A few years ago, while writing a column involving the international Tolkien Society of Great Britain, I sent along an e-mail that asked a simple question.
I noted how devoted readers of James Joyce gather on "Bloomsday," June 16, to celebrate the Joyce classic, "Ulysses." I wondered why a similar day wasn't set aside for Tolkien, considering the raw passion of his devotees around the globe.
Months later, I read a wire story explaining how the Tolkien Society had designated March 25 as Tolkien Reading Day, and I assumed many readers had made that same suggestion.
Get this. I eventually got a note from officials in the society, explaining how they planned to credit me as founder of the worldwide Tolkien Reading Day.
That's right, folks. Yet another entry in the roster of Great Things from Upstate NY that nobody realizes originated in Upstate NY. I swear, this is the most underappreciated region on this planet.
Anyhow, Mr. Kirst solicits people to visit his Syracuse.com weblog and share bits of insight or personal reflection about Tolkien. He kicks things off on his own blog, in which he draws an unfortunate analogy between Middle Earth and Upstate NY, saving the really unfortunate part of his analogy for Mordor:
To really capture the essence of Upstate New York - especially the cities like Syracuse and Buffalo - I'd say you compare the region to Middle-Earth.
I realize that with particular power now, at 46, almost 35 years after reading the trilogy for the first of many times.
There is little question that the basic connection between my childhood and Tolkien's world came from a shared, overriding sense of loss. From Weathertop to Moria to Gondor, Middle-Earth was filled with once-grand landmarks crumbling into ruin, and the music and poetry all looked back toward a better day.
As a child, my parents often took me into Buffalo, a prominent American city whose heyday was already - tangibly - in the past. The city was filled with the neglected work of great architects and engineers. Litter and graffitti cluttered humbled landmarks. Everywhere was a feeling of greatness lost, and a wistfulness for those days to return.
On the way home, we'd drive through Lackawanna, where the great industrial torches still burned in the air, where the sky above the lake was filled with sulphur fumes, where the sunset itself was turned into a strange black-orange hue by the dark smoke in the air ...
So I had seen Mordor, even before I knew the books.
Geez, what a bummer -- although the great industrial torches have long fallen cold and silent, so maybe we're not like Mordor after all. Maybe we're more like the Dead Marshes. Or maybe we're like Osgiliath, the city that everybody knows is gone except for the poor faction of folks still defending it. Of course, if we once were Mordor, how sad is that! Buffalo is now so downtrodden that even Sauron has left for, well, pastures more to his liking. (He wouldn't choose green pastures, obviously.)
As for Tolkien and myself, I won't go deep into reflection here. I would just like to note one of my very favorite passages from The Lord of the Rings, and contrast it with another favorite passage of mine from Guy Gavriel Kay's Fionavar Tapestry. From The Return of the King, here is the last paragraph of the chapter "The Siege of Gondor":
Gandalf did not move. And in that very moment, away behind in some courtyard of the City, a cock crowed. Shrill and clear he crowed, recking nothing of wizardry or war, welcoming only the morning that in the sky far above the shadows of death was coming with the dawn.
And as if in answer there came from far away another note. Horns, horns, horns. In dark Mindolluin's sides they dimly echoed. Great horns of the North wildly blowing. Rohan had come at last.
And here, from The Darkest Road, is the greatest deed of Diarmuid dan Ailell:
He saw. And then he heard, they all heard, as a ringing cry rose up, echoing in the twilight air betweent he armies of Light and Dark:
"For the Black Boar!" he heard. They all heard. "For the honor of the Black Boar!"
And thus did Diarmuid dan Ailell take Uathach's challenge upon himself, riding forth alone on the horse his brother had brought for him, his sword uplifted high, his fair hair lit by the sunset, as he raced toward the dance his bright soul would not deny.
I am incapable of reading either of those passages without feeling my heart quickening. That is why I come, again and again, to Fionavar and to Middle Earth.
Because the worlds are beautiful, and the tales that unfold within those worlds are told by their masters in a way that makes my heart leap and sing and weep.
And that's what literature does, if it does anything at all.