A few weeks ago, in the midst of a daylong meeting I was struck by a vision: What if everyone you ever came across was a species or characterization found in The Lord of the Rings and/or The Hobbit? I’m not sure exactly why the thought occurred to me, but I’m guessing it was some combination of the exemplification by whoever was speaking at the time, plus my friend’s wise life-advice to mentally categorize difficult colleagues as patients in a mental ward. I’ve heard others suggest that we could identify an A.A. Milne character — Winnie the Pooh, Piglet, etc. — or combinations thereof to represent anyone we come across, but that seemed to be only entertainment. Moreover, too many people I come across in academe would be Owl or Rabbit — there are too few Roos.
Using Tolkien’s characters as archetypes could be especially useful, and perhaps even more accurate. As I watched different speakers and as my eyes drifted around the room, I started to see if people would fit into a category of Dwarf, Hobbit, Elf, Wizard (good or bad), or Orc/Goblin. (Maybe Tolkien scholars would want me to consider Dragons, Ents, etc., but I’d stop short of including humans because it doesn’t add anything.) Perhaps I’m overgeneralizing what I’m learning from reading Fellowship of the Ring to my daughters, or maybe I’m too excited about The Hobbit coming out on screens soon, but I’m starting to find the labels useful. You can imagine the elegant and eloquent woman at the podium as an elf, a stodgy and stubborn scholar as a dwarf. I immediately pictured myself as a hobbit, but I wonder if everyone wouldn’t self-identify as Frodo. No, probably not. Too many people will identify themselves as a wizards, but they’re really dwarfs. At best. These are the same delusions that get dwarves into precarious situations with dragons.
The Tolkien exercise is useful in helping me understand how to work with other people. It suggests certain empathies and strategies for working with those around a boardroom table at a committee meeting. Better still, it gives me hope. A collection of different characters, even though they may have discrepant skills and motivations, can sometimes do something really worthwhile, even miraculous. You just have to play to one another’s strengths. And, before you can do that, you have to know what strengths those are. We can accept the short temper and stubbornness of the dwarf if they have bravery and strength; we might welcome the trepidations and misgivings of a hobbit if he brings a little luck and some good genes; you’ll put up with the self-righteousness of an elf if he can provide some wisdom and archery skills.
There are other lessons, like watch out for trolls; and be careful what you pick up in dark caves. Yet I suppose the real story in these epic journeys is about getting along, seeing each other for what they are, and start putting one foot in front of the other, together. Maybe another day I’ll take this more to heart. For now, it’s enough to consider the non-wizard across the table from me and nod, internally and knowingly at his dwarf mentality. It’s the best a hobbit can do.