When I was about 13 or so, my teachers began an assault on my imagination. My English teacher was the first.
During a library session, he told us all to go find a book, read it for a while, and then at the end of the lesson to read out the opening page. I picked The Hobbit. It was something I’d read lots of times before and found comforting*.
My English teacher let me read aloud all the way to the end of the first page and then said, ‘The Hobbit’s a bit childish, don’t you think? I didn’t mean for you to get a children’s book.’ I can still feel my cheeks burning.
Then the Head of English picked up the assault.
Suddenly, it wasn’t appropriate to write about shape-shifters and flying cats anymore. I was supposed to write about real, observable things. We were set a term-long project to write a ‘novel’ (actually about sixty pages) – and I was told that if I wrote fantasy, I would be marked down. It seemed so unfair then, and it still makes me mad today – surely good writing is good writing in any genre, no?
Then my art teacher joined in.
Portraits of Freddy Krueger were no longer acceptable. I had to draw real things, like the art room cheese plant that bedevilled my lessons for so many years.
I seemed like wherever there was potential for creativity, freedom and fun, walls were being erected around my favourite things. Fantasy was banned. Realism was the only territory I was allowed to tread. I think I’ve spent my entire creative life trying to reconcile those two things, to knock down the walls between them, get them shaking hands, make comrades of them.
Now, I guess I’m grateful. This battle has forced me into an interesting place. I like being here.
I’m thinking about all this today because it’s Hobbit Day - part of Tolkien week – so named by the American Tolkien Society because it’s the day on which both Frodo and Bilbo Baggins share their birthdays. It’s also the 75th anniversary of The Hobbit‘s publication.
So if you, like me, have been declared ‘too old for hobbits’ but love them anyway, make time for a second breakfast this weekend, and check out the new trailer, released this week, for part one of Peter Jackon’s Hobbit movie trilogy (which will star Benedict Cumberbatch as Smaug the dragon – I would love to see the pre-CGI motion capture of his performance as much as the finished product I think).
*I associate The Hobbit with comfort because I bought it the day I cracked my head open. Running to the cloak room at school, aged 8, I tripped over and went flying. The top of my head smacked into the edge of the metal door that someone was just opening. Other kids laughed at first. Then blood ran all down my face (think Stephen King’s Carrie meets Diary of a Wimpy Kid) and the laughing stopped. Some of it anyway. After the doctor had stitched me back together again – four whole stitches! – Mum took me to a book shop and said buy whatever you like. I bought The Hobbit. Mum had to go back to work, so she dropped me off at Nan’s. Nan tucked me in on the sofa, gave me hot chocolate. I read my book. I couldn’t have been happier.