The Mercy of Sam Will Rule the Fate of Many

Throughout the journey through Mordor Frodo and Sam have been aware that Gollum is not far away but although Sam, in particular, has remained wary, the sheer immensity of their task has meant that they have not been overly concerned about him. Sam’s attention has been primarily centred upon getting Frodo to, and then up, the mountain. Frodo’s attention has been given to the Ring. He has little choice. He is almost in its power. So it is, as Sam carries Frodo up towards the Cracks of Doom upon his back, that they are taken by surprise by Gollum’s attack.

“A sudden weight smote him and he crashed forward, tearing the backs of his hands that still clasped his master’s. Then he knew what had happened, for above him as he lay he heard a hated voice. ”

Gollum’s attack rouses Frodo in a way that nothing else could do and he resists fiercely. Gollum too has the same desire for the Ring but whereas Frodo has been sustained on his journey by lembas, which, while not satisfying hunger, has the capacity to give “a potency that increased as travellers relied on it alone and did not mingle it with other foods”, Gollum has had no such sustenance. He is starved and greatly weakened.

Frodo drives him away and makes his way, “walking slowly but erect, up the climbing path”.

And now,  at long last, Sam has the opportunity to do what he has long wished to do, and that is to kill his enemy, the one who betrayed Frodo to Shelob, the one that he has hated ever since they first caught him in the Emyn Muil. But when he has Gollum at his mercy and his sword is held, ready to strike the fatal blow, he finds that he cannot do it.

“He could not strike this thing, lying in the dust, forlorn, ruinous, utterly wretched. He himself, though only for a little while, had borne the Ring, and now dimly he guessed the agony of Gollum’s shrivelled mind and body, enslaved to that Ring, unable to find peace or relief ever in life again.”

Sam is not able to put what is happening to him into words but the same thing is happening to him as happened to Bilbo at the entrance to the tunnels of the Misty Mountains, the same thing as happened to Frodo when they caught Gollum in the Emyn Muil and he cried out to an absent figure, “Now that I see him I do pity him”.

The absent figure was, of course, Gandalf, and at the moment when Frodo had the opportunity to kill Gollum he was remembering the words that Gandalf had to spoken to him in Bag End when Frodo first learned the story of the Ring.

“Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity and Mercy: not to strike without need… My heart tells me that [Gollum] has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that time comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many- yours not least.”

And now the end has come and Bilbo’s Pity and Mercy, and Frodo’s too, have brought them all, with the Ring, to this place. And what Sam finds is that Pity and Mercy are not abstract concepts arrived at in leisurely reflection but they are a Connection that binds us to each other. We find that we are not separate from each other but that we belong to each other. When we discover this reality about someone that we love it is the cause of profound joy but when we discover it about someone that we hate then our first response may well be horror. At a level deeper than words Sam realises his connection to Gollum, the suffering that they have both shared and that they share now at this terrible moment.

Would Sam have been just if he had killed Gollum? Probably. Gollum’s desire will lead him to one last attack upon Frodo and he deserves to die for every murder that he has committed but as with Bilbo and Frodo,  the pity of Sam will “rule the fate of many” not least his own and Frodo’s.

 

Legolas and Gimli in Minas Tirith

On the morning after the great battle Legolas and Gimli are eager to find Merry and Pippin.

“It is good to learn that they are still alive,” said Gimli; “for they cost us great pains in our march over Rohan, and I would not have such pains all wasted.”

And so they make their way up through the city towards the Houses of Healing and as they do so they ponder this greatest of cities and see all that it lacks. Gimli sees the city through the eyes of a worker of stone, admiring the best of what he sees but also how he might improve it with the aid of the stonewrights of Erebor. And Legolas sees through the eyes of a gardener and by this he does not mean a suburban garden with its neatly tended rows; he will bring his forest home to Minas Tirith with “birds that sing and trees that do not die.”

So begins a reflection on the nature and works of humankind and they fail to reach a conclusion. When they meet the Prince Imrahil Legolas is moved to say that “If Gondor has such men still in these days of fading, great must have been its glory in the days of its rising.”

It is this tension between fading and rising that occupies them most of all. The history of Dwarves and of Elves has been a long and slow fading. The timescale over which this has been played out is so long that sometimes to the observer it feels as if it is no fading at all. Rivendell and Lothlórien seem ever fresh in their beauty and nothing surely can possibly bring them to an end. Yet an end will come and the Elves know it. Even so the Dwarves have a memory of Moria, of Khazad-dûm, that Tolkien shows us in Gimli’s sad journey through its darkened ruins. It is a memory that casts into relief even the best of what they can achieve in Erebor. It is within their power to restore the kingdom under the Mountain but they cannot restore Moria. That lies forever beyond their grasp.

But if Legolas and Gimli know the ending of their own peoples then, try as they might to perceive it, they do not know the destiny of humankind. Gimli speaks of their fading.

“Doubtless the good stonework is the older and was wrought in the first building… It is ever so with the things that Men begin: there is a frost in Spring, or a blight in Summer, and they fail of their promise.”

But Legolas speaks of renewal.

“Yet seldom do they fail of their seed… And that will lie in the dust and rot to spring up again in times and places unlooked for. The deeds of Men will outlast us, Gimli.”

This is the mystery of humankind. Tolkien himself in his legendarium tells of both the glory and the horror of Númenor and he tells of human renewing in the founding of the kingdoms of Gondor and of Arnor by Elendil the Elf Friend. Legolas and Gimli are in no doubt that if Aragorn emerges triumphant over his foes he will bring about a renewal after the nature of the one achieved by Elendil but whether it will last that they do not know. As Legolas says, “To that the Elves know not the answer.”

I am struck that Tolkien leaves his question open and unanswered. If Lewis is sure that history must end in a final destruction before a final renewal can take place at he demonstrates in The Last Battle Tolkien seems prepared to allow for uncertainty. My own conviction is that Legolas is speaking for Tolkien here. As for myself I would like to end my reflection with some thoughts by the Russian 20th century philosopher, Nikolai Berdyaev. Perhaps they will begin some debate among my readers alongside Tolkien’s reflections on human destiny.

“It must be recognised that man in his limited and relative earthly life is capable of bringing about the beautiful and the valuable only when he believes in another life, unlimited, absolute, eternal. That is a law of his being. A contact with this mortal life exclusive of any other ends in the wearing-away of effective energy and a self satisfaction that makes one useless and superficial. Only the spiritual man, striking his roots deep in infinite and eternal life, can be a true creator.”

The King and The Healing of Éowyn

Aragorn moves from Faramir’s bedside to Éowyn’s and there he hesitates a moment.

“Few other griefs amid the ill chances of this world have more bitterness and shame for a man’s heart than to behold the love of a lady so fair and brave that cannot be returned. Sorrow and pity have followed me ever since I left her desperate in Dunharrow and rode to the Paths of the Dead; and no fear upon that way was so present as the fear for what might befall her.”

And now in that uncertainty he crushes the leaves of athelas into the bowl of steaming water not knowing whether he can call Éowyn back from the darkness that seeks to claim her or if he can to what she will return.

Last week we saw how when Aragorn anointed Faramir with the water and the healing herb how the fragrance that filled the room evoked the deepest longing of Faramir’s heart. Now as Aragorn “laves her brow” with the water and her right arm “lying cold and nerveless on the coverlet” a new fragrance fills the air about them.

“It seemed to those who stood by that a keen wind blew through the window, and it bore no scent, but was an air wholly fresh and and clean and young, as it had not before been breathed by any living thing and came new-made from snowy mountains high beneath a dome of stars, or from shores of silver far away washed by seas of foam.”

If in Faramir’s case the fragrance evokes his longing, I believe, for “that which is beyond Elvenhome and will ever be”, in Éowyn’s case it is surely something in relation to her desire for her people that is sensed here. Gandalf has reminded Éomer of the words that Saruman spoke to Théoden, words and insinuations that Wormtongue spoke more subtly but no less destructively.

“What is the house of Eorl but a thatched barn where brigands drink in the reek, and their brats roll on the floor among their dogs?”

What would Éowyn long for more than something entirely opposite to the “reek” that fills her nostrils? Something that would take away her sense of shame, the shame that for a moment she dreamed that the mighty warrior who enters her prison would save her from. I picture Éowyn gazing at the same tapestry of Eorl in his youthful glory, the tapestry that so crushed the spirit of Théoden, and as she did so I believe that it took her to the place of utter purity that the fragrance evokes. Of course the historical ride of Eorl out of the North would have been with real horses whose sweat would have mingled with that of their riders but not so the myth that is seen in and through the tapestry. That is an evocation of something eternally new and clean and unsullied.

Tolkien had a deep love for what he termed Northernness which in the form that has come to us through the mythology of the North is ultimately bleak and without meaning. But he discerned something that lay beyond that, something that he could see in the myth of the death of Baldur and in the longing of those who wept for him. When Tolkien spoke of true Northernness it is the clean cold air from snowy mountains of which he speaks that blows away the stain of our failure and shame. This is the truth that lies deep within Éowyn’s soul and that is called forth as Aragorn calls her from her dark valley. Aragorn is right when he says to Éomer that Éowyn “loves you more truly than me”. Éomer belongs more truly to that which Éowyn most truly desires. But Éowyn’s story does not end here. We shall see when we return to her at a later point in her stay in the Houses of Healing that her desire can lead her to something new and entirely unexpected and yet remain true to her original vision.

The King and The Healing of Faramir

It is not so much the wound that Faramir received in battle that brings him close to death. Aragorn reaches the heart of the matter when he says to Imrahil, “Weariness, grief for his father’s mood, a wound, and over all the Black Breath”. All these things have finally overcome the valiant Faramir. All his life he has resisted the creeping shadow both in the rise of Mordor beyond the borders of Gondor and within the hearts of his own people and now, at last, his hope is gone.

It is not by Athelas alone that Aragorn heals Faramir. Tolkien does not enter into any explanation of the process but simply describes what Aragorn does.

“Now Aragorn knelt beside Faramir, and held a hand upon his brow. And those who watched him felt that some great struggle was going on. For Aragorn’s face grew grey with weariness; and ever and anon he called the name of Faramir, but each time more faintly to their hearing, as if Aragorn himself was removed from them, and walked in some dark vale, calling for one who is lost.”

What Tolkien describes here is some form of the coinherence about which the Inklings used to speak and an idea which was introduced to them by Charles Williams. Williams believed that Christians could voluntarily bear the suffering or burden of another and so aid their healing. Aragorn’s apparent journey away from himself and his profound weariness as he makes this journey seems to suggest that this is what is happening. For those who would like to explore this idea further I would warmly recommend the work of Sørina Higgins on Charles Williams which you can explore by going to https://theoddestinkling.wordpress.com and clicking on coinherence in the tags on the right hand side of the page.

It may be that Aragorn is able to call Faramir back from his journey towards death by this means but the healing is made complete when Bergil arrives with athelas. Aragorn crushes two leaves and casts them into a bowl of water and life is restored to both the healer and the one who is near to death.

“The fragrance that came to each was like a memory of dewy mornings of unshadowed sun in some land of which the fair world in Spring is itself but a fleeting memory.”

As you read the account of the healings in this beautiful chapter you will note that the fragrance of athelas is somehow different for each person that is healed. It is a beautiful expression of the unique relationship between the one who is hurt, the means of their healing and the healer. Surely in Faramir’s case we catch a glimpse, just for a moment, of his deepest yearning. When Faramir explained to Frodo the meaning of the ceremony that he and his men observed before eating in Henneth Anûn he spoke of his longing for the restoring of Gondor and also for something deeper even than that longing. He spoke of “that which is beyond Elvenhome and will ever be”.   https://stephencwinter.com/2015/09/08/faramir-remembers-that-which-is-beyond-elvenhome-and-will-ever-be/

Faramir has long pondered that which Númenor and even Valinor can only point to. He is one who cannot stay at the surface of things and so passes through his experience as son of the Steward of Gondor through the history of his people and unto their origins in Númenor. And on arriving there and pondering both its glory and its fall under the shadow he goes deeper yet until he comes to Valinor which is forever closed to them. He will know that it is at the surface of Valinor the deathless land that the corrupted kings of Númenor stayed and so desired to possess it and the gift of immortality and so he passes deeper yet to what lies beyond Elvenhome. This is what he and all in the Houses of Healing glimpse just for a moment. It is a glimpse into the most secret place within his soul, into his most true self, even into the deepest reality of all and so he is called back from the shadows into light and life and into service of the king for whose return he has long waited.

On Gandalf and His “Fool’s Hope”.

Denethor is right!

I never thought that I would be saying this but I seem to have no choice. In the last few weeks on this blog we have been thinking about the weaknesses in his character but especially in the debate following the piece I wrote entitled https://stephencwinter.com/2016/10/27/he-would-have-brought-me-a-mighty-gift-denethor-and-the-ring/ I was strongly challenged by The Joviator to rethink my view of Denethor. I do hope that you can read that debate and the excellent piece that The Joviator wrote on his own blog http://www.idiosophy.com/2016/11/denethor-as-tragic-hero/. I have decided to start by turning away from my own judgement of Denethor and to take what he says of Gandalf seriously. And if I decide still to follow Gandalf it will be for reasons entirely other than my judgement of Denethor’s motives.

“What then is your wisdom?” said Gandalf.

“Enough to perceive that there are two follies to avoid. To use this thing is perilous. At this hour, to send it in the hands of a witless halfling into the land of the Enemy himself, as you have done, and this son of mine, this is madness”

“And the Lord Denethor what would he have done?”

“Neither. But most surely not for any argument would he have set this thing at a hazard beyond all but a fool’s hope, risking our utter ruin, if the Enemy should recover what he lost.”

Let us set aside Denethor’s judgement of Frodo for the moment. It is precisely because Faramir did not judge Frodo to be witless but a figure of some greatness that he chose to aid his mission and not to bring him to Minas Tirith. But Denethor regards his son to be as foolish as Gandalf and so we cannot use our knowledge of Frodo as a defence for the course of action decided at the Council of Elrond. Frodo is as much involved in the fool’s hope as everyone else at the Council. If he is witless then so too are they.

In order to read The Lord of the Rings properly we need to agree with Denethor. Frodo’s mission is impossible. Even if the Fellowship had not been sundered at the Falls of Rauros and Aragorn and Boromir, Legolas and Gimli had been at Frodo’s side on the journey to Mount Doom it would have remained impossible. When Gandalf describes Cirith Ungol and the Morgul Vale as cursed places one is tempted to ask what other route he would have counselled Frodo to take? Each one would have been as impossible as the next and the likely outcome of all that the Ring would fall into Sauron’s hands.

And in order to read The Lord of the Rings properly we need to leave behind the heroic tale that Peter Jackson tells. There we see that “even the smallest” can be heroes and that is an inspiring thought. In his telling of the story it is the heroism of Frodo and perhaps even more of Sam that stands in contrast to the weakness of Faramir and the cowardice of Denethor. It is that heroism that is the axis upon the whole story turns and each character is judged by whether they support or oppose it.

Tolkien tells a story that is profoundly different and it recalls words that St Paul writes to the Corinthians in the New Testament when he says that “God foolishness is wiser than human wisdom and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” (1 Corinthians 1.25) The foolishness and weakness to which Paul points is the cross and the proclamation of the cross. The death that Jesus dies alone, betrayed, abandoned is a foolishness and a weakness that shapes all reality. Paul says it himself that Christ crucified is “the power of God and the Wisdom of God”.

The Lord of the Rings is set in a world that has not known the Gospel message of God becoming one of us. That is what makes it different from C.S Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia in which Aslan is a participant in the stories. But it is a world that is shot through with the wisdom and power of which Paul speaks. In it we see that reality is shaped by the Cross. The Lord of the Rings knows it as Providence  showing that there is a hidden Power at work in the world greater than any other that meant Frodo to have the Ring. Gandalf’s Yes to this Providence is indeed a Fool’s Hope but I am on the side of his foolishness and against the wisdom of Denethor.

 

Hobbits and Other Peasants at Christmastide

If I were to keep to my usual practice and to reflect on a passage from The Lord of the Rings as I read through the story then I would have to end the year, and to keep Christmas, with Frodo and Sam in Shelob’s Lair. I could not do this. Tolkien himself used December 25th as a day of hope in his story, the day on which the Fellowship left Rivendell to begin their mission. The dereliction of Shelob’s Lair comes later when Sam believes Frodo to be dead and wrestles with the choice of whether to leave him and to carry on the mission alone. We will reach that point in 2016. I could not spend Christmas thinking about it.

As I thought about what to write I recalled a piece that I wrote in December 2012 when I first began to write my Lord of the Rings blog. At that point I had not yet discovered WordPress and so posted it on my website. If you want to read what I wrote then please read it at http://stephenwinter.net/page6.htm#128678. In it I spoke of a story told by the great Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard. In it he tells of a mighty prince who while riding through fields in his country sees a beautiful peasant girl and falls in love with her. So great is her beauty that the prince decides to dress in peasant’s clothing and to work in the fields alongside her and so win her hand in marriage. Kierkegaard tells us that we all want to know when the prince will reveal who he really is to the girl and so take her off to be his princess. Then he asks, why should he do this at all? Why, if he really loves her, should he not remain a peasant and to share her life? Do let me know what you think of this!

Back in 2012 I was thinking of Tolkien’s reply to his publishers when, after the success of The Hobbit, they asked for “more about hobbits”. Tolkien’s hero, Bilbo Baggins, had been unlike any other that he had ever created, making excellent use of plentiful good luck, living by his wits and his kind and generous nature and finally spending the Battle of the Five Armies, the great climax of the story, in a state of unconsciousness. Clearly he did not feel that there was much more that Bilbo or any other hobbit could offer and that was what he replied.

The seventeen years between the publications of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were a journey of discovery for Tolkien, a journey in which he learnt about hobbits. The words he gave to Gandalf in the crucial chapter that sets the scene for Frodo’s journey, The Shadow of the Past, are surely Tolkien’s own: “My dear Frodo! Hobbits really are amazing creatures as I have said before. You can learn all that there is to know about their ways in a month, and yet after a hundred years they can still surprise you in a pinch. I hardly expected to get such an answer, not even from you.” Tolkien is taken by surprise by hobbits but by the end of The Lord of the Rings it is clear that only hobbits could possibly have accomplished the destruction of the Ring and the saving of the world.

Gandalf could only have heard Frodo’s words because he did spend many years in the company of hobbits, years in which for the most part, he was known to them mainly for the quality of his fireworks and for little else. Saruman regarded Gandalf’s interest in hobbits either with ill concealed contempt or with suspicion. The only hobbits that he could do business with are those who saw reality as he did, such as Lotho Sackville-Baggins or Ted Sandyman. He could never have received Frodo’s surprise as Gandalf did.

So at this Christmastide I would like to offer you Gandalf’s long apparently pointless sojourn among hobbits and Kierkegaard’s story of the Prince and the Peasant Girl as a meditation upon the Incarnation (John 1.14). I think they are related to each other. I do not say that they explain or tell us what the Incarnation means. It is not the purpose of stories to “explain” things but they do cause us to think about things. Are we the peasants among whom the Prince comes to live or the hobbits who enjoy Gandalf’s fireworks? Will the Prince reveal his true identity to us or is there some other great surprise to be revealed? I look forward to any reflections you may have to offer and in this Christmastide I pray that God may rest you merry!

 

Sam Shows Us that We are Part of a Very Great Story

Sam does not know it yet but he is beginning to see what the world truly is once you draw back the veil that hides reality from our eyes. In these last few weeks we have been thinking about Sam’s reflection on the story in which he and Frodo have been a part. Sometimes as we strive to put our thoughts into words it is as if an idea or, even better, an image, takes hold of us and suddenly we can see and speak of what we have seen.

Sam begins to see glimpses of the kind of story that they are in but being Sam, being most wonderfully, Sam, it is of Frodo that he now speaks:

“And people will say: ‘Let’s hear about Frodo and the Ring!’ And they’ll say: ‘Yes, that’s one of my favourite stories. Frodo was very brave, wasn’t he, dad?’ ‘Yes, my boy, the famousest of the hobbits, and that’s saying a lot.”

This is all too much for Frodo who shares with Sam the plain good hobbit virtue of not taking oneself too seriously. It is too much to begin to think of hobbits as famous and it is certainly too much to think of himself as the “famousest” of them all! Frodo begins to laugh at the sheer absurdity of the thought but Sam is not to be put off. His imagination has been captured by the image of the storyteller at work who makes the world strange for a moment in order, at the end of the tale, to return the hearer to his own reality just a little changed. No matter that Sam’s story teller is a father reading to his own children. In this simplest of domestic settings he is no less than a bard with harp in hand chanting verses to the household of a great lord in a meadhall on a long winter’s night. And what Sam sees as Frodo tries to deflect him with his laughter is the stones of the mountains of the Ephel Dúath listening to a sound that “had not been heard in those places since Sauron came to Middle-earth”. He sees the “the tall rocks leaning over them” as if (and this is my image to add to Sam’s!) they are warming themselves upon a fire. Sam has become a mythmaker and not even Frodo’s deflecting mockery can stop him now.

Frodo will be carried to the very end of his quest by the mythmaking vision that has awoken within Sam. His laughter is at least in part a response to what he considers to be Sam’s efforts to cheer him up but what Sam has done is much, much more. In the days that lie ahead Sam will go into battle with a creature of the foulest kind and he will storm an orc tower in order to rescue his master. Such are the deeds of the greatest of heroes and even Beren himself would be honoured to numbered among a hero such as Sam will become and yet all Sam can do is to think of Frodo.

Maybe, like Frodo, we may not be able to see the story of which we too are a part for what it truly is. We should not blame Frodo and we should not blame ourselves either. Frodo bears a burden that even Gandalf and Galadriel feared to take and step by step on his weary pilgrimage to the very heart of Sauron’s power it robs him of all strength and joy. Soon he will have no more capacity to laugh or even to remember that there is a reality beyond the darkness of the dungeon of Mordor. No we should not blame him. But if we can do so then we should strive to do as Sam does and to strip away the veil from before our eyes. Tolkien spoke of the “True Myth” of the Incarnation that we will celebrate soon on December 25th that the Catechism to which he assented described thus:

“The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods.”

Sam is beginning to glimpse glimmers of the True Myth and they will carry him to glory. They can do the same for us too. Our destiny, if we could but see it, is to become gods.