ONE day I definitely plan to finish ``The Lord of the Rings.'' For some 30 years I have been about halfway through the Tolkien trilogy (while everyone else seems to find it ``impossible to put down,'' and the Tolkien industry, feeding the insatiable appetites of its devotees, is positively as flourishing today as ever). I have owned the three volumes since 1957 - from two years after first publication of ``The Return of the King'' (the final third).

It really is time I followed this road to its end. But the trouble is, I'm lost. Haven't a clue where I am.

One of the reasons I have taken more or less forever to read this magnum opus of fantasy quest and journeying, I am coming to think, is maybe that geography has never been one of my strong points. And in this narrative you do need to know where everyone is at any given point. As the Hobbit, Bilbo, sings it: ``The Road goes ever on and on....'' And as Tolkien himself said, ``If you're going to have a complicated story, you must work to a map....''

But I have, since school, had something of a resistance to maps. The reason seems to be geography as it was taught in the classrooms of my childhood. It bore no relation to actual experience.

We have a friend who understands about this. The only thing he remembers from school geography was something drummed into him by a primary teacher: that ``India is a carrot-shaped country.'' Frankly, I envy him his education. We learned nothing so fascinating.

In my day, geography seemed to be solely a matter of copying maps from the blackboard. On these maps were marked important rivers and important coal mines. I didn't mind the copying - not as good as art but, given a lack of choice, a fair second; at least it involved lines and colors. But so taken was I with the colored inks that I did not take in much information. Somehow I just couldn't get interested in deltas and mountain ranges and peninsulas, never having encountered such things. One brief expedition to a real peninsula might have done wonders. But no geography teacher I ever came across apparently thought a firsthand encounter of any significance.

Geography remained a discipline I was subjected to through the age of 15. But then I indicated once and for all that geography was a lost cause for me by achieving spectacularly low marks in the state exam: 20 percent on one paper, 12 percent on the other. You might imagine such ineptitude hard to achieve, but when you understand that only recently have I realized that rivers do not all flow down the map (which I took to be downhill), and that I still have to concentrate hard to remember that east is right and west is left, and that nobody taught me to identify countries by their resemblance to root vegetables, you will admit my examiner was probably quite generous in his marking. Besides, to this day, and even though I have actually been down a mine somewhere in Wales, I cannot accurately place a single coal mine on a map of Britain.

When I attended university, there was a tendency to disparage certain undergraduates who had somehow wheedled their way into a three-year stint in academia without a hint of intellectual prowess. Perhaps they were good at rowing. Some colleges set great store by such activities. The problem was: What possible subject could these characters read that might just enable them to scrape through and get some sort of degree at the end?

The answer (or so the joke went) was geography. The implication was clear enough: If a person was reading geography, he was not very bright. I did not, needless to say, read geography. But my reason was that I was not bright enough.

I feel I should redress those aspersions cast against geographers. Anyone who can understand equidistant zenithal projection or projection by rectangular spheroidal coordinates and row a boat, has my unequivocal admiration, whatever it is worth.

Which brings me back to Professor Tolkien. The recent publication in color of ``The Map of Tolkien's Middle-earth'' (based on the map I managed until now to overlook, which is at the back of Volume 1 of the trilogy, drawn originally by Tolkien's son Christopher) has made me realize that I have been approaching the books all wrong. I should not have ignored the map. I shall start again, map in hand.

So very soon now (perhaps) while I still may not be able to tell you where Oregon is or whether Auckland is in the North or South Island of New Zealand, if you ask me where Lorien stretches out its wooded realm, or which way the Great River Anduin flows, or precisely what the extent of the mountains of Mordor is, or where lie the rolling grasslands of Rohan on which Gandalf found and rode the horse Shadowfax the Great, then I may very well ... in the not-too-distant future ... be your man: a wizard of the map.

* `The Map of Tolkien's Middle-earth' is available in Britain through HarperPrism and will be available in the United States in May 1995 from HarperCollins.

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