This week we celebrate Tolkien Reading Day. I have been a fan of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work since I discovered it in college. I started The Lord of the Rings, like many projects, because the guy I was infatuated with at the time liked the book. As I read the trilogy, however, its grandeur and power took hold of my imagination. I have read it many times since, each time finding new insights into the book and my circumstances at the time.
When I became a foster parent, I often felt like a small hobbit contesting with magic. My children’s trauma was so deep and had caused so much damage that I didn’t think I ever would be able to find a way to help them. In those days, whenever I reread LOTR, I was drawn to the fact that the main characters embarked on their quest not for glory, but because someone had to do it. As Elrond said, “I think that this task is appointed for you, Frodo; and that if you do not find a way, no one will.” Frodo did manage to find a way, and it reminded me that I could, too.
That theme of perseverance runs throughout Tolkien’s writing. Each of the heroes faces despair and defeat many times throughout the tale, but each one finds a way to keep moving forward. Sometimes they explain themselves in high-flown language, as when one of the elven characters comments, “Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.” Other times, Tolkien used simple sturdy English, as when Sam the gardener says, ““I’m beginning to feel that if we’ve got to go on, then we’d best get it over. ‘It’s the job that’s never started as takes longest to finish,’ as my old gaffer used to say.” For all of the characters, though, the principle is the same.
It is no accident that Tolkien understood the importance of not giving up. If the ACEs scale had been a thing in Tolkien’s day, he would have had an incredibly high score. His father died when he was four, and his mother died when he was twelve. During those eight years, his mother converted to Catholicism. At the time, anti-Catholic feelings were rampant, and both her and her husband’s families ostracized her. She essentially was cut off financially and her son later wrote that she “died of a disease hastened by persecution of her faith.” World War I broke out when Tolkien was a young man, and he enlisted in the British Army along with a group of close friends. Only one friend and Tolkien survived the war. His wartime experiences are reflected throughout LOTR. From his childhood and young adult trauma, Tolkien managed to create a masterpiece.
There is an encouraging lesson there for those of us who are foster parents and stepparents. Whatever trauma our children may have suffered, it does not define them or set their future. Our job is to find the resources to not give up on helping them. In the words of Tolkien, “Courage is found in unlikely places.”