Let Him Come and Open His Grief

On the journey to Mordor food is more to Frodo, Sam and Gollum than taking in sufficient energy to accomplish another day’s march. It is a sign that connects them to or separates them from the ground of their being and which unites or divides them from one another. Lembas, the waybread of the Elves given to them when they left Lothlorien, is all that Frodo and Sam have to eat as they pass through the barren lands to the north of the border of Mordor, through the Dead Marshes and then the desolation that is the land before the Morannon, the Black Gate of Mordor. They may wish for some variety in their diet but they are profoundly nourished by this food of the Elves. Not only does it sustain them upon each weary day but it also has a virtue that gives them courage and hope.

But not so, Gollum. When Frodo offers him some of the scant supply that he has of Lembas we are told that “Gollum sniffed at the leaf and his face changed: a spasm of disgust came over it, and a hint of his old malice.” Gollum can smell the leaves of the Elven lands and the smell is to him a foul stench that speaks of enmity, judgement and of imprisonment. The very food that has such virtue to the hobbits is vicious to him. “He spat, and a fit of coughing took him.”

Lembas reminds us of ancient symbols, of the manna in the wilderness that sustained the children of Israel through their forty year sojourn in the wilderness before they entered the Promised Land, and of the bread of the Eucharist in the Christian tradition that is a waybread to those who look to it for sustenance. In the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England the Minister seeks to remind his hearers of the nature of the food that is offered to them at the holy table.

“It is our duty to render most humble and hearty thanks to Almighty God, our heavenly Father, for that he hath given his Son our Saviour Jesus Christ, not only to die for us, but also to be our spiritual food and sustenance in that holy Sacrament.”

So it is that the one who comes to receive the Sacrament is not only nourished but also profoundly connected to the deepest ground of their being. The one who eats it is linked to not only to that ground but also to all others that share the bread and the wine. It is a waybread for the journey and unites those who are sustained by it more profoundly than do ties of gender, family, sexuality, class, nationality or race. The Minister’s warning to those who are about to receive this food tells us that we cannot allow anything to divide us from each other or else we take it unworthily and so do ourselves harm.

Frodo longs to heal the great divide that lies between himself and Gollum but he cannot. For this to happen Gollum would have to come and “Open his Grief” as the Prayer Book puts it. He would have to weep for the murder of Déagolhis closest friend from whom he took the Ring. He would have to give up the fiction of the birthday present withheld by Déagol that he has long cherished to justify his crime. He would have to acknowledge his utter wretchedness. He would have to long for healing, maybe even for death. He would have to give up the Ring and join Frodo and Sam in their wish to destroy it and all the evil that it has the power to do.

“I think this food would do you good, if you would try,” says Frodo. “But perhaps you can’t even try, not yet anyway.”

Frodo’s Dark Journey

Frodo and Sam begin their journey to Mordor from the Emyn Muil with a guide without whom they could make little progress but a guide who wishes them ill. Frodo makes Gollum swear by the Ring not to betray them but he is aware that Gollum will break his promise if he can and that the Ring is stronger and more treacherous than Gollum’s oath.

“Would you commit your promise to [the Ring], Sméagol? It will hold you. But it is more treacherous than you are. It may twist your words. Beware!”

When Dante takes his journey through Hell that he describes in the first book of The Divine Comedy he was guided by the noble Roman poet, Virgil. Time and again he finds himself dependent upon the wisdom and authority of his guide. Although Dante is in Hell he is not beyond the authority of God and Virgil has been tasked as a kind of herald of God, pagan though he is, to bring his charge safely through his dark journey. When Virgil demands that the devils of hell permit them to pass he does so with divine authority and although the devils hate God they have no choice but to allow Dante to continue on his way. Hell in Dante’s vision is not a contested region. It may be hopeless but it has been harrowed.

The journey that Frodo and Sam make to Mordor is also a journey into Hell but as in the whole of Tolkien’s vision of Middle-earth it remains very much a contested region. Sauron not only hates the light but would deny it any place within his dominions. When Frodo seeks to gain entry there is no word that he can speak that has the authority to force those who guard the dominion of the Dark Lord to grant him entry except, it would seem, the word of treachery that Gollum will speak in the Pass of Cirith Ungol.

In his the first of his series of nine poems On Reading the Commedia the poet, Malcolm Guite speaks of his own dark journey (with typical generosity he posts the poem on his blog  https://malcolmguite.wordpress.com/2015/03/08/dante-and-the-companioned-journey-1 where you can also find links to ways to buy his book from which series comes,”The Singing Bowl”). Guite speaks of the call of his “shadow-beasts…the leopard, lion, wolf, My kith and kin, the emblems of my kind” who come to draw him “back across the gulf, Back from the path I wanted to have chosen.” Is Gollum a guide of this kind? Is he, like Guite’s “shadow-beasts”, Frodo’s “kith and kin” the emblems of his kind? I think he is. When Gollum swears “by the Precious” and he grovels at Frodo’s feet Sam recognises the kinship that Gollum and Frodo share. “They could reach one another’s minds.” Frodo knows too that Gollum is what he himself will become unless he can cast the Ring into the fire, that Gollum’s call to him is the call to despair as Guite expresses it

Fall back, they call, you can’t run from yourself,

Fall to the place where every hope is frozen…

The place in Dante’s Inferno where every hope is frozen is the ninth and deepest circle of Hell to which Gollum himself journeys by means of his own treachery. But must Frodo travel there in the same way as his shadow guide? Will he fall into the same despair and become himself a traitor to those who have trusted him? Guite offers to us a different path:

“This time I choose to choose

The other path, path of the dead and risen,

To try the hidden heart of things, to let go, lose,

To lose myself and find again the voice

That called and drew me here, my freeing muse.

Begin again she calls, you have the choice,

                Little by little, you can travel far,

Learn to lament before you can rejoice.”

And so we travel on with Frodo through the Dead Marshes on the way to Mordor as he struggles to make the same choice.

Now that I see him, I do pity him

“Very well,” he answered aloud, lowering his sword. “But still I am afraid. And yet, as you see, I will not touch the creature. For now that I see him, I do pity him.”

As Frodo speaks these words Sam stares at him in some confusion for he seems to be addressing someone who is not there. Sam is there and so too is Gollum for Sam and Frodo have just captured him as he fell spider-like from the wall of the Emyn Muil. And the unseen person that Frodo addresses is Gandalf as he remembers the long talk they had in the April morning at Bag End when Gandalf revealed to Frodo the true identity of Bilbo’s ring and how it had come to Bilbo in the first place in the dark tunnels of the Misty Mountains.

On that day Gandalf told Frodo how Gollum had first taken the Ring by murder; how the Ring came to Bilbo, it seemed, by the strangest of chances as it began to try to find its way back to Sauron, its true master; how Bilbo had not killed Gollum when he had the chance, standing behind him, cloaked in the invisibility that the Ring gave him; but how Bilbo had already revealed his name and homeland to Gollum when they first encountered one another so that when Gollum eventually left the shelter of the mountain tunnels he had tried to find the Shire. Worst of all, Gandalf told Frodo, Gollum had fallen into Sauron’s hands and had revealed to him under torture all he knew so that the servants of the Dark Lord were searching for the Shire, for Baggins and for the Ring.

A terrified Frodo had cried out then, “What a pity Bilbo did not stab the vile creature, when he had a chance!” so prompting Gandalf’s response, “Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity and Mercy: not to strike without need.” And Gandalf went on to say that it was his belief that Gollum “has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many- yours not least”.

It is an easy thing to trace a history of violence and the history of the Ring from the moment of its conceiving and making in deceit was a history that was entirely violent. When we observe violence anywhere in the world we can be sure that it has been caused by previous actions of the same nature and by investigating we can begin to work back from one sad cause and effect to another. So in the history of the Ring we can journey back through Gollum’s murder of Déagol to the killing of Isíldur by orcs to Isíldur’s refusal to destroy the Ring after he had taken it from Sauron’s hand to the making of the Ring by the Dark Lord as he sought to bring all things under his rule. “One Ring to rule them all…”

But Bilbo’s Pity in the dark tunnels of the Misty Mountains is of a different order and in the showing of Pity something quite new and entirely unexpected entered the story. Even Gandalf does not know of what nature this new reality is, or whether it is “for good or ill”, but he chooses to place his trust in the uncertain and unexpected consequences of Bilbo’s Pity as against the melancholy certainty of the consequence of violence. So Gandalf did not kill Gollum to prevent his doing further harm when he captured him thus leaving open the door to Gollum’s escape from the Elves of Thranduil’s realm and to his pursuit of the Fellowship from Moria until the moment that Frodo and Sam caught him.

Once again Tolkien reveals his profound spiritual insight and offers us wisdom. We, like Frodo, are faced with the choice of making our choices according to Law with its just yet implacable principles or according to the fearful uncertainty of grace, pity and mercy. Sam longs to put an end to the uncertainty by putting an end to Gollum. Until this moment Frodo had wanted to put an end to uncertainty as well. Frodo now knows that he cannot do this. He too must follow the way of Bilbo’s Pity and of Gandalf’s. But to what end?