The Tales that Really Matter and A Life of Our Own

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.

21 thoughts on “The Tales that Really Matter and A Life of Our Own

  1. And indeed, perhaps, (I say tentatively) … What is a life of our own? The characters in TLOTR all grow through their unchosen experiences into a greater strength and understanding of themselves…. who they are.

    Perhaps, then, we discover a life that is more “of our own”.. “Of our true selves”… when we stop searching to define what that is… but give ourselves wholeheartedly to the journey in which we find ourselves…? Or at least … and I’m a little more confident of this… we find more of who were are from this way of engaging … fully and as openly as we can… in the journey we find ourselves travelling and the choices we make to go on… or turn back, rather than searching endlessly for “the right story”… And in going on, perhaps that is where we find the story that really matters…

    • Thank you so much for this. I do like the contrast you make between the chosen and the unchosen. Indeed the characters in LOTR are all called to a story that they have not chosen. The tragedies of the tale belong to those characters like Boromir, Denethor and Saruman who all sought to make the story their possession in some way. What struck me in reading the work of the Becks once again is that part of the tragedy of modern life is the belief that the successful life is the ability to live a life of one’s own. I wonder if that is why we see our children experiencing stress related conditions in a way that did not happen in past generations?
      I like too your reference to “turning back” and “going on” which takes us back to Sam’s words. I hope to write more about those words in future postings and I do hope you will continue the conversation then!

  2. Pingback: The Tales that Really Matter and A Life of Our Own | The Wise Imagination

  3. Mr. Winter – I LOVE the way you analyzed this and how you talked about how the trials of Frodo & Sam can teach us how to live our own lives. I’ll certainly take this one to heart!

    • Thank you for your comment and for following my blog. You might want to read the comment that Victoria Barlow left and my reply to it. In many ways it is those who give up their lives such as Frodo and Sam who find them and those who seek to save their lives such as Saruman who lose them. I do hope you stay in the conversation.

  4. “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.”
    Whew. And as Christians, we really are called to give up any illusion that our lives belong to ourselves. It’s hard to let go sometimes.

    • It really is hard to let go. For most of us (me included!) it can be almost impossible. I can convince myself that what I possess is necessary. I can still recall the email that I wrote about 4 years ago to say why it was so important that I stay in the job I had back then. I was convinced that I was right. Maybe I was! But a few weeks later I was told that job cuts had to be made and that my job had to go. It really hurt. Now I feel sure that in order to grow I had to feel that loss. I don’t know that where I am right now is a tale that matters. I do know that I did not choose it but that it chose me. I am writing more about that in this week’s blog posting.

      • You are right, of course, although Sam might not agree. He certainly draws a distinction between stories. If he has stayed in the Shire as the Gaffer would have wanted we would agree about his value as one for whom Christ died (and when in the story will Illuvatar be born as one of us?). However, what part would he have been able to play in the resistance to Saruman and his bunch of cut-throats? Would Frodo have been able to take the Ring to the Fire? I think he is where he should be on the Pass of Cirith Ungol. That gets me asking the same question about my story.

  5. Another resonant post. Yes, how hard it is to let go. And yet sometimes, when things are particularly tough, it is a comfort to know everything is not in your control. Realising that can be the one thing that gives you peace in a period of turmoil or anguish. Reason, and knowledge of cause and effect, are so prized – but we are not always in need of answers, or solutions, though we might think the certainty would give us motivation, or closure, or stability. Being in control is portrayed as the epitome of agency, but it’s also a burden.

  6. ” I think he is where he should be on the Pass of Cirith Ungol. That gets me asking the same question about my story.”

    And necessary questions. I’ve struggled with this a lot, caught between a conviction that, when I write, I am doing what I am supposed to be doing, and the question of whether or not it’s my own vanity/drive egging me on. Does God want me to be doing something else entirely? Would I listen and obey if He did?

    • Mmmmm… It is such a pleasure when someone expresses enjoyment of what we write and alternatively the days when no-one seems interested can be so dispiriting. At least that is true for me. Of course the same thing goes, as far as I am concerned, for preaching on Sundays. I rather think that it is necessary to keep awareness of this temptation in our conscious minds. Refusing to believe your own press, whether it is good or bad, is very important. We should pray for each other here.
      As to being in the right place, as you can see, I struggle here too. I think that is one of the things that draws me to Frodo. He just keeps walking on and sometimes he has to be carried; once by Sam, once by orcs and perhaps we can say that at the end he has to be carried by Gollum. As Frodo said of himself so I feel about my own journey, “I do not know the way”. But each day I make a prayer that I wrote based on Psalm 84 that is a re-commitment to my pilgrimage. “This day am I blessed if I put my trust in You and if my heart is set upon pilgrimage to the Heavenly City.” That is where I desire to go and I know that I cannot get there by means of my intelligence, strength or virtue. Another must carry me there.

      • “Refusing to believe your own press, whether it is good or bad, is very important. We should pray for each other here.”
        Amen, and will-do.

        “and perhaps we can say that at the end he has to be carried by Gollum.”
        Hah! What a fascinating way to think of that moment. I’ve always been fascinated by Gollum, in essence, saving Frodo and the world out of his own blind selfishness and self-destruction… a strange and unexpected providential tragedy/eucatastrophe. Evil triumphing, gaining its utmost desire, and destroying itself in the process.

        “That is where I desire to go and I know that I cannot get there by means of my intelligence, strength or virtue. Another must carry me there.”
        Yes. So much yes.

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