Writer and GP Danielle Peet pens the next guest blog for our This One Night project.
I think he had been waiting for this since I was born. My dad was back lit and sitting on a rocking chair; focused and poised. The room had that special ‘before bed’ quality with soft light inside and curtains closed against a cold dark night. I remember clean bathed warm skin under fresh linen. My younger brother was playing his signature fusion of make believe. Donatello from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles leans out of a Ghostbusters helicopter saving this small Stockport town from the clutches of one of my Barbies.
Dad held a book as he rocked silently in his chair. Leather bound with gold embossed mountains and dragons across both covers. He held it reverently and then opened the first page. He showed us a map depicting a spine of mountains surrounded by rivers and forests. At the top of the map loomed a single ominous dragon. I was afraid to touch it lest it came alive.
My childhood was full of intrigue and imagination with very little reality mixed in. Even benign by-products of human endeavor took on magical properties. We have family in the central clay mining communities of Cornwall. At the top of their village are three man made hills of slag. To us they were sisters of the pyramids of Egypt and the source of bed time story adventures and (probably extremely dangerous) exploration. So this book, and my dad’s approach to this book, set me alight. It clearly was very important.
For a time we studied the map. When I say we, I mean dad and I. My brother became immediately bored and instead fired a grappling hook from his helicopter skewering the menacing Barbie.
Dad went away with work every month – usually to the US. In my mind, he went here, this place of wonder and adventure. He opened the first page and said:
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit…”
Now before you, dear reader, get transported to the CGI-epic-drawn-out-over-three-long-films please suspend your preconceptions. I love this book, but I do appreciate that trying to aim the film at an adult audience whilst still including a heady mix of small people with hairy feet, elves, dwarves and wizards may seem irrelevant and twee. To be fair to Peter Jackson he did his best, but ultimately I don’t think fable and myth are translated well into cinematography. Look at Mel Gibson’s attempt at bringing Jesus to the screen. It loses so much. So bear with me.
Each night Bilbo’s adventure would unfold. My dad’s voice rocking my five-year-old brother to sleep but keeping the eight-year-old me glued and fixed on every word. I remember feeling outraged when he’d stop and skip a few pages before continuing. I needed to hear every word. What is amusing now coming to the book as an adult, is how much tedious elven verse there is amongst the story. Dad was right to give me the highlights. Tolkien had a great idea but is on occasion self-indulgent with his exploration of his man-made world.
We all use ancient biblical sayings in day to day communications. Like “neither here nor there”. Having The Hobbit in my life at such an early age meant I use just as many Tolkien quotes in normal life also.
My favourites include:
“Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not: or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?”
Whoever in the family starts this retort after being wished a good morning would rarely get to the end of the quote but all would be amused. Yes we are that un-cool.
Another good one:
“It does not do to pay to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him.”
When you work for the NHS as I do, this is very good advice indeed. Although I take slight offence (as many people do with Tolkien’s lack of strong female characters) that the dragon in question is presumed male.
In the beginning Bilbo Baggins is a rich, pompous, imperfect man whose life hasn’t come to much. But through an adventure thrust upon him he finds he is infinitely more capable in mind and body than he ever thought. He has to negotiate with folk of different cultural and religious leanings and work with them. He comes across adversity and has to put the needs of others before his own. He at points, accepts he might die, but feels what he believes in is worth martydom.
In my life I often feel pompous and imperfect and I am very small and enjoy eating many meals a day. So I still completely connect with Hobbiton and it’s inhabitants. The adventures contained within the book, and arguably life, are in parts scary and other times funny. There are times during any adventure where you feel ill-prepared and spread too thinly to be able to conquer adversity. But sometimes I look back at conflict and realise that I was capable of much more than I would ever allow myself to believe.
There many remarkable characters in the book as well as Bilbo. I think Gollum deserves a special mention as one of the greatest characters ever created. A complex creature; dangerous and pitiful in equal measure. A person it pays not to underestimate. If you never read the book in it’s entirety either for your own pleasure or for a child’s – read the riddles in the dark scene just for me. And then cherry pick the Gollum scenes in The Lord Of The Rings and I think you’ll get the hype.
I hope that very leather bound book is brought out again by my dad for future generations. The cover is looking tired now and the gold has been mostly worn off. Although the night when the first page was turned was memorable I can still feel the excitement of the last few chapters. Towards the end of the adventure there is a poignant moment which I won’t spell out as we wait for the final chapter of the film to be released. Someone important reflects on the hobbit way of life.
“If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”
Amen to that.
Brilliant non-fiction writer Nija Dalal also recently contributed over on her own blog, and you can read her entry here. You can also find out more about This One Night and read the other blogs so far here
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