Monthly Archives: August 2017

SLOW READINGS: A RETURN TO MIDDLE-EARTH

This post will meander a good deal but keep calm and carry on.
I’m on a Tolkien re-read, the first one for many years for various reasons. Here’s the context: when I retired in 2008 and moved back home to Devon with Andrew, the first major job he commissioned was the building-in of bookcases all over the house – I even allowed him to have some in his office.
Since Andrew’s death I frequently find myself silently thanking him for many things: searching out a lovely retirement home where I still feel safe, and close to him; agreeing to make our retirement near my childhood home, though he had lived in London all his life. But I thank him daily for the bookshelves. I need my books more than ever now, though I have so much support and care from my family and my friends. Books, like cats, are always there for you.
My first reading plan was established as soon as I’d got the books on the shelves. (Andrew said, ‘It won’t take long to unload the boxes, will it dear?’ I said, ‘No, but it will take a while to get the books in order.’ Unlike me, he was neither a great reader, nor indeed a librarian. But he buckled to and helped set up my esoteric scheme.)
Apart from cookery and local interest in the kitchen, Tolkien and stuff in my study, and Andrew’s books and files in his office, the biggest range of shelving is in the living room, where my general fiction is at last in A/Z order and my general non-fiction in my own odd order that makes sense to me. (We’ll leave that alone, I think.)
I decided that I would read/re-read the fiction from A – Z, allowing myself to omit anything I had read too recently or couldn’t face reading again for reasons of gloom, over-familiarity etc. (I hasten to add that we were doing lots of other nice things too – I’ve never read 24 hours a day.) Hence I re-read Austen, left out the Brontes much though I admire them (gloom) and read the whole of Dickens through once more with the exception of A Child’s History of England’ and ‘The Life of Our Lord,’ which both seem to me very sanctimonious. I also read at last the fiction part of my bequest from a dear friend, which I’d not had time to read through while I was still working.
In between each volume of fiction, I read a non-fiction; often from Senate House Library in London, which offers London graduates a delivery service (for a fee.) Or perhaps a newly purchased volum of Tolkien criticism. Bliss.
At the time of Andrew’s sudden death in 2013, I had reached Tony Hillerman. I have a lot of his novels, and dropped the alternating scheme to read through all of them. Good and familiar fiction was a sort of salvation, or at least an occupation to set against the numbness. Reading has been a bulwark ever since, even more perhaps than at other times of my life.
(Are you still there? We have nearly reached Tolkien)
A couple of months ago I reached Z. Now I have swung into stage two, reading through that esoterically arranged general non-fiction, and now alternating it with Tolkien. Beginning with The Hobbit, I have re-read LOTR and The Silmarillion, and am now on Unfinished Tales. (Told you we’d get there.)
As always on re-reading those first two, I am struck by how there’s always something you notice that you haven’t noticed before. I can’t recall for certain how many times I’ve read those two, but it has to be in the high twenties.
But I’m here to recommend slow reading. I’m retired, I live alone, I have the leisure to read these unputdownables at whatever pace I choose. I even read two non-fics in between the three volumes of LOTR. I paused at the end of chapters and deliberately put off the joy or anguish of what I knew to be coming, in order to experience it more deeply. I even did that at some of the section breaks, the double-spacing, to slow down the speed.
It’s been like experiencing a whole new author, new world, and new books. I lived with and in Middle-earth more completely than I ever have before. I’m always recommending people to take these texts more slowly and selectively, for example when people ask advice on reading the Silmarillion because they find it so different from LOTR. Yet this is the first time I’ve actually done that.
I’ve written all this to celebrate the joys of slow reading and slow reflection, hoping it might lead some of you to try it, and to feel that difference of approach refreshing you understanding and pleasure. It’s certainly reminding me of how much Tolkien has meant in my life. I do seriously wonder who I might have turned out to be if I had never met ‘The Lord of The Rings.’
The only caveat is that it wreaks havoc with keeping your annual commitment on Goodreads on track!

court-of-the-sun

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SELECTED SHADOWS 49

When Drewin woke, the first thing he heard was a loud snoring from Vodorian, who had rolled over in his sleep and was sprawled halfway across the passage. Drewin shook him awake.

‘Come on; time for breakfast!’

‘How do you know it’s breakfast?’ Vodorian grumbled.  But soon he was fully awake. They made ready to continue their journey and set off.

‘And now we are on our way, towards the future, Vodorian, can you tell me where we are going?’

‘No.’

‘Why are we going this way then?’

‘It is the only way to go. Upwards: towards the light.’

Beneath the mountains

CATALOGUE 114: NOW WE ARE TWO

While I’ve been self-indulgently regaling you with bits of my deathless prose, I’ve not forgotten what really interests you – the cats.

It’s now about two months since we lost Mystic, and the evolution of Fluff’s and Felix’s adjustment to the loss of a companion they’ve know since kittenhood has been quite slow. But fascinating; and very expressive of their different characters.

Felix showed no sense at all of being aware that something had changed, but then Felix is the most solipsistic cat I have ever lived with, bless him. The one change in his behaviour in the early days was to start hitting Fluff instead.

Fluff did look for Mystic; their relationship had been relatively warm and close. For a heart-breaking couple of weeks he produced an entirely new call, and called it all round the garden for some time each day. However, he stuck to old habits, such as always sitting beside me on the sofa on the grounds that my lap was bound to be occupied; he genuinely didn’t seem to apprehend that there was a cuddle-gap. Since Felix remains standoffish, in spite of moving from ‘his’ dining-room to the chair in the hall, which is at least nearer to me and Fluff, he did not fill the gap either, and for a few weeks I felt quite lost with an empty lap each evening. Handy for making coffee whenever I wanted, and for reading large books without squeezing them up to my nose, but curiously lonely.

Now there is further change. Both cats are more relaxed, although they continue to lead parallel lives on the whole, not growing any closer to each other. Each of them is growing closer to me, and of course one element in this is that my attention is less divided. Mystic was a very frail ill cat for many months, and they both sensed that I prioritised him. This infuriated Felix while Fluff was very tolerant of it.

There are fewer flashpoints between them now except of course at meal times, when I still gently take Felix into his room while I prepare the food, then serve the food in separate rooms. A shame in some ways but it avoids violence, and Felix is content with it since he now associates being put in his room for a few minutes with the arrival of the next meal.

Even now, Fluff looks around as he gets near the end of his meal to see whether he can swap plates, as he used to do with Mystic, but I can’t do that because of Felix’s special diet. I hope he’ll gradually leave this behind too.

Now I frequently have one or other cat on my lap, but suspect that cuddling both at once is just not going to happen. They are calm and healthy and see to feel secure. Loving the garden now summer has generously agreed to appear.

Missing Mystic very much, but loving cuddly Fluff and serious-minded Felix.

Just read this through and concluded yes, I am definitely mad.

photo0039  sleepy-fluff

 

SELECTED SHADOWS 48

The reply came from nearby. ‘No need to shout. I am over here.’

Drewin looked towards the sound, and realised that he was now in an open chamber several times the width that the tunnel had been. Over to his right he could just make out a squat dark shape on the cavern floor. He started to move towards it, but was stopped by an urgent shout.

‘Don’t come any closer! This is some sort of trap: I don’t know how I sprang it, or how to get out of it, but I don’t think it would help for you to fall into it too.’

Drewin could dimly see what looked like a very short fat man. As his eyes adjusted to the light he realised that the man was of a normal size, but was buried up to the waist in the floor of the cave and had a huge pack attached to his back. The stranger said nothing as Drewin lowered himself to the ground and crawled slowly forward, feeling the ground as he went. He gradually approached the trapped man, but the rock stayed firm and he found no cracks or loose stones: it was solid rock.

Now that he was closer, Drewin could see the other’s face quite clearly. The two men smiled at each other. Neither said anything for a moment, then the stranger shrugged and spoke.  ‘It looks as though this trap is just for me. But be careful, it may yet catch you.’

CAVE

SELECTED SHADOWS 47

Drewin was lying on coarse sand, half covered in seawater. He was cold and stiff and tired, as if he had been on a long hard journey. He sat up with difficulty and looked around him. There was just enough light to allow him to see that he was in a narrow, smooth-sided cave. One end was flooded with black water, and the other sloped gently upwards. The ceiling was just high enough to allow Drewin stand upright, but sloped down towards the flooded end and into the water: it was as though a corridor was leading out of the water into the air. Drewin stood up and walked with difficulty up the slope and along the passage.

The light grew brighter as he walked along, and after some time he came to its source: there was a burning torch, like those in the Cavern, fixed to the cave wall at about head height. Drewin stopped and looked at it curiously for a while, then peered about him for other signs of life. There were none: the cave was completely bare. He continued on his path, away from the light and into increasing gloom. Before he had moved far, Drewin found the sand underfoot gradually diminishing until there was only a thin layer on the solid rock floor.

CAVERN LIGHT

 

SELECTED SHADOWS 46

‘Where was I? Oh yes, Vodorian. Well, he was a strange fellow and the people of Imman in those days were simple folk and cautious. They saw that he had some store of wisdom – magic, some of them said – and they did not object to taking advantage of his skills. But they were not quite comfortable with him, and asked if he would mind removing himself to the small island yonder, where his tower still stands; the sorcerer’s tower, they call it to this day, and after all these centuries they still fear it. So that is why the island is called Vodor’s isle.’
Kor-Sen paused for refreshment.
‘What became of this sorcerer, Master?’
‘He went away to the north across the sea, hundreds of years ago by all accounts. Some say he flew away on a dragon, some that he changed himself into a swan, some that he swam from island to island until he reached the lands of Akent; still others say that he took passage on a ship in the usual way.’
‘And what do you think, Master?’
‘I? Oh, I can believe anything if I need to. But do you not wish to know who he was?’
‘You said he was a sorcerer.’
‘I said people long ago called him that. For although he aged slowly, still he did age, and so they thought of him as just a mortal creature like themselves, with some rather special abilities. But I have researched the matter for many years; and I have found out who Vodorian really was.’

VODOR'S ISLE

SELECTED SHADOWS 45

Some weeks passed quietly in this way; then one evening when Saranna came home from the market, Kor-Sen was not there. She went through to the kitchen and put all her purchases carefully away. Then she came back to the main room, sat down by the window, and waited, staring out across the courtyard. The setting sun was reddening the slow trickle of the fountain; and though Saranna sat watching while the dusk fell thicker and thicker into the square, and the sky above grew black, and the first stars began to shine; still Kor-Sen did not come. She grew stiff and cold and tired; so she got up and walked once about the room, then twice. She lit a fire in the brazier and drank a little milk. Then she went back to her seat at the window, shivering in the cold night air; but still he did not come.

As the grey dawn filled the courtyard, Kor-Sen came creeping up the stairs. He opened the door, and slipped in, tripping over a footstool which fell with a muffled sound on the rich carpet. It was enough to wake Saranna, who sat up in her chair and stared at him.

”Kor-Sen; oh, where have you been?’

He took two steps more into the room, and fell over a low table. Grinning up at Saranna from the carpet, he replied, ‘Drinking!’

Travelling 1

SELECTED SHADOWS 44

Kor-Sen hurried Saranna in through the gates and under a great vaulted archway into an inner courtyard, exactly square and surrounded on all four sides by identical buildings, with rows and rows of the same small windows that Saranna had seen on the outer facade. All the windows were regularly arranged, and at each corner, where the buildings joined, there stood a huge cuboid tower, each one exactly like the others. From the top of each tower a vast rectangular flag strained in the wind from the sea, and on each was a design of four squares, arranged so that they sat separately in the four corners of the flag. Dull red was the colour of the flags, and the sections were outlined in silver. ‘What does the pattern on the flag mean?’
Kor-Sen stopped in surprise. ‘Oh! Well, each silver square stands for one branch of learning, and the red field is for the mind that encompasses them.’
‘What are the four branches?’
‘They are Number; Language; Form; and Thought.’
‘And are they all separate, like the squares?’
Kor-Sen had come back to stand before Saranna, and by his smile he was amused at her questions. ‘So the Masters of learning here believe, anyway. Each one must choose one discipline and specialise in it if he or she wishes to become a Master. But there is one exception to that rule.’
‘And who is that?’
Kor-Sen bowed. ‘It is myself – Kor-Sen the foreigner. I have mastered all their silly Branches, and by rights should be Convenor of the Academy.’

arundel-castle-quadrangle (FOR DRELK ACADEMY)

SELECTED SHADOWS 43

After a while Saranna became aware of a burst of activity among the crew. She looked around her and saw that they were guiding the boat with great care between some small islands and the main coast of Imman. To her right now she could see the low coastline, and even the dust of travellers on the coast road. Ahead was the harbour of Drelk; Saranna stood up to see better, and as she did so Kor-Sen hurried back to her. She found herself trembling with her new awareness of him, with the shock of his closeness. He put an arm around her to steady her, and she almost cried out.

‘See, Saranna, now we are coming into the harbour; see how calm it is, and what great numbers of small boats and big ships can lie safe here? There is no other harbour so fine in all the Islands.’

‘Yes, it is splendid. And what are those great buildings up on the hills?’

‘There are three hills, and on that one directly ahead of us now is the temple of Iranor – Irnor, they call her. Over to the left is the House of Knowing; the Academy. On the hill to the right are many great houses belonging to the rich and powerful merchants; below, around the harbour, are the houses of more humble folk, and south a little are the docks and shipyards and warehouses.’

‘And where will I find an inn?’

DRELKPORT

SELECTED SHADOWS 42

Saranna looked up at the great rock-faces on either hand.

‘It is as if some giant had chopped through the rock with a huge axe,’ she said.

‘The people of Dor believe that the gap was made in the time of the Grief of Iranor, when she cast the moon into the heavens and wept for her lost children.’

Saranna stood still with a gasp.

‘These cliffs are so old, Kor-Sen!’

‘Indeed. And immeasurably old is the tale of the Grief of Iranor. In the time before time her children were lost to her, and cast away on the sea, they say.’

She stared at him.  ‘But – – then I do not understand the workings of time, Kor-Sen.’

‘Does anyone?’ He spoke lightly, but seeing that she was really puzzled he leaned closer and put a gentle arm about her.

‘Saranna, do not be distressed. You have years ahead of you to live, miles to wander in the world. I have found some things clearer, and many less clear, as I have grown older. There is so much we shall never understand. But now – it is supper-time, and there is a good inn by the harbour; I can hear the ale calling to me from here!’

full_moon