Thursday, September 01, 2005


The beginning of September is particularly important to me as it marks the anniversaries of the deaths of two men whose work I hold in great esteem and which has influenced not only my reading but the entire course of my life, particularly in the past 7 years. On September 1967, the First World War poet and memoirist, Siegfried Sassoon, died just a week short of his 81st birthday. This poem was written by Sassoon just after the end of the First World War, but I feel it is an apt commemoration Sassoon's life and work:

Falling Asleep

Voices moving about in the quiet house:
Thud of feet and a muffled shutting of doors:
Everyone yawning. Only the clocks are alert.

Out in the night there’s autumn-smelling gloom
Crowded with whispering trees; across the park
A hollow cry of hounds like lonely bells:
And I know that the clouds are moving across the moon;
The low, red, rising moon. Now herons call
And wrangle by their pool; and hooting owls
Sail from the wood above pale stooks of oats.

Waiting for sleep, I drift from thoughts like these;
And where to-day was dream-like, build my dreams.
Music ... there was a bright white room below,
And someone singing a song about a soldier,
One hour, two hours ago: and soon the song
Will be ‘last night’: but now the beauty swings
Across my brain, ghost of remembered chords
Which still can make such radiance in my dream
That I can watch the marching of my soldiers,
And count their faces; faces; sunlit faces.

Falling asleep ... the herons, and the hounds....
September in the darkness; and the world
I’ve known; all fading past me into peace.

And September 2 is the anniversary of the death of J. R. R. Tolkien, just 6 years after Sassoon died. His creation of Middle-earth and writing of The Lord of the Rings has continued to influence fantasy fiction in the 50 years since its publication.

Both men endured the horrors of the First World War and their work was influenced by their experiences of that war - and both have influenced me. I discovered the poetry of Siegfried Sassoon in 1992 when I heard his poem, 'The Grandeur of Ghosts' on a radio show and it spoke to me in a very visceral way. I began to study Sassoon's poetry and his life, intending (in a rather naive way) to write a biography of him. Unknown to me several others were already working on the same lines, and by the time I began my combined English and History degree in September 1998 in preparation for writing said biography, the first of them had been published. Having given up my career as I computer programmer to do the degree, I was not about to abandon my plans so I went ahead, and I wrote about First World War topics at every opportunity that came along for me to choose my own subject of study.

I first read The Lord of the Rings when I was in my early teens, and I've re-read it many, many times in the past 20+ years and although for a while I read little fantasy except LotR, I maintained an interest in the genre. During the time I was revising for my end of first year exams in 1999 I came across the first Harry Potter book and, indirectly, Tolkien redirected my life. I reached the final semester of my degree and I had one last English paper to write on a subject of my own choosing. I went to see my tutor and told her that I wanted to do a paper on one or more of the women poets of the First World War, and she suggested that just this once I might write about something different. I eventually agreed that I would write a paper on Harry Potter, little suspecting that it would get published in The New Review of Children's Literature and Librarianship, and that I would go on to spend the next (ie. the last) four years writing more papers: on Harry Potter, on Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings, on Juliet E McKenna's 'Tales of Einarinn' series, and that I would be in the position of having two papers appear in published proceedings in the space of only a few weeks: my paper on Tolkien's influence on women writers of fantasy fiction which I presented at the Tolkien Society Seminar 2004 is finally available, as well as the Nimbus-2003 proceedings. So I owe both these men quite a lot with regard to my current career; which just goes to show one should never underestimate the power of literature to change lives.

No comments: