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One Love to Rule Them All by Narya

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This essay was written years ago for Since I'm home alone on a wild, stormy night I decided to stick on the Bakshi cartoon; it reminded me of this piece, and I decided it was high time to dust it off and give it a new home.

The idea originally came to me during an email conversation with callerofcrows, in which we were discussing ME-related games we played as children. I thought it might be fun to start a Round Robin on the site to find out how others came to Tolkien, whether it had been as important to other people's childhood and adolescence as it was to mine, and what their earliest Tolkien-related memories were. I haven't reposted anything written by other authors who contributed to the round robin over at the old site, although if you're reading this and want to transfer your essays across, please feel free! I'd love it if others would add their own stories - I think it would be lovely to have somewhere that we all can share our roads into Middle-earth.
There’s something very special about childhood memories. They’re peculiarly vivid, in a way that my memories of even last week are not. I suppose some would say it’s called looking back with rose-tinted glasses. Maybe I’ve just revisited these memories so many times that my imagination has embellished them and added a depth and immediacy that wasn’t always there. Either way, when I flip through my mental photo album or discuss old times with my brother and sister, I get an instant hit of happiness, the kind that comes from stretching out in the sun on a summer’s day or from slowly sucking your way through a bar of milk chocolate. As much as I hate to sound like Pollyanna Whittier, I had a wonderful childhood, full of books and stories and games with my siblings. I love to reminisce about it, and was doing so a few days ago with a close friend from this site. It was during this conversation that the idea for this essay was born; I realised that many of my favourite childhood memories are tied up with Tolkien, with imaginary adventures in Middle-earth and with an amazing man called Uncle Tim.

Uncle Tim is my mother’s younger brother. He’s possibly the most intelligent and gifted person I’ve ever met, as well as one of the strangest. He’s as giddy and silly as your average eight-year-old, earning him the affectionate tag of “Mad Uncle Tim,” and used to join in the games of myself, my siblings and my cousins with none of the usual reluctance that young adults show when forced to play with children. He’s never married and still lives with his parents, so I suppose his nieces and nephews are the closest he’ll ever get to having kids of his own. To this day we all adore him, and I think part of it’s down to the lasting gratitude we felt for him being “different” from the other grown-ups, for actually wanting to play with us as opposed to doing it purely to keep us happy.

He used to babysit for me and my brother and sister on a Saturday night. My parents would go off to a restaurant or the theatre to spend some time alone together, and Tim would be left in charge of the three of us. Sometimes he’d bring his guitar and we’d all sing together – even if he didn’t know a song, he only had to hear it once to be able to figure out the chord progressions and play along with us. Sometimes he’d bring books or films. I can’t actually remember the first time he brought the Bakshi cartoon of The Lord of the Rings with him, but I do remember my parents walking through the door and finding Tom (my brother) and Uncle Tim and I cuddled up on the sofa, all of us still engrossed in it. Tom and I were hurriedly packed off to bed while my parents remonstrated with Tim about having let us stay up so late.

After that we would often request that Tim bring the video with him when he came over. We adored it. I’m not sure what it was about it that spoke to us so deeply – in terms of witty dialogue, lush animation and memorable sing-alongs, in theory it shouldn’t have been able to hold a candle to the Disney films of the era, but for a long time it was our favourite film. My sister, being a few years younger than Tom and I, wasn’t so keen – at least not at first – but we two older ones were spellbound. By the time I was about five I could virtually quote the entire script, and to this day I have trouble remembering that the cartoon’s opening line of “Long ago in the early years of the Second Age...” is nowhere to be found in the book.

Our obsession grew to the point where our imaginary games (of which there were many) all became centred around Middle-earth. Tom and I created warrior-like alter-egos for ourselves and spent entire days racing around the garden, slaying Orcs and playing the hero. Our parents didn’t entirely approve – our mother in particular was concerned that these games were encouraging violent and inappropriate behaviour. In all fairness to her, we did occasionally cross boundaries. There was the time that, mid-game, I fell to the ground in front of one of her large ceramic plant pots and screamed like I’d been shot. Still immersed in game-world, Tom came tearing over and asked what was wrong; I explained that the plant pot was a Black Rider in disguise and that it had stabbed me and I was going to die. Tom gave the offending pot a retaliatory kick – except he kicked too hard and it fell over and shattered. Mum was furious.

Another time we found a pile of rusty metal in the garden shed and decided to attempt to make weapons with it; fortunately Dad confiscated it all before we had the chance to hurt ourselves, but at the time we were very disappointed.

Then there was the day that we decided we were going on our own Quest to destroy the One Ring. We took some supplies out of the cupboard, put them in our school lunchboxes and set off down the garden, then headed out through the gate and up the street and onwards towards the centre of town (which, for that day at least, was standing in for Bree). A concerned neighbour spotted us and phoned our parents before we got too far, however, and we were brought home and scolded. Perhaps Mum and Dad wouldn’t have been quite so angry if we hadn’t made our sister, who can have been no more than two, crawl along beside us and act as the pony.

For a while, these games and the Bakshi cartoon were all we knew of Middle-earth. However, as anybody who has seen the cartoon will know, it stops right after the battle of Helm’s Deep. As a small child I was very accepting of the fact that Gandalf turned up and beheaded a few Orcs and that was the end of the story, but eventually it dawned on me that we never actually found out what happened to Frodo. I asked Uncle Tim why not.

“I think they ran out of money,” was his answer. “They couldn’t afford to make the rest of the film.”

“So we never get to know?”

At the time of this conversation I was still very young and hadn’t even gone near The Hobbit yet. Either I wasn’t trusted to put my sticky mitts on our family’s sacred copy of the trilogy itself (probably very sensible), or my Uncle didn’t think I was ready to appreciate it yet (probably very true). Instead, he did something I’ll never forget. He took me and Tom into the garden as the sun was setting, sat us under the big tree near the house and took out his guitar. He then told us the rest of the story (albeit slightly simplified) whilst strumming appropriate chords – loud and in a major key for victories in battle, soft and minor for the touching moments between Frodo and Sam, chromatic and creepy for the suspenseful passages. Tom and I were enraptured, although I remember that neither of us liked the ending.

“Why did Frodo have to leave?” I wanted to know.

“Middle-earth was making him ill,” Tim replied. “He had to get away.”

I remember Tom saying something to the effect of “He should have got married.” Guess we didn’t entirely escape the Disney influence after all.

One Christmas, Uncle Tim turned up with the CDs of the Brian Sibley radio adaptation and played us our favourite parts of the story so that we’d be out of our mother’s hair while she was cooking. I think that this is the point at which we also ensnared Ems, my sister; she drove us all mad for the rest of the day by bursting into off-key renditions of the theme tune while stomping around the house enacting her own little battle-march. She began to join in our Middle-earth games, though not with our level of obsessive enthusiasm – she was more bothered about Dad’s Gameboy and the DisneyInteractive CD-ROMs she was given to use on our brand new PC.

One rainy afternoon at Grandma’s house some months later, the three of us complained that we were bored.

“Hard lines,” Grandma told us (a Yorkshire-ism, if anybody’s confused). “I’m not letting you out in this.”

We whined until she’d had enough of us and sent us upstairs to play with Uncle Tim, who to this day occupies the attic room of their house. It’s a wonderfully old and creepy red brick building full of creaks and hidden corners – easy enough for a child to convince themselves that monsters and ghosts might be lurking at every turn. Tim devised a game in which we pretended we were all sick and couldn’t possibly get out of bed. He turned off the lights and drew the curtains, and the four of us sat on his king-size while he told us stories about the old house, all featuring pretty much the same plotline – a scary noise was getting closer and closer, and we were too weak to move and could do nothing about it. The only thing that changed each time was the noise. Whenever we got too scared, all we had to do was dive under the covers and the lights would go back on and he would invent a happy ending or a perfectly natural explanation for the noise.

This went on for a while. After finishing one story, Tim turned off the lights and came back to the bed to begin another – except after he sat down, he remained silent.

“What are you doing? Get on with it!” we giggled, both anxious for the game to begin and nervous about what the next horror might be.

There was another short silence, and then a voice came hissing out of the darkness, horribly close to our ears. “Put...on...the Ring...”

We all shrieked and scrambled under the duvet, my sister literally sobbing with fear. Grandma came tearing upstairs, thinking we’d hurt ourselves, and found Tim trying to persuade us that it was alright and there really wasn’t a Black Rider in the room; it turned out that he’d got off the bed in the darkness and sneaked round behind us so that he could whisper right in our ears. We were all petrified, and Grandma was incensed.

“Come on – downstairs, the lot of you!” she snapped, or words to that effect. “No more silly hiding-under-the-covers games!”

That incident has become a bit of a family joke over the years. The tag of “silly hiding-under-the-covers games” has stuck for that particular activity, and now it’s something we do with our youngest cousin, though we don’t quite take it to Tim’s extremes. I guess that shows the slightly less lovable side to his personality – taking his music so seriously and the rest of the world so lightly doesn’t seem to have left him with much room for an everyday sense of responsibility. Mine and my sibling’s terror over the Black Rider in Grandma’s attic might be a fun anecdote to trot out at family dinner parties, but it took Mum and Dad a long time to forgive Tim for that. Ems had nightmares for weeks, and even now the thought of him putting on that hoarse voice and whispering those immortal words is enough to send reflexive shivers down my spine. I love him and think the world of him, but sometimes my Uncle isn’t the most thoughtful of people!

Another perfect example of this is his inability to remember important dates – mainly birthdays. I was born in January, and it isn’t unusual for my birthday gift from Tim to appear months afterwards. The summer after I turned ten, we were all going down to Cornwall – me, my siblings, my parents, my mother’s parents and Uncle Tim. As a treat, we kids were allowed to ride down with Tim, and as we all got in the car he produced a wrapped package for each of us.

“It’s a good six hours down,” he told us, “so I bought you a book each to keep you occupied.”

We already had notebooks, pencils, tape players etc. – our parents were well-schooled in entertaining us on long journeys – but new books were always a major excitement, since by that time all three of us were avid readers. I remember Tom observing jealously before we unwrapped them that my book was bigger than his or Ems’s, and Tim explained that mine was bigger because it was actually three books, and that he had bought me three because I hadn’t yet had a birthday present from him that year.

No prizes for guessing which three books came tumbling out onto the back seat when I pulled off the wrapping paper.

Of course, it took me far longer than the six hour car journey to get through the trilogy. I think it must have been the quietest the three of us have ever been on a holiday; we spent hours sprawled out in the living room at the cottage, or in the little garden round the back, devouring both our own and each other’s books. It was actually the summer that three great loves were born – my sister’s book was Little Women and Tom’s was Watership Down, two of my other all-time favourites – but it’s my true discovery of Middle-earth that has stuck in my memory. Even though I already knew most of what happened, I couldn’t put it down; I felt like I’d fallen right into Tolkien’s creation, just as I’d imagined myself doing all those years ago with Tom. The world contained in the pages of those books felt more real to me than the cottage and countryside I was surrounded by; more than once I had to be threatened with dire punishment if I didn’t leave the books in the car when we went on day trips. At meal times, I’d sit next to Tim and discuss the parts I’d read that day. We speculated on the nature of Tom Bombadil, he explained references to characters such as Gil-galad and Luthien, and on his guitar he made up tunes to some of the songs. I cried my eyes out when Pippin fell under the troll – I was convinced that he was dead, and that Tim had lied to me all these years about the ending – and when I did reach the end, I finally understood why Frodo had to leave. It took Tolkien’s words to make me shake off the last fetters of my Disneyfied view of the world and realise that there really are some hurts that cannot be healed. Things don’t always get better. Not every story ends happily, although some – like Sam’s – do. All that is gold does not glitter. Love and infatuation are two different things and can easily be confused. The world is not divided into “goodies” and “baddies” – there are shades of grey everywhere. Most importantly, ordinary people are capable of extraordinary things; you don’t have to be a prince or a beautiful young orphan to deserve to have a story told about you. No other book has ever taught me so much.

Thirteen years on from that, and the journey’s still continuing. After finishing LOTR, I read The Hobbit (which many have told me was the wrong way around, but I can’t say it detracted from my reading of either) then on Tim’s advice I waited a couple of years before starting on The Silmarillion. Even then I found it hard going, though I now enjoy dipping back into it. I’ve read biographies of Tolkien, I’ve worked my way through The Histories of Middle-earth, and I have, of course, seen the Jackson films. Through fanfic I explore different interpretations of Tolkien’s creation, and at some point I plan to sit down and read more of his Anglo-Saxon scholarship; I studied it a little at university, but it was always a little frantic, overshadowed by the awareness of a looming deadline. I now know more about Tolkien and his mythology than my Uncle Tim does, much to Tim’s disgruntlement – but if it weren’t for him then the obsession may never have been born. I suppose I’d have gone to see the films when they came out. Being a curious soul and a lover of good stories, I’d have probably come to the books afterwards, and I like to think that they’d have inspired the same burning devotion in me anyway, but I can't know for sure. I’m glad to think that – for me, at least – it all started with being babysat on a Saturday night by a wonderful man named Tim.

As Tolkien said, the Road goes ever on...