Snaga knows that he is up against a Power much greater than he is.

Until I began to think about writing this post I had never wondered how it was that Snaga managed to be one of only two orcs left alive in the Tower of Cirith Ungol (the other being Shagrat) after the fight over Frodo’s mithril coat. To be honest I had never really thought much about Snaga at all. But as I thought about this part of the story I began to see that Snaga is one of life’s survivors until, that is, he thinks himself safe enough to strike out at Frodo with a whip. Until that point I think that Snaga managed to stay out of the trouble. As he tells Shagrat he sees it “through a window”. There is more than one way to be an orc. One is to be a warrior thug like Gorbag bullying your way to the top until you meet your match as he does in Shagrat. Another is to be a mean sneak with a keen nose for danger and how to stay out of it, a bigger version of Gollum you might say. You take whatever you need to survive, prepared to murder, if necessary, but you let the Gorbags and the Shagrats get their way. It is safer that way.

And that is where Snaga helps us to understand something that has been happening ever since Frodo raised the Star Glass of Galadriel in the darkness of Shelob’s Lair. A Power has entered Mordor, Snaga can sense it, and he is afraid.

If we recall some of the events since that moment it will help us to see what is happening. In raising the Star Glass Frodo brings the light of a Silmaril into Shelob’s endless night. In defeating Shelob in battle Sam finds a strength to do something that no one has done before. When Sam raises the phial of Galadriel before the hideous malice of the Watchers he feels “their will waver and crumble into fear”. And when Snaga confronts Sam on the tower steps it is not a small frightened hobbit that he meets but “a great silent shape, cloaked in a grey shadow, looming against the wavering light behind; in one hand it held a sword, the very light of which was a bitter pain, the other was clutched at his breast, but held concealed some nameless menace of power and doom”.

The menace, of course, is the Ring, but this is not the Power that has entered Mordor. We saw that the Power is not the Ring last week when Sam was tempted to claim it and to challenge Sauron. The Ring is trying to return to its master and will betray Sam. Sam realises this. “He’d spot me pretty quick, if I put the Ring on now, in Mordor.” The Power can use the menace of the Ring as it does to terrify Snaga but its purpose is not the same as the purpose of the Ring. If it was then it would have succeeded in betraying Sam and returning to Sauron.

No, the Power that has entered Mordor is something that Snaga can sense and is afraid of but it is not something that he can understand and nor  even can his master, the Dark Lord. Snaga has spiritual insight of a kind but only the kind that knows about power over others. Such a spiritual insight knows about exercising power over those who are weaker or submitting to those whose power is greater. It knows it well because it has practiced that spirituality for a long time. But it knows nothing about Goodness, Beauty, Truth, Mercy or Pity because it has rejected all of these for the sake of gaining power over others. The gospels call it gaining the world but losing your soul.

It is Goodness, Beauty, Truth, Mercy and Pity that have entered Mordor keeping company with two small hobbits who have done the simple act of laying down their lives for their friends. No one has greater love than this. No one who has rejected Love can ever grasp it. And only those who have chosen the way of humility in the way that Frodo and Sam have done can keep company with this kind of Power.

 

 

Sam Gamgee Finds Strength to Resist The Ring.

To cry out, “I’m coming Mr. Frodo!” is one thing. Most of us have made promises in a moment of passion that we have regretted later in the cold light of day. It can be one of the bravest things that we ever do in life to keep such a promise long after the initial ardour has gone.

For Sam reality strikes home very soon as he looks out across the plains of Mordor beyond its mountainous defences towards Orodruin, the very mountain that he and Frodo have been trying to reach. It is clear that the task that lies ahead is way beyond his strength and ability. And to enter the Tower of Cirith Ungol is just as impossible. Unless…

There is one thing that he holds that might enable him to defeat his enemies and that is the Ring. Even as he ponders the possibility, “Wild fantasies arose in his mind; and he saw Samwise the Strong, Hero of the Age, striding with a flaming sword across the darkened land, and armies flocking to his call as he marched to the overthrow of Barad-dûr.” Observant readers will note that there no place for Frodo in this fantasy. That is the nature of the Ring. Those who possess it have no heart room for any but themselves. Sam’s fantasy reminds us of Boromir’s, the desire to be the hero of the story and not to share that with anyone else. A moment later and we are reminded of Gandalf and Galadriel and the desire to do good.

“And then all the clouds rolled away, and the white sun shone, and at his command the vale of Gorgoroth became a garden of flowers and trees and brought forth fruit.”

It is a beautiful vision and who is better qualified than Sam to achieve it? Of course when Frodo offered Galadriel the Ring in Lothlórien it was Sam who encouraged her to take it and to put things right. Surely it is the desire of all good people to want to put things right and an obstacle to belief in God for many whose desire is to do good that God does not seem to be interested in putting things right. Well, not as interested as Sam Gamgee and people like, well, me…

Then Tolkien offers us all wise counsel as he describes the inner debate within Sam. It is striking how strong Sam is at this moment as he resists the Ring. Such strength does not come in the moment of crisis for the one who has done no inner work. When Sméagol murdered Déagol in order to take the Ring for himself we are not aware of any inner conflict. Sam’s inner work comprises two spiritual disciplines, one consciously practiced and delighted in, the other so long practiced that he is hardly aware of it even being a moral choice. The one is Sam’s love for Frodo. We noted that Sam’s fantasy had no place for Frodo but as soon as Sam becomes even half aware of this he sends the fantasy packing. The other is more complex, even controversial, and Tolkien calls it “his plain hobbit-sense”.

Sam’s upbringing has had two major influences. One has been the kindness of Bilbo who drew him into the world of imagination and delight. To have received such an invitation has been the greatest joy in Sam’s life and his love for Frodo is an act of gratefulness made deeper by all that they have endured together. The other influence has been the ungentle and highly critical voice of the Gaffer. It is a voice that comes to mind at those points in the story when Sam wants to berate himself for some mistake. The Gaffer’s guiding principle in life is to be satisfied with his lot although it also means defending his small territory, the garden at Bag End and his role in keeping it, with all the strength that he can muster.

Perhaps Sam needed both voices in his head and in his heart. They give him strength in his “hour of trial”. Perhaps too they give us a greater appreciation of what we may have regarded as negative influences as well as thanksgiving for all the love that we have received in our lives.

Sam Gamgee Finds Simplicity at the Tower of Cirith Ungol

Some people think that simplicity means having less of everything; just a few clothes and other possessions in a dwelling with little furniture. They are partly right because simplicity may lead to a life that does not carry too much about upon its back but Sam Gamgee teaches us true simplicity at the Tower of Cirith Ungol.

Not that this was ever his intention. He would rather regard it as being above himself to set himself up as a teacher to “wise folks such as yourselves”. No he never intended to be a teacher. He just finds himself in a place that he never intended to be and must do what he can. It is as… well… as simple as that.

It is over a year on this blog, that is a conscious seeking for wisdom from The Lord of the Rings, since we were last with Frodo and Sam. We spent a year journeying with them from the Emyn Muil, meeting first with Gollum, their strange guide, who took them across the Dead Marshes to the impassable Black Gate of Mordor before persuading them to take another way, a secret way, into Mordor. On that way Gollum betrays them by leading them into the lair of Shelob, a terrible monster in spider form, and although Sam gloriously drives her away Frodo receives a terrible wound from her sting that leaves Sam to believe that he is dead. His heart broken Sam takes the Ring from Frodo and is beginning to set himself to fulfilling the mission that Frodo was given at the Council of Elrond, to take the Ring of Power to the fires in which it was created and to destroy it, but no sooner has he made his choice than a company of orcs come across Frodo’s body. They announce that Frodo is not dead but only poisoned, as is the way with spiders, so that they can eat their prey alive when they wish to do so. Sam is helpless as the orcs carry Frodo into the tower and shut him out.

What can Sam do? This is the simplicity that he is granted at this moment and Tolkien puts it in this way. “He no longer had any doubt about his duty: he must rescue his master or perish in the attempt.”

This is not the kind of simplicity that someone chooses when they wish to make a lifestyle change, when some decluttering needs to take place. This is the simplicity chosen by someone when the one they love is stricken suddenly by a terrible illness and from that moment nothing else matters more to them than to care for them. Or more happily it is the simplicity of a man as he sees his bride enter the church and prepares himself to promise to love and to cherish her until death parts them.

The poet, T.S Eliot, describes this as “a condition of complete simplicity, (costing not less than everything)” that is faith. The philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard describes it as willing just one thing. And Sam himself has not always achieved this simplicity. When he first set out upon his journey he wanted to go with Frodo but he also wanted “to see Elves!” When that wish is fulfilled right at the very beginning Frodo asks him if he still wants to carry on. And when later he sees, in the mirror of Galadriel, the destruction of the Shire that Saruman and his bandits carry out he is torn between going back to sort things out and going on with Frodo. And he will not always know this simplicity. Right at the end of the story when he realises that Frodo is going to leave the Shire he tells Frodo that he is “that torn in two” as he ponders losing Frodo and leaving his new bride and family behind.

True simplicity is first and foremost given to us as a gift. It is rarely a comfortable gift because of what receiving it will cost (not less than everything) but the freedom that accompanies it points us more truly than any other experience to what it means to be fully alive. There is almost a hint of joy in Sam’s voice as his love for Frodo rises above all other thoughts and forgetting his peril he cries aloud: “I’m coming Mr Frodo!”

 

The Battle Before the Black Gate. Do the Best Stories have Happy Endings?

I had intended to return to Frodo and Sam at the Tower of Cirith Ungol this week but I felt that I needed to offer one last meditation on the “hopeless” battle before the Black Gate of Mordor before I leave it for a while. At the very least I felt that I owe it to Pippin who is lying under the body of a Troll chieftain that he has just valiantly slain in defence of Beregond of the Guard, his friend. I can’t just leave him there without hope!

When I first read The Return of the King as a teenager it was a volume that I had borrowed from my school library. After eating my evening meal I disappeared to my room and read and read and read…

I wonder how long it took me to read the section from the end of Book 5 and the battle before the Black Gate to the moment when Gandalf calls upon the armies of the West to “stand and wait!” I was reading as fast as I could but even so it must have been a good hour or so before I got there. Tolkien’s happy ending, his eucatastrophe, as he termed it, was something for which I was made to wait. I had to endure the endless journey through the horror of Mordor that Frodo and Sam had to make in order to reach Mount Doom and once there I had to watch helplessly with Sam as Frodo failed in his mission and all was saved only by the unlooked for intervention of Gollum.

But still the happy ending came. Did it come because of the courage of the Armies of the West and their brave captains? Did it come because of the faithful witness to the Good that Gandalf had born through the long centuries of his sojourn in Middle-earth? Did it come because of the friendship of the nine companions who set out from Rivendell just three months before? Did it come because Frodo staggered, step by weary step, supported and, at the last, carried by Sam up the slopes of Mount Doom?

After we have given due praise to all of the characters that we have come to know and love in Tolkien’s great work, and each of them deserves great praise, we have to say that none of these things actually brings about the happy ending. That comes through grace alone, from something that lies beyond the endless repetition of cause and effect.

This is one of Tolkien’s greatest contributions to the culture of our time and one which has brought the greatest anger from literary critics. Most of all Tolkien has been accused of being an escapist. Life, real life, the critics say, is not like that. Tolkien is treating us as if we are children. This is mere fairy tale and it is time for us to grow up and embrace reality.

Tolkien faced this criticism head on in an essay first printed in 1947 entitled, On Fairy-Stories. In it he wrote, “I coined the word ‘eucatastrophe’: the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears  (which I argued it is the highest function of fairy-stories to produce). And I was there led to the view that it produces its peculiar effect because it is a sudden glimpse of Truth, your whole nature chained in material cause and effect, the chain of death, feels a sudden relief as if a major limb out of joint had suddenly snapped back”.

It is this “sudden glimpse of Truth” that is so subversive to the “chain of death” that is held to be the only reality by the so-called modernists. And it is precisely from that prison, surrounded by the chain of death, from which Tolkien calls us to escape. Is it a coward who cannot face up to reality who tries to escape from this prison? Surely it is the ones who tell us that the prison is the only reality and that there is no freedom beyond it who lack courage. The courageous life is the one that refuses to submit to the tyranny of the “chain of death” as do Tolkien’s heroes.

 

 

The “Hopeless Journey” of the Armies of the West.

A few days after the great battle the armies of the West gather once more upon the Pelennor Fields in order to march towards the Morannon, the same Black Gate that Frodo and Sam saw upon their journey to Mordor and realised was impossible to enter. Tolkien describes the march as a “hopeless journey”, one that must end in inevitable defeat and death, and this begins to weigh upon the hearts of the young soldiers.

For those who have lived their lives in the far provinces of Gondor and of Rohan, Mordor has been but a name only, albeit a dark and fearful one, now it is a living nightmare that is beyond their comprehension. Aragorn treats them with mercy, allowing them to withdraw and to fulfil a mission that they can comprehend. They are to recapture the island of Cair Andros that lies within the waters of the Anduin.

The rest of the army continue and so reach the impregnable defences of the Dark Land. There they encounter the Lieutenant of the Tower of Barad-dûr who plays a game of negotiation while torturing them by presenting to them items taken from Frodo when the guard of Cirith Ungol found him by the road leading from Shelob’s Lair. A coat, a cloak and a sword.

A hopeless journey ends in a hopeless battle as the full might of Mordor and its allies breaks upon the small brave army arranged upon two hills before the gate. Peregrin Took, now truly the “valiant man” that Gandalf presented to the defenders of Minas Tirith just a few short days before, falls beneath the vast body of a Troll that he has just slain in defence of Beregond, his friend. Even though the last words that he hears before he slips out of consciousness are that “The Eagles are coming!” Pippin is sure that his story is come to an end and so too is the story of all that he cares about.

How do we keep going without hope? Tolkien often returns to this question in The Lord of the Rings. It was a major theme in the story of the pursuit of the orcs who had captured Merry and Pippin at the Falls of Rauros when the Fellowship was broken. Aragorn knows that he is likely to fail in his attempt and so all that he has hoped for through his life will fail too. The hope that he has nourished that he will restore the honour and the fortunes of his people, the Dunedain of the West, a hope that is enshrined in the very name his mother gave to him, Estel, as she lay dying; the hope that he will restore the kingdom of Gondor; and the hope that he will win the hand of Arwen in marriage, all this is lain down in a task that is impossible.

At all points within the story hope is understood as something greater than simply that what a particular character is trying to achieve will be successful. Success, of course, is desired, but it is not the thing that is most important. Even the destruction of the Ring itself is not the thing that matters most. When we return to the story of Frodo and Sam’s journey through Mordor we will come to a moment when Sam glimpses a star, perhaps the Silmaril in the heavens that is beyond the grasp of Sauron. And as he sees it he understands that “in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.”

This is the difference, Sam understands, between hope and defiance. Defiance is brave and we saw it when we thought about Éomer preparing for a good death in battle before Minas Tirith. Hope goes far deeper and knows that there is a reality that is far greater than my part in the story and yet, somehow, will include us too in a way far beyond our comprehension but not beyond our love.

The journey is hopeless in so far as there is no expectation of a successful end to it. But true hope goes deeper than expectation. It is grounded in love for that which is highest and that enables us to keep going until the end.

 

Gandalf Speaks of a Time to Risk Everything

I never thought that I would ever quote Lenin in this blog but there is no doubt that he was a man who knew how to recognise and then to seize opportunity when it came. These words are ascribed to him.

“There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks when decades happen.”

Lenin recognised one of those weeks a hundred years ago and was ready to seize power in the November 1917 coup that brought the Bolsheviks to power in Russia. He knew that there are moments in life when everything must be risked for the biggest prize of all. Lenin might not thank me for this but Jesus makes the same point in the gospels in the story he tells, of the man who sells everything in order to buy the pearl of great price. First we must assess the value of the thing that we wish to gain. Then we must decide what we are prepared to gamble in order to gain it.

Gandalf first came to Middle-earth about two thousand years before the events that are recorded in The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien tells us that the arrival of the Istari, the order of wizards, came when a shadow fell upon Greenwood and it first began to take the name of Mirkwood. A thousand years after Sauron fell at the hands of Isildur and the Ring was taken from him he was beginning to regain the strength that he lost in the great battle that ended the Second Age. For two thousand years Gandalf watched and gave encouragement to the free peoples of Middle-earth. He built friendships with the Wise and to the surprise of many and the contempt of Saruman he learned to play in the Shire delighting folk there with his fireworks and developing a taste for simple food, good ale and pipeweed. Perhaps even he did not know how important the Shire would become and how, one day, hobbits would take everyone by surprise. Perhaps it was necessary that he should not know. The greatest things that happen to us in our lives are not the result of our plans and calculations but come to us as a surprise. There is an old word for this surprise. It is called grace. Sauron is the great planner. He is prepared to spend two thousand years putting everything in place for the moment in which he will try to achieve the domination of Middle-earth and so grace becomes an impossibility for him. Gandalf is the entire opposite. He has done all that he can but recognises after the great battle of the Pelennor Fields that only grace, and a complete surrender to grace, can save them.

The great opportunity, or as Denethor put it, the “fool’s hope” has come to them in the form of the Ring of Power. In Aragorn’s challenge to Sauron in the Palantir a seed of doubt has been sown in Sauron’s mind. Does the heir of Isildur wield the Ring? Is this why the Battle of the Pelennor Fields was lost? Is this why the Lord of the Nazgûl fell? Gandalf counsels the captains of the West to encourage this doubt and so to give Frodo, the Ring bearer, a chance to take the Ring to the fires of Orodruin and so destroy it and the power of its master, for ever.

“We must push Sauron to his last throw. We must call out his hidden strength, so that he shall empty his land. We must march out to meet him at once. We must make ourselves the bait, though his jaws should close on us.”

It is Aragorn who speaks for all the captains in reply.

“We come now to the very brink, where hope and despair are akin. To waver is to fall. Let none now reject the counsels of Gandalf, whose long labours against Sauron come at last to their test.”

So everything is to be risked on one last effort. A small force will challenge the might of Mordor. If it were not for the possibility that a captain of this force might possess the Ring Sauron would laugh at it. But they do not possess the Ring and so victory by force of arms is impossible. All the hope of the West rests now upon two exhausted hobbits and upon grace.

Gandalf Thinks About the Weather

We can forgive Gandalf for mixing not just two but three metaphors because of who he is. Perhaps he mixes them deliberately in order to leave his hearers in no doubt about the point that he is making. The hearers are the lords of the allies gathered at the gates of Minas Tirith. Denethor and Théoden are dead and Faramir is recovering from his wounds in the Houses of Healing so it is Aragorn, Imrahil of Dol Amroth, Éomer and Elladan and Elrohir, the sons of Elrond who listen to what Gandalf is saying.

“Other evils there are that may come; for Sauron is himself but a servant or emissary. Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world,  but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.”

Weather is one of those elements of life over which we have no immediate control although climate is something that we have always had the capacity to influence. Climate usually changes gradually while weather can change from day to day. Those who live on the Atlantic coast of Europe know this very well as the prevailing wind blows from that ocean more often than not. In order to live successfully in such a changeable climate it is necessary to be prepared for it. And those who wish to be happy will learn to enjoy the changes.

Two of my favourite characters in C. S Lewis’s That Hideous Strength are Frank and Camilla Denniston. I know that if I ever met them I would like them. And one of the things that I like about them is their attitude to Weather.

“That’s why Camilla and I got married… We both like Weather. Not this or that kind of weather, but Weather. It’s a useful taste if one lives in England.”

And the Dennistons explain to Jane Studdock that we tend to grow up by learning to mistrust attitudes to life that once came quite naturally. Mistrust seems to be something that too many people regard as a necessary life skill. Eventually as they proceed upon this unhappy pathway they come to regard life itself as something to be guarded against. They may fear death but come to exist, and only exist, in a kind of half life. This is the existence that Théoden endured under the tutelage of Wormtongue until Gandalf delivered him and it is no accident that one of the first things that Gandalf did after setting Théoden free was to take him out into the weather, into the rain that was falling.

It has been my habit for a few years now to take my dog out for a walk in the Worcestershire countryside at about 6 in the morning. I do this in every season and whatever the weather. For part of the year I take the walk in the dark, for part of it in the light, and part too in the days when the earth moves from dark to light at that time of the day. No two days are ever quite the same and slowly this walk is teaching me a wisdom for living that is not about mustering sufficient resources to overcome the world about me but about learning to live with the world as my friend.

Next week we will think about Gandalf’s counsel to those gathered in the tents of Aragorn but this week it is this central element within his wisdom that we highlight. We cannot chose the challenges that we will have to face in our lives. We can only choose the manner in which we deal with them.

Next week we will think about how the lords of the West choose to deal with the impossible challenge that faces them.