Gandalf Shows Aragorn a Sapling of the White Tree of Gondor

Recently I have been thinking a lot about a line from a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things…” When I say, think, I mean to say that it often comes to mind and then I repeat it as a prayer. The line comes from his poem, “God’s Grandeur” which laments the destructive behaviour of humankind upon the earth but affirms something deeper, the grandeur and glory of God.

Victory has been achieved over the Dark Lord and Aragorn has been crowned King of Gondor. But he fears for the future. He has no heir and as Gandalf says, “Though much has been saved, much must now pass away; and the power of the Three Rings also is ended”. These Rings represented what remained of the power of the Elder Days and the Elves in Middle-earth and although not controlled by the One Ring were, nonetheless, linked to its forging. These Rings were held by Gandalf, Elrond and Galadriel and it was these three who energised resistance to Sauron throughout the last centuries of the Third Age  as he began to build his forces for a renewed assault upon the West.

With the passing of the Three Rings so too must their bearers depart but that leaves Aragorn alone to govern the Western Lands. “I shall grow old,” he says to Gandalf. “And who then shall govern Gondor and those who look to this city as to their queen, if my desire be not granted? The Tree in the Court of the Fountain is still withered and barren. When shall I see a sign that it will ever be otherwise?”

Gandalf’s response is not just a reply to Aragorn’s question but is a spiritual principle based upon wisdom learned from years of long struggle.

“Turn your face from the green world, and look where all seems barren and cold!”

Gandalf reminds Aragorn that the hope of the West long lay hidden in the wastelands of the North. So unlikely did it seem that any hope could lie there that Denethor described the House of Isildur that Aragorn represented as “a ragged house long bereft of lordship and dignity”. We should learn that an answer that is cultivated in prosperous times and places leaves our pride and independence intact. Denethor desired such an answer, one that would come ideally from his own house. The danger with answers of this kind is that pride intact simply continues to grow until at the end it overreaches itself and ends in catastrophe just as it did with the Fall of Númenor. But an answer that is found in the barren place, the unexpected place, must be received as a gift. Aragorn has come from the ragged house of Isildur and the White Tree is found in the waste of the mountains high above Minas Tirith.

It is a sapling no more than three feet high, grown from a fruit planted long before by the kings of Gondor. This planting was a secret that not even the Stewards knew so that when the White Tree in the Court of the Fountain died in 2852, some 150 years before this time they had no knowledge of the fruit’s existence.

Aragorn describes the sapling as being no more than seven years old. At the time when it first began to grow Gandalf and Aragorn were fruitlessly searching for Gollum in the wild while the Ring lay hidden in the Shire, its true identity suspected but still unknown. Sauron’s power continued to grow as he put his energy into regaining the Ring. In the world outside darkness seemed to grow unchecked but the White Tree lived according to a different rhythm at its own pace and in its own time growing neither faster nor slower as events unfolded in the world around.

Hopkins reminds us of this deeper rhythm in his poem.

“And though the last lights off the black West went Oh, morning, at the brown brink Eastward springs- because the Holy Ghost over the bent world broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings!”

I think it is because I see so much that is being trodden down about me that I seek the wisdom of the deeper rhythm that I learn in Hopkins and in Tolkien. Like Gandalf and Aragorn I may have to pay close attention to the events that happen about me but if I contemplate “the dearest freshness deep down things” then I will be held by that freshness and not defeated.

This week’s artwork is by Darrell K. Sweet

 

 

Faramir Gazes at the Overwhelming Wave and Thinks of Númenor as He Takes Éowyn in his Arms.

The moment when the Ring goes to the Fire and the reign of Sauron is ended is told in three separate places in The Lord of the Rings and from three different perspectives. The first is at Orodruin itself as Sam carries Frodo from the Cracks of Doom and sees a brief vision of Sauron’s overwhelming power before “all passed… Towers fell and mountains slid; walls crumbled and melted, crashing down; vast spires of smoke and spouting steams went billowing up, up, until they toppled like an overwhelming wave, and its wild crest curled and came foaming down the land”. The second telling is at the Black Gate of Mordor as the embattled host of the West stand at bay against their enemies and Gandalf cries out, “‘The realm of Sauron is ended!.. The Ring-bearer has fulfilled his Quest.’ And as the Captains gazed south to the Land of Mordor, it seemed to them that, black against the pall of cloud, there rose a huge shape of shadow, impenetrable, lightning crowned, filling all the sky. Enormous it reared above the world, and stretched out towards them a vast threatening hand, terrible but impotent: for even as it leaned over them, a great wind took it, and it was all blown away, and passed; and then a hush fell.”

The third and last telling takes place in the gardens of the Houses Houses of Healing as a young man and a woman stand, hand in hand (although they do not know it) as they gaze northward towards the Morannon as all the earth holds its breath and “Time halted”.

“Then presently it seemed to them that above the ridges of the distant mountains another vast mountain of darkness rose, towering up like a wave that should engulf the world, and about it lightnings flickered; and then a tremor ran through the earth, and they felt the walls of the City quiver. A sound like a sigh went up from all the lands about them; and their hearts beat suúddenly again.”

At last Faramir speaks.

“It reminds me of Númenor,” he says, and he tells Éowyn of his dream of the great wave that rises above the fields and the hills to drown it and a “darkness unescapable”. Éowyn draws closer to him. Is the Darkness Unescapable coming? But no, Faramir’s limbs are light and he feels a hope and a joy that no reason can deny. And then he kisses Éowyn upon the brow.

Tolkien too had a recurring dream of an overwhelming wave that he associated with the fall of Atlantis and of Númenor. In his legendarium Tolkien tells of the great hubris of the king of Númenor, Ar-Pharazôn, who was seduced by Sauron to defy the Valar and make an assault upon the Undying Lands. Because of this attempt to break the  bounds of human mortality Eru, the One, intervenes and destroys Númenor with a great wave, saving only Elendil, the Elf-friend, his family and followers.

Tolkien and his wonderful creation, Faramir, both dream about the catastrophe and Faramir carries the sorrow of the failure of his great ancestors and the gradual decline of Gondor in his heart. He longs for the restoration of his people and yet fears their destruction. The sudden and terrifying appearance of the great wave above him tells him that the end has come and yet his heart says, no! His heart is pierced with hope and joy!

This is the eucatastrophe, a word coined by Tolkien himself and one that runs counter both to the hubris of our own times and to our own fear of catastrophe. Tolkien said that eucatastrophe is “the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears”. He said that this was the highest function of a fairy-story, something that he declared The Lord of the Rings to be and which was in no sense meant to be a disparagement of his work. The happy turn for Tolkien was never meant to reduce his readers to the kind of children who cannot bear unhappiness and must forever remain in an enchanted world in which no harm can come. Just as with Julian of Norwich’s great declaration that “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well” the eucatastrophe, the sudden and entirely unexpected surprise of joy can only come to those who have stared the darkness straight in the face.

No wonder Faramir kisses Éowyn at this moment; and no wonder Éowyn allows him to do so. But more on that next week.

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 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

Snaga knows that he is up against a Power much greater than he is.

Until I began to think about writing this post I had never wondered how it was that Snaga managed to be one of only two orcs left alive in the Tower of Cirith Ungol (the other being Shagrat) after the fight over Frodo’s mithril coat. To be honest I had never really thought much about Snaga at all. But as I thought about this part of the story I began to see that Snaga is one of life’s survivors until, that is, he thinks himself safe enough to strike out at Frodo with a whip. Until that point I think that Snaga managed to stay out of the trouble. As he tells Shagrat he sees it “through a window”. There is more than one way to be an orc. One is to be a warrior thug like Gorbag bullying your way to the top until you meet your match as he does in Shagrat. Another is to be a mean sneak with a keen nose for danger and how to stay out of it, a bigger version of Gollum you might say. You take whatever you need to survive, prepared to murder, if necessary, but you let the Gorbags and the Shagrats get their way. It is safer that way.

And that is where Snaga helps us to understand something that has been happening ever since Frodo raised the Star Glass of Galadriel in the darkness of Shelob’s Lair. A Power has entered Mordor, Snaga can sense it, and he is afraid.

If we recall some of the events since that moment it will help us to see what is happening. In raising the Star Glass Frodo brings the light of a Silmaril into Shelob’s endless night. In defeating Shelob in battle Sam finds a strength to do something that no one has done before. When Sam raises the phial of Galadriel before the hideous malice of the Watchers he feels “their will waver and crumble into fear”. And when Snaga confronts Sam on the tower steps it is not a small frightened hobbit that he meets but “a great silent shape, cloaked in a grey shadow, looming against the wavering light behind; in one hand it held a sword, the very light of which was a bitter pain, the other was clutched at his breast, but held concealed some nameless menace of power and doom”.

The menace, of course, is the Ring, but this is not the Power that has entered Mordor. We saw that the Power is not the Ring last week when Sam was tempted to claim it and to challenge Sauron. The Ring is trying to return to its master and will betray Sam. Sam realises this. “He’d spot me pretty quick, if I put the Ring on now, in Mordor.” The Power can use the menace of the Ring as it does to terrify Snaga but its purpose is not the same as the purpose of the Ring. If it was then it would have succeeded in betraying Sam and returning to Sauron.

No, the Power that has entered Mordor is something that Snaga can sense and is afraid of but it is not something that he can understand and nor  even can his master, the Dark Lord. Snaga has spiritual insight of a kind but only the kind that knows about power over others. Such a spiritual insight knows about exercising power over those who are weaker or submitting to those whose power is greater. It knows it well because it has practiced that spirituality for a long time. But it knows nothing about Goodness, Beauty, Truth, Mercy or Pity because it has rejected all of these for the sake of gaining power over others. The gospels call it gaining the world but losing your soul.

It is Goodness, Beauty, Truth, Mercy and Pity that have entered Mordor keeping company with two small hobbits who have done the simple act of laying down their lives for their friends. No one has greater love than this. No one who has rejected Love can ever grasp it. And only those who have chosen the way of humility in the way that Frodo and Sam have done can keep company with this kind of Power.

 

 

Sam Gamgee Finds Strength to Resist The Ring.

To cry out, “I’m coming Mr. Frodo!” is one thing. Most of us have made promises in a moment of passion that we have regretted later in the cold light of day. It can be one of the bravest things that we ever do in life to keep such a promise long after the initial ardour has gone.

For Sam reality strikes home very soon as he looks out across the plains of Mordor beyond its mountainous defences towards Orodruin, the very mountain that he and Frodo have been trying to reach. It is clear that the task that lies ahead is way beyond his strength and ability. And to enter the Tower of Cirith Ungol is just as impossible. Unless…

There is one thing that he holds that might enable him to defeat his enemies and that is the Ring. Even as he ponders the possibility, “Wild fantasies arose in his mind; and he saw Samwise the Strong, Hero of the Age, striding with a flaming sword across the darkened land, and armies flocking to his call as he marched to the overthrow of Barad-dûr.” Observant readers will note that there no place for Frodo in this fantasy. That is the nature of the Ring. Those who possess it have no heart room for any but themselves. Sam’s fantasy reminds us of Boromir’s, the desire to be the hero of the story and not to share that with anyone else. A moment later and we are reminded of Gandalf and Galadriel and the desire to do good.

“And then all the clouds rolled away, and the white sun shone, and at his command the vale of Gorgoroth became a garden of flowers and trees and brought forth fruit.”

It is a beautiful vision and who is better qualified than Sam to achieve it? Of course when Frodo offered Galadriel the Ring in Lothlórien it was Sam who encouraged her to take it and to put things right. Surely it is the desire of all good people to want to put things right and an obstacle to belief in God for many whose desire is to do good that God does not seem to be interested in putting things right. Well, not as interested as Sam Gamgee and people like, well, me…

Then Tolkien offers us all wise counsel as he describes the inner debate within Sam. It is striking how strong Sam is at this moment as he resists the Ring. Such strength does not come in the moment of crisis for the one who has done no inner work. When Sméagol murdered Déagol in order to take the Ring for himself we are not aware of any inner conflict. Sam’s inner work comprises two spiritual disciplines, one consciously practiced and delighted in, the other so long practiced that he is hardly aware of it even being a moral choice. The one is Sam’s love for Frodo. We noted that Sam’s fantasy had no place for Frodo but as soon as Sam becomes even half aware of this he sends the fantasy packing. The other is more complex, even controversial, and Tolkien calls it “his plain hobbit-sense”.

Sam’s upbringing has had two major influences. One has been the kindness of Bilbo who drew him into the world of imagination and delight. To have received such an invitation has been the greatest joy in Sam’s life and his love for Frodo is an act of gratefulness made deeper by all that they have endured together. The other influence has been the ungentle and highly critical voice of the Gaffer. It is a voice that comes to mind at those points in the story when Sam wants to berate himself for some mistake. The Gaffer’s guiding principle in life is to be satisfied with his lot although it also means defending his small territory, the garden at Bag End and his role in keeping it, with all the strength that he can muster.

Perhaps Sam needed both voices in his head and in his heart. They give him strength in his “hour of trial”. Perhaps too they give us a greater appreciation of what we may have regarded as negative influences as well as thanksgiving for all the love that we have received in our lives.

Sam Gamgee Finds Simplicity at the Tower of Cirith Ungol

Some people think that simplicity means having less of everything; just a few clothes and other possessions in a dwelling with little furniture. They are partly right because simplicity may lead to a life that does not carry too much about upon its back but Sam Gamgee teaches us true simplicity at the Tower of Cirith Ungol.

Not that this was ever his intention. He would rather regard it as being above himself to set himself up as a teacher to “wise folks such as yourselves”. No he never intended to be a teacher. He just finds himself in a place that he never intended to be and must do what he can. It is as… well… as simple as that.

It is over a year on this blog, that is a conscious seeking for wisdom from The Lord of the Rings, since we were last with Frodo and Sam. We spent a year journeying with them from the Emyn Muil, meeting first with Gollum, their strange guide, who took them across the Dead Marshes to the impassable Black Gate of Mordor before persuading them to take another way, a secret way, into Mordor. On that way Gollum betrays them by leading them into the lair of Shelob, a terrible monster in spider form, and although Sam gloriously drives her away Frodo receives a terrible wound from her sting that leaves Sam to believe that he is dead. His heart broken Sam takes the Ring from Frodo and is beginning to set himself to fulfilling the mission that Frodo was given at the Council of Elrond, to take the Ring of Power to the fires in which it was created and to destroy it, but no sooner has he made his choice than a company of orcs come across Frodo’s body. They announce that Frodo is not dead but only poisoned, as is the way with spiders, so that they can eat their prey alive when they wish to do so. Sam is helpless as the orcs carry Frodo into the tower and shut him out.

What can Sam do? This is the simplicity that he is granted at this moment and Tolkien puts it in this way. “He no longer had any doubt about his duty: he must rescue his master or perish in the attempt.”

This is not the kind of simplicity that someone chooses when they wish to make a lifestyle change, when some decluttering needs to take place. This is the simplicity chosen by someone when the one they love is stricken suddenly by a terrible illness and from that moment nothing else matters more to them than to care for them. Or more happily it is the simplicity of a man as he sees his bride enter the church and prepares himself to promise to love and to cherish her until death parts them.

The poet, T.S Eliot, describes this as “a condition of complete simplicity, (costing not less than everything)” that is faith. The philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard describes it as willing just one thing. And Sam himself has not always achieved this simplicity. When he first set out upon his journey he wanted to go with Frodo but he also wanted “to see Elves!” When that wish is fulfilled right at the very beginning Frodo asks him if he still wants to carry on. And when later he sees, in the mirror of Galadriel, the destruction of the Shire that Saruman and his bandits carry out he is torn between going back to sort things out and going on with Frodo. And he will not always know this simplicity. Right at the end of the story when he realises that Frodo is going to leave the Shire he tells Frodo that he is “that torn in two” as he ponders losing Frodo and leaving his new bride and family behind.

True simplicity is first and foremost given to us as a gift. It is rarely a comfortable gift because of what receiving it will cost (not less than everything) but the freedom that accompanies it points us more truly than any other experience to what it means to be fully alive. There is almost a hint of joy in Sam’s voice as his love for Frodo rises above all other thoughts and forgetting his peril he cries aloud: “I’m coming Mr Frodo!”