With that lead-in, I need to confess: I’m not necessarily a fantasy-fiction guy. Put a history of early America or a book about book-collecting in my hands, shut me in a padded room, and I’m as giddy as Gollum with his precious ring. Shut me in with a roomful of fantasy board-gamers, and I’m as cranky and miserable as Gollum without his precious ring. Look, I’m coming clean, don’t throw vegetables at me.
I didn’t grow up in a family of bibliophiles. I do remember, as a child, noticing a small copy of some book about “hobbits” wedged in a short stack of paperbacks on my dad’s nightstand. I don’t think the book moved from its spot in that undisturbed pile for many years. Examining it, I liked the cover, mainly because it depicted a solitary soul, presumably Bilbo, floating in what looked like a barrel down a broad river. I’m not sure I ever asked Dad why those books sat there idle all those years. Really, the only time I read anything of substance was when it was required of me for school. Even then, I read the required books far less than half-heartedly. To this day, I’d very much like to give Thomas Hardy a swift kick in his Victorian butt for his book The Mayor of Casterbridge, an excruciating “classic” that was my required reading the summer of 1989. I hold a mini-grudge against Hardy for robbing from me a portion of that summer’s joy. Now, as more or less an adult who finds no small pleasure in reading, I should probably give The Mayor a second chance, but it’s not easy forgiving those who trespass against us. Speaking of British writers, let me get back to Birmingham…
Andrew, myself, Toby, and his wife crammed into their car to visit the childhood home and scenery of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, which were later to inform his tales of hobbits and their Shire. Toby pulled into an apartment complex parking lot, and there, surrounded by an unremarkable tract of woods in the middle of suburban Birmingham, we walked the fifty or so feet along soggy ground to a small stone bridge crossing the River Cole. The trail curled away into the wooded area. The setting reminded me, oddly enough, of my native south Louisiana, sans mosquitoes. I imagined Frodo and his furry, oversized feet scurrying about the leaf-strewn trails.
Then, not five minutes from that bridge, Toby parked the car in front of a coffeeshop, The Hungry Hobbit, where we crossed the street (at a roundabout, hello), and followed the sidewalk to Sarehole Mill, now a museum, and its adjacent pond. This structure of bygone industry, in its heyday, surely informed Tolkien’s imagination and his creation of Mordor.
Literally across the street from the pond was Tolkien’s childhood home, a rather normal residence on a rather normal street among other rather normal residences. While staring at the house, hoping to catch a glimpse of a reclusive Baggins, I marvel at the hedges fronting the sidewalk. The tightly interwoven branches formed vegetative sentries standing guard. We snap pictures of the house, and I wonder if these hedges were present in young Tolkien’s day, and, if so, did he brush past them on his way to school, or did the brambles snag his shirt on his way out to meet his dad coming home from work, or to play hide & seek with his pals in those nearby woods.
It was time for Andrew and I to hit the road for the hour and a half drive (much longer, obviously, with the surfeit of roundies) back to Oxford for the second of our two shows at Ilyria Pottery. We arrived and helped Katie and Micah clear the sales floor of displays. I begged for coffee, and by this time in the trip I was tapped out socially and desperate for solitude. Entirely exhausted, I laid on the floor in the shadow of a throwing wheel and a work table. With no place to go for privacy, a cold, hard floor would have to do until it was time to be social again. I must have fallen asleep because I remember hearing in the fog, “Where’s Eric?” and realizing there was drool in the corner of my mouth. “Hey guys, I’m here. No, over here. Here! Down on the floor.”
The crowd was a bit larger than the first show here, and it even included a few familiar faces, folks who had come back for the second show. Andrew proved true to his gifts of storytelling and ministry of humor in making folks feel at home and at ease. His are rare gifts of hospitality and the ability to bring people together. I am not alone in recognizing this about Andrew. The audience was again gracious to me and my six songs. At the end of the night, we all chipped in (nice pottery pun, Eric) to reassemble the shop to Katie’s specs. Sleep couldn’t come fast enough.