NewsWire: 'Sacred stories' mirror Tolkien's tales - CNN.com
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'Sacred stories' mirror Tolkien's tales
CNN.com - March 1, 2003
DAMSTOWN, Maryland (AP) -- Hobbits in their holes could hardly have been cozier than Robert Wilhelm's students, who gathered before a flickering fireplace to swap the stories behind the story of "The Lord of the Rings."
Sipping hot cider against the winter chill, they took turns telling tales from England, Ireland and elsewhere containing themes mirrored in J.R.R. Tolkien's works.
The recent seminar was the first since Wilhelm and his wife, Kelly, moved the school last year from New Mexico to a conference center in Maryland farm country that could double as the Shire, the hobbits' fictional home.
The center, owned by the De La Salle Christian Brothers, an order of education-minded Roman Catholic priests, is on a 400-acre dairy farm in the Appalachian foothills, about 30 miles north of Washington.
Tolkien, a devout Catholic, rejected allegorical interpretations of his work. But Wilhelm, who has a doctorate in theology, said much in the Rings trilogy reflects his school's broad, ecumenical definition of "sacred stories." Besides religious scriptures, they may include folklore and personal experiences, he said.
"Many that we tell are about the search for meaning and our looking for a direction and purpose in our life," Wilhelm said. "We frequently use the metaphor, 'the road.' We're on a journey, and there are many stories about that journey -- some happy ones, some not so happy ones -- but it's a struggle to make sense out of one's life's journey."
The Rings trilogy is "not explicitly religious, but it is implicitly religious," teaching "there's always hope," Wilhelm said.
In that light, Wilhelm and his students, many of whom are members of the clergy, found something both sacred and Tolkienesque about Chaucer's "The Pardoner's Tale" -- a story of greed among travelers -- and about the Norse legend of Sigurd and Fafnir, which features dwarves, a magic sword and a dragon.
They also linked Tolkien's sword-and-sorcery classic to the Civil War battle of Antietam while visiting the battlefield during the weeklong seminar. More than 23,000 soldiers were killed, wounded or went missing there in the bloodiest, single-day clash of the war.
"We thought the connection was that, just as the Tolkien book is about the great battle, this is the place of the one-day, great battle in North America," Wilhelm said. "With the Civil War, there's a kind of sacred aura about it. A lot of lives were lost, a lot of passion was put into it."
The Wilhelms also run a travel business, guiding tours to spots rich in myth and folklore in England, Iceland and other countries. Participants sometimes hear stories told by local residents.
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