Back to the Source

How many times have you read “The Lord of the Rings?” David Marchese asked Stephen Colbert in a recent New York Times interview.

I lost count at 50. I am in the middle of a 180-hour lecture series by Corey Olsen, the Tolkien professor, who goes through it page by page. Almost every night I listen to about 15 minutes of a lecture.

I took the name Corey Olsen, ran with it, and that’s how I tracked down the Tolkien Professor.

There I found a variety of delightful Tolkien lectures and forums. The lectures are straight up, and on a variety of things from The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings to other olde favorites like Beowulf. The forums include recorded online classes in which the students submit questions to be answered in depth by Professor Olsen.

But now, having listened as far as The Prancing Pony, I realize that by watching the movies every year as I do, I have missed so much more of the source material. So here I am, once more re-reading The Fellowship of the Ring for the howevermany times it has been since I first stumbled into the Shire.

Currently, since the Forum has just left the Barrow Downs, I have abandoned it for the lectures, which have centered on The Hobbit but recently took a side trip to discuss whether or not Balrogs have wings and who in the world is Tom Bombadil. (Best answer: he is.) In my reading, I have just reached his house, so it won’t be long until the forum and I will be in lock step.

I have often said that I don’t believe in god, but I do believe in religion, because religion actually exists, and if I have a religion of my own, it is made up from the writings of Joseph Campbell and J.R.R. Tolkien, but don’t tell them that. I think they would be appalled.

Campbell made clear to me the validity of myth and its place in our lives. Tolkien wrote a myth in which ordinary people (hobbits) persevere in ways that others (dwarves, elves and “big men”) can’t always manage, beset as they are with larger questions when sometimes the answers lie right in front of us.

Today we are facing so many big questions, enormous issues, that we would never have wished on our worst enemies, and in the face of them I can offer nothing better than the following conversation from The Fellowship of the Ring:

Frodo: I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.

Gandalf: So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.

Last night I went to a public forum on the question of impeachment. It was something I could do with the time that remains to me, one very small gesture in the face of one of the great evils currently besetting both our nation and the globe.

Tonight I’ll spend another delightful evening in the company of Tom Bombadil and Goldberry, soaking up as much of the joy of life as I can to hold me in whatever dark days lie ahead.

Now let the song begin! Let us sing together
Of sun, stars, moon and mist, rain and cloudy weather,
Light on the budding leaf, dew on the feather,
Wind on the open hill, bells on the heather,
Reeds by the shady pool, lilies on the water:
Old Tom Bombadil and the River-daughter!