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‘I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo.

‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us’.

One hundred books! Oh my eyes are tired. To celebrate I chose to re-read for the umpteenth time the first book in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. I read The Hobbit and then its larger sequel while I was still in school towards the end of the 1980’s. In many ways the experience defined my taste in reading ever since, so I felt the choice for today was appropriate. What’s more returning to this book I find much that is familiar; but also many elements of Tolkien’s writing that I did not notice before.

As this is a sequel to the popular novel The Hobbit, Tolkien begins by returning to the Shire, where a race known as hobbits once lived centuries ago during a time known as Middle-Earth. Bilbo Baggins the hero of that book is celebrating his 111th birthday and has chosen to travel once more on the open road, leaving his home and possessions to young Frodo Baggins. His old friend, the wizard Gandalf the Grey, arrives in the Shire to see him off. Before Bilbo leaves the wizard asks that he bequeath his magic ring to his heir, won during his adventures in a contest of riddles with the creature Gollum. At first the old hobbit refuses, shaking with anger, but he eventually relents. He leaves the Shire, suddenly feeling as if he has been unburdened.

Years pass before Gandalf returns to Frodo’s home in Bag End, revealing that the magic ring hidden for all this time is in fact The Great Ring, forged by the Dark Lord Sauron to command all the races of Middle-Earth. Frodo decides to flee the home he loves so well, knowing that as long as he stays all his friends are in danger. Gandalf encourages him to leave in secret, for there are spies from the east, the land of Mordor, abroad looking for news of the Ring.

Accompanied by his trusty man-servant Sam, and friends Merry and Pippin, Frodo leaves the Shire just in time. The party of hobbits have several close escapes from mysterious Black Riders hunting them, even at one point seeing one sniffing the ground like an animal. They are also faced with other dangers during their journey, such as the powerful Old Man Willow and the dread Barrow-Wights. Eventually they meet a ranger who is known as Strider, who offers to help them travel to the safe haven of Rivendell. Only after a terrifying chase do they make it to the house of Elrond Half-Elven. There a final council is held to decide what to do with the Great Ring and Frodo realizes he has little choice but to bear it into the kingdom of Mordor itself. Only there at the volcano where it was first forged can it be destroyed.

In my opinion The Fellowship of the Ring is the best of the three published books that make up Tolkien’s epic story The Lord of the Rings. For one it bridges the charming tone of The Hobbit with the increasingly more grandiose quality of its sequel. The Shire is shown to be sheltered from the greater dangers of Middle-Earth and Tolkien’s love of the bucolic lifestyle of hobbits is unfeigned. Years after reading this book I discovered a painting by Pieter Bruegel The Land of Cockaigne, which perfectly captures this contrast.

This almost childlike innocence of Frodo and his friends is threatened by the malign evil of the Black Riders. They appear in each of the three books, yet I never found them as frightening as when they were chasing hobbits down country lanes. Evil is a great concern of Tolkien’s, here identified as the corruptive influence of power. Sauron exists to pervert life and cheat death. The Christian subtext in the novels favours the worthiness of innocent hobbits over mighty warriors.

It is also a book about the passing of things, representing Tolkien’s idyllic vision of his childhood. Repeatedly he describes how magic is leaving the world of Middle-Earth, leaving the world of men behind.

Like a warm blanket, I enjoyed sinking into it for a day.

Shortly Tom came upon the juvenile pariah of the village, Huckleberry Finn, son of the town drunkard. Huckleberry was cordially hated and dreaded by all the mothers of the town because he was idle, and lawless, and vulgar, and bad – and because all their children admired him so, and delighted in his forbidden society and wished they dared to be like him. Tom was like the rest of the respectable boys in that he envied Huckleberry his gaudy outcast condition, and was under strict orders not to play with him. So he played with him every time he got a chance.

I find it amazing how often a story heralded as a classic soon becomes divorced from any sense of what made it special in the first place. I am sure everyone is familiar with the story of Tom Sawyer and can conjure up in an instant the appearance of Tom’s friend Huckleberry Finn. The story has been filmed countless times, there was even a Soviet version in 1947, but to people of a certain age who grew up in the 80’s, I imagine this is the version you are most familiar with. What I find surprising is that my would-be ‘knowledge’, of the book is a pale and diluted imitation of Twain’s work, still full of wit and vigour.

There’s a line in The West Wing that I’ve always been fond of – Ich hub uuz deh gebracht which apparently is Yiddish for ‘I’m having the strongest memory’. When I started reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer I suddenly found myself remembering an afternoon sitting in class in a Christian Brothers school in Ballyfermot, Dublin. The teacher would sometimes read books to us, including J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe inspiring in me a life-long love of reading, particularly fantasy novels. On this day she read to us from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and chose the scene where Tom meets Becky Thatcher. My teacher enjoyed putting on the accents and started to imitate that high-pitched drawl common to Southern belles. Suddenly I felt my cheeks burning, my shoulders tensed and I found myself trying to squeeze beneath my desk. Strange new feelings of excitement, embarrassment and shame came over me. It was very unsettling, the sensation alien and perplexing.

It strikes to the heart of Twain’s writing, however, which is to depict the adventures of his child heroes in the American South with all the nostalgic innocence that is demanded, but also allowing for the adult intrigues and mysteries that children witness without fully understanding.

Tom Sawyer is an impulsive, yet fiercely intelligent young boy, living with his Aunt Polly, half-brother (and snitch) Sid and cousin Mary. He is forever getting into scrapes of one kind of another, fighting in the streets, or exploiting the gullibility of the other children. He runs a rapid trade in bartering marbles and curiosities. The incident with the white picket fence that occurs at the beginning of the novel is two-fold scheme of Tom’s that allows him to pocket the many odds and ends offered to him by the other boys in tribute, and fool his Aunt into thinking he has completed his punishment. He enjoys playing Robin Hood with Joe Harper. They both know the book by heart and recite each line as they trade blows. The arrival of Becky Thatcher sets Tom to wooing her, with his own particular take on ‘engagement’.

Of course Huckleberry Finn is the most well-known of Tom’s companions, who lives the kind of life that Sawyer desperately wants to lead. While he goes to school and attempts to learn Bible verses for prizes, Huck Finn wanders the town at his leisure, sleeps wherever he chooses and does not care to dress in his Sunday best. One night the boys stumble upon a sight that terrifies them, something far more horrible than anything they could have dreamt of in all their imaginary adventures as pirates on the high seas, or thieving in Sherwood Forest. The murderous Injun Joe stalks Tom’s dreams as he tries to decide what to do in this all-too-real adventure.

Twain writes in a manner that is familiar and warm, yet also cutting. Real romance and real adventure occur in childhood, everything afterwards is just an echo. His descriptions are dense, yet essential to the breezy mood. A beautiful read.

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