Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Why Tolkien? A member's Personal Statement

Editor's Note:
From Anthony and Jessica:
As we begin celebrating the society's 10th Anniversary, we will hear from long time members, whether contributing directly to our site, via our forthcoming podcast, or at events. One member, Namiko Hitotsubashi and her family, have been members since 2003.  We are very grateful to the Hitotsubashi family for their extraordinary contributions to society functions.  We are equally happy to know that Namiko went on to study at Wheaton College with Professor Michael Drout, who needs no introduction to his work within Tolkien academia. Below is Namiko's submission about how she came to love the works of Tolkien, followed by one of her poems she has submitted to us. 
We have invited Namiko to participate in contributing feature articles and news on our site, and reports direct from Wheaton upon her return to school.
So without further ado, here is Namiko's "Personal Statement."

Personal Statement
I was almost 12 when I first read The Lord of the Rings, and it opened up a whole new world and had an enormous impact on my life. It took me nearly a year to actually pick up the enormous volume, complete with yellowed pages and tiny print. But by the time I got past the first half of "The Long Expected Party", I was swept away on the quest that would make me what I am now, and will surely continue to have great effect on what I become.

The Lord of the Rings shaped so much of my early teen years that many of the things I am interested in today are a direct result of that early enjoyment, and its effects are material as well as mental.

When you walk into my room, one of the things that will very likely catch your attention is the bookshelf by the window, dedicated to books on the Celts and Anglo-Saxons, including Beowulf and C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, books on Celtic castles, field guides of birds and trees, and above all, an entire shelf devoted to J.R.R. Tolkien’s books. Biographies, his letters, three different copies of the trilogy, movie books, essays on his works, a number of the Histories of Middle-Earth, and some of his other, less popular stories. It grows as quickly as I can afford, and much less quickly than I should like.

It could be said that it was not only great love, but also an obsession. I re-read the trilogy or listened to it unabridged on tape so many times that I lost count after about twenty-five readings, and assume that, by now, I’ve reached thirty. I adored The Silmarillion (I still do, in fact) and was completely undeterred by the plethora of nearly identical names. I even memorized two or three of the most important elvish family trees complete with their Finarfins, Fingolfins, Finrods, Fingons, Amrass Amrods, Angrods and Aegnors. It took me longer to get through the Histories of Middle Earth that encompassed Tolkien’s writing of the trilogy, and even longer to read the four that preceded them, but I enjoyed them all, and look forward, with great pleasure, to reading the rest. I enjoyed as fully The Unfinished Tales; indeed, how could I not, when I learned more of Numenor and Rohan?

As far as where these loves lead me, it is, perhaps, not surprising that Beowulf’s story should captivate me. It’s quite likely that I would have read Beowulf anyway but, after the Elves, the Rohirrim were the people that won my heart, and won it more permanently than even the Elves. Their culture, their love of horses and music, and their love of heroism drew me like a magnet, and that same magnet drew me to Beowulf. I think it may actually have been the movies that fueled my passion for Rohan, but they were so true to the books as far as Rohan was concerned, it really might as well have been the same thing. But I think seeing the fields; the Great Hall, the horses, the culture, and then also hearing the music and the language made me thrill more than anything else. After that, the transition from Meduseld to Heorot and from the Horse Lords to the Spear Danes was quite a natural one. It was a delight finding that a people very like the Rohirrim really did exist, though perhaps not in a quite as horse-centric culture as I should have liked. The fact that the Rohirrim spoke Old English also intrigued me. To know there was a real language, albeit a dead one, that I could actually learn and read things in was tantalizing, though it took me five years to actually start learning it.

That love of things Anglo-Saxon and for fairy-tales and the search for more stories as wonderful as Tolkien’s led me to a love for things even older, and I was not disappointed. The stories of the British peoples, The Mabinogion among them, fit very well with my love for Middle Earth. In these centuries, many of Tolkien’s peoples found counterparts. The Rohirrim could stand for a horse instead of ship-based Germanic people with their fair hair, love of war and the fierce valor of an idealistic version of a real society. Similarly, one could see a tie with the Dunlandings and the British peoples driven by these war-like Northerners into the hills to make their livings in harsh and unfriendly conditions, feeding their hatred, and longing to return. Though the Britons were not working for evil, as the Dunlandings were who fell under the influence of Saruman.

Gondor, in some ways, could have been Rome or Byzantium, the land of a people made war-like more through the necessity of defense and partly through their nature. Gondor like Rome built great buildings and monuments that would outlast the people who built them. The ruins in the forest of Ithilien and the half-destroyed city of Osgiliath are reminiscent of the Roman roads and forts that remain spread over the old empire centuries after Rome collapsed. The Gondorians are learned and wise, as the Romans were; though less generally corrupt -- with the exception of Denethor, driven mad as he was by the Palantir. In Faramir we have a man who could stand in the company of men like Brutus and Germanicus; men, loved by the people, great in war and in council -- though I doubt even they could have compared favorably with him. Again, Tolkien’s heroes were of a higher cast than the men of our world.

Even in the enemies of the free peoples there are counterparts. The Corsairs of Umbar, who strike terror into their foes at the sight of their black sails, are vaguely reminiscent of the Vikings who could sail far up shallow rivers in their great long boats and by the sight of their ships and their reputation alone, could make brave men tremble.

Not only did the feeling that what I read was history of a time lost to us draw me, but also there were several characters that also drew me to them as I found mirrors of myself in them, or loved them fiercely for their heroism and for what they represented. The foremost among these, and still the dearest to me, were Arwen, Éowyn, Aragorn, Faramir and Éomer.

The very Anglo-Saxon-ness of Éomer is what, I think, drew me to him. Here was a brave warrior who led his éored, and later his country, to battle and glory in the defense of right and to avenge the death of loved ones, with his golden hair and “the white horsetail on his helm floating in his speed.” And then this same golden prince rides up before the walls of Minas Tirith and beholding his fallen uncle and sister, charges in grim and hopeless despair at the head of the Rohirrim as they cry “Death!” and sweep all before them. That portion never ceases to chill me even as I’m swept away by the roaring tide of horsemen thundering across the plains thirsting for vengeance. And later in the same chapter:

"Stern now was Éomer’s mood, and his mind clear again. He let blow the horns to rally all men to his banner that could come thither; for he thought to make a great shield-wall at the last, and stand, and fight there on foot till all fell, and do deeds of song on the fields of Pelennor, though no man should be left in the West to remember the last King of the mark. So he rode to a green hillock and there set his banner, and the White Horse ran rippling in the wind.

Out of doubt, out of dark, to the day's rising

I came singing in the sun, sword unsheathing.

To hope’s end I rode and to heart’s breaking:

Now for wrath, now for ruin and a red nightfall!

These staves he spoke, yet he laughed as he said them. For once more lust of battle was on him; and he was still unscathed, and he was young, and he was king: the lord of a fell people. And lo! Even as he laughed at despair he looked out again on the black ships, and he lifted up his sword to defy them.”

Of course, it is Aragorn in the black ships, and they are saved, but the way Tolkien wrote about the Rohirrim never failed to move me, and there are only a handful of passages unrelated to Rohan that stir my blood like this. This love for glory, even though none be left alive to hear of it, is very Anglo-Saxon. One only has to recall the Anglo-Saxon poet’s description of Beowulf’s thirst for glory, and the bravery so greatly esteemed by them. They were indeed a people who would laugh at despair and defy it, even as it loomed above them to crush them. I rejoiced in his valor and gloried in his deeds and in Rohan. Here was the prince on his white horse, even if he paled in comparison with the returning king.

Faramir I loved because of his greatness of character and his heroic and upright nature. He was a respite for the Hobbits, who were weary with wandering in the wild, and a shining ideal for me as he faced temptation and turned it away with a nobility and steadfastness of purpose the likes of which we seldom see today.

If Faramir is a shining ideal of nobility and steadfastness, Aragorn is the epitome of heroism and selfless service, as well as those same qualities that I spoke of in Faramir. Indeed, they are very alike, those two, and yet, Faramir is almost but the shadow of all that Aragorn is. Added to this is the fact that Aragorn is the returning king. He’s the one who is going to heal so many of the hurts of his people and restore glory to his people. How could I not adore him? How could I not see in him every thing I wanted both for myself and in others?

Arwen was originally the least of these, because our characters seemed so wholly unalike, but also the earliest of them. In the beginning it was for the more superficial reason that I have dark hair, and she was the only woman who did also. So I embraced the movie version that had her galloping on horseback, and allowed me to have a warrior’s part as my golden-haired best friend played Éowyn in the countless skits and scenes that all my friends and I re-enacted. But now after years of “being Arwen” and growing up a bit, I am able to clearly see and admire the real Arwen’s patience and perseverance as she waited for her love to gain his crown and her father’s consent, very likely in continuous fear for his life as he rode tirelessly for the free peoples of Middle-Earth.

In Éowyn, there is a character that I can understand to the utmost, though I did not at first, most assuredly. I loved her because she got to ride and fight and win glory and be the equal of the men. No waiting meekly for the men-folk at home for her, or so I thought. Yet once one looks past the heroic deeds on Pelennor Fields and sees what led her there, one sees that she was left behind so often before in the melancholy splendor of the Great Hall while her beloved lord and uncle fell into dotage. She was left at home to wait till her brother and cousin returned from war with renown and feats of arms to their names, while she was forced to remain, a trapped eagle in the cages of custom and duty. As she bitterly says to Aragorn: "Shall I always be chosen? Shall I always be left behind when the Riders depart, to mind the house while they win renown, and find food and beds when they return?"

Loneliness must have also been an enormous factor. Age-mates at Edoras seemed to consist of her brother, and her cousin, the latter of whom was actually more than thirteen years her senior, and they were seldom there. Her life, if this is the case, consisted almost solely of taking care of her uncle, alone but for him and for Grima poor companions for a young woman of vigor and spirit. Her only comfort could have been duty, but it was also her jailer. But for duty she could have long ago ridden to battle, if not openly with the consent of her relatives, then disguised as she did later. I understood her loneliness and need for escape, to some degree, the loneliness, certainly, having watched three of my closest friends move away in rapid succession. By the time I read The Lord of the Rings, one of the friends had moved back, and I had made another and closer friend, this perhaps did not resonate so much at first. But then the whole cycle repeated itself, and she moved away too, and suddenly Eowyn's plight became clearer to me. And certainly once I contracted Mono and was forced to stay at home by exhaustion, both the cage and the despair became very real to me as I encountered them in myself. To escape and do deeds worthy of song would have been nearly as welcome to me as they were to her. She, most assuredly was braver and much better able to do heroic deeds than I, and her despair was certainly deeper and longer lasting than mine, but it gave us so much more in common than the love of brave deeds and horses.

Immersed as I was in Tolkien’s world it is perhaps unsurprising that poetry just flowed out of me, and it was equally natural that I should, unconsciously at first, imitate much of what I read. A perfect analogy for it is: Tolkien and his works had the same effect on me as the Elves had on Samwise. They spoke to his soul, and their beauty, wisdom and elvish-ness satisfied the longings of his simple, wondering heart. Yet he was aware, as I was, that as their world wasn’t for him, as much as he should long for it. Similarly, I could not actually live in Middle-Earth, as much as I wished to.

As I was writing about Tolkien’s world, and as many of his turns of phrase were stored up in my mind, it is unsurprising that I emulated his language, mood, and form. Later, this became more deliberate as I ventured into the land of alliterative poetry with his poems to guide me.

I was so immersed in his language that when I wrote about his characters and places, I stayed very close his imagery, rather like the way the moon reflects the light of the sun without meaning to. The vision of light, strength and beauty that is Galadriel is captured in Tolkien’s poem, and reached for in mine. Mine could almost be a poetic endeavor by some later poet who, like Sam, was moved by the elves to create poetry that was original while still retaining consciously and subconsciously borrowed elements.

The most striking similarity in language shows up between a poem I wrote about Galadriel and the verse that Tolkien has Gandalf recite to the Rohirrim about her.

Tolkien                                                                                             Me

“In Dwimordene, in Lórien                                                        Galadriel, Galadriel, crowned in gold

Seldom have walked the feet of men,                                         Fairest, strongest to behold.

Few mortal eyes have seen the light                                            Cold is the water of thy well

That lies there ever, long and bright.                                       In Lóthlorien where elves yet dwell.

Galadriel! Galadriel! …

Clear is the water of your well;                                  Galadriel, Galadriel crowned in gold

White is the star on your white hand                           Fairest, strongest to behold,

Unmarred, unstained is leaf and land                        Fair are the hands that bear a ring

In Dwimordene, in Lórien                                              In Lórien where elves yet sing.

More fair than thought of Mortal Men.”

Tolkien’s works also inspired me to try my hand at my own prose, manifested itself in the form of an original fantasy/fiction novel which has now reached three hundred pages, and is approaching it’s climax after three years of rewrites and temporary abandonment, as well as a plethora of original and derivative stories. While this too would probably have ended up happening, Tolkien has definitely influenced my writing style, and my choices of stories. Almost every single one involves warriors and swords and far away kingdoms in lands vaguely reminiscent of Middle-Earth, or the places that inspired them.

Part of the impetus for this project was that I wanted more such stories, and hadn’t yet found them, so I resorted to writing my own, and another reason was that I wanted a character for of my own that could do whatever I wanted her to do. This is why, originally, my character was a warrior princess to the fullest extent. She was an equal of the men from the get go, and rather overly powerful and heroic. As both the story and I grew and matured, I toned her down lot, and she morphed into something more believable, while retaining the ability to go off and have adventures and fight evil. But she began that way because I wanted my own high, heroic story of far off days and times, told in glowing terms and remembered as great. In modern day America, that desire was impossible to fulfill, so I made do as best I could with the stuff of my imagination. As I read more, I found that there were many such stories, though none as personally satisfying as Tolkien’s, nor as rich.

Tolkien gave me the key, as the Anglo-Saxons say, to ‘word-horde unleac’ or ‘unlock the word-horde’ of late Celtic and early Medieval English history, mythology and literature, and woke the desire to know more of the places, people and events that inspired The Lord of the Rings.

"Lord of the Mark" a Tolkien inspired poem by Namiko Hitotsubashi

Lord of the Mark
Silver-white horse and king of old,
Galloping over the green Westfold.
To the fields of war he rides and rides
Covering the ground with flying strides.

To Celebrant, to Gondor's aid
With golden horn and silver blade.
Calling in the wind he goes
No fear, no sorrow, no death he knows.

The years have flown, the darkness grows
A new king comes, a new horn blows.
A snow-white horse and king of old,
Galloping over the green Westfold.

To Pelennor, to Gondor's aid,
With golden horn and silver blade.
Banner of green with horse of white
Straight and sure as arrow in flight.

To the fields of war he rides and rides
Covering the ground with flying strides.
Calling in the wind he goes
No fear, no sorrow, no death he knows.

The dark is gone, the sun appears
Shining on their silver spears.
The old king falls, a new king comes,
And leads them forth to a glorious dawn.

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