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Maxime Hortense Pascal, ‘Reading J.R.R. Tolkien’

Maxime Hortense Pascal, novelist and poet, presents a personal and poetic interpretation of the profound effect of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work on the reader; shining an oblique light on the relation between readers and the act of reading, writers and the act of writing.

To read J.R.R. Tolkien is to set ourselves in motion.
It is an unsettling experience, like stepping onto a byroad almost without sensing it, not knowing that there exists a road going so far, or so deep. Probably both.
The books open slowly.
Pacing about, musing over the beginnings.
How did it all start?
There was a being, the One.
He gave the music,
the light inside the jewels,
in the eyes of the Firstborn.
A hobbit smoking a pipe in his hole,
birthday parties working mischievous tricks…

We begin reading, ready to settle down, but already the roots are growing, everywhere rising, writhing. The wind in the language is blowing, seizing us, sweeping us away.

Starting off, the first collision is with language. It is the prime material, the immediate encounter, the very first riddle.

In the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien I never saw a story sprinkled with heroes.
I heard the ringing of names.
Names that call the characters into existence, giving rise to a cosmogony where their deeds, their torments, their stories may take hold.

The writing follows its essential creative path, first naming, then revealing.

Names. The second riddle.
Before the character, its sonic presence.
Before the Ring-bearer, the Name-bearer, invested with the power to deploy an inner consistency, hard-wired implications that shape the course of one’s destiny, and the fate of the world. If an alteration befalls, the cold embrace of shadow or the kiss of light, the name will fall, broken, only to revive later, honed to new keenness.

In his work, names are also on the move.

Whether they suddenly burst onto a sheet of paper; whether they long matured the soil of the mind, or were patiently wrought in the forges of language, names bespeak the weight of authenticity. Their sheer accuracy illuminates Tolkien’s literary skies like a thunderbolt. All of them exude a linguistic harmony without equivocation.
But not without evocation.
Their sounds can be filled with kindness, majesty, ambiguousness, or terror. Reading becomes a sensory experience.

To read Tolkien is to contend with a new way to listen and to envision.
One note for the heart, one for the sweep of adventure; one for the mystery, one for the feeling in your gut. One for fear, one for courage, one for anger; some for tears and for mourning; some others for the feet that set off walking.

The music endures, whether flowing or broken, underneath the words, subterranean. Harmonious or dissonant, it whispers, stirs awesome yet familiar images. The world begins. Catastrophe sets in motion, there and back again. Catastrophe is perpendicular to the world. Where it impacts, Tolkien has written.
Page after page, bough after twig, stone after pebble, the poetic memory of J.R.R. Tolkien remembered the myth, the age-old songs, and spun them anew with words of ancient years echoing.
The beauty of Simple Things, no man can claim for himself.

That music, strewn across the languages, amplifies the echoes. It resonates in their most intimate recesses. Gravelly for the Dwarves; thin for the Successors, crushed under the shadow of Mordor; gushing for the Elves, in major keys. Underscored in all its variations by the continuo of nostalgia.

The tongues of the Elves remember an Age of alliance between the world and the creatures of the world. They send fey winds rustling and quivering in the leaves. They race across prairies. They speak with the voice of rivers, the sighing of the shores, the breathlessness of dying days and silent space, mirrored in the unfailing light of stars.

Unable to forget the songs that flourished before the Fall.
The languages created by Tolkien are spiritual metaphors of loss and absence.

Now to set out, at an ordinary hour of any given day.
The horizon lies ahead, that much is certain.
Getting there is easy
when you know where you’re at.
They know. All of them.
Those who were called to sail across the pages.
Languages are their foundations.

Landscapes will be their haven, their recourse.
Genealogical lines shaping the boughs of their first trees.
Earth is in the Middle.
Valinor lies out West.
The North was for Morgoth, and then
The East slipped into Darkness
The South remains vague.

A shifting scenery where Elves move about, found sanctuaries, flow back, retreat.
Their fluidity is the stuff of the books. That is how they breathe.
The ways of the East loom, the walk may begin.
A step forward, a step inward. Hidden paths that lie untrodden. The only Quest is a search for oneself.

The world was bent.
Its transverseness remains
By the grace of a romance disguised as reality.
Between the lines, between the words, between light and shadow, under cloud or shimmering star, among sheets of paper or the fallen leaves of the Old Forest, the Road, which was lost, is still there.
A secret meridian,
Irrigating the steps of the walkers,
The seekers, those who wander and are lost no more.

There was a child.
He wondered what lived inside the Gaelic names on the train cars, whistling to the tune of the railway.
There was a young man.
Searchingly he scanned the words on pages that spoke of Northern wisdom.
Then he listened for the imperceptible, words that came to him filled with the smooth sounds of fog, and others tinged with the breath of ancient trees, the fragmented whispers of lost kingdoms, the wail of disconsolate things, the break of interrupted tracks: snatches of sound almost inaudible to anyone but J.R.R. Tolkien, standing watchful, heedful to catch them all as they pass, a procession of stories and songs.

There was a man
He heard the sound of absence
He did not fill it in
He listened
To that which had been left unsaid
And would remain unfinished