“We cared little for what lay beyond the borders of our land. Songs we have that tell of these things, but we are forgetting them, teaching them only to children, as a careless custom.”
These are the words of Théoden, King of Rohan, in JRR Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’.
This is not going to be an in-depth look at ‘Lord of the Rings’ – Sorry if that’s what you’d like. But it represents just one of those moments of Tolkien brilliance that, to my eyes, make him one of the finest writers there has ever been. It is a small discussion between Théoden and Gandalf the wizard, only a few paragraphs in a tome of hundreds of pages, but it is deeply meaningful.
It is a moment that encapsulates the very essence of why I wanted to make ‘We Lack Discipline’ a thing in the first place.
Spoilers for ‘Lord of the Rings’ ahead:
At this moment the Rohirrim (the people of Rohan) have just successfully defended the fort of Helm’s Deep from a huge army of Saruman the wizard – It was an army of orcs and men – the movies do a bad job of conveying just how many humans fought on the side of evil.
Some of the allies of the Rohirrim in this quest, brought at the behest of Gandalf, are the Ents and the Huorns. Ents are tree-shepherds, usually described as being tree-like themselves but with piercing eyes. Huorns are sort of like trees that move and have a will and, by the sounds of it, the ability to gobble up an awful lot of orc corpses.
It is about these that Théoden is speaking in his quote above. He is awestruck by these figures of legend showing themselves before his eyes. Before this he talks of the lives of men, the farming, tending of beasts, making of tools, building of houses and how they thought this was ‘the way of the world’. He is musing on how misguided his understanding of the world, the nature of things, of life itself, has been. Then he says that quote above.
It really struck me, re-reading it. This is the wonderful thing about re-reading beloved books at different times in your life.
This time around it punched me in the face. When I last read the book WLD was barely a twinkle in my eye. It was a concept, for sure, it has been for decades. But nothing was solid, there was no mission, no direction, no idea of what I wanted it to be. I knew I wanted to write or talk about things I was interested in. I did not know that I specifically wanted the tone I have taken, and I specifically wanted ‘A Sweary Primary School for Grown-Ups!’
I recognised a couple of things in coming up with the idea of ‘We Lack Discipline’.
Number one is how immersed we are in an artifice far removed from what one could call the ‘real world’. We think, as Théoden admits to, that the ‘lives of men’ are ‘the way of the world’.
I’ve always felt this, possibly due to my autism. But it being a potential reflection of my autism does not make it less true. Our success as a species has been entirely cultivated by a mastery of the world around us, a dominance of it, and a re-building of the natural resources around us into a configuration more suitable to its habitation by us.
Our dwellings, our pastures, our agriculture, our cultures with their fads, fashions and whims – It all has a purpose of our own success.
Yet in so doing we deny certain realities. The ground beneath us is not fixed, the sky above not static, the climate not stable, our position of success nowhere near guaranteed. There is doubt all around us, and doubt is what I want to spread.
Nature, life, the world – It is bigger than us and we are but a small part of a massively interconnected system.
Our farms, our cities and our businesses may seem like “Life” but they are only our ways. The world, our universe, consists of many other organisms, systems and processes of which we are only a small part. (Credit: Public domain via Pxfuel, pixabay and picryl)
This is felt immensely when natural disaster strikes. Many end up wondering how it could have happened, because so vast and drastic a change is impossible for us to comprehend. But it is only impossible when we see the lives of humans as ‘the way of the world’ as Théoden remarks. There are bigger forces at play, and they are forces we have worked hard to erase from our minds, and have passed into legend.
We fail to see the Ents for the trees, if you will.
But the big part, the part that most resonates with my mission is teaching things only to children, ‘as a careless custom’.
I’ve been known to throw profanities around and, to be honest, I fuckin’ enjoy it! I’ve made much of the class warfare in intellectual pursuits and how disenfranchising that world can be to people more accustomed to different tones, accents or dialects.
That is bad enough, but most disturbing of all is the infantilisation of learning.
That’s why I don’t fucking want this to be for kids!
There are enough resources out there for kids to indulge their curiosity. But the stuff aimed at adults? Eh.
All too often it is dry, too respectable for its own good, and assumes knowledge or understanding that is not there. It can be hard, as an adult, to be curious about something about which you know nothing. Snobbery, classism, racism, sexism, and just bog-standard gatekeeping, are all barriers for many people who may wish to indulge a curiosity.
I want to change that. I want greater access for curiosity, more diverse voices for information for the same reason Théoden recognises here. The Ents were not hidden per se, though they kept themselves to themselves. Rather they were forgotten, and became little more than a warning in nursery rhymes for children, a myth of the dangers of the forest. Those with eyes to see, and curiosity enough to look, could have found them. Humans, having found them, could have empathised, communicated, and in so doing found themselves powerful allies and trusted friends.
Knowledge being the realm of the few creates ignorance in the many. This is dangerous.
There is immense value to us as individuals, as communities, as societies and as a global collective, to learning and understanding the phenomena we are immersed in.
But the knowledge of the Ents passed to being little more than kiddy folklore, since the lives of men were too important to interrupt swanning about learning about forests and their guardians.
What is lost when the so-called ‘lives of men’ become all-encompassing at the expense of exploration or curiosity? When our jobs and lives and wars are more important than learning and understanding the world around us? This isn’t Middle-Earth either! Forget the world! We’ve got the James Webb Space Telescope! We have an entire universe to explore!
And yet most people will never learn of it, or at least rarely take their learning beyond a basic level. Learning, after all, is what you do in school. School is for children. University is for the purpose of getting jobs and employability, not about curiosity. We must all make a living. There’s no time for curiosity and, besides, where can one go to indulge it?
I disagree with this. Human mastery of their environment is born out of curiosity, and the solutions to many of the world’s major problems will only be solved by curiosity, enquiry and exploration of new ideas. That curiosity gets neglected as adult lives become complicated nightmares of work-life balance, mortgages, economies, numbers and figures, stresses and strains. We have prescribed roles for the curious, and as with so much we must compete to prove ourselves the most curious, the most deserving of those roles. Those who don’t meet those criteria are fated to neglect their curiosity and much of the wonder of our world is relegated to songs, taught to children, as a careless custom.
It is up to the curious to lead the way. To welcome new voices, to promote new ways of communicating that appeal to a variety of audiences. To stoke the fires of interest in those in whom that fire is dulled by the grind of the ‘ways of men’.
Be grown up. Be curious. See the Ents.