On the road with Hyrum Thane

This is an account of books and friends, red rock and lichen-clad graves, science and serendipity. I am writing while listening to Neil Young’s The Old Homestead on the record player. I suggest you read it to the same.

Out on the floor
where the cowboys dance,
approaching slowly at a glance.
Here comes the shadow of his stance:
The reins are fallin’
from his hands.

I was born in the Shire, where there are no cowboys, only hobbits. Before Peter Jackson canonised New Zealand as Middle Earth, Tolkien imagined his boyhood Worcestershire, my home. The industrial ruin of Sarehole Mill by Saruman, the Misty Mountains of the Welsh Marches, the thatch and brick of domestic life — all part of my tory roots . . . and Tolkien’s. After years away, I am back here with my family, our home now made in Gladstone Cottage, built c. 1880. Incidentally, this is also the land of Narnian gas lamps, Brideshead Revisited, and Elgar’s music, but let us not be greedy.

Our own Bag End

Bilbo would likely have remained in the Shire had the Mormon wizards not pestered his parents in 1963. Pestered and baptised, my parents’ religious loyalties shifted to the Latter-day Saints, taking an as yet unborn me with them. Thus new horizons: a mission call to Austria; an interest in ancient writ leading to journeyings in the Middle East and study in America; and Utah, strange, beautiful, un-Shire-ly Utah.

But before we head west, let us pause at Great Malvern Priory, the ancient centre of Christian worship around these parts. Mormonism does not entirely explain me, you see. There were the Anglican schools, the Lord’s prayer, and the annual St. George’s parades to the Priory. As a boy I sat in the misericords under stained glass and realised that there was more than one religious aesthetic and I liked this one as much as the other one. It was different but good. Now my wife sings Evensong in the Priory choir and I am responsible for religious education at the nearby cathedral school.

Great Malvern Priory

Utah. My research occasionally brings me to BYU, that shining campus on the hill. There are many friends in these mountains — ones for commensal rituals at SLAB, others to score great tickets to the Jazz, a few more with whom to discuss ancient law and Mormon Studies in Europe. Since my last trip to Utah, one friend — Professor Steven L. Peck, hereafter “the Professor” — published his wonderful The Scholar of Moab. And so I pestered him, like those missionaries in the 60s pestered my mum and dad, to do something for me. Not quite to join a new religion, although freshly arrived from a lecture on the cult of Mithras, it did cross my mind. Rather, to take me to Moab to walk in the footsteps of Hyrum Thane, the scholar of Moab himself.

Castle Valley, Moab

Last year I described Canyonlands as “an alien world, a strange wilderness of rock” and looked forward to my return to this place of Gadianton Robbery and alien abduction. Now I had a guide to show me where Hyrum walked, worshiped, plotted, lied, and [spoiler] in this Martian place. I often show friends around my homeland, especially Mormons visiting the Wilford Woodruff missionary sites. I had read about and imagined Hyrum Thane’s world, but just like for those Yankees who come to make pilgrimage where their ancestors first dreamed of an American Zion, all journeys are better when accompanied by a guru. The Professor was to be my Moabite guru, a latter-day King Eglon. The pictures that follow will only make sense to those who have read the book. Perhaps it will inspire some of you to go out and buy it.

Buy me!

Scoping the library

Moab's Mormon chapel

Indian Ladder

Alien glyphs

Dora appears!

Thane trailer

On the way to Endless Cave

Looking for UFOs, babies, and conjoined cowboys

The Professor in his habitat

Red Rock

This last picture takes us home, to Malvern in the Shire and the church mentioned above. As we hiked through Negro Bill Canyon, the Professor and I talked about his career as an evolutionary biologist and the challenges of advocating in favour of Darwinism in a religiously conservative community. I suppose that human evolution through natural selection can easily be dismissed from the comfort of the church pew but walking through Moab’s canyons it is easier to accept the age of the earth and the unfathomable stretches of time that have eroded vast tonnages of rock and allowed the tree of life to grow and evolve and grow and grow. And so we spoke of Charles Darwin and I remembered that I live but a mile from his daughter’s grave, dear Anne Elizabeth Darwin who was buried in the Priory graveyard by her parents in 1851. There is the real challenge to faith, not in the primordial soup but in the loss of loved ones like Annie. Thank God, then, for the Prophet’s attempted conquest of death and the hope made alive in Christ at Easter.

And so a rock from Moab now lies on Annie’s grave, a rock from a stream we named Annie Darwin Creek because we are romantics and life is full of beautiful things like rocks, and streams, and Annies.  Wonderful books, good friends, and pestering missionaries too. Malvern and Moab are not an obvious pair but the branches of the tree entwine and entangle in marvelous ways. Thanks Steve, thanks BYU, and thanks Rebecca for giving me the space to grow.

Annie's Grave, now with Moabite rockage


  1. it's a series of tubes says:

    Thanks for this. Many a year ago, gazing out over the countryside from Kinver Edge, it was a pleasure to see the Shire.

  2. KerBearRN says:

    Beautiful. Thank you.
    (although I have Dire Straits “Brothers in Arms” in my head while reading this).

  3. Wonderful.

  4. BYU Biology, Tolkien, Europe and Moab–some of my favorite things. Very nice.

  5. Tremendous, Ronan. You’ve captured a slice (several slices, actually) of the real world here, both seen and unseen. You make me want to read Steven’s book, which up until this moment I’ve assumed wouldn’t be my cup of tea. But perhaps I was wrong.

  6. Cheers, RJH.

  7. Such great stuff, Ronan.

  8. Kris Wright says:

    Love this.

  9. This was beautiful. Thanks.

  10. How strange to have so many of my life threads come together on this trip. There we were, Ronan, a friend from the Shire (which holds my deepest literary roots–Tolkien, Lewis, and from nearby, Eliot, Doyle and Dickens) and me the Moabite, exploring the mountains, canyons, and waters where my soul was foraged. Does it get any more magical? Hyrum would have killed to hear our conversation that ranged over ants, Darwin, Mithras cults, and Mormonism in its finest senses. And even over other topics so otherworldly that we are lucky to have kept what wits we have left.

    This post captures the mood of the trip perfectly. Thanks Ronan. We must do this again. Seeing the rock which you chose from the floor of an ancient canyon, and washed in the waters of the rechristened Annie Darwin Creek actually labeled and placed upon her grave marker deserves a poem. But only one out of Middle Earth will do it justice. Or perhaps one written at a pub called The Eagle and Child. My turn to visit that world next.

  11. Beautiful beautiful beautiful. It doesn’t hurt that I adore you both already…

  12. Thank you, Ronan – and Steve.

  13. Ben Pratt says:

    Okay, that was delightful. Thanks, you two!

  14. I really enjoyed this, Ronan — and being on the receiving end of this kind of experience from you in the Shire and Misty Mountains. Thanks for posting this.

  15. Ronan, thanks for the poetry. I had a similar experience – landing in SE Utah as a missionary. Carrying with me an Eastern pride and finding a geologically ancient and mysterious world. The people also, turned out to be swell, if very different.

  16. A picture-post (card) that evokes a lot of thoughts and feelings, as does the side-splitting satire of the novel. You two live thoroughly Dickensian lives.

  17. kfolkman says:

    One of the hardest things about moving from Northern Utah some 19 years ago was giving up a fairly close proximity to Moab, Canyonlands, and all that magic red rock country. Seattle reminds me more and more of the Shire after Saruman got hold of it. It appears that the only thing that you missed was rafting down the great River Anduin (aka the Westwater section of the Colorado).

  18. The wordpress log in still gets my online name wrong every time.

  19. Antonio Parr says:

    I see the words “beautiful” and “delightful” to describe your essay, but “brilliant” does a much better job of characterizing your reflections.

    Buechner wrote that we should “listen to our lives”, and he undoubtedly would be impressed and moved as you did just that in Moab and Malvern.

    Well done.

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