A week ago, after suffering from years of chronic illness, my grandmother finally passed away.
When my mother called from the hospital and told me the news, my first reaction was: I knew it. She had been admitted to hospital many times, but she’d never fallen into coma before. It was just a matter of time. Cold, logical remarks that I have practiced for years since the unexpected death of my grandfather years ago. I have always told myself to be that strong psychological wall if a loved one dies. The one who will stay level-headed and calm when other family members are sad and grieving. However, despite the mental practice, I still found myself quite stunned, and any hint of sleepiness I might retain disappeared without a trace.
I must admit that I had never been close with my grandma. I was closer to my grandfather, and his death had hit harder. However, my grandma’s death had opened door to fonder memories, from the times when I was actually close to her. I remembered the times when I came back from school to my grandparent’s house, and she would prepare lunch, with my favorites being her fried rice, onion-filled omelet, and fried shrimps. After taking a sip from my grandpa’s gargantuan coffee mug (he never believed in drinking coffee from those dainty demitasse cups), which apparently was a prerogative right of a beloved granddaughter, I would head to my grandparent’s bedroom for some bedtime stories before napping.
There had been more unpleasant memories when I grew older, and I started to become more emotionally distant from my grandma. Then, when I was a university student, she made some rather unpleasant remarks about my father’s state of employment. When I saw how much it hit my father, I started to dislike her too, although I became softer when she started to show symptoms of chronic illness. And then, when I finally saw her body in her house, neatly washed and wrapped and ready for funeral, all the hate melted away. She looked so shrunken, her body seemed to be child-sized. When I kissed her cold brow, she did not “feel” like my grandma. She was an empty shell, a remain of what my real grandmother had been.
After her funeral, I still did not shed any tears. But I went through the rest of the day with almost automatic way. When I arrived home, I lied on my bed and stared at the ceiling for a while, before shifted my attention to rows of books that I put beside my bed. Almost automatically, my hand reached out and took out one book: Tales from the Perilous Realm. Feeling like I only had choices between lying on bed broodingly and reading, I chose the latter. I started reading the first story: Roverandom.
Even if you never read the book before, a simple Googling will tell you the gist: Roverandom is a story about a dog who accidentally pisses off a wizard, and being turned into a small toy dog, and he goes through many adventures with characters like Man in the Moon (not the astronaut), Maw the Albatross, winged dogs, moon spiders, and dragons. People who lost loved ones have done a lot of things to cope, but my family probably would have scratched their heads in confusion if they had known what I did to cope. Reading “whimsical” fantasy story to cope with loss?
Say what you want about Roverandom, but it worked. I did feel better after reading the book. No, more than that. I felt emotionally lighter, if that is the right word. Have you ever experienced a dream so amazing that you found yourself waking up in queer giddiness and slight regret when you realized it was just a dream, even when you instantly forgot some of the details when you woke up? That was what I felt after I finished Roverandom at that time. While I did not have any tears to wipe, I felt that the inexplicable emotional weight and emptiness were lifted. I do not know how to explain it, except that it was the combination of a lot of things.
Maybe it was the small humorous quips Tolkien inserted here and there, like when he described how the black spiders in the moon hate pale spiders “like rich relations that pay infrequent visits.” Or when he described a dragon who loses its steering and hits a mountain, nose-first, when chasing flying dogs. Or maybe it was the sense of discovery that replaced emotional weightiness, like when I found distant references to Merlin, Goddess Britannia, and Greek sea gods (the latter are said to be too fond to sardines to ever leave Mediterranean Sea, despite being no longer significant in the course of time), which was Tolkien’s trademark writing method in fantasy fiction. Maybe it was because how much Tolkien’s choices of words influenced my emotion, supported by the fact that Tolkien was a philologist and language perfectionist who paid extra attention to each word he put on paper.
Or maybe, it was because of something more specific. There were two memorable scenes that stood out when I was reading Roverandom during that particular emotional state. One was the scene when Rover (the enchanted dog in the story) flies on the back of Maw the Albatross to the surface of the moon. The description is very vivid and detailed, including when the bird flies toward a tall tower where the Man of the Moon lives, which always reminds me to all the famous white towers in Tolkien’s legendarium: from the Tower of Avallónë to the White Tower of Minas Tirith. The detailed description almost made me feel as giddy as Rover when he peeks downward from Maw’s back.
The moon got bigger and brighter, and the world below got darker and farther off. At last, all of the sudden, the world came to an end, and Rover could see the stars shining up out of blackness underneath. …the moon was all laid out below them, a new white world shining like snow, with wide open spaces of pale blue and green where the tall pointed mountains threw their long shadows far across the floor. On top of one of the tallest of these, one so tall that it seemed to stab up towards them as Maw swept down, Rover could see a white tower. It was white with pink and pale green lines in it, shimmering as if the tower were built of millions of seashells still wet with foam and gleaming.
The second scene was when the Man of the Moon sent Rover to “the dark side of the moon”, which he does by throwing the dog into a dark, bottomless hole. Rover is understandably very afraid, especially since he does not know what wait for him on the other side. However, when he finally arrives to the other side of the moon, he finds a field where children of the Earth are playing and frolicking in their dreams. In perhaps one of the most lighthearted moments in the book, Rover plays, jumps, runs around, and even slides downward the slope with a toboggan, along with the children and Man of the Moon.
These two scenes were important for me. The first one helped changing my perspective by taking me to the same “height” with the flying Rover, when he slowly flies closer to the moon before descends toward an amazing tower. The second one never fails to make me smile in amazement: how a scary, deep jump into a dark, seemingly bottomless hole can take a scared little dog to a place where he feels very happy! Reading those scenes instantly made me feel better. If I have to put words on this, I’d say they helped changing my perspectives, and giving me hope when I was trying to cope.
Now that I think about it, Tolkien wrote many of his stories as a way to cope from a lot of things: war, deaths of family members, deaths of friends, sickness, and climate of fear and paranoia during the World War. Even his merry and colorful Letters from Father Christmas inserts references to war and deaths. He wrote Roverandom to cheer up his son Michael, who lost his toy dog when playing on a beach; in other words, a work to help his son coping from a certain loss. There is a scene when a boy actually loses Rover (who, at that time, has been turned into a toy dog) when playing on the beach. The boy and Rover find each other again in the dark side of the moon, when the boy is dreaming. While I may have no words to explain why his words have effects to help me coping with loss, I certainly felt it.
Finally, I was also reminded of Tolkien’s view about fantasy, which he explained in On Fairy Stories, a long essay that was put as the last chapter in Tales from The Perilous Realm. Tolkien did not view fantasy world (Secondary World) as a form of escapism, but a mean to view our world (Primary World) in the whole new perspectives, free from the constraints of real-world logic that often hinders unique point of views. This is like how we perceive morals in real life. When someone preaches about morals and responsibilities as humans, we are likely to call that person, well, preachy. Weave tales about morals and responsibilities in well-made novels, poems, or movies, and we will call them “inspirational” and “uplifting”. The same goes with fantasy. We need it as a mirror that gives us fresh perspectives to things (maybe the same reason why I wrote this post in English: writing it in a language that is not my native tongue made it less raw than it should have been).
In cognitive therapy, a goal-oriented form of psychological therapy, a person is challenged to approach his/her problem by shifting views and perspectives, leaving the mental blocks that result from inaccurate thinking or distressing emotional reasons. When Tolkien and Rover took me to a trip in a whole new world and “height”, through well-described stories in the moon and highly-detailed descriptions of the dog’s adventures, I felt like my perspective was changed, too. Death and grief are natural parts of our life, but life goes on, as sure as the Earth and the Moon. Good coping method brings emotional support that we need to go on with our life, and it includes how we view that bigger picture, to finally find closure and move on.
And I think I am ready to move on.