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.”

16 thoughts on “Gandalf Laughs!

  1. As always, a wonderful contribution. I am so glad for this post in particular! In some ways maintaining good company, laughter, and good food are just as noble as the seemingly nobler acts of social justice, for that is what those who fight for social justice (and against evil) are fighting /for/ – the right for all to enjoy good company, laugher, and good food. Frodo isn’t fighting evil “just because” it is right and noble, he’s fighting it to protect the goodness in the world as found in the innocent indulgence of the Shire. Those higher, nobler battles are noble /because/ they protect and promote the quotidian innocence of food and drink and friends against those who would take that away from others. Forgetting that is to become more like those you are fighting against. So Dorothy Day remembers her joy, and so Gandalf laughs.

    In a lot of ways the Shire (and to be true to the text, Tom Bombadil’s realm) is far more like that “far green country” Frodo sees across the sea than anything in the high-minded world of the Big Folk.

    • That is beautifully put. Thank you. May be one of the things that we should do is to cultivate our own “far green country” throughout our lives. I love the elements in yours. I wonder if Gandalf’s long talk with Bombadil when he leaves the hobbits at the border of the Shire tells us something about his. I would imagine the hospitality was magnificent and yet simple too.
      Dorothy Day conceived her child “out of wedlock”. She never doubted the joy of the gift that had been given her although when she sought baptism both for herself and her daughter the father of her child left her. Thankfully the priest from whom she sought guidance never wasted time on judgement. The result was a saint being given to the church and the world.

  2. Stephen, I am new to your blog but your reflections always delight me, inspire me, and cause me to make even more connections between Tolkien’s work and the spiritual life. Are any of your reflections available in print? They deserve to be known by a wider audience.
    How I wish I could write as eloquently as you about these matters.

    • Thank you so much for your encouragement and kind thoughts. My respect for Tolkien has grown steadily during the time I have written this blog although I have enjoyed reading him for over 40 years. I am working on the earlier material I wrote on The Fellowship of the Ring at present with the intention of preparing it for print publication.

      • You are getting ready for publication? Stars and glory, that is wonderful news. 🙂

        I love Gandalf’s laughter – he has great faith and trust in his Creator that there is a reality beyond what just his eyes see. The storm is coming and it will be terrible but he knows God is greater than the storm. Sam has this when he sees the Star in Mordor and at the Fire, even though he is ignorant of his Creator. Even as Mount Doom explodes around him and there is no hope of escape, he still hopes. Frodo is like, Give it up already, we are going to die, deal with it, and Sam is like Begging your pardon Mr. Frodo, I’m just going to keep on hoping, if you don’t mind. And Sam is right!

        I also love Pippin’s words in answer to whether there is any hope and his response is that he will not despair – Gandalf had fallen and has returned. He sees beyond the darkness too.

        I wish everyone who feels despair at the state of world today would see through the eyes of these people, and through Aragorn and Faramir too. Too many are like Denethor and see only darkness and do not see any light or hope. The people of Middle-earth lived in more perilous times and they could still hope. So can we.

        Namarie, God bless, Anne Marie 🙂

      • When I say, preparing for publication, I really should have said, rewriting material that I first wrote three years ago. I find it hard to be satisfied with what I have done. But the rewriting is with the intention of publication! Thank you for your encouragement.
        And thank you too for your thoughts on seeing beyond what lies before our eyes. I love that passage when Sam sees the star in Mordor. It reminds me of the story of Elisha the prophet showing his servant the army of angels surrounding the enemies of Israel. And there is St John Climacus saying that true repentance is the renunciation of despair.

  3. I forgot to mention in my other reply that I love Blessed Julian’s words and I am glad you do too. If she can say All shall be well in the midst of the Black Death, then we all need to see through her eyes – the same as Sam’s and Faramir’s and Gandalf’s 🙂

    Namarie, God bless, Anne Marie 🙂

  4. Amen, amen, amen.

    “Never we know but in sleet and in snow,
    The place where the great fires are,
    That the midst of the earth is a raging mirth
    And the heart of the earth a star.”

    I was an adult before I understood that Joy and Happiness are two different things. That they may overlap sometimes, but that the latter is an emotion, but the former is something greater than us. It’s like an unbreakable thread running through the universe that we can touch. It’s existence doesn’t rely on us, it transcends our circumstances and our emotional ups and downs. And it can be sought. …Does that make sense?

    • I think I am about to be embarrassed when I say that I recognise the wonderful lines that you quote but can’t remember who wrote them. They express a profound truth.
      I agree that joy is different to happiness although they are related. And I believe that we can search for joy. Is it one way of describing the treasure in the field that requires our preparedness to sell everything we have in order to buy the field.

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