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Re-imagining Lord of The Rings: the untold story of a volcanic crisis | Bridie Davies

Updated: Nov 6, 2020

Way back in March, barely a month after returning from a glorious 7-week field-season on Ascension Island I (along with the rest of the country) was brought back to reality with a bump. That bump came in the form of the nationwide UK lockdown, extreme anxiety over the state of the world and a realisation that I had absolutely zero ability to focus on research.

Turns out my fieldwork super-power is always being able to find a comfortable place to sit/nap. Even in amongst volcanic bombs and lava flows. Images taken in January/February 2020 by Rebecca Winstanley on Ascension Island.

In an effort to stay connected, Team Volcano (PhD students, supervisors and other researchers) from UEA and beyond decided to have weekly coffee meetings centred around FUN activities. Homework before one such meeting was a challenge to watch a disaster movie and make a judgement about how ridiculous/accurate it was. We would come together to discuss our choices and try to forget that we were currently living through our very own disaster movie*.

*pandemic related movies were banned, we like to stick to the geo-based disasters…

Most people chose one film. I chose THREE.

When off-school sick as a kid, watching our increasingly poor quality Lord of the Rings videos was a ritual for me – conveniently napping whenever Frodo and Sam were being boring…

Now, in a time of crisis I turned to LOTR again, but this time I had my volcanologist hat on.

(What follows is an insight into my mind during lockdown… without ruining the video, which I am sure you will all watch, I will give you a few key points)

It quickly became apparent that most people had missed the point of these movies.

Frodo and Sam are not trying to destroy a ring….they’re trying to write a thesis!

The real danger isn’t Sauron, it’s the whacking great volcano threatening to wipe out Middle Earth!

Aragorn, Gandalf, Elrond and Galadriel are clearly overworked and under-resourced as they try to prepare for the upcoming volcanic crisis. They are thwarted at every turn by endless red tape, corrupt line managers (cough…Saruman…cough) and unruly Mayor (Denethor).

Then of course, we have the side characters;

Gimli and Legolas, who can’t agree on anything other than that they disagree AND Aragorn is a babe (who can blame them?).

Boromir, who has good intentions but is drastically ill-informed, over-confident and has a disproportionate amount of power.

The other hobbits, who clearly represent the rest of Frodo and Sam’s PhD cohort, sympathetic to the cause, but ultimately swept off into their own battles and projects over time, only returning for the glory moments at the end (the viva cake).

Gollum of course represents imposter syndrome. Every time you think you are making progress, Gollum comes along and cuts you down, makes you doubt yourself and pretends to be your friend while secretly working against you.

Hopefully none of us will lose a finger to imposter syndrome….

The fellowship is in reality a hazard preparedness team, Frodo and Sam are doing the grunt work of the research while the others work tirelessly to form political alliances and attempt to avert disaster. As in life, some are more effective than others.

And don’t even get me started on the Eagles….

I have only given you the bones here but this first pass analysis alone became a 25 minute PowerPoint presentation. I was the only person to prepare slides about their film choice…turned out lockdown had made me Extra.

Team volcano lifting our collective spirits by tearing down unrealistic disaster movies…although some are more accurate than you might think!

Once team volcano got over the shock of discovering how much of a weirdo I am, we all had a good laugh. Together we discussed and expanded the analogy and its potential to feed into ongoing research by my supervisor, whilst acknowledging that the whole thing was essentially an academic in-joke for volcanologists.

We left the meeting suitably cheered – mission accomplished.

At this time, the Norwich Science Festival was asking for proposals for an online version of their usual half-term activities. Team Volcano’s attitude to the science festival is generally one of Go BIG or Go Home*, so obviously I immediately submitted a slightly modified draft of my LOTR talk as a proposed lecture….

*last year we built a volcano complete with glowing magma chamber inside the Forum.

Alliougana singers from Montserrat share their music and stories of the 1995 eruption inside our “Mountain Aglow” volcano tent part of the Disasters Passed research project, complete with glowing magma chamber at Norwich Science Festival in 2019, back when people went places…. Read more about it here

Over the following months, my ability to focus on work returned somewhat, and with encouragement and support from my supervisor I was able to channel those “no-focus” days into outreach projects, including re-working my LOTR interpretation for the general public.

The result is the video below, and I am actually super proud of it.

I was able to discuss themes essential to volcanic hazard assessment, evaluate the volcanological accuracy of Mt Doom and its eruptive history, and most importantly make the science I love relevant to a whole new audience (albeit one of total nerds…).

What started as an escape from reality (or cry for help, depending on your point of view) became an exercise in science communication, at a time when we can all see its importance.

The pandemic has been truly awful for a lot of people, a global lesson in the discomfort of uncertainty and the precarity of communities living under extreme conditions. Much like populations living with volcanic hazard (and basically everyone in Lord of The Rings), we have found ourselves struggling to make “the right choices in the face of an existential threat, questioning decisions made on our behalf where transparency is lacking or communication is poor.

While my Lord of the Rings re-imagining is mostly a bit of fun, I have come to appreciate the value of framing our science within popular culture, as a scientific community we need to get creative to engage our public. Sometimes, lives depend on it.

If people come for the hobbits but stay for the science, in my opinion that’s a win.



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