In the last couple of months I have been reblogging posts that have received more than 1,000 views. I suspect that this will be the last of these for a few months but I hope that you will enjoy reading this.
Occasionally I get accused of being “preachy” on this blog and in this post I guess I have to plead guilty. But sometimes Tolkien’s Christian imagery is too strong to be ignored. Tolkien tried to avoid allegory and in The Lord of the Rings I think he succeeds but often an image such as Strider as the King disguised or, in this case, with the White Tree as an image of resurrection, clearly points us to something beyond itself. Tolkien said himself that he could not have written this great work without his Catholic faith and this is one of the strongest examples.
As always, do let me know what you think.
Gandalf and Pippin enter the Citadel in Minas Tirith and the white-paved Court of the Fountain where, in the midst, “drooping over the pool, stood a dead tree, and the falling drops dripped sadly from its barren and broken branches back into the clear water. ”
Pippin does not understand why, in such a beautifully tended place, something dead is at the centre. Then some words that Gandalf had spoken come to mind:
“Seven stars and seven stones and one white tree.”
These are the emblems of Elendil whose ships carried the faithful to Middle-earth from the wreck of Númenor after Sauron had seduced their king into rebellion against the Valar. The white tree was a symbol of renewal descended, as it was, from Nimloth the Fair the tree of Númenor and before that from Galathilion of Telperion in the Deathless Lands. Thus there remains a link between…
The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 55-59
The story of Gollum that Gandalf tells comes to a great climax in two separate passages in which Gandalf speaks of Pity. The first comes after Frodo’s desperate cry, “What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had a chance!”
And Gandalf replies, “Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need.”
The second climax comes as Frodo cries out, “He deserves death”.
And Gandalf replies, “My heart tells me that he 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.”
Readers of The Lord of the Rings know that Gandalf’s words are prophetic. The fate of all the Free Peoples is indeed ruled by Bilbo’s Pity because it is Gollum who takes the Ring to the Fire in which it had been forged when, in the violence of his attack upon Frodo and his uncontrollable excitement in regaining possession of the Ring, he overbalances and so falls into the Cracks of Doom. And Frodo is delivered from the overwhelming power of the Ring that has overthrown his mind at last by that same Pity. If it had not been for Bilbo under the Misty Mountains and then Frodo himself when he captures Gollum beneath the Emyn Muil there can have been no triumph.
And yet… after Gandalf has told the tale of Déagol’s murder and Gollum’s dreadful deeds in Mirkwood (did he really sneak through windows to steal and eat small children?) and how he had betrayed the existence of the One Ring and the name of Baggins and the Shire to the Dark Lord himself so that the search was now on for its whereabouts, how can we blame Frodo for what he says?
And when he says that Gollum “deserves death” surely he is right. He deserves death for the crimes he has already committed and also to prevent the appalling consequence of the Ring falling into the hands of the Dark Lord.
Yet when Gandalf responds to Frodo’s cry he is not persuaded in the slightest. He ends his argument with the appeal to Pity which is appropriate in one who sat in the school of the Lady Nienna, the Lady of Pity, of Mercy and of Mourning, the one who taught the importance of lamentation, of tears, in the life of Arda. It is Pity that eventually leads to the destruction of the Ring and the downfall of Sauron but Pity cannot guarantee any outcome. What Gandalf appeals to before he speaks of Pity is something quite remarkable.
“Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”
The remarkable thing that Gandalf appeals to is the ability to take away and to give life. It is a great sadness that we are all capable of taking away life and so we give much thought to this power. Who has the right? Under what circumstances can this right, if right it is, be exercised? And so we think about murder, manslaughter,judicial execution and warfare, just or otherwise. Much of our judicial attention is given to preventing death or to punishing those who cause it illegally.
But what about the giving of life? This ability plays such an important role in Tolkien’s work. And it is made clear from the beginning that this right belongs only to God, to Eru, the One, Illuvatar. Morgoth seeks to create life, but fails, and at the last is able only to mar the creation in mockery of Illuvatar so forming the twisted shapes of the orcs and trolls and other fell creatures. And Aule does give life to the dwarves but has to make them sleep until the permissive word is given by the source of all life.
So, Gandalf argues, if you do not have the right to give life what right do you have to take it? Both the giving and taking of life is a denial of Providence the hand of grace that orders all our affairs whether we are small or great. And in many ways the whole of The Lord of the Rings is an extended meditation upon Providence, upon those who are willing to trust it and those who try to resist it.
I wrote this piece in August 2016 and during the past week it received its 1,000 view. It has always been a popular piece ever since I wrote it. In fact it received its highest monthly total in November of last year.
Among all our human experience it is rejection that is among the hardest to deal with. It is as if someone has looked hard at what we truly are and then cast us aside. But for Éowyn Aragorn’s rejection marks a key moment in her journey of self-discovery and without it she could never have made it and never achieved the happiness that she will find.
As always I would love to hear from you and so do leave a comment if you can.
In the last two weeks Jennifer Leonard ( loveroflembas.blogspot.com) and David Rowe (@TolkienProverbs and @mrdavidrowe) have offered their reflections on the story of Éowyn of Rohan. Both have had a substantial number of readers and I want to thank them both for what they have offered. This week I would like to offer my own contribution that was prompted by “Middle Hyrule’s” comment on David Rowe’s post entitled “Why Did Éowyn Want to Die?” in which she says,”I thought she wanted to die because Aragorn didn’t love her.” As always I love responding to your comments so please let me know what you think about what I have written.
When Aragorn leads his company away from Edoras towards the Dwimorberg, the haunted mountain, and the Paths of the Dead, he leaves Éowyn behind him, his last words to her nothing more than, “Nay, lady”. And so he leaves her, “stood still as…
The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 53-57
Frodo is disgusted by the story of how Sméagol had murdered his closest friend, Déagol, and taken the Ring and so began the journey from being a hobbit to becoming the “loathsome creature” that Bilbo had encountered deep beneath the Misty Mountains many years before. Gandalf tries to engage Frodo’s sympathy for a fellow creature but at this point in the story he has little success. Frodo even finds it difficult to believe that Gollum might have been a hobbit like him.
We cannot really blame Frodo for his reaction to Gollum and in a further reflection that will be published soon we will think about how we learn to pity another. Frodo has to go some distance yet down the road of experience in order to learn pity and it is not only experience itself that teaches. Gandalf and Sauron are both Maiar and so belong to the same order of angelic being with the same long experience of time and all its sorrow and joy. And yet while Gandalf has learnt Pity Sauron has entirely rejected it. Among the Valar, the Divinities of Tolkien’s legendarium, Gandalf sought out the Lady Nienna as his teacher while Sauron sought out Melkor who became Morgoth. Consequently Gandalf never achieved the power that Sauron did but he did learn Pity and Patience which were to prove to be so much more important.
Gandalf as Olorin and The Lady Nienna
One of the most important things that Gandalf learnt through his long practice both of Pity and of Patience was the ability to discern the significance of small things. Whereas Sauron could think only in terms of the exercise of his own will and whatever might aid or frustrate it Gandalf could see the exercise of another hand in history to which he must pay close attention and that this hand is as likely to work through small things as through great.
When he speaks of the Ring being found “by the most unlikely person imaginable” Gandalf is speaking of the work of this hand.
“Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring and not by its maker.”
Gandalf is capable of discerning that “something else at work” in the astonishing moment of chance in which Bilbo places his hand upon the Ring because of his long practice of paying the closest attention to things. And when we speak of things we are not speaking of those things that are generally regarded as important but of small things. Things like hobbits.
Gandalf expects to see the hand of Providence at work in such things. Sauron does not look for the hand of Providence at all. The direct intervention of the Valar at the end of the First Age and that of Eru, the One, when Ar-Pharazôn of Númenor attacks the Undying Lands, takes him entirely by surprise. But that he might fall because of hobbits is a possibility that could never have entered even his darkest thoughts. You require certain powers of imagination in order to see Providence at work and Sauron not only has no imagination but he despises it. It is necessary to have imagination in order to people the world with hobbits and dwarves and ents. Sauron, like his master, Morgoth, before him, can only think in terms of slaves and of usefulness.
At The Entmoot by Stephen Hickman
Oh, the limitations of the practically minded! Those whose careful cost-benefit analyses can only be constructed in terms of profitability. Those who are prepared to declare whole peoples useless and to construct realities in which the useless no longer exist. Those for whom trees have only value as a carbon based energy source. Those who can only look at land as potential real-estate. At the last they must fall before the playful, the imaginative and the foolish.
Gandalf is accused of being trivial in his love of pipe-weed, fireworks and hobbits and accused of madness in entrusting the Ring to a “witless halfling”. But he has seen something that others have not. That no-one can simply abandon the Ring (or cast it into the Fire for that matter) unless another hand is at work and he has discerned that hand at work in the hobbits, Bilbo and Frodo Baggins.
I wrote this piece at this time of the year in 2015. It has never had a lot of readers but I enjoyed a wonderful conversation in the Comments section with those who did read it. I think that it is worth reading for that alone but I offer it to you with my greetings at this Christmastide and if any of you would like to join in the conversation I would be delighted to read your thoughts.
If I were to keep to my usual practice and to reflect on a passage from The Lord of the Rings as I read through the story then I would have to end the year, and to keep Christmas, with Frodo and Sam in Shelob’s Lair. I could not do this. Tolkien himself used December 25th as a day of hope in his story, the day on which the Fellowship left Rivendell to begin their mission. The dereliction of Shelob’s Lair comes later when Sam believes Frodo to be dead and wrestles with the choice of whether to leave him and to carry on the mission alone. We will reach that point in 2016. I could not spend Christmas thinking about it.
As I thought about what to write I recalled a piece that I wrote in December 2012 when I first began to write my Lord of the Rings
A few weeks ago I celebrated the first post on my blog to have been viewed 1,000 times. It is entitled A Chance for Faramir, Captain of Gondor, to Show His Quality. If you look at Top Posts and Pages in the column on the right of this page you will find a link to it there.
Today I wish to celebrate the second of my posts to achieve the same distinction. Actually allow me to confess. It has been viewed 997 times but I hope that by the end of the day that will have become 1,000! It is a piece that I remain pleased with. It expresses two things. One is the importance of small things in The Lord of the Rings and how wisdom is shown in paying attention to them. Another links to a recent conversation on the blog about how Sauron, the great planner, tends to overlook small things. Olga Polomoshnova made this point in a comment on my post, Why Did Sauron Make the Ring?
And the post that I hope you are about to read also gave me the chance to thank one or two othere who have been regular supporters of the blog. Conversation is one of the joys of blogging and it has contributed so much to deepening my understanding of Tolkien’s work.
Frodo cannot cast the Ring into the Fire. It has mastered him and will not be destroyed in that way. In the last two weeks, firstly in my own post, Frodo Claims The Ring For Himself and in Anne Marie Gazzolo’s wonderful meditation, The Ring Claims Frodo we saw that Frodo spent all that he could of himself just to bring the Ring to the Mountain. He had nothing more to give. As Tom Hillman put it, with typical wisdom in a comment on Frodo Claims The Ring For Himself, “no-one could have achieved the Quest by throwing the Ring into the Fire”
I think it is necessary to pause here a moment to say that when Tom says no-one he means that not Elrond, nor Galadriel nor Gandalf nor Aragorn could have thrown the Ring into the Fire. There is an amusing meme that does the rounds of the…
The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 51-53
Gandalf is answering a question that Frodo asked him fearfully and desperately.
“How on earth did it come to me?”
Frodo is speaking of the Ring of Power forged by Sauron so that he might become lord of all the earth. In a few short minutes Frodo has journeyed from being a hobbit enjoying a comfortable if rather a dull life to one at the very centre of the great events of his age. He has already protested against the apparent injustice of his fate. If Gandalf had invited him to be a part of an adventure he might have responded with more enthusiasm. To go on an adventure would have been a conscious and carefully considered choice, although when Bilbo made that choice it had to be done in haste before the possibility passed him by for ever. Frodo is given no choice. The Ring has come to him and its maker is searching for it.
And so Gandalf gives him a brief overview of the history of the Second and Third Ages, of the evil desire of Sauron and the brave resistance of Elendil of Gondor and Arnor and Gil-galad, the High King of the Elves. He speaks of how Isildur, son of Elendil, cut the Ring from Sauron’s hand but how he failed to destroy it, eventually losing it in an orc ambush in the Gladden Fields in which he lost his life. He tells Frodo how the Ring remained hidden for long years there until it was found by hobbit like creatures near their ancestral home.
The Ring was found by Déagol, friend of Sméagol, a friend, that is, until the moment in which Sméagol murdered him because the Ring “looked so bright and beautiful”. And so began Sméagol’s unhappy career as a creature of power and menace, a career in which he began as a hobbit and ended as Gollum, a name given to him in contempt by his fellows but one that eventually he took for himself, or at least for that expression of himself that was entirely under the power of the Ring.
In Peter Jackson’s films we are given the impression that Sméagol’s decision to murder his friend was because of the overwhelming and entirely malicious power of the Ring and it is true that the Ring plays a key role in the whole unhappy affair. But Tolkien would not allow so simple an explanation. Before the moment of the Ring’s discovery and the murder, Sméagol had a career. We learn that he “was interested in roots and beginnings; he dived into deep pools; he burrowed under trees and growing plants; he into green mounds”. In other words he was a scientist.
Now before all the scientists who are among my readers cry out in protest let me say that I do not believe that Tolkien was against the scientific method in and of itself. What he tried to get us to see is that knowledge can never take the place of wisdom. Poor Sméagol may have learnt all that there is about the roots and beginnings of things but he never learnt how to find love, or joy, or peace. He may have stolen a tool that could give him power but he had to trade happiness in order to gain it. As Gandalf was to say later to Saruman, those who break a thing in order to find out what it is leave the path of wisdom. Sméagol, like Saruman, was a breaker, a manipulator, and a fool!
Sméagol’s journey took him deeper into the roots of things, away from the warming sun, the gentle breeze and the kind company of friends and kinsfolk. He went down into the tunnels underneath the mountains, down into the dark. It is the inevitable end for one who chooses power over others in stead of the service of others. The dark may not be physical as it was in Sméagol’s case but it is utterly isolating. It is the reality that comes when someone turns inward, centreing only upon themself, turning away from others.
But at last a moment of grace broke into Sméagol’s dark world in the form of a hobbit who was utterly lost. But would Sméagol recognise it when it came?
And especially today my many readers throughout Europe,
I have long been an admirer of Timothy Garton-Ash ever since I was introduced to his work by German friends some years ago. I think that his reflection on the relationship between the European Union and Great Britain is both correct and timely.
I think that the European Union has a choice to make, as does Britain. Will it choose to be merely a bureaucratic arrangement in which the members of the club pay their bills, keep the rules regarding free movement of goods and services and of people, but apart from that are free to honour or to dishonour the rule of law or will it choose to be a truly democratic institution? I believe that in its original concept the European Union was a rejection of the politics of the past in which each European nation sought to further only its own interests, a politics that led ultimately to two world wars. It was also a rejection of the dictatorships of Europe both of the Right and of the Left. And if Europe wishes to remain true to that founding vision then it needs Britain to play a strong role. For all its faults Britain remains one of the strongest democracies in Europe if not the world.
And so I agree entirely with Timothy Garton-Ash in his headline when he says… MymessagetoEurope: tellusyouwantBritaintostay
The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp 50,51
In 1949 Herbert Butterfield, Professor of Modern History at the University of Cambridge, published a series of lectures that he had given under the title of Christianity and History. I do not know if he had any contact with The Inklings. He was a Cambridge Professor and they were based in Oxford. But I rather think that Tolkien would have approved of Butterfield’s thoughts contained in this quotation from those lectures.
“The hardest strokes of heaven fall in history upon those who imagine that they can control things in a sovereign manner, as though they were kings of the earth, playing Providence not only for themselves but for the far future- reaching out into the future with the wrong kind of far-sightedness and gambling on a lot of risky calculations in which there must never be a single mistake.”
When I asked whether Butterfield and the Inklings could have known each other it was because it seemed to me that Butterfield could have been describing the action of Sauron in the forging of the Ring. That Sauron imagined himself, not only as a king of the earth, but as the king. Sauron forged the Ring in order to achieve kingship, declaring his intent in the words that he inscribed upon it.
One Ring to rule them all.
Sauron is one who fears disorder; one for whom order is only certain when he is in absolute control. This means that all other powers, even and perhaps most especially Providence itself, must first be found and then bound in the darkness. And why the darkness? Because the light is not under his control and the light is able to penetrate even the most carefully constructed of his defences. The same goes for the unruly weather. The wind blows where it chooses and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.
And Sauron fears those who are born of the Spirit, those who are truly free, who will not bow the knee to him; and so he labours endlessly to corrupt the free and to bind them to him for ever. It is the Ringwraiths, the Nazgûl, who are the most tragic of these people. They are those who traded their freedom in exchange for power and so as Gandalf expresses it heartbreakingly, they became “shadows under his great Shadow”. It is hard to imagine any image that could convey the sense of something or someone who has less substance than a shadow within a shadow. This is the end of all who seek power and control and who grow to fear freedom above everything else. Butterfield describes Sauron so well when he speaks of one who is farsighted in the wrong way, someone who seeks to eliminate all unpredictability and risk from the future. As Butterfield puts it, someone for whom “there must never be a single mistake”.
Compare such a spirit to the astonishing risk of putting your trust in hobbits! Perhaps this is a moment to consider how great a risk this is. Later in the story Denethor, the Lord of Gondor, will declare Gandalf’s trust in hobbits as madness and the hobbits themselves as witless. Gandalf does not argue with him or try to justify his trust. His choice is the worst that could possibly have been made. Except, that is, for every other choice.
But the same quotation from Butterfield that opened this short reflection goes on to describe the choice that Gandalf does make and the one that Frodo accepts and makes his own.
“Each of us should rather do the good that is under our noses. Those people work more wisely who seek to achieve good in their own small corner of the world and then leave the leaven to leaven the whole lump.”
This is what Gandalf and Frodo speak of on that Spring morning in the Shire. Not some vast plan to solve all the problems of Middle-earth but the decision to take one course of action. And at this point the action is only to take the Ring out of the Shire because the Dark Lord now knows that the Ring is there. The first choice to do good is very limited in its scope because at this point Frodo and, even, Gandalf himself does not know what to do next. But it is enough. The lump of dough will be leavened beyond all imagining.
The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 48-51
The curtains are drawn and the room in which Frodo and Gandalf are sitting is darkened. The main source of light now comes from the brightly burning fire in the hearth. And it is into this fire that Gandalf now casts Bilbo’s ring and so reveals its true identity. It is the One Ring that Sauron made himself, “it is his, and he let a great part of his own former power pass into it, so that he could rule all the others.” And it is this Ring that the Dark Lord, now arisen once more, is seeking.
Frodo is dismayed. “I wish it need not have happened in my time.”
And Gandalf speaks for us all when he says, “And so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
It is almost impossible to grasp how huge a moment this is in Frodo’s life unless, as we hear him say, “I wish it need not have happened in my time”, we also picture the Lord of the Nazgûl thrusting his knife into Frodo’s shoulder, Shelob’s sting in his neck, Gollum’s teeth biting off his finger and the Ring and perhaps, worst of all, the inexorably growing burden of the Ring that is slowly but surely taking possession of him as, step by step, he travels through Mordor towards the mountain.
But how can we be expected to grasp this moment if Frodo himself does not grasp it? He knows that the Ring is terrible but he can have no idea of what lies ahead for him. He may have a rich imagination but he cannot possibly imagine the suffering that he will have to endure. And this is the problem with our imaginations. Either the thing that we fear is greater in our imaginations than it is in reality or else it is much, much smaller. Imagination and reality are never co-equal.
The impossibility of forming a perfect connection between imagination and reality does not make it impossible either for Gandalf to explain to Frodo what he must do or for Frodo to decide whether to accept the task or not. Gandalf’s words to Frodo enable Frodo to do what is required and that is to take the first step.
“All that we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
This is a wonderful moment of clarity offered by one who possesses both the ability to see both the whole picture of which even these great decisions form but a part and the necessary steps of a particular journey. As a good friend said to me recently Gandalf is both absolutely terrible and entirely trustworthy at one and the same time. We might do all in our power to keep the ones that we love away from him because we will fear the task to which he might call them but he will never call them to something that will do hurt to their true self. Can we say that with confidence when we know what Frodo will go through? I think that we must say yes. Frodo will be tested beyond any limit that he might have conceived possible and yet he will be held by the power that called both himself and Gandalf, a power that bids us wager all that we have for something beyond all possibility.
And there is something else. A few years ago I used to leave my daughter on a Saturday morning at some riding stables near our home and then walk with my dog through the narrow lanes of Worcestershire before returning in time to watch her riding her horse over the jumps in the last minutes of the lesson. There was one point in my walk in which I descended a gentle hill that gave me some sense of the road ahead but whose sweep was hidden by a high hedgerow so that I could not see what was approaching me. Suddenly one day as I walked the lane I became convinced, just for a moment, that Gandalf was coming towards me around the bend and that when we met he would call me on a wonderful yet terrible adventure and that I would go. My whole being was gripped by exhilaration and anticipation. I did not meet him that day but the memory of the experience has not left me. I know that to decide what to do with my own time is both something that is completely serious and yet completely joyful at both one and the same time.