Living in a Winter’s Dream…

The world outside my window. January 2013.

It’s snowing in Prague today. It’s been falling for two weeks and there’s more snow to come. The world is white. And cold. Well, it’s winter here, so that’s to be expected.

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.


10 thoughts on “Living in a Winter’s Dream…

  1. I am so envious ! I wanna be a Hobbit ! I wanna be a Hobbit !
    Excellent writing about reading…..and writing .
    Enjoy your hearth.But then write write write ,because I want to read read read !

  2. Hope I get around to reading some of these books. Have never read Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit. In the mean time, you write and I’ll quilt. Then I will read what you wrote and you can sit in your comfy chair and (eventually)cover yourself with the quilt.

    • Sounds like a lovely trade to me, Jan. Looking forward to the quilt!

      And by the way, The Hobbit is a book you could read to your grandchildren. They would love it. And having you read it to them… well, it’s something they (and you) would never forget.

  3. Well done, Christopher. Nice study, by-the-way. Tolkien rocks. I was especially impressed the way he can change scenes completely on the next page or even the next paragraph. Much as you did in “Robbers”. The character, Gollum, really scared me. I am haunted by him to this day. I trust him about as far as I can throw him. Oh, that’s right, its fiction, thank goodness.

    • Gollum is awfully creepy, Sonny, that’s a fact. I reckon he is intended to be, representing as he does the twisted nature of greed. It’s as if he has a bottomless pit inside himself and nothing will fill it up except for the thing he obsessively wants to possess.

      Like you, I especially like Tolkien’s ability to entrance us and take us along for the ride, wherever it goes. I also think he has a special talent for describing nature, landscapes, trees and flora. I love his ancient tree characters, the Ents, and their great leader, Treebeard.

  4. In the ‘for what’s worth’ dept…While certain considerations make it settled history that “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” recognized as “the greatest history ever written in any language AND the wittiest of all English Literature, I can only recommend that Chapters 15 and 16 are a must to understand why it was immediately banned when it was released in 1776. But for the easily attainable 2nd best or greatest history, I nominate “The Conquest of Mexico” by William Prescott. This was the first best seller of American writers and he was mostly blind when he began his writing career, writing in Boston at the end of the ‘Little Ice Age’, a combined feat which us modern writers cannot and do not want to match. Prescott wrote with the same parallel sentence structure used by Gibbon and the beauty of the writing is equal to the impossibility of the feat of Cortez. I have never found another book to compare in total effect, although his ‘Conquest of Peru’ is also great, as is Ferdinand and Isabelle, for writing, but not for epic spectacle. Other great epic histories are “Peter the Great” by Robert Massey and then “The Dream and the Tomb”, by Robert Payne. Payne, who wrote “Eyewitness to History”, was there at the Spanish Revolution, met Hitler, Mao and other ‘players’ and wrote biographies of Hitler, Stalin and Gandhi. Another truly great, great history is ”The Blue Nile” by Alan Morehead: the story is quite beyond compare and spans over a century of mystery and discovery. If you buy from Amazon, be sure to get a later date hardback which has many beautiful color plates and a beautiful dust cover, suitable for framing. Morehead also wrote “The White Nile” which is not as great a story but close. After a lifetime of history reading, these are my best suggestions for long reading periods during winter…for those with the time and luxury. Add wine, tea and a fireplace and you really got it going on…

  5. Christopher, found you while looking at Edinas work on FB. Thought I’d say hi to you, if you guys remember me, we met in San Miguel a few years ago.

    I just saw The Hobbit. I know some were let down after waiting so long for it. I liked it, largely the enhanced 3D effects helped.

    It did inspire me to reread the trilogy too,

    Officially semi-retired I can’t wait to see more of Europe. Prague will have to be on that path

    Salud. Patty

    • Hey, Patricia. Very nice to hear from you, glad you enjoyed the trilogy. Congrats on semi-retirement and your plans to travel. Yes, Prague would be a fine destination to put on your itinerary. Lovely place to sight-see. May-June and September-October are perhaps the best times; best weather and fewer tourists.

      Ciao ciao,


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