Saturday, March 11, 2017

Dreaming of Tolkien

I can't help it, I find Saturdays very reflective. So here I am with a third post of the day-- a very personal one,  this time. Proustian, you might say.

Ballymun Road is a road of mostly red-brick houses, as pictured above.  I have to say this as a preliminary, because Ballymun is a predominantly working class area and most people wouldn't think of red-brick houses when they think of Ballymun.

Today I've been remembering a dream I had many years ago-- a dream about one of the redbrick houses on the Ballymun Road, and about J.R.R. Tolkien. It's lingered with me all my life.

I can't remember how old I was when I dreamt this dream-- probably in my teens. 

First, a word about Tolkien and me. I'm not a Tolkien nut, but Tolkien has played a major role in my life. My father loves to boast that I read Lord of the Rings when I was seven. I don't know if I was quite that young, but I did read Lord of the Rings at a very young age-- so young, I barely took in what was happening. I've read it a couple of times since, when I was old enough to appreciate it, but I'm still not the sort of Tolkien enthusiast who can quote what Faramir said to Isildur in the Pelennor Fields while sitting on Shadowfax and munching lembas. (Sorry, Tolkien afficionados, I'm deliberately trying to make you cringe there.)

My older siblings had read Lord of the Rings, so it had a kind of glamour for me. My sister bought me and my brothers the Tolkien Calendar every year, for a few years running towards the end of the eighties. The Tolkien Calendar contains paintings depicting various scenes from the books. So Lord of the Rings, for me, was a little like the Bible must be for someone who's grown up in a Christian culture but who's barely literate. I was steeped in it, while having only a vague knowledge of it.

I dressed up as a hobbit one Halloween and I was very annoyed that my mother wouldn't let me go shoeless outdoors, for authenticity.

By the time I was old enough to actually absorb what I was reading, The Fellowship of the Ring was the only volume of the book that was in the house, for some reason. So I read and re-read the opening chapters, up to the hobbits' encounter with Tom Bombadil. To this day, I have a pretty good knowledge of LOTR up to that, but not much past it.

It was more the concept of Middle Earth that fascinated me-- the idea of a completely realised fantasy world, one that seemed more rarefied and romantic than the real world, with all its crassness and insipidness. 

How dreary I found the real world! The Scottish band Del Amitri had a big hit in Ireland with their song "Nothing Ever Happens", describing the banality of modern life, when I was twelve. I understood exactly what they meant:

Bill hoardings advertise products that nobody needs
While "Angry from Manchester" writes to complain about
All the repeats on TV
Computer terminals report some gains in the values of copper and tin
While American businessmen snap up Van Goghs
For the price of a hospital wing.

So much for background.

In my dream, I was visiting J.R.R. Tolkien, who lived inside one of the redbrick houses on Ballymun Road. I don't think I'd ever been in one of the houses at the time.

Dirk Benedict

There were maps of Middle-Earth up on the walls of his house, and he was smoking his pipe. He was speaking to me about his stories, and he took them very, very seriously. I had the strongest feeling that the air in the house was somehow thicker and heavier than the air outside. In fact, I felt that the inside of the house was more real than the world outside, that Tolkien's imaginary world was more vivid than the outside world.

The dream came into my head a few hours ago, as I was making French toast for lunch, trying to achieve the maximum goldenness and crispiness. French toast, for some strange reason, is also associated in my mind with this whole atmosphere-- the atmosphere with which I associated Lord of the Rings, the atmosphere which was in Tolkien's house in the dream, and the atmosphere with which I also invest cultural nationalism and even the Catholic faith.  Thicker, more ethereal (though that sounds contradictory), more romantic, more poetical, more harmonious...

(I hesitated to add the reference to Catholicism, because I would never want anyone to think my faith is a matter of aesthetics. But there is an aesthetic element to it. I hope I can concede that without anyone suspecting me of purely sentimental Catholicism.)

I remember once, when I was a kid, watching my older sister eat French toast for lunch in her school uniform before she went off to school. She was a teenager and I regarded teenagers as impossibly grown-up and sophisticated. (I also thoroughly approved of school uniforms, as I did all through my own schooling, and as I still do.) That particular uniform was a beautiful burgundy colour. By the time I was halfway through the same school, it was changed for a boring navy colour, which the students themselves chose.

I remember admiring the scent and appearance of the French toast, especially the way the different golds and browns melted into each other. It seemed terrifically sophisticated, and yet ordinary and everyday.

I've always loved that combination. I find it in the use of silhouettes on shop signs. I find it in cinema lobbies. I find it in decorated biscuit tins. 

On the other hand, when I looked at an exhibition of genuine Fabergé eggs, their opulence made me rather queasy. I prefer my sophistication cut-price, thank you very much.

Anyway, that's the memory. What good does this post do anyone? It did me good to write it-- that's enough for me.


  1. I only found out recently that Tolkien helped also with bible translations. He was among a group of names listed in an old bible I was given. unless there was another JRR active in the mid-1900s?

    1. I didn't know this, but you're right. From the Wikipedia page on the Jerusalem Bible:

      "The translation itself has been admired for its literary qualities, perhaps in part due to its most famous contributor, J. R. R. Tolkien (his primary contribution was the translation of Jonah)."

      He also worked on the Oxford English Dictionary, and edited a historic edition of Beowulf.