Gandalf Speaks of a Time to Risk Everything

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For Aragorn “An Hour Long Prepared Approaches”

At this point of the story Tolkien leaves Pippin and Gandalf in Minas Tirith as the dawnless day begins that heralds the beginning of the assault of the forces of Minas Morgul upon the city. We return to Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli and Merry just after Gandalf leaves with Pippin as they prepare to ride with Théoden to Edoras and Aragorn speaks to his companions.

He tells them that Théoden will go to “the muster that he commanded at Edoras, four nights from now. And there, I think, he will hear tidings of war, and the Riders of Rohan will go down to Minas Tirith. But for myself, and any that will go with me… it is dark before me. I must go down to Minas Tirith, but I do not see the road. An hour long prepared approaches.”

Aragorn knows that this is his moment of destiny. He has lived upon the earth for nearly 90 years and each one of them has been a step towards it. He was born to a noble but dwindling people in the north who carried little more than a memory of the greatness of the past. His father, Arathorn, was killed by orcs when he was just two years old, and so he became the heir of Isildur and chieftain of his people. He was named, Estel, meaning hope, and went to live in Rivendell and Elrond became as a father to him.

One day Elrond called him by his true name and gave him the heirlooms of his house. “Here is the ring of Barahir,” he said, “the token of our kinship from afar; and here also are the shards of Narsil. With these you may yet do great deeds; for I foretell that the span of your life shall be greater than the measure of Men, unless evil befalls you or you fail at the test. But the test will be long and hard. The sceptre of Annúminas I withhold, for you have yet to earn it.”

What words to speak to a young man of twenty years of age! What gifts to give to him! In Peter Jackson’s films this moment is recalled just before Aragorn takes the Paths of the Dead when Elrond gives Andúril,  Narsil reforged, to him with the words, “Be who you were meant to be.” It is a fine moment in Jackson’s telling of the tale but in his telling Elrond gives Aragorn the sword as a beaten man with a dying daughter and his people leaving for the ships. In Tolkien’s telling of the story Elrond addresses Aragorn as one of the great lords of Middle-earth at the height of of his powers. When such a father speaks, his very words convey power upon his son. How we need more fathers like him!

The ring of Barahir speaks of Aragorn’s mighty lineage. It was the ring that Beren carried when he and his beloved Lúthien won a Silmaril from the iron crown of Morgoth in his impenetrable fortress of Thangorodrim. The shards of Narsil speak of his mighty ancestor, Elendil, on the day that he stood against Sauron before the gates of Barad-dûr and fell in the battle. It tells of how Isildur took the shards of the broken sword and cut the Ring from the finger of the Dark Lord and so defeated him winning long years of peace for the world. The sceptre of Annúminas speaks of a throne that Aragorn must still win through his deeds.

It is this lineage to which Aragorn must aspire and that he thinks of as he speaks to his friends. He also recalls that Elrond told him that only the king of both Arnor and of Gondor would be worthy of the hand of his daughter, Arwen. This is his destiny. This is the moment through which he has been through so many hard tests in order to face. Will he achieve his destiny or will he fail at this last and greatest test?

So few young men ever get to hear words like this from their fathers or those who stand in the place of fathers to them. One generation of beaten and embittered men sends the next generation disabled into their adult lives so that they are boys in men’s bodies. In the sacrament of Baptism our children are anointed with the same oil that is used at the coronations of our kings and queens. This is intended to proclaim to them that they are sons and daughters of the living God. When will we teach our children who they really are and what their destiny is?

 

Let Him Come and Open His Grief

On the journey to Mordor food is more to Frodo, Sam and Gollum than taking in sufficient energy to accomplish another day’s march. It is a sign that connects them to or separates them from the ground of their being and which unites or divides them from one another. Lembas, the waybread of the Elves given to them when they left Lothlorien, is all that Frodo and Sam have to eat as they pass through the barren lands to the north of the border of Mordor, through the Dead Marshes and then the desolation that is the land before the Morannon, the Black Gate of Mordor. They may wish for some variety in their diet but they are profoundly nourished by this food of the Elves. Not only does it sustain them upon each weary day but it also has a virtue that gives them courage and hope.

But not so, Gollum. When Frodo offers him some of the scant supply that he has of Lembas we are told that “Gollum sniffed at the leaf and his face changed: a spasm of disgust came over it, and a hint of his old malice.” Gollum can smell the leaves of the Elven lands and the smell is to him a foul stench that speaks of enmity, judgement and of imprisonment. The very food that has such virtue to the hobbits is vicious to him. “He spat, and a fit of coughing took him.”

Lembas reminds us of ancient symbols, of the manna in the wilderness that sustained the children of Israel through their forty year sojourn in the wilderness before they entered the Promised Land, and of the bread of the Eucharist in the Christian tradition that is a waybread to those who look to it for sustenance. In the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England the Minister seeks to remind his hearers of the nature of the food that is offered to them at the holy table.

“It is our duty to render most humble and hearty thanks to Almighty God, our heavenly Father, for that he hath given his Son our Saviour Jesus Christ, not only to die for us, but also to be our spiritual food and sustenance in that holy Sacrament.”

So it is that the one who comes to receive the Sacrament is not only nourished but also profoundly connected to the deepest ground of their being. The one who eats it is linked to not only to that ground but also to all others that share the bread and the wine. It is a waybread for the journey and unites those who are sustained by it more profoundly than do ties of gender, family, sexuality, class, nationality or race. The Minister’s warning to those who are about to receive this food tells us that we cannot allow anything to divide us from each other or else we take it unworthily and so do ourselves harm.

Frodo longs to heal the great divide that lies between himself and Gollum but he cannot. For this to happen Gollum would have to come and “Open his Grief” as the Prayer Book puts it. He would have to weep for the murder of Déagolhis closest friend from whom he took the Ring. He would have to give up the fiction of the birthday present withheld by Déagol that he has long cherished to justify his crime. He would have to acknowledge his utter wretchedness. He would have to long for healing, maybe even for death. He would have to give up the Ring and join Frodo and Sam in their wish to destroy it and all the evil that it has the power to do.

“I think this food would do you good, if you would try,” says Frodo. “But perhaps you can’t even try, not yet anyway.”

Now that I see him, I do pity him

“Very well,” he answered aloud, lowering his sword. “But still I am afraid. And yet, as you see, I will not touch the creature. For now that I see him, I do pity him.”

As Frodo speaks these words Sam stares at him in some confusion for he seems to be addressing someone who is not there. Sam is there and so too is Gollum for Sam and Frodo have just captured him as he fell spider-like from the wall of the Emyn Muil. And the unseen person that Frodo addresses is Gandalf as he remembers the long talk they had in the April morning at Bag End when Gandalf revealed to Frodo the true identity of Bilbo’s ring and how it had come to Bilbo in the first place in the dark tunnels of the Misty Mountains.

On that day Gandalf told Frodo how Gollum had first taken the Ring by murder; how the Ring came to Bilbo, it seemed, by the strangest of chances as it began to try to find its way back to Sauron, its true master; how Bilbo had not killed Gollum when he had the chance, standing behind him, cloaked in the invisibility that the Ring gave him; but how Bilbo had already revealed his name and homeland to Gollum when they first encountered one another so that when Gollum eventually left the shelter of the mountain tunnels he had tried to find the Shire. Worst of all, Gandalf told Frodo, Gollum had fallen into Sauron’s hands and had revealed to him under torture all he knew so that the servants of the Dark Lord were searching for the Shire, for Baggins and for the Ring.

A terrified Frodo had cried out then, “What a pity Bilbo did not stab the vile creature, when he had a chance!” so prompting Gandalf’s response, “Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity and Mercy: not to strike without need.” And Gandalf went on to say that it was his belief that Gollum “has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many- yours not least”.

It is an easy thing to trace a history of violence and the history of the Ring from the moment of its conceiving and making in deceit was a history that was entirely violent. When we observe violence anywhere in the world we can be sure that it has been caused by previous actions of the same nature and by investigating we can begin to work back from one sad cause and effect to another. So in the history of the Ring we can journey back through Gollum’s murder of Déagol to the killing of Isíldur by orcs to Isíldur’s refusal to destroy the Ring after he had taken it from Sauron’s hand to the making of the Ring by the Dark Lord as he sought to bring all things under his rule. “One Ring to rule them all…”

But Bilbo’s Pity in the dark tunnels of the Misty Mountains is of a different order and in the showing of Pity something quite new and entirely unexpected entered the story. Even Gandalf does not know of what nature this new reality is, or whether it is “for good or ill”, but he chooses to place his trust in the uncertain and unexpected consequences of Bilbo’s Pity as against the melancholy certainty of the consequence of violence. So Gandalf did not kill Gollum to prevent his doing further harm when he captured him thus leaving open the door to Gollum’s escape from the Elves of Thranduil’s realm and to his pursuit of the Fellowship from Moria until the moment that Frodo and Sam caught him.

Once again Tolkien reveals his profound spiritual insight and offers us wisdom. We, like Frodo, are faced with the choice of making our choices according to Law with its just yet implacable principles or according to the fearful uncertainty of grace, pity and mercy. Sam longs to put an end to the uncertainty by putting an end to Gollum. Until this moment Frodo had wanted to put an end to uncertainty as well. Frodo now knows that he cannot do this. He too must follow the way of Bilbo’s Pity and of Gandalf’s. But to what end?