J.R.R. Tolkein’s beloved trilogy offers lessons for life and medicine, including journeying with our patients through dark times and effectively engaging in teamwork.
J.R.R Tolkien’s literary trilogy, “The Lord of the Rings,” is, in our opinion, the one fantasy series to rule them all. For decades, the world of Middle-earth has provided millions of readers and fans with a cathartic escape from the troubles of daily life, war, political strife, and, more recently, a pandemic. Tolkien depicts such a meticulously detailed history that it rivals an infectious disease consultation note. Yet, it is still enjoyed by even the casual Hobbit enthusiast.
Middle-earth was first brought to the big screen in 2001 by Peter Jackson, with the movie trilogy netting approximately $3 billion at the box office. We both have fond memories of waiting in line at the midnight showings and experiencing the magic for the first time. Tolkien’s work is still beloved today, as is shown by the recent 2022 debut of Amazon’s “The Rings of Power” series.
The Lord of the Rings is truly precious to us and countless others. One of us walked down the aisle to music from the movie soundtrack. The other traveled to New Zealand, where the movies were filmed, for a babymoon to see Middle-earth in person. Through our love for Middle-earth, we’ve learned important lessons from Tolkien’s work that we believe are applicable for our journeys in medicine and wish to share some of these lessons with all of you.
1. Samwise Gamgee: a hero we should emulate.
Dr. William Osler would surely agree that Samwise Gamgee, a Hobbit, embodies the ideal physician. Sam journeys with the main protagonist, Frodo Baggins, across Middle-earth, encouraging and going with him to the fires of Mount Doom in his quest to destroy the One Ring. Sam “did not think of himself as heroic or even brave, or in any way admirable–except in his service and loyalty [to Frodo].” Yet, Sam provides an ever-present source of hope for the protagonist in the darkest of places.
We should strive to journey with our patients throughout their lives, perhaps even offering to carry them for a while should their burden become too heavy.
“‘Come, Mr. Frodo!’ he cried. ‘I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you.’”
–Sam, from “Return of the King.”
2. The importance of “fellowship.”
The foundation of the Lord of the Rings is the Fellowship of the Ring: a team made up of four hobbits, two men, an elf, a dwarf, and a wizard. They all contributed in different ways through their diverse skills and distinct personalities, but each one played an important role in the quest of destroying the One Ring and thereby vanquishing Sauron. Similarly in medicine, “one does not simply” take care of patients alone. Giving excellent care to patients requires an interdisciplinary approach, and effective teamwork in medicine is key to both patient satisfaction and professional fulfillment.
3. Gandalf the White: the ultimate teacher.
Gandalf, the mystical wizard, is an inspiration to us as aspiring clinician-educators. While he is arguably the most powerful and wisest of the fellowship, Gandalf recognizes that he is not at the center of the story. He merely sets the ring-bearer (read: learner) up for success in his quest, supporting the fellowship and offering guidance. He is (spoiler alert) sacrificial and sees potential in the Hobbits that the “big folk” and even themselves do not. He is never aloof, but rather always at work in the background. Gandalf the attending would have an uncanny knack for arriving “precisely when he means to.”
To conclude, we would like to leave you with these wise words from Gandalf the White:
“Go where you must go, and hope!”
This piece expresses the views solely of the author. It does not necessarily represent the views of any organization, including Johns Hopkins Medicine.