Saturday 10 March 2012

Scouting and Tolkien

I am a scout.

Scouting has been an integral part of my life since I was seven, and it is an inseparable part of my personality. This will of course not come as a surprise to anyone who knows me, just as the facts that I am a Tolkien enthusiast, family father, and physicist (by education) doesn't come as a surprise to any of my scouting friends.

So why bring it up?

One of the things that struck me when I was reading Janet Brennan Croft's contribution, ‘The Hen that Laid the Eggs: Tolkien and the Officers Training Corps’, in Tolkien Studies 8 was the sense of preparedness that went through not only the British politics, but also is present in Middle-earth.

The motto of the scout movement is of course ‘Be Prepared’ and reading Janet Brennan Croft's paper, I also got a better understanding of the context from which arose that motto. (Thank you, Janet!)

This has got me to thinking a bit about Tolkien and Scouting; about shared values, about similarities and differences (apart from the very obvious that one was a philologist professor at Oxford and author of fantastic fiction and the other is a youth movement . . .).

Another obvious difference is that while John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was a career scholar and devoted to the written word, Robert Stevenson Smyth Baden-Powell was a career officer and born actor. Baden-Powell was a staunch believer in and defender of the British Empire, whereas Tolkien's patriotism was far more local: ‘I love England (not Great Britain and certainly not the British Commonwealth (grr!))’ (Letters #53) and ‘I know nothing about British or American imperialism in the Far East that does not fill me with regret and disgust.’ (Letters #100)  Baden-Powell did, however, change the scout movement from aiming at educating good soldiers for the British Empire into an international peace movement promoting friendship across differences of gender, nationality, religion, ethnicity etc. based on a firm loyalty to your own home (understood not just geographically, but also e.g. spiritually).

In my daily work as a scouter, I am a leader in the Danish Guide and Scout Association, and we are not affiliated with any church, nor with any religion. Our association is sometimes so secularised that we are pushing the otherwise great tolerance of the scout movement, and one of the reasons for this is that many adult Danes are very uncomfortable speaking about spiritual matters, and in particular about offering any kind of spiritual guidance to young people (that are not their own children).

Enter Tolkien.

The universality of the people who love Tolkien's work shows that you do not have to be a Roman Catholic to appreciate Tolkien's work — and while it is indeed a useful part of the framework for understanding what Tolkien himself meant, it is not even necessary to think of the writings in a Roman Catholic context for you to appreciate the spiritual contents in ways that can be applied quite ecumenically. I am sure that many Danish scout leaders might find that reading The Hobbit to their scouts could be a really good way to introduce the value of spirituality (in the World Organisation of the Scout Movement put in into words as ‘adherence to spiritual principles, loyalty to the religion that expresses them and acceptance of the duties resulting therefrom.’)

Far above the Ephel Dúath in the West the night-sky was still dim and pale. There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach. His song in the Tower had been defiance rather than hope; for then he was thinking of himself. Now, for a moment, his own fate, and even his master's, ceased to trouble him. He crawled back into the brambles and laid himself by Frodo's side, and putting away all fear he cast himself into a deep untroubled sleep.  
- The Lord of the Rings, book VI, ch. 2 ‘The Land of Shadow’ 
This kind of recognition of higher spiritual principles can be applied regardless of the specifics of the religion (or indeed if no organised religion applies), as long as one of the offers of these principles is hope, and as such it could be worthwhile to invite the scouts to reflect on what Sam is experiencing here.

This is just one practical example, and I can quickly see other examples — values such as loyalty, friendship and courage are excellently exemplified in Tolkien's books, and despite the role of grace and providence, I also think they show each character as being mainly responsible for their own development as a person.  There are of course also differences — scouting is strictly a non-formal educational organisation that uses learning-by-doing as one of our basic didactic principles, and this doesn't necessarily fit so well with Tolkien's emphasis on the value of lore, but even then, the foundational book, Scouting for Boys, was organised in a series of ‘camp fire yarns’ as the means of passing on experience and knowledge.

There are, of course, also differences. For instance, scouting today is a democratic project that seeks to involve our young people in decisions both locally and at national and international levels. In scouting we emphasise the need of not only understanding the young people, but also actually listening to them and involving them in the making of decisions — not exactly the same model of decision-making that Tolkien propounds.

In various contexts, I have seen teachers presenting, or writing, about how they use Tolkien in class: both how they teach classes on Tolkien specifically, but also how they use Tolkien in more general classes. I am curious to know if any scouters have used Tolkien in their scouting in order to teach their scouts some of the values of scouting?

And right now I really feel like creating a weekend for our scouts based on Tolkien's works . . . (alas, I don't have the time right now, so I had better try and resist that urge, but keep in mind for when I have the time).

The scout movement is international, and while I firmly believe in and identify with the values of the Danish Guide and Scout Association as well as the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts and the World Organisation of the Scout Movement, I also find that there are some national scout and/or guide associations that promote policies with which I disagree. Such is the nature of an international movement. I therefore cannot, and will not, answer for the policies of other scout organisations than those of which I am a member.


  1. Troels, watch for a brief paper in Amon Hen that presents the interest of Vera Chapman (founder of the Tolkien Society) in the Kibbo Kift Kindred, a scouting-type movement in Britain in the 1920s-30s. I suggest that the Kibbo Kift uniform might have had something to do with the garb of the Dwarves in The Hobbit.

  2. When I was 11-12 years old my troop's scout leaders used "The Hobbit" as "The Jungle Book" is used in cubs (8-11 yo). But this experience was only during 3-4 years and I don't know the reasons the scout leaders had to use this book, I suppose the exposure of differents values, as you have written in your post.

    I will try to find more information about this, taking the opportunity of the 50º birthday of my scout troop (It's not only a troop, you know, is a group between 8-19 years old, leaders and some parents)


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