by Cassie Martin
Below is an email I wrote to friends suggesting that Bill Bryon’s book A Walk in the Woods is a modern day version of Tolkien’s The Hobbit:
I recently read Bill Bryson’s ‘A Walk in the Woods’ and it struck me he is a modern day Bilbo Baggins! The name ‘Bilbo’ is even to be found within his name and of course their initials are the same – BB. But it was reading the book which gave me the idea as there are similarities between The Hobbit and A Walk in the Woods. Bill spends a long time packing (unlike Bilbo) for the great adventure of walking the Appalachian Trail which is the longest continuous footpath in the world, and which therefore compares with the long journey Bilbo and the dwarves set out on to the Lonely Mountain. Both parties do a lot of trekking through woods along the way – Bilbo and the dwarves trekked for weeks through the vast forest of Mirkwood. Both were told not to stray from the path and both did. And Bill Bryson even comes across the Desolation of Smaug and the vast, fiery subterranean dragon in his lair at the roots of the Lonely Mountain, in a most ingenious way. Seems to me the author could have been interacting with those energies when he made the journey with his pal Katz.
As many people know, the events in Tolkien’s The Hobbit preceded those of Lord of the Rings. It was Bilbo’s finding of the One Ring – the Master Ring belonging to the Dark Lord Sauron – that set everything in motion and which culminated in the events in Tolkien’s famous trilogy, Lord of the Rings. Bilbo’s discovery of the One Ring could only lead, inexorably, to the need to destroy it and this, in turn, brought into being the Fellowship of the Nine. The instant that occurred, the forces of the Opposites were engaged - Sauron’s slaves, the Nine Black Riders, now had their counterparts on the opposite side and the action could begin.
It means something that Bill Bryson’s book, A Walk in the Woods, came to my attention after the quest to change Tolkien’s story (which we wrote about in Ring Quest). It is telling us that this modern version of The Hobbit that emerges from the pages of Bill Bryson’s book, is going to be different from the original version, and it will be relevant to us, now. In other words, an altered Future will also impact the Past!
You ask what changes were made during the quest. Put simply, the One Ring was cleansed many times of its negative energies in the living elements of fire, air, earth and water, and then used to bring balance and harmony to the world, so as to restore the balance between the Light and the Dark in our world were duality still exists. Secondly, at the etheric dimension, the energies of the polar opposites – good and bad – were merged. This meant, at that dimension where the story is trapped in time, the War of the Ring no longer takes place. The energy off which conflict feeds is now absent.
Not long after the quest was achieved we began to notice that the Dark side was being forced into the open, into the light where it does not like to be. It seems that the changes above were influencing our reality. No longer was the Dark able to lurk hidden in the shadows. A little later it became evident that the Dark and the Light were shaping up prior to the merging of the energies of those leaders of the opposing sides – the King of the West, Aragorn and the Dark Lord Sauron. At the etheric level they became one being, divided no longer.
As soon as this realisation dawned that Ring Quest was going to influence the modern version of The Hobbit things began to fall into place. What does Gollum represent in our time? He is none other than our very own Shadow Self whom we cannot do without, as indeed we are shown in The Lord of the Rings. Without Gollum’s help the hobbits would never have made it to Mount Doom, the fiery volcano at the heart of Sauron’s domain where the Ring had to be destroyed.
Robyn Hey, we have forgotten Gandalf. How could we have forgotten Gandalf?
Robin I suppose that’s because he is not there!
Robyn What do you mean ‘not there’?
Robin Well, can you find him anywhere in Bill Bryson’s quest?
Robyn Ah, I see, we are coming at last to where the story diverges from the original. I’ve got it! There are no real dangers on Bill and Katz’s journey, such as the trolls, goblins and wolves, so they don’t need Gandalf to get them out of a tight corner.
Robin Thought the same at first but then remembered that, in fact, there are many dangers on the Appalachian Trail, such as the many possible diseases you can contract, the dangerous animals such as bears, not to mention murderous hillbillies in north Georgia. Bill Bryson soberly lists them and then proceeds to give us gruesome anecdotes of bears chewing on people. The dangers are still there all right but the focus has changed. In The Hobbit – as well as Lord of the Rings, the battle between good and evil is experienced in a physical way, culminating in an actual battle between those two forces. The Dark is vanquished but not destroyed – because it can never be destroyed in our world of duality. It is only banished to the shadows where it nurses its so-called grievances and hatred for the Light, biding its time until the next opportunity to wage war. And so it has gone on, again and again.
Robyn So what you are saying is that this time around the battleground is the one within ourselves as well as our relations with each other and this time, there is resolution between the opposites.
Robin Come to think of it, Gollum used to have debates with his true self, Smeagol, and we would see the argument go back and forth between the two parts of himself. Samwise spotted it and gave them names. We are like that too, aren’t we? We all have a shadow self which seems to voice its opinion and cause us to divide ourselves?
Robyn So true. Gollum represents our shadow self. In Bilbo’s time, there was nothing for it but to wage war against the shadow or else be overrun. Bilbo has a direct encounter with the shadow when he finds his way into the very darkest, deepest depths of the earth at the root of the mountain, which represents our subconscious. There, he inadvertently makes an enemy of the shadow in the form of Gollum. Remember how Gollum calls out in hatred and despair when he discovers that Bilbo has his precious ring, that he hates the Baggins forever? The fight was external then: now it is internal and, guess what, Bill Bryson and Katz achieve the quest!
Robin They do, don’t they! They make friends with their shadow selves.
Robyn The new purpose of their adventure new quest is evident right at the beginning of the book when Bill is preparing for the journey. He has all but given up hope of finding a travelling companion when, out of the blue, he receives a phone call from his old travelling companion, Katz. Bill is thrilled and relieved because he ‘wasn’t going to have to walk alone’. Delightedly, he informs his wife that Katz wishes to join him on the Trail and there follows that amusing exchange between him and his wife remember?:
Bill’s wife: “You have nothing in common.”
Bill: “We have everything in common”
Robin And the paradox is that both statements are true! Bill gives us a dispassionate resumé of Katz’s life to date. This reveals someone who has spent much of his life exploring his shadow side by embracing alcohol, drugs and a few other of the deadly sins until he winds up for a short spell in prison. There, he is reformed and, on his release: ‘To everyone’s surprise, not least his own, he had not touched alcohol or an illegal substance since.’
Robyn And in complete contrast, Bill has had a solid spell of employment as a business journalist, followed by success as a traveller writer. And he is a happily married family man with four children.
Robin What they do have in common is they are both aged 44, are unfit and overweight and, of course, want to hike the Appalachian Trail.
Robyn So, I can see the challenge right away is to get along with each other. Do you remember Bill’s wife pointing out how the two of them ended up getting on each other’s nerves by the end of their European tour together?
Robin And we can see what very different people they are in that incident at the Amicolola Lodge when they are about to set off hiking for the first time. Do you remember that it was exceptionally cold, even for the beginning of March and when Katz feels the icy blast of air he asks Bill if they can stay another night in the lodge? Bill is completely taken aback and appalled by the notion and insists they have to do it, and they do set off.
Robyn Yes. It highlights straightaway what different people they are – opposites in fact.
Robin And Katz never did understand the joy of hiking whereas Bill loved it. Katz relished the pleasures of being in town again and stocked up on cream sodas in anticipation of watching his favourite TV programme, the X factor, whereas Bill was bored stiff and dying to get back on the Trail.
Robyn Even their walking pace is different with Katz walking much more slowly than Bill so that Bill periodically sits on a fallen tree trunk and waits for his buddy to come in to view before setting off again.
Robin Katz would always fall asleep instantly he got into his sleeping bag.
Robyn While Bill would read his book in his tent before turning in.
Robin Yet despite all these difference a true friendship begins to develop on the journey. The shared experiences of the journey help that.
Robyn It is not always the case. Think of all those stories of expeditions of the past where the members were constantly falling out with each other.
Robin I suppose that is the test: to learn tolerance and self-discipline, become less egocentric so that you can co-operate and work together as a team. The first hint of their friendship is quite touching, don’t you think? Sometimes Katz would take a particularly long time catching up and Bill would leave his pack and go looking for him. He says this ‘always pleased’ Katz. Or Katz would eventually reach Bill ‘proudly’ bearing his stick which he had left propped against a tree.
Robyn As Bill puts it, ‘We seemed to be looking out for each other. It was very nice. I can put it no other way.’
Robin And as the friendship develops, they become more tolerant of each other’s faults and even find them endearing.
The bears in the night episode
Katz getting in to his bunk bed
Katz and women
Bill and his sharp tongue
Bill even comments how his dreaminess really irritates and perplexes Katz and promises himself to try and be more alert .
Robyn And what is so touching is that each helps the other in that very difficult battle. I mean, it is painful to even admit one’s weaknesses and past failings. Then you have to look them squarely in the face and accept them and, finally, you have to forgive and love yourself. Many of those self-help books say it is the most difficult and bravest thing we can do.
(ANOTHER GAP HERE)
Robyn Of course there is another level of meaning.
Robin You mean the symbolic one?
Robyn Yes. Gollum is Bilbo’s shadow self, symbolically speaking – and Katz is Bill’s shadow self. We are even shown that Katz symbolises Bill’s shadow. On the morning after their first night camping Katz crouches down besides Bill’s tent, ‘his form a dark shadow on the fabric’ to inform him that coffee is on the boil. This time around, instead of rejecting his shadow and burying it deep in his subconscious mind – remember how Bilbo leaves Gollum behind in the depths of the mountain – he has found the courage to bring it into the open.
No, let me change that. It’s as if there is something new in the air: Bill wants the companionship of his shadow self, after all, as he tells his wife, ‘they have everything in common’.
Robyn Well ain’t that the truth! Do you remember how hesitant Bill’s shadow was in asking his light self if he might be allowed to come out from the shadows and join Bill on the trail, half expecting the usual rejection? I mean, most of us have spent a lifetime refusing to look into the dark depths of our subconscious minds. But this time around, Bill is thrilled. If cleansed of all negativity, who could be a better companion than your own shadow self who understands and knows you so well!
Robin He is about to begin a journey where he has chosen, courageously if I might say so, to face all those parts of himself that he does not like.
Robyn And there is another way we can identify that Katz symbolises Bill’s shadow. He has to do what Bill wants because, of course, he is a part of him and it is our conscious self who is in charge in the outer world. When Bill insists they return to the Trail, it is against Katz’s wishes but he has to go along with it.
Robin Mind you, the problem is that our subconscious self so often undermines our efforts in the outer world.
Robin Hang on a minute, we are running ahead of ourselves. Something very important happened the day before – on that very first day of the hike. Nor have we said what the purpose of the quest is at the symbolic level.
Robyn It is to make friends with our shadow self. After all, the lodge they stay in close to the start of the Trail is called ‘Amicolola Lodge’ and ‘ami’ in French means ‘friend’.
Robin So, going back to the first day of hiking, Bill’s shadow is having difficulty keeping up with his light self. By definition, being the shadow means that it carries all the junk from our past, all our fears, self doubt and all those embarrassing memories that we have buried out of sight in our subconscious.
Robyn No wonder Bill’s shadow is having difficulty keeping up! That is a lot of baggage.
Robin Meanwhile, Bill reaches the summit of Springer Mountain where the real trail begins. He puts down his pack and wearily sits against a tree to await Katz – who fails to show up. Eventually, leaving his pack behind, Bill sets off in search of his shadow and has to retrace a lot of ground, which he does with commendable patience.
Robyn It is a perilous moment for the self’s journey. Bill could so easily have given up on the effort to integrate his shadow self and left it in the dark to brood over its wrongs. Instead, he retrieves it and finds it in a wild state, almost ‘cataleptic’ with rage. Clearly, his shadow thought it had been rejected and abandoned once again as we usually do. But this time around, Bill’s shadow does something quite new. He decides he is fed up with being the shadow, so fed up in fact, that he has jettisoned much of the heavy dross he has been carrying for a very long time – most but not all.
Robin And the white coffee filters that he discarded and which fluttered prettily in the air like butterflies, gave Bill’s shadow great pleasure as they symbolise freedom from his burden – and transformation.
Robyn On finding his shadow, Bill soothes his angry self, reassuring him that it is not much further to go to the campsite. He then does something momentous: he picks up his shadow’s burden, noting that it is not as heavy as before and, in doing so, he becomes the shadow self and in that moment his shadow becomes the light self because he no longer has any baggage to carry.
Robin You mean they swap places?
Robyn Precisely. Take what happens the following morning for instance. For the present at least, Bill’s shadow is free from the dross residing in Bill’s subconscious memory and he is transformed.
Firstly, he rises before Bill does, no longer slothful, and busies himself with boiling the water for coffee. Next he informs Bill that coffee is on its way. When Bill emerges from his tent he solicitously asks Bill how he is feeling after the rigours of their first day’s hike. No grumpiness, no swearing, just quiet industry and thoughtfulness for someone other than himself. And then guess what?
Robyn He promises Bill he is going to be good that day! He actually says ‘I’m going to be good today.’
Robin No kidding. I get it, because in the meantime Bill is behaving like his shadow self, isn’t he? There he is in his tent all warm and cosy and he reveals that he has no inclination to leave the warmth and ‘put myself through the foolishness of climbing hills’, so he just lies there, indolently, while his shadow is up and about behaving like Bill would normally. Now, considering how much Bill loves hiking that is quite an astonishing thing for him to say.
Robyn It is like someone is waving a flag to alert us to the fact that the ‘light’ and ‘dark’ have swapped places.
Robin And there is more! Bill’s Shadow apologises for the lack of sugar to put on their oatmeal and, low and behold, we learn there is no oatmeal because Bill left it behind at home.
Robyn So his light self is no saint then.
Robin No. And I remember his shadow took it really well, even though he remarks that he really likes oatmeal. Next, his shadow receives a further shock from Bill – in just the way he shocked Bill the previous day when he sought to delay setting out on the trail and Bill was genuinely appalled. It now transpires Bill did not pack the ultra sickly Little Debbie cakes because he doesn’t like them. This is a real blow to Katz who loves cakes. Now it is Bill’s turn to appear apologetic.
Robin So to recap, on the previous day Bill’s shadow walks the remaining part of the journey to the first campsite as light as air, whilst his light self is weighed down by his shadow’s burden. The old boundaries between the opposites have become blurred it seems. Do you know, it’s as if the ‘light’ and the ‘shadow’ parts of ourselves have lost their meaning. And with that established, it is of no further relevance whether one or other of them is good or bad on the quest.
Robyn It makes things a lot easier. No need for all that soul searching stuff with all the tears and pain and self-flagellation.
Robin Yes. One minute it is Bill who is behaving badly and the next it is Katz, but each is tolerant of the other’s faults or weaknesses and each accepts the other the way they are. It is this attitude perhaps that takes the sting out of the old meanings of ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Our tendency to judge others, as well as ourselves, perpetuates division.
Robyn Do you remember Katz gently chiding Bill for being rude to the taxi driver over the phone when they want to get a lift to another section of the trail? When Bill puts the phone down his erstwhile shadow remarks judiciously, ‘Maybe not my place to say, but I’m not sure that’s the best way to ensure prompt and cheerful service.’
Robin Then Katz’s womanising ways get him into hot water in the small town of Waynesboro. They are taking a break from the trail so they can have a wash, do the laundry etc. In the laundromat, while Bill is on the hunt for insect repellent, Katz finds a girl friend and arranges to have dinner with her that evening. However, it transpires the lady in question has a husband, who shows up instead. Katz departs in haste, finds Bill in the restaurant, who remonstrates with him in exactly the same tolerant manner. Bill leaves the restaurant first, to ensure the coast is clear so Katz can make a dash for their motel, all the while terrified of being spotted by the angry husband who is driving around the dark empty streets searching for him.
Robyn Do you realise something? All the action has been achieved before they even set foot on the Appalachian Trail.
Robyn What is that telling us?
Robin That at this level of meaning the physical action is no longer necessary. The quest to unite with our shadow self can be done in an instant with just the desire and the will to do so.
Robyn So the long trek with our burdens of self-loathing and misery which we carry through a life time of trials – as symbolised by slogging up hill and down-dale, wading through deep water, being rained and snowed upon, and shivering with cold, none of that is necessary any longer.
Robin Because Bill’s different selves have become the one true self, no longer divided.
Robyn Time and the journey become meaningless after that because the objective has been achieved.
Robin Thereafter the hike is only relevant where it demonstrates the oneness of the self – the perfect balance and harmony.
Robyn Yes, Bill and Katz act like one person when they reach the first rest spot along the way – the Walasi Yi Inn. It describes how after their diet of raisins and noodles for five days, they both stared in wonder at the chilled cabinet filled with fresh sandwiches and soft drinks and how they both bought the same food – egg salad sandwiches, crisps, chocolate bars and soft drinks.
Robin And how they sit outside at a picnic table where they both ‘ate with greedy smackings and expressions of rapture, then returned to the chill cabinet to stare in wonder some more.’
Robyn Another thing. The trail itself is a great leveller.
Robin Like all quests.
Robyn There is also a spiritual way of looking at The Fellowship’s journey in the Lord of the Rings. It is the quest to temper and strengthen the self through trials and tribulations so that we can come home to the true self. Gollum symbolises our shadow self and also all those different selves we present to different people, but also our intuitive, knowing self, from which we have become disconnected. He had very keen senses and sensed danger much more keenly than the dull hobbits! The Quest for the self culminates in the purifying and merging of the many selves in the alchemical fire of Mount Doom. The ring of reincarnation and endless recyclings melts away and we are FREE.
Robin Bill’s companion, Stephen Katz, shows all the signs of being Bill Bryson’s shadow self, but lovingly presented, so we find his shortcomings endearing! Anyone less fit and prepared for walking the Appalachian Trail would be hard to find. His idea of being fit – remember he tells Bill that he is obliged to walk everywhere these days as his car was impounded – falls far short of what is required. He is wheezing after only the short walk from the plane to where Bill and his wife are waiting for him. In addition, he is overweight because he has to eat sugary foods frequently because of taking some contaminated drugs in the past. In short, it appears that Katz is going to be a dead weight on Bill. But here’s the thing; Bill does not mind. He is simply grateful for Katz’s companionship, for his Shadow’s company.
Robyn But what of Mary Ellen as Gollum – as she so evidently is?
Robin We are looking at events from a completely new angle now. This is a Gollum who has been liberated from the all-consuming desire for the Ring, a Gollum who is at the start of the journey to find oneself or one’s elf. But she has to give up early as she has gone about it the wrong way. She is the shadow in search of the light because opposites attract. Instead of looking for her own unique light within, she is taking it off others, hence her wish to stick to Bill and Katz. The initials of her name say it all – ME. She is selfish and greedy. Remember how she grabbed and gobbled up Bill and Katz’s last Hostess Cake in two bites without even asking if it was going free?
Robyn (Thoughtfully) You know, Mary Ellen is also our negative shadow ‘ME’, the one that whispers in our ear that we are not good enough, that we are lazy, too fat, too thin, that we made a mistake doing ‘that’ when we ought to have done ‘this’. Remember Mary Ellen’s ceaseless stream of criticism of Katz and Bill, how she tells Bill that he bought the wrong tent? She even tells Katz to his face that his problem is that he is too fat!
Robin So true – and how we chastise ourselves. You know, I have just realised something.
Robin If you take a reflection of the word ‘ME’, say, by placing a mirror along the top of that word, it comes out as ‘WE’.
Robyn So it does!
Robin So ‘WE’ is the mirror image of ‘ME’. Makes sense doesn’t it, like Alice Through the Looking Glass.
Robyn Sure does.
P.S. By the way Gandalf does appear in the story!
© Cassie Martin 2013
Thanks to Robert for the idea of writing a short tale and which has led to many exciting discoveries about Bill Bryson’s book. And thanks also to Jean for the book title and for the names of the two characters in conversation with each other.