Today I am honoured to welcome author of The Song from Somewhere Else and many others, AF Harrold to The Reader Teacher as part of the Empathy Day and #ReadforEmpathy blog tour. Here, he shares with The Reader Teacher his exclusive guest post about how reading books when he was younger like The Lord of the Rings helped him to see one beginning of empathy…
I read a lot of books when I was younger (I still read a lot now), and few things have had so lasting an influence, have left so lasting a mark, as that final scene of The Lord of the Rings.
For anyone who hasn’t read the books or seen the films, and who thinks they might want to, here’s a spoiler warning for you: Read no further!
For the rest of you, here’s a reminder of how it goes.
You’ve had two and half books of adventure, of warfare and death and heroism and darkness. Everyone has been tested, everyone has had their own paths and none of them have been sunlit and simple. But Frodo and Sam made it alone and ashen, starving and wearied, to the slopes of Orodruin, Mount Doom, where they planned to destroy the One Ring. They had suffered and survived for a month, on foot, through desolate lands, in and out of the clutches of enemies, across the slag-heap desert plain of Mordor, right up to the foot of the mountain. It was a month of not knowing whether their companions lived or died, a month of not knowing whether the war out there was already won or lost, a month of just them, foot-sore and dry-mouthed, slow-plodding towards the end of their quest.
And what an end. At the lip of the fire, at the edge of the chasm into which the One Ring should be cast, at the moment when the destruction of that ring would undo all Sauron’s works, reducing his power to a mere scrabble of smoke against the sun, Frodo failed.
Instead of casting the ring into the fire he put it on. Claimed it for himself. Declared himself the new Lord of Middle-earth. After six months of bearing the ring, of carrying it from the Shire all the way to this end of all places, he finally gave in to its whisper, its temptation, its glamour, and put it on.
Of course it came right after that. He lost a finger, the ring finger, and the One Ring with it, to Gollum and the fiery pit, and the War came to a close with the utter collapse and ruin of Sauron’s power.
And then months went by. Eight months as they retrod their steps back home, this time with light and laughter, and they arrived in a Shire that was changed and another battle had to be fought, right on their doorstep. But that shadow, too, passed and it seemed the War was truly ended.
But as the following October rolls round Frodo’s wound, where he was stabbed by one of the Nazgûl in the fight at Weathertop, aches, and later, in March, the wound where Shelob, the great spider, stung him pains him too. And he finds he just doesn’t fit right in the world he’s come home to. He has changed, and has been changed, by the things he’s seen and done, and by the things that were done to him. His part in affairs beyond the sleepy borders of the Shire, in the great affairs of the world, weigh on him and no one notices.
The only companions who would understand, who share similar burdens, similar experiences, are busy doing what he doesn’t feel able to do, are getting on with their lives. Sam has married and is having a family, Merry and Pippin are off in their corners of the Shire leading their lives. Frodo feels alone, lost, if not misunderstood by his neighbours, at lost not-understood.
Eventually he sails to the West, takes the ship with the last of the elves leaving for the lands beyond the sea. There, he hopes, in Valinor, his wounds will be healed and his heart will be at peace, at last.
And Sam and Merry and Pippin are there, at the Grey Havens, to see him off, to say their farewells, and Gandalf, who is sailing too, says: ‘Well, here at last, dear friends, on the shores of the Sea comes the end of our fellowship in Middle-earth. Go in peace! I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil.’
And the three hobbits get on their ponies and ride slowly homewards, and as they go they say nothing, and their paths part one by one, and eventually the camera of the book’s eye follows Sam, just Sam, plain Sam, dependable Sam, right up to his door, and it opens and Rosie draws him in and puts his daughter in his lap and he is where he should be.
And even as I type this now the tears are pooling in my eyes, and I realise that I know, and knew when I read this aged 12 or 13, that I understand Sam and how he feels and I understand Frodo and how he felt. And the heart breaks and does not cease breaking at this ending… at this ending which is another beginning, and is a middle, and is all those other parts of a life, and Tolkien shows us what the best-hearted books show – the life beyond the adventure, the pedestrian day-to-day, the normalcy, the place where the real soul resides…
You can never know what is happening inside another person’s head, or heart. But the characters in books, in your favourite books – they open up and share themselves with you. You can hear their thoughts and know them, a little. And perhaps, by knowing them, a little window will be opened into the lives of your friends and family, into the strangers and people you see in the news. Just knowing that window exists is one beginning of empathy.
AF Harrold, author of The Song from Somewhere Else, The Imaginary, Greta Zargo, Fizzlebert Stump and many more
Big thanks to AF for writing his most wonderful and stirring of guest posts and to Fritha, Miranda and all at Empathy Lab UK for inviting me to take part in this year’s blog tour! Here’s to many more in the future!
What is Empathy Day?
Empathy Day was founded in 2017 by EmpathyLab. With hate crimes at their highest level since records began, it uses stories to help us understand each other better, and highlights empathy’s power in our divided world. (https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/hate-crime-statistics). Empathy Day 2018 is on 12 June.
Empathy Day’s calls to action
READ – because reading in itself can make us more empathetic
SHARE – because sharing perspectives through books can connect us in new ways
DO – put empathy into action and make a difference in your community
How to join in
- Share ideas for empathy-boosting books using #ReadForEmpathy @EmpathyLabUK
- Use the free Read For Empathy Guide to 30 children’s books – at www.empathylab.uk
- Follow this blog tour to hear the powerful voices of the authors and illustrators involved
- Hundreds of schools and libraries are already taking part. Gt a free toolkit from firstname.lastname@example.org
- Use the ideas and free downloadable resources at http://www.empathylab.uk/empathy-day-resources
With this guest post, I am finishing the EmpathyDay blog tour in readiness to celebrate Empathy Day tomorrow on the 12th June. But be sure to check out the other dates and other wonderful bloggers for more posts and exclusive content from a superb range of authors from the past week!