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The Tolkien Heads
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Join us as we read through J. R. R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings." Each week we work with a different chapter and explore various themes both in the novel and in our lives.
 
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It’s our last chapter-based episode! Our discussion addresses some old themes in a new light: history as a sequence of interlocking stories (exemplified by the many crossed-out titles in the in-world Lord of the Rings manuscript); and the impossibility of true recovery from some wounds. Besides Frodo’s, we also consider Sam’s recovery following ...…
 
This surprise return to the previous week’s episode—What can we say? We just don’t want to be done!—features an in-depth discussion of Saruman’s death and the circumstances surrounding it, as well as a closer look at Frodo’s persistent pacifism. RANDOM-ASS THEME: WWE wrestling https://thetolkienheads.files.wordpress.com/2019/10/076-19.09.27-sco ...…
 
The Hobbits return from their world-changing adventure to a home that is home no longer. While we have had our eye on the geopolitics of Middle-Earth writ large, strange things have been afoot in the Shire at the hands of “ruffians” and their mysterious leader, and we are afforded a view of the Hobbit-country as an industrialized wasteland. Muc ...…
 
This episode—a favorite of Simon and Garfunkel fans—features an insightful lectio divina discussion on trauma, both physical and psychological (“knife, sting, and tooth, and a long burden”), as we ponder Frodo’s possibly-not-rhetorical question, “Where shall I find rest?” which is ultimately unanswered by Gandalf. The rest of the episode, like ...…
 
In this chapter, in many ways a counterpart to “Many Meetings” (Bk. 2, Ch. 1), we encounter various manifestations of the inevitability of moving on … before the discussion devolves into a surprisingly insightful reflection on the various interrelated systems of government in Gondor and Middle-Earth. Our lectio divina section is a vignette of f ...…
 
This chapter abounds in pervasive uncertainty, biblical symbolism, and some creepy (in the opinion of this Head) romantic advances on the part of the eponymous Steward. Our lectio divina section contemplates the transition from the Third to the Fourth Age, and what that means for Gandalf and the Elves. We ask ourselves whether the Fourth Age is ...…
 
Laudatory, pathetic, elegy, eulogy, panegyric, ethos … the Tolkien Heads appear to have stumbled into an SAT-prep course! We learn a lot about the different kinds of acknowledgements and respects that are being paid to the quartet of Hobbits who, having been plucked from the edge of destruction, are now suddenly the center of more attention tha ...…
 
Finally, Mount Doom! You can practically hear the bubbling and frothing of lava out of rocky fissures in the distance as we spend a disproportionate fraction of this episode debating whether Mount Doom is a true volcano—and, if so, what kind of volcano it is. The lectio divina section looks at Sam’s split-second decision not to kill Gollum … an ...…
 
This chapter was not poorly named: it is all description of the landscape of Mordor, with comparably little plot movement. From brambles to ravines to volcanic clouds, these paragraphs pour forth rich descriptions of aspects of the not-quite-barren country. To help us work through this unforgiving terrain, we are thrilled to welcome as our spec ...…
 
We start our first Book Six episode with a philosophical discussion on Orcish language and the possibility of an Orcish or Mordorean culture, some shocking implications of the etymology of the word screw, and—naturally—a version of Sam’s song from the chapter sung to the tune of the Gilligan’s Island theme. The lectio divina section takes a clo ...…
 
Having finished Book 5, we’ve made it to another Recap Episode, where anything can happen! Among other matters, we discuss the following topics, either for the first time or otherwise expanding on previous conversations: The nature of good stewardship: a comparison of Denethor vs. Gandalf; The “faithfulness” of the Woses, and the implied treatm ...…
 
We finish up Book Five with a discussion of the frankly epic altercation between Gandalf and the ghastly—yet still human!—Messenger. Host Nathan leads a discussion of the “fairy-tale hellscape” in which the action of the book is now set before we dive into our lectio divina analysis. This week’s lectio passage takes a look at how our outer ego ...…
 
This chapter calls us to consider what effect a generation can have on the world, and of what nature that effect ought to be. How can we best prepare the world for future generations? What can we do today to help those who come after us to fight their own battles, which we will know nothing about? After we revisit some themes from the previous ...…
 
For this episode we are accompanied by special guest Arwen, the Creator and Executive Director over at Middle-earth News! She tells us about the site, which is exactly what you would expect: a comprehensive source on all things LOTR in real time. Check it out! With Arwen’s assistance we work through this dense chapter, where we find examples of ...…
 
This tiny chapter is so full of meaning that the Tolkien Heads manage to have an entire conversation about second-person pronouns! Add to this allusions to Greek mythology (the death of King Ægeus—ships with black sails!) and Norse funerary practices (“heathen” ship burials) and we have quite a lot to discuss. We deem despair to be one of the k ...…
 
In a chapter whose epic scope zooms in and out on various participants in this fierce battle, the Tolkien Heads are just trying to keep up. This includes working through some incredibly racist descriptions of the non-white allies of Mordor. The lectio divina section looks at—what else?—Éowyn’s show-stopping confrontation with the Witch-King, Lo ...…
 
For our discussion centered on the character Ghân-buri-Ghân and the “Wild Men”—or Drúedain, or Woses—we are joined by Colin from the Scandinavian branch of our Department of German, Nordic, and Slavic. Our episode delves into the stereotypes of indigenous peoples—but especially of Indigenous Americans—that are manifested in the portrayal of Ghâ ...…
 
What burdens do we place on ourselves? Are they always necessary, or do we sometimes wear the metaphorical chainmail around under our clothes just to impress ourselves? In this chapter we discuss, among other things, Denethor’s paradoxical hypervigilance at home and unwillingness to go to war himself—and what might have inspired him to such a p ...…
 
Our discussion in this chapter begins with a deeper analysis of the desires, limitations, and motivations of Éowyn, especially in relation to both Aragorn and her uncle, Théoden. After that, we dive into the topic that occupies most of this episode: the enigmatic Púkel-men. We are accompanied by Sara, a PhD student in Art History, who puzzles t ...…
 
After contemplating the ambiguous chapter title, we analyze Aragorn’s choice (if a true choice it is) to take the “paths of the Dead.” Other themes are the tension between Éowyn and Aragorn (and the second-person pronouns they use), the oath-breaker’s “worship” of Sauron in days past that led to their curse, and the solemn ritual that the Dúned ...…
 
The Tolkien Heads are back in the swing of things as we follow Pippin on a tour of the breathtaking city of Minas Tirith. We break down the meeting between Gandalf and Denethor and discuss the similarities and differences between lordship and stewardship—and their etymologies, of course. Special guest Charlotte, a PhD student in History, accomp ...…
 
In this fascinating special episode we interview Markus Davidsen, whose PhD research is centered on religious traditions based in fictional works such as Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings. We discuss what the practices and origins of Jedi- and Elf-identifying groups are, what aspects of them typically draw in new practitioners, and to what ex ...…
 
We watched Peter Jackson’s Two Towers (2002) … and we have some thoughts! Our goal with this “review” is not to identify all the differences between the book and the film, which has been done plenty of times already by more diligent note-takers than ourselves. Rather, in this special episode we focus on some particular themes of the Two Towers ...…
 
Join us for a great conversation with Luke Shelton, an academic doing his doctoral research on the reception of J. R. R. Tolkien’s works—and also the films and video games they have inspired—among children and young adults. We interview Luke on his findings and he shares some fascinating insights with us. Of course, we also run through our usua ...…
 
It’s that time again: The Tolkien Heads gather for our Book Four Recap! Join us for an episode of philosophical discussion and reflection as we explore four passages and themes that the four of us have chosen. RANDOM-ASS THEME: The Kylo Ren Challenge https://thetolkienheads.files.wordpress.com/2018/09/053-18-09-26-book-4-wrap-up.mp3…
 
This stunning conclusion to Book Four will reveal whether half-wise (the meaning of Old English Sām-wīs) is wise enough. When Sam recovers from the immediate shock of Frodo’s “death”—tumbling out of a grief-induced blackout—his world is transformed into a Frodo-less nightmare where he is now, for lack of a better phrase, the adult in the room. ...…
 
Parts of this chapter zoom out to what Chris calls the “epic sweep,” and we humble Hosts try to keep up. Frodo and Sam confront what we can only describe as a different, more primordial evil than what we have seen so far: where Orcs, Sauron, and even Melkor/Morgoth represent corruptions or perversions of an original Good, Shelob—unholy spawn of ...…
 
“All the world’s a stage,” but is there any direction in the theater of life, or are we all free to do whatever we want? After the evil city issues forth an infernal army bound eastward and Frodo’s moment of temptation passes, the two Hobbits get a little meta in this chapter. When can we safely say that a tale is over and take pleasure or disp ...…
 
Frodo, Sam, and Gollum take an elaborate left turn. In all seriousness, the main character of this episode—as highlighted in this week’s lectio divina section—is probably none other than the silence that surrounds our wayfarers at this point. The absence of sound plays many roles, both positive and negative, in our lives. What does it foretell ...…
 
Our protagonists are in the Moon country of Ithilien, which becomes clearer in this chapter than ever before. The Moon indeed seems to be playing a vital role, and these paragraphs abound in lunar imagery. This week we are joined by Rev. Greg Farrand. Greg leads us through his own style of lectio divina as we puzzle through a crucial Gollum pas ...…
 
This chapter makes up for its shortness in plot with its rich philosophical discussion on military force, its responsible use, and what its inherent good might be. Our lectio section in particular asks what is required for the ends of war—or, more generally, of the flexing of military muscle—to justify its means. What are some reasons that we a ...…
 
This chapter offers many (too many?) kinds of plants, and Nathan leads an analysis of the role of heather in this landscape. We also spend some time analyzing the curious phrase “dishevelled dryad loveliness.” We encounter the Southrons again, notably in the lectio divina segment. Sam has some insights upon seeing a fallen warrior that generate ...…
 
After Frodo, Sam, and Sméagol/Gollum arrive at the gates of Mordor only to find them shut, our lectio section—as though it were inevitable—ropes us back into our on-again, off-again debate on free will. We also spend a good portion of this episode discussing the Southron men, who are described abundantly in this chapter and have “dark faces” an ...…
 
We explore the (un)dead landscape in this memento mori chapter. As the three (or four?) characters traverse this eerie and corrupted world, we find ourselves asking to what extent Sméagol/Gollum’s own system of morality has been corrupted by the Ring over the course of time. The lectio passage asks what it means for a landscape to be irreversib ...…
 
The Tolkien Heads make a dramatic return from their summer hiatus by turning what might seem an uneventful chapter into one of the most illuminating and challenging discussions yet! At its center is the question of Sméagol-vs.-Gollum, but we also find ourselves unsure of the difference between ‘lords’ and ‘masters’—and whether this is even impo ...…
 
In this special episode we talk to Caroline McAlister, professor of English at Guilford College and author of John Ronald’s Dragons: The Story of J. R. R. Tolkien, a children’s book that imagines a young Tolkien exploring his interests in trees, horses, strange-sounding words, “but most of all … dragons.” Caroline explains her thoughts on readi ...…
 
It finally happened: The Tolkien Heads traveled all the way to Milwaukee to meet with Bill Fliss, the archivist at Marquette University’s Special Collections whose purview includes the J. R. R. Tolkien Collection, a veritable smial of Tolkien’s original manuscripts, sketches, and other fantastic mathoms. In our interview, Bill told us all about ...…
 
We made it through Book Three! Join us as we recollect and reminisce on what has happened to some (but not all!) of the book’s main characters in the first half of The Two Towers. We are joined today, though not for the first time, by The Dwarrow Scholar. After going through a quick summary of the chapters of Book Three, we go into a larger dis ...…
 
We close Book Three with apocalyptic visions through a crystal ball. (Or is it an orb?) We discuss addiction to technology—or perhaps to possessing greater and greater knowledge. Host Nathan tells us more about the hawthorn plant than a palantír ever could. The Tolkien Heads once again have smartphones on the chopping block, as we examine the c ...…
 
The ultimate Saruman chapter. Perhaps we are just falling victim to the notorious spell of Saruman’s melodious baritone, but we can’t help but feel some pity for the Many-Coloured wizard at this point. Do you feel the same way? Much of our discussion this week focuses on pride, humility, and being able to accept help when you need it. RANDOM-AS ...…
 
In this chapter we learn what happened—retold by Merry and Pippin—at the Battle of Isengard. We explore the Huorns a bit further: their nature, their origin, and what makes them so damn angry. Our lectio section focuses on the two very different ways Men and Orcs were dealt with in the aftermath of the battle. Join us as we attempt to read this ...…
 
Our discussion for this chapter hinges on the fate of Isengard. What has happened to this once proud center of learning and good counsel? Is it all a metaphor for industrialization? If so, what does the text suggest as a viable alternative to industrialization? The lectio section asks this question a little differently: What was it that led Sar ...…
 
One epic battle scene for the Two Towers film, but just another day at the office for the Tolkien Heads. We look at the Battle of the Hornburg from every angle, including the topography of Helm’s Deep and the surrounding area. Host Nathan even attempts to teach us what a coomb is. Among other topics, we explore this chapter’s bizarre preoccupat ...…
 
This chapter is so full of references to the Old English language and Anglo-Saxon culture that we feel we have stepped out of Middle-Earth and into medieval England as it was in the days before the Norman Conquest. Hrothgar, the king in the Beowulf epic, would feel right at home in Théoden’s court, and Aragorn recites a few lines of poetry that ...…
 
This fascinating chapter kicks off a comparison of two apparently different Gandalfs (Gendelf?), the old and the new, the Grey and the White. What exactly has happened to our beloved Pilgrim? Imagery of light and dark pervades this episode as we contemplate Gandalf’s journey and transformation. The lectio section asks the question: how can you ...…
 
We discuss the sad history of the Ents and Entwives. But there are also silver linings in this half-chapter, like the notion of having a network of friends in one’s old age. Nathan analyzes the hell out of the name “Quickbeam.” Courage has been deemed the theme of this chapter. We examine the motives of the Ents in their sudden—hasty?—departure ...…
 
What is it like to be an Ent? This episode—or half-episode, since we think “Treebeard” has got enough to work with for two full shows—gives us an anthropological overview of a new species, the Ent, just as we learned about Orcs in the previous chapter. Of course, Ents are anything but new, and have a rich cultural heritage which we are made pri ...…
 
Are Orcs inherently evil? This chapter offers a rare insight into Orcish life. With (yet another) Matt as our special guest, we talk in particular about the essentialization of Middle-Earth species. Much of this week’s discussion is devoted to answering the question: Could an Orc ever be good? RANDOM-ASS THEME: Plastic bags https://thetolkienhe ...…
 
In this episode, in the spirit of Éomer’s exchange with Aragorn, we discuss how to make decisions in tough or novel political times. We also examine—carrying on the discussion from last chapter—what may be seen as the absurdity of Aragorn’s hope that Merry and Pippin may yet be alive. We also see a huge amount of Anglo-Saxon—that is to say, Old ...…
 
The Tolkien Heads are back in action after our winter hiatus! In this episode we jump right into The Two Towers. In a slightly reworked format for the chapter review, Nathan declares this chapter’s theme to be decisions, and indeed the chapter is packed with decisions, choices, and minor crises. We focus in particular on Aragorn’s decision-maki ...…
 
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