This is the time of year when I feel most like sitting by the hearth, so to speak, in the cozy warmth of my home, in the big comfortable reading chair beneath the lamp, my feet up, with a cup of hot coffee and a good book.
I am feeling very much like a hobbit, it seems, for this agreeable scene—the cozy home, the comfortable chair, the hot drink, a good book—is what I imagine Bilbo Baggins would be doing if he was here in my place.
Maybe that’s why I was drawn to read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy over the recent holidays. The story of the ring quest—or, more precisely, the quest to get rid of the ring—is a wonderful tale, an exhilarating adventure, and exactly what I needed in the way of a holiday escape.
Afterward, I read Tolkien’s prefacatory book, The Hobbit, which isn’t nearly so good as the trilogy but a fine setup for it, and a biography of J.R.R. Tolkien, from which I learned that he was a longtime student (and teacher) of Icelandic sagas and Norse languages, the fertile northern soil from which he grew his own mythology and created the elf and dwarf languages for his ring stories.
Tolkien was himself a bit of a hobbit, one who lived inside his imagination as much as in the external world, and I found that encouraging for I do much the same. In fact, the older I become the more I prefer my imaginative world to the so-called real one. If this trend continues, by the time I die I will be living altogether in a dream world, much as I did as a fetus inside my mother’s womb. That would close a circle in time, I suppose, an idea that appeals to me.
Since the turn of the new year, having finished my epic journey to Mount Doom to dispose of the One Ring, I’ve continued the reading binge, perhaps as a way of staying close to my imaginary hearth as mid-winter snow piles up outside the door. One does cling to contentment. My reading choices have been eclectic.
I eased into the post-Tolkien reading with a fascinating collection called The Sagas of the Icelanders, with a preface by writer Jane Smiley, for a taste of what has fed so much of northern European literature (and music, too, if you consider something like Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, or The Ring of the Nibelung). Those Vikings were fascinating characters, I must say, and the sagas recount their exploits with a direct, concrete language full of powerful, emotive poetry even though the sagas are narrative in form.
And after that reading adventure I hopped the Atlantic Ocean and many centuries to enter the frontier world of Deadwood, the Dakota Territory, circa 1876, in Pete Dexter’s Deadwood. It was a bit of a shock, that leap, but one I enjoyed a great deal. I’ve never seen the cable TV series Deadwood but I understand many of the characters are the same because both the book and TV series are grounded in real historical events and persons: Wild Bill Hickok, who was murdered in Deadwood, and his pal Charlie Utter, and Calamity Jane, Sheriff Seth Bullock, Sol Starr, the notorious saloon owner Al Swearengen, and a host of others. Dexter’s novel is gritty and funny and sad and gripped my imagination. I could not help but think that the mythic stories of the Wild West are to U.S. Americans what the Icelandic sagas are to northern Europeans.
Then, having spent enough time in Deadwood, I recrossed the Atlantic and shot ahead several decades to visit the late 1930s and early 1940s in Europe, those years of secret intrigue and fiery conflict when a continent brutally cannibalized itself, as recreated in the suspense novels of Alan Furst. I’ve read all his books—they remind me of John le Carré’s work, or what Graham Greene might have written if he’d possessed Martin Cruz Smith’s talent for descriptive detail—so this was a return visit to four of them: Spies of the Balkans (very good), Blood of Victory (also quite good, though the ending is too abrupt), The Foreign Correspondent (another fine story that ends too abruptly), and Dark Star (surely one of his best books). The first three novels above are among his most recent work, and what with their abrupt endings I wonder if Furst isn’t getting a bit tired. Or perhaps he simply gets weary during the writing of each book and now quits when he can go no farther; I understand how that can happen, for writing a novel is a bit like running a marathon. In any case, the more recent novels are still juicy reads and I recommend them. But for a taste of Furst at the top of his game, I recommend earlier works such as Dark Star (1991) and Red Gold (1999).
Well then, enough. See how I’ve wandered about in my wintry dream world? But I suppose that’s what a hobbit does when the ground outside is covered with snow and the air is freezing while the reading chair inside beneath the glow of a lamp is so warm and comfortable.
Meanwhile, my writing desk across the room calls to me. It is feeling lonely. I watch it with a bit of trepidation. Writing, such a hard labor. While reading is such an easy joy. But seasons change, the snow will melt. So I must pull myself from the cushioned chair by the imagined hearth and sit myself in the harder chair at my desk.
Back to work.