Given the opportunity, my mother enjoys telling people that I would not sleep alone until the age of 12. I’d like to say that she’s exaggerating, but the nights that weren’t spent curled up on the floor of my parents’ bedroom invariably saw me passing the hours from dusk until dawn in terror; bolt upright in bed, duvet clasped tight beneath my nose, eyes darting from window to door and back again in a state of pure panic. Somewhere in all that darkness lurked my death, of that I was certain, and no amount of reasoning could persuade me that it was not coming to get me.
I’d thought it through a lot. On ascending the stairs of our house, mine was the first bedroom on the right – the remaining bedrooms at least ten feet further away – meaning I would be the first of my family to be slain at the hands of a violent intruder. In fact, I reasoned, I would most likely be the first and only one of our small clan to die; my screams of agony and terror would alert the rest of the house to the danger, allowing them to flee to safety and begin their lives anew. Why I believed that my parents and younger sister would leave me to such an unpleasant end is something I should one day explore with a therapist, but at the time these events seemed inevitable.
Some nights, death took the form of a masked assailant with a knife who would enter the room while I dozed (I tried never to doze) and dispatch me in silence. Other times it was the deranged captain of a cursed spacecraft who would bind my limbs and taunt me before undertaking the grizzly deed. Most frequent, and most terrifying of all were the nine-cloaked figures who would appear shrouded in an eerie mist at the foot of my bed; faceless creatures from time immemorial with gleaming blades raised high above their heads emitting a piercing shriek in unison before bringing about my untimely end.
I can’t credit any of these horrors to my own imagination. Each morbid fantasy was the result of over-consuming a specific cinematic or literary work – Jonathan Creek, Event Horizon and Lord of the Rings respectively. That I’d seen either of the former at the age of seven seems in retrospect a serious case of parental oversight, but the last, and most haunting of the three was administered to me once a week at school.
Like Morse, Narnia, and these days the wizarding world of Harry Potter (you can tour the various locations where the movie franchise was filmed), the work of J.R.R. Tolkien is part of the fabric of Oxford, where I grew up, and his presence can still be felt as you traverse the sleepy sandstone city. The blue plaque affixed to his old house at 20 Northmoor Road, the elaborate rotunda of the Radcliffe Camera, said to be the inspiration for Sauron’s temple to Morgoth on Nümenor, the cosy wood-panelled corner of The Eagle and Child, the pub in which he and C.S. Lewis liked to drink and share ideas; all of these landmarks were revered locations at various times in my childhood and adolescence – shadows of a brilliant imagination that had left this mortal realm. But it was in my nightly fits of wakeful terror that I most keenly felt the influence of Tolkien in my life, haunted by the Ring Wraiths, The Fallen Kings, The Black Riders, The Nazgûl.
My indoctrination into their occult order occurred every Friday afternoon in Mr Hallion’s English class, during which a gaggle of 20 small children would assemble in a hushed circle on the floor. Then, Phillip Birkett — precocious, whip-smart, and the keeper of a gold-foiled display case of Lord of the Rings cassette tapes — would retrieve the precious bounty from his satchel for the session to begin. For 40 minutes until the bell rang to announce the arrival of the weekend, we were fully immersed in the ethereal surroundings of Middle Earth – or at least the 1980 BBC dramatisation of it — striding side-by-side with Frodo and his comrades until his epic deed was done.
In these sacred hours of listening our class of sheltered little school children learned much from the courageous hobbits; about the value of friendship and perseverance, how to be strong in the face of adversity, respect for our elders (if our elders were wizards), that good could win out over evil, and that an underdog could become a hero.
But in spite of all these positive values, listening to Lord of the Rings instilled in me, for the first time in my life, a sense of deep, unsettling fear. For me, it didn’t matter that Sauron was eventually vanquished from Middle Earth – he’d resurrected himself once before, who was to say he wouldn’t do it again? What I took away from Frodo’s adventure was that danger takes many forms and lurks around every corner. At its worst it is silent, faceless and fixated on death.
And so, for the next five years I kept a nightly vigil over the house, eyes wide in the darkness waiting for the Ring Wraiths to appear. That they were simply a work of fiction did nothing to dampen their effect on my psyche. I had never seen them, but the noises they made on Mr Hallion’s cassette player had sharpened an image in my mind’s eye that was more terrifyingly real than anything I’d ever seen for myself. Of course, they never did appear. Then puberty happened, and the whole episode was forgotten for good. The surge of adolescent hormones flushed out my imagination and with it my fear.
Written by James Cartwright