Saturday, February 20, 2010

Carry On, Small Human

Once in a while when I'm teaching, something comes out of my mouth that I actually like. Most of the time, of course, I feel like a juggler, trying to take my own ideas about a work, along with ideas or questions thrown out by students, and trying, at the end of a fifty-minute workout, to get them all in the air at once, hopefully in some sort of pleasing pattern. And sometimes all I can say is that I drop the ball.

Yesterday, wrapping up a three-week, snow-day interrupted forced march through The Lord of the Rings (which can be read in much less than three weeks for pleasure, but can't really be read much faster for a class), I wrapped the whole thing up by suggesting that the lesson it offers us is "Carry on, small human."

Now, I'll admit that, while I quite enjoy Tolkien's trilogy, and it can sometimes put a tear in my eye, I love to read it skeptically and carefully, rather than reverently. So I like to ask students to realize that, of course, Frodo fails spectacularly at his quest, utterly giving in to the evil (if that's the right word) that oppresses him; Sam ends up talking to himself in ways frighteningly like Gollum; and that the quest only succeeds because Frodo, Sam, and Gollum make up an unlikely collaborative trio, one riddled with conflicting motives and drives. I like to point out all the ways that Tolkien suggests that the Ring itself arranges for its own destruction, suggesting that it might not be entirely evil after all. I like to point out that both Gandalf (the White) and Sauron (the Black) move the various characters around like players on a chessboard, and even Gandalf is willing to sacrifice many of them for a purely distractive feint, in a freakishly "end-justifies-the-means" kind of fashion.

And even great victory, of course, is a great loss in the book: magic departs from the land. As Galadriel suggests in what may be the best line in the book, "I pass the test" means "I will diminish." Not only are we all the pawns of vast forces beyond our control, but every victory shall be turned to loss.

And yet the book seems strangely hopeful. Carry on, small human, your burden is great. That may be the ultimate miracle of the book: to make a message like that, "Carry on, your burden is great," seem hopeful, even inspiring.

So I'll carry on, at least for the time being.


Jane Kokernak said...

I confess I haven't read Lord of the Rings, and yet I found your post quite beautiful. It gave me a little boost of comfort and hope.

ej said...

Hobbits, schmobits. The real miracle of the book is definitely Aragorn!