When I was A.B.D., I tried to motivate myself to write my dissertation by setting deadlines that corresponded with the premieres of Peter Jackson's cinematic interpretation of J.R.R. Tolkien's epic trilogy, The Lord of the Rings. My goal was to have a first full draft of the dissertation written by the time the third movie, The Return of the King, came out at the end of 2003, and to watch all three films back-to-back in Times Square in celebration of the achievement.
I didn't exactly meet that deadline. But once I had finished my dissertation and successfully graduated, I watched all three movies again, this time on DVD, and was struck by how closely the story mirrors the experience of writing a dissertation.
For those who have not read the books or seen the films, the significant parts of the story center around a long journey made by a hobbit named Frodo Baggins. He travels across a land called Middle-earth to throw a ring into the middle of a volcano called Mount Doom -- an action that, for doctoral students, is known as "filing the dissertation."
Like many a dissertator, Frodo's terrible and treacherous mission has a dual nature. He cannot, and does not, accomplish the goal without the help of others, but ultimately, he must bear the great load alone.
Frodo is accompanied on the journey by his hobbit friends Sam, Merry, and Pippin. Merry and Pippin are like fellow graduate students still doing their course work. Their carefree nature disappears along the journey, however, as they begin to recognize the impending doom of becoming All But Dissertation. By the end of the second movie, The Two Towers, Merry and Pippin have passed their comprehensive exams and gained a greater maturity, but it is not clear whether they will go on to the dissertation phase. Maybe they've decided that an academic career is not for them.
Frodo, on the other hand, has made the decision that he wants to go all the way. His most important companion is Sam, who is the equivalent of Frodo's "partner."
Sam is not a Ph.D. student, and more than anyone else, he has the terrible burden of being the one closest to the ring bearer. Sam's own fate is tied to that of the ring yet he is helpless to determine his future in a direct manner. He cannot make Frodo finish; he can only try to make it easier for Frodo to do so. He is the long-suffering hero whom every ring bearer thanks at the beginning or end of the acknowledgments of the dissertation -- the one about whom everyone writes "I couldn't have done it without you."
On their way to file the dissertation, Sam and Frodo separate one time. The separation is the result of a deception spun by a fallen soul named Gollum -- aka, the doctoral candidate who will never finish.
Gollum lived with the ring for many years and it destroyed his life, mind, and well-being. Gollum is the living image of what Frodo will become if Frodo cannot complete his task. Frodo in fact pities Gollum, while Sam can only feel disgust and distrust for the miserable creature.
If the ring is to be destroyed -- and the dissertation finished -- new alliances must be formed. Without that fellowship, Frodo's quest is doomed. But a partner alone cannot provide enough support for the difficult mission.
For example, he is stabbed three times during the course of his journey by disgusting and horrible creatures. He is hounded by terrifying beings called the Ringwraiths. Those attacks are the equivalent of the dissertator's endless financial struggles. Each loss of funds prevents him from paying enormous photocopying costs, expenses for travel to archives, bills for books and supplies, health insurance, and campus fees. They take a toll on his morale and his health and increase his stress and exhaustion.
One of Frodo's key supporters who tries to protect him from those problems is a wizard named Gandalf, who, for our purposes, represents Frodo's dissertation committee, usually made up of three people.
Gandalf is instrumental in running interference for Frodo and making sure that he can complete his mission. He writes recommendations for grants and letters of introduction to libraries. He critiques drafts, locates possible sources of money, and feeds his student whenever possible. Most important, he offers intellectual guidance and moral support. Gandalf has his own challenges, however. In the Mines of Moria, he faces down a horrifying demon called the Balrog -- meaning he must also teach, research, publish, and serve on committees.
Frodo's "fellowship" also includes family, friends, dissertation groups, fellow doctoral students, professors, undergraduates, and archival and administrative staff members. They provide counsel, writing deadlines, good company, book references, housing, theoretical critiques, and other key assistance. There are even filmmakers like Peter Jackson who provide incentives around which dissertation deadlines can be set.
Yet while all that support is critical, the mission of the ring is still Frodo's alone. Even with help, can he achieve his goal?
The drama of filing the dissertation is heightened at the end of the process, in those last months of writing, editing, and formatting. A critical scene in The Return of the King highlights the deep emotional struggle between Frodo and his alter ego, Gollum.
Frodo and Sam have finally arrived at Mount Doom, which means that Frodo finally has the full draft. But he looks terrible; he has been defeated emotionally and spiritually by the burden of carrying the ring. He has reached the end of his long journey, but will he file?
At the volcano, Sam yells to Frodo to throw in the ring. But by this time, the strain and burden of carrying the ring for so long has damaged Frodo's mind; he doesn't want to let go. He looks at Sam with a crazed look and says, "The ring is mine!" which, translated, means that he can't or won't finish; he has more research to do, more editing; the dissertation is just not good enough; he must reformat the page numbers.
He has taken the step toward becoming Gollum. He will remain A.B.D. forever. Sam cries pitifully. His life is ruined, too.
All of a sudden, Gollum appears and wrestles Frodo to the ground. They struggle for the ring and Gollum bites off Frodo's finger. Gollum has unwittingly forced Frodo to rise up and save himself from himself. As they struggle, they fall from the ledge, and the ring falls into the molten lava (along with Gollum). The deed is finally done. The dissertation is filed.
But Frodo has completed his mission unwillingly. The year of carrying the ring has damaged him and taken the joy from his life. He has completed his quest, but he's not happy. Can he recover?
Several years later, Frodo is back in his comfortable home in the Shire and has completed the book manuscript for the story of his journey, called The Lord of the Rings. But he confesses to Sam that he is still not at peace. He leaves the Shire on a big boat to find peace and be with his mentor, Gandalf, and other associate and full professors in a faraway land called tenure.
Having shared my Frodo allegory with my dissertation group and my fellow graduate students, we've started to refer to the dissertation as the "ring." When we share stories about writing 12 hours a day for months on end with little human contact, or about feeling angry with people who have the time to eat in nice restaurants and go to the movies, we say, "That's the power of the ring."
The moral of the story, because there is always a moral to these kinds of stories, is to take care of your health and appreciate those around you. Unlike Frodo, we all have the job market to go through, too.