4th January 2009
Yesterday I decided to hold a birthday party of ‘special magnificence’ in honour of JRR Tolkien, born on Jan 3rd 1892. I invited a select group of ‘elf-friends’ around to join me in raising a glass to the Gandalf of Fantasy, and to test-read my new radio play based upon the Inklings called ‘The Rabbit Room’. This is the only way to gauge whether something works or not – with a live reading. David Metcalfe played ‘Tollers’ (Lewis’ nickname for Tolkien); Anthony Nanson played ‘Jack’ (CS Lewis), Mika Lassander played Owen Barfield and Svanur Gisli Thorkelsson Charles Williams. David’s partner, artist Ione Parkin, was VO – the voice of the Rabbit Room, Anna Dougherty was the BBC announcer, and Maarit – Mika’s wife – the landlord and the Minister of Health (or Elf, as I punned). It was thrilling to hear the play come alive after slaving away on it in solitude since November. To write it I immersed myself in Inklings arcana – and tinkered with it obsessively over the holidays, finishing it just in time for the party, which provided an appropriate deadline.
After providing a vegetarian feast for my guests – piles of good plain English fare, which both Bilbo and Tolkien would have liked – I read out an extract from the opening chapter of The Fellowship of the Ring – about Bilbo’s eleventy first birthday party and disappearing act. For this, I asked my guests to take off their shoes and socks, so we could all be Hobbits together! Bare-footed and waist-coated, I read out the text in a suitably merry fashion. We toasted JRR, and then we attended to the main after dinner entertainment. I assigned roles, handed out scripts and we begun. It took a hundred minutes (perhaps it should have been 111) but it was a cold reading and slower than it would be when rehearsed. Some sections really flowed, others were perhaps inevitably murdered, and some evidently need work – but it was wonderful to hear it out loud. I was filled with feelings of loving warmth for such a lovely fellowship. Truly friendship is one of the most important things of life. Without it, a man is impoverished. But last night I felt ‘wealthy’ from having such beautiful talented souls as my friends.
Tolkien extolled the virtues of simple pleasures (‘fire and lamp and meat and bread, and then to bed, and then to bed’) and Lewis wrote about friendship as one of the Four Loves – and I whole-heartedly agree: there is very little better than gathering around the hearth with good friends, sharing good food, drink and conversation. The home is a sacred thing, and true fellowship is divine – a meeting of hearts, souls and minds – is a piece of heaven on Earth.
Afterwards, there was useful feedback from the group (Svanur is a playwright and director; Anthony fellow creative writing teacher; David fellow performer in Firesprings; Mika religious students research student; Maarit child psychologist and Anna an Oxford English graduate). Tolkien I think would’ve liked hearing the Anglo-Saxon, Finnish and Icelandic spoken that evening in my living room (his three favourite languages, except his own invented ones!) – although he might have corrected some of us on pronunciation (but not the native speakers, of course).
The hour was getting late and David and Ione departed – to relieve their babysitter from her duties. We tucked into some late Xmas pud, and then Anthony shared a sample of Tolkien’s ‘manifesto’ poem – Mythopoeia. There followed a suitably Inklings-ish discussion on a number of subjects (art, politics, popular culture) before the alcohol and awen ran out. Around midnight folk departed, except Anthony who crashed over – saving the drive back to Stroud for the morning. He agreed that we had well and truly celebrated the unique anniversary. I was pleased to have ‘premiered’ my play on Tolkien’s birthday – my way of honouring such a huge inspiration to many. The world is richer for his contribution. His vast imagination and unparalled elven-skill has provided a gateway for us all.
Long may his name and the fellowship live on!