While the central states are broiling, here in New York, the weather this last week has been idyllic – night-time lows in the sixties, day-time highs in the mid-eighties, with a steady breeze to temper the head and rustle the leaves in the parks. It’s the sort of weather that lends itself to glasses of iced tea and afternoon naps: the sort of weather that inspires me to re-read the Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
Before I found inspiration in reading about the challenges of Western States and Hardrock; before I used thoughts of Badwater to get me through a mid-day summer run; before my heroes included Geoff Roes, Anthony Krupicka, and Scott Jurek, there was Aragon, Gimli, and Legolas running for days across the plains of Rohan and Sam and Frodo’s march towards Mt. Doom . . .
Long, long before I was a runner, I was a hopeless fantasy nerd. For years, the only books I would touch contained dragons or space-ships and magical heroes whose names involved elaborate punctuation. I devoured fantastic realms by the book-case fill with little discrimination when it came to quality or originality: Ursula K. Le Guin and Terry Brooks, Frank Herbert and David Eddings, Roger Zelazny, Ray Bradbury, and C.S. Lewis. Their characters and worlds filled my waking hours and populated my dreams, inspired my play-time and story-telling and my own elaborate mythos.
However, before them all, and never to be replaced, replicated, or surpassed, was Tolkien. It might sound implausible, but I first read The Hobbit in first grade, and started The Lord of the Rings in third; Middle Earth was not just the foundation of my experience of fantasy, but really the foundation of my experience of literature. It was through the pages of The Fellowship of the Ring that I discovered a book could contain more than just a story, but entire worlds: histories and mythologies and empires fading back into the bluish haze of antiquity. I fell in love with the Shire, Rivendell, and Lorien, and returned to them year after year. Until college, I re-read “the Trilogy “ annually, coming back to my worn-paperbacks the way one returns to a childhood home: pleasantly surprised to find that nothing has changed (even if you have) and that you remember ever little detail, even the one’s you had thought forgotten.
I don’t re-read Tolkien annually these days; its been a few years, at least. I have other books to read, and my literary interests have long since expanded to include classics, non-fiction, contemporary literature, and many genres far from the confines of fantasy, and since I seldom find the time to tackle the books I have yet to read, I find it harder to justify re-reading any at all, let alone some fifteen-hundred pages I’ve read a dozen times at least. Still, when the warm summer breeze moves through the dry leaves, when the sun is hot overhead yet the grass on your check is cool as you lie, half-awake, in the shade of a gently swaying tree, there is a part of me that aches for Middle Earth.
What is it about these sort of summer days that brings me back to the Shire? In part, it is the weather of nostalgia, the sort of temperate afternoon that occur in the late spring and summer that somehow summon up every summer past, that elide the years suddenly until you feel that you can reach out and touch your childhood, that it is perched precariously on the edge of the present. Perhaps it is that these days echo the start of The Hobbit: Bilbo outside Bag End blowing smoke-rings from his pipe over the Hill as Gandalf comes down the walk. It could also be that these were the days when I would take my books outside and read for hours in the grass, and the summers on the Oregon coast were always windy and always temperate, the tall pines tossing their branches in an ethereal chorus that to this day nearly brings tears to my eyes. It was on such a summer afternoon that I clearly remember the halcyon days of childhood ending as I lay half-awake in the grass, my worn copy of The Hobbit splayed face-down beside me, as I suddenly realized that there was no Middle Earth. Not that I had ever doubted that, since even in grade-school I knew it was fiction, but I have a vivid memory of this epiphany, that this place, which was so important to me, was utterly non-existent, that these characters whom I visited and revisited year after year were not real, had never been real, that their lives and cares and triumphs were all invented. I could love them an long for them, but that would never make them any less real. My heart broke a little that day, in the summer sun, under the dancing pines. Perhaps that’s what I feel when I hear the leaves rustle in the warm breeze; perhaps that’s why I yearn to pick-up Tolkien again, to return to my home away from home that never was.
But this is actually a post about running, or was meant to be. As I’ve written before, I was never an athletic kid, and went to great lengths to avoid any sport that involved running or team-work; when I was involved, the experience was usually somewhat painful, both for me and the rest of my unfortunate team. I liked my nose in a book, or (later) in a role-playing manual. However, I wasn’t inactive, and oddly enough I think this was also due to Tolkien. I didn’t like to run, and avoided sports, but I loved being outdoors: I loved long walks, hikes, exploring the woods that surrounded my house and trekking up the streams that ran down the nearby mountains. This came directly from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings: Bilbo’s rambling walks through the Shire, the Fellowship’s long hikes through the mountains and woods of Middle Earth. Tolkien contained the Romantic spirit of the flanuer, with a mix of hiking across the moors and British derring-do thrown in for good measure. So while much of my leisure time was sedentary and spent in kingdoms of the imagination, a good part of it was also spent in the wilderness, following deer-trails and dry stream-beds with my siblings and my best friend, Nils. Of course, we brought our obsession with the fantastic with us when we went outside, drawing maps of the surrounding country that we annotated with a personal mythology, labeling this fallen tree “The Throne of the Monkey King,” that vale the “Valley of the Fallen Elves,” then writing out in the epic battles and broken treaties that made up the imagined history we had stumbled upon.
Okay, I still haven’t gotten to how this ties into running. There was always one thing that troubled me when I read any fantasy novel, but especially Tolkien, and that was the fact that I would never have survived them. The clichéd premise for so many of these plots involves the Unsuspecting Everyman, swept from their Ordinary Life by the Forces of Fate into some Grand Adventure that involves them being the Hero that Saves Everything. Harry Potter, the Eye of the World series, the Chronicles of Narnia, A Wrinkle in Time . . . the list is nearly endless, but perhaps no two characters fit the archetype quite so firmly as Bilbo and Frodo, the stolid and unremarkable Hobbits who becoming unwittingly involved in adventures ranging from Elves to dragons to the deep mines of Moria. It’s a classic archetype because we readers love to put ourselves in the place of the hero, and in these stories, we could be the heroes. Like them, we lead unremarkable, boring lives; like them, no one suspects us of being heroes; and like them, we could, at any moment, be touched by fate and be chosen to take part in a Grand Adventure. When I would go for long hikes in the hot summer sun, I would imagine I was Frodo, making his way through the lava fields edging Mt. Orodruin, or one of Aragon’s rangers creeping through the dark undergrowth of Mirkwood.
But I could never shake the certainty that, were I to have been put in the place of Bilbo, or Frodo, Legolas or Gimli, the Forces of Good would have been doomed. It’s one thing to have one’s physiological fortitude and resilience challenged and find oneself up to the task, but in terms of pure physicality, I knew I would never have survived those adventures. Hiking for weeks through the wilds of west would have done me in, let alone anything that entailed actual physical danger. All those moments in any movie or novel where the hero is hanging from the edge of a cliff by his finger-tips — such a simple, routine challenge for a hero would mean an anticlimactic end for someone who couldn’t even do a single pull-up. Surviving the Mines of Moria and struggling through the waste-lands of Mordor, would be far beyond my capabilities. When Merry and Pippin were captured by orcs, Legolas, Gimli, and Aragorn spent four days running after them without stopping; I would have been forced to give them up for dead.
Last week, when a balmy summer day lulled me into opening The Lord of the Rings for the first time in a few years, I had a sudden realization: I was physically capable of surviving an adventure. I can run for hours at a time without stopping, I can do a dozen pull-ups and climb up some pretty challenging rock cliffs. Throughout my childhood, I had the cerebral side of my fantasy, but never embraced the physical fitness implied by my heroes actions. Today, I’ve found a balance between the two: yesterday, I ran seven miles at noon in 90 degree weather, then read Tolkien on the subway. I don’t know if I could run 50 leagues over four days – I’m not Aragorn or Geoff Roes yet – but just perhaps I could be Frodo; not quite a son of Numenor but at least a Hobbit.