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The Teacher as Samwise the (Sometimes) Brave

The evening of March 25th found me and six others in the home of my associate pastor, celebrating the Feast of the Annunciation around a long and laden banqueting table. However, like good hobbits, we were also celebrating the destruction of the Ring of Power and hailing the Gondorian New Year—that day when Sauron the Great met his doom and when Frodo and Sam were “brought out of the fire to the King.” The food was rich, but the conversation was sublime. During the course of the evening, I realized that a few long-unconnected dots about the destruction of the Ring itself were starting to be linked by a common teleological thread. Furthermore, via the prompting of the head of our upper school—who was also in attendance—that thread also began weaving its way into the ways I think about the odd beast that is the teaching vocation. Now, nearly three months removed from the event, these contemplations and the questions spawned by them have continued to hover on the edge of my consciousness.

I am not alone in my wonderment at the manner in which the Ring was actually destroyed. Readers of Tolkien’s saga since its original publication have been puzzled and even angered at the fact that the Ring received its death blow—albeit involuntarily—at the hands of Gollum, not Frodo. It is a jarring plot twist, uprooting the assumption that first-time readers have carried with them for a thousand pages: “Of course Frodo is going to destroy the Ring!” Indeed, Frodo’s refusal to cast the Ring into the Cracks of Doom seemed to be a moral failure of massive proportions. Curiously, however, he was ever the recipient of nothing but the highest honor from all of the Free Peoples after his return from Mordor. Did his failure to personally destroy the Ring therefore become a massive cover-up, a secret uneasily kept between him and Sam and maybe Gandalf? Was it a topic that the rest of his friends and companions were simply too polite to bring up? Why was he so honored when he did not actually fulfill his quest?

Author and theologian Fleming Rutledge highlights this tension in her book, The Battle for Middle Earth: Tolkien’s Divine Design in “The Lord of the Rings.” She makes a compelling case that the Ring could never have been destroyed by Frodo or anyone else in the first place, arguing that its power was too great and its temptation too strong to be finally overcome at the moment of decision inside Mount Doom. Rather, she posits that its destruction had to be the result of a miraculous intervention by a higher Power, or, in other words, by an act of Providence—enter Gollum, his wrestling match with Frodo, and his unintentional fall into the fire after biting the Ring off of the hobbit’s hand. From this perspective, it would seem that Frodo was never meant to deliver the final, killing blow to the Dark Lord’s rule. To destroy the Ring was an impossible task, a quest for which he was neither equipped nor called. His quest, instead, was solely to bear the burden of the Ring for mile after endless, crushing mile into the very heart of Mordor. That quest, if understood in this way, was therefore completed upon reaching the edge of fire.

In the midst of our Eucatastrophic hobbiting around the table that night, we also noted the title that was given to Frodo at the Fellowship’s initial departure from Rivendell was, curiously, the title he retained upon his return from Mount Doom, and this title is instructive for helping to further discern the true nature of the hobbit’s vocation—the true nature of his quest. He is invariably referenced as the Ring-bearer; at no time in the entire saga is Frodo accorded an epithet like Ring-destroyer. This difference between destroying and bearing is of profound importance, for it reminds the reader that Frodo of the Shire was no more (and no less!) than an instrument of Providence who helped set the table for the Divine Hand (ostensibly Eru Iluvatar, for you Silmarillion fans) to work the actual destruction of Sauron’s pervading evil.

This distinction from Tolkien’s “secondary” world holds obvious application for Christians living in our “primary” world. We bear witness, as it were, to Christ’s destruction of Sin, Death, and the Devil. But it was at this point in our celebration on that March evening that my boss asked if this distinction could apply more specifically to the teaching vocation, as well, and his question has stuck with me ever since. Now, after the last day of school (during which we all are inevitably thrust into some form of reflection upon the year), I would have to submit that the distinction between bearing and destroying has great significance, indeed, particularly for any teacher in any school who is apt to lose sleep over students’ overall well-being and growth in academic and moral virtue.

We teachers are, to speak bluntly, daily confronted with the myriad ways in which the weight of the Fall lies heavy upon our students. We wish that they weren’t so tired, that they loved our subject more, that they would do a little more of their homework, that they would recognize unworthy things and hate them through inclining to goodness and good things instead. We wish that their parents had not walked out on their families, that their classmates would uplift them instead of cast them down, that their churches would inspire a love of orthodoxy, and, maybe more than anything else, that they could more fully understand—against the inevitable backdrop of comparisons, competitions, and rivalries created by any school environment—the blinding radiance with which every last one of them shines forth the image of God.

If we are honest, our natural response to all of these heavy things is to wish that we were strong enough, powerful enough, compelling enough in our teaching to, in short, destroy the Rings our students carry around their necks and make all of their sad things come untrue. But, however admirable such sentiments may appear to be, they are not representative of our true quest, of our actual vocation as teachers. We are instead to bear all these burdens alongside them, sometimes fifty or a hundred times over. And while we’d love to conceive of ourselves as wise old Gandalfs, illuminating the path before them with aplomb, there are many days (perhaps even most days) when we resemble Sam more than anyone else—foraging about for a crumb of lembas or a drop from a hidden spring, pointing up to a star faintly peeping through a murky sky, and attempting to prayerfully and patiently show up every morning on the seemingly mad hope that all now mysterious and heavy will somehow be unburdened and bright at last. We can’t carry the Rings for them, and we certainly can’t destroy the Rings either, but we can help carry our students a few inches closer to the King, and that is enough.

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