Over the next thirty years I thought little of Tolkien’s trilogy, until one day, in the middle of the pandemic, I received a phone call. I had a sudden foreboding and only when I saw that it was from my mother in Derry did I answer. Both of my parents had tested positive for Covid-19. I tried to reassure her with clichés and statistics, but she was having none of it. “Your father is very ill. I’m worried. He doesn’t sound right. He’s lying upstairs with a fever. He won’t close the window and the curtains are blowing out over the street for everyone to see.” My father was a former bodybuilder who still went to the gym. He had no underlying conditions. He was in good health and several years from retirement. He worked outside as a gardener-groundsman for the council. In the pit of my stomach I knew he would never be well again.
The first time my mother took him to the hospital, they sent him away with a mild painkiller. The second time he was raced off to a high-dependency unit, then intensive care. I received an ominous “come home” message. Heathrow airport was virtually empty. I grabbed a copy of The Lord of the Rings, thinking he might need distraction. The hospital doors were locked, however. As it turned out, he was well past the point of being able to read anything.
The first time they induced a coma, it almost felt like a relief. My father’s constitution was “as strong as an ox”, but he suffered complications (stroke, pulmonary fibrosis, pneumonia). They talked about using him as a case study. Feeling powerless and bereft, I tried to colour his dreams, which appeared troubled, convulsive. I made playlists of his favourite music. I read, and recorded, long passages from literature – tales of sea voyages, the poetry of the Romantics, explorations of the wilds – for the nurses to play to him, in the hope that this would take him out of his confinement or ease his mind. At some point I turned to The Lord of the Rings. It was a different book to the one I’d read in childhood. Then I had skipped past the interminable journey scenes to get to the battles. Now I found myself doing the opposite, leaving out the orcs and dragons, and enjoying the scenes on foot with their wayfaring human tempo. Forced to excise the orcs, battles and much of the dialogue in my recordings, I focused on the hobbits’ progress from forest to mountain, marsh and cavern, and rediscovered some of the best nature writing of the midcentury….
Tolkien’s epic began as bedtime stories for his children, so it feels appropriate that I should now be reading The Lord of the Rings to my own son, who is as taken with the endpapers as I was, and stares enchanted at Middle-earth. You share these experiences with your children to help them make a map of their own world: neither to escape it nor, as I once feared, to lose it altogether, but to inhabit it more imaginatively, and fully.
Read it all.