Hobbits, windmills, and rocky trails

July 25, 2022 Comments Off on Hobbits, windmills, and rocky trails

I read Don Quixote in junior high school. Several years before that I’d read The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. Some weeks ago I found a new translation of Cervantes’s masterwork lying around the house, by John Rutherford, a huge improvement from the Modern Library version I read in the 70’s, as Rutherford’s creative and exacting translation has surgically removed almost all of the humor and Iberian-ness of the original, replacing it with a kind of perfect translation that says everything but captures nothing.

Translation is notorious, and when done well is always a monstrosity that gives the canvas and grammar of the immortals to people who are neither artists nor writers, but almost inevitably deep and brilliant scholars, and therefore the archenemy of art, alchemists who think that the right admixture of newt and spider web will turn their leaden prose into gold. For all that, here’s what you can’t escape from the Quixote, no matter the translation: madness is in the eye of the beholder, so behold well.

Although the Quixote is the greatest book ever written, its antithesis and therefore equally influential is J.R.R. Tolkein’s great epic. My dad read The Hobbit to me, a chapter a night, when I was eight years old. I still remember his big arm snuggling my small shoulders in bed as he mimicked accents, invented pronunciations for dwarvish names, and scratched the top of my head with his bushy beard. I remember the sadness of the ending, not the ending of the book, but the ending of the reading.

I descended into the Rings trilogy on my own and like many people was waylaid by it, living much of my elementary school years as Frodo Baggins. No one ever knew it except my mom, who one day asked me why I was crying.

“Because,” I sobbed, “Frodo is going through so much! It’s too much for a small hobbit!”

“Who?” she asked. “And what’s a hobbit?”

“You’ll never understand!” I shouted, and ran off to my room where I cried inconsolably for an hour or more, even though I knew the ending, having read the damned books several times.

Now that I’m at least chronologically older than when I was eight, I see the Rings trilogy a bit differently. It’s bad writing but imaginative, poorly plotted out and filled with ridiculous, gaping holes, yet still charming and infused with Tolkein’s love of Chaucer and Middle English, and still able to draw me in, a little, just enough so that even though I know the Nazgul’s knifepoint won’t be fatal, I still get nervous enough to have to put the book down and busy myself with a bit of dusting, vacuuming, or chopping wood.

The Rings trilogy was of course the very bane of Cervantes. Its modern take on Amadis of Gaul and tales of knight errantry, or in this case hobbit errantry, performs the selfsame mental capture of gullible readers that made Cervantes so wrathful. With dragons and trolls and weird figments that behave foolishly and contrary to all reason, Tolkein’s was exactly the prototype literature that drove the good hidalgo Don Quixote mad, not to mention the countless people still stumbling around this earth scrawling “Frodo lives!” and “All who wander are not lost!” To add to Cervantes’s genius, an impossibility, is the fact that he made fun of the Rings and the saps it ensnared almost 300 years before Tolkein was born.

And yet these two books circle back upon themselves as journeys. The Quixote, a journey of madness cloaked in knight errantry, and the Rings, a journey of hobbit errantry that makes readers mad, if madness includes falling headlong into the fantasy world of Middle Earth with minimal coping mechanisms to escape from it. For the Quixote, we look at the tragically insane hidalgo as he jousts with windmills. For the Rings, we look at a fantasy world of the wholly unreal and imagine that it is genuine, thereby becoming mad ourselves.

In both cases the mainspring is journey.

There is a 7-mile hike up behind the house that goes from about 3,000 feet to about 6,100. It starts sandy and rocky, high desert scrub interspersed with stunted oak and ghost pine, and turns into manzanita, massive ponderosa, towering lodgepole, giant red cedar, and eventually sequoia itself. It starts hot and finishes cool.

You will almost certainly never see anyone else on the trails that lead from here to there, though bobcat, cougar, and bear are always possible. Scrub jay, trending to Steller’s jay, is a certainty as you ascend. Underfoot your bare feet will transition from hot and rocky sand to softer, cooler loam.

All along the way your mind will seek and find contact points with reality, contact points of sky above, ground below, and the mountainous relief all ’round. Yet your mind will simultaneously disengage from reality and float into a kind of madness, “Do the trees hear me? Is the birdsong a secret code? Have I completely lost my mind, wandering these deserted mountain paths unshod, looking for a purpose and an enlightenment that does not exist?”


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