Pillows of snow have come down, the first real snowfall of the winter, a heavy, wet flatness over everything in sight. It sags beneath its own weight: an icicle I plunged like a flag into the railing’s drifts now leans at a crazy angle over empty space, pulled almost to a horizontal by the slow collapse of its snowy pedestal. The roads are an abstraction, less asphalt than snow folded and polished to a cold sheen by traffic.

I cannot help but feeling an uneasiness in the air. Something about the wetness of the snow, or perhaps that all day I’ve had windows thrown wide…there is a sickliness to this winter. It’s warm, far too warm, and close, somehow—a humid edge to everything that is beginning to infect me. Or perhaps it’s my imagination. Or else it’s the way that wet snow clings to itself, maybe. Powder in cold, dry conditions is so light that, when you kick it, it sends out graceful fans, every crystal free and independent, forming big plumes that first surge skyward, then drop their heavier loads in seething feathers, and then finally slowly twinkle out of the air, each of the lightest crystals born insubstantially away—a ghostly afterimage of that first great fan that fades even as you watch.

Not so with heavy snow. On walks home I kick at the snowbanks. No fans, no ghosts—only little boot-toe-shaped cakes that begrudgingly separate from their source and wetly thwump into their surroundings, like little fat toads plopping away from my foot.

Sandover is open next to me, but (for once) I hardly notice Merrill’s eerie face along its spine—he is obscured, at the moment, by a paperback copy of The Fellowship of the Ring. What would Tolkien have to say to Merrill? What would Merrill have to say to Tolkien? I imagine their meeting—the philologist in his ornamental vest, the banking heir in his kimono. Perhaps they’d have some “pipe-weed,” as Tolkien calls it. (Merrill, in an interview, once said, “I do now and then take a puff of grass, or a crumb of Alice Toklas fudge…when you need X-ray eyes to see what you’ve done…”) Or a beer, perhaps, in The Eagle and Child, the pub in which the Inklings met and talked. The thought of them together amuses me. The thought of their conversation is not amusing but deeply, profoundly interesting. I can’t help but think that something terribly important would happen in its course. (Incidentally, Tolkien was a friend and correspondent of W.H. Auden, who of course has his own connections to Merrill…) In a foreword for The Hobbit in 1973, Peter S. Beagle says, “Let us at last praise the colonizers of dreams.” That, at least, Tolkien and Merrill have in common.

Earlier, trying to drum up ideas, I read section “P.” Nothing of immediate interest. Nothing that screamed Look! I turned instead to Recitative: Prose by James Merrill, a slim green volume that used to belong to Ben. A quote:

The doctor wanted to hear about my life. It had been flowing along unnoticed in my absorption with the images that came and went on its surface. “Real things”—was I condemned to write about them, after all?

Of course I had been doing nothing else. Symbolist pastiche or makeshift jotting, our words reveal more than we think.

With this I agree whole-heartedly. These days, it feels sometimes like watching someone else act out my life, in the kind of foreign film that’s so obtuse you never really get any of the metaphors or jokes, nor even the point of the whole damn thing—which, frustratingly, is precisely the point.

Let me reintroduce Tolkien to the scene, because I too dwell in symbolist pastiches, in makeshift jottings, in images that come and go—my little invented corner of Middle Earth is precisely such a dwelling. (Refer to prior essay if confused.) At work, at home, out and about: my snowglobe kingdom is always on my mind. Sometimes I feel like a skulking creature on the edge of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, a little ratty alien nibbling off corners of a greater work.

Why?—that’s what’s been bothering me. Why Tolkien? Why skulk about for so many years in one world? No other writer, not even Merrill, has commanded my attention in such a lasting, powerful, profound way. Nor has any other invented world held my attention so long, despite fairly extensive poking-around in the world of high fantasy. (Which, incidentally, is a genre that Tolkien more or less created.) Frankly, I’m obsessed. And this is despite the many criticisms that can be leveled at his work—the quaint poems (to our modern eyes, anyway), or the shallowness of the characters.

Partially, Tolkien keeps reappearing because his story is mythic and archetypal. There’s a lot to think about in it, and it’s so broad that it sketches its characters in relatively loose fashion. So there’s wiggle room, as it were. Similarly, Tolkien never bounded his world. The edges of the map stretch off into regions that we hear about, but never see: Harad in the South, Rhûn in the East, the Forodwaith in the North. All of the history of Middle Earth that Tolkien wrote is contained in the northwestern area of one continent, plus some diversions to the distant islands of Valinor and Númenor. In that one small area, though, there is a truly staggering density. In addition to the three Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, there’s the almost-scriptural Silmarillion, a scattering of fragmentary works (Beren and Lúthien, The Fall of Gondolin, The Children of Húrin), and the daunting 12-volume History of Middle Earth, a collection of manuscripts edited by Tolkien’s son. Which is a lot of writing, of course; but it’s even more intimidating when you realize that those works contain not only maps and stories and outlines but usable languages: Quenya and Sindarin Elvish, which are the most developed, plus the sketchier tongues of Adûnaic (Men), Khuzdul (Dwarves), and others (Dalish, Dunlendish, Melkian, the Black Speech, etc.). So there’s density, and there’s openness. Maybe that’s “why Tolkien.”

I’ve been rereading The Lord of the Rings, for the first time in a long time. I read it last sometime in early high school, maybe, before my alter ego Inárion and his derivative world was ever created. The books entertained me at the time, but in all honesty, the movies probably held the lion’s share of my attention. In the intervening years, though, as I developed my little world, I came to know the books nearly by heart. I dug around in the outer edges of Tolkien’s world. Encyclopedia entries, maps, etymologies—everything came back to the Third Age, to the Shire, to Bag End. Even without following Frodo & co. personally, I was trailing them unwittingly. And now, to revisit this world, to follow Frodo again is a strange experience. It’s like coming to a country that you’ve seen only in maps, with someone who you’ve met only in history books—and yet you know every step of the way, every intimate detail about your companion’s life, every roadside flower and creature you encounter. You were here once; in a dream, perhaps—or more than a dream. A vision, then.

“Our words reveal more than we think…” Hmm. So maybe, I think to myself, the question isn’t, “Why Tolkien?” but “Why Inárion?” What does Inárion say about me?

A psychoanalytic exercise, then: a brief character study. Inárion was born in the hidden country Dol Anorálas, in the far north of Middle Earth, into a noble house called Arithil. His family lived in a hall called Thamas Rhiwë (“Winter Hall”) beneath the high, sheer peak Macúnimë (“White Falcon”). His true name—the one his mother gave him—is not Inárion but Kairu. However, for most of his life he knew neither his true name nor his parentage—because when he was three, during the Festival of Midsummer’s Eve, Thamas Rhiwë was attacked. The ruling Sun Kings, a zealous group from the South, feared that the Northern line (the Arithils) would try to reclaim the throne, which had been usurped some hundred years prior. The last Arithil king had been Hirëithil IV, the Mad King. It was said that he believed he was a wolf.

The crown of Dol Anorálas had changed hands many times since the country’s inception. Belasir Brightblade, the country’s founder, had five children: each formed their own great House, claiming a region of the kingdom. Belasir had unified the country, and for many generations there was peace. But the initial ruling dynasty, fierce maritime warriors called the Sea-Dragons, over time turned to harsher and harsher practices—any challenge to their authority was met with violence. Caránlughir, the Red Dragon, executed a noblewoman (his mistress) who was much beloved. The countryside revolted. The other four great houses joined the rebellion, and, led by the peasant hero Kailuin Yashuarë, a confederation marched on Lingwilócë, the northern citadel of the Sea-Dragons. But they arrived too late—the army had withdrawn, the citadel was silent, the doors flung wide. Kailuin Yashuarë entered cautiously. Behind him came Gwaerhoval Mithil, the prince of the House of the Grey Moon. All was silent as they crept through the abandoned fortress. Signs of life were everywhere—a dropped child’s doll, fires still burning, a horse whinnying in the distance—but the people were gone. Together the two warriors approached the Hall of the Dragons. The black Hall stood facing the sea, on the highest part of the cliffs. A great stone dragon snarled above the studded oak door. The door was ajar. They slipped in. The Hall was cavernous, a great maw of polished black stone. Each wall was carved with massive reliefs of twining dragons, in the shape we now call the ouroboros. Candelabras of black iron cut the mid-day gloom, but barely. The far end of the hall stood open to the sea, a wall-size window that looked out that day onto a far-off storm, a roil of cloud and rain above a slate ocean. Yashuarë held up a hand. Gwaerhoval stopped. Against the skyline was a figure, a tall, slender silhouette. In one hand was a blade that, as they watched, dripped blood onto the floor. They stepped forward, cautiously, and Yashuarë pointed: a prone figure beneath the standing one. The prone figure glinted faintly in the sea-light. A red glint. The silhouette wiped its blade clean of blood, and sheathed the sword. The rebels moved forward. The body was Caránlughir. He was dead. Beneath his ruby-studded armor a pool of a deeper red was spreading across the smooth floor, slowly, as if he were growing wings. The figure turned to them: a woman. Long white-blonde hair fell about a pale, high-cheeked face set with eyes the color of the sea outside, a stormy grey-green that seemed to gather light. She gazed at them evenly. “The Last Dragon is dead,” she said. “I am Siálaja Eagálwë, his only heir, and I renounce my right.” She held up her hand; it clenched the Crown. She let it fall. As it struck the stone, it rang, once, powerfully, and chattered to silence. Then only the noise of the distant sea was heard.

Forgive the diversion. I got carried away. I left Inárion behind a while ago. But this distraction, perhaps, is psychoanalytically instructive, too: Why Siálaja? (Her name, by the way, is pronounced see-AHL-aya; the j is like a y.)

Most obviously, she appeared because she is an ancestor of Inárion. The sword she bore, the single-edged Dwarvish blade called Cálasir, later becomes Inárion’s sword—he finds it in the ruins of Lingwilócë, many thousands of years later. Perhaps, too, there are private reasons for her appearance: for instance, my desire for a companion as strong and beautiful as she. My Middle Earth has more warrior women than Tolkien’s did—Siálaja is only one among many.

But Siálaja is unique in other ways. She is the only major character to commit patricide. She also never quite dies—or at least not in our sight. After raising three children with Gwaerhoval, she leaves Cálasir in the now-empty Hall of Dragons, gets on a small ship alone, and sails West. She is never seen again, though some say that at long last she reached Valinor, the country of the gods. (But how would they know?) Her name means “Virga”; Eagálwë means “Ocean-blessed.” Virga is rain that is visible, but doesn’t hit the ground. I’ve always loved that word.

Siálaja’s entire life, actually, resembles the life of one of Tolkien’s major characters: Eärendil the Mariner. Eärendil’s name means “Ocean-friend”; he, too, sails to Valinor (and he is successful); and he, too, is the founder of great kings of Middle Earth, the Númenoreans. Thus he is an ancestor of Aragorn, who is in turn a parallel of Inárion. There are other parallels, too: both Eärendil and Siálaja have lovers who are linked to birds. Elwing, Eärendil’s wife, turns into a white seabird (perhaps a swan) and flees Middle-Earth to be with Eärendil in the West. Gwaerhoval’s name means “Gull-Wing.”

And here’s where it gets really interesting: Eärendil was, in fact, the exact beginning of Middle Earth. The word Eärendil is derived from an Anglo-Saxon name, for a star or group of stars. (Nobody is sure which ones, but it’s likely the Morning Star, either Venus or Sirius.) And in that same line is found the term “Middle Earth,” a remnant of a time long before Frodo, or Aragorn, or Inárion. The specific line, from the poem Crist (Christ):

éala éarendel engla beorhtast / ofer middangeard monnum sended
“Hail Earendel, brightest of angels / sent over Middle-earth to men”

Tolkien thought the name Éarendel was beautiful. It was also a delicious enigma—nobody knew what it meant! So he gave it a meaning, and the meaning became a name, and the name became a character who sails beyond the borders of the world, and then it all comes back around: because Eärendil, as he sails into the Void, carries a Silmaril, one of the great Jewels of the Elder Days. Its light is the light of the Morning Star, later itself called Eärendil. The circle is complete.

“Our words reveal more than we think”—indeed! From that simple long-forgotten name came a world of such delicate, intricate finery that it defies description. Already I’ve probably bored you to tears, and, believe me, we haven’t scratched even the surface of Tolkien’s oeuvre. (Nor mine, yet.) This kind of work is endless, this wondering and grasping after language. Language is too fluid for truly grasping—and indeed, Tolkien never finished his great works. Even The Silmarillion, his great Bible of the Elder Days, was posthumously published, and heavily edited by his son. Most of his other works are fragments, ideas that never reached fruition: the edges of the map. You write a word. You study it. You peer and peer at the little lines before you, until between the letters gleams a far country: white hills beneath mountains. A black sea-hall. A river that falls and falls into a rippling pool.

MERRILL:…The poet isn’t always the hero of the movie who does this, does that. He is a man choosing the words he lives by.

KALSTONE: Your own way of veiling the first person…has to do with the way you present the landscape, doesn’t it?

MERRILL: You hardly ever need to state your feelings. The point is to feel and keep the eyes open. Then what you feel is expressed, is mimed back at you by the scene. A room, a landscape. I’d go a step further. We don’t know what we feel until we see it distanced by this kind of translation.

It’s sunny today. The snow is sagging heavier and heavier into itself, its sharper edges becoming dull and close-knit. I go outside and smoke, resting my back against the cool glass of our sliding door. The icicles above me catch the light strangely, a hollow core of clearness surrounded by a lighter grey where the light is thrown off to regions where my eyes are not. They aren’t transparent, quite—if you squint, and line up with some region beyond the ice, that object disappears, swallowed by the ice’s light.

Why Tolkien? I cannot escape this question, it seems. It keeps popping up. Because even out here, amid this glare and whiteness—and a passing crow—part of me is still in Middle Earth. The Anglo-Saxon use of “Middle-earth” (Middangeard) derives from Norse and Germanic mythology, where Earth (Midgard) is quite literally between worlds—the dark region of Niflheim and the region of the gods, Asgard. But it works well as a metaphor for my little world, too. My Middle Earth is the place between my reality and the shadowy world of the unconscious. It is “realer” than dreams, because the dreams are given names, histories, concrete actions. But it is not reality.

Or is it? The other night, I met a woman who was charming, erudite, graceful. Slender and red-haired. Yet something about her unsettled me, somehow. In a good way. What was it? What was tugging at the back of my mind? It only occurred to me the next day. I was in the kitchen doing dishes in the sun— Cleaning up our little hobbit-hole!, I thought, and laughed to myself. And then as usual the rabbit-hole appeared and down I went, and I thought about the previous night too and then I knew: I had met this woman before. Or someone like her, anyway.

In the distant days of Middle Earth, in the First Age, when the great Enemy was not Sauron but his master, the Dark Lord Morgoth, the Men of the West marched with the Elves against his fortress Angband. Morgoth was vanquished, and the gods thrust him beyond the confines of the world. As their reward, the Men of the West were given a new home, an island called Númenor. They were also granted long life, and they were given special teachings by the Elves and the gods, so that they became greater than any race of Men before or since. They were called the Dúnedain. It is these island kings from which come the lines of Aragorn and Inárion.

In the early days of Númenor, there was a shepherd of little consequence, of a lowly family that lived in the barren northern tip of the island. The shepherd boy tended his sheep within sight of the sea, and it awoke in him a deep longing for the ocean. When he was of age, he disappeared from his family’s home, and joined the navy of Númenor, and took on the name Calrëa, which means “Shining Sea.” He became a sailor of great renown, and the King often would use him as a navigator and a helmsman, for it was said that he knew the sea as well as himself, and could sense its moods. He grew wild and fierce and solitary in those years. When he was not at sea he would wander the coasts, playing rough music on a lyre he made from a turtle’s shell.

Of a time he wandered far into the western country, and then south, so that he came to the Bay of Eldanna on the western coast. And there, in the country called Nísimaldar, the Land of Fragrant Trees, he stopped and in the golden woods he played new music: lilting, soft, a pattern like a weave of dappled shade coming down through leaves. And as he played, the woods seemed to sigh and shake, and from their depths came a white horse, and a woman riding. She was drawn to the music, and had wandered far over the dales to find the player, who sat now by a spring that burbled clear into a pool, and on whose banks the mallorn trees had dropped their golden leaves in a thick, soft carpet. She was tall, slender, and red-haired: rare for a Númenorean. Her father was the Lord of Eldalondë, and she herself was betrothed to another high lord, the son of the advisor to the King. But often she gave her father and fiancée much grief, for above all else she loved to ride far and fast, often through the forest and the golden mallorn trees, and would remain alone for weeks, hunting and making camp in the wilds. Her name was Sírelen. “Star-river.”

You can guess the rest, if I tell you that Calrëa and Sírelen are the great lovers of my world. Trials; tragedy; triumph. What is important for this writing, though, is that this woman who seemed so uncannily familiar jogged my memory because of Sírelen. Or maybe it was foresight, somehow. Sírelen didn’t used to have a real-life reference—and then this very real woman walked out of my subconscious. Or into it, maybe. And anyway I very much doubt I can meet her again without thinking of all this.

So perhaps the fictions do slide into reality after all. Or, in any case, they attune the fiction-maker to certain facts, certain ideas in his world that otherwise would go unnoticed. Red hair; grace; Sírelen. Even more bizarrely, I think this real woman has changed my character. By meeting her, observing her, I had inroads to Sírelen I had not had before. She had a gaze, a way of speech, a way of walking, where Sírelen was archetype and heavy-handed symbol. The real-life reference point forced me to consider the character more closely. How would Sírelen walk?

In the interview I quoted above, Merrill is talking about poets who begin things with “I” statements. He says it leads to “self-centered egoism,” and that serendipitous word-happenings like “Whose woods these are I think I know” can never occur with egoistic poets. Poetry, he seems to say, requires a certain distance from the self.

I wonder where I stand, then. Calrëa is not my self, not like Inárion is—but who created him? Me. Well, me and my culture. Because he is, at some point, not so much a person as an idea. He and Sírelen are The Lovers, the archetype made manifest, and their story follows a very old pattern. So, if I dwell on Calrëa, on Sírelen, am I focusing on myself? Or something Other?

In reality my parents have tones more complex and personal than these, but the time is still far off when I can dream of echoing them. To do so, I see in retrospect, will involve a search for magical places real or invented, like Silver Springs or Sandover, acoustical chambers so designed as to endow the weariest platitude with resonance and depth…The unities of home and world, and world and page, will be observed through the very act of transition from one to the other.

Like Tolkien—and like Merrill—my Middle Earth begins with names. Ephraim. Eärendil. There’s a website somewhere that has a database of names translated into Elvish: mine (with a slight alteration) is Inárion. “Son of Fire.”

When Thamas Rhiwë was attacked, the Sun Kings surrounded the town and began setting fires. When people emerged from the smoke, they slaughtered them en masse. They needed to ensure there were no survivors, for they meant to pass it off as an accident. It worked, though dark rumors circulated in the north ever afterward. The roads to Thamas Rhiwë were seldom traveled, and the Sun King Argalad II was a careful man. Only a few lone travelers saw the cloaked and hooded phalanx moving north in the dark night.

But Inárion’s mother was a careful woman, too—and when she realized what was happening, she gave the child poppy milk to keep him quiet, and hid him secretly outside the hall, sending a beloved nurse with him. The nurse was discovered, and gave her life up to a spear to draw the soldiers’ attention. The child was not found. Hours later, an elderly hermit from the far North arrived at the scene. The Sun King’s men were gone. Among the charred rubble and broken bodies crawled a drowsy, half-drugged child. The hermit had been to this hall before, had met this child: he knew this was the heir of House Arithil. He took the child north, to his monastery at Moonwatch-by-the-Sea, and named him Inárion, “Son of Fire.”

My parents are bemused, when I tell them all of this. I used to say this tale was an allegory of the soul—which may have caused some of the consternation. What does it mean that Inárion’s parents die? What does it mean that this old massacre is his driving force to come back home, the inception of his vengeful purging of his native land?

I don’t know, in all honesty. As Inárion grew darker—paralleled by the increasing complexity and sometimes sadness of my own life—his story began to demand that tragic scene: the burning hall beneath the mountain’s crown. His childhood needed an element of sadness, a cause for anger. Am I angry? or vengeful? Not that I’m aware. I certainly would never kill anyone, except in dire need. But nevertheless, my very own alter ego transformed almost without my knowing into a violent man. So clearly there’s some germ of it in me, some background element that is fascinated by martial glory and revenge. (He was the revelation. / (Or if we had created him, we were.))

Magical places—there’s something deep to that statement. Once, standing on a midnight lake in late autumn, a little fire crackling merrily behind us, a tinny speaker doing an impersonation of Steve Winwood, I thought to myself, I am my father’s son. That was a unity of home and world—an alignment of the self along the axis of shared imagination, or shared experience. Both my father and I like the woods, and seek small groups of company, and gaze out thoughtfully over midnight lakes, and like lighting fires, and so on. Even without him there, I felt his presence suffuse both the landscape and myself.

So Thamas Rhiwë is one magical place; a place suffused with energy; a place with presence. When Inárion visits it as an adult, it is a charred husk on a hill, a great roofless stone hall fronted by a half-fallen arch that once held the Moon Doors. Macúnimë’s high white peak rears sheer and snowy above the ruined hall atop the hill, the charred village arrayed on the slopes around.

But there are others, too. The wild highlands beyond Thamas Rhiwë, called the Winter Moors, are one. The ruins of Lingwilócë, the citadel of the Sea-Dragons, is another. By Inárion’s time, that settlement had been abandoned for centuries. Moonwatch-by-the-Sea is another—a monastery of warriors in the north, led by the hermetic Master. It guards the coastline in the north of Dol Anorálas, the only place where the mountains do not fully shut out the outer lands. The North itself is a magical place, in fact. There is the Iris, a perfectly round lake of deep-green water, said to drive folk mad with visions; Amon Hún, a high hill capped by an ancient barrow; the Old Forest, with the Iris at its dark center; and beyond the borders of the North, the vast White Forest; and beyond that, the Forochel, the great Ice-Bay, which marks the start of the Helcaraxë, the end of the world: the endless Grinding Ice.

Recently I drew a map of Dol Anorálas, simply because Inárion could no longer be contained in my head. He was fully fleshed, clothed and armed and everything; I needed to let him run around. The map shows a kind of semicircular peninsula surrounded by mountain ranges. One huge finger of land forms the North, which curves southward and meets the level downs of the flatter, more sheltered, and lower South. The major river, the Sírelen, divides the country in half. It’s binary. South; North.

Over time, I’ve learned to recognize the influences in my own invented landscape. Thamas Rhiwë looks much like the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey, though its mountain setting smacks more of the Paradise Valley. The Winter Moors is the Beartooth Plateau; Moonwatch-by-the-Sea is somewhat like Edinburgh Castle. I could go on. Even if I wasn’t consciously trying to mimic those places, after awhile I can see the resemblance too strongly to ignore. The unities of page and world…

What’s even stranger is that sometimes the influences themselves influence; that is to say, a “real object” influences a created object, which in turn creates another artificial object which bears the stamp of reality only distantly. Or is it all that distant? “Sírelen” means “Star-River,” which is itself a term for the Milky Way. (A real thing. (Kind of.)) The name was created first as the name of the river, the one that cuts Dol Anorálas in half; then, it occurred to me that it was named after an important woman from long ago; and Sírelen the character was born. And then I meet Sírelen in real life. Where does the dream end?

Merrill says the “act of transition” is what reveals the unities of page and world and home. The writing is what’s important, or in any case it’s what makes importance. The choice to create within the confines of the page makes a system of meaning all its own—but it cannot escape reality. The far country glimpsed between the bars of the written word contains no new colors, no new scents. Those are beyond the writer’s power. Like Merrill’s Heaven, that country is a mirrored reflection of this Earth that we inhabit. However, our world is distorted by the act of reflection, shattered like light through a prism. And in its shards we can see colors we had never noticed, though they are not new, precisely. Once they are glimpsed, though, and we re-emerge into our own world, we can see them with startling clarity. Auburn. Sírelen.

The acoustical chamber of Middle Earth serves, I think, as a place to tell the stories that matter: stories about places and people that matter. The stories matter because they elicit emotion; the places matter because they are all unique, and speak powerfully of the Other; the people matter because they are the Other. And they are also us. In Inárion I am free to become magnificent and dark and dangerous and violent, to hurt and be hurt in return. He is free in ways that I am not. But Inárion means nothing without his surroundings. It is his relationship to the Other—people, landscape, or otherwise—that is important. There is no story in a vacuum. And that is how, and why, the other characters and places emerged. Tolkien said that Faramir (the wiser, gentler brother of Boromir) wasn’t his creation—“he came walking out of the woods of Ithilien.” “I liked him,” he said later, “but I didn’t invent him.”

The acoustical chambers that Merrill describes, then, work in two directions. On the one hand, we stroll into the Magical Place, the vast chamber of dreams, and say something pithy. Love is all you need! And the answer comes back, distorted by echo: You need all your love. Or, like a windup doll, you turn a character loose—a handsome prince from the North with a beautiful sword—and it whirs away into the darkness. And after a while you hear its little footsteps and, yes, here it comes, but now it’s a darker prince, beaten and battle-scarred, his blade notched and bloodstained. He’s alone.

Of course, this is a black example. Any story, in this acoustical chamber, would change, and take on “resonance and depth”—Sírelen and Calrëa, for instance. The idea of The Star-Crossed Lovers is simple enough. But shout it into the echoing depths of the chamber, turn loose the windup dolls, and the story changes as it resounds through the room. It picks up bits and pieces that it finds lying about—bits of your life, probably—and comes back dressed up in very original rags. The pool beside which Sírelen and Calrëa meet, incidentally, is called Cuilaelin—“The Pool of Life.” There’s irony in that.


The blue room after dinner. DJ (depressed):
Each day it grows more fascinating, more…
I don’t know. Isn’t it like a door
Shutting us off from living? I’ve no zest
For anything else, can’t even watch TV.
This town’s full of good friends we hardly see.
What do you feel? Will that door readmit
Us to the world? Will we still care for it?
JM (touched by his uncomplaining tone):
What can I say? Nothing we haven’t known.
Remember Sam and Frodo in their hot
Waterless desolation overshot
By evil zombies. They of course come through
—It’s what, in any Quest, the heroes do—
But at the cost of being set apart,
Emptied, diminished. Tolkien knew this. Art—
The tale that all but shapes itself—survives
By feeding on its personages’ lives.
The stripping process, sort of. What to say?
Our lives led to this. It’s the price we pay.

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