Gollum guides Frodo and Sam away from the dead valley of Minas Morgul up a steep stairway seemingly cut into the rock of the Ephel Dúath, the outer fence of the dark shadow of Mordor, up, up, reaching toward the pass of Cirith Ungol through which they must go in order to reach their goal at the fires of Orodruin, Mount Doom and so to destroy the Ring. Just before they are about to make the final climb into the pass Frodo and Sam take a moment to rest. To Frodo it seems that they are about to begin the “final lap” and so he must gather his strength.
As they rest Sam begins to reflect on all that they have been through together:
“We shouldn’t be here at all, if we had known more about it before we started. But I suppose it’s often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures as I used to call them.”
Sam thinks back to the times of delightful pastime when as a young hobbit in the Shire he would listen to stories at Bilbo’s knee and so found his imagination awakening and his desire to see the things of which he had heard in those tales begin to grow. For Sam these tales were adventures and his hearing of them something to which he looked forward. And just as he chose to listen so he used to feel that the heroes of the stories that he loved had somehow chosen to be a part of their own tale.
“I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk in the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport as you might say.”
So Sam used to think until he found that he was within a great tale himself. He knows that he did not choose this tale and that from the very beginning he was, in effect, chosen for it but he does not regard this as some kind of honour that has been done to him. Sam’s own involvement in the tale of the Ring began with Gandalf hauling him through an open window from the garden at Bag End into Frodo’s drawing room and even though it was his desire to see Elves and his distress at the thought that Frodo might be going away that first led him to his hiding place beneath the window he had no idea that his desire and his distress would eventually bring him to this place on the borders of Mordor. He has been “landed” in this place, in this tale and, as he puts it, that seems to be “the way of it” with the tales that really matter.
We live in a time in which the ability to shape the events of our lives and to be the mistress or master of our fate is praiseworthy almost above any other quality. As German sociologists, Ulrich Beck and Elizabeth Beck-Gernsheim put it, it is the ability to “live one’s own life” in the world. “Money means your own money, space means your own space, even in the elementary sense of a precondition for a life you can call your own. Love, marriage and parenthood are required to bind and hold together the individual’s own, centrifugal life story. It would be only a slight exaggeration to say that the daily struggle for a life of one’s own has become the collective experience of the Western world. It expresses the remnant of our communal feeling.” Thus in this understanding the adventure of all of our lives is this expression that Beck and Beck-Gernsheim speak of.
We will think more about this in the next few weeks as we pause with Frodo and Sam before attempting the pass of Cirith Ungol but just for now I hope that you can see that Frodo and Sam are not living “a life you can call your own”. As Sam puts it, their paths have been “laid that way”. And as we consider our own lives so we too must think of the tension between our desire to live a life that we can call our own and the tales that really matter.