Missives from Mars
I figure I’ve read J.R.R. Tolkiens’ Hobbit and Lord of the Rings about forty times since I was a teen. Twice each year (usually in the Spring and Fall) on long road trips, and during every deployment I made. And each year, but more importantly, each deployment, my reading experience altered.
I was a “callow yout” of nineteen and it was the sunset of the Age of Aquarius, but still the Age of the Stoners, when the first reading happened. The books were bedraggled, late-sixties paperback editions discovered in a used bookstore in Seattle. They had a preface written by someone (whose name I’ve mercifully forgotten) that closed with the usual dreck of the era, blathering about “murderers carrying crosses” and praising the “colonisers of dreams”. I read them in the evenings during that first too-long and mildly boring seven months off Iran (interspersed with much-more-bedraggled copies of Penthouse,) reveling in the imagery of a greedy dragon, dwarves and elves, swords and horses, mountain passages filled with goblins, and pipe-smoking wizards.
The second deployment, some six years later and located a little farther north of the first one, was much shorter and certainly not boring. I’d picked up new, U.K. printed editions of the books complete with gloriously illustrated covers during a stop in Singapore. Reading them was a return to a familiar place, but with a slight dissonance. Perhaps it was because I was reading them not as a fable, but as an author’s work. During those six years in-between, I’d gone to college for an engineering degree on the Navy’s dime. I wrote a mid-term paper on the books for English class, and like the rest of my freshman year, it was not exactly a success. The professor (bless his British heart) suggested I do a little research on the author and his works and submit it again for re-grading. I did well the second time around and continued over the following years reading up on Mr. Tolkien’S body of work.
The reading during that second deployment came to an abrupt end for a while one day. Fortunately someone had been thoughtful enough to pack them in my seabag when they medevaced my broken body to Germany. I read them again while I healed, only now the stories seemed much darker. The idea of “what was back then” clashed with “what is now”. I recall reading a critic’s remarks that science fiction belong to the liberal and the progressive because it “looked forward”, while fantasy was conservative because it “looked back”. It was easy to see where the snobby bastard had placed himself on the spectrum.
The third time reading the books started out almost like the first time but with a pronounced difference. We sailed for three months around Asia, visiting ports, doing exercises and goodwill visits with foreign navies, and looking forward to one final series of port visits around Australia before heading home. That was not to be. We headed for the Gulf for months of escorting carriers and stopping merchant ships.
Then, when the shooting started, it was farther north as a “special platform”, to wear ruts into the waters off Kuwait. It was an almost surreal time, filled with boredom, standing watches and smoking too much, dodging mines (while thanking our lucky stars we weren’t one of the ships that hit them), getting shot at with a Scud that was shot down by the Royal Navy in what was their “last hurrah”, and babysitting the Free Kuwaiti Navy and Amateur Canoe Club. And reading the books off-watch, especially The Return of the King, became especially poignant.
“Do you remember the Shire, Mr. Frodo? It’ll be spring soon, and the orchards will be in blossom. And the birds will be nesting in the hazel thicket. And they’ll be sowing the summer barley in the lower fields. And they’ll be eating the first of the strawberries with cream. Do you remember the taste of strawberries?”
Sorry Sam, I couldn’t. We became inured to the sometime-sight of debris and body parts drifting down from the Bubyan channel. At night, with all our lights out, one could stand outside and see the glow and thunder of bombing over the horizon, like sitting on the back porch watching a distant summer storm . Our world compressed to a routine of watches and sleep, of overflying jets and occasional panic, in an unremarkable patch of the Gulf filled with drifting mines and corpses. There was just the glow on the horizon at night that sometimes illuminated the hulking outline of another ship. There was the strong smell of crude oil and the very faint but constant smell of death. Aside from the intermittent delivery of mail and the AFRTS news-feed, and the blurred outlines of the few other ships around us, we were cut off from the world. After a while one stopped watching the news-feeds. The mail that came might have as well have been missives from Mars.
What it came down to in the end, like Frodo, was The Duty. Reading those books, I saw that one “looks back” because that’s where the lessons are and where one’s foundations are based upon. In the Lord of the Rings, it was the lineage of the Kings, Princes and Princesses of Men that gave them their strength and warned them of their weaknesses. I had my oath and traditions. I had the three classmates I’d lost on the Stark and the Chief from the Sammy Roberts at the hospital, the one with the broken back and nightmares of drowning. I had the memories of the Kuwait refugees who’d been lucky to make it to Muscat, as they tried to explain to relay their own stories, showing the photos of the dead and ruins they’d left behind.
And like Frodo, we came back to the unreality of a world run by Sarumans with their Wormtongues and Millers’ sons. We returned to California and a new squadron, none of whom had Been There. They didn’t understand our grim demeanor and unwillingness to do skits about the war. We returned to a new leadership who had earned their medals in the Beltway wars. We returned to an all-too-sudden and a bit too eager beating of swords into plowshares and the spurning of a possibly good story in Iraq by political expediency. And like re-reading the series, we saw another war take place in the same region a bit less than a decade later after an attack by a new set of Witch Kings of Angmar.
I haven’t read the series for almost twenty years now, what with the movies and the marketing and souvenir swords and commemorative Rings and the hordes of fans that simply adore the ‘LoTR saga’, then give you a blank stare if you ask them if they’ve really read the books.
Last week, while cleaning the garage, I found the original set of books buried among some uniforms in a battered seabag. I nearly put them back and let them get hauled off to storage with the rest of the junk. But I carefully placed them in a pile going to the new place next month.
This winter, if all goes well, I’ll burrow into a chair for a few days and read them again. I don’t know what will happen. Then again, neither did Tolkien as he wrote them.