Frodo and Sam Rest For a While in The Woods of Ithilien

Frodo and Sam have been here before because the Field of Cormallen lies close to the refuge of Henneth Annûn. These are the woods that they came to on their journey, guided by Gollum, from the desolation that lay before the Black Gate of Mordor to the Crossroads, the Morgul Vale and then the great climb up to the Pass of Cirith Ungol. These are the woods in Ithilien, the desolate garden of Gondor that “kept still a dishevelled dryad loveliness” even as they were ravaged by orcs and other foes of Gondor.

It is only a few short weeks since Frodo and Sam were last in these woods in the first days of March. Even then Spring was beginning and the life of the Earth was already breaking through the destructive grip of Mordor after the cold of Winter. “Fronds pierced moss and mould, larches were green fingered, small flowers were opening in the turf, birds were singing.” Now the Spring is advanced and in its full riotous glory of smells, sights and sounds. Even amidst the fearfulness of their last visit to Ithilien Frodo and Sam were refreshed by the gentle beauty of this place, now they linger there without fear “visiting again the places that they had passed before.” This time they know that there are no dangers hiding in a shadow or behind a rock or tree. The song of a bird can be heard clearly without the possibility of an iron clad footfall of an orc being listened for amidst its beauty. The “groves and thickets… of tamarisk and pungent terebinth, of olive and of bay” can be gazed upon and their aromas drank in without fear that they may conceal an enemy who might do them hurt.

The last time that they were here Frodo and Sam were pressing forward, always aware that every moment’s delay in their journey to the mountain might lead to disaster for their friends and all that they loved. The curtain of water cascading down the rocks that concealed the refuge of Faramir and his Rangers might be gazed upon for a moment as the setting sun lit it with light and colour but always there was the sense as they paused in their journey that there was another step to be taken, another danger to be faced.

Tolkien’s story is filled with pauses in which the characters encounter beauty in a manner that takes hold of them, making them stop to take it in. The hidden valley of Rivendell, the woods of Lothlórien, the glittering caves of Aglarond and the refuge of Henneth Annûn in the woods of Ithilien are all such places. Each one calls them to turn aside for a moment from their task but they are not thereby distractions. A distraction is a pulling or dragging away of the mind from the needful thing. In The Lord of the Rings the encounter with beauty is not a distraction but a recollection. The essential is that which is good, true and beautiful and it is the essential that is threatened by the Dark Lord and yet so woven into the very fabric of reality that the Dark Lord cannot touch and destroy it. We recall Frodo’s cry of “They cannot conquer for ever!” at the flower-crowned head of the statue of the King of Gondor cast down by orcs and Sam’s vision of the star beyond the mirks of Mordor that is inaccessible to the reach of Sauron.

Already Frodo and Sam have known that there is “the dearest freshness deep down things” and so they can wander through Ithilien without fear and contemplate it in a way far beyond that which those who have not known the dark as they have done can do. This is the dawn that awaits those who watch through the dark of the night, the Springtime prepared for those who have endured through Winter.

Sam Gamgee Sees Something More Real Than the Shadow.

Whether it is day or night in the ever dark land of Mordor Sam and Frodo hardly know but the darkness seems to be deepening and they are weary and in need of rest. Frodo falls asleep almost immediately but Sam remains wary and stays awake. And it is in this state of exhaustion that he experiences a moment of absolute clarity of vision.

“Far above the Ephel Dúath in the West the night sky was still dim and pale. There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a bright star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach. His song in the Tower had been defiance rather than hope; for then he was thinking of himself. Now, for a moment, his own fate, and even his master’s, ceased to trouble him. He crawled back into the brambles and laid himself by Frodo’s side, and putting away all fear he cast himself into a deep untroubled sleep.”

As we saw last time “the blind dark” is getting into Frodo’s heart and he can no longer see as Sam can see. The Ring exercises an ever greater hold upon him and so Sam must see for them both. So often we mistakenly believe that we walk alone not realising that at all times we bear one another’s burdens. Frodo must bear the Ring, not just for Sam but for the whole world. This is his destiny and in order to fulfil it he must remain in desolation. We do not blame him for the moments of anger or the growing silence that is taking hold of him. Our hearts go out to him just as Sam’s does.

For even as Frodo falls into “the blind dark” Sam’s heart becomes ever more compassionate and his capacity for the vision of beauty grows. We have reflected on more than one occasion on how Sam’s adventures begin with a desire “to see Elves”, but it is one thing to be able to see, and to long for, beauty in the Shire, it is another thing to be able to see it in Mordor. Sam does see it and sees it as something that is deeper and more real than the “small and passing thing” that is the Shadow.

In the seeing of the beauty of the star Sam is able to carry Frodo through Mordor; in the bearing of the burden of the Ring Frodo carries the hopes and fears of the world.

And there is something more and this is what Sam is able to glimpse for a moment and that is that it is neither Sam’s vision of beauty nor Frodo’s ability to bear the Ring that matters most but that there is “light and high beauty” for ever beyond the reach of the Shadow. That such light and beauty should be matters more even than the success or failure of their mission. It matters even more than whether they live or die. There is a Love that holds and cradles Frodo and Sam of which they are only dimly aware, catching glimpses of it when they find water in the Morgai, attributing their good fortune to the favour of the Lady of Lothlórien but that there should be such a Love for them matters less than the reality that the Love, the Beauty, the Goodness and the Truth simply are.

And Sam does what such a vision always calls those who see to do. He puts away all fear and casts himself into a deep untroubled sleep. It is not that he feels safe in the land of Shadow. It is a still a place of danger as he will soon find out but he has seen something deeper than the danger and that is enough.

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.

 

The King and The Healing of Merry

And so last but not least Aragorn comes to the bed in which Merry lies. Pippin sits anxiously beside his friend, fearing that he might die but Aragorn speaks words of reassurance.

“Do not be afraid… I came in time, and I have called him back. He is weary now, and grieved, and he has taken a hurt like the Lady Éowyn, daring to smite that deadly thing. But these evils can be amended, so strong and gay a spirit is in him. His grief he will not forget; but it will not darken his heart, it will teach him wisdom.”

And so Aragorn reaches past all the anxiety, self-doubt and fear that has beset Merry on a journey that has been almost too much for his conscious self and he reaches within to what Merry truly is, one that is both strong and gay. We saw both with Faramir and Éowyn that when Aragorn crushes the leaves of athelas and sprinkles them onto the bowl of steaming water that the fragrance that rises to fill the room speaks of the true self and calls it forth from the dark tomb created by the Black Breath; and so it is with Merry.

“When the fragrance of athelas stole through the room, like the scent of orchards, and of heather in the sunshine full of bees, suddenly Merry awoke, and he said:

‘I am hungry. What is the time?'”

If Faramir’s true self lies in the realm of his deepest yearning, a realm beyond the borders of Middle-earth, and even beyond Valinor, and if Éowyn’s lies in the pure Northernness that is evoked in the tapestry of her ancestor, Eorl the Young, and in the memory of the origins of her people, then for Merry it is a self that is entirely at one with his land and his people.

A few minutes later, when the great ones have gone to attend to other matters, Merry and Pippin sit down to attend to the ritual of preparing a pipe for smoking. And as they do so they briefly ponder what they have experienced and the great ones that they have met along the way. Aragorn had said that Merry would learn wisdom from what he had experienced and now Merry displays this wisdom as he reflects a moment.

“It is best to love first what you are fitted to love, I suppose: you must start somewhere and have some roots, and the soil of the Shire is deep. Still there are things deeper and higher; and not a gaffer could tend his garden in what he calls peace but for them, whether he knows about them or not. I am glad that I know about them, a little.”

If only this wisdom were more widely understood, practiced and taught. To learn how to love, to truly love and to cherish that which we know does not close the door to what Merry calls the things that are “deeper and higher”. In fact it opens the way to them. The great Irish peasant poet, Patrick Kavanagh, wrote:

“To know fully even one field or one land is a lifetime’s experience. In the world of poetic experience it is depth that counts, not width. A gap in a hedge, a smooth rock surfacing a narrow lane, a view of a woody meadow, the stream at the junction of four small fields- these are as much as a man can fully experience.”

Perhaps Merry is not yet able to say these words but one day, perhaps when his youthful energy is somewhat abated and he begins to sit a little longer beside the junction of streams in a woody meadow and looks at them and then looks at them some more, then he will be able to speak these words for himself. He may even be able to link them to “poetic experience” to “the dearest freshness deep down things” as Hopkins puts it. He has already begun to do so now pondering the greatness of Aragorn and Gandalf and in the days of uncertainty that lie ahead in his enforced rest in the Houses of Healing the deepening of his wisdom will continue.

A Cock Crow Announces the Fall of Mordor

The Lord of the Nazgûl chooses to enter the gates of Minas Tirith on horseback. He has waited long years for this moment and it must be done in the appropriate manner. All the defenders of the city flee before him except one. Gandalf remains upon Shadowfax who does not desert him. Gandalf is steadfast but even he cannot stand alone before his enemies.

And then something happens that surely no one notices and yet Tolkien, as narrator, knows is of the most profound significance.

“Gandalf did not move. And in that very moment, away behind in some courtyard of the City, a cock crowed. Shrill and clear he crowed, recking nothing of wizardry or war, welcoming only the morning that in the sky far above the shadows of death was coming with the dawn.”

It is a glorious moment and one easily missed because of the event that follows immediately after. And Tolkien gives space to the moment because there is a theme that has run throughout The Lord of the Rings and that is the resistance of the natural world against all that the powers of darkness can hurl against it.

Contrast the massive effort that turns the mûmakil of the Harad, the “oliphaunts” that Sam so delighted to see in Ithilien into engines of war to the simplicity of the cockcrow. Think of how after all the effort to train them the Lord of the Nazgûl casually wastes their lives, for “their purpose was only to test the strength of the defence and to keep the men of Gondor busy in many places”. Contrast too the one horse upon which the Lord of the Ringwraiths rides, a once free and proud beast, savagely broken so that it might become the instrument of its master’s will, to the free  choice of Shadowfax who does not flee when  all others do, whether man or beast. Cavalry is the one thing that the forces of Mordor do not possess. The bond between horse and rider that Gandalf and Shadowfax display or which brings the Rohirrim to the battlefield can only be created by the armies of Mordor with the most brutal force and it is easier to put the energy that is required to break the horses to a different, though equally savage, use.

The cock crows in the city because it is a cock. As Gerard Manley Hopkins wonderfully declares in his great poem, As Kingfishers Catch Fire, 

“Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; Selves- goes itself; myself it speaks and spells; crying What I do is me: for that I came.”

 Note please that Hopkins does not say “What I do is for me”. The Lord of the Nazgûl says that endlessly even in his service of Sauron. What Hopkins declares is far more profound because unlike the slave King of Angmar Hopkins is free, as is the kingfisher, as is the cock in the city courtyard, as is Shadowfax, as is Gandalf. And so he can say “What I do is me”!

The day has dawned in the sky above the war in Minas Tirith despite all the mighty efforts of the Dark Lord. Far away Ghân-buri-Ghân sniffed the air on the previous day and a light came into his eyes as he said, “Wind is changing!” Sauron is not the lord of the weather despite all the outpouring of his might and for that brief and glorious moment as the cock crows in complete indifference of all the powers of darkness, “recking nothing of wizardry or war” he is not even lord of a simple creature who is being itself.

We will encounter many who claim to be “lords” and sometimes we will feel quite powerless before them. If we are to stand against them in total freedom as Gandalf does then we need to learn how to commune with all that is free, with the free creation that Selves. We need to learn how to delight in all around us in its freedom and its beauty. To allow it to be itself even as we learn to become our true selves.

 

 

Aragorn’s Banner is Revealed at the Stone of Erech

One of the great joys of reading a great book again and again is that every time I do I discover new things. I don’t think that I have ever really paused at the Stone of Erech before. I think that I was about 14 when I read The Return of the King for the first time. I borrowed the book from my school library and after I had eaten my evening meal I began to read and did not stop until the book was finished. Reading at that speed was a thrilling experience but I missed a lot of detail. Now, nearly fifty years later, after many readings, I am here again.

And what a strange place it is to stay. The Stone of Erech stands upon a hill top and it is black, “round as a great globe, the height of a man, though its half was buried in the ground.” It was brought there by Isildur from the wreck of Númenor and it was said that in times of fear the oath breakers would gather round it, whispering. Surely they were asking whether this might be the time of their release?

And now that time has finally come.

Aragorn speaks to them. “The hour is come at last. Now I go to Pelargir upon Anduin, and ye shall come after me. And when all this land is clean of the servants of Sauron, I will hold the oath fulfilled, and ye shall have peace and depart for ever. For I am Elessar, Isildur’s heir of Gondor.”

And as he speaks he bids Halbarad to unfurl the banner that he carries, “and behold! it was black, and if there was any device upon it, it was hidden in the darkness.”

It was Arwen who created the banner in Rivendell. It was “wrought in secret, and long was the making.” Arwen is a contemplative and her work is secret. I do not want to waste time in arguing whether contemplation or action are superior to each other. Nor do I want to say that one who contemplates is superior to one who acts. Éowyn is a woman who longs to act, to do the great deed, and her desire will be fulfilled. Arwen is a woman who withdraws into the secret and the dark in order to do her work. Neither is superior to the other and both need each other. When Aragorn declares that he is king at the Stone of Erech he draws upon a strength that has been forged, not only through the longest years of his waiting, but also in the secret years of Arwen’s thought. Arwen draws her mind into her heart. By this we do not mean that she turns from thinking to feeling. She turns from all that is mere surface to the very ground of her being and from that ground flows a work of making that when revealed in the darkness at the Stone of Erech is black and calls the Dead to fulfil their oath and when revealed in a bright day at the Pelennor Fields carries a device not seen in Gondor for long years and all the hosts of Mordor are driven before it.

There is a wonderful weaving here of the mystery of contemplation in the secret place and the majesty of the deed that is done in the open and the union of Aragorn and Arwen expresses that weaving perfectly. If the work that we do is to have meaning then we must find that weaving ourselves. To some degree we must find both within ourselves and the people that we meet who are most complete will have done this work. However, most of us will tend either to the active or to the contemplative. We need each other. And when we work best it will be in a flow that comes, from an inner connectedness from a connection to one another and from the connection to the truest Ground of our Being.

 

Gandalf Laughs!

It has been one of the joys of writing this blog over the last three and a half years that many new discoveries have been made in a work that I thought I knew well. And one of those discoveries has been of the role of laughter in The Lord of the Rings. Readers of my blog may remember a piece that I wrote about Frodo’s laughter at the Black Gate of Mordor that enabled him to make the decision to seek to enter Mordor by Gollum’s “secret way”. They will remember too the wonderful moment that comes, just before Frodo and Sam enter the darkness of Shelob’s Lair, when Frodo laughs and the very rocks of the Ephel Dúath seem to strain forward to hear a sound that has never come before to that unhappy place.

And now, after the encounter with Denethor in his joyless hall, Pippin is walking along with Gandalf and Gandalf laughs!

“Pippin glanced in some wonder at the face now close beside his own, for the sound of that laugh had been gay and merry. Yet in the wizard’s face he saw at first only lines of care and sorrow; though as he looked more intently he perceived that under all there was a great joy: a fountain of mirth enough to set a kingdom laughing, were it to gush forth.”

Pippin is learning to see deeper than surfaces as we have noted in the last few weeks and he encourages us to do the same. And here he sees the joy that lies deep within Gandalf’s soul. This is not a joy that is an alternative to care and sorrow but which lies deeper than the sorrow. As the poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, put it in his poem, God’s Grandeur, “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” Hopkins, a Jesuit priest, sharing the same faith as Tolkien himself, reflects on the way human activity has trodden down nature “so that the soil is bare now, nor can the foot feel, being shod.” And he, like Tolkien, discerns that the deepest reality is not the spoiling activity of grasping humanity but the “dearest freshness”.

This is no sentimental gush. Hopkins finds these words that come from a deeper place than the depression with which he struggled throughout his life. In his description of Gandalf’s laughter Tolkien finds something that lies deeper than Gandalf’s care and sorrow and deeper even than the terrible danger that threatens all that is beautiful, true and good in the world. Frodo saw it for just a brief moment at the Crossroads when he saw the garland of flowers about the fallen head of the king’s statue and declared, “They cannot conquer for ever!”

To see this deeper reality, as Pippin does as he gazes into Gandalf’s face, does not come by accident. We have already noted that Pippin is growing and later, after the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, we will listen to a conversation that he will have with Merry that will show what has been happening to him. I do not know how the miracle of grace comes to each of us and I know that the stories of the saints lay the greatest emphasis upon the undeserved nature of this inbreaking of joy that we have been considering. But for myself I recognise that I need to practice a daily discipline of delight if I am to connect more deeply to the joy that Pippin sees in Gandalf. The great 20th century American saint, Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Workers Movement used to speak of this discipline often. She was arrested often, standing with workers against over mighty bosses, the last time when at a great age during a strike of agricultural workers in California, but she never became cynical or bitter, always remembering the joy of bearing a child that  first drew her to her faith. In Gandalf and in Tolkien the delight had as much to do with fireworks at parties or good ale, a good pipe and good company as it did with so called higher things. But for them, and for such as Hopkins or Dorothy Day, it also meant a daily contemplation of what is eternally true so learning to see with Mother Julian that, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”