Concerning Hobbits, and other matters
When I was a young man in my final year of high school, I had the opportunity to once weekly give the daily announcements over the intercom system. While the extracurricular gatherings and service opportunities changed regularly, the proclamation always ended the same way: “Today is [insert date here], have a great day.” Possessing a certain eccentric inclination and slightly smug self-awareness of my educational attainment, I made a slight modification to the pronouncement of the date: I would alter the calendar. Now, this is not to say that I lied, letting on that it was Tuesday instead of Friday. My declarations of the date were always accurate, but measured by a different form: instead of the standard calendar, there would appear over the airwaves a plethora of alternatives.
Some of these were modern options, used by other cultures around the world: the Chinese calendar (it is the 23rd day of the 12th month of the 32nd year of the 78th cycle), the Islamic calendar (21 Rabi II of the year 1437), or the Hebrew calendar (22 Shevat 5776), for example. Others were of a more historical nature, such as that of the Mayans (220.127.116.11.17 10 Caban 5 Pax) or Romans (the Kalends of Febrvarivs MMDCCLXIX ab urbe condita). My favorite, however, was a more recent invention: the French Revolutionary calendar, with is seasonal naming conventions and its self-import year zero (today is the 13th day of the month Pluviôse in the 224th year de la Révolution). Each calendar offered insight into a particular civilization or people, and were humorous in their telling. Yet each also suggested a broader topic at work: the questions of time, and our human response to them.
Tolkien was no stranger to this conception: he knew that to sub-create the realms of elves, men, and hobbits with a level of intimacy required their own calendars. So we learn in the opening prologue of The Lord of the Rings: “Shire-reckoning,” the measurement of years by the hobbits, corresponds to the year 1601 of the Third Age of Middle-earth by the measurement of the Elves. A look at Appendix D provides a plethora of further information: that the hobbits possessed a solution for leap-years in the form of a “overlithe” holiday; that Mardil the Steward of Gondor took on the role of Pope Gregory XIII in introducing a revised calendar, including the addition of extra days (to account for the millennial deficits); that the hobbit’s Friday was most like our Sunday, and therefore their Saturday is our Monday. Yet, amongst such fun facts lies insights of tremendous worth, such as that elves’ original word for “year” meant 144 of our years (being immortal, such a measurement was of far greater value), or that the chronological distance from the Last Alliance (where Sauron was first defeated and the Ring lost) to that start of our tale (Bilbo’s 111th birthday) is the same as when King Solomon built the First Temple of Jerusalem to our present day. Calendars offers little windows into the perspective of a people, helping us to understanding how they think and live.
Catholics are no different, possessing a complex and seemingly paradoxical conception of time. The Catholic liturgical calendar maps out the seasons of Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter while defining the weeks to be associated with particular scriptural readings. Each year, some things (the date of Christmas, most feast days of Saints) remain the same; other things (the date of Easter, a Jubilee Year) change as they will. It is a cyclical calendar, one that repeats itself again and again, yet this is not the full story. For unlike the pagans and many past cultures, time was not cyclical, but linear: life wasn’t doomed to endless repetitions, but had an eschatological finale, an end time, a resolution of all things. Time was a story, with a beginning and an end; it was a tale that Christ Himself was able to enter and take part of. It was this combination that was truly revolutionary, this agglomeration that took the best principles of cyclical and defined them by the linear: as a wheel rolls down a road to its resting point, so too do we humans, living with both repetition and end. From the interior of the wheel, the cycle offers comfort: rituals and traditions, seasons and festivities, the heartbeat of our time. Yet we also look out onto the landscape that we roll by, and witness the real changes that happen, the real differences, the real uniqueness of our little patch of the path.
As we begin our reading and preparation for Lent, then, let us consider our calendars and take stock of the time. There is great beauty in the diverse ways that humans have measured the passing of the ages, and great riches in the depths of these arrangements. Above all, we should remember that though time may spin and though time may end, in the end there is something beyond the confinements of time, and as such, no matter what the date, we yet still have the invitation to “have a great day.”
2015’s Reflection: “On the Things That Define Us“