The town where I mostly grew up was bounded on its south by forest. We moved there when I was about three. My parents first rented a townhouse, later bought two small houses. All three homes were close to the forest. The two houses were mere steps from it.
Kids’ time was less structured then, and parents maybe less fearful, maybe more naive. I spent a lot of time in that forest, alone or in amorphous gangs. We dug for arrowheads in muddy tussocks that we were certain were burial mounds (they weren’t). Someone always knew another someone who had found an arrowhead there – none of us ever did. We hurled our sleds down Suicide Hill, which probably could have been just that – it was steep enough and high enough, with a wicked upward recurve at the bottom that overhung a creek – but no one was ever hurt. The creek was shallow and meandering, crossed by fallen-log bridges. The old trees were slippery in every season, and someone was always likely to all off and soak their boots. That could be unpleasant in winter. The creek did not reliably freeze. We longed for the bridges to be the work of beavers, but they were just fallen trees.
The forest grew on “rolling” land, small hills maybe 25 to 30 feet high, with wide boggy places in between them. The trees on the hills were mostly maple and oak. One hill was crowned with a large house, a ranch, and most of its hill was fenced in a casual, half hearted way. No one knew who lived there, so of course we made up stories of varying degrees of gruesomeness. I recall that there was supposed to have been a daughter, with a tragedy, but can’t retrieve the details.
At some point, influenced by some book or other, I fell in love with the idea of woodcraft, tried to learn to move silently in the forest, anticipating every noise I might make, trying to read the trees and the trails for signs of – what? Despite being a flagrantly incompetent Cub Scout, I got moderately good at silent movement. Never fooled an animal, though.
My solitary, rambling walks there in all seasons gave me a sense of, well, not liveliness, nor any Coleridgian theophanies, but a sense of the forest as a living thing, with purposes and sensations, I suppose, utterly unlike anything human. Writing this, I recall that I still visit this forest from time to time in my dreams. In dreams, not nightmares.
So when I at 14 or 15 picked up The Lord of the Rings for the first time, I felt entirely at home. Everyone reads with a certain lens or (to use a fancier word) sensibility. Once I recommended LeGuin’s Malafrena (a favorite) to a friend. She saw a certain event as central which seemed to me far less so, nor did on rereading did I recognize my error. For me, a sensibility shaped by a living forest, a moderately wild living forest, and early reading of Greek and Norse myth prepared me to Jump right in to LoR. Woody End, the Old Forest and to a lesser degree Fanghorn were much like the forest I knew, it seemed to me, while the Land of the Valley of Singing Gold was my forest, glorified and transformed. It was a part of Tolkien’s sensibility in which I was at home. As in Malafrena, place is nearly a character in LoR.
Now we are on the eve of the release of the first bit of Peter Jackson’s version of The Hobbit. I still haven’t decided if I will see it; probably, with trepidation. I understand that Peter Jackson’s first came to LoR via Bakshi’s cartoon version. The merits of that effort aside, this means that Jackson’s initial approach to LoR is second hand, and maybe that explains his willingness to play with the material a bit too much. Nor is his own sensibility quite at home with Tolkien’s. In adapting The Lord of the Rings, he did many good things, but also introduced some oddities. His love of the grotesque took over a couple of times (and if you don’t think Jackson has a fondness for the grotesque, see his earlier film, The Frighteners) – in his portrayal of Bree and the Prancing Pony, happy places in the original, in the portrayal of Lord Denethor, a few others. LoR is a very big story, so big that for Jackson to have ruined it he would have had to make an entirely different movie. What he did was good in many, many places, especially visually. The Hobbit is a smaller work and less resistant to transmogrification. The effect of Jackson’s changes (Evangeline Lilly?) will be greater. I am also a bit concerned that this bloated rendition may be a way of sneaking First Age material onto the screen: if so, the intellectual property folks are going to have lots of fun. The scope of Jackson & Company’s additions seems likely to be greater, and give me plenty to be sceptical about. The visual story-telling will probably be fine.