Gandalf’s Dark Journey

Already we have seen signs that Gandalf is not what he was before Moria. He is no longer Gandalf the Grey but the White and he describes himself as being what Saruman should have been. There is a potency in him that Aragorn and his companions have not seen before so that when Aragorn names him, Captain, it is a recognition of that potency. It is a recognition too of a turning of the tide. The brave but seemingly hopeless pursuit of the young hobbits and their captors is at an end and now there is a call to war.

And this moment of transformation comes for them all after a dark journey. For Aragorn it comes after doubt and then a commitment to a hopeless task. For Gandalf it comes after his mighty battle against the Balrog in Moria, a battle described in the language of myth, a struggle of super beings, of warfare in heaven where Michael the Archangel does battle with Satan and casts him out down to the earth. It is a battle that takes Gandalf to unimaginable depths and heights and eventually it costs him his life.

“Then darkness took me, and I strayed out of thought and time, and I wandered far on roads that I will not tell…Naked I was sent back- for a brief time, until my task is done.”

The great spiritual traditions all know the dark journey. The long sojourn of the children of Israel in the wilderness and the captivity in Babylon; Jesus in the wilderness, fasting forty days and nights, surrounded by wild beasts and tempted by the devil; St Anthony in the desert doing battle with the demons and the spiritual tradition of the monastary that was inspired by his example; the Dark Night of the Soul of St John of the Cross in which all consolation is taken away so that the soul learns at last to cleave to God without consolation. And if we listen to the wisdom that the great traditions have to teach us then our own journeys through the dark can be journeys not of loss but of transformation.

I suspect that it has never been easy for us to be able to embrace the dark journey. If it were easy then why is the journey so often described in the language of elemental struggle? It is striking that so much literature written for children lives with this language quite comfortably and that so much so called “adult” literature shies away from it. Even in the world of contemporary spiritual literature the really popular titles are of books that promise “success” and the overcoming of our inner demons. The language that we are most comfortable with is that of ascent. This is not surprising. Our fear is that when we descend into the abyss it may be without a bottom and there may be no way out of it. When William Shannon first wrote his excellent biography of the 20th century American monk, Thomas Merton, he entitled it, “Thomas Merton’s Dark Journey.” When I bought my copy a few years later the title had become “Thomas Merton’s Paradise Journey.” I did not mind too much. The content was the same and I knew that the Dark Journey and the Paradise Journey are one and the same thing for those prepared to travel on them but I suspect that the publishers may have felt that the second title may have been easier to sell than the first.

The Lord of the Rings is a dark journey and Tolkien employs the language of myth to take us on it. Wisely he does not try to preach to us but I suspect that much of its popularity is because as we read it we are taken on this journey at a level below our consciousness. This will have done more good than any can tell. Deeds done in the unseen world can never be measured. But it is possible to allow this great myth to teach us to embrace our own dark journeys and to find the courage to endure them and the hope that we will at last find transformation just as Gandalf and Aragorn do.