By: Liz Jorgensen
“A University is a society for the pursuit of learning. As students, you will be expected to make yourselves, or to start making yourselves, into what the Middle Ages called clerks: into philosophers, scientists, scholars, critics, or historians. And at first sight this seems to be an odd thing to do during a great war. What is the use of beginning a task which we have so little chance of finishing? Or, even if we ourselves should happen not to be interrupted by death or military service, why should we — indeed how can we — continue to take an interest in these placid occupations when the lives of our friends and the liberties of Europe are in the balance? Is it not like fiddling while Rome burns?”
–C.S. Lewis, excerpt from “Learning in War Time,” from collection The Weight of Glory
“Is it not like fiddling while Rome burns?” Yes, that is exactly what teaching during the Coronavirus feels like some days. I think I catch a snatch of music and a whiff of smoke every time I create a Romeo and Juliet assignment and send it out into the void of cyberspace, hoping that a handful of students will find it, complete it, and send it back. It also feels a bit like fiddling while the Titanic sinks, as a popular meme has recently depicted:
And what about our students? Must some of them feel like these musicians, bound to complete work of the mind while the world crashes around them?
This marking period of COVID has been a roller coaster. On one hand, I think I’ve slept more in these months than in the rest of my adult life combined, so that’s nice, I guess.
On the other hand, my teaching world has been turned upside down, a lot of my students have stopped even attempting to complete assignments, and I’m now trying to finish a yearbook and plan various versions of graduation ceremonies remotely, which is difficult to say the least. And also, people are dying in large numbers all over the world due to a microscopic virus, so there’s that.
In order to cope with the stress of both my job and the perils of the world at large, I have resorted to re-reading books that I loved as a child. I had already planned on re-reading The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien this summer to brush up on my ancient Middle Earth history in preparation for the imminent TV series planned to release in 2021 (barring, I don’t know, like, a PANDEMIC or something… don’t worry. Production is halted, but the release date has not been changed. Crisis averted, for now.)
So, I decided, why not start with The Hobbit and re-read all the way through the trilogy too? My family used to listen to the NPR audio dramatized version every summer when driving up to the beach. I have many fond memories of singing along to “Far over the misty mountains cold, through dungeons deep and caverns old,” trying to guess the riddles of Bilbo and Gollum, and hearing the thundering voice of Thorin Oakenshield, King Under the Mountain.
While diving into beloved fantasy worlds of my childhood, my reading during quarantine has felt a lot like coming home. It has felt like waking up from this bad dream I’m stuck in and stepping into something more solid, more foundational, more… true.
On the surface, this may seem strange. I wondered to myself, why am I finding solace in stories of danger and distress during a dangerous and distressing time?
There are probably lots of psychologically interesting answers to this question, but I was especially drawn to something I noticed in the foreword to The Fellowship of the Ring, written by Tolkien himself. I had forgotten the interesting fact that much of this book was written during WWII. In recounting the process of writing The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien says, “In spite of the darkness of the next five years I found that the story could not now be wholly abandoned, and I plodded on, mostly by night, till I stood by Balin’s tomb in Moria.”
In spite of the darkness. I plodded on, mostly by night. This caught my attention, not only as a masterful description of his life during the war, but also as a pretty accurate description of what I’m feeling right now. And what the characters were feeling at that point. And what he himself was feeling.
Tolkien goes on to adamantly claim that the story was not a fantastical depiction of the war. He says, “as for any inner meaning or ‘message,’ it has in the intention of the author none,” and further, “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations.”
However, he later admits that, “an author cannot of course remain wholly unaffected by his experience… One has indeed personally to come under the shadow of war to feel fully its oppression; but as the years go by it seems now often forgotten that to be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years. By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead.” Tolkien was a man who both came of age and created works of art during times of bleak destruction. He understood what it was to be uncertain of the fate of the world. While his works were not about his experiences, his experiences did color his stories, as is the case with us all.
Tolkien clarifies that, “many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory,’” and though he felt that his story was no allegory of the Allies’ struggle against Hitler, nor of any one war in particular, it was indeed applicable to them all, and so to all of life. And so to our current predicament of fear and uncertainty. These beloved stories feel like home because the themes ground us in truth in a world that feels like it’s spinning out of control.
While pouring over the foreword, I was reminded of an essay referenced by a former professor on a radio show I recently listened to. It is called “Learning in Wartime” by Tolkien’s good friend C.S. Lewis, and in it, Lewis addresses a group of young Oxford students and tackles the question of whether university students should continue their academic pursuits during a time of national crisis in WWII. In other words, whether they should continue “fiddling while Rome burns,” as referenced earlier.
Lewis claims that the main difference between war time and peace time is that war reminds us that “100 percent of us die,” and that when we are not in crisis, we tend to forget that.
I think that we all are uncomfortable during this time for many reasons, but one of those reasons is because mortality is nearer to our conscious thought than in most of our day-to-day lives. But, if there is one thing that literature does well, it is tackle big questions like mortality. As I read in The Fellowship of the Ring about Boromir gasping out his last breath against a tree, pierced with black arrows, and the horn of Gondor cloven at his side, I openly wept. Was I weeping for this beloved, yet fictional character, or was I weeping for those gasping out their last breaths in hospitals? Or maybe, was I weeping for both? Perhaps processing ideas of mortality through a story helps us deal with those looming questions.
In the end, Lewis does conclude that academic study can be pursued with good conscience during crisis because it grounds us in truth and beauty, even, or especially, during unsteady times. For English teachers, the nature of whose work is the written word, this is especially true. Even while I’m reading in The Lord of the Rings about plodding through the long dark of Moria, I know that there is a small seedling of a white tree up in the mountains, and that after the war, Aragorn will dig up that seedling and bring it back to Gondor, and there will be light and laughter again, and that this quarantine will lift, and we will be able to gather again with those we love.
Tolkien says in his foreword that his prime motive in writing The Lord of the Rings was, “the desire of a tale-teller to try his hand at a really long story that would hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times maybe excite them or deeply move them.” Continue to read those stories that deeply move you, friends. If they are moving you, they are working something in you, even if you can’t put your finger on exactly what that is.
And don’t worry about fiddling while Rome burns or the Titanic sinks because this is not the end. Play that music for your students until the embers die or the water stills. Guess what grows up after a fire? Trees. And the people in lifeboats are going to need some beautiful music to encourage them as they paddle toward the rescue ships.
Liz Jorgensen (formerly Keiper) is a contributing blogger for WVCTE. When she’s not dressing up in togas or running around her classroom with foam swords reenacting Shakespeare, she can be found enjoying the great outdoors, playing guitar, or adding to her rather out-of-control rubber duck collection. You can follow her on Twitter @LizJorgenTeach.
WVCTE is wondering…
What stories are grounding you in truth and bringing you comfort during this time? What stories are doing the same for your students?
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