“You Are Come and Are Met, In This Very Nick of Time, By Chance As It May Seem.” Wisdom From ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) p.236

As readers of this blog will know I have come to the end of a long and careful reading of The Fellowship of the Ring and before I continue with The Two Towers I would like to do what the title of my blog speaks of. I would like to spend a few weeks thinking about the wisdom that we can find in Tolkien’s great tale. Perhaps it might help us as we ponder our own journeys.

I am not sure why I ended the quotation that is the title for this week’s reflection where I did. I am sure that my readers will recognise that the words quoted thre are those that are spoken by Elrond at the Council in Rivendell. They speak of how Dwarves, Elves, Hobbits, Men and a wizard have all arrived in the Halls of Elrond at this moment, one described as but a ‘nick’ in the long tally of time, but it is the right moment, even the last possible moment.

Alan Lee’s depiction of the Council of Elrond

Elrond ponders the meaning of this council. He did not summon these people. Had he done so it would surely have been a meeting of the White Council, a meeting of the Wise. Galadriel would have been there, as would Círdan of the Grey Havens. And Saruman would have been its leader. The descendants of Númenor would not have been summoned, nor Durin’s folk, nor the people of the realm of Thranduil in the northern marches of Mirkwood. And hobbits would most certainly not have been invited.

So is it merely a matter of chance that has brought Glóin from the Lonely Mountain of Erebor to Rivendell with Gimli his son? Or Legolas, the son of Thranduil from his land? Or Boromir from Minas Tirith; or a small group of hobbits from the Shire with their guide, Aragorn, the heir of Isildur?

Elrond chooses his words with care. “By chance as it might seem.” By using this word, seem, Elrond deliberately draws a distinction between those things that merely appear to us, like traffic passing by on a busy highway, and something of a deliberate purpose. Actually, if we were to ponder the deliberate purpose behind every one of the journeys being taken by those travelling down a particular highway on any given day, we might be able to discern and then tell a story in which each of those participants would have a part to play. The song, “Another Hundred People”, from Stephen Sondheim’s show, “Company”, comes to mind here and that tale is rather beautiful.

So Elrond chooses not to end with chance. “Yet it is not so,” he continues. “Believe rather that it is so ordered that we, who sit here, and none others, must now find counsel for the peril of the world.” Elrond chooses to speak of belief. By this he does not mean an assent to certain doctrines. He encourages his guests to accept that their presence in his halls, at this precise moment, this “nick of time”, is a part of a big story in which each one of them has a part to play.

We might want to say at this moment that it is the unseen presence of The Ring that gives significance to the whole proceeding. Certainly, if it were not for The Ring there would be no hobbits present. I wonder if Boromir had this thought in mind when he cried out to Frodo, “It is not yours save by unhappy chance. It might have been mine. It should be mine.” Frodo made a similar statement when he bemoaned the seemingly cruel fate by which he has come to be in possession of The Ring. Gandalf’s response was that “Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought.”

Bilbo was meant to find the Ring

Neither Gandalf, nor Elrond, choose to give themselves to lengthy metaphysical speculation about such matters. They receive encouragement from the thought that there seems to be a power for good at work in the world, one that put the Ring of Power into the hands of first Bilbo and then Frodo, neither of whom had any interest in power for its own sake; and one that has gathered this particular company of people together in Rivendell at this moment. Frodo is not encouraged by either of these things. As we saw last week, he simply accepts that he has been given a job to do and that is enough.

Frodo, and each member of the Fellowship, has been given a job to do. Bohemian Weasel depicts the Company before Durin’s Doors.

“Down Into The Land of Shadow.” Tolkien’s Ending of The Fellowship of the Ring.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp.397-398

Those who came to know The Lord of the Rings through the films that were made some twenty years ago by Peter Jackson will have been surprised when they first read Tolkien’s own ending to the first volume of his trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring. Tolkien gives us no battles, no brave self-sacrifice from Merry and Pippin offering themselves to the orcs so that Frodo can escape, no farewell by Aragorn to Frodo, and no heroic death of Boromir. That last will take place off stage at the beginning of The Two Towers. Instead he gives us this…

“So Frodo and Sam set off on the last stage of the Quest together. Frodo paddled away from the shore and the River bore them swiftly away, down the western arm, and past the frowning cliffs of Tol Brandir”

Frodo and Sam struggle to get past the current of the river that seeks to drag them over the mighty falls and so at last make their way to the east bank, and then…

“At length they came to land again upon the southern slopes of Amon Lhaw. There they found a shelving shore, and they drew the boat out high above the water, and hid it as well as they could behind a great boulder. Then shouldering their burdens, they set off, seeking a path that would bring them over the grey hills of the Emyn Muil, and down into the Land of Shadow.”

We can understand why Peter Jackson decided to end his first film differently and I, alongside the packed theatre audience who witnessed the film, was glad to stand and applaud it. It was a masterpiece in its own right and I could not wait for the release of The Two Towers which is what Jackson had intended.

But Tolkien had his reasons for ending this first part of his great story in this way and if I were to try to create the scene as I think Tolkien intended us to see it I would slowly draw the camera back from Frodo and Sam as they set off on their journey until all we could see was two small figures set against a vast and empty wasteland.

There is an old and deeply poignant prayer of the Breton people of France whose ancient language is related to Welsh, a tongue that Tolkien loved. It simply states that “O God, thy sea is so great and my boat is so small.” I have known it for some time through a collection of prayers from the Celtic tradition of which the Breton tongue is a part but discovered while preparing this blog post that an American admiral gave a small plaque to President John Kennedy, a fellow sailor, with this prayer inscribed upon it. The point of the prayer, as President Kennedy received it, was to remind us of our smallness against the vastness of the universe in which we are set. Kennedy kept the plaque on his desk in the Oval Office throughout his term of office to teach him humility. Presidents need such reminders in a way that Breton fisher folk do not. For them, and for all the “little” people of the earth, it is enough that they must set out each day into a world that is so much bigger than they are, and Tolkien intends us to see Frodo and Sam among such people. Their journey is not heroic in the sense that it is a conquest of the world although Elrond was right to compare Frodo to the great heroic figures of the First Age like Hurin and Beren, it is heroic in the sense that ordinary life is heroic. Ordinary folk shoulder their burdens and set out, seeking a path through a life that is so much bigger than they are. Frodo and Sam know that what they seek to do is far too big a task for people like them but they do it anyway because it is a task that they have been given to do.

Surely Tolkien drew here upon his memories of the ordinary soldiers on the Western Front in the First World War who did their job against overwhelming odds and did not see their lives as wasted because doing their job was what life was all about. It reminds me of a conversation I once had with a woman whose husband had worked all his life in a job that he hated in order to feed his family and did it with pride so that the high point of his week was to cook breakfast on a Sunday morning and to share it with them all. That is the kind of heroism that Frodo and Sam represent.

Tolkien wanted to teach us the heroism of the “little” people of the world.

“It’s No Good Trying to Escape You.” Frodo and Sam Set Off For Mordor Together.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 395-398

Even though all the Fellowship recognise the wisdom of Sam’s words when he spoke of how Frodo was determined to go alone to Mordor, and that the time that he was taking was not to make up his mind about the right course of action but to find the courage to begin, the debate is not at an end. Merry and Pippin, at least, are still certain that they all should all go to Minas Tirith. It is only when Boromir arrives that the story is able to move on.

‘”Where have you been, Boromir?” asked Aragorn. “Have you seen Frodo?”‘

Boromir is not ready yet to tell his story, to admit his failure, but he says enough to throw the rest of the Company into panic and despite Aragorn’s efforts to prevent them Merry and Pippin run off in one direction, Legolas and Gimli in another and Sam in another yet.

“Boromir! I do not know what part you have played in this mischief, but help now! Go after those two young hobbits, and guard them at the least, even if you cannot find Frodo.”

And so Aragorn runs after Sam while Boromir makes his final journey in search of redemption. For he will fall in battle while doing as Aragorn had commanded, willingly laying down his life for the hobbits, willingly paying with his life for his attempt to seize the Ring from Frodo by force.

Once again it is Sam, who is closest to the mind and heart of Frodo, who works out what is really going on. After Aragorn catches and passes him, making his way up to Amon Hen, Sam realises that Frodo is making his way to the boats using the invisibility that the Ring gives him, and that it is Frodo’s intention to escape them all. Desperately, Sam makes his way towards the place to where the boats are moored, caring nothing now for anything, not even for his own life, as long as he can find Frodo. Even his fear of water will not stop him until the moment comes when he fears that he will drown.

Even his fear of water will not keep Sam from Frodo.

“Save me, Mr. Frodo!” gasped Sam. “I’m drownded. I can’t see your hand.”

At last Frodo gets them all safe back to shore but he is furious, convinced that Sam has come to do what he feared the most, to prevent him from going to Mordor. It is only when he realises that Sam wants to help him do what he planned that he relaxes at last and is actually pleased that Sam has caught him.

“So all my plan is spoilt!” said Frodo. “It’s no good trying to escape you. But I’m glad, Sam. I cannot tell you how glad. Come along! It is plain that we were meant to go together. We will go, and may the others find a safe road! Strider will look after them. I don’t suppose we shall see them again.”

So it is Boromir who sends each member of the Fellowship towards the place that they must go. Merry and Pippin will be carried by the Uruk-hai of Isengard just in time to meet Treebeard who has made a rare visit to a hill on the eastern border of Fangorn Forest. Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas, while in the process of a vain pursuit of the young hobbits, will arrive in Fangorn just in time to meet Gandalf and so rouse Rohan and their king from deadly slumber to great deeds. And Frodo and Sam will go step by step towards Mordor and the destruction of the Ring.

Frodo is sure that he is going to his death but he is at peace with his choice. All that he has to do is to do his duty. But Sam is not so sure that they are going to die. Nothing will keep him from staying with Frodo right to the very end but he has not forgotten the Shire and his heart lies there. Will he see the others again?

“We may, Mr. Frodo. We may. ”

Sam still looks beyond the Cracks of Doom to the future.

“If He Screws Himself Up to Go, He’ll Want to Go Alone.” Sam Gamgee Tells The Fellowship What Frodo Will Decide.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 393-394

While Frodo is making up his mind about what he is to do and after Boromir has tried to take the Ring from him the rest of the Fellowship continue to debate about which way all of them should go and about what choice Frodo ought to make. It is clear that the majority consider that the sensible option is to go to Minas Tirith but then Sam speaks up.

“I don’t think you understand my master at all. He isn’t hesitating about which way to go… He knows that he has to find the Cracks of Doom if he can. But he’s afraid.”

Frodo will seek to go to Mordor alone.

Sam, of all of the Fellowship, is not thinking about what he should, or wishes, to do. He made his choice in Lothlórien when he looked into Galadriel’s Mirror and saw the danger that was to threaten the Shire. He decided then that whatever was happening behind him he must go with Frodo to Mordor. And he knows that Frodo will go there because it is the task that he has been given and that when he makes up his mind to go, to “screw himself up”, as Sam puts it, he will want to go alone. And so Sam is not worried about which way to go. He is simply afraid that Frodo will want to go alone without him.

Aragorn knows that Sam is right. There are some courses of action that require the simple giving of orders but Aragorn knows that this is not one of those. This is why he has gathered them together in a circle and also why it did not concern him that Boromir had not been a part of the circle. He knew that Boromir had already made his decision and so did not need to be a part of the discussion. This wisdom is expressed in the Benedictine tradition of Christian monasticism in the Chapter House. This house was designed in the shape of a circle so that the abbot could gather with the whole community to make those decisions that required a common mind. While in the circle every voice was to be heard, even the voice of the most junior member of the community, and Aragorn will not make a decision until every voice has been heard. There is even a moment when he thinks that the decision has been made and that it is time to give orders. He will go with Frodo and with Sam and Gimli to Mordor while Legolas and Boromir will go with Merry and Pippin to Minas Tirith but there is enough uncertainty in his mind to for him to realise that even at this point the debate is not at an end which is why he is still ready to listen to Sam.

The Chapter House in Wells Cathedral

It is when Sam speaks that Aragorn realises that the key point within the debate has been made. Sam has spoken the truth for which he has been seeking and even though Pippin still tries to argue against what Sam has said and what Frodo will seek to do Aragorn realises that the decision has been made whether he, or any other, agrees with it or not.

And Aragorn has been listening to another voice throughout the debate, one that is not physically present but one that will speak the truth for which he has been seeking. When Pippin argues that Frodo must be prevented from going to Mordor alone Aragorn replies:

“He is the Bearer, and the fate of the Burden is on him. I do not think it is our part to drive him one way or the other. Nor do I think that we should succeed if we tried. There are other powers at work far stronger.”

When Aragorn speaks of “powers at work” he is not talking about Frodo’s strength of character, considerable though that is. He is talking about a power that guides and moves the course of things. Some people will look for a flow with which they seek to align their own actions while others will give that power a name. But however we see reality, if we are wise, we will seek to learn how to discern this power. Galadriel spoke of the how the paths of each member of the Company were already laid before their feet and that therefore they should not be overly concerned about which course of action they should take. At this moment none of the Fellowship know what is about to befall them but Aragorn knows what way Frodo will go and that it is not his part to oppose it.

“There are other powers at work”. The Song of the Ainur by Anna Kulisz

“Take Off the Ring!” Frodo’s Inner Struggle Upon Amon Hen.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 391-392

It all begins because Frodo has to flee from Boromir wearing the Ring in order to do so. Frodo climbs up the slopes of Amon Hen and finally reaches its top.

“He saw as through a mist a wide flat circle, paved with mighty flags, and surrounded with a crumbling battlement: and in the middle, set upon four carven pillars, was a high seat, reached by a stair of many steps.”

A beautiful depiction of Amon Hen by Woodhouse

The high seat upon Amon Hen has always been a place set apart for reflection, an expression of the belief that if only we can get high enough, if only we can somehow rise above all the chaos that surrounds us, we will achieve a kind of clarity and will know what we must do. But in all the long years since first the seat was placed upon this hill top by the men of Númenor there has never been a moment like this. No-one has been able to see as Frodo does because no-one has sat upon the chair while wearing the Ring.

And what Frodo sees is war. “The Misty Mountains were crawling like anthills; orcs were issuing out of a thousand holes. Under the boughs of Mirkwood there was deadly strife of Elves and Men and fell beasts. The land of the Beornings was aflame; a cloud was over Moria; smoke rose on the borders of Lórien.”

And last of all, and perhaps inevitably, Frodo’s gaze is drawn towards the place in which the Ring was forged and the tower in which its master dwells: “wall upon wall, battlement upon battlement, black, immeasurably strong, mountain of iron, gate of steel, tower of adamant, he saw it: Barad-dûr, Fortress of Sauron. All hope left him.”

A fascinating, almost surreal, depiction of the struggle upon Amon Hen by Joel Marriner.

It is at this moment that Frodo becomes aware that someone is searching eagerly, voraciously, for him, for the Ring that he is now wearing; and that this creature, whose very being has become an embodiment of desire, so entire, that if the thing that he longs for were to cease to exist there would be nothing left of him but a memory of what he once was, will find him. And it is at this moment too that he becomes strangely aware of a familiar voice telling him to take off the Ring.

“Take it off! Take it off! Fool, take it off! Take off the Ring!

The struggle lasts only for a moment but during that time the whole fate of Middle-earth lies, literally, in the balance. Frodo is held, “perfectly balanced” between the Voice and the Eye. If Sauron is able to find him, to identify exactly where he is, then he will regain the Ring at last and darkness will fall.

Crucially, this moment is resolved when Frodo becomes “aware of himself again” as one who is free to choose and he takes off the Ring. “Then all the sky was clean and blue and birds sang in every tree.”

Frodo is not only able to think for himself again but he is able to achieve a clarity of purpose that all his seeing could never give him. Not that the vision that he has been given upon Amon Hen has been of no value for it has enabled him to see that he cannot put his trust in any power outside of himself because every power is as nothing compared to the power that resides within Barad-dûr. All that he has is the Self who is able to make this choice, the choice to go alone to Mordor.

The problem with hope is, as T.S Eliot puts it in his Four Quartets, is that “hope would be hope for the wrong thing.” There is no hope for Frodo in Minas Tirith because, for all its courageous beauty, it cannot stand at the last before the power that is rising against it. All that he has is himself and the choice that he made at the Council of Elrond to take the Ring to the Fire though he did not know the way. As Eliot puts it, following his teacher, St John of the Cross, we come to the point in which all hope has been stripped away and there we find, as Frodo does, that “the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing”.

Wait without hope, for hope would be hope for the wrong thing”. A depiction of Minas Tirith.

“Give It To Me!” Boromir Tries to Take The Ring From Frodo.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 387-390

We have heard this before. The long speech full of self-justification and fine sounding words. But when we heard this speech before it came from the mouth of Saruman when he gave it to Gandalf in Isengard, calling upon Gandalf to co-operate with him and with Sauron. Do the greatest crimes always require such grandiosity? Are such justifications always couched in terms of a particular action being an exception to moral law?

After Aragorn announced to the Fellowship that the day of choice had come, the day on which they would have to decide whether to make a journey directly towards Mordor on the east bank of the Anduin or to remain on the west bank and go to Minas Tirith, Frodo was given permission to spend an hour in thought alone. And it was during this time that Boromir finds him and begins to declare his mind.

Anke Eissmann depicts the moment when Boromir finds Frodo

The speech begins with kindliness as it must. If the speaker intends to justify a crime then they must first establish their intention to do good.

“Are you sure that you do not suffer needlessly?” Boromir says. “I wish to help you. You need counsel in your hard choice. Will you not take mine?”

Ted Nasmith imagines Boromir as he gives “counsel”

So the speech begins with sweet reason but soon it begins to display the same kind of exceptionalism that we saw in Saruman. He spoke to Gandalf about the failing of the Elves and of “dying Númenor”, and of “weak or idle friends”, and all this is with the intention of justify his own desire to rule and his need to obtain the One Ring in order to do so. Boromir also speaks dismissively of “elves and half-elves and wizards”, of their claim to be wise which he considers to be merely a cloak for timidity. And for Boromir it is “failing Númenor” that is the exception, “true-hearted Men” who “will not be corrupted”. It is the same speech albeit with a different cast of characters and a different exception. And in both speeches what begins with a we ends inexorably with an I.

“The Ring would give me power of Command. How I would drive the hosts of Mordor, and all men would flock to my banner!”

Compare these speeches to the words that Gandalf and Galadriel speak when Frodo offers the Ring to them. They both acknowledge what they might do if they were to possess the Ring and both are tempted to take it so that they might do good through its possession. But both know that the achievement of personal power always ends with a contempt for the lives of others. Others exist merely for the sake of the one who rules. Saruman and Boromir dismiss this refusal of personal power as timidity. Gandalf and Galadriel have both achieved this rejection of power for the sake of personal gain through long inner struggle and it is that struggle that proves vital in the ultimate destruction of the Ring and the overthrow of Sauron.

There is a wonderful moment in The Lord of the Rings in which Tolkien exposes the true reality of the speeches that Saruman and Boromir make and that comes when Gollum makes the same speech to himself, to his Sméagol self, during the journey that he makes with Frodo and Sam through the desolation before Mordor.

“See, my precious: if we has it, then we can escape, even from Him, eh? Perhaps we grows very strong, stronger than Wraiths. Lord Sméagol? Gollum the Great? The Gollum! Eat fish every day, fresh from the sea. Most Precious Gollum! Must have it! We wants it, we wants it, we wants it!”

Gollum the Great

It may be that Gollum’s ambition goes no further than a desire to eat fresh fish three times a day but once you realise that it is the same speech as Saruman and Boromir both make then you realise also that all desire for power for the sake of self-aggrandisement is ultimately as pathetic as is Gollum’s. It is not that Gandalf, Galadriel and Elrond reject the use of power, but that power must be wielded for the Common Good and with as much restraint as possible. They also recognise that their part in the story of Middle-earth is soon to reach its conclusion, that they have played their part in it, and they recognise that power must pass to the ordained authority, which is the kingship that Aragorn will bear.

“Give it to me!”

“We wants it, we wants it, we wants it!”

The same speech. The same tragic desire.

“The Day Has Come at Last.The Day of Choice Which We Have Long Delayed.” Which Way Will Frodo Choose to Go?

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 386-387

It is the 26th of February in the year 3019 of the Third Age and when Frodo walks away from his companions so that he might have an hour in order to think he will not see them again until he wakes on the Field of Cormallen on April 8th. That is, I should have said, he will not see his companions save one, and briefly, tragically, another, until that day. During that time the world will change because of the choice that Frodo will make but also because of the choices of each of his companions, but at this moment none of them knows what those choices will be.

Anke Eismann beautifully expresses the anguished thoughts of the Fellowship on this “day of choice”.

Perhaps Frodo really does know but as he walks away in order to think he still struggles with that choice and with how he is to tell the others. Sam really does know. “Plain as a pikestaff it is,” he says to himself, but then for the very first time in all the story Sam chooses not to follow Frodo. Frodo has to make his own mind up.

That the Ring must go to the Fire is, for Frodo, beyond doubt. He made this promise at the Council of Elrond with the words, “I will take the Ring… though I do not know the way” and Elrond confirmed his choice at the departure of the Fellowship from Rivendell.

“The Ring-bearer is setting out on the Quest of Mount Doom. On him alone is any charge laid: neither to cast away the Ring, nor to deliver it to any servant of the Enemy nor indeed to let any handle it, save members of the Company and the Council and only then in gravest need. The others go with him as free companions, to help him on his way. You may tarry, or come back, or turn aside into other paths, as chance allows. The further you go, the less easy it will be to withdraw; yet no oath or bond is laid on you to go further than you will. For you do not know the strength of your hearts, and you cannot foresee what each may meet upon the road.”

Elrond’s words prove prophetic but perhaps, as is the true nature of prophecy, he speaks of what is always true and at all times. None of the Fellowship can foresee what they are to meet upon the road and the events that will follow Frodo’s request to spend time alone in thought are, at the moment when he makes that request, entirely unknown both to him or to any of the others. For each one of them it will be these events and not what they thought had been their considered opinions that will shape their choices. Gimli had wanted to swear an oath, as was the practice of his people, to stay with Frodo with Frodo until the very end but Elrond wisely persuaded him not to do this. On this day Gimli will need the freedom that Elrond gave him to make a choice that he never thought that he would ever have to make.

The Fellowship hear Elrond’s words and none of them know what these words will mean to each one of them.

Is there any point in all our struggles to make the great choices of our lives? Should we not simply accept, as Galadriel said to the Fellowship on the eve of their departure from Lothlórien, that the paths that each of us will tread are already laid before our feet though we do not see them?

As with Elrond’s words Galadriel’s are always true, always and timelessly wise, but surely there is a place for thought of the road ahead? Such thought acts as a preparation of the heart for the moment when the choice will have to be made. Frodo has already decided that he must take the Ring to the Fire and that this is his destiny. Sam is certain that he must go wherever Frodo goes. Aragorn longs to go to Minas Tirith but feels that it is his duty to go with Frodo. The events of this fateful day will appear to take him to neither but he will remain true to his deepest self.

Anke Eissmann depicts Frodo deep in thought moments before Boromir will make his choice quite clear.

“Behold the Argonath, the Pillars of the Kings.” The Heir of Isildur Comes To His Kingdom.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 375-385

After the encounter with Gollum upon the eyot, the small island in the river, the danger of the journey begins to grow. Orcs upon the eastern side of the river fire at the Fellowship and, for the very first time, they meet a Nazgûl, mounted upon his foul winged steed. Legolas uses the bow given to him by the Elves of Lothlórien and brings the creature down from the sky. One cannot help but feel that a company of archers from Lothlórien, armed thus, would have been very useful at the siege of Minas Tirith.

It is not only the threat of enemies that grows as the party travels southwards but the river itself becomes more dangerous. More suddenly than Aragorn had anticipated the boats arrive at the rapids of Sarn Gebir and the Company are forced to carry both them and their baggage on an old portage-way on the western bank of the river until that danger is passed.

Every mile southwards is bringing them all closer to the moment when a choice will have to be made. Either, as Boromir is beginning to urge, they will make their way down to Minas Tirith or they will begin the journey to Mordor. Aragorn has little wish to make this choice and searches for any kind of sign to aid him in the task. His immediate aim is to reach the lake of Nen Hithoel that lies above the Falls of Rauros and which is fenced upon the left by Amon Lhaw, the Hill of Hearing, and upon the right by Amon Hen, the Hill of Sight. It is there that the choice must be made.

The Fellowship Cross Nen Hithoel

And before they reach this point the river cuts a narrow channel between the Pillars of the Argonath.

“As Frodo was borne towards them the great pillars rose like towers to meet him. Giants they seemed to him, vast grey figures silent but threatening. Then he saw that they were indeed shaped and fashioned: the craft and power of old had wrought upon them and, and still they preserved through the suns and rains of forgotten years the mighty likenesses in which they had been hewn.”

John Howe’s magnificent imagining of The Argonath

The likenesses are of Isildur and Anárion, the sons of Elendil, and first kings of Arnor and of Gondor, and they stand with hands raised and palms stretched outwards “in gesture of warning.” It is a terrible and an awesome place and poor Sam is overcome by terror. Indeed all the company are very afraid, all that is except Aragorn. In the film he is depicted standing proudly in the boat and it is a very impressive scene. Tolkien, more sensibly, has him seated, but his description of Aragorn is equally impressive. He is Strider “and yet not Strider”. He is proud and erect, “his hood was cast back, and his dark hair was blowing in the wind, a light was in his eyes: a king returning from exile to his own land.”

“Fear not!” he said. “Long have I desired to look upon the likenesses of Isildur and Anárion, my sires of old. Under their shadow Elessar, the Elfstone son of Arathorn of the House of Valandil Isildur’s son, heir of Elendil, has nought to dread!”

Nought to dread maybe from these mighty symbols both of Aragorn’s ancestry and his destiny but Aragorn does fear the choice that he must make. He longs to go to Gondor. His heart “yearns for Minas Anor”, the ancient name of the city that is now Minas Tirith, the Tower of the Guard, but he also knows that the task that the Council gave to Frodo was to take the Ring to the Fire and now that Gandalf is gone how can he abandon Frodo?

Eventually, as Galadriel foretold in Lothlórien, his path is already laid before his feet. The path that he will take will lead neither to Minas Tirith nor to Mordor, not yet at least. It will be a series of events that are now entirely unforeseeable that will make the choice clear to him in a way that is impossible as he passes the Argonath or when he climbs Amon Hen. It is clear as he navigates the passage that his heart’s yearning must eventually lead him to his city but it is rare in our lives that the path between our current position and the place for which our heart yearns is a clear one, even for those of us for whom that place is known. Aragorn’s path to his city and to his kingdom will wind and twist through many unexpected places.

Aragorn at the Argonath

“So You Know About Our Little Footpad, Do You?” Gollum Follows The Fellowship Down The Anduin.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp.371-375

“His longing for the Ring proved stronger than his fear of the Orcs, or even of light.” So said Gandalf to Frodo in the study at Bag End when he spoke to Frodo of Gollum, of the way in which, two years after the Ring left him in order to find its way back to its master, the Dark Lord who was calling it back to himself, Gollum had emerged from the darkness beneath the Misty Mountains in order to find the Ring and to revenge himself upon the “thief” who had stolen it, Baggins.

The encounter between Gollum and Bilbo deep beneath the Misty Mountains.

And it is the same desire that has driven his pursuit of the Fellowship since first he came upon them in the Mines of Moria. Somehow he had managed to escape the turmoil that followed the fall of the Balrog with Gandalf at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm and although his fear and loathing of Elves or anything elvish prevented him from entering Lothlórien, he had waited, hiding in the woods by the Silverlode, until the journey of the Fellowship began once more.

Aragorn has been aware of him all the time and has known who it has been that has been following them. On the one hand this is because he is one of the great trackers of the age, but it is also because he caught Gollum once. He had found him by a pool in the Dead Marshes, hunting for food and had driven him all the way to the Woodland Realm of the Elves in Mirkwood where Thranduil was to hold him prisoner. But he was not a prisoner for very long. Sauron had a purpose in mind for Gollum and that was to use his desire in order to help in the search for the Ring and so he was freed during an attack by orcs upon his guards and so had been hunting ever since. Probably it had been his intention to make his way through Moria from east to west and then to walk across Eriador all the way to the Shire and so track his mortal enemy down and to regain the Ring.

Although Gollum had dreams of becoming “Gollum the Great” once he had regained the Ring and of paying everyone back for all their mistreatment of him, as he saw it, Sauron had no fear of him. He knew that if ever Gollum were to find the Ring again he would be certain to use it, and as often as possible, and so it would not be long before his servants would track him down and to bring the Ring back at last to its Lord.

And so it is that Gollum has been floating upon a log down the Anduin in pursuit of the Fellowship and why he tries to climb onto the small island in the river where the the boats are moored where Frodo is sleeping even though Aragorn is there also. But Frodo is alert and draws Sting and Gollum quickly makes his escape.

“We shall have to trying going faster tomorrow,” says Aragorn to Frodo. “I wish I could lay my hands on the wretch. We might make him useful. But if I cannot, we shall have to try and lose him.”

The Fellowship Attempt to Escape From Gollum.

By driving their boats forward on the river the next day the Company are able to lose Gollum for a while but all such efforts are ultimately useless. Gollum’s desire for the Ring is so great that again and again he manages to find his way back to it until all comes to a head at the Cracks of Doom upon Orodruin. As Gandalf put it to Frodo Gollum has “no will left in the matter. If ever there was a time when Gollum had possession of the Ring it was very brief. He has never possessed the Ring. The Ring has always possessed him. He may think that he desires the Ring but it would be more true to say that desire has taken possession of him and will never let him go. There will be moments when the “little corner of his mind” that is still his own will emerge but that corner is very small and desperately weak. It will be his desire that will drive him on.

The story will come to its end at the Cracks of Doom.

“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.