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.

8 thoughts on “Gandalf’s Dark Journey

  1. Ah! Now, for me, this gets to the most powerful and profound part of the story. I think your post admirably expresses the importance, power and continuing place of myth.
    I was struck by your comment that culturally we are far happier with the concept of ascent and shy away from talk of descent. I think that partly this is because (for a number of reasons) descent is associated with going the wrong way. If I am spiritually going downwards something (probably me) has gone wrong. I denotes failure.
    As a youth, I was terribly struck with the Dark Night of the Soul – and, in fact, experienced many of them; often all in one day!! Most of the auto/biographies I read of the great heroes went through these times and there is a tendency to romanticise them. The thing I have noticed is that true Dark Nights, don’t feel like ‘dark nights’ they just feel wrong, wretched and broken. There is nothing about them that appears redeemable. I love the fact that Gandalf talks of actually dying. In these places there is no light because light has died. Over the years I have seen a lot of Christian friends experiencing these times and, even those who are fully aware of the idea of the ‘dark night’ all fail to equate their experience with it – because as far as they can see everything has just gone wrong and nothing works as it once did (it puts me in mind of P’s description of YHWH loosing the flood on the earth and destroying those things that held back the primordial chaos).
    Attempts to articulate these dark experiences in propositional language seems to nearly always miss the true essence of the experience. One can really only speak of them in mythic or poetic language.
    You are also absolutely right – children’s literature is (still) full of this language – so why isn’t adult literature!! That’s going to give me a lot of thought over the next few weeks!!!

    • Many thanks for this really thoughtful comment. I think even St John of the Cross expresses the Dark Night better in his poetry than in his prose and many commentators have made this point. Perhaps when we try to put something like this in propositional language we make it into something that only spiritual “superstars” can know about and yet as you say it is actually part of ordinary life and most definitely a central experience in midlife. I think that the quote from Thomas Merton on his photo says what the experience is all about and why it will be transformational if we can stay with it.

  2. Yes it was definitely St John of the Cross’ poetry that affected me.
    Yes, you may be right about propositional language, but I am also thinking that it might be that it is something that affects us at a far more visceral level – it takes us beyond the world of the mind and the ‘world made of propositional statements’. Perhaps, to use an older term, it affects our souls not just our minds. That is why (a) it is so devastating and (b) why our normal coping strategies (using the mind and rationality) fail and feel so broken – nothing makes sense. For me, that is where the language of myth and poetry come to the fore, and why I think they are universal – in temporal as well as geographical terms. It is also why this myth, embedded at the heart of LOTR, remains so potent. It speaks to us deeply.
    I am still grappling with its occurrence in children’s literature – one doesn’t normally think of children normally encountering these situations, but they still somehow deeply relate to them and, as you say, it is those stories that stick with us all through our adult lives.

  3. I think we agree but you put it better than I did, Richard! Two thoughts come to mind: one, the teaching of the early desert fathers & mothers about drawing the mind into the heart & the other on children’s literature, an excellent recent guest posting on Brenton Dickieson’s blog, apilgriminnarnia.com in which a writer replies to a mother who feels that fairy stories are not suitable for children.

  4. But what, I wonder, of those in dark places who, on seeing a title such as “Thomas Merton’s Paradise Journey,” turn away. When I was in the darkest valley I have faced so far, anything that promised life or hope looked faded, trite, and stale. I would have been more likely to pick up a book about a “Dark Journey” and so I might have been comforted to learn that I was not alone.
    Sometimes marketing, in the face of truth, might attract more readers, but pass right by those who need that truth the most.
    You are right in pointing out how much we avoid talking about the dark valleys. I am haunted by how much damage our avoidance may do.

  5. You are so right in what you say. After reading your thought I went back to my copy of William Shannon’s book just to check that my memory wasn’t playing me tricks. And in the fly leaf I read read “This book is a substantial revision of Thomas Merton’s Dark Path: The Inner Experience of a Contemplative”. Now I can see what Burns & Oates might have been trying to do here. Contemplatives know what a dark path is but in the popular imagination it basically means depression. Now in my own experience it has included depression and I find it hard to see how we can avoid going through some pretty dark places if we are to make a true journey to the light. But it is more than depression too in the sense that ultimately we are stripped of everything that is not God. Even as I write this I recognise that this work is not done yet in me and that it still continues but I think I am starting to be a little less afraid of the dark. Maybe eventually I will even learn to desire it as St John of the Cross did as a meeting place for lovers.

    • I’m not sure the work is ever done, on this side, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t go as far down the road as we can. That is a beautiful image of the darkness.

  6. Pingback: Is Aragorn the Philosopher-King? | The Leather Library

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