Magdalena SŁABA: Exercises in presence  or Tolkien-themed Trip of 2016 (part II)

Exercises in presence
or Tolkien-themed Trip of 2016 (part II)

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Photo of Magdalena SŁABA

Magdalena SŁABA

Varsovian, lawyer, trip lover, big fan of Tolkien and his works, enthusiast of classical music, cinephile.

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.For the Tolkien Society member Leeds is a city of the annual Tolkien Seminar. This year it was held in Hilton Leeds City at Neville Street on Sun. 3rd July and was devoted to the centenary of Tolkien’s participation in the Battle of Somme. Among the lecturers were authors of A Secret Vice Dimitra Fimi from Cardiff University and Andrew Higgins. The main themes were mortality and immortality, exemplified by lectures on e.g. the attitudes of Tolkien’s characters towards the death of their own and of their relatives, joyful sorrow in The Lord of the Rings, Celtic inspirations in Tolkien’s reincarnation model (Glorfindel of the Green Island), transmission as an escape from death in Tolkien’s work or a philological exploration of Tolkien’s invented words for ”life” and ”death”.  The seminar as usual was preceded by an innmoot, a meeting in a pub on the evening before the event.

We finished the day in another, more realistic world, at a hotel in Bradford which is said to be the most Asian and Muslim town in England. Bradford has mosques, houses of prayer, Hindu and Gurkha cultural centres, shops selling Indian saris, shisha bars. In the streets there are many women in hijabs, men wearing turbans.

We strayed to southern Harad then, and the wind blew from the north…

All the beautiful morning of Fri. 6th May I spent touring York (called Eboracum by the Romans and Jorvik by the Vikings) with a paper cup of coffee from Starbucks, tormented by the feeling that there was way too much to visit there: the cathedral with the world’s biggest stained-glass window, narrow streets, old crooked houses (The Shambles – the only mediaeval street in Europe that has been preserved intact, Diagon Alley in full bloom, and York’s shortest street Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate, whose name is derived from a phrase ”whitnourwhatnourgate” meaning ”what a street!”), Jorvik Viking Centre, souvenir shops, cafes… I had to visit the cathedral, although Galadhorn advised against that since the ticket price was too high if we considered the ongoing renovation. Eventually I decided to give it a try, sometimes you have to pay for the peace of mind and soul. I was not sure what Marigold thought of that, nevertheless she went to York Minster, too.

The stained-glass window near the choir presents scenes from Old and New Testament and characters from the Bible. It is huge, 23 metres high and 10 metres wide. Its bottom part is still in renovation, which is supposed to be finished in 2018. This is not an ordinary painting on glass, as in many English churches, but real stained glass in multitude of tiny elements being cleaned for years already. Thus through the cleaning the masterpiece goes back to its origins. One can appreciate its brilliance looking at it from the benches set behind the altar. Some of the spectators even use binoculars to spot all the details.

Another stained-glass window in the church is called the Five Sisters Window. It is comprised of five parts, very high, and the stained glass there is made of so many small pieces that it appears to be thick and non-translucent, dominated by the colours of green and black. Below the window there were men pumping gas in big balloons shaped as planets of our solar system. I had no idea what all that was about, but I liked it a lot.

And there is a window above the main portal whose upper part is heart-shaped, which is emblematic for York Minster and York in general.

Just before the bus call I looked again at the second-hand bookshop overshadowed by the colourful statue of Minerva at a street which used to be the bookselling centre of York. There were e.g. drawings by Arthur Rackham on sale there… Those strange final moments in York did not incline me to adapt such an openly lordly pose as displayed by the nearby monument of the famous Roman emperor Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus covered with verdigris (IN HOC SIGNO VINCES).

If York means going back in time to the Middle Ages, we were being carried even further, to the times of the Roman presence in the British Isles, to the boundary between what has been tamed and the wilderness and freedom, between civilization and barbarous land, between the Empire and Caledonia.

Emperor Hadrian came to England after a heavy defeat: in a battle with the Brigantes tribe the whole 9th legion was annihilated. The defeat was then so strictly censored that these days, as if in reaction to that, books are published and movies made about the lost legion. Since Hadrian assessed that the fortifications provided by the governorns that preceded him were too weak and indefensible, he decided that new defences should be built below the line of the old ones. The wall that extends from Newcastle in the east to Carlisle in the west has a length of 123 kilometres (ca 5 per cent of the length of the Great Wall of China). There were watchtowers one Roman mile (1,481.5 m) from one another, each manned with 35 soldiers.

We had the chance to visit such a place. I was eager to hear about archaeological excavations along the wall. For instance not far from Chesterholm an ancient fort called Vindolanda has been found, and in it more than 2,000 letters and documents written on wooden tablets. It is a priceless source of information on what life was like those days. It contains e.g. a letter from Sulpicia Lepidina, the wife of the fort’s commander, to Claudia Severa, an invitation to a birthday party (sic!). It is probably the oldest extant writing by a woman in Latin found anywhere in the world!

First we passed fields and meadows typical for the Wilderness. Then we got to Walltown Crags, the car park and a picnic spot as they are found everywhere in Europe. Further it was almost as in Cotswolds, in the Vale of White Horse the previous year: the slightly upward path along the lake passing through a gate in the wooden fence of the pastureland (with a ”no entry” plaque that we saw upon leaving the area) and finally… The wind blew in Galadhorn’s red coat (more of Star Wars kind) on Hadrian’s Wall.

We found ourselves in a big confusion there. While some visitors were enjoying the views, glad to see the circular maze down below, others jumped all over the old stones of the Wall, which was not allowed, but how should they know… There were some calling as Legolas, fittingly: ”they are taking the hobbits to Isengard!”, but I would have preferred ”the Beacons are lit!” from Gondor. The scenes from The Lord of the Rings were performed there even unwittingly by random people (Gondor called for help so desperately that Rohan came with relief again). When we came down, Ola wrote in the book of  remembrance on behalf of the Polish Tolkien Society: ”We walked the Wall! Jon Snow lives. Winter is not coming”. In my opinion the post is a proof of how much we have seen during the walk on the Wall. [Addendum: I heard from the fans of Game of Thrones that winter has eventually come to Westeros and that Jon Snow is not who he thinks he is.]

Still I can see a difference between what is on either side of the Wall. It is hard to describe, but it feels as if there was more space and air on the northern side. By the Wall one can hear clang of arms, guards silently calling one another, neighing horses – it involves tension, anxiety, fear, so associations with Game of Thrones come naturally. The Wall has been built by men of the Roman legions who used to work and live there in quite hard conditions. The civilized world used to end there. Beyond the Wall there were dragons – and perhaps they still are there, but will they ever be found?

Did the mood by the Wall in the Roman times depend on how important for the citizens of the Empire was their rational and coherent pantheon, their law, public institutions, roads, rituals, bath houses, poetry and beauty or maybe more on their lack of deeper knowledge of the barbarians from the north looking for better life? It seems that nowadays we have been witnessing another fall of the Roman empire…

There were a lot of thick yellow-flowered gorse bushes there. In 7th chapter of Book Four of LotR the path used by Frodo, Sam and Gollum after their meeting with Faramir to get to Cirith Ungol is rimmed with gorse. Botanists would say it is a genus of flowering legume plants  in the family Fabaceae. It may reach the height of up to 7 metres and is sometimes used as the heating fuel.

The visit at the wall is memorable for one more reason: delicious chocolate and mint bar. It might have been the last one…

In the evening we checked in at Metro Inn hotel in Falkirk, close to which there are the popular Kelpies that we could admire – an installation of two big horse heads. Brits like such outdoor sculptures, they also have the Angel of the North or a flock of birds flying along a motorway, which proves their passion for monumentalism in the style of Argonath. The Kelpies look as if two stallions were caged underground up to their necks.

So that was Scotland at last. The hotel rooms were arranged in such a way that some of us had to spend the night in a falcon’s nest. Co-ed showers, a parade of night dresses in the corridors – I mean ladies, because gents were hardly seen there. Black Scottish terrier guarded the main door. One could smell something strange outside. Then at 10.30 p.m. came a power failure and complete darkness

Fáilte gu Alba – Welcome to Scotland

Sat. 7th May had an enviable opening. Breakfast given away by the guide at Loch Lomond, the largest inland stretch of water in Great Britain, in the Trossachs National Park, tasted great in the moist air under the clouded sky. And the breakfast included toast bread, salami, French cheese, jam, honey, juices, instant coffee. Yum!

The plan for that day was ”loch, ben, glen” – ”lakes, mountains, valleys” in Gaelic.

I have wondered how I should describe that in day in the Highlands. The day when nothing happened. The help comes with the remark that from time to time occurs on the Middle-earth’s timeline: There are no recorded events for this day. This is a bit sad, but such is life. If there are none, one should make them up.


We went to Glencoe, the Valley of Tears, surrounded by big mountains, deep valleys, narrow rivers that were matte, because the sun was not shining and the sky was steel-blue. It was misty, the air was not clear, so the high flat clouds seemed to intersperse with the rocks, vegetation and ground. The very few trees in sight on both sides of the road certainly failed to make a forest – the soil there is not able to support it, to keep the tree roots firmly enough. Deforestation advances with any stronger gusts of wind. The stubs we saw from afar made a depressing view. Saruman’s folly?

Certainly the folly of the past ages. In the village of the same name as the valley in 1692 the forces of king William III killed 38 members of MacDonald clan. I think that the bagpiper playing in the nearby vantage point does it especially for the ones that were slain in the massacre. He asked for change to be dropped in an old brown suitcase and his reddened face was more fatigued than sunburnt. I had been told before I went to Scotland that as late as during the First World War bagpipes were treated as a weapon.

The local Gaelic speakers call Glencoe village ”the place of cairns” (A’Charnaich). Cairns are a very interesting phenomenon. They are piles of stones encountered all over northern Europe, i.e. in Norway, Sweden, Denmark. The first time I came across cairns was on Troll’s Footpath (Trollstigen) in Norway. A milestone, it may stand on crossroads or just somewhere to commemorate an event, or it may be a sign of someone’s longing for that particular spot (in the south of Europe you only drop a coin to the fountain – so building a cairn is more demanding). There are places that ask for being marked with a cairn instead of photographing them. Or they end up as parts of film sets, like in Skyfall, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

Yes, we had the general impression of entering a film set. In Glenfinnan at Loch Shiel stands a commemorative monument of the Jacobite Rising of 1745 (Jacobites were Scottish and English supporters of the Catholic dynasty of the Stuarts). Nearby there is the renowned viaduct that has been featured in nearly all Harry Potter films. To me the monument had a more Tolkien feel, although at the time it was covered with scaffolding, but I only saw the viaduct on photos made by someone else, so let me just mention that it was built by a London-based engineering company Robert McAlpine & Sons in the years 1897-1901 as a section of the northward railway line. Sounds like an American Wild West story? We were in the Wild Lands after all…

We headed back eastwards. Fort William in the Grampians, seated at the foot of Ben Nevis (1345 metres above sea level) welcomed us with windy and wet weather, although not with rain. We readily hid in a bar – there are no pubs in Scotland. In the company of Iza, Asia and Piotr I ate finger-licking lamb chops and flushed it down with some whisky from the local distillery, which warmed me up. I did not try haggis, the Scottish speciality similar to e.g. Polish kaszanka, because they did not serve it there. The lady behind the bar was so nervous that asking her again why there was no haggis and what was that ”black pudding” thing could have been a risky business (”listen, please tell them what black pudding is before I lose my nerves!”). It was already a bit too much that we had not grasped quickly enough all the special terms used for thickness and weight of a steak. After the meal I walked the street and listened to folk tunes played on traditional instruments by nice youngsters. I also entered a small church and a churchyard with Celtic crosses. Galadhorn bought a Boromir’s horn in the local Tesco – possible only in Scotland.

Just before the sunset we landed in another film set. Doune Castle is not big at all, but has so much mysticism that the Starks of Game of Thrones live in it and call it Winterfell. It has also played in Outlander. That evening it was us starring there, on green grass among blooming daffodils. In our little bus cinema Mel Gibson played William Wallace in Braveheart.

On Sun. 8th May in the morning we woke under the preponderant monument of William Wallace in Stirling. Breakfast with a view on a hero! Then, on the other side of the valley, we looked from the castle hill on the battlefield – bridge and ford – sunken in silver mist. Stirling was the first serious test for William Wallace’s martial talents (on 11th Sept. 1297). William looks on his victory from his tower, king Robert the Bruce (although it was he who was nicknamed Braveheart by historians, the American filmmakers have seen the past otherwise) from a monument’s pedestal close to the sixteenth-century castle. Stirling used to be the capital of Scotland. Its name may come from a Gaelic term for a battlefield.

We ran down the slope of a green grassy hill, crossed an old Anglican churchyard where reportedly there are graves of masonry, with a tall white tower commemorating women who gave their lives for their Protestant faith. Then there was a visit in the cathedral and snooping around the town.

The Church of the Holy Rude (Holy Cross), formerly Catholic, was founded in 1129 during the reign of king David I. In 1567 James VI was crowned there. Its walls are studded with holes supposedly made by Oliver Cromwell’s cannons. John Knox preached there, whose sermons were so fiery that people said they literally set fires.

In the main street a unicorn from the height of its column overlooks a bagpipe manufacture. We passed a boys club and Mar’s Wark, a ruined residence of clan Erskine built in the 70s of the 16th century. For centuries the Erskines were keepers of the royal Stirling castle, so to me it symbolizes the House of Gondor. The impressive building was never completed. We looked at the huge walls of blackened stone; on the towers and above the gate we saw mediaeval inscriptions, e.g. on the northern tower: The more I stand on open height, My faults more subject are to sight”. This is not entirely true, because we had not seen that before we got there… Alas, the tower rhymes!

With a feline smile from Sterling and a Polish language folder in hand I visited Rosslyn. An unusual, very old sacred building founded by a nobleman of house St. Clair to secure him place in heaven after his return from a crusade. Rosslyn Chapel may be seen either as an architectural masterpiece or kitsch. As the latter it appears in one of Dan Brown’s most popular books.

The chapel is a masterpiece of stonemasonry and looks as if it was made of lace thread with the use of a chisel. The workers either must have had very big imagination or been someone else than they declared they were (masons?!). There is a black cat sleeping in the chapel that likes being scratched behind its ear. You scratch it and see e.g. the Green Man, devil and lovers, dance of death, angel with bagpipes, the Veil of Veronica, floral ornaments of corn or aloe, or even a two-headed dragon! Possibly that is why they have photographing restrictions there.

It is hard to say what Rosslyn Chapel is. When I think of Tolkien and his creative method (while writing this text myself), it is clear to me that some like bigger things that would not be contained in closed forms. Could it be that the stonemasons were not in urge to do their job fast, they were not getting payment and had little hope that someone would ever need to decipher or appreciate their work? At least I got an impression that the makers of the chapel could not or did not want to stop adding ornaments, meanings, stories.

Having seen seven virtues and seven cardinal sins set in stone some of us discovered a playground with period costumes, which led us to improvised mediaeval cosplay. There were dames and folk from Roslin village, it was allowed to make photos there.

And then the magic of theatre took us to Howden Park Centre where we watched Leaf by Niggle by Tolkien staged by the Puppet State Theatre from Edinburgh. The performance had been supposed to be the icing on the cake of our journey and so nobody could foresee how important it would actually turn out to be. I found out and told it to my companions that the minimum age for the audience of the spectacle was 10 and only for those with exceptional attention span, yet the latter requirement confused some of us adults…


Tolkien wrote the short story in the years 1938-39 while writing The Lord of the Rings. It was first published in 1945. It has been considered Tolkien’s most autobiographical literary work in the sense that it is about art, pains of creation, friendship and the other world that awaits us. The protagonist’s name refers to a person who so much focuses on details that they lead him astray and deprive of time for more important things in life. Niggle’s neighbour’s name is Parish.

Niggle is a painter, but not a very successful one. He paints leaves better that trees. He is preoccupied with a particular portrait of a tree with endless landscape in the background. The painting gets expanded, so the artist needs new canvas. Then there comes the flood. Parish needs help with his ill wife, the authorities fighting with the flood need a lot of canvas. Then the mysterious guest comes that wants to take Niggle where he never wanted to go, although he knew he would have to. First Niggle does physical works, then he gets the Gift, meets Parish and goes away with the Shepherd. And no trace of him is left in this world.

Is it imaginable at all how something like this can be staged?

The play is a monodrama and although realized by a puppet theatre, no puppets were used. The narration was led by Richard Medrington. Leaf done by him was a real masterpiece. He spoke of Niggle in a way that wetted the eyes of many spectators. In the initial part of the play we heard about the family and treasures discovered in the attic of their house – treasures that unveil certain secrets (”I didn’t know my mother was a painter” – no-one knew that about Niggle, either). On stage there was a ladder, an old bicycle and another small one with ”NIGGLE” scribbled on a piece of paper, another short wooden ladder, painted veil, doctor’s gown of WWI, deck of cards, mug, table, armchair, lamp, old suitcase with something inside (almost identical with the one we had taken from Tolkien’s former house in Oxford). The narrator used all the items to show how many secrets there are in the life of each of us, and further into the play to illustrate the story of Niggle. The actor, the objects and beautiful music composed by Karen Polwart and Michael John McCarthy was all we were getting. It must be mentioned that Leaf by Niggle sounds perfect – a non-native English speaker with even moderate command of English would be able to hear and understand every word spoken from the stage, which gives one enormous comfort and satisfaction.

The spectacle is as delicate and powerful as the tree on Niggle’s picture. Tolkien adapted to stage play shall cast a spell on the audience. Anyway, we still are under the spell. Mr. Medrington had planned staging Leaf for ca 20 years, but the Tolkien Estate gave him their consent as late as last year. His fascination with Tolkien’s work could be felt in every second of the performance. Mind you, Leaf by Niggle tells a story of all of us that try to be creative, even if the things we make are to remain hidden forever.

We occupied only 3 rows of the whole venue. Both Howden Park Centre and the Puppet State Theatre were informed that the Tolkienists from Poland had been coming. Although we had managed to get the tickets just a few days before the start of our journey using e.g. Facebook and Twitter, we found out that actually there had never been the risk of Leaf by Niggle being sold out. What is more, we had the great honour of being officially greeted from the stage already in the second sentence of the introduction!

After the play we had the opportunity to personally meet the performer. We told him we had brought from Oxford a similar suitcase that he as the narrator found in the attic. Galadhorn showed him his own copy of Drzewo i Liść, the short story collection published in Poland that contains a translation of Leaf by Niggle, with the Tree of Amalion embroidered on the cover bound in linen. Hammond and Scull wrote in the album Tolkien. Artist and Illustrator that the tree is the most refined of Tolkien’s drawings. Professor drew the tree whenever he felt the urge to create something visual. Undoubtedly the Tree of Amalion is related to Niggle’s tree as well. The image was made in 1928, clearly under the influence of Art Nouveau. Richard Medrington was so interested in the embroidery on the cover of the book that he made sure it was photographed with his camera. And I made him a photo during the process… The all of us together posed for a group photo.

Leaf by Niggle is a very personal story, and as such it was performed by the Puppet State Theatre. In fact it was whispered from the stage, rustling as tree leaves in the wind. By the way, there is such a rarely used English word ”psithurism” meaning the rustle uttered exactly in those conditions. In the spectacle there was a storm, distant roll of thunder and rain, but still everything there was immersed in silence. This was perhaps my most delicate theatrical experience ever. There was no breadth, only depth and space. It might have been a good thing that the audience occupied only 3 rows. That made them join the narrator in talking about Niggle while being spoken to, each on their own. If the theatre is a form of communion of the performer and the onlooker, Leaf by Niggle is a bit more than that. It works and conveys true magic.

Magdalena Słaba

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