As a classical teacher, I read everything for its applicability to the classroom. In a recent graduate studies course with Dr. Hooten-Wilson, I read The Lord of the Rings for the first time in twenty years. What leapt off the page at me this time was Gandalf, the master teacher.
Upon Gandalf’s counsel, the Fellowship journeys toward the mines of Moria. When they arrive, the doors are shut against them, and a foul, polluted lake threatens from behind. Not only are the doors shut, but they are completely concealed until Gandalf magically reveals the beautiful symbols and strange letters of Elvish character which adorn them. Puzzled, the Fellowship turns to Gandalf, who encourages them by saying “eyes that know what to look for may discover the signs” (305). He goes on to explain the history of the words which have been long forgotten in Middle-earth. The Fellowship expects Gandalf to solve this mystery promptly with ease, and they are soon discouraged by its difficulty. “The others looked dismayed; only Aragorn, who knew Gandalf well, remained silent and unmoved” (306). Boromir and Pippin badger Gandalf with questions. He grows increasingly exasperated by their impatience and impertinence, and eventually, “he threw his staff on the ground, and sat down in silence” (307). The wolves begin to howl, presenting a foreboding sense of danger. Members of the Fellowship begin to wonder why Gandalf doesn’t “do” anything while he sits “with his head bowed, either in despair or anxious thought” (308). Gandalf alone is charged with the task of decoding the doors while he cannot get a moment’s peace to do so, nor does the Fellowship offer any encouragement or communicate any confidence.
The doors pose an intellectual challenge to the Fellowship, as only one with knowledge of “Elder Days” will be able to read the language written there. Similarly, classical teachers have knowledge of “Elder Days” albeit days such as those when Joseph was sent to Egypt or Plato wrote The Republic. Classical teachers lead a fellowship of adolescent students, who are often unruly, selfish, and quickly discouraged, through mines every bit as difficult to transgress as Moria’s. Students talk back, question our authority, and even demonstrate their doubt in the validity of the tradition. They are often the first to see doors shut and express frustration that no one exists with the knowledge to open them. Teachers often sit with their heads bowed in “despair” and “anxious thought.” We wish we could tell our students to give us half a minute to think, throwing our expo markers onto white-board trays. As I read The Lord of the Rings this time as a teacher, I could relate to Gandalf’s exasperation, knowing all too well what rides on my shoulders and feeling the enormous responsibility of remembering the “Elder Days.”
Much encouragement came to me when Gandalf finally picked up his staff and cried out, “Mellon!” Encouragement because the puzzle was easier than he had thought. “Too simple for a learned loremaster in these suspicious days,” he laments (308). Gandalf had been trying too hard, making the problem more difficult than necessary. This often paralyzes me as well. The good work I am charged to do creates fear and anxiety when usually the best solution is to trust the tradition passed down to me, the authority invested in me, and do my best.