“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to,” Bilbo Baggins warns his nephew Frodo in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.
Bilbo’s words ring true for Frodo, as he navigates Middle Earth in the attempt to destroy Lord Sauron’s ring, but these words also ring true for SCIO alumna Sarah Shahan – in more ways than one.
Recently published by the Cambridge Tolkien Society, Shahan’s academic paper “Joyous Turns: Episodic, Fatal, and Ultimate Eucatastrophes in The Lord of the Rings” explores Tolkien’s concept of eucatastrophe. Eucatastrophe is the “miraculous extension of grace”, as Tolkien describes it in his lecture “On Fairy Stories”. In other words, characters are offered a happy ending by way of grace. It is an unexpected, surprising turn toward joy.
“In my paper, I suggest that eucatastrophe can be seen in three different lights in The Lord of the Rings: episodic, which occurs on a smaller but equally important level; fatal, meaning it influences the grander fate of the entire narrative; and ultimate which includes a sense of telos within its structure, a sense of final Joy,” says Shahan.
The subject of her papers resonates in her own life, Shahan reflects. In her final year of her undergraduate studies, her major being English literature, Shahan anticipated pursuing a Master’s degree in education. Then, a turn: she realized English literature brought her a sense of joy and meaning incomparable to any other discipline, and therefore decided to pursue that instead.
For Shahan, the decision to change course was a difficult one. It meant changing direction, entering an unknown. However, she now finds herself commencing a second Master’s degree in Tolkien studies at Signum University, having completed her first English Master’s degree at Azusa Pacific University. Shahan credits SCIO for affirming that initial decision to pursue graduate studies in English literature and supporting her in it.
“If it were not for the SCIO program, and most importantly, the professors of the program, I would not be where I am today. Dr Emma Plaskitt, particularly, has been such a role model for me. She is incredibly kind and fiercely intelligent. She has shown me what it is to be an outstanding scholar in a sea of Tolkien,” says Shahan. The physical place also contributed to Shahan’s development as a scholar, she says. Oxford’s “context, history, and beauty…enhanced my studies tenfold.”
Shahan has stayed connected with SCIO especially in the last year. In light of the reality of the Covid-19 era, SCIO’s online offerings have multiplied, and for Shahan, that has served as an enrichening continuation of her own development.
When asked to give advice for aspiring academics, Shahan makes the distinction between essays and papers.
“An essay is for personal growth, for the student to thoroughly learn the material and understand secondary sources of others. A paper is an original creation acting as a piece of the ‘conversation’ of scholarship. In order to reach that level of scholarship, I’d advise students to listen to their professors – they were once students too. Trust their feedback.”
She also encourages young and aspiring academics alike to not be encumbered by the rejection of papers. “I know I’m just starting out, but one thing I’ve learned is that for every piece published, there are also rejections. It can hurt and can make one question their purpose, but don’t let it. Keep working and don’t be too proud. It’s important to push forward.”
Beyond her Master’s degree in Tolkien studies, Shahan plans to embark on another adventure: teaching English in the Czech Republic as part of the yearlong Fulbright program. Like most things nowadays, the start date – August 2021 – is contingent on Covid-19. Whatever happens, however, may Tolkien’s eucatastrophe serve as a happy reminder, that life is full of surprises and can always turn to joy.