Frodo Shows What the Gift of Laughter can Teach Us

Frodo has come at last to the Morannon, the Black Gate of Mordor, with its mighty watch-towers. “Stony-faced they were, with dark window-holes staring north and east and west, and each window was full of sleepless eyes.”. He has come with no idea of how he is to go any further and only his sense of duty can impel him to to try to go on. All he can foresee is his own death and the failure of his mission but he stands with his face “grim and set, but resolute,” and his eyes are clear. Sam never had much hope in the affair but, as Tolkien tells us, “being a cheerful hobbit he had not needed hope, as long as despair could be postponed,” and even as he reaches the end he can still die beside his master and so know that his life has not been without meaning.

It is at this moment that Gollum offers them an alternative: “a little path leading up into the mountains; and then a stair, a narrow stair…And then… a tunnel, a dark tunnel; and at last a little cleft, and a path high above the main pass.”

So this then is the choice that lies before them. On the one hand there is a brave, even noble, death at the hands of the Enemy, but with the knowledge that with their capture and death so too will die all the hopes of their friends and all that they hold dear. On the other hand there is a possibility offered to them by one they know to be false and murderous. How should they choose at such a moment?

For Sam there is only one choice and that is to stay true to his master. He sees no need to choose between options. All he needs to do is to follow. Sam is sure that Gollum will betray them if he can but that will not sway his own choice in any way. Frodo, on the other hand, must make a choice that gives at least some possibility that his mission his can be fulfilled.

How then does he decide?

The moment of decision comes when something entirely unexpected breaks into hours of agonised thought. Even as the day of choice has been passing companies of soldiers have been arriving at the gate in order to swell the armies of Mordor and as one arrives from the far south Sam’s curiosity causes him to forget his fear and to ask Gollum if he has seen oliphaunts among them, “Grey as a mouse, big as a house”. Sam chants a verse about them and tells Gollum what he knows of them and Frodo laughs. He laughs “in the midst of all his cares” and the laugh releases him from all hesitation. He will entrust himself to Gollum once more.

Frodo’s laughter is not the grim laughter of one staring the inevitability of death in the face and so making one last gesture of defiance before the night falls. And it is most certainly not the ravenous and mocking laughter most usually heard in that land, a laughter taking pleasure in the misfortune of another. Frodo’s laughter is the inbreaking of a reality that runs entirely counter to the reality of death that seems to govern our lives declaring endlessly and monotonously as it does so that there is no alternative; that the best we can make of this cruel joke is to try to make some deal with it just as those who belong to the peoples who have made Sauron their overlord have done, just as the many minor functionaries of the Third Reich did. Theologian, James Alison speaks of the alternative reality that breaks in upon Frodo’s unhappy thoughts in these terms when he speaks of Jesus going to his own death:

“I am going to my own death,” he imagines Jesus saying in his reflection on John 15.12-14 ” to make possible for you a model of creative practice which is not governed by death. From now on this is the only commandment that counts: that you should live your lives as a creative overcoming of death.”

Sam’s rhyme about oliphaunts and Frodo’s cheerful laughter makes the life that is not governed by death real once more and in the light of that reality they can continue their journey.

13 thoughts on “Frodo Shows What the Gift of Laughter can Teach Us

  1. Hi Stephen,

    I’m guessing you kind of had this in mind while writing, but my mind couldn’t help zipping ahead to Gandalf’s laughter at Parth Galen:

    ‘A great Shadow has departed,’ said Gandalf, and then he laughed and the sound was like music, or like water in a parched land; and as he listened the thought came to Sam that he had not heard laughter, the pure sound of merriment, for days upon days without count. It fell upon his ears like the echo of all the joys he had ever known. But he himself burst into tears. Then, as a sweet rain will pass down a wind of spring and the sun will shine out the clearer, his tears ceased, and his laughter welled up, and laughing he sprang from his bed.’

    I love that description, especially that neither Gandalf or Sam are laughing at something, as much as laughing as a natural overflow of delight and joy. It’s like when my baby sees me or my wife, he laughs – not because we’re funny (though we are), but because that’s how he expresses delight.

    I think Frodo’s laughter at Sam’s song is a foreshadowing, a glimpse of the eucatastrophic joy of evil’s coming defeat. Which is why we need to laugh, especially in the darkest places. It’s like every laugh we allow ourselves is an act of faith, believing that there is real joy a-coming 🙂

    • I was not actually thinking of that passage but I do know it and hope to reflect on it at a later date. I love your description of laughter as an overflow of delight. When I searched for the right photo to express what I wanted to say in this week’s posting I was struck by how little natural laughter I was able to find, especially in photos from the western world. Everyone seemed to be saying, “Look at me laughing!” It was all so self-conscious. Are we capable of natural laughter any more?
      I liked your sense of Frodo’s laughter as a foreshadowing. It is, of course, linked to memory as well. Frodo remembers the simple pleasures of life in the Shire. But more and more I am convinced that the place of memory is not to take us back somewhere but to point us to what lies ahead and to joy that we have tasted but that remains to be fulfilled. Laughter in the sense that you speak of it is indeed an act of faith and I am most grateful to you for offering these thoughts.

      • I try to laugh freely, and for joy, as much as I can. I think I’ve already wasted too many years being overly serious. Not that there’s not a time for seriousness, but a good, pure laugh is someone one can’t plan, and one has to take every opportunity to enjoy it, not knowing when the next time will come.

      • I think that sometimes we may fear to laugh for joy because long and hard experience has taught us that sorrow always follows joy just as night always follows day. With the knowledge born of that experience we may find it hard to trust our joy for fear of what will follow. “Was it our giving way to joy that actually caused our sorrow?” Of course the answer is “No”. It is in the nature of life that there will be this rhythm as William Blake once wisely said. We must learn to trust both our joy and our sorrow, that both will lead us to God if we let them. I think that is what Malcolm Guite says in he poem I quoted in my posting on “Frodo’s Dark Journey” on which you left a comment.

      • “Was it our giving way to joy that actually caused our sorrow?” I used to confuse Joy with Happiness, and both with optimism. I do think that too much optimism is a dangerous thing, just as too much pessimism is. Expecting the best leads to disappointment. Of course, experiencing happiness, or joy, only contrasts with their absence, but their absence contrasts with them, too, making them all the more precious. That’s why I like to laugh and take pleasure when it’s offered. It seems like such a waste not to… like avoiding eating good food because one cannot get it all the time.

        “We must learn to trust both our joy and our sorrow, that both will lead us to God if we let them.” How very true.

      • “That’s why I like to laugh and take pleasure when it’s offered. It seems like such a waste not to… like avoiding eating good food because one cannot get it all the time.” I think that is wisdom.

  2. Absolutely loved this post! These moments when Frodo laughs out in the darkest of times and places happen on rare occasions, and they are precious – they uplift the reader and give life to the quest. For all his melancholia and the weight of his burden, he is just as much characterised by his sudden outbursts of laughter – more often at the start of the tale, but still there towards the end. He laughs again on the stairs of Cirith Ungol, (I think that might be last time before the Ring is destroyed) and once again prompted by Sam. As you say, this is not a condescending laughter at Sam’s provincial awkwardness, but just laughter of joy, and laughter of relief that not everything needs be as complicated and heavy as his mission. The Ring makes its bearer inward-looking, self-serving, narcissistic (epitomised by Gollum); Frodo’s laughter reflects him being momentarily taken out of the suffocating mental confines imposed by the Ring – it is quite literally an escape, and in turn a victory against the effects of the Ring. Great post, and a fantastic quotation there provided by @mrdavidrowe.

    • Thank you so much for your comment. I agree entirely with what you say about the effect of the Ring. I hope to write more about this but surely in essence we can say that the lust for the power that the Ring can bring to those who possess it creates the effects that you speak about. Sam’s simplicity and love for life keeps bringing Frodo back from the growing power of the Ring over his soul. I really like your phrase, “suffocating mental confines” here. Does this afflict the educated more than the less well educated? I have just been re-reading C.S Lewis’s reflections on his time in the trenches of the Western Front in World War 1. He developed a deep regard for the Somerset farmers among whom he fought.
      I agree too with your words about David Rowe’s fine comment.

  3. Reblogged this on A Pilgrim in Narnia and commented:
    For this Feature Friday I want to highlight |Stephen Winter’s work. He is writing beautiful little essays that highlight, as the blog is titled, “Wisdom from the Lord of the Rings.” I am reading LOTR with my son, and we have just rejoined Sam and Frodo on their long trek to Mordor. While I could highlight just about any of his blogs, this brand new one on what Frodo shows us about the gift of laughter is a great way to begin the weekend. It also makes a strong entry point to Stephen’s engaging and sensitive look at this Tolkien masterpiece.

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