Sustained by a Longing for Beauty

“The wizard leapt upon the horse’s back. Aragorn lifted Pippin and set him in Gandalf’s arms, wrapped in cloak and blanket.

‘Farewell! Follow fast!’ cried Gandalf. ‘Away, Shadowfax!’

The great horse tossed his head. His flowing tail flicked in the moonlight. Then he leapt forward, spurning the earth, and was gone like the north wind from the mountains.”

Shadowfax’s mighty leap evokes the great leap of faith that Gandalf now takes. All plans, for the time being at least, are put aside. There can only be action and Gandalf rides for Minas Tirith with Peregrine Took who is now a part of Gandalf’s baggage. The rest of the company will follow soon after. They will not wait for the dawn. All are swept up into the same necessary deed.

In last week’s posting we reflected on the preparation that we can take in order to be ready and able to take the leap of faith when required to do so. There is no certain or necessary connection between our preparation and the ability to do the deed. We may do all the preparation necessary but when the deed must be done or the sacrifice made we may draw back. In Christopher Tolkien’s collection of his father’s unpublished writings, Unfinished Tales, Gandalf speaks of Bilbo’s longing for adventure before the events recorded in The Hobbit. Gandalf wishes to recruit Bilbo for the quest with some foresight that he may play a vital role in it but when he meets him he is disappointed:

“For Bilbo had changed, of course. At least he was getting rather greedy and fat, and his old desires had dwindled down to a sort of private dream. Nothing could have been more dismaying than to find it actually in danger of coming true!”

We all know that the whole history of Middle-earth turns on the moment when Bilbo the fat and rather frightened hobbit runs down the path to join the dwarves on their quest but how easily all might have come to nothing and worse than nothing. Gandalf may have sustained himself through long years by meditating on the glory that he longs to see restored in Middle-earth, a glory that still survives in Rivendell, the Grey Havens, in Lothlorien and also by a slender thread in Gondor but it is Bilbo’s dwindling private dream that proves to be decisive. Gandalf cannot accomplish anything without the participation of a greedy, fat hobbit.

What unites Bilbo’s private dream and Gandalf’s profound meditations is that both are focussed on the glory. Gandalf gives us a hint of his dreams when he tells Pippin that if he had the Palantir he would wish to “look across wide seas of water and of time to Tirion the Fair, and the unimaginable hand and mind of Feanor at their work while both the White Tree and the Golden were in flower.” Bilbo has “a love of tales and questions about the wide world outside the Shire” and a desire to see Elves just as Sam Gamgee did years after. Both Bilbo and Gandalf are called by a longing for beauty to risk all to preserve it in the world. For Gandalf this longing has been a conscious discipline sustained throughout his long pilgrimage in Middle-earth; for Bilbo it is a longing that is awakened within him almost against his will. But however the longing for beauty was awakened and sustained Sauron could not be overcome without both Gandalf and Bilbo.

And what of ourselves? To what adventures might our longings lead us? To what great leaps of faith?

17 thoughts on “Sustained by a Longing for Beauty

  1. I think to reduce hope only to beauty would be to limit our longings. There is also truth and justice and above all, love. But I am absolutely with you, I am sure, to say that I am certain that any truth and justice that is not beautiful is not truth and justice at all & we have made that mistake enough times in our history and how can we speak of love if we do not at the same time speak of beauty. If we do then what kind of love are thinking of?

  2. In that passage in Unfinished Tales, Gandalf talks about how the hobbits of the Shire were beginning to forget all they once knew about the wide world – ie. their minds were steadily getting more narrow and closed, and their world was shrinking. They couldn’t see the Pig Picture anymore.

    I don’t know about you, but the Hobbits’ fading memory of the big picture *feels* like post-Christendom Christianity, with whole cultures forgetting the roots of their ethos. We still have beauty, and the longing for beauty, but our vision is narrowing rather than transcendent.

    And then Gandalf says something that I like. He says (something along the lines of), “You can’t reintroduce that to a whole people at once. You have to start some where, and with some one person.”

    Stephen, I wonder whether (in your vocational role) you have any thoughts on Gandalf’s ‘discipleship technique’ – that he doesn’t even go for twelve disciples, but for a form of one-to-one mentoring. I like it. And I like that, although it takes a long time, it works: when he leaves the Hobbits to deal with the Scouring of the Shire, Gandalf says, “That’s what you’ve been trained for.” And the Shire from that point on has a far far bigger worldview, which is then passed on via the Red Book. It’s like they’ve been re-evangelized.

    • What a great comment, David. I have been thinking about The Scouring of the Shire recently and it has struck me that if Saruman had been a better politician and had decided to bring more of the hobbits into the project of industrialisation then it would have been more than Ted Sandyman and a few shirrifs that Frodo and friends would have had to face. If hobbits had thought that they would prosper under Saruman they would have given up their freedom quite happily. And if Frodo had come to disturb that the hobbits would have escorted him out of the Shire. Of course Aragorn would have eventually turned up to claim his northern kingdom but Frodo’s homecoming would have been delayed until that happened. The Shire was ready for the corruption that Saruman bestowed upon it through his agent, Lotho Pimple. In that context Gandalf’s strategy, as you so beautifully put it, “to start somewhere, and with one person” is the only one that has any potential. Do you think that we live in a similar time to the ending of the Third Age?

    • I have started to rework the material I began to post back in December 2012. Re-write is probably a more accurate word. If Tolkien’s tale grew in the telling (and I think those words are crucial to a spiritual understanding of The Lord of the Rings) so have my reflections too. My hope is that this will become a book, may be a series of books. Any encouragement/criticism will be appreciated.

  3. I have chills. The Gray Pilgrim is such a complex thing, isn’t he? Wise, but not placid… we so often think of the “wise” in this day in age as being almost passive observers, guru’s or hermits alone atop mountains, that one may seek out for wisdom, but who leave the world alone in its foolishness.

    But not Gandalf. He is anything but placid. He is militant, active, ever-struggling, ever-working over long centuries. And that seems to be part of his wisdom, as does his humor and his occasional letting-go of things. He’s so rarely still! And yet he seems to know that where his work ends, Providence takes over… what a strange, complex balance. And all seated in, as you say, that love of Arda, and the goodness and beauty therein. I guess it is that that renews his spirit. Without that, I wonder if, in bitterness and frustration, he might have taken a darker path, like Sauron. Sobering thought, no?

    • I love that thought “He is militant, active, ever-struggling, ever-working over long centuries…And yet he seems to know that where his work ends, Providence takes over”. It is so well put & to click “Like” does not do justice to how well I think you put it! You are right. To trust Providence does not mean passivity (Let go and Let God?) Gandalf does all that he possibly can but he knows that there is a limit to what he can accomplish and he is at peace when he reaches that limit. I have been thinking again about that moment when Frodo offers him the Ring. He knows that it would be a disaster if he took the Ring, even if freely offered, and yet he also knows that by leaving it in Frodo’s hands he takes a terrible risk. All he knows is that Frodo was “meant” to have the Ring and that this encourages him. How I wish I could have that active patience!

      • 🙂
        I wrote a long paper on the theme of Providence in the LotR. It’s never heavy-handed (in my opinion) but ever-present, and Gandalf seems to be the character who best understands its workings.
        I find it a tough balance, to figure out what needs surrendering, and what battles need to be fought. Maybe the difficulty I have in quieting the din of my own mind has something to do with my struggle in that area.

      • Is there any possibility that I might read your paper. I agree entirely with your comment that the theme of Providence is never handled in a heavy-handed manner in LotR. The one thing that I would offer in defence of all, like myself, who struggle to be at rest is that when Frodo offers Gandalf the Ring the distress it causes (surely the only time Gandalf is distressed in the whole story?) shows that even he struggles to know whether it might be better that he has the Ring rather than leaving it in the hands of a hobbit.

  4. *smacks forehead* I am out of it today. I mean “like Saruman,” as I think Saruman’s fall was partly bound up in despair, whereas Sauron’s seems to have been driven, from the beginning, by pride and desire for power.

    • Of course we do not know Sauron spiritual path except that he was a lieutenant to Morgoth. Was there ever a time before his Fall? I feel that there must have been as I feel the same way about Morgoth/Melkor. If not then he would have had to be some eternal principle of evil & if that were the case then Iluvatar could not be The One & evil would have existed from eternity and until eternity. And if that is true then Sauron’s fall & Saruman’s fall would have something in common with each other. I agree too that despair is key to the whole idea of the Fall, that sense that God in his goodness is not enough. Gandalf renounces despair even if he must give his life for that renunciation. It reminds me of the words of Christ when he tells the disciples, “This is my Body”. He gives away his life both to his Father & to us with no guarantees but total faith. It will be OK. Saruman and Sauron too cannot trust, believing that only by total control can they survive and even God is enemy to that desire.

      • If I remember rightly, the Silmarillion says a little bit about it, or at least hints at it. I know Sauron was trained by Aule. He is one of the many makers, in Tolkien’s legends that fell. It’s a long list!

  5. mmmmmm… what a dangerous business it is to be a maker. Is the fall of Feanor the greatest tragedy. Gandalf longs to commune with him. He never expresses any longing to commune with Sauron!

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