We are a family of Tolkien geeks.
It all started in Comptche back in the early 90s. As a newlywed couple my ex-husband Mike and I moved onto Flynn Creek Road to build a retirement home out of a shack on a hillside for his mom Joyce and stepdad D’Arcy. When I say the place was sparse, I mean it: no running water, no electricity, no phone, and a very scary spider-filled outhouse way too far away down a steep hill (think Shelob, the giant Hobbit-eating spider. If she were alive and well in Comptche, she would live there). The only other thing in the cabin aside from some old reclining chairs was a rickety bookshelf. On that shelf were some marine knot demo books, fishing instruction manuals, and three books I had somehow never read before, a trilogy: The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien (LOTR). The books that would change my life and the lives of my kids in curious ways.
That first summer was spent building pathways and a road to the cabin, and learning how to retrieve water on the side of the Comptche-Ukiah Road at the trough. Our only water came from the trickling pipe out of the hillside just east of the 6.22 mile marker. Our shower was a tall metal bucket up on the porch with a spigot at the bottom and a flat piece of wood to stand on below it: You had to lather up first or you wouldn’t make yourself endure the cold stream from above (ice-water swimming triathlete Wim Hof would have been proud). All stated to imply that while reading the LOTR books, I could completely relate to the plight of ease-seeking hobbits building fires to cook on and “roughing it” outside of their usual comfort levels.
We had hung up a hammock and during down times I would sway under the redwoods and read all those books on the shelf, starting with The Fellowship of the Ring. I was working on my Master’s thesis at the time and was probably one of the first “telecommuters” at California State University, Long Beach. I had taken all of my classes but I was still writing my thesis project in Comptche. I had arranged to travel the 535 miles to the CSULB English Lit department every couple of months to meet up with my mostly male professors and “check in” about my somewhat feminist-themed creative writing project. As I read The Fellowship of the Ring that first time, I was admittedly quite the snob. The female characters were shallow at best, and too few. Like a passing necessity. I grew frustrated with the lack of woman power in Tolkien’s work. And if I had a dime for every time Tolkien shifted character point-of-view, I would have a lot of dimes. Mike can attest I would often stop and read a sentence aloud and say, “Did you hear that? He was just in Frodo’s POV, and now he is thinking as a dwarf! Who does that?” And so that summer went as I muddled through the books.
However, as I read more, I grew more appreciative of the writing and style and craft of the books as time marched on. A nagging thought kept going through my mind: This story should be a movie. Thank you Peter Jackson, because I was starting to take notes to write a LOTR script once I realized the trilogy hadn’t been properly translated onto the screen, except as cartoons. (Note: True enthusiasts must go find the 1991 Soviet version of Lord of the Rings on YouTube. Yes, it’s in Russian and yes, the special effects of 1991 shoe-string budget Russia are minimal at best, but any true LOTR Geek must indulge themselves in the pleasure of knowing more about this “Lost Version” of Lord of the Rings!).
I think it must be because we didn’t have television and the only radio we had was the Philo station KZYX, and so I was only thinking about my own thesis and Tolkien, aside from listening to our usual radio shows (like “Lunch on the Back Porch”). I spent a lot of time in the hammock trying to avoid being in the way during the beginning of the shack’s construction process. As I wrote my thesis, Lord of the Rings characters and events also grew in my mind. I soon discovered, but wait, there’s more: I checked out other books from the Fort Bragg library and soon re-read The Hobbit and discovered The Silmarillion, The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, and all the published Tolkien letters, and learned of Tolkien’s connection to the author of the Narnian series, C.S. Lewis. (In his diary, C.S. Lewis wrote upon meeting Tolkien that the “smooth, pale, fluent little chap” had “no harm in him: only needs a smack or so”).
Next I read the Narnian series because of the Lewis/Tolkien connection. I was in book dweeb heaven that first year in Mendocino, pouring over all the literature about and by Tolkien that I could get my hands on. I learned that Tolkien was more of a philologist than writer, a lover of language and nuance of words. Around that time I learned how to pronounce the Welsh word “llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch” (the name of a Welsh town) when my dear friend Tempest, who was living in Wales, came to visit us in Comptche and taught me to say it. (Pronouncing that word is my best ‘bar trick’— ask me if you see me and I’ll say it for you). Learning to say that word gave me a great respect for the Welsh language, and taught me where Tolkien found much of his inspiration for his Sindarin, or Elvish, language. I continued studying Tolkien over the years, and later when we started a family, I read snippets of The Hobbit to my two kids before bedtime.
In 2001 The Fellowship of the Ring movie hit theaters. I saw it opening night, and though it was more violent than I had hoped (those orcs were pretty hideous), I took my then-8-year-old son Kodiak to see it, and eventually my daughter Cassidy, two years younger, saw it as well, at home. It sparked something in us all. Around the same time we also started attending the annual Renaissance Faire, dressing up in medieval clothes when we went. My friend Jolie, along with her husband Michael and two kids (Carson and Chloe) who were about the same age as my kids, were also LOTR and Ren Faire geeks. We started having weekly outings with them where we would shoot bows and arrows in the canyon as we all learned archery together. As a horse person, I even started taking jousting lessons. I also took weekly lessons in swordfighting from a Ren Faire actor named Billy the Barbarian (Celtic broadsword, not wimpy ‘en garde’ fencing), so we practiced that as well on the front lawn, the kids touting wooden swords (everyone soon quickly learned to keep their hands out of the way of incoming sword jabs).
And so it began. Soon we had found a local costume designer and all of us had LOTR Elven costumes made. We created Elvish names for ourselves (like Sindawen for Cassidy, meaning Fair Maiden, and Romendal, which meant “uprising foot” for Carson, the dancer). We began studying Sindarin, and learned the language of Elves. We had Elven Dinners and created and changed the wine bottle labels to show the best vintage the Shire had to offer, as well as creating a menu listing Elven-style salads and Hobbitish main courses. We could parse together basic sentences in the Elf tongue and all of us could sing A Galad ven i renier — you know. That Elf song the elves sing as they walk through the forest leaving Rivendell in the first movie.
We had created our own little reality in anticipation of the Spring Ren Faire coming up. We “became” the Elven characters we invented, so by the time the Ren Faire came around, we were ready: We spent an inordinate amount of time putting our outfits together, and we had hand-made our jewelry, decorated our wooden swords and made fake arrows and quivers to wear. We had practiced staying aloof among the world of Man. We of course all had legitimate-looking costume ears that we applied with Spirit Gum adhesive we bought off the internet. As we entered the Faire, it was no doubt who we were: Elves of Rivendell.
Our debut was a success as we mastered the archery and swordfighting booths, and other fair-goers seemed to know who we were because we only spoke in the Elvish tongue that day to outsiders. Word got around to the point that when the Queen of the Renaissance Faire came through on her litter with her procession of courtiers, she stopped in front of us. “I had heard we are graced by the company of Elves this fine day. Welcome,” she said to us. We all bowed our practiced Elven bow to her in response, inwardly thrilled but outwardly the seven of us staying in character.
I know that day of our Elven debut stuck with my kids. Our Tolkien love affair continued: Every New Year’s Day for several years we would watch ALL the LOTR movies, the extended versions. It took over 12 hours but we knew how to do it, by having our snacks prepared ahead of time, and timing our breaks.
As the kids grew older, LOTR was still an underlying theme and a big part of our lives: Cassidy, who grew up as a competitive ice skater, skated to LOTR songs from the movie in Middle Earth-inspired costumes for shows and at competitions. She would as an adult eventually get five LOTR tattoos: first the Misty Mountains as drawn by Tolkien himself, then above it the dragon Smaug, followed by the words “Not All Who Wander Are Lost” written in Elvish runes above that, and Arwen’s Evenstone, and the White Tree of Gondor. Kodiak collected LOTR-inspired T-Shirts, and played the LOTR games on GameBoy (“I enjoyed killing giant spiders,” he recently told me, although at home, he was our spider catcher and instructed to take them outside). We both played the Vivendi CD game on the computer, but I only lasted a couple weeks or so (too many spiders, not enough elves). Now as adults pushing 30 they both happen to be in relationships with lovely people who are also LOTR fans. What more could a LOTR-geek mother want?
We still share news of new Tolkien works (Kodiak was the one who recently told me about the lost Soviet film) and funny LOTR memes, and we all understand the hidden jokes too well. When I moved back a couple years ago to Philo on a remote piece of land, I named it Dragonwood with a nod to Smaug and other dragons I know well. There are LOTR-inspired areas here: The main house is Elvenwood, there is a creepy old tumble-down shack called Orcville, there is Elf Song Pond, and a sign by the (not-scary) outhouse points to the Misty Mountains. Rohan is a flat space down the road and unbelievably, we have a burned out redwood grove tree that resembles the domain of Sauron, the Dark Tower, right by the outhouse, which gives it a secondary dark meaning. Our dogs have LOTR names; Nienna and Lindon from the Silmarillion, and Aragorn, the king. Years ago our pony came with the name Dale, which we thought was a good omen, since the men of the town of Dale in Middle Earth were known to be brave and strong, just like our sturdy large pony. I found out our lovely neighbors Nancy and Bill also have many LOTR-inspired names for places on their Philo property, so maybe there’s something in the water — or maybe it’s just the beauty of the redwood forest all around us, that inspires such fun fantasy.
And so it is my family’s many-year love affair with all things Tolkien; mystical, honorable and true, began in Comptche three decades ago, and it will likely carry on, or ramble on, if you will, for many years and generations to come.