Thursday, July 28, 2005
Frodo Baggins, A.B.D.By SUSIE J. LEEWhen I was A.B.D., I tried to motivate myself to write my dissertation bysetting deadlines that corresponded with the premieres of Peter Jackson'scinematic interpretation of J.R.R. Tolkien's epic trilogy, The Lord of theRings. My goal was to have a first full draft of the dissertation writtenby the time the third movie, The Return of the King, came out at the endof 2003, and to watch all three films back-to-back in Times Square incelebration of the achievement.I didn't exactly meet that deadline. But once I had finished mydissertation and successfully graduated, I watched all three movies again,this time on DVD, and was struck by how closely the story mirrors theexperience of writing a dissertation.For those who have not read the books or seen the films, the significantparts of the story center around a long journey made by a hobbit namedFrodo Baggins. He travels across a land called Middle-earth to throw aring into the middle of a volcano called Mount Doom -- an action that, fordoctoral students, is known as "filing the dissertation."Like many a dissertator, Frodo's terrible and treacherous mission has adual nature. He cannot, and does not, accomplish the goal without the helpof others, but ultimately, he must bear the great load alone.Frodo is accompanied on the journey by his hobbit friends Sam, Merry, andPippin. Merry and Pippin are like fellow graduate students still doingtheir course work. Their carefree nature disappears along the journey,however, as they begin to recognize the impending doom of becoming All ButDissertation. By the end of the second movie, The Two Towers, Merry andPippin have passed their comprehensive exams and gained a greatermaturity, but it is not clear whether they will go on to the dissertationphase. Maybe they've decided that an academic career is not for them.Frodo, on the other hand, has made the decision that he wants to go allthe way. His most important companion is Sam, who is the equivalent ofFrodo's "partner."Sam is not a Ph.D. student, and more than anyone else, he has the terribleburden of being the one closest to the ring bearer. Sam's own fate is tiedto that of the ring yet he is helpless to determine his future in a directmanner. He cannot make Frodo finish; he can only try to make it easier forFrodo to do so. He is the long-suffering hero whom every ring bearerthanks at the beginning or end of the acknowledgments of the dissertation-- the one about whom everyone writes "I couldn't have done it withoutyou."On their way to file the dissertation, Sam and Frodo separate one time.The separation is the result of a deception spun by a fallen soul namedGollum -- aka, the doctoral candidate who will never finish.Gollum lived with the ring for many years and it destroyed his life, mind,and well-being. Gollum is the living image of what Frodo will become ifFrodo cannot complete his task. Frodo in fact pities Gollum, while Sam canonly feel disgust and distrust for the miserable creature.If the ring is to be destroyed -- and the dissertation finished -- newalliances must be formed. Without that fellowship, Frodo's quest isdoomed. But a partner alone cannot provide enough support for thedifficult mission.For example, he is stabbed three times during the course of his journey bydisgusting and horrible creatures. He is hounded by terrifying beingscalled the Ringwraiths. Those attacks are the equivalent of thedissertator's endless financial struggles. Each loss of funds prevents himfrom paying enormous photocopying costs, expenses for travel to archives,bills for books and supplies, health insurance, and campus fees. They takea toll on his morale and his health and increase his stress andexhaustion.One of Frodo's key supporters who tries to protect him from those problemsis a wizard named Gandalf, who, for our purposes, represents Frodo'sdissertation committee, usually made up of three people.Gandalf is instrumental in running interference for Frodo and making surethat he can complete his mission. He writes recommendations for grants andletters of introduction to libraries. He critiques drafts, locatespossible sources of money, and feeds his student whenever possible. Mostimportant, he offers intellectual guidance and moral support. Gandalf hashis own challenges, however. In the Mines of Moria, he faces down ahorrifying demon called the Balrog -- meaning he must also teach,research, publish, and serve on committees.Frodo's "fellowship" also includes family, friends, dissertation groups,fellow doctoral students, professors, undergraduates, and archival andadministrative staff members. They provide counsel, writing deadlines,good company, book references, housing, theoretical critiques, and otherkey assistance. There are even filmmakers like Peter Jackson who provideincentives around which dissertation deadlines can be set.Yet while all that support is critical, the mission of the ring is stillFrodo's alone. Even with help, can he achieve his goal?The drama of filing the dissertation is heightened at the end of theprocess, in those last months of writing, editing, and formatting. Acritical scene in The Return of the King highlights the deep emotionalstruggle between Frodo and his alter ego, Gollum.Frodo and Sam have finally arrived at Mount Doom, which means that Frodofinally has the full draft. But he looks terrible; he has been defeatedemotionally and spiritually by the burden of carrying the ring. He hasreached the end of his long journey, but will he file?At the volcano, Sam yells to Frodo to throw in the ring. But by this time,the strain and burden of carrying the ring for so long has damaged Frodo'smind; he doesn't want to let go. He looks at Sam with a crazed look andsays, "The ring is mine!" which, translated, means that he can't or won'tfinish; he has more research to do, more editing; the dissertation is justnot good enough; he must reformat the page numbers.He has taken the step toward becoming Gollum. He will remain A.B.D.forever. Sam cries pitifully. His life is ruined, too.All of a sudden, Gollum appears and wrestles Frodo to the ground. Theystruggle for the ring and Gollum bites off Frodo's finger. Gollum hasunwittingly forced Frodo to rise up and save himself from himself. As theystruggle, they fall from the ledge, and the ring falls into the moltenlava (along with Gollum). The deed is finally done. The dissertation isfiled.But Frodo has completed his mission unwillingly. The year of carrying thering has damaged him and taken the joy from his life. He has completed hisquest, but he's not happy. Can he recover?Several years later, Frodo is back in his comfortable home in the Shireand has completed the book manuscript for the story of his journey, calledThe Lord of the Rings. But he confesses to Sam that he is still not atpeace. He leaves the Shire on a big boat to find peace and be with hismentor, Gandalf, and other associate and full professors in a faraway landcalled tenure.Having shared my Frodo allegory with my dissertation group and my fellowgraduate students, we've started to refer to the dissertation as the"ring." When we share stories about writing 12 hours a day for months onend with little human contact, or about feeling angry with people who havethe time to eat in nice restaurants and go to the movies, we say, "That'sthe power of the ring."The moral of the story, because there is always a moral to these kinds ofstories, is to take care of your health and appreciate those around you.Unlike Frodo, we all have the job market to go through, too.Susie J. Lee received her Ph.D. in history from Cornell University inAugust 2004.