Tolkien’s other stories

I’m listening to the Bohemian Rhapsody soundtrack tonight. I haven’t seen the recent film yet, but I plan to once it’s out for streaming. I just didn’t have time to get to the theater here in Korea, and this film wasn’t exactly worth it to me. However the flick has had surprisingly staying power in the Korean theater. Often films come and go quickly, they move quick when ticket sales dip. I’m OK with Queen. They aren’t my jam really, but I find it fun.

A few years ago I decided I was listening to too many podcasts, reading too many blogs and articles and not listening to nor reading enough books. So I decided to always have a hard copy, a kindle, and an audio book actively being read and to track my reading with Goodreads. My goal this year was to read 100 books, though I’m only at 53 and not likely to make up the difference. Still, I’ve managed to increase the intake of long-form content in my reading diet which has been good for me. Because of my schedule and my audio learning style, audio books have become a big deal for me. I subscribe to Audible and use Christian Audio as well when they have deals. I’m loyal to whatever is cheapest and legal….est. Usually audio books are more expensive but sometimes they are dirt cheap. One surprise was finding Tolkien’s shorter stories for really cheap prices on Audible. So far I’ve listened to four of them and they were quite fun.

The Smith of Wooten Major was a book I had previously never heard of. Tolkien was writing a preface about fairy tales to an edition of MacDonald’s Golden Key that ended up a fairy tale in the process. He was intending to illustrate how fairy tales work, and so this story in many ways is a simple illustration for how Tolkien thought of fairy tales. This story has a young smith’s son participating in a feast for good children that takes place every 24 years in their village, with a cake that has many items inside for the children to find. The smith’s son eats a star that gives him a special access to a town a town called Faery on his 10th birthday. There he travels and meets the King and Queen of Faery, and he earns the name Starbrow because the star he ate appears on his forehead. After 24 years he must return the star and go back to his common duty, training his son in the craft of blacksmithing. It’s a story filled with longing and loss, that while light for most the plot ends up feeling quite heavy. An hour to listen or 149 pages to read, Tolkien never lets a story lover down.

Mr. Bliss is a short children’s story written by Tolkien and published posthumously in 1982, inspired by his personal adventures with his first car, and his sons toy bears. It was published as a picture book but I had fun listening to it. Mr. Bliss bounds about through a story interacting with hobbit like creatures of all kinds in hobbit like ways. This was clearly an early iteration in his formation of hobbit culture, even with two characters from LOTR that found their inception in this work, Gaffer Gamgee and Boffin. An hour to listen, or 107 pages to read, another fun foray into one of Tolkien’s creative worlds.

Farmer Giles of Ham is a fun and short story by Tolkien about a Medieval farmer whose dog warns him about a giant that he successfully scares away, to them be called upon by the locals when a dragon is about. I believe this story is only tangentially connected to the world of Middle Earth in the sense that it comes from the same lore family, shares many themes and with a similar tone to the Hobbit. By the end Giles faces down the King, whose sword he used to tame the dragon and get its gold, to much fanfare in his village of Ham, who then esteem him more than the King. Lots of fun lessons about life, luck, unlikely heroes, and bravery. 127 pages or 2 hours of fun yet epic narrative in the Tolkien manner.

Finally, Roverandom is the one I just finished listening too. It is by far the most fun of the short stories I’ve listened to from Tolkien. This one must have been written after a long draw from strange leaf of the shire. A dog named Rover bites a pant leg of a wizard and gets turned into a toy. He ends up meeting all kinds of wild characters and travels to the moon and the depths of the sea seeking the wizard who cursed him in order to make him normal again. Apparently this was written for Tolkien’s son once his favorite toy went missing, in order to cheer him up, to then be published much later once Hobbit was a hit. It’s Toy Story meets Homeward Bound meets Pinocchio. 3 hours or 116 pages of tripped out, imaginative fun.

I recommend the credit plans on Audible. I get the biggest one at $230 a year for 24 credits, and a book is usually one credit. I’ve never used more than one credit per book. That’s about $10 a book. So any audio book under $10 that I want I usually buy outright and save my credits for the real monster prices to save more money. Christian audio is usually more expensive but they have regular sales when books are around $5. If you like listening to books it’s a great way to add 20 to 30 books a year to your diet (or more). I listen at 1.5 speed usually as well, plus I travel internationally quite a bit and enjoy listening then, and have a waterproof bluetooth speaker in my shower, because I’m insane, and because I just enjoy redeeming the time. But hey, whatever floats your boat. If you don’t like it you can read someone else’s blog. 

That’s it tonight dear reader. After telling you I cut most blogs out to read more books I’m glad you took time to read mine. Now go read or listen to something awesome. 

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Frodo as Pastor

Every year at least once, sometimes two, three or ten times, I rewatch Lord of the Rings with my wife and/or friends. This year I managed to watch the extended additions with her and showing significant portions of the theatrical version of the first two films to all six of my classes while they were given time to finish their final projects in the last weeks of school. We suffered a pretty major earthquake a couple of months ago, so the whole school is in what I call an “earthquake grace” mode, giving a bit of mercy all around. Lord of the Rings and class time to finish projects felt like an appropriate mix of therapy without sacrificing my educational agenda. It’s on Netflix in Korea so there are Korean subtitles, and surprisingly many of my students had never seen it, or only seen it once when they were much younger. Few to none properly understood the themes nor the source material or any information on the source himself, Tolkien. I was able to educate them properly, having haphazardly put the movie on at first, I’m now planning an Inklings club for next year to make sure the Korean youth in my care do not escape their educational experience without proper and full immersion into Narnia and Middle Earth. God forbid!

This time watching it I was also in the middle of assessing the spiritual formation efforts at our school, and in general I tend to think about pastoral care as I go about my business day to day. My dad is a pastor, and even though I’m adopted I think it’s safe to say it’s in my blood. Watching LOTR over and over with my classes and then at home while thinking about spiritual formation, for some reason I singled out the storyline of Frodo in my mind. While watching Fellowship of the Ring a few of my classes happened to end when Frodo was in Rivendell taking up the mantle of ringbearer while the pantheon of warriors fought with each other. My students were positively transfixed (and angry about having to wait until the next class to continue on). They feel small and powerless, and now understanding the context of the story and who the author was, and what the Hobbits represented, it honestly inspired them. Many of them have suffered severe spiritual abuse from family and churches. There are many awesome Christian people in Korea, and many wonderful pastors. But there are also regular scandals that would make the worst of the western evangelical industrial complex  blush. Regularly in the news are things like pastors killing people including family members, fist fighting during meetings, embezzling money, having affairs with significantly younger women, so on and so forth. One student told me about an article that detailed a pastor bringing a gun (illegal to own in Korea) to a meeting and hiring mafia bodyguards to intimidate his own elders at a meeting. Aside from the inspiration for a film script that I hope to submit to Netflix, I was stunned and completely ashamed this behavior was associated with church leaders here. The impact has been huge, and in this neo-confucian culture a lot of times they deal with shame by erasing it as quickly as possible, not processing it at all. This has left many of the youth very unsure about how to move forward with their faith, or if their faith is secure, with their churches. I’m sure many of my western readers of faith (or of former faith) will have little trouble relating to that. Just imagine if our culture was built on collectivist honor and shame more than individualist innocence and guilt, and try to process how a child would navigate these issues. How do you trust spiritual authority? How do you process the evil in your own life when such evil is dominate in those who are supposed to be guiding us into the light?

Enter Frodo. The humble among the powerful know they can’t handle the ring’s power, starting with Gandalf and ending with Galadriel. The scene when Galadriel was tempted by the ring had my students convinced she was evil. When I explained her backstory and what that scene was really showing, that even though she was good she could be corrupted, they expressed tangible fear and dread, and remained glued to the story. How could Frodo withstand the temptation? How could he carry such evil to its destruction when all the high ranking and powerful characters could not?

These little souls carry many burdens and they are desperate to share them. When they do, they give the listener power. This is part of the pastoral experience and a big part of the life of a Christian community. If we don’t have openness and honesty coupled with wisdom, love, humility and care, we have serious danger. With each relationship and each conversation, little rings of power are being handed over to those in leadership. Those in pastoral care are trusting those doing pastoral care to help them destroy the evil in their lives, whatever form it may be, not to use it against them. And yet even Frodo faltered at the end, but he had his Fellowship, and the one remaining member with him, Sam, to get to the precipice. Even then, without a demon creature to exploit Frodo’s weakness with his pure rage, no goodness from within Frodo would have finished the job. It took a divine plan from outside of him to properly do what needed done, and in ways that none of the Fellowship would have planned or thought of.

As I watched this year I thought of how I want our spiritual formation at the school to look a lot more like Frodo. We aren’t wizards or kings or warriors. We’re common people with an uncommon task. I wish more pastors felt this way, and more training was done in this tone. For now I know I can’t leave my students with swords and shields and traditional forms of power, but with the apostles teaching, the fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer. Somehow, in unexpected ways, through these means the light reaches into the darkness, and evils are vanquished.