In the semester after 911, my most important teachers were hobbits.
I met Frodo Baggins for the first time in the months after the twin towers were hit on September 11, 2001. My family was living in Alaska, and I was attending seminary in Seattle, so I had to be away from my young son for weeks at a time.
My nine-year-old was not happy that I was away from home, and he refused to speak to me on the phone. He would, however, allow his father to lay the phone receiver on the pillow next to his head in the evening, and he and his stuffed bears would quietly listen to me read our current bed-time book, The Lord of the Rings.
We had just finished reading The Hobbit that summer, and I thought The Lord of the Rings would be a children’s tale in the same style, adventurous and clever. I was not prepared for the increasing darkness and seriousness of the books. I worried that the war images were too much.
However, everyone around us was trying to make sense of the events of 911, and the terrible contraction of terror and self-righteous fury that had seized our country. Somehow, as the weeks went on, Tolkien’s books seemed the perfect metaphor for the complex and dark feelings that were arising, like poisonous mist off the Dead Marshes, the battles we were having with ourselves on an archetypal level.
Together, my child and I learned about the beautiful, shining gold ring, with its irresistible attraction and malevolent, debilitating power, the intended tool of the Dark Lord Sauron for dominating Middle-Earth. One by one we met all the other valiant but short-sighted “grown-ups” gathered around the ring, with their myriad confusions and mixed motivations—the wizards and kings and elves and dwarves, who for all their worldly wisdom, cannot even touch the ring without turning into monsters.
And the surprise of these odd little creatures, the naïve and earnest hobbits, who want only comfort and coziness and regular snacks, taking on the impossible task that none of the big people can handle, the quest to destroy the ring in the fires of Mount Doom to save Middle Earth.
“I will take the Ring,” says Frodo softly at the Council of Elrond, “though I do not know the way.” The rest of the big people are so befuddled by the ring that they are fighting and shouting and they don’t even hear him at first. Frodo steps up to the task, though it’s the last thing he wants to do, and on the surface, he is the least equipped. Even though his name means “wise,” he is the anti-hero, the anti-warrior, anxious and insecure and lost.
His best friend Sam was forbidden to come to the secret council meeting to decide the fate of the world, but of course, like a good best friend, Sam had snuck in. When he sees from his hiding place what Frodo is about to do, he brashly reveals his presence and squeaks: “But you won’t send him off alone, surely!”
Here I was at wisdom school, studying to be a leader in the church, searching for practical tools, a lantern to hold up to the murky path. We have become Sauron, defensive, justified in our greed, ready to unleash the unholy forces buried deep in our unconsciousness: orcs, trolls, goblins, and balrogs.
None of us knows where we are going, or if we have what it takes to get there. I had an excellent education in seminary, but my most practical lessons were from worried, stumbling Frodo, and his best friend Sam steadfastly tending the cookfires.