It was the summer of 1966 when I first learned about the power of storytelling first hand. I had been living in Ottawa for a few months having just moved there from Fort Erie with my dad, his new wife Dianna, and her daughter Mary.
I was in grade 13 and didn’t miss much about the life I was leaving, except for one thing. It was a girl named Sandy. She was a very pretty blonde who lived with her rather large family in North Tonawanda.
We were trying to make the long-distance thing work. In fact, (I believe my letter writing to her was the first glimmer of my real passion for writing. And this was my second bus trip down to Buffalo from Ottawa in as many months.)
But the eight-hour trek was getting old, and what I had to do on this trip was not something I was looking forward to. Because it would break my heart and hers. At least for a little while.
I kept telling myself that we all go through stuff like this and live to tell the tale, but I was just fooling myself. Sandy was one of the sweeter girls I had ever met up to then and this was going to be uphill work no matter how I tried to finesse it in my mind.
My Traveling Companion, Frodo Baggins
One of the things that made the long bus ride tolerable came courtesy of JRR Tolkien, whose Lord of The Rings trilogy had been my companion on both of these epics journeys down to Buffalo.3
After switching buses at the Bay Street station in Toronto, I ended up sitting beside a very pretty girl who appeared to be a couple of years younger than my 19.
From Toronto to close to Hamilton, I worked my way through the final chapter of the 3rd book in the trilogy, The Return Of The King, and closed the book with a satisfying thud.
I was blown away by the literary experience I had just completed over the past few months. I’m not a slow reader but found myself savouring these books so much that I would actually ration my reading to prolong the pleasure.
As I was sitting there with the book in my lap, I noticed the young girl next to me staring curiously at the cover.
“What’s The Return of The King?”, she asked me, like we had been chatting for hours.
“It’s the third book of a very famous fantasy trilogy. It was written by an Oxford Professor, during and after World War 2. The trilogy is called The Lord of The Rings.” I replied. Even back then I was into giving too much info.
“What’s it about?” she asked, as I handed her the book to look at.
“Well, it’s about a lot of things. It’s about war. It’s about love. It’s about betrayal and obsession. It’s a huge allegory overall.”
She was baffled by that. But then she was only 16 or 17.
“It’s symbolic. I said. “The writer was writing a fantasy story with a strong message about the world as he saw it back then.”
“So what’s the story about?” she asked.
I chuckled to myself a bit. “Do you really want to know?” And she nodded eagerly.
The Passing of Tales
For the next hour, I did my best to retell the story of Frodo Baggins’ epic journey to the land of Mordor. I tried my best to explain what the elements of the story symbolized to the best of my ability, which wasn’t much but more than I actually realized.
As the bus motored along over the Burlington Skyway, along the long flat stretch to St Catharine’s, over the Welland Canal, past Niagara Falls and on into Fort Erie and the Peace Bridge, I gave the young girl the Cole’s Notes version of the epic tale.
As I approached the end of it and we were pulling into the customs inspection lot in Buffalo, I looked around and realized just how mesmerized I had become in the re-telling of this tale. It had blocked out pretty much everything but the young girl, who seemed completely absorbed.
When I looked up and around I saw people leaning on the seats in front of us. People standing in the seat behind us straining to hear. And several other people perched on the arms of seats in the aisle beside the young girl.
They were all leaning forward, smiling and listening.
I was astonished, to say the least. And it made me laugh because for a precious moment there, I saw myself as an actual character in the Lord of The Rings, re-telling a great tale to my little tribe of bus riders around an imaginary campfire.
Stories Are What Makes The World Go Round
Stories are meant to be told. There is great power in storytelling. The power to enthrall and captivate. The power to communicate ideas. The power to explain things about the world that people might not know. And most importantly the power to connect and get a better sense of how we are all connected to each other.
If asked to recount the whole Lord Of The Rings story nowadays, I may be a little unclear of a lot of the detail. It’s been a while. But I have never forgotten that bus trip.
It was the last one, for me. Because Sandy and I both agreed that it was a long way, made even longer by the fact that she had been accepted at Northwestern in Chicago and would be leaving to find a place to live in a couple of days.
It’s amazing. I was doing something in the upstairs living room yesterday and just happened to glance at one of our glass bookshelves where a hardcover version of the Trilogy sits along with several other Tolkien masterpieces, and the bus ride story just bubbled up from the far reaches of my mind, saying tell me, Jim.
So there it is. A little nostalgia trip for me. A little lesson on the power of storytelling for all of us.
Hope you enjoyed it, as much as I did.