It is an overcast monsoon day in Mumbai. I have finished my homework and sit cross-legged on the bed in the room I share with my parents and younger sister in my maternal grandparents’ house. It is inching towards twilight, but I haven’t turned the lights on as I stare in the general direction of my bookshelf, which, at this moment, can’t offer its usual comfort.
This feeling has been chipping away at me from the inside all day. I won’t know until much later that dusk is a traditionally uneasy time, that Hindustani classical music has an entire raga devoted to its shifting, restless, enigmatic nature. I’m not even aware that, a few years later, without immediately realising why, I’ll start to associate this melancholy with J.R.R. Tolkien’s poems and songs about the Elves–...do you hear them calling, the voices of my people that have gone before me?...I will leave the woods that bore me; for our days are ending and our years failing–and later with the accompanying soundtrack brought masterfully, achingly, to life by Howard Shore. All I have in that moment is the sudden, suffocating, startlingly clear realisation that we’re ultimately all alone, that death and loss are inevitable, that there is an impermanence to most things–you know, normal ten-year-old ruminations. I can’t explain wanting to cry, so I don’t tell anyone. I just sit there in the dark with thoughts I have no idea what to do with, with feelings I don’t know the origin of.
One of my enduring memories from a year later is of my father glued to a chunky book with a wizard on the cover against a greenish-grey background. He reads it after he comes home from work, after dinner, and before bed. Having discovered my love of reading through him, I naturally ask what book he is so immersed in.
Baba, introduced to The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien as a teenager, at a friend’s house, has always wanted to return to that world; this time with his own copies. These are then handed to me and my sister. As I read, as I grow ever frantic for the story to not end, for these people who have become so dear to me not to be separated–for me, for them–those almost-forgotten feelings creep back into my consciousness. But I don’t expect another to swirl up as I follow Sam, Merry and Pippin on their journey back to the Shire at the very end. A fierce belief that if only I can find a similar sense of fellowship somewhere, it would overshadow, even defeat, this seemingly bottomless despair I can’t shake.
Years pass but the pull of Middle Earth doesn’t. Nor do those feelings I carry, always, underneath everything. In 2007, I write a story-essay set in a forgotten and frankly haunting Rivendell. It wrestles with the book’s themes of endings, of time’s passing, of inevitability, but also the acute beauty that accompanies such transience and the acceptance necessary for survival. It is my application submission to Edge Hill University’s creative writing programme where I am to spend four amazing, challenging years honing my skills and broadening my writing horizons.
I leave home and move to a foreign country–carrying with me all of Bilbo’s unleashed sense of adventure and Frodo’s more reluctant but no less brave brand of heroism and willingness to venture into the unknown, no matter how difficult–so I can pursue a passion for words. A passion that has remained persistent through two self-inflicted, partly enjoyable years of studying anatomy, physiology and botany, chemistry, physics, and mathematics, and firmly resistant to any sort of societal-approved practicality. I know I am privileged to be supported in this endeavour, financially and emotionally, by my family.
What I don’t realise then is that I still cling to the conviction of needing to find a sense of belonging. If only I can find in my own life the all-definitive affinity that I’d grasped as a lifeline within the pages of Tolkien’s opus, then I won’t carry the sinking dread, however far away, of my close family’s inescapable loss. The loss of people with whom, I’ve since realised, I had my first experience of true belonging, something I was, at the time, unable to verbalise or contextualise but have always felt keenly as evidenced by the feelings I can’t discard even after all these years.
In May 2018, I am perched high up within the grounds of the Alhambra, facing the mountains. It is a misty, muggy day towards the end of the month. The Sierra Nevada houses Mount Mulhacén, Spain’s highest peak, but it is hard to see much of anything that day beyond the weirdly comforting grey clouds. As always, around mountains and forests, I’m thinking about Middle Earth, about journeys where much of the path ahead is glimpsed only in snatches, in possibilities, like in Galadriel’s mirror.
My friend and I have just passed through the palace of the former King Carlos, through a two-floor structure enclosing an intricately tiled patio open to the heavens. I’m still thinking about what it is, beyond the obvious symmetry, that makes circular structures so satisfying to be in. It is no longer drizzling, but this massive complex was built so that you can hear water no matter where you are in the grounds.
We rest for a while in the sheltered part of the gardens, content with the silence that cushions us from the surrounding touristic clatter. I close my eyes for just a beat, listening to the sound of the water, imagining the silver-curtain spring cascading down the entrance of the ent-house at the roots of the Last Mountain in The Two Towers. It is almost as if I’ve conjured up Treebeard the Ent himself, offering Masters Merry and Pippin a draught meant to invigorate, because there’s an unexplained buoyancy, fast dissipating, just before I open my eyes. It leaves some unnameable hope that I tuck away, almost unconsciously, without knowing I’ll need it soon. The summer is just beginning, and with it another crisis of existential purpose.
As a writer, the summer of 2018 isn’t the first time I’ve questioned my usefulness to the larger design. But each time feels new and bottomless, and so, among other things, I rush to the world that has always found me a place within it, through all my changes, growth, and the passage of time in my life and around me. I know it can help, at least for a while.
And, boy, does it.
This trip to Middle Earth makes me realise that I have been looking at “belonging” all wrong. Even when the members of the Fellowship part, some of them forever, they carry pieces of each other, shared moments across the Middle-Earth landscape of the too-brief time together that forever binds them no matter what separates them. Though they are irrevocably altered by their experiences, those shards of communal memory enrich them. I realise that this book, but also reading as a whole, has been preparing me, my entire life, for the process of leaving behind parts of myself–in all the places, the people, the stories I love–but also for carrying them in exchange, in books and reality. Maybe what I consider a fragmented existence is, instead, tiny roots spread across the world connected by me, to me.
In the following months, even as I become more appreciative and conscious of each piece, each step, each word nudging me closer to a less incomplete understanding about myself, I finally read Tolkien’s authorised biography by Humphrey Carpenter and come across these lines–
“He was by nature a cheerful, almost irrepressible person with a great zest for life. He loved good talk and physical activity. He had a deep sense of humour and a great capacity for making friends. But from now onwards there was to be a second side, more private but predominant in his diaries and letters. This side of him was capable of bouts of profound despair. More precisely, and more closely related to his mother's death, when he was in this mood he had a deep sense of impending loss. Nothing was safe. Nothing would last. No battle would be won forever.”
Before this I have never read words that describe my own state of mind when these feelings surface. It cements an immediate sense of kinship with the Professor beyond the cherished place he’s always held for me. Even though our situations are nothing alike and I haven’t lost anybody yet, I too carry that profound despair, that deep sense of impending loss; I’ve carried it before I could even define any of it. For me, mixed in there is an acute sense of loneliness independent of externalities, almost otherworldly in the manner in which it isolates me from my surroundings and the people in them while simultaneously connecting me to the world. Like I’m accessing sadness that isn’t just my own, mining it from the earth’s very core.
Over the years and multiple readings of The Lord of the Rings, I’m in a much better position to crystallise my feelings about it. Layer upon layer of insight and experience, of memory, and a trail of my past selves forever preserved. For example, adolescent me hadn’t fully grasped its lessons about goodbyes and letting go, about the unbearable but inevitable sorrow that all things must end, despite writing that essay back in 2007. But adult-me thinks about endings increasingly often. It knows that we cannot prevent anything from slipping away, that slip away it must on the tides of time against the shores of our world. Over the past few years, loss and parting, temporary or otherwise, aren’t just abstract concerns, and each time I leave my family to return to Boston, I feel the goodbyes becoming harder, even as a veteran of living away from home. I comfort myself with Gandalf’s advice to the hobbits during that final goodbye at the docks of the Gray Havens– “I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil.”
Adult-me is also more self-aware about that ever-lurking dread. So when I’m drawn to Aragorn and Arwen’s story in the appendices, in the middle of an extremely transitional time in my own life, and during a pandemic no less, I’m somewhat prepared for the feelings that surface, but not for the incoming insight. More than a decade after I moved to England, carrying with me a quest of belonging I didn’t even know about, combined with fears that hadn’t actualised, I’m finally ready.
It is only the second time I read the continuation of their story to the end; the first time I vocally accept that I don’t enjoy reminders of time’s swift passing, even in a book. What if I never found my way to Mount Doom before it was too late, before I was left all alone at the mercy of feelings that, more often than not, assaulted me at my happiest, lying in wait against the blurred lines of my joy?
But, even as Aragorn offers his eternal love no comfort because “there is [none] for such pain within the circles of the world”, I realise something. Giving up an immortal life with her Elvish kin for her true (mortal) love is a choice Arwen Evenstar of Rivendell makes willingly, a sacrifice she doesn’t regret even though she knows it can end only in a parting as sorrowful as the pain will be deep. Those final scenes between her and Aragorn are haunting but speak of Tolkien’s unflinching acceptance of what awaits us all. My quest, then, has actually been to find a way to live with the tiny but acute pocket of melancholy and aloneness I’ve always carried; a working, evolving understanding rather than an unrealistic destruction of that One Ring.
And then there’s the fact that Tolkien, who knew so much loss in his childhood and during the Great War, who saw humanity at some of its worst moments, and who imbibed a lifelong melancholy very early on, still chose to write a story that’s ultimately about hope and beauty and love. He chose to illuminate the importance of friendship, loyalty, bravery, and of doing the right thing through everything. These are choices that I want to keep making even on my worst days, at my most despondent moments. It’s why I have “Estel” (eternal hope) tattooed on me in Sindarin; to remind me when I forget.
But beyond everything, it is almost giddily reassuring to know that no matter what happens or where I find myself, that even when the world is experiencing its most surreal, unprecedented time in more than a century, Middle Earth will always know, and have, exactly what I need. It will always be home.
Anushree is a Mumbai-born writer who has studied and worked in the United Kingdom and Spain, and currently works as a publishing professional in Boston. Her microfiction collection, 55 Words, was published by Underground Voices in 2015 and her other work (fiction, essays, football pieces, poetry) can be found in a range of online and print platforms. She's a senior editor and writer at Football Paradise, an award-winning website for longform articles about football, hosts a monthly newsletter featuring in-depth conversations with storytellers, and is heavily involved in Boston’s literary community.