Gandalf Laughs!

It has been one of the joys of writing this blog over the last three and a half years that many new discoveries have been made in a work that I thought I knew well. And one of those discoveries has been of the role of laughter in The Lord of the Rings. Readers of my blog may remember a piece that I wrote about Frodo’s laughter at the Black Gate of Mordor that enabled him to make the decision to seek to enter Mordor by Gollum’s “secret way”. They will remember too the wonderful moment that comes, just before Frodo and Sam enter the darkness of Shelob’s Lair, when Frodo laughs and the very rocks of the Ephel Dúath seem to strain forward to hear a sound that has never come before to that unhappy place.

And now, after the encounter with Denethor in his joyless hall, Pippin is walking along with Gandalf and Gandalf laughs!

“Pippin glanced in some wonder at the face now close beside his own, for the sound of that laugh had been gay and merry. Yet in the wizard’s face he saw at first only lines of care and sorrow; though as he looked more intently he perceived that under all there was a great joy: a fountain of mirth enough to set a kingdom laughing, were it to gush forth.”

Pippin is learning to see deeper than surfaces as we have noted in the last few weeks and he encourages us to do the same. And here he sees the joy that lies deep within Gandalf’s soul. This is not a joy that is an alternative to care and sorrow but which lies deeper than the sorrow. As the poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, put it in his poem, God’s Grandeur, “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” Hopkins, a Jesuit priest, sharing the same faith as Tolkien himself, reflects on the way human activity has trodden down nature “so that the soil is bare now, nor can the foot feel, being shod.” And he, like Tolkien, discerns that the deepest reality is not the spoiling activity of grasping humanity but the “dearest freshness”.

This is no sentimental gush. Hopkins finds these words that come from a deeper place than the depression with which he struggled throughout his life. In his description of Gandalf’s laughter Tolkien finds something that lies deeper than Gandalf’s care and sorrow and deeper even than the terrible danger that threatens all that is beautiful, true and good in the world. Frodo saw it for just a brief moment at the Crossroads when he saw the garland of flowers about the fallen head of the king’s statue and declared, “They cannot conquer for ever!”

To see this deeper reality, as Pippin does as he gazes into Gandalf’s face, does not come by accident. We have already noted that Pippin is growing and later, after the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, we will listen to a conversation that he will have with Merry that will show what has been happening to him. I do not know how the miracle of grace comes to each of us and I know that the stories of the saints lay the greatest emphasis upon the undeserved nature of this inbreaking of joy that we have been considering. But for myself I recognise that I need to practice a daily discipline of delight if I am to connect more deeply to the joy that Pippin sees in Gandalf. The great 20th century American saint, Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Workers Movement used to speak of this discipline often. She was arrested often, standing with workers against over mighty bosses, the last time when at a great age during a strike of agricultural workers in California, but she never became cynical or bitter, always remembering the joy of bearing a child that  first drew her to her faith. In Gandalf and in Tolkien the delight had as much to do with fireworks at parties or good ale, a good pipe and good company as it did with so called higher things. But for them, and for such as Hopkins or Dorothy Day, it also meant a daily contemplation of what is eternally true so learning to see with Mother Julian that, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

Gandalf Speaks of His Stewardship

Poor Pippin!  For a long and exhausting hour he has to stand between Denethor and Gandalf and to tell his story the best he can. As he does so he is aware of Gandalf “holding in check a rising wrath and impatience”.

At the last Denethor speaks: “The Lord of Gondor is not to be made the tool of other men’s purposes, however worthy. And to him there is no purpose higher in the world as it now stands than the good of Gondor; and the rule of Gondor, my lord, is mine and no other man’s, unless the king should come again.”

Those last words should be read with a fierce irony for Denethor knows of Aragorn. Indeed he has known him for a long time because Aragorn served his father, Ecthelion, hiding his true identity and going by the name of Thorongil. Denethor resented Thorongil’s  masterful nature, “the most hardy of living Men” and “elven-wise”, “worthy of honour as a king who is in exile.” This is why when Denethor speaks of the good of Gondor he speaks, as it were in the same breath, of his own dignity. For him the two have become one and the same.

So it is that when Gandalf speaks it is with a courteous ferocity:

“The rule of no realm is mine, neither of Gondor nor any other, great or small. But all worthy things that are in peril as the world now stands, these are my care. And for my part, I shall not wholly fail of my task, though Gondor should perish, if anything passes through this night that can still grow fair or bear fruit and flower again in days to come. For I also am a steward. Did you not know?”

This is a wonderful speech and is the nearest that we find to a confession of faith throughout the whole of Tolkien’s great story. Gandalf was sent to Middle-earth, not to preserve a kingdom, praiseworthy though that would be, but to preserve something deeper, something for which all earthly kingdoms exist, and that is all “that can still grow fair or bear fruit and flower again.” To fulfil this task given him by the Valar it would be a distraction, an unnecessary burden to rule a kingdom and yet Denethor does not believe him. Neither for that matter does Saruman and if Sauron were ever to question Gandalf he would not believe him either. Why is it that people are sure that someone of the stature of Gandalf must want to rule over others? Is it that they fear their own powerlessness, believing that only those who rule over others have any value? Eventually Denethor will abandon even his care for his people finally reaching a place where only his own grIief has any meaning. In the same way Saruman will reach this place regarding his bitterness. Nothing else will have meaning for him either.

We live in a world that suffers from those like Denethor or Saruman. Even in our democracies we seem all too ready to elect them to power. What the world really needs is more people like Gandalf; those who give their lives to be stewards of that which is good, beautiful and true. It may be that we live in a time in which the kingdoms that we love may decline and even fall but if we understand aright our calling as stewards then we will not be discouraged because we will be working and praying for the coming of a kingdom. And we do not need the power that Gandalf has in order to be stewards even as he is. All we need is to have the same love for “all worthy things that are in peril as the world now stands” and to offer ourselves as we are with all our weakness. Gandalf has called many people to share his stewardship from the great like Aragorn to the weak like Pippin and each will play his part. Sadly Denethor will reject the call. Pippin will give more to Gondor than its lord. We can give more to the world as stewards than its rulers do seeking their own glory.

What Was Gandalf?

When we read the story of the journey of Frodo and Sam into Mordor we noted that he did so through the voice of Sam. Now he tells the story through Pippin and later he will do so through Merry. It is Pippin who watches Gandalf and Denethor wrestling with one another.

“Pippin saw a likeness between the two, and he felt the strain between them, almost as if he saw a line of smouldering fire, drawn from eye to eye, that might suddenly burst into flame.”

Pippin’s first reaction as he gazes at them both is that Denethor is the more kingly and that he is older.  In fact Denethor is only one year older than Aragorn and yet Denethor is indeed old while Aragorn is at the height of his powers. Both are descended from the race of Númenor and yet the story of Númenor runs more truly in Aragorn and this is not just because he is descended from Elendil and Isildur.

Pippin begins to see this as he gazes at them. Denethor may look more kingly and yet “by a sense other than sight Pippin perceived that Gandalf had the greater power and the deeper wisdom and a majesty that was veiled. And he was older, far older.”

Pippin is growing up. He is beginning to see things as they really are. In the New Testament this is called the discerning of spirits. Pippin still thinks of himself as a boy and when he meets Bergil later in the day he will feel the relief of not being among the mighty any longer but whether he wishes it or not he is leaving childhood behind. Thankfully he will carry the best of childhood with him as Gandalf did when he played with fireworks in the Shire at Bilbo’s party. The best of adults never lose it. There is a playfulness about them that travels along with the seriousness. In some like Tom Bombadil it is very strong indeed. In characters like Saruman and Denethor it has been lost almost entirely. In Théoden it is found through his brief friendship with Merry.

“What was Gandalf?” Pippin asks. Tolkien never quite reveals the mystery of one of his greatest characters. He tells us that the wizards, the Istari, first came to Middle-earth after the first thousand years as the darkness begins to grow once more. Their task is to encourage the free peoples of Middle-earth to resist it, each doing so in their own particular way. But what they were before this we are not told. When Gandalf confronts the Balrog at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm he declares that he is “a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the  flame of Anor.” In his excellent book on Tolkien’s spiritual vision, Secret Fire, Stratford Caldecott speaks of the fire as Tolkien’s term “for the distinctive creative power of Eru” that represents “life, love and creativity, the wisdom and love of God that burns at the heart of the world and sustains it in existence- it is a willed emanation from the creative energy of God’s own self; it is the life of God shared with the world.” This is the fire that Melkor/Morgoth seeks for himself but he cannot find it “because it is with Ilúvatar”. Even Morgoth’s own existence is dependent upon God and so is Sauron’s and all who serve him. Thus they cannot create and can only mar as is most terribly true of the orcs who are twisted forms of the Elves the most beautiful of God’s creatures.

This is what Gandalf serves and yet it is, as Pippin realises, veiled. And that is the nature of love and of grace. It has to be veiled if it is to inspire courage and goodness in others and not to overwhelm them or force them to behave in a particular way thus taking away their freedom. There is nothing veiled about Saruman who seeks the admiration of others. And just like Pippin we have begun to learn wisdom when we stop looking for greatness in the obvious and begin to see it in the hidden and in the veiled.

The Despair of Denethor

When Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli entered the halls of Théoden in Meduseld it was into a place of darkness. The throne chamber of Minas Tirith is not dark and stifling but cold and austere. The darkness of Meduseld matched the mood of its lord but Gandalf was able to deliver him, taking him outside into the wholesomeness of the wind and the rain. The throne chamber of Denethor is not dark but light but the light is cold revealing a man who has already bidden farewell to hope. Tolkien finds the image that most truly describes the man who sits upon the Steward’s chair beneath the throne of Gondor even at the one point in scene that reveals a little warmth. He speaks of “a gleam of cold sun on a winter’s evening.”

The fleeting moment comes when Pippin offers his service to Denethor. It is a moment when he shows that Gandalf’s words about him at the defences of the Pelennor Fields are true and Denethor recognises this too. “Looks may belie the man- or the halfling.” Pippin is indeed “a valiant man”. He hardly recognises it himself but he is battle hardened and the pride with which he answers Denethor is a good pride. That it is able to reach Denethor, even for a moment, shows that the Lord of Gondor has still a spark of life within him. For a true elder delights in the pride of a younger man, by one who is not daunted by hard words, who speaks courteously and yet looks him in the eye. The true elder is not threatened by a young man who displays such character.

But the moment soon passes, for Denethor is in the process of casting aside his eldership. The one young man for whom he truly cares is dead and his horn lies broken upon his lap. Boromir died at the hands of orcs at the Falls of Rauros, giving his life for Merry and Pippin, seeking to atone for his attempt to sieze the Ring from Frodo. Denethor does not attempt to hide the true state of his heart. “Though all the signs forebode that the doom of Gondor is drawing nigh, less now to me is that darkness than my own darkness.” From now on every person will only play a part in the story of his private grief. He is no longer Steward of Gondor in anything but name and even his son Faramir must be punished for being the son who is alive when Boromir is dead.

Do we condemn Denethor for this? Surely our hearts go out to him in his grief and yet we remember that Théoden too lost his only son in battle but did not then choose to lay down the burden of kingship leading his people in battle, thus restoring their pride. We honour Théoden for this event as our hearts go out to him also in his grief.

Denethor’s grief is mingled with a pride that cuts him off from all other bonds. Ultimately it will cut him off even from his true self as despair will always do. The early Fathers of the Church understood this, teaching that metanoia, the radical turning of the heart toward the light that is usually translated as repentance, must be founded upon a renunciation of despair. Sadly this was later to be reduced to the modification of certain behaviours, usually those that did not conform to the social norms of the time, thus often pushing more adventurous spirits outside of the church. But this was not the case when the church itself was the true home of the adventurous spirit. And it is never true when a saint calls humanity home to its true selfhood when it is fully alive.

And this is how we know that despair, while it may call forth our deepest sympathy, is not a true state of the heart. Denethor is already preparing his own funeral pyre even as he questions Pippin and receives his service. For the one who is connected to the true self even preparing for death is not an act of despair but of expectation.