Tag Archives: JRR Tolkien

There and Back Again

It just caught my eye.  The way the sun touched on the upper branches of those distant trees, each branch covered in glittering snow, sparkling and shining in the early morning light.  The quiet of dawn.  The soft and gentle rising of the sun.  The island of light that formed, as if from nothing, the trees, oaks and maples, reaching to that light and carefully holding the beauty of the fresh snow.  My morning prayers offered from that high spot, gazing out towards the east.  A new day arriving in infinite increments of increasing light.

What is the great line from the end of Casablanca, that Rick says to Ilsa?  The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this world?  In a strange way there is comfort in that thought.  The world does not revolve around us, around our concerns and cares.  We are part of a greater tale, playing a small part, but connected in with all that has gone before us and all that will come after.  Every once in a while we are granted a moment of insight into that simple fact.  And so it was for me that morning, with the early light, the white snow, the high branches, the rising sun.

There is a wonderful scene in The Hobbit, Tolkien’s great tale of adventure, subtitled ‘There and Back Again.’  Bilbo and the dwarves are lost in Mirkwood Forest, a dark and dangerous wood.  The dwarves urge Bilbo to climb to the top of a tall tree, thinking perhaps he might be able to see the edge of the forest to help them find a way out.  At the end of an arduous climb he suddenly emerges from the darkness as his head pokes through the forest’s canopy.  Here is Tolkien’s description of that moment:

“Bilbo’s eyes were nearly blinded by the light.  He could hear the dwarves shouting at him from far below, but he could not answer, only hold on and blink.  The sun was shining brilliantly, and it was a long while before he could bear it.  When he could, he saw all around him a sea of dark green, ruffled here and there by the breeze;  and there were everywhere hundreds of butterflies.  He looked at them for a long time, and enjoyed the feel of the wind in his hair and on his face;  but at length the cries of the dwarves, who were now simply stamping with impatience down below, reminded him of his real business.”

The momentary vision must always end, and we are inevitably called back to the real world.

You’ll remember the song “I Can See Clearly Now,” from the album of the same name recorded by Johnny Nash in 1971.  It was a huge hit, reaching #1 on the US Billboard charts in 1972.  Here is a part of the well known lyric:

I can see clearly now the rain is gone
I can see all obstacles in my way
Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind
It’s gonna be a bright (bright)
Bright (bright) sunshiny day
It’s gonna be a bright (bright)
Bright (bright) sunshiny day
I think I can make it now the pain is gone
All of the bad feelings have disappeared
Here is that rainbow I’ve been praying for
It’s gonna be a bright (bright)
Bright (bright) sunshiny day
Look all around, there’s nothing but blue skies
Look straight ahead, there’s nothing but blue skies
And here a link to the original recording:  Clearly Now

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Of Gates and Other Interstitial Spaces

Just as the beautiful back shore curves around to the west there is an ancient looking gate.  It has a small wooden tile roof, covered with moss.  The wooden door is often open,  unlatched, in some way beckoning the passers by to a mythic inner sanctum.  A low stucco house can be glimpsed, a stone path, flowers English garden style running alongside.  The gate posts are large, even imposing, made of great stones cemented together long ago by an old world stonemason, his practiced eye picking and choosing for shape and size as he worked.

What is astonishing about any gate is that it can suddenly bring you from one world to another.  Remember the back of the closet in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Lucy fumbling through old coats and scarves and suddenly walking along a snowy lane.  Or in Tolkien’s work the various gates that lead into the Mines of Moria or the Old Forest or the halls of the Elven King in Mirkwood.  The gate is an interstitial space, a kind of tunnel between two distinct areas, or even better a mystic link between one world and another.  On one side is what we know, where we dwell and walk and go about our day to day life.  But just beyond the gate is another world.  Of Magic and adventure, of mystery and the unknown, of gorgeous gardens and storm tossed seas, where otherworldly creatures might dwell, or time works differently, or the rain falls in a certain kind of way that we’ve never seen before.

There are gates in nature and gates in time as well.  When dawn comes or night falls, when the year turns, when the clouds of a great storm move swiftly through the sky as the weather clears, when we peer into the darkness as we stand on the edge of a wood, these are all gates of time and place and mind.  Death and birth are gates, perhaps of an altogether different kind, but gates nonetheless.gates

And there are gates in Judaism.  Three volumes of Talmud are called the First, Middle, and Last Gates.  The huppah in the wedding ceremony is a kind of gate, the bride and groom entering that space as single and emerging from it as a married couple.  We speak on Yom Kippur of the Gates of Prayer and how they close at the end of that sacred day, a moment marked by the Ne’ilah service.  There is a traditional Shabbat song, Hasidic in feel, with the following lyrics:  ‘the entire world is a narrow bridge, and the main thing is not to fear.’

Every gate is a narrow bridge, linking one world to another.  Every gate is an opportunity to walk into a never before seen space.  Every gate leads from what is known to what is unknown.  Every gate opens before us a series of new possibilities.  Gates can be entered and bridges crossed.  The main thing is not to fear.

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