- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 2, 2003

ADAMSTOWN, Md. Hobbits in their holes could hardly have been cozier than Robert Wilhelm's students gathered before a flickering fireplace to swap the stories behind the story of "The Lord of the Rings."
Sipping hot cider against the January chill, they took turns telling tales from England, Ireland and elsewhere containing themes mirrored in J.R.R. Tolkien's works.
Last week's seminar was the first since Mr. Wilhelm and his wife, Kelly, moved the school last year from New Mexico to a conference center in Maryland farm country that could double as the Shire, the hobbits' fictional home.
The center, owned by the De La Salle Christian Brothers, an order of education-minded Roman Catholic priests, is on a 400-acre dairy farm in the Appalachian foothills about 30 miles north of the District.
Tolkien, a devout Catholic, rejected allegorical interpretations of his work. But Mr. Wilhelm, who has a doctorate in theology, said much in the Rings trilogy reflects his school's broad, ecumenical definition of "sacred stories." Besides religious scriptures, they may include folklore and personal experiences, he said.
"Many that we tell are about the search for meaning and our looking for a direction and purpose in our life," Mr. Wilhelm said. "We frequently use the metaphor, 'the road.' We're on a journey, and there are many stories about that journey some happy ones, some not so happy ones but it's a struggle to make sense out of one's life's journey."
The Rings trilogy is "not explicitly religious, but it is implicitly religious," teaching "there's always hope," Mr. Wilhelm said.
In that light, Mr. Wilhelm and his students, many of whom are members of the clergy, found something both sacred and Tolkienesque about Chaucer's "The Pardoner's Tale" a story of greed among travelers and about the Norse legend of Sigurd and Fafnir, which features dwarves, a magic sword and a dragon.
They also linked Tolkien's sword-and-sorcery classic to the Civil War battle of Antietam while visiting the battlefield during the weeklong seminar. More than 23,000 soldiers were killed, wounded or went missing there in the bloodiest single-day clash of the war.
"We thought the connection was that, just as the Tolkien book is about the great battle, this is the place of the one-day great battle in North America," Mr. Wilhelm said.
"With the Civil War, there's a kind of sacred aura about it," he said. "A lot of lives were lost, a lot of passion was put into it."
The Wilhelms, who live in Hagerstown, also run a travel business, guiding tours to spots rich in myth and folklore in England, Iceland and other countries. Participants sometimes hear stories told by local residents.
Mr. Wilhelm, 59, established the school in 1994, offering those who attend six classes over three years a certificate, a sweatshirt and membership in the Guild of Sacred Storytellers. The seminars, priced at $895, include lectures, group exercises and training in how to "communicate effectively and do something that is enjoyable, and yet which touches lives," he said.
The school graduates four or five students a year, Mr. Wilhelm said.
The success of "The Lord of the Rings" movies inspired the Tolkien seminar, but Mr. Wilhelm, who studied Tolkien in the early 1970s as a graduate student in Cambridge, England, said fewer registered than he expected. None of the 14 students had seen the filmed version, and only about a third had read the trilogy.
He required them to have read "The Two Towers," the second volume of the "Rings" epic. To acquaint them with the whole story, Mr. Wilhelm parceled out the trilogy's 62 chapters and had students present one-minute synopses to the group.
In another exercise, each student chose a character and studied Tolkien's use of concise, one-paragraph descriptions. The Rev. Philip M. Oriole, pastor of two parishes in the Catholic diocese of Erie, Pa., chose Gollum, a creature obsessed with desire for a precious, powerful ring.
"He represents the struggle in the human heart, the worst battlefield of all, between sin and grace, good and evil. In modern terms, he represents all of us who struggle with addictions," Mr. Oriole said.
The Rev. Kevin King, a Methodist pastor from Trinity, Texas, nearing the end of his storytelling apprenticeship, said the classes have helped his preaching.
"Some people like to go fishing or golfing as a hobby; I like to tell stories," he said.

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