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Wednesday, 10 June 2015 16:29

The literary signposts will point the way

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bookIn the opening pages of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, we meet Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit who treasures his snug home and the routine of his days. All is well with Bilbo until the wizard Gandalf arrives and nominates him as the ideal candidate for a dangerous quest. Despite his protests, off the trembling Bilbo goes, out into the great, dark world surrounding his shire, with dwarves as his companions and all manner of monsters as his enemies.

Poor Bilbo.

Poor me.

You see, like Bilbo, I am a creature of routine and habit. Like Bilbo, I hold dear the familiarity of my shire, which is Cumberland Avenue in Asheville’s old Montford neighborhood. I cherish my hobbit-hole, a book-abundant apartment with a spacious porch and all the comforts of home. And like Bilbo, I am now about to embark on an adventure I never sought, a trek that when first proposed filled me with nearly the same apprehension as that felt by our timid hobbit.

This past March, one of my home-school moms — I offer weekly seminars to home-educated students — informed me that I should go to Europe and that she would raise the funds from other parents to send me there. Most people would doubtless have greeted this proposal with champagne and cigars, but I am not one of those restless pilgrims drawn to travel, and I typically use my summers for writing and lesson preparations. 

In addition, I am uncomfortable receiving gifts. I was dubious about accepting this particular gift until my daughter caught wind of the project. She quickly informed me that 1.) if I rejected the offer, I had clearly lost my mind, and 2.) I was also committing a sin by refusing others an opportunity for generosity and largesse. As my troubled soul is already mottled with sin, I accepted the gift.

So I am on my way to Europe. More specifically, to England, Scotland, and Italy. And my misgivings have yielded to delight and joy in a new adventure. We all need a bit of shaking up now and then, and this trip should blow me right out of the water.

Now, as to Britain, which is first on my agenda: Some people thinking of the sceptered isle might conjure up pubs and soccer, kippers and fog, black cabs and the Tube. Others might imagine visits to Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, and the Tower of London. Still others might see themselves driving through the green English countryside, strolling through Stonehenge, hiking the Lake District, or taking a train to Scotland’s Highlands. 

But as for me, when I think of England, I think of words and books and the men and women who wrote them. I think of poetry and plays, novels and histories, and of those who carved and polished that gem of communication: the English language.

So I’ll start with a visit to Poet’s Corner in London’s Westminster Abbey. Beneath the stones of this abbey lie some of the greatest writers who ever lived — Chaucer, Tennyson, Browning, Dickens, and others . Here, too, are plaques and monuments honoring more great authors, ranging from the Bronte sisters to C.S. Lewis, from William Blake and Jane Austen to W.H. Auden and Ted Hughes. 

London also sports bookshops, institutions like Blackwells and Foyles, where the bibliomaniac can rummage to his heart’s content. Though time and circumstance have closed many of the Charing Cross shops, made famous here in America by Helene Hanff’s memoir 84 Charing Cross Road, enough of these establishments remain to make a visit to that street worthwhile as well.

Then it’s off to Stratford-upon-Avon for a bend of the knee to the greatest writer who ever lived. Yes, yes, I know: the anti-stratfordians deny that Shakespeare wrote his plays and poems, but I go to honor the work and not the man. Besides, I remain a believer in Will and his genius, and I want to walk those streets beside the Avon that he once walked, breath the air he once breathed, experience the terrain and weather that molded him so long ago.

Then it’s north by train to Yorkshire and the moors depicted in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, a book that, though I teach it nearly every year, continues to amaze me. How such a masterpiece sprung from one so young affords yet another reminder that genius and talent are remarkable, rare, and inexplicable.

And then farther north still to the beautiful old city of Edinburg for a visit to the Writer’s Museum, honoring Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson. 

After Edinburg, who knows? Back to London to see the Charles Dickens Museum? To Dorset to visit the ancient church where T. E. Lawrence, known best as Lawrence of Arabia, lies buried? A stop in Oxford to see the university and the pub where the Inklings — C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, Charles Williams, and others — gathered to drink, smoke, and discuss philosophy, religion, and writing? To Glastonbury, to give a nod to King Arthur and his Knights, immortalized in our language by that reprobate knight, Sir Thomas Mallory?

At any rate, I’m saddling up and riding east.

(Jeff Minick is a writer and teacher. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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