Wait not for the Dawn!

One of the greatest illusions from which we can suffer is the belief that life works out as a consequence of our strategies and plans. We believe that if we can get the strategy right we will get the outcome right. But life rarely works out that way. As British prime minister, Harold MacMillan once said when asked what he feared most, “Events, dear boy, events”.

After the encounter with Saruman at Isengard the company begin to make a steady progress back towards Helms Deep. It is when they make camp after the first day’s travel that an entirely unexpected event changes the story completely. Pippin had been the first to reach the Palantir, the Seeing Stone of Orthanc, after Wormtongue, ignorant of its purpose, tried to drop it from a high window onto one of his enemies below. From the moment Pippin touched the Stone he wished to look more closely at it but when he did so he encountered the one person that anyone using it was able to see, Sauron the Dark Lord. And so for the first time Sauron looked upon a hobbit, the creature he had wanted to see ever since he first heard the name of Bilbo Baggins and learned that a hobbit possessed the Ring of Power that he made and then lost in battle at the end of the Second Age over three thousand years before.

Immediately Gandalf knows that everything has changed, that Sauron will believe a hobbit to be held by Saruman in Isengard and that it is Saruman who still holds the Stone of Orthanc, for it is by this means that they have communicated while Saruman has fallen into treason and betrayal. “That dark mind will be filled now with the voice and face of the hobbit and with expectation,” says Gandalf. Any belief that Gandalf had that there might be still some time to make preparation has gone; and when a moment later a Nazgul flies overhead, one of Sauron’s mightiest servants, making his way to Orthanc to confront Saruman there. Gandalf’s response is immediate.

“The storm is coming. The Nazgul have crossed the River! Ride, ride! Wait not for the dawn! Let not the swift wait for the slow! Ride!”

Gandalf sweeps up Pippin and rides with him upon Shadowfax, the swiftest steed of the age. They must go to war at Minas Tirith, the great citadel of Gondor, and they will reach it before anyone else.

Events, coming suddenly upon Gandalf, have changed everything, requiring a leap of faith with no guarantee of the outcome. All he knows is that everything must be risked upon one venture. All must be at the battle and give all in the battle. Nothing can be kept in reserve.

There will be times in our own lives when all must be risked in such a manner. How can we be ready when such a time comes? As we have seen we cannot determine when the moments of crisis will come in our lives and that it is an illusion to believe that we can exercise control over them. What we must do is to live our lives in such a manner that will prepare us to act just as Gandalf does when such moments come. The tradition of the Christian faith calls such moments the coming of the Kingdom when all comes to judgement, when all must be ventured upon a leap of faith. It is the tradition of this faith that “the Law leads us to Christ”,  that if we are to be ready for the Kingdom we must develop a life of disciplined waiting. Simone Weil called this disciplined waiting, “Forms of the Implicit Love of God” and said it can be expressed in three ways, by love of neighbour expressed in acts of justice, by love of the order and beauty of the world and by love of religious practice. Each of these, she said, can prepare us for the Kingdom that is at hand, the moment of crisis to which all our lives will come.

Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, Merry, Pippin, Théoden and Eomer have all come to the great crisis of their lives and they must venture their lives upon it. How they will acquit themselves will be determined by the preparation that they have made for this moment.

An Agent of Saruman or a friend to Treebeard

Treebeard has learnt sympathy during the long years of his sojourn in Middle-earth. On learning from Gandalf that Saruman has refused to leave Orthanc he says:

“So Saruman would not leave?… I did not think he would. His heart is as rotten as a black Huorn’s. Still, if I were overcome and all my trees destroyed, I would not come while I had one dark hole left to hide in.”

“No,” said Gandalf. “But you have not plotted to cover all the world with your trees and choke all other living things.”

For Saruman had indeed dreamed and plotted to cover the world and to rule over it. Many have commented that it was the creeping spread of industrial Birmingham in the English Midlands into the Worcestershire countryside where Tolkien grew up that inspired much of the story of The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien grew up in the village of Hall Green. I know this now as a suburb of Birmingham that lies well within the modern city boundary a few miles to the north of my own home. I can well see how he would have seen this encroachment as an invasion.

My own home lies still within the Worcestershire countryside. As I write this on a frosty February morning I can detect the first signs of approaching Spring about me. Soon I will see swans, ducks, moorhens and coots marking out their territories in the waters around my home and soon after I will see them raising their young once more. I have made the acquaintance of an angler who sits patiently by the waters through the warmer months of the year. I say acquaintance for like most anglers he is a marsh wiggle by nature and keeps himself to himself but he is ready to share his wisdom as long as I don’t disturb him from more important matters. The best time to talk is at the end of the day when he is about to make his way home. He has taught me where the kingfishers will make their nest and, for me, most exciting of all, where he has seen an otter and her cub, something not seen near here for many a year. And he knows the difference between the native otter and the pernicious foreign mink so I believe in his sighting. One day…one day… I hope to see an otter near my home myself.

I think that Tolkien would have loved the country near my home. Indeed he probably knew it himself. And yet if I walk towards the small town near where I live it is not long before I reach a major highway that cuts through the heart of the county. I have written before about my early morning walks through woodland with my dog in the autumn and winter darkness. What I have not mentioned is the noise of traffic from the highway. The dark of the woodland is real thanks both to the trees themselves and to a high embankment that lies between them and the road but so too is the noise.

I have developed a form of prayer for my daily walks with my dog and more and more I feel that the place in which I pray is a part and a vital part of the prayer. It is not some simplistic expression of “all that is green and living is good and all that is asphalt is bad”. I am too much implicated by own participation in the modern world to be able to do that without being justly called a hypocrite. But it is right that my prayer should happen at this point of tension in the woodland by the highway in which I do not know how much I am an agent of Saruman or a friend to Treebeard. Last year a group of folk planted the land between the woodland and the highway with hundreds of young saplings. That was a fine deed. Perhaps by supporting it I can offer something to Treebeard and to the Worcestershire man who created that character and in whose Shire I still live.

The Dragon’s Loyalty Award for Excellence

Last week I had a lovely and unexpected surprise when I received a nomination for the Dragon’s Loyalty Award for Excellence from the wonderful  whose work I have come to admire very much indeed. She is a philosopher, theologian, poet and story teller of genuine quality and each of these enriches the other three in a most exciting manner. In reading her work I know that the spirit of the Renaissance still lives among us.

Like Michelle I am not sure what Dragons and loyalty have to do with excellence. I guess that they relate to a story and perhaps the story in the picture but sadly I don’t know what it is. My wife, who is Welsh, wrote stories for our children about Welsh dragons when they were young and she was therefore delighted that I should receive such an award. That is enough for me!

The Dragon´s Loyalty Award is presented to blogs with exceptional content and in order to accept the Dragon’s Loyalty Award, you must:

  1. Display the Award on your Blog.
  2. Announce your win with a post and thank the Blogger who awarded you.
  3. Present 15 deserving Bloggers with the Award
  4. Link your awardees in the post and let them know of their being awarded.
  5. Write seven interesting things about you.

I have already done the first two and now to the other three. Michelle only named 7 blogs to tie in with her 7 facts. I too have not named 15 but in my case I name 8. I do so simply because each time a new posting from each of these arrives in my Reader I respond with delight.

The EIGHT really wonderful blogs that I would like to recommend are

Okanagan Okanogan

Malcolm Guite

Shakin’ Spearians

Beloved Life

A Pilgrim in Narnia

The Poet and the Flea

The Oddest Inkling

jubilare

And my 7 interesting facts? Well here are 7 that come to mind that you may or may not find interesting. I think that all lives are interesting.

1. While growing up I earned my pocket money at weekends by cleaning out the pigs and feeding them.

2. I went to an English boarding school from the age of 14 to 18 but if any magic was ever done there I never saw it!

3. I used to regularly watch my favourite Premier League football (soccer!) team, Southampton, from the balcony of a good friend’s penthouse apartment. The club have moved to a new stadium since then but I don’t think that is the reason!

4. I taught in a school in Zambia, Central Africa, between 1978 and 1984 and did a lot of growing up in that time.

5. I live with my family in a 200 year old cottage next to a road that the Romans built and at the junction of two canals. Donkeys were once kept in the room that we now use as a workshop and cellar.

6. I love all kinds of music but especially classical and I am delighted that my daughters have come to share that love. One is a fine pianist and the other learning to play the harp and both are very good singers.

7. I have walked my dog between 6 and 7 each morning for 8 years now and this has reconnected me wonderfully to the earth, the weather and to the changing of the seasons. Sometimes this time of day is dark, sometimes light and sometimes and most magically I walk at dawn.

I do hope most of all that this award will send you to the blogs I have nominated and to the wonderful blog of Michelle Joelle who nominated me for this award.

Freely We Serve Because We Freely Love

So Saruman is defeated and Pippin turns to Gandalf and asks, “What will you do to him?” .

“I? Nothing!” said Gandalf. “I will do nothing to him. I do not wish for mastery.”

And so we see once more the contrast between Gandalf and Saruman, the one who lives “in terror of the shadow of Mordor,” yet “will not serve” but “only command”. In previous postings I have compared Saruman to Adolf Hitler, not suggesting that Tolkien based Saruman upon Hitler, but arguing that spiritually they are kin. I will offer one more character to whom I believe both to be related and that is the figure of Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost.

“Better to reign in Hell, than to serve in Heaven,” is now one of the most famous lines from Paradise Lost and it is perhaps a sign of our time that many believe such a sentiment to be praiseworthy, a declaration of freedom from a divine tyranny that would keep us infants and deny us the divine fire as it did to humankind before the heroic sacrifice of Prometheus.

Praiseworthy it may be to stand in defiance of tyranny, whether such be divine or human, but in creating the character of Saruman and the character of Gandalf, Tolkien shows us both the true nature of divinity and the defiance that seeks to reign in despite of the majesty of God.

All who have read The Lord of the Rings will have noted a marked absence of divine intervention in the story unless we count Gandalf’s comment that Frodo was “meant to have” the Ring. Even Frodo is given freedom either to accept the task that is given to him or to reject it and the task is not at its beginning to take the Ring to Mordor but only to the temporary safety of Rivendell. Those who have read The Silmarillion will know that Tolkien had a sense of divine purpose in the mythology that he created but they will also know that Middle-earth is from the very beginning a sphere of freedom and that the divine purpose is always shrouded in mystery. Tolkien never tries to explain the mystery of the immortality of the Elves nor the mystery of human mortality and although he shows in the myth of the Music of the Ainur that there will be a wonderful conclusion to the story he never tries to tell us what it is. The Lord of the Rings is a story,not of metaphysical speculation, but of doing the necessary deed.

And the reason for this is that as a story-teller Tolkien takes the side, not of Saruman, the one who would reign in Hell rather than serve in Heaven, but of Gandalf, the one who does not wish for mastery. Saruman will have a certain ending to the story if he can, one in which he alone will reign. He may begin with words about a higher purpose but he will end with tyranny. For we know that Satan’s brave words of defiance are intended for himself alone. He will not share his reign in Hell so as to set us free and the purpose of the rest of us is to help him achieve his freedom at the price of our own enslavement.

We thought about that last week in the posting about spiritual guides. Gandalf will lead us down the hard road of joyful responsibility, doing the task that is at hand, until we find true freedom. As Milton wrote elsewhere in Paradise Lost:

“Freely we serve
Because we freely love, as in our will
To love or not; in this we stand or fall.”

How to Choose the Right Spiritual Guide

Two weeks ago I wrote about Saruman and Gandalf as the spiritual guides of our day trying to show how Saruman had come to put his trust in the exercise of power through things that are made for indeed the thing he desired most was the Ring, the ultimate expression of power and Sauron’s greatest work. If our spirituality is a description of that which we desire most and that which we make the ground of our being then Saruman and those like him are indeed spiritual guides.

Saruman sees all reality as an expression either of power or weakness. Only that which enables the expression of power has any validity. And those he considers weaker than he is only have validity in so far as they may further his own ends. The problem for him as we have seen is that his estimate of strength and weakness is desperately flawed. He has no respect for hobbits or for Rohan and until this point of the story he has not even considered the Ents of Fangorn forest. This tendency to ignore that which he has no use for is the cause of his downfall.

“What is the house of Eorl but a thatched barn where brigands drink in the reek, and their brats roll on the floor among the dogs?” he screams in fury when Théoden rejects his offer of peace.

In other words Saruman is a spiritual guide who seeks to convince us that we need his power and that without him we can do nothing of any significance. It is a guidance that seeks to convince us that we are not worth very much. It is a guidance that plays upon our lack of self-worth and our sense of unworthiness. It is a guidance that works with the Dunlendings who are his allies in the war against Rohan. The Dunlendings, near neighbours of Rohan, have long nursed a sense of grievance against the Rohirrim and grievance is another fuel that spiritual guides like Saruman use.

Gandalf plays no such games. Often his friends express their conviction that they can do no nothing without him but he does nothing to encourage them in that belief. He is the pilgrim who has spent long years journeying from place to place among the free peoples of the Middle-earth seeking to help those who live there find courage within themselves to resist evil that they might not believe even exists. He does this with Frodo, helping him find the courage to take the journey to Rivendell bearing the Ring. He does this with Théoden, helping him to emerge from his inner darkness and confront the danger that threatens his people. If Saruman seeks to make others dependent upon him, Gandalf seeks to help others find strength within themselves.

We would do well to consider our own spiritual guides and make the right choice of them. On one hand there are the experts, the gurus, who “know” what we need and who “know” that we need them. They believe in their own expertise and also our weakness and our need of them. Such a culture of the “expert” shapes a certain kind of education and a certain kind of religion. On the other hand there are those who challenge us to think for ourselves and help us to take responsibility for our own lives. They do not try to hide the price that we will have to pay if we do seek to live the responsible life but they also demonstrate that the truly responsible life is also the truly joyous life and that the truly joyous life is also the truly responsible life.  And this life is the life that is truly free!