©1997 A.D. Sullivan
In Search of Dry Land
Last of the Kind
Traveling to Rivendale
In search of dry land
The morning sways with the currents of rain
making streets asphalt liquid,
black dripping silver drop by drop
from rushing elbow drains
darken the window
like a deep frown over the gray city
You shiver, draw the shade,
laughing with discomfort
Another number flows behind your name
one more tributary in a journey down stream
You used to brag of them
You used to celebrate their additional flow
into your life
Now, you seek dry ground,
where an oar might be mistaken
for a plow
You should celebrate Spring
the slow greening under that stormy gray
You used to enjoy the dripping gutters
the drain's groan
the window's glaze
the melancholy spread of dawn
Now, you listen to the swish of tires
of cars rushing down the road,
wondering after them,
wandering in your dreams
But the Odysseus in you fades
and Telemachos grows.
It's just another
Last of the Kind
Harry Manfre felt something go crunch under the bulldozer blade. Over the three months he'd spent along this side of the mountain he had heard thousands of odd noises while clearing the woods, from the bang and grumble of stones being crushed to the rip and splinter of 500-year-old trees uprooted. The land, peppered with boulders and stone, presented him with surprise after surprise, making the job last weeks longer than the contract specified.
Clearing the lowlands earlier had gone so smoothly, he'd forgotten just how terrible this work could get, and during his time here he had run over everything from rusted farm implements to the bones of what one of his workers claimed was a midget's grave yard. He kept hearing things, and upon climbing down from the cab to investigate, would find the forks of his machine littered with some new rusting or rotting treasure. One time he found the rigging for a horse, another time a collection of nearly petrified tools, as if he wasn't clearing for condos, but setting out on an archeological dig. Had people really actually lived here? The land deeds claimed this was virgin soil, one of the few mountain tops where no one had built before. But Manfre had heard talk in the village.
Yet when he engaged the gears this time, he didn't hear the ring of rusted metal or the crunch of rotting wood, but the strange sound as if he had rolled over a house-sized egg, a crunch followed by an immediate hiss, then following by clanging metal and breaking glass. He didn't wait for his man to yell for him to gear down, he shoved the lever forward as the engine shuddered and the machine came to a halt.
"Damn the delay," he thought, even though he knew others didn't expect him to make half the progress he had.
"You'll be lucky to have that mountain cleared in a year," one of the developers said.
Manfre prided himself in keeping to schedule, meeting the letter of his contract the way a judge would meet the letter of the law. His father had taught him that much, saying an honest man was rare in any profession, but especially this, and though he might never get rich through hard work, he would never die regretting anything. Anything short of hard work was dishonest.
Though he had stopped the engine, Manfre did not climb down off the bulldozer immediately, but bent his head, trying to catch the sound again, trying not to let the village stories or his man's gullibility affect him. Sometimes over the camp fire, Bobby Longland would go on for too long with exaggerated tales, some of them so outlandish Manfre wanted to shake him and make him talk sense, stories about nymphs and fairies.
"You can't go anywhere around these parts and not hear about them," Longland told Manfre. "Everybody has a tale or two to tell."
"They call it mass hysteria," Manfre said.
And maybe he would have started the engine again and ignored the noise if Longland hadn't come charging out of the woods at him, yelling for him not to move.
"You'd better come have a look," Longland said.
"Like hell I will," Manfre said, regretting the weakness that had made him turn off the engine in the first place. "We've got a whole acre more to clear today, and we're not going to do it looking for pixies."
But if Longland could hear Manfre, he showed no sigh, looking up with such concern, Manfre wondered if the boy finally did have something to complain about, or reason to stall.
Longland moaned all night about stiff joints or a sore back, and during the day, found every conceivable excuse to waste time. Once he even had me shut down so he could listen to the woods breathe, Manfre thought sourly. A breathing woods? Next he'll tell me he's heard a tree talk or seen one walking.
"Such beautiful trees," Longland once said. "Isn't it a shame we have to knock them down?"
"A shame?" Manfre barked. "No it's not a shame. It's how we make our living. We clear the land, contractors build houses on it. People need houses to live, you know."
"But up here? In this remote area?" Longland said. "We're just building summer homes for rich yuppies who want to have the mountains to look at. They won't ever appreciate the trees or the streams, other than using the wood for their fire places and the lake to run their jet skis. None of them has ever fished or knows what it is to get lost in the woods..."
"Those yuppies, as you call them, are paying our salaries," Manfre said. "It's not our job to judge them. We just have to make sure we feed our families. If rich people want to build their houses with a view, why should we care?"
"It just seems a waste, that's all," Longland said. "You'd think people would want to keep the trees around, not cut them down."
"What the hell are a few cut trees compared to getting food and clothing for our families?" Manfre asked.
Longland only shrugged.
But now, he shouted so much and seemed to upset, Manfre let loose a long sigh and switched off the engine. He did not hurry in his climb down from the cab, the odd crunching sound still echoing in his head, too strange not to investigate, though Manfre dreaded the outlandish tale Longland would probably develop.
He'll probably tell me we've run over a UFO, Manfre thought, and as he feet touched ground, the smell of the earth struck him, so rich and potent, reminding him of his father and the thick clumps of earth that the man used to leave across the porch, an honest scent that Manfre had missed since his moving away to the city to work. This much he and Longland had in common. Both agreed in the special quality of earth and country, something Manfre liked to call wholesome, and Longland, magical.
"So what is all this fuss about?" Manfre asked when he finally came up to where Longland stood, the boy's hair cast across his forehead with its usual lack of order, but his eyes alarmed Manfre, showing alarm and fright.
"We've uncovered a warren or something," Longland said.
"You made me stop work over a goddamn rabbit warren?"
"It isn't a rabbit warren."
"Fine, then it's a tunnel for ground hogs."
"It's not that either," Longland mumbled. "You have to come look for yourself."
Something in Longland's voice generated alarm in Manfre, a sense of mania that draws down Manfre's graying brows into a distinctly disapproving frown, yet drew him around the blade of the machine to look at whatever it was Longland pointed to. Manfre had heard such alarm in Longland's voice before, once or twice during their three months up here, claiming to have seen something moving in the woods. A doe or buck perhaps, though Longland had mumbled something about an elf or a fairy.
"I've heard talk in the village about there being little people up here," Longland said then.
"And I've heard talk about the Loch Nest monster, but that doesn't mean I believe it."
This time, the bulldozer had sliced through half a hall, part of the leveling the contract called for that would eventually produce an ordinary street here with ordinary houses along either side. The blade has opened up something, as the hissing sound had indicated, showing clearly some kind of hollow space. But instead of the usual dark and dusky tunnel burrowed by some rodent, Manfre saw what amounted to a furnished apartment. The bulldozer blade had cut through the hill on a sharp angle, slicing off one wall from the front. A perfectly round door like a porthole grinned up from the ground, a green door with a shinny yellow brass knocker at its exact middle. This had, when still on its hinges, opened onto a tube-shaped tunnel, but nothing so nearly as dank as a rabbit hole or ground hog's den, both of which oozed with an assortment of bugs and worms. This hall had paneled walls, and tiled floors with a wall full of pegs off which several cloaks hung.
Manfre stared, shaking his head, as Longland eased down into hole, the low ceiling forcing him to tilt his head.
"There's more inside," Longland said, motioning Manfre to follow. "Bring your flashlight."
Manfre nodded, then stepped down, loose earth rolling with his feet into the tiled hall, his fingers feeling for the yellow all-weather flashlight that hung at his belt. It's beam, when he flicked it on, showed more details, and made him less easy as he tilted his own head to peer at the doors along the hall, each door leading to a room or a panty, some rooms furnished, some even carpeted, and the pantries had a store of bottled fruits and seasoned meats. Bedrooms, bathrooms, cellars, pantries, wardrobes, kitchens, dining rooms, all on this one floor, all off this winding corridor. In one room, a candle burned, flicking over what appeared to be the remains of breakfast. The cup of tea still steamed beside a small piles of half eaten biscuits.
"This is nuts!" Manfre said, spitting out the words as if he had a bad taste in his mouth, something terribly wrong revealing itself with every detail, like a man confronted with a ghost, unable to find a logical explanation. "It looks like some kind of elaborate tea set?"
He fingered the linen table cloth where the cup and saucer sat, crumbs of cake still evident, reminding him of his father's Sunday ritual on the porch with a TV table, a coffee mug and a sticky bun, drinking in the brew as he studied the changing seasons.
"It can't be anything for kids," Longland said, standing near a mantle upon which a clock ticked, kicking at the cold remains of a fire in the hearth. "Who would go through all this trouble and expense, and out in the middle of nowhere for kids."
"Someone must have," Manfre said. "This all too small for an adult."
"But it's old stuff," Longland argued. "And worn. Some of this is so old it must be antique. Did you see the doors? That carving is pure craftsmanship. My uncle used to be a carpenter, a good one at that. He never did work as good as this. This stuff's a hundred years old if it's a day. And look there," he pointed to a pipe still smoldering in an ashtray on the hearth. "What parent is going to let their kid smoke a pipe?"
"Then it's a midget's house," Manfre barked, knowing just how unlikely that sounded.
"Out here? For what that midget spent digging up this hole and fixing it up like this, he could have had a mansion down in the city."
"Then it's a goddamn joke!" Manfre said.
"An expensive joke."
"But a joke, none the less," Manfre said. "Now can we get out of here. You might not be claustrophobic, but I am."
But was it claustrophobia that drove him from that hole or a haunting sense about the place that his father's logic refused to explain, questions pounding on the inside of his head, for which he could find no answers, making him all the more irritable until he finally burst out into the open air again, and smelled the recently disturbed earth again, like the farmland father used to drive through on Sunday, like the smell of earth just before the leaves finished falling and winter sealed it in its grave.
And standing there, staring out, Manfre noticed for the first time what appeared to be a narrow lane, curling up from the flat waterway a quarter of a mile away, grass-cover yet with the ruts of car tires or cart wheels imbedded in its now-dried mud. The same breathlessness he had felt in the tunnel struck him again. "Why didn't I ever notice that, he wondered. Or those round windows in the side of the hill looking down towards the water? And that, what looks like a small garden...
Then, he heard the moan.
At first, Manfre didn't even recognize it as that, but thought it the sound of the land shifting, the voice of the wind blowing through the trees. But the moan, when he realized it was a voice, came from behind him, a nearly human groaning that came from the vicinity of the bulldozer blade and the huge pile of accumulated dirt plowed up from the uncovered tunnel.
Longland, just then climbing out of the hole, heard it, too, his face twisting with a sudden panic as he traced the song along the pile until he uncovered its source.
"There's a hand sticking out of the pile," the younger man shouted, stirring Manfre out of his thoughts, though his legs still dragged under him as he circled around to where Longland stood, to the place where indeed a tiny hand lay, palm up in the pile -- a hand connected to a buried arm.
The moan came again and the fingers wiggled. Manfre shuddered. Longland leaped to the pile and started digging around the hand, uncovering the arm, and then the shoulder and finally, what appeared to be the head of a midget, only not a midget, something else, a pudgy fellow wearing clothing of green and yellow, and when Longland uncovered that much, wore no shoes. The face of this creature was framed by a head of curly brown hair.
"Good God, it's a little man," Longland said after he had finished freeing the creature, though the moans had not stopped, nor had the creature's eyes opened. "And gauging from the look of him, he's hurt real bad. We have to get him to a hospital."
"A hospital? In this neck of the woods. We'd have more luck with a veterinarian."
"Fine, then let's find a veterinarian," Longland growled. "If we don't find someone who knows more than we do about medicine, this little fellow is going to die. He must have been walking down the hall when you -- we dug up his hole."
Up in smoke went any hope of meeting the day's schedule. One look at the small creature revealed the truth of Longland's statement, a shade of ill heath showed on the creature's face that only a doctor could undo. The idea irritated Manfre, who had always taken great pains to avoid injuries, keeping his work well within the limits of safety, and seeing the small body quiver under Longland's touch, soured him, drawing from him a long, resigned sigh.
"All right, you carry him down to the pickup; I'll shut down everything here." Manfre said. "We'll drive him into the village. They'll have a doctor there."
Longland eased his arms under the creature, one arm under the knees, the other under the neck, then lifted him slowly, walking carefully with his bundle down the bulldozed path. Manfre found a foothold on the machine and climbed up its side, grabbing out the key from the ignition and his work bag from behind the seat. When he slid back down, however, he didn't rush off. Instead, he stood, feeling the breeze against his cheek as he studied the landscape.
None of this makes sense, he thought. People don't burrow in the ground like rabbits, no matter how small they are, or build houses in holes. Maybe it was some trick of Longland's, part of that nearly endless bickering that had gone one between them since starting this project, Longland constantly objecting to ruining of the land. And yet, the more Manfre examined the hole, the less like a trick it seemed, something about the earth and the hole that seemed connected, as if -- contrary to his own common sense --that hole should have been there, just the way they found it, as proper to this woody world as a tree or stone.
The pickup's horn honked from below.
Manfre sighed again, then gripping the key in one hand and the bag in the other, he hurried down the path Longland had taken, his leaving the mark of his boots in the upturned earth, the trees on either side swaying in the wind, furiously shaking their leaves at him, like an angry mob calling for his lynching. He could almost see an enraged expression in the trunk of each tree, accusing him of horrors, not just for the assault on the little man, but for his attack on their world, his metal beast tearing down in minutes, hours, days and weeks, what had taken the earth years and centuries to create.
"God, Harry, you sure are slow," Longland growled when Manfre finally arrived, seated in the front seat, the creature cradled in his lap like a child, but a large child, the kind of kids fathers went out into the yard to play baseball with. Only the hairy toes and thick leathery soles seemed out of place. "This poor fellow isn't breathing right. He might have dirt in his lungs."
"If he has lungs," Manfre said, shoving the key into the ignition, then twisted it, the engine whining for a moment before catching and roaring, sending smoke out the tail pipe. He engaged the gears, backing along the narrow lane to the wider one, dust rising up around the cab as he twisted the wheel to face down the mountain. Then, the feeling struck Manfre again, the anger of the landscape, and the glare of the trees on either side of the passage up, like a line of relatives standing watching as a murderer drove passed them, each green limb limp in mourning, each rustling head turning to glare as he drove. He was relieved when after about twenty minutes, they came to a more conventional dirt road, and then after another twenty minutes, to a paved road full of potholes, and most relieved when after about an hour total, he pulled the pickup into the village. The whole time, Longland mumbling about how they'd killed someone, and Manfre telling him to shut up about it, feeling as if he had, too. But killed what?
It took another ten minutes for them to find the doctor and for the doctor, a gray-headed man twice Manfre's age, to have them bring the creature in. At first, the doctor only squinted at the creature, his gray eyes bloated by his round spectacles, emphasizing his puzzled expression.
"And you say you found him up on The Hill?" the doctor asked after some moments.
"That's right, doc," Longland said. "We ran the bulldozer over this mound and uncovered some kind of tunnel or house, and we found this fellow in the dirt. I think he hurt his back or something, or injured something inside. He moaned a lot on the way down here, talked some, but I could make neither head nor tails of it. Maybe he hurt his head, too, screwed up his thinking for something."
"Or something," the doctor mumbled, then took out a stethoscope, listened to the creature's heart, lungs, and then he leaned back, shaking his head. "I don't know what to make of this. I've heard talk of Little People, but never thought I'd see one. You know how people are, always making up tales of this kind or that, always talking about fairies and elves in the woods."
"Are you telling us this is an elf?" Manfre said, his voice sounding as annoyed as he felt.
"Oh no, not by a long shot," the doctor said. "But he's not human either, not in the way you and I think of the term. I'm sure somewhere along the line, there's a relationship between us and him, but that was a long time back."
"What the hell are you talking about?" Manfre demanded.
The doctor removed his glasses, cleaned them with a handkerchief, then put them on again. "Our little man here is dying and there's not a lot I can do about it."
"We can call a hospital, can't we?" Longland said, looking at the doctor hopefully.
"Sure, and they'll want his body for study. But they won't get here in time to keep him alive. I don't have the knowledge of his anatomy. They won't either, even if they could get here in time. I'm sorry."
Then the creature moaned again. The doctor eased close to the small man's mouth, bending his ear to catch the words, and when he rose, he looked more alarmed than before.
"What is it?" Manfre asked. "Did he talk to you?"
"I think so," the doctor said. "But not in a tongue anyone here would understand."
"But you did?"
"Not exactly," the doctor said. "And my memory is not what it should be. Way back in college, I studied some rudiments of the English Language. I was in love with the building blocks of our mother tongue, especially Old English. I still remember a few phrases, and can recognize a few more on a printed page."
"And you're saying this creature spoke old English?"
"No, not old English, not really English at all, but something as old to Old English, as Old English is to our version, something Germanic or Saxon from the sound of it, something --well, I can only guess."
"But you understood it?"
"No, except perhaps for a guess. I think the creature knows he's dying and wanted to say something about who he is."
"Maybe more like a category," the doctor mumbled. "We as men like to differentiate ourselves from the apes, I think this creature is trying to do as much, trying to say what he is. But God, do either of you know what a hobbit is?"
Traveling to Rivendale
As much as I want to connect "The Hobbit" the with "The Lord of the Rings," I've never been able to find a true means of comparison. As Gandalf said about the lesser rings of power, it is merely an exercise in the craft with the real artwork beginning in "The Fellowship of the Ring" and ending with the chapter entitled "Gray Havens." I know this will seem a sin to some whose dedication to Tolkien borders on the fanatical. But a good study of literary criticism would show the truth for what it is. Despite Christopher's excuses in several of the alternative versions published well after his father's death, the real magic invoked from "The Lord of the Rings" comes from its self contained nature, not just from the history it hints at throughout the pages.
All that I will get more deeply involved in later in other essays when I have my own facts straight. Here, I simply wish to deal with one tiny aspect in the two more significant works of Tolkien and the confusion I had early on with the time frame of travel between Hobbiton and Rivendale. Leaving out the other more fundamental inconsistencies surrounding the finding of the ring and Bilbo's tale to the others, one specific element in "The Hobbit" annoyed the hell out of me for years, and only later, after very close reading, did I finally come to accept bridge the fictional reality between the two works.
When initially reading "The Hobbit" I was always left with the impression that travel from Hobbiton to the site where they confront the trolls as less than a day's journey. This impression haunted me each time when I got to the later work and that same trip took weeks. According to Strider the distance between Weathertop and Rivendale could be covered in two weeks along the road. Yet in the ambling writing and less sophisticated style of "The Hobbit" the passing of time was noted yet not felt as acutely as in the later work. In "The Lord of the Rings" time is one of the great themes (of which I will write much later) but here, it is of almost passing significance. In his effort to give the impression of an easy and untroubled journey, Tolkien shows indifference to time's passing. Later, in Rivendale, Tolkien himself gives a clue.
"Now it is a strange thing, but things that are good to have and days that are good to spend are soon told about and not much to listen to; while things that are uncomfortable, palpitating, and even gruesome, may make a good tale, and take a deal of telling anyway."
So in Tolkien's way, the passage from Hobbiton to the troll's den was just like that. What fooled me was looking back at that time frame from the later work. I kept running into a single phrase that did not correspond with the amount of time. Just before meeting the trolls, after Gandalf had vanished, Tolkien writes:
"So far they had not camped before on this journey, and though they knew that they soon would have to camp regularly, when they were among the Misty Mountains and far from the lands of respectable people, it seemed a bad wet evening to begin on."
In the later work, Strider makes a point of telling Frodo and the others that there were no inns beyond Bree and the three small communities surrounding it except for the haunted inn, which I still haven't located. From Bree to Weathertop alone was several days journey with the Troll Den ten days or more along the road. So how did Bilbo and the crazy 13 dwarves make it between Bree and the troll den without camping once?
It is an unresolved question and one of many small flaws that keeps "The Hobbit" from being fully integrated into "The Lord of the Rings."
In truth, Tolkien had indeed kept his sense of time even if he goofed about the camping. For the journey started from Hobbiton in late April and they arrived at the troll den at the end of May. "That's how they all came to start, jogging off from the inn one fine morning just before May," Tolkien writes, then later nearer the troll den: " `To think it will soon be June,' grumbled Bilbo as he splashed along behind the others in a very muddy track." For those of us who for some psychologically desperate reason need to have the two works coincide, there is some way to justify Bilbo and the Dwarves' failure to have camped before the troll den. While in the later work, the lands beyond Bree have fallen back into waste, many years have passed between the two books, sixty years or more. Bilbo was fifty years old at the unexpected party and 111 when he left the shire for the last time. In our world, sixty years is the same span between the 1929 stock market crash and the fall of the Soviet Union.. Since we are led to believe in these works that much evil has befallen the land since the White Council chased Sauron from the Mirkwood, it is not unreasonable to believe that the boarders of civilization has declined. In the South Gondor is crumbling and it has strong armies to patrol its borders. In the north, on the rangers protect the land. Therefore many of the inns that might have existed along the route during Bilbo's journey, may have easily faded away by the time Frodo appeared.
"At first they had passed through hobbit lands," writes Tolkien, "A wild, respectable country inhabited by decent folk, with good roads, an inn or two, and now and then a dwarf or a farmer ambling by on business. Then, they came to lands where people spoke strangely, and sang songs Bilbo had never heard before. Now they had gone on far into the Lone lands, where there were no people left, no inns, and the roads grew steadily worse."
For those who insist on reading "The Hobbit" before each and every return to "The Lord of the Rings," making some excuse for time may seem a trivial thing, but important to consistency and readability. While I have read most of the other books that have unfortunately been published since "The Lord of the Rings," I go back to "The Hobbit" when Frodo sails away at the Gray Havens. I don't care about the great history revealed so artlessly in the last half of "The Return of the King," or more artfully but utterly incomprehensibly retold in "The Silmarillion." I want the innocence and beauty of "The Hobbit" where for a time, before and briefly after the events of "The Hobbit" life is nearly perfect in Middle Earth.
c/o A.D. Sullivan
271 Terrace Avenue
Jersey City, NJ 07307