Almost as soon as I reread the final sentence in last week’s blog posting, “The Darkness Cannot Overcome the Light”, I began to worry about it. For those who need to be reminded of what I wrote here it is again:
“Hell must be harrowed because Hell is but a negligible thing so vulnerable to the invasion of light and so easily overcome by it.”
It is not the negligibility of Hell that is in question. Its expression in The Lord of the Rings is, of course, Mordor, the kingdom created by Sauron during the Second Age that is the centre of his seemingly irresistible power and whose name alone is capable of striking fear into the hearts of those who hear it. Nothing it would seem can possibly withstand it and yet it will fall to two hobbits whose lives could be taken in a moment with one well aimed blow of an orc’s scimitar. Last week I wrote about the hobbits at the city of the Ringwraiths, Minas Morgul. At that point of the story they have already undertaken a journey that the greatest warrior of Gondor would not dare to take and yet how easily they potter past it and onward up the stair of Cirith Ungol. I believe that this perspective is no accidental discovery on my part but a deliberate intention of Tolkien’s and we will come across expressions of it many times as we journey through the remaining pages of his great story. It is a perspective that C.S Lewis expressed in The Great Divorce when the guide to the heavenly country, George MacDonald, affirms that “All Hell is smaller than one pebble of your earthly world: but it is smaller than one atom of this world, the Real World. Look at yon butterfly. If it swallowed all Hell, Hell would not be big enough to do it any harm or to have any taste.”
No, Hell really is negligible and it is profoundly vulnerable to the invasion of light. That is not in question. It was not that statement that bothered me but the last words of the sentence, “so easily overcome by it.” How could I describe the journey of Frodo and Sam as easy when I know how much it cost them? At first I wanted to change what I had written by some simple act of editing but the more I thought about what I wanted to write the more I knew that I needed to write something a little more substantial. I needed to affirm both Hell’s negligibility and the cost of overcoming, harrowing it. In the Christian tradition this is what is understood as the triumph of the cross, the astonishing paradox by which the execution of an accused man is the means by which Death and Hell are utterly defeated. In The Lord of the Rings it is the act by which Frodo and Sam lay down their lives in taking the Ring to the fire. In Peter Jackson’s film this is wonderfully expressed when the screen is darkened for a moment when the flames of the fiery mountain surge about the two friends as Mordor falls into chaos.
Why we can say both that Hell is negligible and yet to overcome it will cost us our lives is the strangest of paradoxes. The butterfly in the heavenly, the Real, world can eat all Hell and yet not even be aware that it has done so and yet it must take the life of the Son of God to overcome it. At the end of T.S Eliot’s The Four Quartets he expresses perfectly the wisdom that may not understand the paradox for paradoxes are not meant to be understood but to be lived. Eliot speaks of:
“A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)”
This is the simplicity that Frodo and Sam achieve at the moment they leave the comparative security of Faramir’s refuge in Ithilien, placing themselves again into the hands of a malicious guide who wishes to do them harm. At the moment they walk away from Faramir they give up their lives. If we are to know the conquering of Hell in our own lives then it will be when we find the same simplicity paying the same cost.
After leaving the crossroads with the memory of the sun dipping beneath the smokes of Mordor still fresh within them Frodo and Sam are brought face to face with the haunted tower of Minas Morgul. “All was dark about it, earth and sky, but it was lit with light.” This is the city of the Ringwraiths, the most terrible of all the servants of Sauron, who were once men seduced by the greatness of the Dark Lord and the rings of power given to them that are inexorably bound to the Ruling Ring. They above all have been brought by the Ring and bound in the darkness “In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.”
Time and again Tolkien uses the motifs of Light and Dark within his tale. In recent chapters we have seen the wonderful play of light upon the falls of Henneth Annûn casting rainbow patterns upon the refuge that lies hidden behind them and we have seen the light of the sun falling upon the garland of flowers winding about the fallen head of the king whose statue once stood at the crossroads. Once moonlight welled “through the marble walls of Minas Ithil long ago, Tower of the Moon, fair and radiant in the hollow of the hills”. But now Minas Ithil is become Minas Morgul and its light wavers and blows “like a noisome exhalation of decay, a corpse light, a light that illuminated nothing.”
When confronted by the horror that lies before them Frodo and Sam are almost overwhelmed. It is as if light and dark are principles of equal power that confront one another in an eternal conflict. Such is the reality that Sauron would have us believe in and when we thought about the Fall of Númenor a few weeks back https://stephencwinter.com/2015/08/25/faramir-remembers-numenor-that-was/ we saw how he sought to persuade its king of it. But Tolkien’s great myth is not of a universe in eternal conflict. A careful reading of The Lord of the Rings reveals a world in which light is the eternal principle that bursts through again and again despite all efforts to prevent it. And that is the point. Darkness in Tolkien’s world is but a temporary reality that requires huge effort to maintain and is always fragile and desperately vulnerable to the inbreaking of light. Indeed it is the very effort required to maintain the dark that will lead to the eventual undoing of its lord.
Myth is described as that which never happened and yet is always true. Tolkien’s great myth resonates gloriously with the truth that is declared every year at its darkest hour in the Feast of the Nativity, at Christmas: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it”. It resonates with the declaration that in the birth of the Christ child, as vulnerable as is the birth of any child, the illusion of the power of darkness is shattered. Tolkien described this as the True Myth, the one by which all mythology, indeed all reality, is to be understood so that all who embrace it will know an inbreaking of light, as hymn writer, William Cowper, campaigner against the Slave Trade, and one who struggled with depression all his life, put it, ”
Frodo and Sam, like Cowper in his darkest hours, will come almost to despair, but as we shall see as we journey with them into Mordor, the light cannot be overcome by dark. Hell must be harrowed because Hell is but a negligible thing so vulnerable to the invasion of light and so easily overcome by it.
After parting from Faramir Frodo and Sam make their way southward once more as Gollum guides them toward the Morgul Valley and then to the Stairs of Cirith Ungol, the “secret way” by which they are to enter Mordor. As before Gollum prefers to travel by night and to rest by day seeking always to avoid the attention of unfriendly eyes and so it is that when Sam awakens in darkness he is sure that he has overslept and that they should be on the march once more. But it is not night. A darkness has crept across the skies from Mordor and robbed them of the day. Sauron’s armies are more at ease in a permanent half light and so he makes preparation for them by sending vapours across the sky.
I feel sure that Tolkien here remembers the slow creep of industrial Birmingham across the countryside to the village of Hall Green, now a suburb of the city, where he grew up. When I first came to the industrial West Midlands of England in the 1980s I asked an elderly man to show me an area west of Birmingham known as the Black Country, so named because of the deposits of coal and iron ore beneath the ground that had led to the creation of one of the world’s first great industrial areas. We spent the day going from one village to another up and down steep sided hills as he named each one for me, Gornal, Netherton, Tipton, Bilston, Oldbury, Lye and the larger towns of Walsall, Wolverhampton and Dudley. I call them villages because that is what they once were but there was little space between them as they had grown towards one another. But already the process of factory closure and de-industrialisation was well underway and as we stood on one hillside and looked across the great urban sprawl he turned and said to me, “If you had stood upon this place thirty years ago you could never have seen this view.” And he went on to explain that the smoke of the factories would have robbed us of the ability to see for any distance. Now the factories were going and the smoke gone and what was left was largely a post-industrial wasteland. I suspect that if Tolkien had been standing with us that day he would have spoken of it as a land through which the armies of Mordor had once passed, destroyed and then left in order to move onto some other land. I doubt if he would have been an enthusiastic visitor to The Black Country Museum a large open air heritage centre that now seeks to capture the way of life that grew amidst the factories.
Before they enter the Morgul Vale Frodo and Sam come across a statue of a king of Gondor now fallen and defiled. As they stand and look mournfully upon it suddenly the sun dips briefly beneath the smokes before descending below the horizon. It falls upon the head of the king and Frodo sees a garland of flowers encircling it, enlivened briefly by the sun’s light. “Look!” he cries, “The King has got a crown again!”
In the years since that day I have come to know the peoples of Birmingham and the Black Country and not just the traditional population that worked in the factories that created the smoke but also the many peoples who have come from around the world to settle there. I have never felt that they are an enslaved people with all humanity crushed from them. I have never seen them as the armies of Mordor. I would like to offer an application of Tolkien’s garlanded king that he might not approve. If I stand beside Frodo gazing at the beauty of the sunlit garland I see the places of worship, the schools, the friendly pubs and coffee houses, the places of culture such as theatres and concert halls and all other expressions of the building of human community in the English West Midlands. I see the desire of families to make a world for their children and grandchildren and to care as best they can for their elderly. And as I see it I cry with him, “They cannot conquer for ever!”
It is with the greatest reluctance that I must leave Faramir today. Frodo and Sam only had the briefest of stays with him and for much of that time were uncertain about the true nature of the man they had just met. Over this summer I have had the pleasure of returning once again to their encounter and to spend some months both enjoying it and reflecting upon it.
Faramir now bids farewell to his guests, allowing the Ring to depart with them, not clinging to the last opportunity to achieve certain victory for Gondor, choosing rather to risk defeat, enslavement and darkness than a victory that would in reality be an even greater darkness than the triumph of Sauron. In this refusal to cling Faramir chooses to empty himself and as they part so Frodo speaks:
“Most gracious host… it was said to me by Elrond Halfelven that I should find friendship upon the way, secret and unlooked for. Certainly I looked for no such friendship as you have shown. To have found it turns evil to great good.”
Surely as Frodo speaks he is thinking of the evil of Boromir’s attempt to seize the Ring and to do what Faramir refused to do. At this moment of the story Frodo knows nothing of Boromir’s final triumph over the power of evil at work in his soul and can see only the uncontrolled lust disfiguring that once fair face. The memory of that face has stayed with him from that moment until now and it has darkened Frodo’s heart. Not only has he not looked for such friendship as Faramir has shown him but he has feared untruth, hidden intent and betrayal. Such fear has a way of gaining a creeping hold even upon the most noble of hearts and so in Frodo’s thanks he speak of the evil that such a creeping hold will bring about. It is his own heart that has been set free from that evil by Faramir’s friendship.
And what of the future? Neither Frodo nor Faramir can look ahead to see what the future might bring. Faramir has already said that he cannot speak to Frodo with “soft words”.
“I do not hope to see you again on any other day under this Sun.”
Neither Frodo nor Faramir expects to escape the evil of the final triumph of the Dark Lord any more any more than Saruman expects it and so becomes an ally of Sauron hoping either to share in his triumph or to gain the Ring for himself or to even to make one when his Ring lore is complete. Faramir and Frodo have no more expectation of victory than Saruman does and yet they refuse to follow his way, the way of despair.
Surely this is the insight that Dante had when he spoke of the words written over the gateway into Hell, “Abandon all hope all you that enter here!” at the beginning of his Divine Comedy? There is a profound difference between the loss of hope for one’s own personal survival and even the triumph of one’s cause and the loss of hope that leads to either a passive or active embracing of evil. The latter is surely the despair of Hell, the despair of Sauron or of Saruman. The former believes that in the rejection of despair even the greatest of evil will be turned to good in a manner that as yet is entirely unforeseen. In the friendship that Faramir offers to Frodo and that Frodo at last is able to receive they both say their “Yes” to this belief.
To have found such friendship must turn even the greatest evil to great good.