“There are books that are so alive that you’re always afraid that while you weren’t reading, the book has gone and changed, has shifted like a river; while you went on living, it went on living too, and like a river moved on and moved away. No one has stepped twice into the same river. But did anyone ever step twice into the same book?” —Marina Tsvetaeva
I’m going to go ahead and let my nerd flag fly as I share my favorite passage in all of literature.
Backstory that you may feel free to skip over
In high school, I became a die-hard Lord of the Rings fan. Not so die-hard that I could speak Elvish fluently, but enough that I could beat the pants off anyone playing LOTR Trivial Pursuit. As I left for college to become a literature and writing major, I was overwhelmed with assigned reading. For the first time in years, I didn’t read the Lord of the Rings trilogy that summer (It gets better with every reading, I’ll have you know. I know the first run can be a bit rough—plenty of exposition that Tolkien fellow writes). I also didn’t want to be defined by my hard core geekiness. College was a new start, and a way for me to leave behind the high school angst and discover who I really was.
Over the last few years, I’d still cry at the credit music of The Return of the King, and the trailers for the movies still gave me goosebumps, but I haven’t picked up the books in nearly a decade. The literature major lasted only a couple of semesters before I despised my assigned reading. I soon dropped the Lit major and focused on writing. Sure, I still had stacks of reading material, but I was reading Billy Collins and Li-Young Lee and Aristotle instead of the monotonous feminist drivel that I had previously been beaten over the head with. You’ve read one feminist awakening novel, you’ve read them all. Trust me. (I much prefer feminist characters or themes in a book that isn’t just about feminism. Any book with rounded, realistic female characters is a feminist novel, IMHO.)
Now I’m the one writing too much expository. Anyway, since I’ve graduated, I’ve been able to coddle my love for reading and nurse it back to health. Yesterday I finished The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman and read his Newbery Award acceptance speech, in which he wrote about the unadulterated love for books that he had as a youth. Today, I stumbled upon some Tolkien quotes, and as I was rereading the passage below—many years ago underlined and circled and starred in my first, now tattered paperback copy—I realized what a profound impact these words had on me as a teenager.
The novel version
(Frodo) “I don’t like anything here at all, step or stone, breath or bone. Earth, air and water all seem accursed. But so our path is laid.”
(Sam) “Yes, that’s so. And we shouldn’t be here at all, if we’d known more about it before we started. But I suppose it’s often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport, as you might say.
“But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually—their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on—and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end. You know, coming home, and finding things all right, though not quite the same—like old Mr. Bilbo. But those aren’t always the best tales to hear, though they may be the best tales to get landed in! I wonder what sort of a tale we’ve fallen into?” [Book IV, chapter 8]
The movie version
“I can’t do this, Sam.”
“I know. It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here. But we are. It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.”
“What are we holding onto, Sam?”
“That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo… and it’s worth fighting for.”
The scene in the movie is a tender one, but even though it is rendered verbatim, as far as I can remember, it doesn’t come close to the impact I get from reading the dialogue. Reading lets my mind absorb the words and mull over them in a way that listening doesn’t. When I read these words today, I realized that this passage had—pardon the cliche—changed my life, or at least reflected the change that was already taking place. Like most American teenagers, I was moody and hard-hearted and pessimistic about the future. As I matured, I became more of an optimistic realist. Sure, things might be crappy, but they aren’t all that bad. Could be worse. Now I try to see the positive in everything. I hold on to the promise that things will get better if I just keep fighting. This belief has gotten me through many shadows—heartaches, losses, failures. Did this passage in The Two Towers eloquently state what I was already understanding, or did Tolkien’s words play a part in my transformation? I can’t say for certain which was the cause and which was the effect, but what I do know is that art is truth, and though fiction is made up, the best fiction is truthful.
As an adult, we can read the same book we treasured as a child and come to a completely different understanding of the novel. That’s why I love books. That’s also why I’ve started a book club of adults rereading (or reading for the first time) Newbery Medal and Carnegie Medal winners for juvenile fiction. Newbery is the US award, and Carnegie is the UK equivalent. This month is The Graveyard Book, which is the first book to ever win both medals and was a fairly appropriate choice for the month of October. If you are interested in following along with us, I will post the next few months’ of books on my blog as we come to them. I’ll also post my review of the books the following month.
Today’s post was a lengthy one! And I’m even posting it a day early. Two rarities on this blog. And to be even stranger, today I’m going to ask YOU a personal question.
Respond: Is there a fictional passage that impacted you in a profound way? Is there a book you read as a child and reread as an adult? Share your experiences below.