The road ahead was not a literal road. But it felt like one. A very long one.
My organization had just done what organizations are famous for doing: internal politics. A spectacularly successful initiative had been rewarded by the wrong person getting a promotion, someone not even involved in the success. The team went from celebration to devastation in 24 hours. I spent a few days considering what to do. I’d poured life and soul into what became a success, and I’d been slapped, hard. Overnight, gold had become rust and tarnish. I decided to leave. Go to another part of the company.
I accepted a job that had been turned down by five people, including two people on the outside. It was considered the worst communications job in the company, dealing with all the dirty stuff, like pollution, spills, accidents, emissions, waste sites, and more. No one looked for gold here. And it was facing a huge challenge – a new law requiring public reporting of all toxic emissions. It was if I’d boarded the Titanic knowing there were icebergs ahead.
Less than three days in the job, I realized that my career might have been over, but what was ahead was the biggest challenge of my professional career, a challenge that would most likely prove insurmountable and would finish me off. To achieve it, I’d need to travel through the equivalent of the mines of Moria, deal with a few balrogs and more than few orcs, and fight with colleagues hoping I’d fail and trying to help me do that.
I was not equipped nor prepared to do any of that. The first step was talking with the two people who would be taking this journey with me, fellow hobbits, with occasional assistance from a consultant no one paid attention to, except us. He had gray hair; we should have called him Gandalf because he would use professional magic to take us where no communications team had gone before.
Many times, we would be tempted to abandon the journey and turn back to the safety of doing things as they’d always been done, a condition we might call The Shire.
“The temptation to abandon the path to which we have been called is often a strong one,” writes Louis Markos in On the Shoulders of Hobbits: The Road to Virtue with Tolkien and Lewis, “but we must nevertheless trust that the Lord of the Road knows what He is doing. All we can do is press on with faith, hope, and perseverance.”
The book is far more than a career guide. It is an outline for a life guide. We are here for a purpose; we have been chosen for just such a time as this, to paraphrase the real Gandalf. And On the Shoulders of Hobbits helps to chart the way. When the opportunity presents itself, we can choose to stay home, as Markos points out. Or we can go.
The first four chapters address the idea of the road and the journey, understanding how it calls to us, responding to that call, the very real dangers that are posed, and where it actually ends. He uses two great works to tell this story – The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien and The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. The writing of the two overlapped each other. And had not Lewis kept encouraging his friend Tolkien to keep at the story that was originally a successor to The Hobbit, we might not have had what many have called the greatest work of literature of the 20th century.
Both works are more than stories – they are Stories. Our modern sensibilities dismiss notions that fantasy and fairy tales can teach us many things about life and ourselves, but Tolkien and Lewis knew better. So does Markos, as he tells us about what we can learn on this great adventure called life.
At the end of the Fellowship of the Ring, the fellowship breaks apart. Frodo Baggins and Sam Gamgee continue on together and alone, their odds for success looking ever smaller as time goes by on the journey to Mordor. Yet they go on, trusting the road and the call to it.
“May we who live in a modern-postmodern society,” Markos says, “where the air is thick and the Road often unclear, share in their courage and resolve.”
And that insurmountable challenge I faced with my two colleagues? We confronted roadblock after roadblock, professional dangers, and colleagues trying to stop us. We were told no more times than I can count. We were given few resources and had resources taken away. We didn’t have to climb Mount Doom, although at times it felt like it. But we kept going on because we knew what we had to do.
By the time we reached the end of that road, we had changed the entire industry.
John 1: 1-5
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.
We are joined this month by our friend, Dr. Lou Markos, Professor of English and Scholar in Residence at Houston Baptist University, where he holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities. This month Lou will guide us through his masterful book On The Shoulders of Hobbits.
In addition to this site, our closest friends from over 130 countries meet in our Facebook discussion group, which you can join by clicking HERE.
For the study this month, Lou says
My approach throughout will be simple. In each chapter I take up a single theme (the nature of pilgrimage, facing death, kingship and hierarchy, the virtue of hope, the love that forgives, forbidden fruit) that has been overlooked or dismissed by our age, and then illustrate and embody that theme by making parallel references to one or more episodes from The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, or The Silmarillion. I will then develop the theme further by zeroing in on a single passage from one of the seven Chronicles of Narnia that clarifies or complements Tolkien’s message.
Happy reading and blessings for the journey!
Forward to On the Shoulders of Hobbits
Why should I read this book? What is it about?” That’s the question you want a foreword to answer.
Well, this book is about life. Your life. It’s not fantasy, it’s realism. It’s the so-called realistic books that are usually fantasy. When you close the covers of The Lord of the Rings or the Chronicles of Narnia, you intuitively know that you are not exiting an unreal world and entering a more real one, but exactly the opposite.
The best educational advice for life that I ever heard was my father’s: “Just be sure you don’t get all A’s in your subjects but flunk life.”
We humans are the only beings in the universe who can flunk life, because we have a free choice about what kind of life we will lead and what kind of human beings we will be, good or evil. We make these choices not, like angels, instantly and timelessly, but gradually, in each of our many big and little choices between good and evil throughout the drama that is our lifetime.
How do we become good or evil? When Plato asked in his Meno how human beings become good (virtuous), he suggested four ways: (1) by teaching (“knowledge is virtue”); (2) by practice (forming habits); (3) by nature (i.e., being born virtuous); (4) in some other way (i.e., against nature, by force). Most philosophers—Oriental as well as Western—give one of these four answers: Plato, #1; Confucius, #1 and #2; Aristotle, #2; Rousseau and Lao Tzu, #3; Hobbes and the “Realists,” #4.
All these philosophers are wrong, probably because most of them do not have children. Parents and children know the answer: by example. By having moral heroes.
That’s why reading great literature, next to meeting people, is the single most effective way to learn not to flunk life. Life is a story, and therefore moral education happens first and most powerfully through stories, e.g., through books.
The greatest book of the twentieth century, according to four different polls, is The Lord of the Rings. And the greatest children’s stories ever written are the Chronicles of Narnia (I dogmatically assure you of that!).
On the Shoulders of Hobbits is the logical conclusion from all of the above facts. Read it. It will help you fall in love with these two great works, their heroes, and their values. It will baptize your imagination and fertilize the soil of your soul so that you become the kind of person who doesn’t flunk life.
Louis Markos holds a BA in English and History from Colgate University and an MA and PhD in English from the University of Michigan. He is a Professor of English and Scholar in Residence at Houston Baptist University, where he holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities and teaches courses on British Romantic and Victorian Poetry and Prose, the Greek and Roman Classics, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien. He is the author of eighteen books, including On the Shoulders of Hobbits: The Road to Virtue with Tolkien and Lewis, Apologetics for the Twenty First Century, From Achilles to Christ: Why Christians Should Read the Pagan Classics,Lewis Agonistes: How C. S. Lewis can Train us to Wrestle with the Modern and Postmodern World, Atheism on Trial, and The Dreaming Stone and In the Shadow of Troy, children’s novels in which his kids become part of Greek Mythology and the Iliad and Odyssey. He has produced two lecture series on C. S. Lewis and literary theory with The Teaching Company/Great Courses, published 250 book chapters, essays, and reviews, given well over 300 public lectures in some two dozen states as well as Rome, Oxford, and British Columbia, and had his adaptations of The Iphigenia in Tauris of Euripides, The Helen of Euripides, and The Electra of Sophocles performed off-Broadway. He is committed to the concept of the Professor as Public Educator and believes that knowledge must not be walled up in the Academy but must be disseminated to all who have ears to hear.
Visit his Amazon author page at amazon.com/author/louismarkos
Louis Markos and Peter Kreeft, On the Shoulders of Hobbits: The Road to Virtue with Tolkien and Lewis (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2012).