Entries in Tolkien (1)


WHAT IF? (Introduction: You never know what you'll find in an RV park)

          Boromir's Death — used by permission of Anke Eissmann

I have recently been reading about models for the future that don’t have happy endings: the possible collapse of our current economy and food production; wild unpredictable variations in climate; the extinction of large numbers of species on earth, our own species included. None of these global scenarios leave me feeling like any of my actions have much effect.

It is easy in the face of this kind of information to either deny that anything is happening, collapse in despair, or adopt a kind of the-Hell-with-it attitude and go about business as usual. I can say (from personal experience) that while these strategies provide some immediate relief, none of them satisfy in any meaningful way.

A couple weeks ago I happened to pick up The Two Towers—Tolkien’s second book in The Lord of the Rings—from an RV-park book exchange, and started reading it again while I was waiting for a load of laundry to finish. The book begins with despair. The group of “peoples” charged with the task of destroying the ring is in shambles. Gandalf is dead, Borimor has tried to steal the ring for himself and has been killed by attacking Orcs. Frodo and Sam have struck out on their own, two small hobbits against all the might of Mordor. The other two hobbits have been taken prisoner by the attacking Orcs. And Aragorn, who wasn’t there to help with any of the fighting, is left with Legolas and Gimli (and his aching conscience) to lay Borimer to rest and decide what to do next.

Aragorn feels the tragedy of their plight deeply. He recognizes that he has failed in his duty, he doubts the ability of any of them to succeed in their goals, and he mourns the deceit and untimely death of Borimer. He is clear-eyed and open-hearted in his assessment, and he is honest about it with his two friends.

And yet in the midst of his grief and doubt he is able to act with integrity. When he has fully felt the despair of their situation, he returns to his own inner values and chosen commitments, and uses these as compass points to make decisions at a time when decisions could seem futile. This leads him to act, not necessarily in the ways that are "biggest" or "best", but in the ways that are most "him"—in the ways that are most true to his own abilities and place in the world.

For example, he doesn’t follow the ring-bearer, though he was charged with his protection. Frodo—he reasons—has made his own decision. Merry and Pippin, who were carried off as prisoners, did not. Aragorn is “responsible” in a way to all of them, yet he cannot be all places at once, so he chooses to follow Merry and Pippin for the time being, because to him their need is greatest.

And once this decision is made he acts on it. It is true to him, and he is true to it. He can’t know, will never know, if it is the “right” decision; all he knows is that his insides and his outsides are in agreement.

I can think of worse models for personal action in our current world than this man of Middle Earth.

And once again, I am reminded of how help can appear when least expected. Even in the middle of a long afternoon in the dingy laundry room of some RV park in Winnemucca, Nevada.


Tom and I have been thinking a lot over the past three years about our place in the world, both individually and as a species. It is no little subject, and I am struggling to put the pieces together into a whole.

This next series of posts—which I have called “What if?”—is my attempt to bring together some of the ideas I have been mulling over. I think of these ideas as sparks from a fire I am stirring late at night. Maybe they flicker out and don’t go anywhere. Maybe they flare up, create a larger blaze. Maybe they illuminate something for just a moment in the corner of my vision. This is a place where I can poke around in the embers, see what happens. Where I can ask that potent question: What if?

Reading about Aragorn helped me realize that writing these posts is my next action. It is definitely not the biggest or best action. As I am sitting in front of my computer all morning it may look like no action at all. But working out my thoughts is what’s in front of me. It's my way to be in integrity—to match my insides and my outsides. And like Aragorn, I am not sure where following these thoughts will lead.

I don’t expect, or even want, everyone to agree with what I have to say. In times of change we need all of our perspectives in order to be adaptable and to see the big picture. We need more richness rather than less. And in order to have that richness, each part of the system needs to be true to what it is. We need our heart cells to be heart cells and our liver cells to be liver cells. I am not sure what kind of cell I am, but this is the view from my perspective. I am interested to hear the view from yours.

What if.......?