Engaging Boys in the 20th-Century Epic
Middle-school boys, like the hobbits of the Lord of the Rings epic, don’t understand their place in the world and feel, more often than not, like they are along for the ride rather than contributing anything substantive to their own lives or anyone else’s. This lulls them into a malaise that makes the areas of their lives where they do have control (video games, sports, etc.) become the defining features of their identities. The adults in their lives wring their hands and wish they could encourage their sons to discover their gifts and talents and generously share them with others.
Meanwhile, those same adults are drowning in information, much of which we have little to no direct influence over: politics, social media, the economy, the environment. Even our email inboxes are often called “other people’s to-do list for you”. This lack of control contributes to many maladies. Some adults—particularly in type-A cities like DC—obsess over the particulars of what they can control: productivity, profitability, or policy. Others may be tempted to despair of any good we could accomplish in the world. We can even unwittingly pass this despair on to our children or exacerbate their malaise by ordering and organizing every part of their lives for them, including those many things that they can and should be handling themselves.
As an antidote to this problem, I offer the hope of the hobbits in The Lord of the Rings, and in so doing would like to defend its pride of place in our middle-school curriculum. After the boys finish The Hobbit in fifth-grade here, they work their way through middle school and the twentieth-century epic at the same time: sixth-graders read The Fellowship of the Ring, seventh-graders The Two Towers, and the eight-graders tackle The Return of the King right after emerging from the first epic in the Western world, The Iliad.
In The Return of the King, the most important deeds come to pass through the agency of the four hobbits. The ring would not be destroyed without both Sam and Frodo. It is Merry who stabs the Witch King, preventing him from killing Éowyn and giving her enough time to drive the killing blow to the Lord of the Nazgul. Not only does this save Éowyn from death, but the Witch King’s death causes the entire first wave of Sauron’s force to come out en masse, and, because Aragorn arrives to reinforce the Rohirrim, the entirety of Sauron’s first offensive wave is obliterated.
Pippin alerts Beregond and Gandalf to the madness of Denethor, saving Beregond who couldn’t stop Denethor alone and preventing Faramir from being burned alive. Denethor chose his end through a pride of the will, in spite of a faithful hobbit working to save him. Furthermore, Pippin kills a cave troll to save Beregond, preserving his friend’s life not once but twice.
Each hobbit’s heroism has been long delayed; they have seemed, and felt even to themselves, like baggage on this journey, joining because they eavesdropped or liked the sound of the adventure. Yet, when motivated by love and service, each of the two minor hobbits performs a deed of renown beyond what anyone, even Gandalf, could have predicted for them.
Every character in the epic on both sides underestimates the hobbits. No one on the side of the good more than Denethor, whose depression over the death of his oldest son and glut of information drives him to despair. Yet even avuncular Théoden misunderstands the hobbits and orders Merry not to engage in the war. The destiny of these four, two hobbits and two humans, explores the surprising relationship between humility and heroism, service and sovereignty, hope and despair.
Let’s take a look in this essay at Pippin and Denethor more closely.
Pippin thus far has contributed only problems to the journey. He awakened the goblins in Moria and was indirectly responsible for Boromir’s death. More recently, he glimpsed into the Palantir and stood face-to-face with the eye of Sauron. In so doing, he revealed to Sauron that the halflings he’d heard rumors about really were an integral part of the plan of the Enemies of the Ring and that Sauron’s palantir had fallen into enemy hands. As the final book opens, Gandalf has thrown Pippin onto his horse and rushed to Gondor to avert what danger he can before Sauron’s plans can swing into action against the last stronghold of the West.
Upon arrival in Gondor, Denethor ignores Gandalf and hems Pippin in with a hostile interrogation about Boromir’s death, which Pippin had witnessed and for which Denethor holds Pippin responsible. When Gandalf and Pippin enter Denethor’s throne room, Denethor is silently staring at Boromir’s broken horn in his lap, the horn that Boromir blew with his dying breath killing Uruk-hai to preserve the lives of all four hobbits: Sam and Frodo as they ran away, and Merry and Pippin as they were captured. Pippin reflects honestly and without bitterness on Boromir’s heroic, though ultimately unsuccessful, last stand : “I honor his memory, for he was very valiant….and though he fell and failed, my gratitude is none the less” (V, Ch. 1). Denethor responds with scorn, noting that he has “little love” for any halfling.
And then Pippin makes an unexpected choice, one which surprises even Gandalf. He offers his sword to Denethor to serve as a faithful knight for the remainder of this war. Pippin’s own words capture his motivation best as he explains, “Little service, no doubt, will so great a lord of Men think to find in a hobbit…yet such as it is, I will offer it, in payment of my debt” (V, Ch. 1). Pippin chooses to serve in memory of Boromir’s valiant, though failed, defense of the hobbits. For the first time in this epic, Pippin has a purpose.
This purpose doesn’t solve all Pippin’s problems. Temporarily, it makes them a great deal worse. What Pippin will not let go of—as the clouds loom over the white city and the enemy host gathers on the opposite shore of the Anduin—is hope. He explains to Beregond and the other humans tempted to despair, “No, my heart will not yet despair. Gandalf fell and has returned and is with us. We may stand, if only on one leg, or at least be left still upon our knees.” (V, Ch. 1). Pippin doesn’t hold the hope of the sentimentalist; he’s aware of the danger that looms and the consequences that could follow, but the realism in his hope doesn’t diminish it. Rather, it gives it substance. I can’t help but wonder how much strength Pippin gained from his time with Treebeard.
Service in Song
While serving as a knight of the Citadel, Denethor clarifies Pippin’s specific duties in the following way: “You shall wait on me, bear errands, and talk to me, if war and council leave me any leisure. Can you sing?” In response to the abrupt question, Pippin admits to knowing songs but none “fit for great halls and evil times,” since the worst evils most hobbits face are “wind and rain” (V, Ch. 4). Pippin’s chosen purpose still leaves him feeling out of place, as he muses that Gandalf called him a pawn, he muses later to himself that he must be “on the wrong chessboard” (V, Ch. 4).
All this time, Pippin watches as Denethor’s counsel changes from ignoring Gandalf’s advice to outright rejecting it in favor of his own. Meanwhile, in this fight with Gandalf, Denethor feels he has lost his only remaining son, Faramir, whom he describes dismissively as the “wizard’s pupil” (V, Ch. 1). Denethor’s distance from the rest of the Western men becomes clear in his bitter reproach of Gandalf’s plan to send the Ring with Sam and Frodo into Mordor. Denethor’s plan was that the Ring:
should have been kept hidden, hidden dark and deep. Not used, I say, unless at the uttermost end of need, but set beyond his grasp, save by a victory so final that what then befell would not trouble us, being dead. (V, Ch. 7)
As Denethor describes his alternative plan, one can’t help but wonder if he would already be using the Ring were it in his possession right now. Does Denethor have the prudence to know when they have reached “the uttermost end of need”? Denethor seems unable to apply his criticism of Gandalf to himself when he says:
You are wise, maybe, Mithrandir, yet with all your subtleties you have not all wisdom. Counsels may be found that are neither the webs of wizards nor the haste of fools. I have in this matter more lore and wisdom than you deem. (V, Ch. 7)
If Denethor cannot trust the lore and wisdom of Gandalf, combining it with his own perspective, than what does he have that he deems superior to the wizard’s wisdom? This isn’t revealed until Denethor’s death, and we first need to look back at the humble perspective of our hobbit to find his wisdom.
Pippin’s realistic perspective does not place all his confidence in Gandalf or himself. Yet for all that he grasps the stakes more clearly and his own role in it. He teeters on despair when he asks Gandalf if “there is any hope…for Frodo, I mean; or at least mostly for Frodo” (V, Ch. 4). But when explaining his perspective to Beregond, he says, “This is a great war long-planned, and we are but one piece in it, whatever pride may say….And now all realms shall be put to the test, to stand, or fall—under the Shadow.” Pippin knows that some will stand and some will fall. He will fight standing until he falls. In his oath of service to Denethor, he swore loyalty “until my lord release me, or death take me, or the world end” (V, Ch. 1). That’s a comprehensive oath!
Preliminary Lessons from Pippin
I want to pause here and explain why I think Pippin resonates so well with the middle-school boys I teach. We want to motivate our students to practice and achieve excellence in all they do, but we often use methods or words that have the opposite effect. A middle-school boy has much the same enthusiasm and optimism about the world as Pippin, a much healthier dose than the average jaded adult. Yet, early teens often feel at their most useless, like baggage schlepped from school to sports to church and back again in an endless cycle that I often compare to the moving walkways in airports. Even if your son does very little, he still moves forward on the momentum of the whole system.
Thus, we should actively look for ways to encourage our sons to take risks and serve before they turn eighteen, or graduate from college into the “real world.” We should encourage them to look for problems to solve and people to serve now and we should give them the time and place to do this.
The scope of Pippin’s initial pledge seems suffocatingly small; he’ll be stuck at the top of a heavily-guarded citadel serving an aged and tottering monarch. So too can service to our boys seem to have little impact: I just need to mow the lawn, do the dishes, shovel the neighbor’s driveway (for free). What good does that really do? Yet, the hope of Pippin shows that we should do the good we’re capable of, and not shy away from it because the gift is small. That means “free time” or “leisure time” for our middle-schoolers shouldn’t just be filled with college-application-padding sports and extra-curriculars. Rather, it should be used honing their skills and talents in service of the family, school, and local community. Ask yourself to list five ways your son contibutes to the household, three ways he contributes to his school, and one way he contributes to his community. Many of us couldn’t complete the list.
One could argue that the uselessness of the hobbits was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Gandalf was the only character who insisted on their involvement and even the hobbits often felt useless. Nonetheless, each hobbit seeks to serve in the situation he finds himself. Most of their actions can be seen as an echo of Frodo’s famous words in the Council of Elrond: “I will take the ring…though I do not know the way” (II, Ch. 2). The kernel of Pippin’s contribution to the quest is found in this same optimism. Pippin isn’t sure how he can serve, but he keeps seeking ways to help and not distract. His impulsive offer puts him in a position to save the lives of Faramir and Beregond both. But let’s find our way back first to his service for Denethor.
The Seeds of Despair
As the siege of Gondor begins, Denethor’s despair metastasizes from a personal loss to a political one. As Faramir is carried in from the futile defense of Osgiliath, poisoned by an enemy dart and just barely breathing, Denethor leaps to conclusions that he has now lost his son and the West in one stroke. He first focuses on what he himself loses—sounding selfishly uninterested in the fate of the West—when he laments “I sent my son forth, unthanked, unblessed, out into needless peril, and here he lies with poison in his veins. Nay, nay, whatever may now betide in war, my line too is ending, even the House of the Stewards has failed. Mean folk shall rule the last remnant of the Kings of Men…” (V, Ch. 7) His biggest loss is that his line has failed. He pivots quickly from this to “Comfort me not with wizards! The fool’s hope has failed. The Enemy has found it, and now his power waxes; he sees our very thoughts, and all we do is ruinous” (V, Ch. 7)
In Denethor’s rage and madness, Pippin has one more opportunity to serve his master. Ironically, this final act of fidelity comes as Denethor releases Pippin from his oath. Denethor goes to the tombs of his forefathers with Faramir’s body and prepares a funeral pyre for both of them. Pippin insists that Faramir is sick, not dead, but Denethor cannot or will not hear him. Denethor even bleakly assumes that everyone will follow a similar course of action as he releases Pippin with the following words: “Farewell, Peregrin son of Paladin! Your service has been short, and now it is drawing to an end. I release you from the little that remains. Go now, and die in what way seems best to you.” Thankfully, poor Pippin is wise enough to ignore at least part of this last command.
Pippin goes but does not die. First he alerts Beregond that neither of them are anymore the “servant of a grim master in the greatest peril” but they face “a madman…not a lord” (V, Ch. 2; Ch. 7). Though Beregond acts heroically, it is still at the leadership and guidance of Pippin, who sees most clearly the madness of his master.
Tolkien isn’t done with Denethor’s tragedy, and we now see the epic effects which Denethor’s paternal and political madness brings upon Middle Earth. At the same moment that Denethor abandons his leadership of the city, the Lord of the Nazgul attacks Minas Tirith mounted on his dragon. Gandalf uses all of his power and faces him at the gate, and at the same moment the unseen aid of the Rohirrim arrive over the horizon. While the Nazgul flies to deal with the new threat, Gandalf is prevented from following up his initial challenge because Pippin is pulling on his sleeve to warn him about Denethor’s madness. Gandalf races to the top of Minas Tirith to find a raving Denethor and Beregond single-handedly preventing Denethor from lighting himself and his son on fire.
Denethor, in the depths of his despair, reveals the source he used to come to the conclusion that “the West has failed”: a palantír. The “far-seeing stone,” originally six in number, show that Pippin and Denethor’s fates are even more intertwined that we initially thought. Pippin had foolishly glanced into a palantír once; Denethor had consulted the palantír so regularly that it became his most authoritative source of information, more accurate and useful than the “lore and wisdom” he so consistently rejected from Gandalf (V, Ch. 4). “As he held it up, it seemed to those that looked on that the globe began to glow with an inner flame, so that the lean face of the Lord was lit as with a red fire” (V, Ch. 7). This inner flame reveals not just the haggard lines of Denethor’s weary face, but also his own warped sense of self-reliance.
“Pride and despair!” he cried, “Didst thou think that the eye of the White Tower were blind? Nay, I have seen more than thou knowest, Grey Fool. For thy hope is but ignorance. Go then and labour in healing! Go forth and fight! Vanity. For a little space you may triumph on the field, for a day. But against the Power that now arises there is no victory….It is time for all to depart who would not be slaves” (V, Ch. 7). He then proceeds to “explain” Gandalf’s plan to Gandalf. All readers can see that Denethor has misinterpreted the facts, and is raving in thinking that Gandalf wants to be the power behind every throne. Gandalf asks Denethor what he would want, and the answer is revealingly selfish:
I would have things as they were in all the days of my life…and in the days of my longfathers before me: to be the Lord of this City in peace, and leave my chair to a son after me, who would be his own master and no wizard’s pupil. But if doom denies this to me, then I will have naught: neither life diminished, nor love halved, nor honor abated. (V, Ch. 7)
Contrast this with what Pippin or Merry want and you can see someone for whom power now means everything. And so, breaking the staff of his stewardship, Denethor dies grasping the palantír, burning on a pyre built with his own hands. The narrator adds, “ever after, if any man looked in that Stone, unless he had a great strength of will to turn it to other purpose, he saw only two aged hands withering in flame” (V, Ch. 7).
The Lessons of the Palantir
Only two other characters have looked into a palantír in the story thus far. Pippin looked in it for the sake of curiosity and his will was so weak that he merely gaped at Sauron. Aragorn used the same Stone to reveal himself to Sauron and admits, “I had the right and the strength to use it, or so I judged. The right cannot be doubted. The strength was enough—barely” (V, Ch. 2). These palantiri, or far-seeing stones, have a contemporary analogue: our digital devices. They fit in our hands, they show us what we want to see, mostly, and in order to keep them working that way, we must have “a great strength of will.” So the internet is not a neutral tool but a tendentious one, and one which is swarming with click-bait, incendiary headlines, and all kinds of other shiny distractions that stir our passions and appetites, but do little to feed our reason and will. Thus, the will-weakening effect of abuse or overuse of the internet can bring about malaise in a middle-schooler or dejection in an adult.
The powerful parallel between the Internet and the palantiri. Only the strong-willed can see what they want; many are shown things they don’t want to see. Denethor, believing himself to have a stronger will than Sauron, looks more often and more deeply into the Stone, and admits it just before his tragic suicide. Parents should submit the whole family, including themselves, to the same disciplines. All devices stay downstairs, and all screens are always used in a public place. Filtering software, such as Covenant Eyes, ensures accountability, whether for spouses to each other, or children to parents, and conversation about how often and for what purpose devices are used is frequent and preemptive, rather than confrontational and reactive. More importantly, parents should examine their own digital use and admit where it’s excessive or disordered.
In light of the palantir, a second lesson emerges from Pippin for our middle-schoolers. Reject ersatz accomplishments. While everyone’s palantir looks different—after all, that’s the draw of the endlessly personalizable internet—most middle-schoolers are drawn to the blackholes of YouTube and video games. The lure of video-games for most young men is that a set of achievable parameters is placed before them for them to “accomplish.” In reality, they’re just manipulating pixels for a virtual prize, as pixelated as the work they put into it. The un-reality of it all should astound them, but many of them do not give it a thought because “all the other boys have smartphones” or “everyone else plays hours of video-games per week.”
Ask your son what he wants to produce, rather than consume. Can the two of you work on building something he can point to afterward with pride? Can he use his swimming skills to become a lifeguard? Can he use his time to comfort the elderly or visit the sick? The corporal works of mercy provide a useful starting point for finding ways to encourage our sons to serve, but it really boils down to trust and failure. Trust your son with more: responsibility that has real consequences if he fails: cooking meals, doing his own laundry. If and when he doesn’t wash his clothes, he has nothing to wear. If and when he doesn’t cook, he doesn’t eat. Missing one meal kills no one. Indeed, intermittent fasting is really popular right now. Think outside of taking out the trash and mowing the lawn.
Another element of Pippin’s progress is that Gandalf and the men of the West trust him with more at the end of the book than they had at the beginning. Pippin serves Denethor, saves Faramir, and even marches off to the last battle at the Black Gate. We should trust our sons with the information about the attention-fracking of the internet or the counterfeit accomplishment offered by video-games. Engage them in conversations about advertising and marketing. I think of the Princess Bride quote that was famous in my family growing up: “Life is pain, highness, anyone who tells you differently is trying to sell you something.” While not perfectly true, the quotation often served as a good starting point for us to analyze how and why someone wanted our money. Did the product or service really solve a problem?
Many families teach their children to tithe money, and involve them in conversations about the charities supported by the family. Sit down with the family schedule and see if you tithe your time as a family. How much of the family’s schedule is dedicated to helping those who can’t pay us back? Many of the families I’ve known through my years at The Heights have shown me that this isn’t some ideal we can set, it’s something many families consciously choose to do. One mom I know set aside Saturdays for her sons to volunteer teaching soccer, and that same family during the summers would help veterans visit DC and walk through Arlington cemetery. Some families pray outside abortion clinics; others volunteer at a homeless shelter or foodbanks during certain seasons. Brainstorm some ways your son can contribute and that you can all contribute as a family.
Vocation and Valor
Pippin also finds his vocation one step at a time. This gives us a great lesson, too. Do we burden our sons with the big questions in life? Are we asking them questions they are not even interested in themselves? Too many adults in the room—I am as guilty as the rest of us in this—fall into the trap of asking “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Their talents and abilities will lead them to answer this question one step at a time. Asking this question can often paint a picture that “what they want to be” is a one-time decision they must make and ever afterward ratify with all of their behavior.
An easier thing for you and them to focus on their current vocations. God wants them to be a son, brother, student, sibling, and friend right now. How can they learn to serve and love in those areas? What talents and abilities do they bring to these personal relationships right now? If your son can play an instrument well, who else should be benefitting from his musical abilities? Should he play in an orchestra? Can he play for the elderly in the nearby nursing home? We’re all trying to help the boys perfect their current vocations—son, student, brother—with the virtues of those states of life: namely, obedience, diligence, self-sacrificial love. Taking these into their future vocations allows them to flourish one step at a time and to approach the more difficult quests of adult life fully armed with the virtues gained in childhood.
Pippin may not have realized it, but Gandalf tells them explicitly when he leaves them alone to rescue the Shire by themselves. Gandalf explains, “I am not coming to the Shire. You must settle its affairs yourselves….My time is over. You will need no help. You are grown up now. Grown indeed very high; among the great you are, and I have no longer any fear at all for any of you” (VI, Ch. 7). What a great vote of confidence! This expresses something we wish to say to all of our children at some point. We don’t just want them to grow up, we want them to grow great, that is, into men and women capable of doing great things. The hobbits didn’t realize it, but “that is what [they] ha[d] been trained for” (VI, Ch. 7).
I often ask my students what the difference is between a big question and a little one. After letting them ruminate on it for a few months, I eventually offer that while the small questions have answers that fit into a sentence, paragraph, or essay, no medium perfectly suits the answer to a big question. The answers to the big questions must be lived more than learned. School, and the many years we spend in it, are more than a preparation for a career, though the career will be one important fruit of a good education. We are preparing them to answer the question “How then shall we live?” The answer is not one they’ll write with a pen but live in their families, careers, and communities.