“The Danger of Light and Joy”. Gimli Weeps Openly as He Bids Farewell to Galadriel and Lothlórien.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp.369-370

As the three small boats that contain the members of the Fellowship are swept down the Great River, the Anduin, Gimli weeps openly as he mourns a loss that he never expected to experience.

In bidding farewell to Galadriel Gimli takes his worst wound.

“Tell me, Legolas, why did I come on this Quest? Little did I know where the chief peril lay! Truly Elrond spoke, saying that we could not foresee what we might meet upon our road. Torment in the dark was the danger that I feared, and it did not hold me back. But I would not have come, had I known the danger of light and joy. Now I have taken my worst wound in this parting, even if I were to go this night straight to the Dark Lord. Alas for Gimli, son of Glóin!”

Those who know the story will know that for Gimli there will be a torment in the dark that lies ahead for him that will almost cause him to abandon his fellows. They know too that in his finding of the glittering caves of Aglarond Gimli will find a beauty that will delight him, and give him a labour for years to come to satisfy his soul but none of this can diminish the sense of loss that overwhelms him now as the river carries him away from Lothlórien.

Hannah Joy Patterson’s beautiful imagining of the Caves of Aglarond.

For Gimli, in his encounter with Galadriel, has met something far greater than a beautiful person. He has met Beauty itself and now cannot know peace and contentment in anything less than an abiding in its presence. And Gimli has also discovered what it means to have been wounded by Beauty, to be utterly surprised by that wound, and to feel the pain that cannot be satisfied by anything less.

Gimli’s experience was one to which the members of the Inklings paid much attention. C.S Lewis chose as the title of his autobiography words from a poem by William Wordsworth, “Surprised by Joy” in which he speaks of his entire life as being a search for something that came upon him unawares in his childhood. Wordsworth’s poem is a telling forth of the way in which an unexpected encounter with Joy recalls him to the recollection of one that he has lost and back to the experience of that loss with almost the same keenness with which he first knew it. Gimli would understand what Wordsworth was trying to say and what both of them felt. Wordsworth could not understand how he was able to live his life forgetting, even for a moment, his “most grievous loss” but he does and so will Gimli. Perhaps it is a kindness that we are granted not to have to bear such pain constantly but both Wordsworth, and Gimli too, tell us that any kind of life that is smaller than the present moment in which both the joy and the pain are known in their entirety is not really to be alive at all.

For Lewis, the search for Joy led him eventually to Christian faith. Here, it is vitally important to understand that this faith is not in itself a satisfaction of the longing for Joy or for Beauty. For Lewis, and for all who follow this way, faith in Christ is not the end of the journey but a sure way forward that leads at the last to an entire participation in them both. The well known quotation of the 2nd century theologian, Iranaeus of Lyon, that “the glory of God is a human being who is fully alive” continues by saying that to be alive is to have the vision of God, by which he does not mean that we spend eternity staring at an old man with a long white beard but that we contemplate and entirely participate in, as Dante put it, “the love that moves the sun and other stars”.

Those who have been “surprised by joy” or wounded by beauty and by love know that any life that is less than a complete participation is in them is no life at all. Gimli knows this now and knows too that he will not find rest in anything less than that complete participation. There is no comfort for him now but Legolas is right in saying that his friend is blessed in suffering the loss of the Beauty that he has glimpsed of his own free will. The true search for Beauty and for Joy always lies onwards and never back until it finds at last its fulfilment in the divine vision.