Wisdom From The Lord of the Rings

My first encounter with The Lord of the Rings came when I was 13 years old and a pupil at The Royal Grammar School in High Wycombe, England. The Royal Grammar Schools were originally founded by Queen Elizabeth I and so are younger than J.R.R Tolkien’s alma mater, King Edward VI School in Birmingham, but only by a few years. When I arrived at the RGS in 1967 it had not long since celebrated the 400th anniversary of its original foundation.

My introduction to Tolkien’s great tale came through two sources. One was my English teacher, Mr Roger Humphries and the other was my classmate, Jonathan Flint. Jonathan was the son of the commander of RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus, the Royal Air Force’s largest overseas base, and still very much in active use today. I will be forever grateful to him for sharing his love of The Lord of the Rings with me and for selling me my first copy of the book, a paperback in a single volume, for 25 shillings. For me that represented five Saturday mornings’ work on the farm nearby that my father ran for a member of the Rowntree family (the famous confectioners originally of York). That was how I earned my pocket money back then. It was worth every penny then and now. Jonathan also shared his love for poetry with me which has been another lifelong gift for which I will always be deeply grateful.

I think that Jonathan got to know Mr Humphries at Tylers Wood house, a house once owned by a Nobel Prize winning scientist and which was lived in by about 25 boys at the school between the ages of 11 and 18 many of whom, like Jonathan, were the sons of senior military officers posted overseas. At the end of each term they would fly out to different parts of the world to rejoin their families. Mr Humphries had achieved legendary status at Tylers Wood when a group of boys had barricaded themselves into a room and resisted all demands to open the door. Mr Humphries gloriously put his shoulder to the door, smashing it from its frame and hinges. The boys within the room surrendered immediately and Mr Humphries was adored forever after. It was the kind of display of masculinity that boys both aspire to and worship.

I was one of the worshippers but sadly he did not think much of me. He regarded my work as mediocre at best and I think he was right. Jonathan was his favourite pupil but as I was an admirer of Jonathan too I never resented it. I only wished that he would notice me too.

Over the next 40 years or so I read and re-read The Lord of the Rings and later The Hobbit, greeting the publication of The Silmarillion with great excitement. I came to share Tolkien’s Christian faith when an undergraduate at university although not his Roman Catholicism. Like C.S Lewis and Charles Williams I found my home within Anglicanism and was eventually ordained as a minister in The Church of England in Birmingham in 1988. I have stayed in that part of the world ever since, marrying a doctor who at that time was working in one of the city hospitals, and we have had two daughters together and now live in a cottage (our Crickhollow) in the Worcestershire countryside just a few miles from the farm that was once owned by Tolkien’s aunt and called Bag End.

I think that it took me a long time to develop a confidence in my own voice. For too long I tried to imitate somebody else’s. I think that is why Mr Humphries did not think much of me. There wasn’t much of a me about whom he could actually think.

It was about ten years ago that finally I began to think that I might have something worth saying about the book that I had loved for so long. I began to try to write about it but nothing seemed to quite work. The breakthrough came in 2012 when I first discovered blogging. I realised that although I struggled to write the kind of lengthy sustained argument that would form a chapter of a book I could write a short piece of about 500 to 700 words and I started to do so. My first efforts were published on a website that I created after buying a package and they were read by just a handful of people. A friendly press officer of my acquaintance suggested that I learn to use Twitter to publicise my work and it was there that providentially I met Brenton Dickieson   https://apilgriminnarnia.com and Sørina Higgins https://sorinahiggins.wordpress.com , both of whom have encouraged my work ever since.

It was through Brenton’s encouragement that I first published my blog on WordPress in October 2013. I had just completed my reflections on The Fellowship of the Ring, reflections that hardly anyone read, and was starting to write about The Two Towers. I began to write a short piece each week learning how to write by just doing it. By the end 2015 my readership had grown to about 15 a day. I think that what kept me going were the comments that people around the world were leaving. I began to develop a correspondence with people, most of whom I had never met, about a book that I loved. I am grateful to every person who has left a comment on the blog. You have no idea how much your encouragement has helped me to develop my writing.

Towards the end of 2016 a kind of breakthrough was made when I had more than 1,000 views in a month for the first time. This is now over 2,500 and it is still growing. Thank you to everyone who reads my work.

Last week I wrote a piece entitled, Well I’m Back, Tolkien’s famous “flat ending” to The Lord of the Rings. It was the end of a six year project. What I hope to do now is to relaunch it. As I said, hardly anyone read what I wrote about The Fellowship or The Two Towers for that matter and I have been developing my style all the way through that time. I have also been learning a lot about what Tolkien was doing through his work. I have never wanted to write a scholarly work with footnotes and all but I can’t ignore the scholars either, nor do I want to. I think that we might be at the beginning of a quiet revolution in scholarship today. Those of you who listen to Alan Sisto and Shawn Marchese’s excellent podcast https://theprancingponypodcast.com will have heard an interview with the great Prof Tom Shippey recently in which he said that he thought that Signum University might be the way forward in scholarship. By the way, Sørina Higgins is Chair of the Department of Language and Literature at Signum. Brenton Dickieson also teaches there. I would be honoured to make a small contribution at what I deliberately wish to be a popular level of writing.

So please do come back dear readers when I start at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring next week. You will see a few changes and one or two innovations but just as I know that many of you do, after you have finished a reading of The Lord of the Rings, I hope that you will start again at the beginning and that we will read it together.

Farewell (for a while) to Frodo and Sam

I began to write in this blog about the journey of Frodo and Sam from the Emyn Muil at the beginning of March in 2015 and now, about a year later, it is time to leave them where Tolkien does, at the gates of the orc tower that guards the pass of Cirith Ungol before it descends into the land of Mordor.

“The great doors slammed to. Boom. The bars of iron fell into place inside. Clang. The gate was shut. Sam hurled himself against the bolted brazen plates and fell senseless to the ground. He was out in the darkness. Frodo was alive but taken by the enemy.”

We have been on such a journey in this last year! We began with the frustration of the hobbits as they went round and round the hills of the Emyn Muil and then the capture of Sméagol and, for a time at least, his taming. Together with them we crossed the Dead Marshes and reached the Black Gate that was shut against them. Then we turned south for a time until we entered the spoiled beauty of Ithilien, Tolkien’s “dishevelled dryad loveliness.” In Ithilien we met the noble Faramir who showed the hobbits the true Gondor, born of Númenor and of the faithfulness of the Elf Friends, of Elendil and of his forefathers, Eärendil and Beren, and of his foremothers, Elwing and Lúthien. Then after an all too brief rest in the refuge of Henneth Annûn we journeyed on with Frodo and Sam and their treacherous guide into the Morgul Vale, climbed with them up the stair to Cirith Ungol and to Shelob’s Lair. There we encountered the horror of the monster that dwelt in those tunnels of darkness visible but we also saw the inbreaking of the  wondrous light of the Star Glass of Galadriel, the Morning Star of Eärendil, the Silmaril of Fëanor, and we saw Sam, the hero in the darkest moment, driving away the traitor, Gollum, and vanquishing Shelob herself. Shelob is defeated but not before she has stung Frodo and rendered him helpless. Sam takes the Ring from Frodo believing himself to be the last remaining member of the Fellowship and begins his journey towards the Cracks of Doom and the Ring’s destruction only to find that a  company of orcs has found Frodo and taken him alive into their guard tower. Frodo is a prisoner inside it and Sam is shut out.

And that is how it ends, at least for now. The door is shut. Frodo is a prisoner. Sam is shut out. I don’t blame Tolkien for stopping here. It’s as Frodo put it when he and Sam were talking about stories just before they entered Shelob’s Lair:

“You and I, Sam, are still stuck in the worst places of the story, and it is all too likely that some will say at this point: “Shut the book now, dad; we don’t want to read any more.”

So this post on my blog is dedicated to all who feel stuck, who feel they have reached a dead end in their lives. There is no way that Frodo and Sam can rescue themselves from this situation. Frodo is drugged and bound and soon he will be naked. Sam is one small hobbit and even if he uses the Ring it wouldn’t be long before he gets the attention of the last being in the world that he would ever want to meet. They cannot save themselves. Help will have to come to them from outside. It will come to you too. Ask for it.

This is no accident on Tolkien’s part. He wanted to tell a story in which the world was saved by the small. He believed (and so do I) that such a story was true to the Christian faith in which he believed. If you want to follow this thought further then listen to this talk by Brenton Dickieson http://apilgriminnarnia.com/2016/02/01/a-hobbits-theology-2016-pub-talk/ He puts it really well.

But now we have to leave Frodo and Sam. Next week we will be with Gandalf and Pippin once more. See you then.