Legolas and the Sea. A Longing for a Land Where Nothing Fades Away.

Legolas has long dwelt content in the green land of his people in the north of Mirkwood in rhythm with the trees of the wood as they breathe in and out in winter and summer, winter and summer, year upon year, year upon year as the ages pass.

It was Galadriel who first warned him of the call of the sea, words that came to him through Gandalf when they met in the depths of Fangorn Forest. “Legolas Greenleaf long under tree in joy thou hast lived. Beware of the Sea! If thou hearest the cry of the gull on the shore, thy heart shall then rest in the forest no more.”

It was in the great ride with the Grey Company to the assault of the ships of the Corsairs of Umbar at Pelargir that Legolas first heard the sound of the sea. Gimli paid no heed to it but Legolas was stricken in his heart and as the companions of the Fellowship speak together of their adventures Legolas sings of a heart that is no longer at rest.

“To the Sea, to the Sea! The white gulls are crying, the wind is blowing, and the white foam is flying. West, west away, the round sun is falling. Grey ship, grey ship, do you hear them calling, the voices of my people that have gone before me? I will leave, I will leave the woods that bore me; for our days are ending and our years falling.”

The deepest longing of the Elves is for a world in which nothing fades away. They themselves are immortal, age cannot touch them, but the world in which they live is always changing and in this lies their sadness. The lands in which they have lived in Middle-earth have been islands of relative changelessness. Rivendell, Lothlórien, the Grey Havens and the Woodland Realm in the north of Mirkwood, all have been places in which the memory of ancient beauty has been preserved but at the end of the Third Age with the passing of the Ring the change that they have long resisted has come at last.

It is one of the most profound ideas within The Lord of the Rings that so much that has been beautiful must pass away with the destruction of a thing that was entirely evil. The forging of the three elven rings, Nenya, Varya and Vilya accomplished so much that was good in the Second and Third Ages but none of this could have been achieved without the ringlore of Sauron in his disguise of Annatar in the court of Celebrimbor the lord of Eregion. Sauron played no part in the forging of the Elven Rings and yet their making was still linked to the forging of the Rings of Power and to the One Ring itself. The great temptation of the Elves lay in their very desire to preserve and it is this that Sauron exploited.

The one who chooses to be an enemy learns how to  perceive weakness in others and then exploits it. Indeed it seems to be this quality that marks out an enemy above all others. But when we choose to lay down that which we desire then the enemy has nothing more to exploit. It is the decision to destroy the Ring that enables Sauron’s foes to defeat him even as it was the decision to preserve beauty and to forge the Rings that linked the destiny of the Elves to that of their greatest enemy.

All things pass away and the one who learns this and who does not try to hold on to them can enjoy them without becoming prey to a melancholy that robs us of all joy. “He who binds to himself a joy does the winged life destroy. He who kisses the life as it flies lives in eternity’s sunrise.” Kissing the life as it inevitably and inexorably flies is one of the greatest wisdoms that we can learn. At this moment in the story Legolas is overcome with the sadness of loss. Let us hope that when the time comes for him to leave Middle-earth he will do so with thanksgiving and with joyful hope.

Artwork this week by Lorraine Brevig http://www.lorrainebrevig.com

 

Frodo and Sam Cast Away What They Do Not Need in Mordor

As I began to think about this part of the story a beautiful line from a French poem came to mind.

Partir, c’est mourir un peu 

To leave, or to say farewell, is to die a little.

As Frodo and Sam draw nearer to the mountain so the Ring, Frodo’s burden, becomes more and more unbearable.

“I can’t manage it, Sam,” he said. “It is such a weight to carry, such a weight.”

Sam offers to help Frodo to carry the Ring and this rouses what energy remains within him but the fact remains that the task of bearing the Ring is increasingly beyond his strength. And so Sam suggests that they lighten their load.

Some of the items are easy to dispose of. Frodo gladly casts away his disguise of orc shield, helmet and sword. “I’ll be an orc no more… and I’ll bear no weapon, fair or foul.” But he casts aside his elven cloak too. He describes himself to Sam as “naked in the dark”. Not a nakedness as a kind of liberation, that sees clothing as a kind of imprisonment but a nakedness that means that there is no protection, even the illusory protection of clothes, that lies between Frodo and destruction and there is no protection that lies between Frodo and shame.

In the fourth century, after the Emperor Constantine had declared Christianity to be the official religion of the Roman Empire, the newly built churches were filled with people who were there in order to further their careers. It was Bishop Cyril of Jerusalem, one of great spiritual geniuses of his age, who addressed this by creating the idea of Lent, a 40 day period of fasting, prayer, instruction and discipline for the many who were preparing for baptism. Baptism had once been a courageous thing to do in a world hostile to the Christian faith but it was now required behaviour for all. At the end of Lent those who were to be baptised presented themselves in a darkened church and they removed all their clothing, becoming naked in the dark, before descending into the water. All this signified a dying to them, a symbol of the ending of one life, and it was a ritual cleansing to. It was followed by an arising from the water after which they were clothed in a white robe, were given a lighted candle and received the bread and wine of the Eucharist that symbolised the new life that had just begun.

Cyril was doing what the great spiritual guides of every culture have done before the culture of the modern west and that is to teach that it is necessary to die before we die. He recognised the spiritual catastrophe of a baptism that simply affirmed the ascent to success that the young people of his day naturally desired. He knew that this could not prepare them for the inevitability of the descent that every life must know before the final and complete descent into death.

The church always recognised that those who were martyred required no baptism for martyrdom, the act of bearing true witness to the cross, is true baptism. Frodo and Sam in their journey through Mordor know the reality of death. Frodo knows what Coleridge named as a death in life. He is almost in the power of the Ring and if the Ring goes to the Fire he expects to be destroyed with it.

And for Sam, the moment when his pots and pans are cast into one of the deep fissures of the Plain of Mordor is “like a death-knell to his heart”. It is as if he is saying that there is no way back from the Mountain.

Partir, c’est mourir un peu. 

To leave, to say farewell, is to die a little.

Frodo and Sam know the truth of this.

But not quite. In a pocket of his tunic, next to his heart, Sam still keeps two things, “the phial of Galadriel and the little box that she gave him for his own”.

 

 

 

 

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.  

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!

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 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.

 

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.