The Cottage of Lost Play

Work­ing on my mag­i­cal real­ism mid­dle-grade nov­el, I real­ized I couldn’t visu­al­ize where my sto­ry is locat­ed. I could describe imme­di­ate build­ings, but the land­scape was blank. If I couldn’t see it, nei­ther could a read­er. As often hap­pens when writ­ing a nov­el, the uni­verse sends what you need. It sent me George R. Stewart’s 1944 book, Names on the Land, which begins:

Once, from the east­ern ocean to west­ern ocean, the land stretched away with­out names. Name­less head­lands split the surf; name­less lakes reflect­ed name­less moun­tains… Men came at last, tribe fol­low­ing tribe, speak­ing dif­fer­ent lan­guages and think­ing dif­fer­ent thoughts. Accord­ing to their ways of speech and thought they gave names, and in their gen­er­a­tions laid their bones by the streams and hills they had named.

 Names! My worn Vir­ginia atlas usu­al­ly serves for inspi­ra­tion, but this project demands orig­i­nal topog­ra­phy and names. I re-read The Hob­bit, a trea­sure trove of place names, pair­ing it with John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War. Tolkien’s expe­ri­ences in World War I influ­enced his cre­ation of Middle-earth.

Tolkien was fresh from Oxford when he entered the ser­vice in 1915. He’d already begun invent­ing lan­guages and scrib­bling poet­ry about a fairy land, Kor­tiri­on. Ill-pre­pared like many young sol­diers who naive­ly believed they’d sketch church­es in Nor­mandy, Tolkien was hurled into the Bat­tle of the Somme where mus­tard gas, tanks, and flame throw­ers were no match for high-flown ideals. As a mea­sure of how obliv­i­ous peo­ple at home were about fight­ing con­di­tions, illus­trat­ed posters of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Land of Nod” were shipped to France to “bright­en” the trenches.

The Land of Nod
“The Land of Nod (a reminder of home),” by Charles Sims RA, 1917,
illus­trat­ing Robert Louis Steven­son’s poem

Two of Tolkien’s best friends were killed. He him­self con­tract­ed trench fever and was hos­pi­tal­ized for weeks. Yet the hor­rors he wit­nessed did not deter him from writ­ing fan­ta­sy. While recu­per­at­ing, he wrote “The Fall of Gon­do­lin,” about an imag­i­nary city he envi­sioned in a much larg­er nar­ra­tive. He also wrote a short­er piece titled, “The Cot­tage of Lost Play.”

There I put down Garth’s book, intrigued by the image con­jured in my head. I pic­tured a cot­tage in the woods, thatched, of course, with smooth riv­er stones lead­ing to the front door around which hol­ly­hocks bloomed and wis­te­ria drooped. The door was part­ly ajar. From inside came faint voic­es and laugh­ter. My imag­i­na­tion turned the phrase “Lost Play” over and over like an old coin. Did it mean the irre­triev­able state of child­hood? Rather than read Tolkien’s ver­sion, I was tempt­ed to write my own. Not because I’m a writer, but because I’m human.

Science of StorytellingSto­ry is what the brain does,” Robert Storrs says in his book The Sci­ence of Sto­ry­telling: Why Sto­ries Make Us Human and How to Tell Them Bet­ter. “Sto­ry emerges from human minds as nat­u­ral­ly as breath emerges from human lips.” We expe­ri­ence our lives in “sto­ry mode,” cre­at­ing lit­tle sto­ries as we go about our day.

Edu­ca­tors know we learn to read by “see­ing” images in our head. Storr explains to the rest of us that the brain process­es writ­ten infor­ma­tion by build­ing mod­els, the more spe­cif­ic the lan­guage, the more pre­cise our mod­els. Some­times a name alone can trig­ger an image. When Bil­bo and the dwarves reach the Mirk­wood, my mind shows a pleas­ant for­est. Then Gan­dalf warns them not to leave the path. Now the word becomes Murk­wood, a dark and fore­bod­ing woods.

Our brains auto­mat­i­cal­ly make mod­els when we read. Names height­en that ten­den­cy. As a boy, Will Storr and a friend pored over the maps in The Hob­bit, lin­ger­ing over the names: “Des­o­la­tion of Smaug,” “West lies Mirk­wood the Great — there are spi­ders.” They spent an entire sum­mer mak­ing games from pho­to­copies of the maps. The places felt “as real to us as the sweet shop in Sil­verdale Road,” he remem­bers. (I’m entranced by the lumi­nous name of his child­hood street!)

Place names, even with­out descrip­tions or expla­na­tions, instant­ly con­struct whole mod­els. Storr quotes dia­log from the movie Blade Run­ner: I’ve seen things you peo­ple wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoul­der of Ori­on. I watched C‑beams glit­ter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. “Those C‑beams!” Storr adds. “That gate! Their won­der lies in the fact they’re mere­ly suggested.”

Philol­o­gist Tolkien knew exact­ly what he was doing. Gon­do­lin, with its hard “g” and weighty, falling syl­la­bles, brings to mind a once-pow­er­ful city gone to ruin. Places tagged dur­ing the Great War still car­ry solemn mem­o­ries. The Somme. No Man’s Land.

George Stew­art advised to let the shape of the land itself indi­cate what it could be called. Fol­low­ing Tolkien’s deep foot­prints, I’ll try to add mean­ing and evoke won­der to the blank spaces in my sto­ry with just-right names. If I think of any­thing near­ly as bril­liant as The Cot­tage of Lost Play, I’ll send up a flare.

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Lynne Jonell
3 years ago

Love­ly, Can­dice; and now I’ve got Tolkien and the Great War in my library queue!

candice ransom
3 years ago

Thanks, Lynne. It’s an end­less strug­gle to get to and through our work, isn’t it? At least it’s spring!