Claudia Riiff Finseth contacted us a while ago offering her articles on Tolkien, here is her first piece ‘Tolkien in Winter’.
Riiff Finseth is a freelance writer and author. Among her favorite works of literature is Lord of the Rings, which she has read over twenty times, more than any other book. Name the chapter, and Claudia can tell you what happens in it. Claudia was born in 1954 in Longview, Washington, USA. She studied literature and nursing at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington, where she lives today with her husband and their family. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tolkien in Winter
Claudia Riiff Finseth
In the winter of 1976 I was a college junior living in PLU’s married student housing, affectionately known as “the barracks.” I was taking Interim off, with one month of the rare luxury of time on my hands, when a neighbor introduced me to The Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien. Little did I dream what awaited me. For hours a day I walked and breathed beside Frodo and the Fellowship. Oh, the wonder and strangeness of entering the world of Middle Earth that first time!
For the next twelve or fifteen or years I found myself picking up the trilogy in winter, although it was several years before I saw the pattern. But there was little doubt: I was being drawn to them in winter as part of an annual rhythm, like a bird to migration or a salmon to its home stream.
Why in winter? What did I need so particularly then that Tolkien’s work offered? An escape or vacation? A shot of courage in the midst of the dark and cold? Inspiration to go on when things seemed a bit bleak? To be consoled, renewed, enchanted? A fresh view for a new year? A reminder of what really matters? An epiphany, an “ah-ha!” moment, like Buddha had under the tree?
The truth is, it was for all these reasons.
It begins with Tolkien’s own story. He was an orphan at twelve. He fought in the trenches of World War I—the only one of his circle of friends to come back alive. Crushing experiences for anyone. Yet he went on to earn a doctorate and become an esteemed Oxford don, married his sweetheart, had four children, wrote and published enchanting stories and other works, and lived to a ripe old age.
“Both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords,” he wrote in his essay, On Faerie-stories. Somehow, Tolkien found the ability, despite suffering, to experience beauty and wonder; despite fear, to experience courage; despite evil, to experience compassion and love.
He imbued his trilogy with this spirit.
The protagonist of The Lord of the Rings, Frodo Baggins, is a humble little hairy-footed hobbit. Very soon life requires him to dig down deep and find the extraordinary—courage, integrity, compassion, and doggedness way beyond what he feels are his means.
Frodo is not intrepid, that is, fearlessly courageous. He is fearfully courageous. His compassion is not born of some angelic disposition, but he struggles to find the wisdom to be compassionate beyond his measure. Despite pain, grief and seeming hopelessness, he learns to carry on.
In the process, Frodo experiences one epiphany after another.
Epiphany–the season of realization, of sudden flashes of understanding. A bright star illuminating the darkness for the Wise Men. Epiphany has the same Greek root as epicenter, which not only means the center of an earthquake, but “the heart of the matter;” and epic, which is a story or poem about a hero coming to grips with what really matters. We each have our own epiphanies, and then there are collective epiphanies, like September 11th and the days that followed.
In the church calendar, the season of Epiphany is the winter season.
This winter I pulled my worn old copy of The Lord of the Rings from my bookshelf. I’m nearing the end of Part II. Frodo and Sam are about to be betrayed by Gollum.
My own epiphany reading Tolkien in winter is this: that all is not right nor ever shall be right in the world, yet still there is much that is lovely and worth our efforts. Each person’s responsibility is to make their contribution in their own time–in their own part of the story. And just maybe, somehow, I’ll be able to find within me what is needed to do my part.
Here’s a riddle for you: what’s the difference between Frodo Baggins, a New York City firefighter, and you and me? Answer: height and amount of hair on the feet. In this season of our own lives when we are challenged to dig deep within ourselves for courage and compassion, integrity and doggedness, we could do worse that have J. R. R. Tolkien as our guide.
A quote from The Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien:
“Other evils there are that may come; for Sauron is himself but a servant or emissary. Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succor of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.”—Gandalf, in The Last Debate, Part III.
[This article first appeared in the Tacoma News Tribune, Tacoma, Washington, USA, in 2002. Reprinted here by permission of the author.]