Wednesday July 24, 2013 | 08:24 AM
Posted by Harold Johnson

Whether you live near a coast or not, the idea of “ocean” permeates the world you’ve grown up in. Often in unexpected ways.

My literary hero is JRR Tolkien. He had a true genius for stitching together ancient tales and worldviews into things truly new & unique -- shining new light on old ideas. And he was a master at finding truth in “fairytales.”

He also loved the ocean.

In 1962, years after The Lord of the Rings was published, Tolkien published a collection of poems, “The Adventures of Tom Bombadil.” He was 70. In the collection is “The Sea-Bell,” subtitled “Frodo’s Dreme.” It’s a story of a person who finds the mystical way over the sea to a seeming paradise on earth. But he grows proud, and is rejected. And when he returns home, he finds that he is no longer welcome there either.

It contains the following lines:

“I heard a sea-bell swing in the swell,
dinging, dinging, and the breakers roar
            on the hidden teeth of a perilous reef;
            and at last I came to a long shore.

White it glimmered, and the sea simmered
with star-mirrors in a silver net;
            cliffs of stone, pale as ruel-bone
            in the moon-foam were gleaming wet.

Glittering sand slid through my hand,
dust of pearl and jewel-grist,
            trumpets of opal, roses of coral
            flutes of green and amethyst.”*

JRR Tolkien knew the sea, and The Sea permeates much of his writing, even if often in the background.

Sadly, he also knew another side of the seashore. In 1931, in an age before plastic, he could still write this of the fictional coastal English “Bimble Town”:

“Sometimes late, when motor-bikes
are not passing with a screech,
one hears faintly (if one likes)
the sea still at it on the beach.
At what? At churning orange-rind,
piling up banana-skins,
gnawing paper, trying to grind
a broth of bottles, packets, tins,
before a new day comes with more...”^

One wonders what he could write today.

Who is your favorite author or artist? How does the timeless (or injured) ocean come into their work? How has it moved you?

It’s easy to take the sea for granted. To think of it as a timeless place where generations past have gazed out into vast emptiness that fired their imagination, and generations to come will do the same.

That need for unblemished horizons and shoreless seas runs deep through the fiber of who we are. And by thumbing back through the literature of the ages, we see that it always has.

Now that humdrum relics of modern consumer culture wash up on all shores of the world, we are taking something primeval away from ourselves. And denying those who come after us a chance to share in that mystery.


* JRR Tolkien, “Tales from the Perilous Realm.” Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008, p. 233.

^ JRR Tolkien, “Progress in Bimble Town,” reproduced in JRRT, “The Annotated Hobbit,” annotated by Douglas A. Anderson, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002, p. 254 margin.

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About the Author

Visiting a Maine beach in March 2010, Harold Johnson was shocked by the ocean-borne debris left by recent storms. He grabbed a garbage bag and a camera, and hasn’t looked back.

Since then he has spent most of his free time studying marine pollution, coastal ecosystems, and the mysteries and science of ocean and shore.

Copyeditor and writer by trade, historian and archaeologist at heart, Johnson’s philosophy is simple: Dig below the surface, travel the currents, make the connections, learn. Then share what you learn. He lives in Saco with his wife and young daughter. Follow on Twitter @FlotsamDiaries.

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