Less welcome did the lord Denethor show me then than of old, and grudgingly he permitted me to search among his hoarded scrolls and books.
“If indeed you look only, as you say, for records of ancient days, and the beginnings of the City, read on!” he said. “…But unless you have more skill even than Saruman, who has studied here long, you will find naught that is not well known to me, who am master of the lore of this City.”
‘And yet there lie in his hoards many records that few can now read… there lies in Minis Tirith still, unread, I guess, by any save Saruman and myself since the Kings failed, a scroll that Isildur made himself…’ said Gandalf; ‘and that is not remembered in Gondor, it would seem.’
The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
That’s a rather pleasant image; Gandalf as historian, seeking refuge amongst the dusty books for answers to the secrets of the One Ring. Surely there’s a thesis in that. Come to think of it, Denethor reminds me of a couple librarians I’ve come across down the years as well, grumpily bestowing access to their precious scrolls (look, but don’t touch). Of course, these days, Gandalf would have to submit reams of paperwork to the AHRC to get further funding into his ‘One Ring’ research. Quite how he’d justify its contribution to the Big Society remit, I’m not sure. Perhaps Sauron getting the ring back would count as a Big Society? Who knows. I suspect Saruman would gazzump poor old Gandalf the Grey to publication anyway.
I’ve written before about how Tolkien’s writing helped engender a love of history in me (here), and I came across something that reminded me again of how much my love of old books, and searching through them, was prompted by Tolkien. As a young teenager, my desire for Tolkienalia drove me toward another love, second hand bookshops. Tolkien material was scarce on the ground in those days, this was pre Peter jackson’s films, of course.
Since the Lord of the Rings movies came out, a decade ago, any possible Tolkien related paraphenalia is but a mouse click away. As well as ease of access, there are simply so many editions of his traditional works (Silmarilian, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings) that I wouldn’t know where to start. There are also reams of ‘new’ works, edited together by his children, not counting the hundreds of guides, dictionaries, encyclopaedias, histories etc etc. It’s almost impossible to remember what it was like, when I decided to brave the local second hand bookshop to see if they had any copies of this book my Dad had; The Lord of the Rings.
This bookshop didn’t disappoint. On approach, its grimy windows held a half-forgotten display of local books, rather unlovingly propped up by cardboard boxes brimming with more of the same. On entry the ubiquitous old bell would ring, leaving no trace of an impact on the old fellow who ran the shop, if indeed he was about. I would often potter about in there, for an hour or so, without ever seeing him. On these occasions the thought often crossed my mind that I should check under some of the musty detritus, to see if he’d become lost under a literary avalanche.
Once in, I would always be thrilled by the sheer volume of mouldering tomes that lined each wall, as well as most of the floor, of that murky room. When the bookshop finally closed down, it was found that the shelves were the only thing holding the ceiling up, I think regular patrons had guessed at this a long time before, I don’t recall ever seeing anyone tempted by the books on the top shelf. The presence of new, half empty boxes of books would always mark the more exciting forays, it meant new stock and the possibility of new and interesting Tolkienalia. The lack of a filing system that had meaning beyond the owners own dimmed eyes, made seeking out the precious collections that much more interesting. Most times I would come up empty handed, or leave with some old rubbish (Pilgrims Progress anyone?). If I’m honest the rifling, ferreting and investigating is what made it so interesting, and I don’t think that feeling has ever left me. I’m still combing through old guff, papers, books and maps, though it’s normally in pursuit of something historical now, rather than John Ronald Reuel’s work.
I was particularly interested in finding old Tolkien stuff from the late 1960s and early 1970s, a time when his work received a second wind, as it chimed with the psychedelic, folk, counter culture of the time. Frodo Lives! Occasionally, I would find something that fitted the bill, though often I was quite happy with old paperback copies that I could scribble over in attempts to translate the Elvish or runic bits.
The find, that recently jogged my nostalgia bone, was not something from that era, but it is oddly charing nonetheless. It tallies with another childhood preoccupation of mine, early 1980s roleplaying games. I’ve never played a desktop roleplaying game in my life, but I was always utterly in love with the idea and often simply the artwork of the genre. I’m also impressed at the level of obsessive, fan detail that went into these games. Intricately mapped out dungeons and scenarios, though I’ve never been able to make head nor tail of how it works.
My second hand book shop closed over night and after extensive renovation of the decrepit building, the space was reopened as an opticians (a school friends mum worked there). An opticians! What’s the point of perfect vision, if you’ve got nothing worthwhile to read.