LORD OF THE RINGS — A BOOK AND MUSIC STORY
PART II — THE TWO LIBRARIES
Most of Australia’s population (then and now) cluster in the major cities, meaning that most of those aspiring to further education after secondary school do not, by necessity, need to live away from home. So I was a day-release patient, commuting from the south-eastern suburbs to an educational enclave just north of the city centre. This is what my travel timetable looked like that first year: Walk-Bus-Train-Tram.
Now, an hour-and-a-half each morning and afternoon is not a marathon trip according to any of the standard 21st century commute-measuring instruments, yet when you factor in commuter state-of-mind, the absence of personal stereos of any kind, and dreary Melbourne winter mornings, the rating heads south. Fast. No wonder, then, that after few undistinguished terms I found it a whole lot easier to stay in bed. But that’s another story, one that has much to do with the paralysing mismatch between me and the BSc (Optometry) but very little to do with The Lord of the Rings.
The destination, a university having a world-class reputation for self-satisfaction set on a cramped campus leavened with occasional architectural grace, was totally unlike Middle Earth except for the strangeness of the topography and the even stranger beings. Richard Berry, Raymond Priestly, Redmond Barry… I needed a Who’s Who to navigate the buildings and a wildlife taxonomy for the creatures.
There is a particular form of loneliness experienced when surrounded by people. What I most remember from my early weeks at University is the sense of wandering between intimidating buildings, through purposeful throngs of students, all of whom appeared to be in clusters. There were lucky O2 molecules, obvious private school pairs in matching sweatshirts. There were trios of mixed-gender CO2 already exhibiting triangulation, and more advanced compounds whose swirling DNA connections bewildered a boy from the suburbs.
I was a Hydrogen atom. The only person from my Year 12 group attending this massive institution. A single proton and electron drifting around a periodic table where everyone was more complex than me. To be honest, I wasn’t even sure about my own electron.
A sensible person might have thrown themselves towards the study tasks spraying out towards him, transposing alienation into academic excellence. I did make some feeble attempts to engage with learning, exploring the three-story main library and finding a sequestered corner to set up study-camp. Trouble was, whenever I opened a text-book in that lonely and soulless place, I found my head sagging towards the table. Like falling under a hypnotist’s spell, the simple act of exposing the title page of any scientific tome drew me instantly through the escape-hatch of sleep into blessed unconsciousness.
And so my haven from the socio-academic soup became the Rowden White Library, a sanctuary of music and non-textbooks located on level two of the Union Building. Here one could slump into a vinyl-covered lounge chair, slip on the battered head-phones and dial up a record to block out the world. Building on the tentative explorations begun at Max Rose Electronics, the Rowden allowed me to expand and experiment either by selecting an LP already spinning on one of six turntables outside the listening room, or by browsing the computer print-out of the library’s vinyl holding. Remember those wide-page printouts with perforated edges and the faint Helvetica typing? That was the catalogue, guarded by watchful dragons who resided behind the counter. Those women (young, but so much older than we students) were harried but pleasant, not really dragon-ish at all; they would extract your selection from the huge cupboards and stack it behind whichever turntable had the least number of albums awaiting play.
It was funny to watch someone scan the row of turntables, counting the number of LPs patiently queuing for cueing, then study their watch. The calculation of whether a record would hit the platter before the next scheduled class was a tricky one involving estimates of track numbers, side-length, and distance between present location and the target lecture theatre. Me? I just skipped the lecture.*
Reading added variety to long sojourns in the listening room. Something ophthalmic, perhaps? A relevant text on the physiology of eyes or the geometry of sight? Nup. Mostly I read science fiction. It was at this point, around Easter 1974, that I noticed the yellow-spined volume on my very own bookshelf at home and entered the world of Middle Earth. I was transported, enraptured, entirely immersed.
Over the ensuing weeks I embraced The Fellowship of the Ring, scaled The Two Towers, and thrilled to The Return of the King. And when it was over, when the journeys and the story were done, I wept as those crossing the sea were farewelled, and the loyal, faithful companion—seen much more clearly in the absence of his colourful comrades to have grown so very greatly—arrived home to a simple loving embrace.
I have no wish to attempt any kind of conversion to fantasy literature as a genre nor to Lord of the Rings as its key-stone. Both textural analysis and commentary on the novel’s relevance, then or now, are therefore banished. Instead, I want to share a glimpse of the significance of Tolkien’s story to one reader; a lost and isolated young fella adrift in a world he had neither the skills nor awareness to navigate. That is not a formula for happiness, is it? What I clung to was a book. I read it in term one, savouring each of its one-thousand pages and experiencing a yearning vacuum of loss when it ended. So a couple of months later, I read it again, even the interminable songs. Around exam time, as Spring jostled with southern hemisphere Summer, down it came from the shelf once more, perhaps as solace from the knowledge of an academic year best described as patchy and the insurmountable task of communicating anything real in the parental precinct. Three times in a calendar year. That is a lot of Tolkien, especially when other writings by the Professor were also acquired and consumed during the same period.
For all its trials, conflict and soul-sucking danger, the world of Middle Earth was a much safer place than the real one, just as the headphone encased world of the Rowden White Library was a safe haven within the university. It was there (and at home) that the book, in a newly purchased three-volume edition, was consumed a fourth time during an even less academically successful second year. By now, both home and the Rowden were equipped with the record of Swedish musician Bo Hansson**, allowing his evocative keyboard-drenched fantasy to merge with the epic tale and become part of a greater whole. A whole that now extended beyond the boundaries of bedroom or headphones or even Middle Earth. I’d discovered fantasy literature and with it, a couple of friends. Sure, they were disaffected, socially inept young men not too dissimilar from myself, but friends they were, and the world was a richer and wider place as a result.
* A story on the ultimate result of this approach to university life was related in the piece You’ll Never Come Back.
** Originally released in his native Sweden in 1970, Bo Hansson’s Sagan Om Ringen was issued on the Charisma label in 1972. The photo shows the version most people know. More on this record in Appendix A.