Trusting to Luck on the Roads of Mordor

Life sometimes takes you to places that you would rather not go to. Tolkien found himself in the trenches of the Western Front on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916 when nearly 20,000 British soldiers were killed in a single attack on the German lines and a further 40,000 were wounded. He gained a great respect for ordinary British soldiers and largely based the character of Sam Gamgee upon those who he got to know. Sam, like those men, would rather not be in the trenches. He does not pretend to some kind of heroism. As far as he is concerned behaviour like that would be entirely inappropriate, like pretending to be Aragorn, or Faramir, or Boromir, or… Frodo for that matter. Sam just gets on with whatever needs to be done. Things like dealing with “Gollum’s treacherous attack, the horror of Shelob, and his own adventures with the orcs.”

Sam has no sense of entitlement. He does not believe that he has an inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. He hopes and even expects that Frodo will treat him fairly and with due respect but that expectation lies within certain bounds. He does not think of himself as Frodo’s equal.

And Sam believes in luck. Not that he thinks that he has a right to it but that he wants to give it a chance if possible. In his fine study, The Road to Middle-earth, Tom Shippey reflects on the place of luck in Tolkien at some length. Shippey tells us that the poet of Beowulf “often ascribes events to wyrd, and treats it in a way as a supernatural force.” But Shippey notes that luck or wyrd is not the same thing as fate. There is an implacability about fate, there is nothing that you can do about it; but you can change your luck. As Shippey puts it, “while persistence offers no guarantees, it does give ‘luck’ a chance to operate.”

And so Sam decides to go in search for water and, as he does so, he says to the sleeping Frodo, “I’ll have to leave you for a bit and trust to luck.”

Sam does find water but he also nearly runs into Gollum and his response to these events is to say, “Well, luck did not let me down… but that was a near thing.” In other words, it is wise not to push luck too far.

Later, when they are forced to take the road, Frodo and Sam are overtaken by a company of orcs on the way to reinforce the garrison at the Black Gate as the armies of the West approach. They know that they cannot escape and Frodo despairs. “We trusted to luck, and it has failed us. We are trapped.” Sam, however, is not so quick to give up. “Seems so,” he says. “Well, we can but wait and see.” They are not able to escape the orcs’ attention but later, in a moment of confusion, they are able to escape and so continue their journey to the mountain. Their persistence has given luck a chance to operate.

In recent weeks in this blog we have thought about the role of Providence in the hobbits’ journey through Mordor. We have seen the part played by the gifts of the Valar in the light of the Silmarils captured in the star glass of Galadriel and in the retreat of the smokes of Orodruin before the West Wind. Shippey reflects on the relationship between Providence and Luck in King Alfred the Great’s translation into Old English of The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius, a text that was one of the most influential in the shaping of the medieval mind. He comments that “What we call God’s fore-thought and his Providence is while it is there in his mind, before it gets done; but once it gets done, then we call it wyrd. This way anyone can tell that there are two things and two names, forethought and wyrd.” Sam is content to live in the experience of luck or wyrd and leave the discernment of Providence to kings or scholars. The result is that he lives life cheerfully and thankfully and he never gives up.  

A Few Thoughts on Being an Ally of Sauron

There comes a moment on their journey through Mordor when Frodo and Sam are able to look across the “hateful land” towards Orodruin, Mount Doom and the vast shadow beyond of Barad-dûr. Between them and the mountain they can see the armies of Mordor moving along its roads and the many military camps, some of tents and others like small towns “with straight dreary streets of huts and low drab buildings.” To their surprise it is Men and not Orcs that they can see upon the road.

We have already met some of the allies of Mordor earlier in the story. The force that Faramir and his Rangers of Ithilien ambush near Henneth Annûn, the Corsairs of Umbar that are defeated by Aragorn and the army of the Dead at Pelargir and the army of Harad whose king is slain at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields by the charge of Théoden’s knights. In addition to these there are the forces of the Easterlings who dwell near to the great inland sea of Rhûn. What all share in common is that they have long been enemies of Gondor and also allies of Mordor.

Why do those who are not Sauron’s slaves so willingly fight for him? As they journey through the dreary land can they not see that the future that they fight for looks like this? Everything that Sauron touches is spoilt and eventually dies. He values power and control over everything else and it is his power and his control that he values most. The lands of the East may be his allies now but surely the only destiny open to them is to become as much Sauron’s slaves as are the orcs.

Some of humankind have been allies of the dark ever since the First Age, siding then with Morgoth and later from the Second Age with Sauron. It is likely that that some of the Nazgûl, Lords of Men who were given Rings of Power by the Dark Lord, were descendents of these early allies. Others were Númenóreans who had returned to Middle-earth during the Second Age and had fallen under Sauron’s sway. What all shared in common with him was the desire for power and a hatred for the peoples of the West. The glory of the kingdoms of Beleriand in the First Age and then of Númenor in the Second and of Gondor in the Third all excited both envy, resentment and ultimately hatred.

It might be argued that this was not entirely their fault. It is hard to be treated with contempt, to be regarded as deplorables from one generation to another. Even the loyal allies of Rohan feel inferior to Gondor. Denethor’s policy might easily be summarised as “Gondor first…Gondor first”. In fact the words that he actually uses in an angry exchange with Gandalf are, “Gondor alone”. Denethor might need Rohan in time of need but only as an inferior within the alliance. The words of contempt that Théoden and his men actually heard came from the lips of Saruman but might they have come too from Denethor in an unguarded moment?

Sauron certainly shares this contempt as he does for all creatures saving only himself and his lord, Morgoth. But he focuses the resentment of his allies upon Gondor and he offers power, real power. We might be able to see that, as with the Ringwraiths, Sauron’s gifts may bring power but they also ultimately enslave, but when the gift is offered what is most enticing is revenge over an ancient foe and a share in a seemingly inevitable victory. We are more than willing, so it seems, to believe that we might be exceptions to the slavery and the misery.

I end this piece with the word, we, for any wise reader of The Lord of the Rings must know that they or we, too, are capable of falling under Sauron’s spell. All of us are likely to have reasons for envy and resentment at some time or other and the opportunity to have power over someone else will be tempting too. These are the temptations that make us vulnerable to the darkness and its power. Our hearts need to be guarded against them with constant vigilance.

Frodo and Sam are a Part of Intimate and Great Events in Mordor.

It is not long after Frodo and Sam’s escape from the Tower of Cirith Ungol that the pursuit of their enemies begins. But they are able to escape by sliding into the dark down a steep slope at the end of which their fall is broken by a particularly unpleasant thorn bush. After this they begin to follow a way northward always seeking for a way east towards their goal at Orodruin, Mount Doom.

As they journey on Tolkien shows us two things that run together in his narrative. One is Frodo and Sam’s experience of the journey. Frodo is capable of short bursts of energy but is soon exhausted by them. The weight of the orc gear that Sam found in Cirith Ungol to disguise him is soon too much for him. Added to this, the Ring is an increasing burden not just to his body but to his mind and soul too. “This blind dark seems to be getting into my heart,” he says.

Sam’s spirits rise and fall quickly, buoyed by a moment of good fortune then brought down by anxiety for Frodo, but always ready again for another cause for thankfulness.

And such causes are at hand, even in the dark land of Mordor, for alongside the experience of the hobbits runs the events in the world about them. As they struggle onward the Battle of the Pelennor Fields is taking place beyond the western border of Mordor that they have just entered at such great peril. A war is taking place in the skies and the smokes of Mordor are giving way to a fresh wind from the sea that will bring Aragorn and his host up the Anduin from Pelargir. And even as Sam becomes excitedly aware of the battle in the skies the cry of a Nazgûl goes up but this time with no sense of threat. “It was a cry of woe and dismay, ill tidings for the Dark Tower. The Lord of the Ringwraiths had met his doom.”

Closer to them, Sam’s desire for light and water expressed in a plea to the Lady of Lothlórien is quickly met. The light breaks through the shadows by means of the retreat of Sauron’s smokes while the water comes in the form of an oily steam that trickles across their path. To the hobbits the finding of the stream, whose water they would have disdained had they met it in the Shire, is just as worthy of praise as the great events out westward. Sam declares that if he ever meets the Lady again he will tell her!

In these few brief pages Tolkien wonderfully weaves together the personal and intimate events of our lives with the great events that go on around us. Of course the death of the Lord of the Nazgûl was an event that was deeply personal for Éowyn and Merry but it was also an event of the greatest significance in the history of Middle-earth. Tolkien’s experience of war in the trenches informs this reality. For the protagonists each event is intimate. Sam falls asleep in the most unlikely places as soldiers, sleep deprived, must have done even in the midst of battle and the filling of a waterbottle is an event as much a cause of joy as a victory.

Too much is happening for the hobbits to be more than briefly aware that their story is woven into others but Tolkien steps away from the sheer rush of events to reveal this ever intricate weaving of a pattern in which we are always a part even when we are entirely unaware of it. It is the kind of perspective that can be achieved on reflection and points us to the value of taking such opportunities.

Sauron is only too aware of the “great” events but he has lost a sensitivity to the intimate. One cannot imagine him enjoying a glass of water, savouring its coolness in his mouth. Perhaps that is why he is vulnerable to hobbits who have spent centuries engaged in the small and have only been brought into the great very much against their will and, perhaps, shows us that something has been lost in his practice of reflection showing that it is possible for one of great intellect to lose the means to achieve wisdom.

 

Sam and Frodo Bring the Valar to Mordor

After Sam has found Frodo in the highest part of the Tower of Cirith Ungol he finds orc gear for them both to wear, stripping the bodies of those who have fallen in the fight over Frodo’s mithril coat. And then they begin their impossible journey towards Orodruin, the mountain where Sauron once forged the One Ring and where, if possible, they must destroy it. But first they must pass two creatures that stand guard over the way from the tower into Mordor, the Watchers.

“At length they came to the door upon the outer court, and they halted. Even from where they stood they felt the malice of the Watchers beating on them, black silent shapes on either side of the gate through which the glare of Mordor dimly showed. As they threaded their way among the hideous bodies of the orcs each step became more difficult. Before they even reached the archway they were brought to a stand. To move an inch further was a pain and weariness to will and limb.”

Frodo and Sam do not merely face the peril of encountering enemies along the way but the spiritual power of one who hates all that is living and free. This power animates all its slaves to do its bidding, amongst whom are the Watchers. Their malice must be implacable to enable them to stand guard for their master day after day and year after year in this one place and it is too much for the exhausted hobbits.

At least it is too much for Frodo, weakened as he is by the Ring, but Sam has enough strength to draw out the elven-glass of Galadriel and that one simple act is enough. As the light of the Silmaril blazes forth words come to mind from the moment when Gildor Inglorion and his company sang them in the woods of the Shire and the Nazgûl that had sent by Sauron to hunt for the Ring fled from them.

Gilthoniel, a Elbereth!

And Frodo calls out behind him.

Aiya elenion ancalima!

Starkindler, O Elbereth! Hail, brightest of stars!

When I wrote about Sam’s encounter with the orc, Snaga, a few weeks ago https://stephencwinter.com/2017/06/26/snaga-knows-that-he-is-up-against-a-power-much-greater-than-he-is/ I spoke of how it was not only the menace of the Ring that Snaga could feel as Sam approached him but another power too. It is this same power that overcomes the malice of the Watchers and it is the power of the Valar that Sam and Frodo invoke and which comes to their aid as the star-glass is revealed.

Tolkien describes this movingly as Sam draws out the glass. “As if to do honour to his hardihood, and to grace with splendour his faithful brown hobbit-hand that had done such deeds, the phial blazed forth suddenly, so that all the shadowy court was lit with a dazzling radiance like lightning.”

What Tolkien does is to describe the beautiful relationship of the one who invokes a power and the power that is invoked. The mistake made by those who seek power over others is to believe that they must achieve mastery. For them, what is known as magic, is the gaining of mastery over the powers. Sauron, the Necromancer, is such a magician, and far too much that is known as science is not far removed from this. It is a human search for mastery. A mastery over nature that separates humankind from fellow creatures and a mastery that seperates the scientist from his fellow humans. In C.S Lewis’s science fiction trilogy the figure of Weston is such a scientist. His speech to Ransome in Out of the Silent Planet, Uncle Andrew’s speech to Digory and Polly in The Magician’s Nephew and Saruman’s speech to Gandalf in Isengard are all very much of the same kind. They are speeches in praise of mastery. Frodo and Sam seek nothing of the kind. They are willing servants of the Good, the Beautiful and the True and they have offered their lives for the sake of those that they love. This is what the Valar, the servants of the One, honour and delight in and so they come to the aid of the hobbits in this dark place.

Image of the Watchers by Howard Koslow from http://img-fan.theonering.net

Frodo and The Ring

For a few minutes Sam and Frodo are able to rest in their happiness in finding one another again but soon the reality of their situation begins to take hold of them and at the heart of that reality lies one thing above all; and that is the Ring.

When Sam had found Frodo’s seemingly lifeless form lying beside the path after Shelob’s attack he took the Ring and so kept it from Shagrat and Gorbag and ultimately from Sauron himself. For a little while he felt the lure of the Ring imagining himself a great hero but soon saw the fantasy for what it truly was, as a deception that would lure him into the grip of one far greater than he.

The Ring searches out the deepest desire of the one who holds it and then twists it to its own enslaving ends. It is not even necessary to hold the Ring to feel its power. It is enough that there is something in the world that can grant you everything that you desire if only you can possess it. For Gollum the desire is merely fish every day and revenge on all who he perceives to have done him harm. For Boromir the desire is to be the liberator of his people from the shadow of their enemy and to be loved and admired by all. Even the best of desires is capable of being perverted. When Gandalf praises the pity of Bilbo he also recognises that the way of the Ring to his own heart would be by pity.

In what way is Frodo corrupted as the journey continues? We never hear the kind of speech from him as we do from Boromir. Frodo is a true hobbit and not much given to the making of speeches (Bilbo is an exception!). He hears far more than he ever speaks. One thing that he does speak of is his desire to “save the Shire”. As with Boromir, and with Gandalf also, his desire is noble. He also has a deep sense of having been given a task to fulfil, a mission to achieve. He did not claim the mission to destroy the Ring at the Council of Elrond as if it were somehow his right. When he spoke it was as if another voice had spoken through him. His offering of himself for the task came with the deepest reluctance.

The Ring has few footholds into Frodo’s heart unless it is by way of possession itself. Perhaps that is why he sees his kinship with Gollum and pities him. When Sam reluctantly returns the Ring to him Frodo sees him “changed before his very eyes into an orc again, leering and pawing at his treasure, a foul little creature with greedy eyes and slobbering mouth.” Frodo has entered the mean world of the orc and it is horrible.

What is essential at this unhappy moment is that it does not lead to the kind of struggle to the death as it did with Sméagol and Déagol long before. Sam gives up the Ring to Frodo while Frodo himself repents of his accusations against Sam. Both are left devastated by the exchange but their relationship remains firm. Even at the very moment when Frodo sees Sam as a thief the perverted vision does not take possession of him. He remains aware that what he thinks he sees is not real.

“What have I said? What have I done? Forgive me! After all you have done. It is the horrible power of the Ring.”

This ability to step away from the horrible fantasy and to see it for what it is is essential. It saves both of their lives. Frodo must have had practice in being able to step away from his initial reaction to the actions of others and to be able to see that his reaction was not something inevitable and ungovernable but something that he could choose. And he retains enough independence from the Ring to be able to see its power. For the time being it is enough.

Sam Finds Frodo in the Tower of Cirith Ungol

I was rather charmed last week when I found that my post on Sam’s song in the Tower of Cirith Ungol was “liked” by some fellow bloggers who write about beauty and fashion. Such affirmation both amuses and, slightly, impresses my daughters (23 and 19) who find it difficult to associate their ageing father with such a world. At first I could noty understand why I was attracting such interest but then I realised that I had tagged my post with the word, beauty, as I reflected on Sam’s spiritual journey, quoting C.S Lewis when he said that we do not wish merely to see beauty but to bathe in it. Just in case any of these bloggers have decided to return this week I offer my prayer for them that they will eventually find the Beauty that transcends all of the beauty that we seek here upon the earth.

Those who know The Lord of the Rings well will know that this is Sam’s journey in the story. It begins with Sam lamenting the passing of the Elves from Middle-earth as Ted Sandyman jeers at him, and when Gandalf tells him that he will go with Frodo when Frodo leaves the Shire part of his joy lies in the possibility that he might see Elves.

Throughout the journey Sam deepens his appreciation of beauty as he first meets the company of Gildor Inglorion within the boundaries of the Shire itself and then stays in Rivendell and Lothlórien. But his most profound encounters with beauty are in the darkest places; the Star Glass of Galadriel in the darkness visible of Shelob’s Lair, the song that he finds within himself in the Tower of Cirith Ungol that is given to him at the moment of despair. And there will be one more on the deathly plains of Mordor that is yet to come.

And one day Sam will see the Beauty that transcends even these moments and will recognise it (and the Beauty will not be an it but a thou) to be what he was always seeking. The thou will be both a homecoming and also an invitation to go deeper and ever deeper.

But Sam has been nourished by another guiding light that does not contradict but deepens his longing for beauty. Sam is guided by his love for Frodo. This transcends the social divide that exists between them and it survives Frodo’s descent into darkness that takes place as he falls under the power of the Ring as they approach Mount Doom, the place of its forging. Nothing can diminish Sam’s love and it is this which has carried him into the orc fortress overcoming all his fear and finally brings him to Frodo’s prison at the very pinnacle of the tower.

And so he finds him at last.

” ‘Frodo! Mr. Frodo, my dear!’ cried Sam, tears almost blinding him. ‘It’s Sam, I’ve come!’ He half lifted his master and hugged him to his breast.”

Sam’s love for Frodo is such that words like master and servant no longer have any meaning for him. If Frodo were to treat him in a demeaning manner Sam would still love Frodo, not out of some slavish desire to somehow gain his approval, but out of an unquenchable desire for Frodo’s wellbeing.

The theologian, Elizabeth Wyschogrod, once wrote that the saint is marked by “a wild desire for the beautitude of the Other”. I do not think that we need to feel any embarrassment in ascribing this quality to Sam. Just as in his longing for beauty Sam will eventually find the Thou that both includes all that he has ever desired and utterly transcends it so too will Sam find in the same Thou all that he has ever loved, and will ever love, without having to make distinction between them. In the Thou there will be but one equal love and yet each of Sam’s loves will be utterly fulfilled and utterly transcended. Sam’s moment of ecstasy in his finding of Frodo will never diminish his love for Rosie Cotton or Elanor or any of his children even though as he grows in love he will for a time find himself torn in two between them.

But just now we will leave him in his ecstasy of joy, free from all growing pains, as he holds Frodo in his arms for a brief moment before the journey has to go on.

 

Sam Gamgee Sings in the Tower of Cirith Ungol

I struggled for some time with the title of this week’s blog post. I hope that what I write will show you why and if you think that you might have a better title then please offer it as a comment. I would love to hear from you. I have chosen the simplest title that I can think of. It is simply a description of what happens. Sam sings and he does so in the Tower of Cirith Ungol.

Immediately that seemingly simple statement should make us stop in wonder. The tower is an orc fortress on the border of Mordor, once a part of a ring of fortifications built by Gondor at the height of its power in order to watch over the land that had been taken from Sauron at the great battle in which the Ring was taken from him. As Gondor’s power waned it was taken from them by the Lord of the Nazgûl. And from that day one can only imagine that the kind of song that would have been sung in that place would have harsh and cruel like the song the goblins of the Misty Mountains sing as they carry their Dwarf captives through its tunnels in The Hobbit.

Sam sings because he is in despair. He is searching for Frodo amidst the carnage of the battle that the orcs have fought over Frodo’s mithril coat and he cannot find him. He hopes that if Frodo is able to hear him sing then he might be able to make some kind of reply.

And so he tries to think of something that Frodo might be able to respond to, perhaps a child’s song from the Shire or something that Bilbo used to sing, but it is no use. And then something wonderful happens. Words and music come to him that evoke the achingly beautiful struggle of life against the power of death.

“In western lands beneath the Sun the flowers may rise in Spring…”

I said earlier that the simple statement that Sam sings in the tower should make us stop in wonder. It is not just that he sings that is wonderful but what he sings. The words that come to him seem to have journeyed, perhaps from the Shire in springtime, perhaps from the Undying Lands themselves. The image of beech trees crowned with Elven-stars is one of such beauty that only a true poet could possibly have created it. By this point of the story we know that Sam is a poet. The verse that he composes in honour of the fallen Gandalf in Lothlórien tells us that he is a poet but this is something of a higher quality even than that.

What do we make of this? I want to suggest this. Great artists speak of a work of art not so much as something that they have created themselves but as something that they discover. So Michelangelo’s Pietà is found within the block of marble from the Carrara quarry. So the opening bars of the slow movement of Vaughan Williams’ 5th Symphony seem to have come from a country that, at best, we can only glimpse and that we long for. An artist can only do this work of finding if she or he gives long hours, even years, of practice to the perfection of their art. And yet what is created is never merely the sum of that practice. The work is always something found , something given. 

C.S Lewis, who shared much of Tolkien’s understanding put it this way in his 1941 sermon, The Weight of Glory. 

“We do not want merely to see beauty… we want something else which can hardly be put into words- to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.”

I think that those words capture the essence of Sam’s spiritual search. We can only guess at how he nourished it in his heart on the long journey. I am sure that he did nourish it because words like this could not have come otherwise nor the music either. They are an invasion of Mordor that cannot be resisted and they do their work. Frodo is found!