I have been trying for months now to write a small memoir to honor my grandfather, Bob Farlow who passed away in 2008. It’s difficult to summarize or honor the life of a man who has done so much. He was a true Renaissance man, an artist, a preacher, a teacher, a principal, an entrepreneur, a sculptor, a musician, a soldier, a father, a grandfather, and so much more. Knowing where to start has always been the difficulty. I could start with his accomplishments in the art community or with his adventures and achievements. But for me, so many of the stories and so much of what I remember of him all started with one book in particular. Fortunately, recounting this will allow me to honor and thank a few others as well.
The story that started it was the Hobbit. My grandfather supervised my reading as soon as I started, and he always pushed me to read complex books in addition to children’s tales. I often balked at the heavier classics, despite loving to read. I abhorred the Odyssey, and I was probably too young for it. For some reason, I found it harder to read than the various books with Norse mythology or maybe Grandpa just knew it better and was able to make harder quizzes. But he promised that if I finished it, he would let me read a book he was quite certain I would love. We often made bargains like that, and we always kept our word. So I finished the Odyssey on a cold autumn day, and he let me borrow an already well worn copy of the Hobbit.
The Hobbit was the first true fantasy novel I ever read, and it awoke a deep desire within me to write fantasy. A desire that has burned for years now, never fading and always strengthening. The Hobbit was the first time I ever engaged so deeply with a book that I wept over the characters. Even now I am not entirely certain what it was that pulled me in and made me so invested. All I know is that I felt and I loved. Bilbo and Thorin were the first lessons I understood relating to conflicted characters who were not entirely good in all respects. And Gandalf was the first wizard I really remembered. I had been writing my own stories for a couple years by that point, but the Hobbit somehow made it all come alive to me and made me want to be a writer all the more.
Given that connection alone, even after more than twenty years, I had a deep love for the story, and I thoroughly enjoyed the movies. Watching The Battle of the Five Armies, despite all the ways it differed from the book, was such a rich experience. I have had a marvelous time, enjoying the film, hosting a party, cooking themed food, and even preparing costumes. It has been the best of experiences which bring both joy and grief at once. The happiness so much the richer for the tears that are shed and the ache of loss that comes with the realization that all that is left are the memories of what once was and the hope of what exists beyond Heaven’s gates.
The film made me realize that I have never wanted to say good bye to my grandfather. I miss him so much even now. At times, I catch myself wondering what he would say, wanting to talk to him, missing his voice. The workshop still has his last painting on the easel. Half carved statues packed away. Balsa wood shavings on the floor. The carving tools in neat rows and the paintbrushes in glass bottles. A dozen projects in various stages scattered around the studio. It always smelled of linseed oil, oil paints, Bavarian wax, and shaved Balsa wood. I can still see it all so clearly. It’s been years since I’ve walked into that studio, but the memory is as crisp in my mind as a new book fresh from Amazon.
Of course, I always think of Grandpa around Christmas. He and my grandmother ran a small business known as Briercroft. He carved and sold various sculptures, the most popular being the Giftgivers. From St. Nicholas to Sinterklaas, he carved, molded, and painted the gift givers from around the world for many years until they closed the business a few years before his death. This Christmas is even heavier for me, and I apologize because this is rather convoluted.
You see, after I read the Hobbit for the first time as a little girl, I decided I wanted to write my own fantasy. My desire only grew when I read Lord of the Rings. But my grandfather and father always encouraged me to avoid mimicking Tolkien. As brilliant as he was, there will never be another J.R.R. Tolkien. What they told me to do was find my own story to tell, create my own races, develop my own world, and honor Tolkien through learning the craft as best I could. And I took that very, very seriously. For me, that story became the Tue-Rah series, but the first book is the one that absorbed the majority of my attention: Tue-Rah Identity Revealed.
I have been working on it for over twenty years now. My grandfather never worked on just one project. He always had at least half a dozen or more. One day I walked in on him, and he had started plans for a hand crafted sailboat (which he completed and sailed, I might add). He never stopped working, never stopped dreaming, never stopped thinking. But he always had at least one project he focused on. So I followed his example. While I had many stories and many projects, Tue-Rah was my primary focus and will remain so until the entire series is completed. Grandpa always teased me because I never thought the first book was really finished. I kept tweaking it, changing a plot point here, developing a character there, and then overhauling it. The whys and the hows had to be analyzed and satisfied. And I wanted so much for it to be perfect. He wanted me to finish it. He always told me that I would never think it was perfect or even good enough. I said I just wanted to be satisfied with it. In fairness, I was only a very little girl when I wrote the first draft. And so I learned about world building, character development, pacing, and everything else through those pages. As I neared my high school graduation though, Grandpa started encouraging me to consider it finished and leave the first book. “You’ll have plenty of time to tweak with the final edits, and you have the rest of the books to finish.”
I refused to listen. It still didn’t feel quite right. Yet somehow the conversation shifted back to the Hobbit, and Grandpa shocked me when he revealed that the only Tolkien works he had read were Gawain and the Green Knight and Tolkien’s pieces on Beowulf.
Given how much the books had impacted me, I wanted to share that with him. It meant…so much. I really don’t know why. We had spoken of it many times, and I had told him all about it. It had never impeded our discussion. Still, I offered to read to him while he carved or painted or sculpted. I had done that for my younger brothers just a few years before. He smiled at that, and we struck another bargain. He told me I could read the Hobbit to him when I finished the final draft of Tue-Rah Identity Revealed before it went in to editors. If he liked the Hobbit, I could read the Lord of the Rings. I agreed. I even joked with him that if I didn’t get it done before they made a Hobbit movie, he’d have to go with me to see it. And while I did not procrastinate, I thought we had all the time in the world.
As it turned out, we only had three years. Grandpa went to the doctor for a routine checkup after he spent the previous day chopping wood with an old axe. And then the news came. He had to have emergency open heart surgery. He was going to be on bedrest for weeks, and he was already fussing about that. He didn’t want any of us grandkids coming to see him in the hospital. So I wrote him a letter to encourage him before or after the surgery, whenever Grandma gave it to him. I told him I was going to read him those books, starting with the Hobbit. I didn’t care that I hadn’t finished Tue-Rah Identity Revealed, and since he would be trapped on the old creaky couch, I knew he’d be glad for the company. I was just putting the books together in an oversized black bag that I used for a purse. And that’s when the phone rang. He was gone. In the space of a second, my grandfather ceased to exist in this world.
It was so hard to comprehend. That all that was left was the memory of those calloused hands and twinkling eyes. That there would never be another debate over what constituted literature or whether a particular color was burgundy or crimson or which translation of Philippians was the most accurate. That there would be many Thanksgivings and Christmases, birthdays and celebrations he would never see.
I still remember his body in that casket. So lifeless. All that had once been there. Gone. The twinkle in his eyes. The fidgety energy that never faded. To see someone who was so vital and strong placed in a box and arranged like a doll with too much makeup and no smile…it was wrong. It was so wrong. That spark of the divine, the incredible spirit that had made him so much…it was gone, leaving only a silent shell behind. I could barely breathe when I looked at him; I wanted so much for it to be no more than a horrible mistake, some nightmare I could push away. But it was not so.
At the funeral, the pastor asked me at the last minute whether I wanted to write a poem and read it at the funeral. He didn’t mean any harm; I think he just forgot to talk to me sooner. When I said I didn’t have anything prepared, he insisted I could speak off the cuff and share my heart. But I refused to trot out my grief and paste random words on it. The loss cut through my soul, eating it like turpentine eats through paint. And to just come up with something in less than fifteen minutes the way I might to honor a speaker who arrived unannounced at a club meeting felt blasphemous. It wasn’t just reading a Scripture verse Grandpa had loved or playing a song he adored. It was about reaching into my soul, digging through the morass, and finding some fitting way to honor and remember him. And that could not be done in such a short span. Any poem or snippet I wrote would be clumsy and forced.
So when it came time, I sat in silence, my hands in my lap. I did not know what to say.
We buried him in another church graveyard down in Shelbyville some hours away. I still had a copy of the Hobbit in my purse along with my notebooks with scene drafts for the Tue-Rah series and some other stories. I tried writing on that car ride, but my writing reflected the state of my mind. Distant and jumbled. So I read instead. I don’t remember which section. I think it was when the dwarves arrived or perhaps when they met Beorn.
I still have that same copy of the Hobbit. Grandma gave it to me along with a number of other beloved books. It is so fragile now I can barely turn the pages without tearing them. The binding has all but fallen away, and masking tape secures it at key points. I pressed the rose petals from my grandfather’s burial in those pages. An accident destroyed the rose petals, but the book survived. It’s in the bookshelf next to my desk.
Finishing Tue-Rah Identity Revealed and sending it to an editor just before the Battle of the Five Armies came out was bittersweet. Grandpa would have teased me for taking so long, but he would have been pleased, I think. I hope. He would probably tease me all the more if I told him that I still think it needs tweaking and editing, but at least I now feel satisfied that it is the whole of the first book. I have shed so many tears. Watching the movie only intensified my feelings. While it was not perfect and quite different from the book, the movie was a fitting end for my favorite fantasy novel of all time, the story I wanted my grandfather to hear, and a tearful farewell to Middle Earth, one of the few fictional worlds where I gladly escape time and time again. But it was like coming to the end of a journey and realizing that one of the people I thought for certain would be there isn’t there at all.
There was so much good in this movie. I noticed even more when I watched it a second time. Peter Jackson did an incredible job making the world come to life yet again, and I will always be so grateful that he gave me the chance to return to Middle Earth and see that world in film yet again. The actors were phenomenal. The funny thing though was that when I first heard about the movie’s production, I couldn’t really imagine the chosen actors in the roles. I was familiar with some of them from other pieces, and they were talented. But they did not match the characters in my mind. Yet after I watched An Unexpected Journey, I realized they were the perfect choice. It was quite incredible to see beloved characters from a story I treasured come to life in a way so unlike what I expected and yet so perfect that I cannot imagine anyone else. Even though I knew the story well, I leaned on the edge of my seat. I have never wanted a story to deviate from its conclusion so much as I did there. The characters made me feel as strongly as I did the first time I read the book, and I wanted so much for them to live happily ever after. There was no more chance of that though than of my grandfather surviving the final stroke.
To say that it was sad is an understatement, but the most perfect thing of all was the ending. Billy Boyd’s song, “The Last Goodbye” was heart wrenching and beautiful at once. Listening to that play while watching the penciled illustrations appear and fade on the big screen was hauntingly appropriate. The artistic style reminded me of my grandfather’s. Soft pencil strokes across parchment paper, filled with expression and movement with lead that could so easily be smudged by a wayward brush of the hand. I stayed until the end, wrapped in a soft red pashmina, listening to each word and note until they faded away.
The song is true in many respects. I know I cannot remain forever in one place. I know that I must away. There is so much more to be done. I will never stop missing my grandfather. I will never stop loving him. He was a good and godly man who seized life in every breath he drew. If he were here now,…
In many respects, it was the end a long time ago. But this is not my last goodbye. Not to Middle Earth. Not to my grandfather. But it is time to say farewell. For now.
So to all those who were involved with the making of the Hobbit films as well as the Lord of the Rings, from the grips to the lighting experts to the cooks to the directors to the actors and everyone else, thank you. You brought the story to life in a beautiful way that I will always remember. You put faces on characters I have loved for years and made the world seem as real as I always hoped it would be. I cannot read it now without seeing your interpretation, and I am grateful it is one I can love just as much as the books.
To Tolkien, thank you for creating the stories in the first place. I will always treasure them, and they will always be part of my library and my heart. I cannot imagine fantasy without your stories. You brought me such joy and comfort so many times.
And to Grandpa…I finally know what I want to say…. Grandpa, I love you, and I will never ever forget you. I wish so much that it had been different and that you were still here. There are so many things I wanted to share with you. So many times when I wish with all my heart that you were here. That when I come home you would be there. That I could have shown you that I really did finish Tue-Rah Identity Revealed. And so I could just tell you one more time how much I love you, how much you mean to me, and how you inspire me even to this day. I will see you again, and I am so blessed to have known you. But I still miss you, and there will always be tears when I try to say goodbye.