“Venice was the only city he’d ever seen that looked the same in real life as it did in pictures. It was consoling that something in this world met expectations.”
~ Lev Grossman, The Magician’s Land
I’m sorry to jump back in time—because I’m certain you really want me to write about that Underoath concert I mentioned in the last post—but I’ve gone far enough without mentioning Lord of the Rings and Venice. Man cannot live on bread alone, but give me a copy of LOTR in the city of Venice and I would give that proverb the biggest run for its money in the history of mankind.
The year is 2001 and Fellowship of the Ring is about to come out in theaters. Mom researched the story and decided I needed to read the books before seeing the films. I devoured The Hobbit and the trilogy incredibly quickly. Three times. If Narnia was a nice side salad for the occasional meal, Middle-Earth was a buffet that I could return to and always be satisfied, but always want more.
My senior thesis in college was about the magic of the “sudden and miraculous grace” of the eucatastrophe as postulated by Lewis and Tolkien. The sudden and miraculous grace of mythology. The sudden and miraculous grace of Christ. A major moment of eucatastrophe took place for me in Venice; which you can read about here.
Around the time I discovered the world of Tolkien, I also discovered the Travel Channel. At this point, I’d been devouring historical fiction around World War 2 and the creation of Israel. I read books set in Prague, Vienna, Jerusalem…but they never clicked that, unlike Narnia, I could actually visit these places.
And then in November of 2000, I did visit Jerusalem. The world changes quite suddenly with your first passport stamp. It’s an addiction for more.
I was addicted to Rollercoaster Tycoon like every good child of the 90s, and the Travel Channel had a ton of theme park and water park shows at the time. I was addicted. And then I got addicted to Samantha Brown’s luxury hotel shows around the world. Somewhere in there, I discovered Venice. It was a city directly out of a fantasy novel that I could actually visit. Before I even knew what a bucket list was, it jumped to number one.
Imagine my surprise when the summer after my first semester abroad in Italy, that Tolkien himself carried this same opinion. I was reading the compiled book of letters that he wrote to his son to research for my thesis and came across this: “It came while I was away, in Gondor (sc. Venice)[.]” He later went on to specify that Venice is what Gondor’s port (where Aragorn overtakes the Black Fleet) would look like, and that Assisi is what Minas Tirith would look like. Having been to Assisi, that was the exact thought I had when arriving at that amazing little town.
I should note that George R.R. Martin designed Braavos on Venice, too.
Venice is a place of pure magic, and a beautiful reminder that man is capable of nearly everything we sit down and work towards. You can understand God’s response to the Tower of Babel a tiny bit more when you’ve been to a city like Venice, out there in the middle of a marsh where no city should be. Lord of the Rings is similar, though: no work of fiction should be that moving. But it is. And it’s important and vital and beautiful and living. Just like Venice.
The moment I referred to as my eucatastrophe in Venice is often brought to my memory by a song lyric by The Dangerous Summer: I took a trip down south and felt the sun on my face and it made things okay for a second. When I hear that lyric, I’m standing in Piazza San Marco for the first time all over again. But that song sums up so much about the time following the Underoath concert I mentioned.
Would you believe in my songs if I gave them all to you?
I can’t find the strength in my voice to call you back
And say that everything is bad without you.
I am lost again, oh God, believe I’m lost again.
My songs would be my writing, and I’m not sure who the you is in this situation. Is it God? It is people who believe in me? Is it myself? Is it some lost love that I never realized was the one? I just know what it feels like to be lost. It’s what I know best, really.
The thing about Venice is, getting lost is the whole damn point. It’s a beautiful, twisted, convoluted journey through one of the great marvels of mankind. There is life, unexpected surprises, stunning vistas, strict passages, and open terraces. No two days in Venice will ever be the same. No two streets follow the same route.
I just wish feeling lost in life felt more like being lost in Venice. It mostly feels like being lost in a room where all the lights are off and you’re tethered to the center, never touching the walls to find the covered windows or doors.
When I’m in Venice, I’m in Gondor, and when I’m in Gondor, I’m in a world where grace intervenes when your strength gives out, and when I’m in that world, I’m also in this world living out the faith of my Savior. Oh, take me back to Venice.