Front Row Seat: Bayfield reads through 'Lord of the Rings,' with spirituality, soup

Pastor Lawrence Lee is leading a group through a Lenten reading of J.R.R. Tolkien's classic fantasy, with musical interludes and potluck suppers.

Light-skinned older man with gray beard and eyeglasses, holding black binder, speaks in a cafe-like space, standing against a dark wood-paneled wall.
Lawrence Lee welcomes attendees to a "Lenten Journey Through Middle Earth" discussion at CORE Community Resources in Bayfield on Monday.
Jay Gabler / Duluth News Tribune

BAYFIELD — We made a fellowship of eight, gathering under darkness at the direction of a cleric. We observed a hobbit grace; we broke bread; we pored over a map of Middle Earth; we spoke of Boromir's temptation; and a bard invited us to raise our voices in chorus for a climactic "Ring of Fire."

Yes, the Johnny Cash song.

Low red wooden building with white trim and hipped roof, seen at night in a snowy streetscape. Lights on the structure illuminate a tree, which casts a shadow on the street.
CORE Community Resources in Bayfield is warmly lit for a "Lord of the Rings" discussion group Monday.
Jay Gabler / Duluth News Tribune

On Monday night, I joined Pastor Lawrence Lee at CORE Community Resources on Manypenny Avenue for one of a series of weekly gatherings he's convening under the theme "Lenten Journey Through Middle Earth," inspired by author J.R.R. Tolkien's classic fantasy "Lord of the Rings." Imagine a potluck dinner, book club, concert, philosophical discussion and trivia night all rolled into one and you'll have some idea of the vibe.

While the turnout was modest at the cozy venue, with a kettle of soup sitting on a brass-rail bar under hanging string lights, it wasn't for lack of interest. In early spring, the quiet South Shore town is a dark two-hour drive from Duluth, and even more isolated from other populous spots — but for those who wish to share in the fellowship, the journey must be made.

"People are saying, 'Are you going to open this up? Is there going to be a virtual component?'" said Lee, whose moss-green clerical shirt matched the lining of his plaid fleece. "I thought about that for a while, and I was like, 'You know what? No.' These books are about community and food, honestly, and I really wanted this to be something that we did around tables."


A carton of six eggs, an empty jar labeled "Tolkien Trivia" and a black soup kettle with ladle sit on a wooden bar counter.
Eggs are displayed as prizes for the winning entry in J.R.R. Tolkien trivia, alongside a kettle of soup, at CORE Community Resources on Monday.
Jay Gabler / Duluth News Tribune

As music by the Tolkien Ensemble played over a Bluetooth speaker, Lee continued. "Washington state, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Washington, D.C. I've had people write me from all over, saying, 'Hey, we really want to participate in this.'"

Sorry, Lee responds, the events are Bayfield-only. The handful of attendees who filtered in on Monday, ranging from millennials to baby boomers, came from as close as "just up the hill." A couple people journeyed from nearby Lake Superior shoreline cities. I was the only one, as far as I could gather, to have crossed state lines.

Serious boots were ubiquitous. Attendees shed layers of fleece, flannel and wool as they sat down to a supper of North African bean stew with a side of spicy falafel ("good for the sinuses," said a participant named Russ) and dessert servings of "cherry angel food lembas squares."

Lee estimated that he's read "Lord of the Rings" — a single saga published as a three-book series (1954-55) — two dozen times. This is the first time, though, the Bayfield Presbyterian Church leader has convened a discussion series based on the books.

After welcoming the group, Lee led us in a "hobbit grace" inspired by a moment in "The Two Towers" when characters stand before a meal and face the west to honor the lands of past glory. Hobbits also have a custom of bowing to their host, added Lee. "Our hosts would be CORE, and Mary's not here this evening, but let's bow towards the kitchen, as if Mary were here."

A coat, flat-brim hat and scarf hang on a rack in front of a painting of pink flamingos against a white-painted wood slat wall.
CORE Community Resources displays a flamingo painting that harks back to the space's past as a restaurant called Maggie's.
Jay Gabler / Duluth News Tribune

That would be the late Mary Rice, known as the "Queen of Bayfield," who died in 2020. CORE Community Resources was founded in 2006 by Rice, who owned the space that long operated as a restaurant named Maggie's. An outdoor sculpture and a painting in the foyer are among lingering reminders of Maggie's signature flamingo motif.

As we sat down to soup, Lee recapped the journey of "The Fellowship of the Ring," formalized at the Council of Elrond. There was a trivia competition to name participants in that gathering; the winner took home a half-dozen eggs freshly laid by Lee's chickens, two of whom are named Gandalf and Gandalf the Grey.

"I know Elrond was there!" said a grinning Russ.


"That's a gimme," said Lee. "That's like, 'Who's buried in Grant's Tomb?'"

Once we were up to speed on the quest to destroy Sauron's ring in the fires of Mount Doom ("What would be the difference between a league and a mile?" asked one participant by way of clarification), we paused for our first musical interlude. Vincent Schuren, the "Bard of the Evening," stood resplendent in a velvety robe to perform an original setting of Tolkien's "Bath Song."

"It feels right to share a confession," Schuren said later. "I have not once read or seen a 'Lord of the Rings' book or movie." That said, the musician explained while standing over a small electric organ, "I've thoroughly enjoyed being part of this conversation ... just appreciate the sense of community here, and the storytelling."

Light-skinned young adult person wearing burgandy robe and snow boots gestures, standing behind a small electric organ.
"Bard of the Evening" Vincent Schuren speaks before performing J.R.R. Tolkien's "Bath Song" at CORE Community Resources.
Jay Gabler / Duluth News Tribune

Mindful that not everyone has time to slam a half-million words of high fantasy between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday, Lee has delineated various paths to participation. Ahead of next Monday's meeting, for example, attendees might take the path of Sam (read the first half of "The Two Towers"), the path of Merry (read a single chapter of that book), the path of Pippin (consider some discussion themes) or the path of Fredegar. ("Can you bring a side or a dessert?")

Each week's discussion has a theme, and on Monday, Lee shared a prepared reflection on "Galadriel and Boromir: Temptation and the Seduction of Power." The pastor removed his glasses and leaned against the bar, his wavy, pointed gray beard suggesting a wizardly Burl Ives.

"Lent begins with a story of temptation," Lee observed. "One of the things that Jesus is tempted by in the wilderness is power, and that's really what's being offered to Galadriel here, absolute power."

Galadriel, a revered elf, turns the Ring away, knowing it would corrupt her. The human Boromir is more equivocal when facing his own temptation. "He wants to do the right thing," said Lee, "but he doesn't know what that is, and he's struggling."

The discussion covered intriguing plot details (why didn't Galadriel say more about the danger Boromir presented?), the differences between the books and Peter Jackson's blockbuster movies (the books are "much more subtle," participants agreed), and the importance of simple acts of generosity (Lee cited Tolkien's World War I experience, where "he encountered people like Sam, decent people who were in over their heads").


Finally, it was time for a rousing "Ring of Fire" and everyone packed up to leave. Lee invited participants to prepare, for next week, brief reenactments or readings from the text. "It's completely optional," he said, but "it would be an opportunity to lay into your thespian chops a little bit."

A brass bar rail is held in place by the biting head of a lion figure. A light-skinned hand, leaning against the rail, holds a pair of eyeglasses.
Lawrence Lee leans against the bar rail during a discussion of "The Lord of the Rings" at CORE Community Resources.
Jay Gabler / Duluth News Tribune

Lee keeps coming back to "Lord of the Rings," he said, because he finds something new every time.

"Three years ago, dealing the response to the death of George Floyd," said Lee by way of example, "I came upon this quote where (a hobbit) tells this lawman, this Shirriff in the Shire, 'If it's not an honorable job, stop doing it.' I'm like, whoa, that's very pertinent to what we're dealing with right now."

Still, said Lee, "I don't think there's anything magic about Tolkien's literature. I think Tolkien's a good writer. Not the best writer ever, but a good writer."

The magic, perhaps, is what you make of it — with some hearty soup, a little music, and a distinctly Northland form of hobbit grace.

For more information on the Lenten Journey Through Middle Earth, see

The creator of a "Wizarding World" and one of the bestselling authors of all time, she has argued against transgender rights. Northland trans advocates say they can no longer support her.

This story was updated at 7:26 a.m. March 9 to correct an error regarding the plot of the novel under discussion. It was originally posted at 7:02 a.m. March 9. The News Tribune regrets the error.

Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; he's also a member of the National Book Critics Circle and the Minnesota Film Critics Alliance. You can reach him at or 218-279-5536.
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