The dog days of summer are upon us. As I began typing this, my friend, Joseph, asked me where the term “the dog days of summer” came from. I’m sure you remember Joseph from my recent post, “Unchained Melody.” This morning Joseph asked me if the dog days of summer refers to the fact that dogs (and maybe some prisoners) become lazy in the heat of summer and just want to sleep all day.
That might be so, but it has nothing to do with the dog days of summer.
The term comes from a time when what was going on in the sky was noticed by everyone on the Earth below it. Despite all our city lights, those who look up on a September night in the Northern Hemisphere might notice the appearance of an especially bright star. That star is Sirius, known as “The Dog Star,” so called because it is the brightest star in the constellation, Canis Major, Latin for “The Great Dog” which follows Orion the Hunter through the night sky. It marks in the north a coming change from summer into fall. It is because of the appearance of Sirius, The Dog Star, that early September is called “the dog days of summer.”
In the United States, the appearance of The Dog Star also brings with it another, far less welcome visitor, the long holiday weekend called Labor Day. That’s what prompted me at this time last year to write “The Stuck Inside Literary Award.” If you have a look at it, you’ll understand why I’m repeating a Labor Day event that might become a tradition on These Stone Walls.
Most prisoners are glad for long weekends for their families and friends on the “outside” to enjoy, but for prisoners themselves, holiday weekends are at best barely tolerated.
A long weekend in prison means that everything that could take us out of these cells is closed for three days, often stretching into four or five, and prisoners are for the most part locked in. We dread long weekends, and we especially dread Labor Day weekend because it forebodes summer’s end.
So I have to plan ahead, and part of that plan is to find a book that will carry me through the extended lockup, and maybe even carry my mind and spirit out of this prison. Last year when I first wrote “The Stuck Inside Literary Award,” it was the late, great Irish writer, Patrick O’Brian who got me through Labor Day weekend. His rousing stories of the Royal Navy and its skirmishes at sea with Napoleon are really terrific. The saga begins with Master and Commander, the first of the series of 22 historical novels, which became a great film of the same title staring Russell Crowe. I also wrote of this terrific series in a post about our friend, Pornchai’s prodigious skill with wood carving in “Come Sail Away! Pornchai Moontri and the Art of Model Shipbuilding.”
Though Patrick O’Brian was an Irish writer, his stories are very British, and are told from the Royal Navy’s point of view. I was never really conscious of it before now, but I seem to have a special regard for British novels. In my post, “February Tales,” I wrote of one of my favorites, The Once and Future King by T.H. White. Now that I think of it, most of the novels I’ve mentioned on TSW have been British. Perhaps it’s simply that British culture is far older than American culture, and has been publishing literature for many centuries.
I like some American writers as well. I’ve devoured Tom Clancy’s thousands of pages in his patriotic “Jack Ryan” series, for example. But the British writers still stand out. I even like British television as you might have guessed from “Downton Abbey Blue Bloods Touch Falling Skies Upon Criminal Minds.” And I am absolutely hooked on reruns of MI-5 (Spooks in the UK) now carried in the States by PBS.
AN OLYMPIC GOLD MEDAL
It was a privilege to be able to watch the British at their very best in the opening ceremonies of the Olympics hosted in London this year. The Brits deserve a Gold Medal for the opening ceremony which was, to say the least, very British. Critics wrongly compared it with the glitz and glitter of Beijing’s Olympic opening, but the opening ceremony in London was absolutely stunning in its own right, and one of the high points of my year. Our cousins “across the pond” hosted the Olympic Games with typical British class and style, and it was wonderful to behold.
In the opening ceremony, I roared with laughter at Rowan Atkinson’s parody of the film, “Chariots of Fire.” But I was mesmerized by the spectacular and seemingly miraculous forging of the Olympic Rings and how seamlessly they came together. It was brilliant. If you didn’t see this and can find it on-line, I urge you to do so. The forging of the rings opening London’s Olympic Games should not be missed.
I think the image of the great rings being forged and then joined together planted a subliminal thought in my mind. A few weeks later as I began contemplating a good-sized book to get me through this Labor Day weekend lockdown, another British accomplishment of Olympic proportions came to mind. So I rummaged through my storage box under the bunk in my cell, and found a treasure – the 50th Anniversary Edition of what in my estimation is the United Kingdom’s modern literary masterpiece. It has been called by many writers and literary critics “the most important novel of the 20th Century.” That novel is, of course, The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien.
MY RETURN TO MIDDLE EARTH
We have a rocky history, J.R.R. Tolkien and I. The Hobbit, his famous prequel to The Lord of the Rings, was first published as a children’s book in 1937. Thirty years later, when I was in high school, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings found a new generation of fans and became wildly popular. Being a somewhat counter-cultural teenager then – did I mention stubborn? – I refused to read them because everyone else was reading them. My brother, older by two years, and all his friends in what I called “the nerd herd” back then, walked around for weeks with these books tucked under their arms. My brother joined a Hobbit fan club, and I had all I could do to pretend we weren’t really related. I was 14, and wouldn’t be caught dead reading J.R.R. Tolkien.
Jump ahead about four decades. In 2004, The Lord of the Rings was republished in a 50th Anniversary Edition by Houghton Mifflin, and some friends sent it to me. I appreciated the gift, but my old prejudice about my brother’s “nerd herd” had lingered in distant memory for all those years. I couldn’t disrespect my friends, however, so I felt trapped. I would have to read the book, and would first have to go find and read The Hobbit, its necessary prequel.
I picked up The Hobbit in the prison library and read it in a weekend. It was . . . okay, but it did little to assuage my long buried prejudice about it. I might even have been a little impressed given that it was written in 1937. I decided that it was just what J.R.R. Tolkien said it was: a children’s story.
Then I settled in to read The Lord of the Rings, all 1,031 pages of it. In the past it was published in three volumes, but the 2004 edition contained the entire book in one volume. I read and read and read, and when I was finished, I was absolutely stunned. I knew that I had just finished a true masterpiece of Western Literature, and I did something I had never in my life done before. A week after completing the book I could not get it out of my mind, so I started it all over again.
The second time through The Lord of the Rings, I was in awe of how much I had missed. The story is filled with deep religious meaning and significance, but never addresses it head on. The second time around I found connections I had not made the first time. It is a work of imaginative and spiritual genius. Entire volumes – and many of them – have been written about its meaning and significance, but no one is more qualified to speak of this than Tolkien himself in a letter written in 1953, the year I was born:
“The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first . . . for the religious element is absorbed into the story and [its] symbolism. I . . . should be chiefly grateful for having been brought up in a faith that has nourished me and taught me all the little that I know.” The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin, 2000, p. 172).
J.R.R. Tolkien didn’t just stir my heart and mind with this magnificent achievement. He stirred my soul, and his storytelling conveyed to me an inescapable truth about me, about us, and about this life. The characters of The Lord of the Rings are staring evil, and the always looming prospect of defeat and hopelessness, right in the face. There is something very real and very personal in this that I can relate to whether I look back a day, a decade, or a lifetime.
We are caught up on this same road. Whether we know it or not, whether we accept it or not, our entire life as individuals and as a Catholic community comes down to one crucial element: we are either instruments for the proliferation of evil or instruments for its defeat. None of the petty squabbles, devastating scandals, and addictive diversions that muddle us in the muck on this long, long road will come to mean very much in the end. We are instruments, and instruments of what depends entirely on our response to grace. This is the tale of The Lord of the Rings.
J.R.R.Tolkien brings his characters again and again to the very brink of hopelessness, only to teach them – and us – that there is always hope. We cannot accept that there was, and is, a Christ without accepting that one true fact. To be without hope means to admit there is no grace at work in the world, and that is simply pointless, and demonstrably untrue.
And if your sources of hope – the Church and your faith and its servants, your priests – have let you down with their flaws, then so much the more evidence of hope for J.R.R. To1kien. This letter he wrote on November 1, 1963 could be seen as a prophetic witness to the struggle that was to come for the Church and priesthood:
“In the last resort faith is an act of will, inspired by love. Our love may be chilled and our will eroded by the spectacle of the shortcomings, folly, and even sins of the Church and its ministers, but I do not think that one who has any faith goes back over the line for such reasons. ‘Scandal’ at most is an occasion of temptation. It is convenient because it tends to turn our eyes away from ourselves and our own faults to find a scapegoat . . . The temptation to ‘unbelief’ is always there within us. The stronger the inner temptation the more readily and severely shall we be ‘scandalized’ by others.” (Letters, pp. 337-338).
I discovered most of these prophetic words of J.R.R. Tolkien long after reading his masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings. These glimpses into his life of faith, and his dedication to the Church, have strengthened and given new meaning to what for me is indeed the most important novel of the 20th Century. It almost makes me look forward to my 18th Labor Day weekend stuck inside. The ‘These Stone Walls’ Second Stuck Inside Literary Award goes to the Brits, and their great Oxford scholar and professor, J.R.R. Tolkien.
“There was a noise like a strong wind blowing, and on it was borne the sound of hoofs, galloping, galloping, galloping from the East. ‘Black Riders!’ thought Frodo as he wakened, with the sound of the hoofs still echoing in his mind. He wondered if he would ever again have the courage of leaving the safety of these stone walls.” (The Lord of the Rings, p. 127).