Frodo never really made an impression on her, I spent the evening reminiscing about those first weeks with the Tolkein characters and why they seemed at the time to infuse in me an identification with the German landscape. The books invoked a yearning for connection with a place that I, with my life divided between Japan, the U.S, and Germany, never could quite grab hold of. The books took each of the characters away from the places they held most dear and which defined most succinctly who they were. The interesting development occurred in Frodo himself, who, of all the Fellowship characters, most wanted to follow in the footsteps of Bilbo Baggins and who perhaps least fit into the Shire’s social structure. The further he wandered from the Shire, however, the less defined he became, and the more ephemeral and lost he seemed. For readers such as Fujiko Suda and me, Frodo never grew into a really likeable and identifiable personage… he just flickered out and turned to ashes, it seemed. On the other hand, Sam, Merry, and Pippin, who characterized the very soul of the Hobbit people, and who least wanted to leave the Shire, all began to grow and develop into more than their original counterparts, until all the strangeness and need for calling up heretofore unused emotions sculpted them into characters in full bloom. Frodo didn’t seem to really learn anything, or even lose anything, perhaps because he carried little for the reader to identify with from his ancestral home.
I often wonder if that sense of identity and that sense of place, including knowing the ancestors who shaped you, arise out of being washed in the waters of familiarity with a community. Familiarity takes time and as such a drifter, by definition, cannot accumulate enough duff to be able to express the richness of a place. I’ve spent more than half my life living in Japan, including my childhood, and in many ways it speaks through the timbre of my vocabulary and in my body language and temperament. However, few Japanese myths or folktales have ever evoked such strong sense of identity that the myths, legends, and folktales of Europe have. The same goes for American folktales… somehow they never awoke excitement or longing in me and I easily bored of reading them. The Lord of the Rings breathed European mythology and as such sang the very notes of place that had me devouring the story. I needed something in the books that had to do with place, had to do with a long line that stretched back into time forgotten. And yet, today, I still haven’t found that sigh of relief in knowing exactly where I am and exactly where I wanted to be. Like Frodo the uncertainly hangs around my neck like the Ring.
I envy those who find no crack in the mirror of the place they inhabit and who can, without a moment’s hesitation, look around them and see their ancestors and feel the grounding. The place where your heart discovers rest cannot ask for description; it just knows, because all the voices down the ages rise up in one chorus. The place of belonging is a sound, not a name.