“There Must Be Someone of Intelligence in The Party”. On the Choosing of The Heroes Who Will Help Frodo to Take The Ring to The Fire.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp.264-267

Elrond honoured Frodo’s offer of himself to take the Ring to the Fire by speaking of the heroes of the past. “If you take it freely,” he says, “I will say that your choice is right; and though the mighty elf-friends of old, Hador and Húrin, and Túrin, and Beren himself, were assembled together, your seat should be among them.”

Alan Lee depicts Túrin Turambar, one of the children of Húrin

When The Lord of the Rings was first published in 1954 little was known of these names except for Beren because of the story that Strider told to the hobbits in the camp below Weathertop on the night on which the Nazgûl attacked and wounded Frodo. The Silmarillion was not published until after Tolkien’s death and in the years since our knowledge of them all has grown thanks to the work of Christopher Tolkien. But if all we knew of them was the list that Elrond gives us, that phrase, “mighty elf friends” would be sufficient to evoke our deepest respect and even a little awe.

The four “mighty elf-friends of old” that Elrond names are figures of the First Age of Arda. They were the mortal Children of Ilúvatar who, upon entering Beleriand, chose to side with the Elves against Morgoth. Deeply flawed though they were, it was their implacable denial of despair in the face of the seemingly inevitable victory of darkness that shines out again and again through the long defeat of that age. Typical of this spirit we read of Húrin at the terrible battle of Nirnaeth Arnoediad.

“Last of all Húrin stood alone. Then he cast aside his shield, and wielded an axe two-handed; and it is sung that the axe smoked in the black blood of the troll guard of Gothmog until it withered, and each time that he slew Húrin cried: “Aurë entuluva! Day shall come again!”

Jenny Dolfen imagines Húrin at Nirnaeth Arnoediad

It is of heroes like this to which Elrond likens Frodo, not because of his martial ferocity but because of his quiet courage in the face of an impossible task. When he and Sam and Bilbo meet with Merry and Pippin, Frodo describes his mission as “a hopeless journey”. There is no point at which he regards it as anything less than hopeless and yet he never thinks of turning back, of resting in Rivendell, “a long while, perhaps for good”.

Frodo is a hero to stand with the Elf-friends of old because of the choice that he makes but what of Sam, Merry and Pippin? At first glance we might think that Tolkien uses them as some kind of comic relief and Pippin’s words about “someone with intelligence in the party” and Gandalf’s response to what Pippin says seem to show that this is indeed their purpose in the story. But at all times Tolkien wants us to see that the bonds of fellowship that bind the hobbits together have a power that cannot be measured through force of arms or even their intelligence. Later when Elrond chooses the party that will accompany Frodo, Sam and the Ring, he is minded to choose someone like Glorfindel, a mighty elf-lord, but Gandalf disagrees.

“I think, Elrond, that in this matter it would be well to trust rather to their friendship than to great wisdom”

It is not that Gandalf has given way to sentimentality at this vital moment in the story but that he is true to his own charism, the grace that he has been given and which he has long nurtured. His teacher, the Lady Nienna, taught him to see with pity, not with blame and to warm the hearts of free peoples everywhere. He knows the power of a warmed heart especially when the world has grown cold and time and again, I suspect without really knowing why, his heart was drawn to the Shire and the simple hospitality of its people. His pleasure in good, simple food, good beer and a pipe to follow dinner meant that his own heart was warmed when he made these visits and if the only fruit of them was rest and the enjoyment of fireworks then this would have been sufficient for him but it was to these simple folk to whom the Ring was entrusted. Folk who live in the “merrier world” in which “food and cheer and song” are valued above hoarded gold.

The friendship of hobbits

“I Will Take The Ring, Though I Do Not Know The Way.”

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 260-264

How much we would like to view the hero as someone in an exalted state. The eyes should gaze intently to a distant point, towards the hero’s glorious destiny. The hero will stand alone and the admiring gaze of all will look up into those eyes for how could anyone look down at the hero. And the hero should be beautiful. How could it be otherwise? For the hero is the projection of our longings for ourselves, the exalted self that we long to be or, perhaps, to be with.

If this hero is beautiful it is not because he tried to be beautiful. If he is a hero it is not because he wants to be a hero.

Older and wiser heads may smile at such longing with a degree of indulgence, remembering that I used the words, high, lonely and destiny quite recently in this blog reflecting as we did so on the close kinship between Saruman the White and Uncle Andrew in The Magician’s Nephew. Am I suggesting that neither Saruman nor Uncle Andrew have never outgrown this rather adolescent longing? I rather think that I am. There is no blame attached to an adolescent being an adolescent but the world is blighted by adolescents who never grow up.

And when we compare these characters to the one who speaks the words of the title of this blog post so quietly and so reluctantly we know that we are talking about something quite different to the self admiration of these outgrown children. For Frodo shares little in common with Saruman. This is not to say that Frodo is completely free of the desire for exaltation. When he sat with Gandalf in his study at Bag End Frodo had felt “a great desire to follow Bilbo” flame up in his heart; a desire “so strong that it overcame his fear”. Perhaps at this point of the story the influence of Narya, the ring that Gandalf bears, is able to warm his heart, though even Gandalf is surprised. It is at that moment when he declares that “hobbits really are amazing creatures”. So there is a place and a time for exaltation but as the story reaches the place in which the decision has to be made concerning the Ring all exaltation, all warmth has gone. Frodo has met the implacable hatred of the Morgul Lord, has felt his blade pierce his flesh, the tiny splinter travel towards his heart. Now as he sits among the Council and listens to the debate about what should be done to the Ring he feels “a dead darkness in his heart”.

The debate continues. Boromir argues that the Ring should be used against Sauron, Elrond says that this is impossible; Glóin asks about the three Elven Rings and Elrond declares that they must remain hidden; Erestor of the Grey Havens speaks of the folly of trying to make the journey to Mordor and Gandalf answers that it is this folly that Sauron is incapable of grasping; and at the last it is Bilbo who asks what messenger should take the Ring to the fire.

No-one answers him. Either because they still feel that it is folly to take the road to Mordor or because they know that for them to carry the Ring is impossible all remain silent. And at the very last it is Frodo’s voice, this time struggling against an overwhelming desire to rest, that speaks “as if some other will was using his small voice”.

“I will take the Ring,” he said, “though I do not know the way.”

After this everything is all quite simple. So it is once the great choices are made. All falls into place around them and the people who make them. Even Sam does not argue against the choice only that Frodo should not go alone. But the choice and the manner of its expression is the most moving moment of the whole story. It is the moral heart of the story. It is made, not at the conclusion of some process of selection with all the qualities of each candidate having undergone careful assessment but simply because one person has been called, has been chosen. And the choosing is like “the pronouncement of some doom”.

Are life’s truly great choices always like this? Do they always feel unavoidable, even inevitable, and yet they still have to be made? And do they always feel like pronouncements of doom? A last judgment against which no argument can be found? Such choices are practically inexpressible. Elrond rightly places Frodo amongst his mighty ancestors even as the heroes gathered in Rivendell had to remain silent as a hobbit stood to speak but even his words feel small against the magnitude of the choice.

“What of The Three Rings of The Elves?” Can They Be Used Against Sauron?

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 260-263

When Celebrimbor and Sauron (in his guise of Annatar) studied and then created the Rings of Power during the Second Age of Arda there were three rings made by Celebrimbor alone over which Sauron had no influence. Seven rings were made for the dwarves and nine for humankind. The dwarves proved to be of stubborn stuff and so even when Sauron was wielding the One Ring “to rule them all” these rings and their bearers did not fall under his sway. So began the long unhappy history of Sauron’s search for the rings of the dwarves which ended in Dol Guldur when Sauron took the last of them from Thráin.

The Three Rings of the Elves

The rings given to human lords brought them swiftly under the domination of the Dark Lord. The dwarves were always true to their essential nature, loving the things that they made, implacable both in friendship and enmity, but humankind was always constrained by their mortality in a very particular way. The very brevity of a human life meant that a choice had to be made. It still does. Some would look beyond the confines of their mortality and so live in hope accepting their fate while entrusting themselves to that which lay beyond them. So Aragorn said to Arwen at the end of his life, “We are not bound for ever to the circles of this world, and beyond them there is more than memory”. Or, as in the heroic world of the Rohirrim, they would laugh in the face of despair even as they confronted their own deaths, as did Éomer when it seemed certain to him that he would die in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. Or, as with the Dunlendings, there was a dull, grim and embittered spirit, a nation of “Gollums”, ever resentful of perceived slights at the hands of others. Or, as with the people of Bree, the spirit and wisdom of Ecclesiastes, “Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your life which you have been given under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun”. The hobbits were perhaps closest in spirit to them.

But for the Númenorians and their descendants, the ones who had come closest to Valinor and the immortality of the Elves, there was for many a growing sense that mortality was a curse that had been imposed upon them and one that they should strive to overcome. It was nine lords from among such as these who seized the opportunity given to them in Sauron’s gift of rings and who learned that immortality as a mere extension of existence is an intolerable burden, a curse rather than a blessing.

The Nazgûl. Wraiths and Wrath

The Rings of the Elves were not made by Sauron but by Celebrimbor alone although these rings could not have been made without the craft that they had learned together. Perhaps Celebrimbor had some secret suspicion of Sauron or, more likely, the desire like Fëanor before him to make something that was his and his alone, but they were not made for “strength or domination or hoarded wealth, but understanding, making and healing, to preserve all things unstained”. As with the Elves themselves, but as an intensification of who the Elves were, they were bound to the earth itself in joy and in sorrow. In the healing of the hurts of the earth and in the preserving of its beauty they brought great joy. If only we could find the earthly paradises of Rivendell or Lothlórien in our world today or even the Shire as Sam Gamgee was to remake it using Galadriel’s gift; or perhaps such places would best be kept hidden from us as we would probably spoil them by turning them into tourist destinations. Could you imagine some kind of “Lothlórien-world”?

Tim Catherall’s Imagining of Lothlórien

There is a sense in which the three rings of the Elves were used against Sauron. Elrond’s healing power, Galadriel’s adamantine resistance and, above all, Gandalf’s unresting work in warming hearts in a world ever growing cold, all of these fruits of the Elven Rings meant that Sauron had been kept at bay for long years but now as Sauron bent all of his might and malice in the task of the conquest of Middle-earth the rings of the Elves could no longer resist him nor could the combined strength of its free peoples. At the last there could only be one choice that could be made and that was as Elrond counselled the destruction of the Ring.

Take the Ring and Go Forth to Victory! Boromir Offers the Wise His Counsel.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 260-263

All who have participated in the great debate, finding “counsel for the peril of the world”, have spoken either of hiding the Ring or of destroying it, but there is one last option to be debated and it is Boromir who offers that option.

“Why do you speak ever of hiding and destroying? Why should we not think that the Great Ring has come into our hands to serve us in our hour of need? Wielding it the Free Lords of the Free may surely defeat the Enemy. That is what he most fears, I deem.”

Boromir longs to be the hero of the story.

And Boromir is right. Sauron does fear that one of his deadliest foes will take the Ring and then u7se it against him and he knows that among his enemies there are those capable of doing so. He knows that he only has a certain amount of time available to him to defeat them before what he regards as the inevitable happens. He knows that only one person can wield the Ring at any point. Gandalf was right when he said this to Saruman. But he knows also that before that moment comes there will be a struggle to be that one person. If he can strike with sufficient force while the struggle is taking place he can both defeat his enemies and regain the Ring.

But this is not how the Wise reply to Boromir. Elrond simply rejects Boromir’s proposal out of hand.

“We cannot use the Ruling Ring… It belongs to Sauron and was made by him alone, and is altogether evil.”

Sauron learns the art of ring-making from Celebrimbor

What Elrond rejects is the notion that one side in the struggle is good and right and the other side is bad and wrong. The good guys versus the bad guys. As Gandalf will say to Denethor later on, “I pity even his (that is Sauron’s) slaves”. In a straight forward us and them conflict there is only one question and that is the question of power. As Boromir puts it, “Valour needs first strength, and then a weapon.” As far as Boromir is concerned the Ring is a perfectly legitimate weapon. It gives “us” the means to defeat “them”. Boromir does not make this argument but there have been those who have argued that it is morally irresponsible not to seek to be as powerful as possible. To reject power is effectively to give in to those who will then use power against us. This was used as an argument against nuclear disarmament during the Cold War. To disarm, it was said, was irresponsible both morally and practically. Although Boromir does not make this argument himself there is little doubt that if it had been made at the Council Boromir would have agreed with it.

Some critics have argued that Tolkien meant the Ring to be an allegorical representation of nuclear weapons and that The Lord of the Rings was more or less a lengthy tract against the making and the use of such weapons. C.S Lewis in a critical essay of his own pointed out that Tolkien had been creating his mythology and pondering the question of the nature of evil long before he finally wrote his story and long before the atomic bomb was first conceived and used. To Tolkien the bomb was simply one more example, albeit a significant one, of the way in which power is gained and used by human beings. It is Gandalf who speaks more nearly of the nature of evil when he speaks of Sauron thus.

“He is very wise, and weighs all things to a nicety in the scales of his malice. But the only measure that he knows is desire, desire for power; and so he judges all hearts.”

It is the desire for power, power over others, that lies at the heart of the nature of evil. The Ring is the quintessential expression of this desire. How might a person achieve complete power over others? Surely it is by the possession of something that might grant that power. The Ring is both the desire for that power and it is the power itself. Thus it is utterly corrupting. To use it would be disastrous. To hide it would allow that corruption to persist. There is only one course of action open and that is to destroy it.

“We Must Send The Ring to The Fire”. Elrond Concludes The Debate on What To Do With The Ring.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 257-260

After Gandalf ends his tale about his long journey, his battle with the Nazgûl upon Weathertop that the hobbits and Aragorn had witnessed from a distance and his long ride northward upon the mighty Shadowfax in order to draw some of his enemies, at least, away from the Ring and its bearer, he apologises to Frodo and then asks:

“Well, the Tale is now told, from first to last. Here we all are, and here is the Ring. But we have not come any nearer to our purpose. What shall we do with it?”

What Shall We Do With The Ring?

In response to a consideration of Gandalf’s question Elrond makes brief reference to Saruman’s treachery and the dangers of studying too closely the arts of the Enemy. But he gives his closest attention to a reflection upon Frodo’s story subtly drawing both him and hobbits into the long tale of the years. The Shire is placed at the edge of the great primeval forest and hobbits are named as neighbours to Iarwain Ben-adar, oldest and fatherless, Tom Bombadil of the eastern edge of The Old Forest. Briefly the thought is considered that Bombadil might be asked to be guardian of the Ring but Gandalf swiftly dismisses the idea. “He would be a most unsafe guardian; and that alone is enough”.

Perhaps most significantly Elrond speaks of Frodo and hobbits with respect and some surprise. “Of the tales that we have heard today the tale of Frodo was most strange to me. I have known few hobbits, save Bilbo here; and it seems to me that he is perhaps not so alone and singular as I had thought him. The world has changed much since I was last on the westward road.”

Elrond leaves that thought hanging as the Elves begin to debate whether the Ring should be hidden in some fashion or destroyed. Should it be taken westward to the Undying Lands where it will lie beyond the reach of Sauron? Elrond is confident that those in the Undying Lands would refuse to receive the Ring. For them the memory of Feänor and the corrupting power of the Silmarils will be fresh. Not that the Silmarils were evil in themselves but that Feänor’s absolute desire to possess something that he had made at all costs corrupted him absolutely. It led to the rebellion of the Noldor and the kinslaying at Alqualondë, the only occasion of violent death in the long history of Valinor. Neither the Elves nor the Valar would give welcome to an object of power that was inherently evil.

Ted Nasmith’s imagining of the Kinslaying at Alqualondë

Glorfindel suggests that Saruman’s lie, that the Ring had rolled down the Anduin to the depths of the ocean should be made true. They should cast it there themselves. But Gandalf dismisses this idea. No solution to the problem of the Ring will be permanent save its destruction and so Elrond brings the debate to its conclusion.

“But it seems to me now clear which is the road that we must take. The westward road seems easiest. Therefore it must be shunned. It will be watched. Too often the Elves have fled that way. Now at this last we must take a hard road, a road unforeseen. There lies our hope, if hope it be. To walk into peril- to Mordor. We must take the Ring to the Fire.”

The taking of the hard road, the road into peril, lies at the very heart of Tolkien’s meditation on the problem of evil. He gives no attention whatsoever to the question of why there is evil in the world. It is here and that is all we need to know. And he rejects the two solutions to the problem of evil in our own time, that either we flee from it to some absolute place of safety or that we overcome it by some greater force, defeating evil with evil. Next week we will give greater consideration to this latter solution thinking about Boromir’s suggestion that the Free Peoples use the Ring against its maker. It is enough to know now that Elrond and the Wise reject this possibility. There is only the hard road. The road into the very heart of darkness allowing it to do its very worst. The way of the cross.

The Hard Road

“Now I Can Take a Night’s Rest, The First Since I Have Forgotten When”. Gandalf is Able to Rest Even While Riding The Storm.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 254-258

The words in this week’s title come in the midst of a passage that is moves at a ferocious pace. From the moment in which Saruman has Gandalf confined to the pinnacle of Orthanc to the moment in which Gandalf apologises to Frodo for failing to keep his promise Tolkien takes us upon a journey that covers most of the western lands of Middle-earth and some east of the Misty Mountains too.

The journey begins with honest Radagast, keeping his promise to gather news and to send it to Gandalf in Isengard, a promise that he keeps even as he rides towards his home in Mirkwood. The Eagles of Manwë, Lord of the Valar, fly over many lands observing “the gathering of wolves and the mustering of orcs” and the ferocious pursuit search for the Ring by the Nazgûl. Gwaihir, the Windlord, takes Gandalf from his prison and carries him to Edoras and the hall of Théoden, King of Rohan, where Gandalf takes a horse, the mighty Shadowfax, who takes him hundreds of leagues even as Frodo and his companions rest in the house of Tom Bombadil and then have their misadventure in the Barrow Downs and their night at The Prancing Pony in Bree.

Ted Nasmith depicts Gandalf’s escape from Orthanc upon Gwaihir

Gandalf arrives in Bree upon the very same day in which the hobbits had set off towards Rivendell with Aragorn and upon receiving this news from Barliman Butterbur with joy he decides to rest.

I have always enjoyed the moment in which Gandalf lays Butterbur’s beer “under an enchantment of surpassing excellence”. Apart from the obvious and enticing pleasure of excellent beer it is a moment in which we gain an insight into his character. Gandalf does not live at a great height in some remote and, to others, inaccessible place. In recent weeks we have poked fun at Saruman’s “high and lonely destiny”. Gandalf, the grey pilgrim, is as much at home in an inn at Bree, smoking his pipe and savouring the pleasure of good beer, as he is amongst the great. Not only does he enjoy simple pleasures for their own sake he also understands their importance in the wider scheme of things. Places of hospitality play a key role in the whole story of The Lord of the Rings. Without them the Ring could never have been taken to Mordor. All along the East-West road through Eriador from Rivendell to Bree to the Shire to the Grey Havens lie such places, places in which the giving of welcome is something that is prized. Such welcome is a inner disposition, an enjoyment of the stranger as well as those who are familiar. And, of course, there are the places along the road that are less known, where unexpected hospitality is given; places like Woodhall and Farmer Maggot’s farm, Crickhollow and Tom Bombadil’s cottage. It is because of the spirit of hospitality that the Quest of the Ring is ultimately successful and Gandalf has spent long years nurturing this spirit.

Places of hospitality in a cold world

Gandalf is a warmer of hearts. He is the bearer of Narya, the ring of fire but this is not external to his character but merely an intensification of it. When Cirdan gave Narya to Gandalf and not to Saruman it was because of a recognition that he was the right bearer of such power. There are other uses that fire can be put to than the warming of hearts. Gandalf saw such uses as a prisoner in Orthanc in Saruman’s “pits and forges”. Places in which creatures are merely put to temporary use, in which shelter is a necessity required to enable production. Later Merry and Pippin will enjoy the hospitality of Isengard but will do so as a spoil of war and not as a freely given gift.

Merry and Pippin enjoy the unintended hospitality of Isengard

That Gandalf does not come to a place like The Prancing Pony in Bree as a figure of terror as do the Nazgûl is because he has chosen not to do so, a choice that he has made over and over again throughout the long and hidden years. That Aragorn and the hobbits are able to enjoy Butterbur’s hospitality too is the fruit of this choice and why Gandalf is able to sleep, albeit briefly, before returning to the great struggle.

“Saruman, You Missed Your Path in Life. You Should Have Been the King’s Jester”. On Seeing Through Saruman’s Fantasy World.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins) pp. 251-254

I am sure that my readers have recognised that the quotation from The Lord of the Rings that is contained in this week’s title does not come from the encounter between Gandalf and Saruman that Gandalf describes at the Council of Elrond in Rivendell but from the chapter entitled The Voice of Saruman that comes after the Battle of Helms Deep in The Two Towers. I have deliberately done this because I want to come back to the question of humour that I began to discuss in last week’s post and the critique of modernity that lies within Tolkien’s work and the work of the Inklings. Last week I compared the speech made by Saruman in Isengard to the captured Gandalf with speeches made by Uncle Andrew in The Magician’s Nephew and by Weston in Out of the Silent Planet both written by C.S Lewis. I noted that each speech seemed “well rehearsed” and then I noted that each speech was as much an exercise in self-aggrandisement as it was in presenting something that was objectively true. At all times the speaker was saying, “Look at me!”

Is Harold Jig depicting the court jester in the figure of Saruman?

There have been times when I have thought that humour is merely an expression of despair. I imagine myself standing in the queue for the gas chamber in a concentration camp and standing beside us is an entertainer whose job it is to cheer us up. The entertainer is doing the funniest imitations of the guards and even the camp commandant and despite ourselves we are all enjoying his performance but one by one, even amidst the laughter, we are all disappearing into the gas chamber. Perhaps when we are all gone the entertainer will follow us and perish just as we all did. Sometimes I have felt that the satire on late night TV is of that nature. We share the joke with the performer, congratulating ourselves on our ability to see through the person or situation that is being satirised but deep down we know that we are laughing on the way to the gas chamber.

Is Gandalf’s humour and the laughter in Lewis’s works at the expense of Weston and of Uncle Andrew of that nature? Are they merely trying to cheer us up as we make our inevitable journeys into the dark? Certainly the fantasy worlds that these characters create in which they are the central figure, these are risible. The genius that Lewis displays in putting the words “Ours is a high and lonely destiny” into the mouth of a character as obviously contemptible as Uncle Andrew is to render those same words as equally contemptible no matter who speaks them. When Saruman makes his speech he reveals himself as just another Uncle Andrew but what do we gain from such awareness if we are all on our way to the gas chamber? In Tolkien’s legendarium it is the archetypal figure of Morgoth who infects the world with his assertion that the darkness is the final reality. Verlyn Flieger shows how Tolkien struggled with the fear that Morgoth might be right throughout his life speaking of the loss of his parents in his childhood and then the loss of all his closest friends during the First World War. She shows how in his seminal essay “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” he speaks of a world ringed with a shoreless sea in which “as in a little circle of light about their halls, men with courage as their stay went forward to that battle with the hostile world and the offspring of the dark which ends for all, even the kings and champions, in defeat”. Gandalf’s laughter at Saruman’s expense may be no more than defiance in the face of inevitable defeat or it can be an expression of hope.

Gandalf’s Laughter. Despair or Hope?

Flieger speaks of two words that Tolkien coined that, in many ways, described both his own inner spiritual conflict and also the spiritual conflict of our age. These are dyscatastrophe and euchatastrophe. If dyscatastrophe is at best a heroic life in the face of inevitable defeat then euchatastrophe is a world in which I might lose myself but then find it again “in another and perhaps higher world”. This, of course, is Frodo’s journey to the “far green country under a swift sunrise” that follows his defeat in Middle-earth. Tolkien chose this ending to The Lord of the Rings, a poignant, tear stained but ultimately hopeful ending. We have the same choice of possible endings for our own story and the story of our world.

A Far Green Country

“Ours is a High and Lonely Destiny”. Is the Lord of Isengard Saruman or Uncle Andrew?

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 251-254

Scholars of the Inklings speak of a certain cooling of the friendship between Tolkien and C.S Lewis following the publication and subsequent success of Lewis’s Narnia stories. It is not my intention to go into this here but I do want to draw the attention of my readers to a similarity between the speech that Saruman makes to Gandalf and that which Uncle Andrew makes to Digory in The Magician’s Nephew. We might extend that similarity to Weston’s speech, translated by Ransom, to the Oyarsa of Malacandra in Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet even though it was first published seventeen years before The Magician’s Nephew. Each of the speeches are similar in spirit. Each one has the sense of it being, as Tolkien describes Saruman’s speech, “long rehearsed”. And each speech is risible in nature. Lewis is quite explicit in this. Both Weston and Uncle Andrew are treated as laughable by those that they are trying to impress. Tolkien is never explicit in this manner and this might be regarded as a difference between him and Lewis as writers of fiction but I have written in this blog before of the way in which Saruman descends into absurdity as the story progresses. While Gollum’s fall into the fires of Orodruin calls upon our pity and Sauron’s fall into nothingness is a terrible thing, Saruman somehow becomes an unhappy joke. Not that anyone in the story is laughing, except perhaps for Merry and Pippin.

Harold Jig’s excellent imagining of Saruman’s display

I am sure that most of my readers recognised the quotation in the title of this week’s post as coming from The Magician’s Nephew. “Men like me, who possess hidden wisdom, are free from common rules just as we are cut off from common pleasures. Ours, my boy, is a high and lonely destiny.” Uncle Andrew is at one and the same time trying to impress his nephew with his significance while, at the same time, seeking to justify the low mean trick that he has just played upon Polly. In his speech to the Oyarsa in Out of the Silent Planet Weston is also trying to impress his audience while justifying his murder of some of the creatures of Malacandra. “To you I may seem a vulgar robber, but I bear on my shoulders the destiny of the human race”.

Andrew Ketterley imagines Uncle Andrew’s Mean Trick Upon Polly

And then there is Saruman’s speech to Gandalf. Last week we thought about Saruman’s display of his own significance. The ring upon his finger, the coat of many colours and the magnificence of Isengard itself, are all intended to impress and to intimidate. This is a strategy that works with the Dunlendings but most certainly not with Gandalf. Nor does his speech, however well rehearsed it is.

“The Elder Days are gone. The Middle Days are passing. The Younger Days are beginning. The time of the Elves is over, but our time is at hand: the world of Men that we must rule. But we must have power, power to order all things as we will, for that good which only the Wise can see.”

One can only guess that the kind of spirit that Saruman, Uncle Andrew and Weston all display must have been discussed when the Inklings met and certainly it must have been recognised and deplored by Tolkien and Lewis. Each of these characters place themselves within modernity, regarding themselves as its heralds, even its guardians and each of them enthusiastically adopt a chronological snobbery that regards any kind of morality other than the right of the strong to order and exploit the lives of the weak as being contemptible. Tolkien describes this contempt eloquently in his foreword to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings. He speaks of the difference between the War of the Ring to the Second World War that had taken place as he was writing his own work. If, he says, the two had resembled each other more, the Ring would most certainly have been used against Sauron and then he says of Saruman that if he had failed to get possession of the Ring he “would in the confusion and treacheries of the time have found in Mordor the missing links in his own researches into Ring-lore, and before long he would have made a Great Ring of his own with which to challenge the self-styled Ruler of Middle-earth. In that conflict both sides would have held hobbits in hatred and contempt: they would not long have survived even as slaves”.

All of the works of the Inklings are a critique of this version of modernity and, as we have noted, as well as this version being cruel it is also absurd. We will return to this in next week’s blog.

“He That Breaks a Thing To Find Out What It Is Has Left The Path of Wisdom”. Gandalf Speaks of The Fall of Saruman.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp.248-254

“What of Saruman?” It was Galdor, the emissary of Círdan, the shipwright of the Grey Havens, who first asked the question. Why is Saruman not present at the Council? Or why, at least, is he not represented? As Gandalf says himself, “Saruman has long studied the arts of the Enemy himself, and thus we have often been able to forestall him. It was by the devices of Saruman that we drove him from Dol Guldur.”

This driving of Sauron from Dol Guldur had taken place in the same year in which Smaug had fallen, the Battle of the Five Armies had taken place and in which the Ring had been found. It was a year that gained over seventy years of time for the free peoples of Middle-earth to make preparation for the inevitable conflict but we have to observe that no such preparation has taken place. Until this day in Rivendell there has been little communication between Elves and Dwarves and the kingdoms of Men. Gandalf alone has journeyed tirelessly between them and Aragorn has served his apprenticeship in Gondor and Rohan never revealing his true identity, but each realm has largely gone its own way. Perhaps that is why Boromir has some justification in his assertion that Gondor has stood alone against the Enemy. Perhaps too this, in part at least, is why Saruman has made the choices that will soon be revealed to Gandalf.

We have to assume that Gandalf harbours no suspicions regarding Saruman when Radagast the Brown first brings him news regarding the Nazgûl and extends Saruman’s invitation (we might actually say, summons) for Gandalf to meet him in Isengard. That Radagast should be on the road at all is remarkable. Of all the Istari, the order of wizards who came to Middle-earth to rouse its peoples against Sauron, he has been the most private, the most withdrawn, staying close to his home in Mirkwood among the creatures beloved of Yavanna of the Valar. Some have even regarded him to be little more than a plot device, someone to lure Gandalf into Isengard. Certainly Gandalf is impressed that Radagast has made such a journey and this causes him to agree to Saruman’s summons. Impressed enough not to return to the Shire but to entrust a message to Barliman Butterbur to go to Frodo. A message, as we know, that was never sent with all the consequences that we have been considering over the past year.

Gandalf and Radagast the Brown

From the moment that he first enters Isengard Gandalf begins to have misgivings about his choice and Saruman quickly confirms that these are justified. Saruman is wearing a ring on his finger. Is this an imitation of the One Ring, an essay perhaps in the forging of rings of power? Or is it a statement of intent? That Saruman is himself a “power”. And he has created a new coat. He is no longer Saruman the White but Saruman of Many Colours.

Harold Jig imagines Saruman’s self display before Gandalf

“I looked then,” says Gandalf, “and saw that his robes, which had seemed white, were not so, but were woven of all colours, and if he moved they shimmered and changed hue so that the eye was bewildered.”

If Saruman has intended to impress through this careful crafting of his image he most certainly fails. Gandalf prefers white to the breaking of white as if through a prism.

“He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”

In her wonderful study on logos and language in Tolkien’s world, Splintered Light, Verlyn Flieger contrasts two kinds of breaking and their consequences. On the one hand there is Frodo who in his complete offering up of himself to the task of destroying the Ring is “completely broken down in order that he may be remade”. Flieger refers to Gandalf’s pondering of the transparency that he observes in Frodo as he lies in his bed in Rivendell and contrasts it with Saruman’s display in Isengard. If Frodo is being broken then Saruman breaks down. Frodo offers himself up. Saruman seeks to break in order to gain power. “In his overweening pride, Saruman has broken himself, not, like Frodo, by yielding to a cause greater than himself but by trying to impose himself upon the cause, by endeavouring to control rather than submit”.

Andrea Pipano’s fine imagining of Saruman to suggest why Gandalf does not mistrust him

“He May Play a Part Yet that Neither He Nor Sauron Have Foreseen”. Gandalf and Gollum.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 244-250

No-one seems to be wasted in Gandalf’s world. By this I do not mean that everyone can be used in the sense that we might use an object and then discard it, but that everyone has a part to play in the great story. Readers of The Lord of the Rings will remember that Gandalf spoke of Gollum in much the same way in the long conversation with Frodo in the study at Bag End.

“My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end”.

Gollum may play a part yet

Note that vital phrase. “My heart tells me”. Gandalf is a man of the heart and this is what sets him apart from Sauron and from those who see the world as Sauron does. He is beyond even most of his fellows. None of the Wise would ever wish ill to hobbits but then none but Gandalf would ever expect much of them either. The Wise regard them as many regard children. They are glad that children exist and they delight in their innocence, even taking refuge from time to time in the world of the child as an expression of longing for something that they feel is lost to them forever. But despite this longing they really believe that the world of the child is a world of make believe. It does not actually exist. The real world, sadly but truly (as they see it), is one of calculation and of cold, hard facts. The Rangers are glad to protect hobbits from this cold, hard world beyond the borders of the Shire but it is that cold, hard world that is reality.

It is one thing to find a place in the world for a pleasing anomaly like the Shire, but who wishes to give any place to Gollum? Sauron does give Gollum a place but it is only the place that he gives to every creature and that is based on their usefulness to him. When Sauron captures Gollum he tortures him to find out what he knows about the Ring that he once possessed. In Unfinished Tales we are told that “When he had learned what he could from him, Sauron released him and sent him forth again. He did not trust Gollum, for he divined something indomitable in him, which could not be overcome, even by the Shadow of Fear, except by destroying him. But Sauron perceived the depth of Gollum’s malice towards those that had ‘robbed’ him, and guessing that he would go in search of them to avenge himself, Sauron hoped that his spies would thus be led to the Ring”.

J.M Snooks imagines Sauron with Gollum

Now we begin to perceive the difference between the mind of Sauron and the mind of Gandalf. Sauron is only capable of reducing everything to his own calculation. All calculation reduces the person to an object, to an it. Imagination on the other hand perceives all persons as mystery. Sauron did not “fully comprehend” Gollum but calculated that what he did know would be sufficient for his purposes. Gandalf also did not fully comprehend, in terms of calculation, but listened to his own heart which told him that Gollum would have a part to play that Sauron could not foresee. This is because imagination conceives a world that is greater and more wonderful than its capacity to comprehend it. It can only be grasped and held by love and delight.

Gandalf lives in a world in which pity, mercy and generosity of spirit, open the door to possibilities that are unforeseeable and are yet to be trusted. It was not Gandalf but Bilbo who chose not to kill Gollum when he had the opportunity to do so but Gandalf lives in a world in which a merciful deed can have wonderful consequences even if they cannot be foreseen. Gandalf does not foresee that it is Gollum who will take the Ring to the fire. He does not even know how the Ring will be destroyed. He has seen Frodo fail to throw the Ring into his own fireplace. He probably guesses that the task of destroying the Ring is probably beyond Frodo’s or anyone else’s capacity and yet he still trusts that somehow it will happen because he lives in this world of wonderful and incalculable possibility. Some might call it a fairy tale world, even regarding it with contempt, but those who live as Gandalf does seem to unlock doors of wonderful possibility that those of a calculating spirit cannot even perceive let alone achieve.

Olorin (Gandalf) with his teacher, the Lady Nienna