Roaring Farce

I am so grateful to Jubilare for her permission to re-blog this post. Her quotation from The Four Loves by C.S Lewis is the perfect commentary to my blog on Gandalf’s laughter at Saruman’s performance at the balcony rail of Orthanc. I hope you enjoy reading this and other postings on her wonderful Blog Site.


I mentioned, in my last post, that there was another quote from The Four Loves that I wanted to post. It requires a little introduction.

Lewis is discussing good and bad forms of patriotism. He compares the overtly harmful ‘we are superior and therefore we crush lesser peoples’ to the more insidious ‘we are superior, therefore we are obligated to help lesser peoples by ruling them.’

I am far from suggesting that the two attitudes are on the same level. But both are fatal. Both demand that the area in which they operate should grow “wider still and wider.” And both have about them this sure mark of evil: only by being terrible do they avoid being comic. If there were no broken treaties with Redskins, no extermination of the Tasmanians, no gas-chambers and no Belsen, no Amritsar, Black and Tans or Apartheid, the pomposity of both would be roaring…

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Saruman Still Fails to Get the Joke!

The stage is set and Saruman stands at a balconied rail above the heads of his foes ready to address them, appearing as “a kindly heart aggrieved by injuries undeserved.” And so he begins to weave his magic over those who stand beneath him until Gandalf laughs and “The fantasy vanished like a puff of smoke.”

“Saruman, Saruman!” said Gandalf still laughing. “Saruman, you missed your path in life. You should have been the king’s jester and earned your bread, and stripes too, by mimicking his counsellors.”

Those who know the story well will remember that much happened between the moment that Saruman first appears upon the balcony, wreathed in shadow and ever changing colour and the moment when Gandalf laughs at him and the spell is finally broken. They will remember that Saruman tried to persuade first Théoden and then Gandalf to ally with him and how the company who had ridden to Isengard with their king were convinced that either one or the other would submit to Saruman’s persuasive powers so reasonable did his words appear to be. Even his words of contempt for Rohan seemed to them to be deserved and we shall return to that in a later blog, but at the end all is revealed as Tolkien shows us as “Fantasy”.

Those who have seen Der Untergang (Downfall) the remarkable film about the last days of Hitler will know the power of fantasy. As the Soviet forces enter Berlin Hitler still gives orders to armies that no longer exist and his anger against his staff who cannot carry out his orders still has power to frighten them. And they are right to be frightened because the SS still carry out orders of execution against those who know that resistance is futile and refuse to fight on. Hitler believes his own fantasy until the very end and still has the power to persuade others to join him in his belief. We might even argue that he had that power from the very beginning, that the Nazi enterprise was always a fantasy.

Gandalf’s laughter demonstrates the most powerful weapon that exists against such fantasies. When that which we fear or admire is displayed to us for our ridicule then it no longer has the same power over us. Hans Christian Anderson’s tale, “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is one tale that demonstrates the power of laughter over fantasy, J.K Rowling’s Ridikulus Charm demonstrated by Remus Lupin in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkhaban is another. In the first tale the crowd believe the myth of the magical new clothes until a boy cries out that the Emperor is, in fact, naked; in the second the members of Harry Potter’s class are taught how to laugh at their own fears embodied in certain people or creatures and so dispel their power. We do not need to be able to do magic to learn how to do the same with the embodiments of our own fears.

Sadly Der Untergang shows us that fantasy, however far-fetched, has the power to do great harm. In The Lord of the Rings, as we shall see, Saruman still retains some power to do harm himself. Our laughter cannot protect us from all that fantasy can do to us but it can give us great strength to resist that power. Gandalf shows to all that Saruman’s power is broken and when we do see him again it is at the head of a band of cut-throats and thieves. That is for another day. On this day, if I may presume to mix our tales, we learn, with Gandalf and Remus Lupin, to stand against those who make us afraid with our laughter and our cry of Ridikulus!


Saruman and Gandalf: The Spiritual Guides of our Day

Soldiers everywhere have a clear sense of priority and Tolkien, drawing on his memories of the trenches of the First World War, knew that well. The sharing of news, unless that news requires immediate action, must always follow after food and some rest. So it is that it is only after they have feasted together and smoked in companionable silence that Merry and Pippin begin to tell the tale of the Fall of Isengard and the revenge of the natural world against the world of the machine.

“An angry Ent is terrifying,” said Merry. “Their fingers and their toes just freeze onto rock; and they tear it up like bread-crust. It was like watching the work of great tree-roots in a hundred years, all packed into a few moments.”

Saruman at first is utterly bewildered by an attack that he never anticipated so it is the bewildered wizard that the hobbits first encounter and they are not impressed.

“His wizardry may have been falling off lately, of course; but anyway, I think he has not much grit, not much plain courage alone in a tight place without a lot of slaves and machines and things, if you know what I mean. Very different from old Gandalf. I wonder if his fame was not all along mainly due to his cleverness in settling at Isengard.”

I want to suggest here that Saruman stands as a warning to the West in our own time. As Aragorn says of Saruman, the West was once as great as our fame made us. Our “knowledge was deep” our “thought was subtle” our “hands marvellously skilled”. But we have come to put our trust in the things that we have made and in the armies of slaves who keep us. Our food is grown by workers paid hardly enough to survive, the temples of Mammon in our great cities cleaned by people who disappear into the shadows once their work is done. Meanwhile we fantasise about artificial intelligence and the development of robots and in our right to live as if the whole of creation exists simply in order to serve us. Like Saruman in his speech made to Gandalf when he imprisoned him in Orthanc we “approve the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order” believing ourselves to be numbered among the great who must by right be the beneficiaries of this “purpose”.

In Saruman and Gandalf Tolkien offers us two contrasting spiritual journeys. The one, a journey towards the destruction of humanity both in body and in soul, a journey towards the ultimate victory of Mordor; the other, a pilgrimage made in service of all who seek true freedom not just for themselves but for all peoples, knowing as Augustine said: “What does love look like? It has the hands to help others. It has the feet to hasten to the poor and needy. It has eyes to see misery and want. It has the ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of men”.  And knowing, as all pilgrims do, that each place where we lay our heads can never be permanent, however long we may remain there, but only a brief rest along the way. The pilgrim knows that to build our own Isengard is a fantasy at best and at worst the creation of a slave’s imitation of Barad-dur. The pilgrim knows that our true rest lies only at the end of the journey and that all other rests are respites gratefully received when they come but to be left behind before they become temptations. And the pilgrim knows as Augustine prayed in his Confessions “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

Strider the Ranger Has Come Back!

As Gandalf takes Theoden and his company to see Treebeard, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli remain at the gates of Isengard with Merry and Pippin. They share a meal together and then the hobbits produce the finest tobacco from the Shire, a spoil of battle, so that they can smoke.

“‘Now let us take our ease here for a little!” said Aragorn.’…I feel a weariness such as I have seldom felt before.’ He wrapped his grey cloak about him, hiding his mail-shirt, and stretched out his long legs. Then he lay back and sent from his lips a thin stream of smoke.

‘Look!’ said Pippin. ‘Strider the Ranger has come back!’

‘He has never been away,’ said Aragorn. ‘I am Strider and Dunadan too, and I belong to Gondor and the North.'”

As I have written before, I love the moments of rest in The Lord of the Rings. In the early part of the story these moments are expansive and gracious in character whether they take place in Farmer Maggot’s kitchen or Tom Bombadil’s house or the halls of Elrond in Rivendell. Now when the tale gathers pace, as it begins to move towards its climax, the taking of ease must be “for a little”. It is in the wrapping around him of a cloak that Aragorn now finds a semblance of shelter and in the smoking of his pipe that he finds a moment’s peace. Pippin is reminded of the travel-stained traveller that he first met at The Prancing Pony in Bree and who he got to know and trust on the journey in the wild to Rivendell and in that memory the young hobbit who has been dragged into a world that is far too big for him feels at ease once again. “Strider the Ranger has come back!”

But Aragorn is not a divided man who is a king at one moment, a warrior at another and a friend at yet another; he is truly himself at all times. The temptation to inhabit a role and to switch that role from circumstance to circumstance comes from the need to please and to be accepted by another person. We may have been enjoying a conversation with someone when an important person enters the room. Suddenly we see the face of the person to whom we had been speaking change as he prepares to speak to the one who has just arrived. We may even find that we are now being ignored. What we thought was a conversation between friendly acquaintances was in fact merely a filling of time before the main event.

When we meet someone who is interested in us no matter who else is present then we know we have received a special gift. We also know that we must return that gift and not hold onto it in order to give it to someone that we might consider more important. Aragorn is the same person whether he is with Elrond or Theoden or Pippin the hobbit. And not only is he attentive to all but he will lay down his life for them too. That is why all who follow him love him. That is why they will give their lives for him. It may be that the stages on which we live our lives are smaller than this but when we have a leader a little like Aragorn we know we have received something very special indeed and that we should treasure it.

Stories and Music for a Christ-haunted People

Last year I heard an interview with the fine British actor, Micheal Sheen, about the Passion Play, “The Gospel of Us” in which he played the Christ figure, “The Teacher” in venues around Port Talbot, a steel town in south Wales and Sheen’s hometown, at Easter 2012. “We are a Christ-haunted people,” he said before explaining that he did not regard himself as a practicing Christian. The play was filmed by Dave McKean and is available on all the usual media if you wish to watch it. I intend to do so myself this year.

It was that phrase “A Christ-haunted people” that came to mind as I began to think about this week’s posting about The Music of the Ainur that I promised last week. I first began to think about this on Christmas Night. The days up to and including Christmas Day are a particularly intense time of the year for me as a Christian minister. Unlike Sheen I am a “practicing” Christian and I am especially visible as such as I attend school nativity plays, carol services of many kinds and with many communities and then the great services of Holy Communion at midnight on Christmas Eve and then again on Christmas morning. In one school carol service I joined the queue trying to get into the church declaring to those around me that I wanted the novel experience of having to queue to get into church. I promise you that I said it with a happy smile on my face and folk smiled back at me too.

In recent years I have become increasingly drawn to the Christ-haunted who are not regular worshippers. I feel greatly privileged to be with people who choose to get married in church, or to baptise their child, or to seek a Christian funeral for the person they have lost. In Britain the month of November has become a new holy month as the remembering of our war dead has grown in significance in recent years. The poppy installation in which a ceramic poppy was placed in the moat to represent each of those who died in the First World War at The Tower of London was visited by over a million people, a similar number to those from Britain who perished in that war. Two of my great uncles were among that number and I intend to visit their graves in military cemeteries on The Western Front. This need to remember affects me too.

And then there is Christmas…

When Charles Dickens wrote a life of Christ he produced one of the dullest things he ever wrote and I have no doubt it pleased church leaders and pious parents who surely dutifully read it to their children and so infected them with the safe and unthreatening belief that piety and dullness belong together!  “A Christmas Carol”, on the other hand, is a thrilling tale and has entered the mythology of the English speaking world. That is why I have re-blogged Sarah Waters’ excellent piece that I hope you will read alongside this.

Increasingly I am sure that the Music of the Ainur can be heard anywhere if we have but ears to hear it. When I first tried to write this I thought I would be talking about the music of great composers but realise now that I cannot do this. I cannot reduce music to a narrative, even the narrative of the great Christ-story. I must trust music to lead me on although I could produce a playlist of music that has pointed me towards the great music recently. Perhaps you would like to do the same. Victoria Barlow writes movingly about this in a comment on last week’s blog if you would like to read more on this. I do encourage you to do so.

I offer Charles Dickens to you as an example of a great story-teller whose work points us towards the great story at many points and most surely in his tale of the redemption of the miser, Scrooge. I would love to hear about your examples. And I would like to add at the end of this that I would include Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings as one of the great examples of the modern age.

Christmas Carolling, Dickens, and Home Alone

Sarah really “gets it” in my view in her reflection on the mythology of Christmas evoked in “A Christmas Carol” and as she discusses, “Home Alone” as well. I hope you enjoy this piece as I have and become a regular visitor to her excellent site.

Shakin' Speareans

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year..” Is still ringing in my ears after a quick trip to Sainsbury’s on Saturday where I witnessed (I kid you not) my first fight over the last frozen turkey in stock, that can mean only one thing, it’s Christmas time again. But Turkey-fights aside I wonder – over the Christmas period – whether we have a staple literary call card, a book we always read, or even a movie we always watch, to “get us in the mood”. I am willing to bet at least a hundred brussel sprouts that for many that might be a Dickens number, yep that classic A Christmas Carol which first hit the seasonal scene back in 1843.

Manuscript of the opening stave of A Christmas Carol

At Christmas time today it seems many of us, perhaps unwittingly (though less so for the Dickens scholars I’m sure…

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