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!”

 

The Battle Before the Black Gate. Do the Best Stories have Happy Endings?

I had intended to return to Frodo and Sam at the Tower of Cirith Ungol this week but I felt that I needed to offer one last meditation on the “hopeless” battle before the Black Gate of Mordor before I leave it for a while. At the very least I felt that I owe it to Pippin who is lying under the body of a Troll chieftain that he has just valiantly slain in defence of Beregond of the Guard, his friend. I can’t just leave him there without hope!

When I first read The Return of the King as a teenager it was a volume that I had borrowed from my school library. After eating my evening meal I disappeared to my room and read and read and read…

I wonder how long it took me to read the section from the end of Book 5 and the battle before the Black Gate to the moment when Gandalf calls upon the armies of the West to “stand and wait!” I was reading as fast as I could but even so it must have been a good hour or so before I got there. Tolkien’s happy ending, his eucatastrophe, as he termed it, was something for which I was made to wait. I had to endure the endless journey through the horror of Mordor that Frodo and Sam had to make in order to reach Mount Doom and once there I had to watch helplessly with Sam as Frodo failed in his mission and all was saved only by the unlooked for intervention of Gollum.

But still the happy ending came. Did it come because of the courage of the Armies of the West and their brave captains? Did it come because of the faithful witness to the Good that Gandalf had born through the long centuries of his sojourn in Middle-earth? Did it come because of the friendship of the nine companions who set out from Rivendell just three months before? Did it come because Frodo staggered, step by weary step, supported and, at the last, carried by Sam up the slopes of Mount Doom?

After we have given due praise to all of the characters that we have come to know and love in Tolkien’s great work, and each of them deserves great praise, we have to say that none of these things actually brings about the happy ending. That comes through grace alone, from something that lies beyond the endless repetition of cause and effect.

This is one of Tolkien’s greatest contributions to the culture of our time and one which has brought the greatest anger from literary critics. Most of all Tolkien has been accused of being an escapist. Life, real life, the critics say, is not like that. Tolkien is treating us as if we are children. This is mere fairy tale and it is time for us to grow up and embrace reality.

Tolkien faced this criticism head on in an essay first printed in 1947 entitled, On Fairy-Stories. In it he wrote, “I coined the word ‘eucatastrophe’: the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears  (which I argued it is the highest function of fairy-stories to produce). And I was there led to the view that it produces its peculiar effect because it is a sudden glimpse of Truth, your whole nature chained in material cause and effect, the chain of death, feels a sudden relief as if a major limb out of joint had suddenly snapped back”.

It is this “sudden glimpse of Truth” that is so subversive to the “chain of death” that is held to be the only reality by the so-called modernists. And it is precisely from that prison, surrounded by the chain of death, from which Tolkien calls us to escape. Is it a coward who cannot face up to reality who tries to escape from this prison? Surely it is the ones who tell us that the prison is the only reality and that there is no freedom beyond it who lack courage. The courageous life is the one that refuses to submit to the tyranny of the “chain of death” as do Tolkien’s heroes.

 

 

The King and The Healing of Faramir

It is not so much the wound that Faramir received in battle that brings him close to death. Aragorn reaches the heart of the matter when he says to Imrahil, “Weariness, grief for his father’s mood, a wound, and over all the Black Breath”. All these things have finally overcome the valiant Faramir. All his life he has resisted the creeping shadow both in the rise of Mordor beyond the borders of Gondor and within the hearts of his own people and now, at last, his hope is gone.

It is not by Athelas alone that Aragorn heals Faramir. Tolkien does not enter into any explanation of the process but simply describes what Aragorn does.

“Now Aragorn knelt beside Faramir, and held a hand upon his brow. And those who watched him felt that some great struggle was going on. For Aragorn’s face grew grey with weariness; and ever and anon he called the name of Faramir, but each time more faintly to their hearing, as if Aragorn himself was removed from them, and walked in some dark vale, calling for one who is lost.”

What Tolkien describes here is some form of the coinherence about which the Inklings used to speak and an idea which was introduced to them by Charles Williams. Williams believed that Christians could voluntarily bear the suffering or burden of another and so aid their healing. Aragorn’s apparent journey away from himself and his profound weariness as he makes this journey seems to suggest that this is what is happening. For those who would like to explore this idea further I would warmly recommend the work of Sørina Higgins on Charles Williams which you can explore by going to https://theoddestinkling.wordpress.com and clicking on coinherence in the tags on the right hand side of the page.

It may be that Aragorn is able to call Faramir back from his journey towards death by this means but the healing is made complete when Bergil arrives with athelas. Aragorn crushes two leaves and casts them into a bowl of water and life is restored to both the healer and the one who is near to death.

“The fragrance that came to each was like a memory of dewy mornings of unshadowed sun in some land of which the fair world in Spring is itself but a fleeting memory.”

As you read the account of the healings in this beautiful chapter you will note that the fragrance of athelas is somehow different for each person that is healed. It is a beautiful expression of the unique relationship between the one who is hurt, the means of their healing and the healer. Surely in Faramir’s case we catch a glimpse, just for a moment, of his deepest yearning. When Faramir explained to Frodo the meaning of the ceremony that he and his men observed before eating in Henneth Anûn he spoke of his longing for the restoring of Gondor and also for something deeper even than that longing. He spoke of “that which is beyond Elvenhome and will ever be”.   https://stephencwinter.com/2015/09/08/faramir-remembers-that-which-is-beyond-elvenhome-and-will-ever-be/

Faramir has long pondered that which Númenor and even Valinor can only point to. He is one who cannot stay at the surface of things and so passes through his experience as son of the Steward of Gondor through the history of his people and unto their origins in Númenor. And on arriving there and pondering both its glory and its fall under the shadow he goes deeper yet until he comes to Valinor which is forever closed to them. He will know that it is at the surface of Valinor the deathless land that the corrupted kings of Númenor stayed and so desired to possess it and the gift of immortality and so he passes deeper yet to what lies beyond Elvenhome. This is what he and all in the Houses of Healing glimpse just for a moment. It is a glimpse into the most secret place within his soul, into his most true self, even into the deepest reality of all and so he is called back from the shadows into light and life and into service of the king for whose return he has long waited.

“Come Athelas! Come Athelas! Life to the Dying in the King’s Hand Lying!”

As Aragorn crushes two leaves of athelas in his hands after breathing upon them “straightway a living freshness filled the room, as if the air itself awoke and tingled, sparkling with joy”. And so begins Aragorn’s healing journey from Faramir to Éowyn and then to Merry.

I said last week that I have been looking forward to writing about this chapter in The Lord of the Rings for some time now and so I don’t intend to rush through it. I also intend at some point to include a guest blog from a young writer whose work has impressed me so do look out for that. But this week I want to begin with something a little more personal, a memory that was jogged as I read the chapter again last week. And it was the description of the fragrance of athelas that I refer to here.

Readers will remember that when Frodo was wounded in the attack of the Nazgûl upon the camp beneath Weathertop Aragorn had Sam look for kingsfoil and they will remember how its fragrance lifted their hearts and its virtue stayed the evil influence of the poison in Frodo’s wound long enough for them to reach Rivendell. Now as Aragorn is revealed as king the fragrance is immeasurably greater and so too is the healing virtue. It “came to each like a memory of dewy mornings of unshadowed sun in some land of which the fair world in Spring is itself but a fleeting memory.” And what follows for each is a fragrance that speaks of the particular way in which each is healed, made whole.

What this recalled for me was a dream that I had about fifteen years ago. In my dream I find myself in a hotel bedroom with a woman lying beside me and water pouring through a crack in the ceiling over my head. I climb out of bed telling the woman (who I never identify) that I will go and get the problem sorted out and find myself immediately in a field with a fence to my right and a long queue of people in front of me. I ask someone what the queue is about and they tell me that the Pope is in a shed in the field just up ahead and that they are waiting to see him. I decide to wait too and soon find myself in the darkened shed. The Pope is John Paul II and he is in the last stage of his life, a frail old man. Behind him a priest with shadowed face waits in attendance. No one speaks. I simply know that I must kneel before the Pope and wait for his blessing. He lays his hands upon my head and as he does so the room is filled with the most wonderful fragrance. I stand up knowing that everything is alright and that I do not need to return to the hotel room.

Of course it is my memory of the fragrance in the dream that was recalled when I read this chapter once again and it is the fragrance in relation to the revelation of Aragorn as king that I want to briefly ponder here as I think about my dream. In his book on male initiation, Adam’s Return, Richard Rohr thinks about the power of the king archetype that is so rarely revealed in most men except in its dark form in the bully or in the weak form endlessly complaining that no one is paying sufficient attention to him. Rohr describes the true king as “the master of all power, so much so that he can risk looking powerless… The kingly part of a man connects heaven and earth, spiritual and material, divine and human, inner and outer. When you meet a man who seems a bit larger than life, you know he has some king energy. He is a healer of souls.”

The king that I met within myself in my dream was old, not fearing to risk looking powerless. The power came in the blessing which is the true revelation of the king energy just as it is in Aragorn. My disordered state was healed in turning to the king energy within me. I can say quite candidly that it is still being healed to this very day but I am learning in my contemplative practice where to turn and I think there is hope for me yet.

A Cock Crow Announces the Fall of Mordor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Christmas! A Good Time to Start a Venture that will Save the World From Evil.

“Go now with good hearts! Farewell, and may the blessing of Elves and Men and all Free Folk go with you. May the stars shine on your faces!”

So says the Lord Elrond at dusk on the 25th December in the year 3018 in the Third Age of the Earth as the Fellowship of the Ring sets out upon the quest to take the Ring of Power to the fires in which it was created upon Orodruin, Mt Doom, in the land of Mordor.

Within the story the date upon which the Fellowship sets out is determined by events such as Frodo’s decision to leave Bag End upon his birthday, the 23rd of September. This means that it is in the dead of winter that the great quest will leave Rivendell. But for Tolkien there is another reason why the 25th of December is chosen and that, of course, is because of the place of that date within the church’s calendar. It is Christmas, the Feast of the Nativity, of the birth of the Saviour to Mary and Joseph in a stable in Bethlehem. It is the day upon which the great adventure begins, “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

In Tolkien’s legendarium, unlike C. S Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, there is no incarnation. There is no figure like Aslan, around whom the whole story turns, who will die and rise again for the world. But the whole story is a preparation for the Incarnation. All of Tolkien’s great work prepares us to hear the great words that are proclaimed in the Christmas gospel, that “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

The destruction of the Ring of Power and the Fall of Sauron is not the end of the story. Tolkien goes to great lengths to show that. It is the point of the heartrending chapter near the end of The Lord of the Rings that he entitles, The Scouring of the Shire. The Ring may have gone to the Fire but a small band of brigands under a malicious leader can still do serious harm. It is the point of the departure from Middle-earth of Galadriel, Elrond and Gandalf and the ending of the great works that they were able to do with the three Elven Rings whose power fades with the destruction of the One Ring to which they were inextricably linked. For with the end of Sauron comes also the fading of Lothlórien and of Rivendell.

Christmas is yet to come in Middle-earth. We sense that when it does come it will do so as Tolkien’s great eucatastrophe, “the sudden happy turn in a story that pierces you with a joy that brings tears.” The long slow defeat of Tolkien’s story and our own experience of the world will end, not with the going out of the light for ever, but with the dawning of endless day that grows ever brighter. To this Great Day the Fall of Sauron and the Coronation of Aragorn as the returning King of Gondor and of Arnor is but a signpost. The reality that the sign points to has not yet come.

But for now we get ahead of ourselves in the story. It is the 25th of December and a small company without much gear of war goes south with the Ringbearer.

“There was no laughter, and no song or music. At last they turned away and faded silently into the dusk.”

On Gandalf and His “Fool’s Hope”.

Denethor is right!

I never thought that I would be saying this but I seem to have no choice. In the last few weeks on this blog we have been thinking about the weaknesses in his character but especially in the debate following the piece I wrote entitled https://stephencwinter.com/2016/10/27/he-would-have-brought-me-a-mighty-gift-denethor-and-the-ring/ I was strongly challenged by The Joviator to rethink my view of Denethor. I do hope that you can read that debate and the excellent piece that The Joviator wrote on his own blog http://www.idiosophy.com/2016/11/denethor-as-tragic-hero/. I have decided to start by turning away from my own judgement of Denethor and to take what he says of Gandalf seriously. And if I decide still to follow Gandalf it will be for reasons entirely other than my judgement of Denethor’s motives.

“What then is your wisdom?” said Gandalf.

“Enough to perceive that there are two follies to avoid. To use this thing is perilous. At this hour, to send it in the hands of a witless halfling into the land of the Enemy himself, as you have done, and this son of mine, this is madness”

“And the Lord Denethor what would he have done?”

“Neither. But most surely not for any argument would he have set this thing at a hazard beyond all but a fool’s hope, risking our utter ruin, if the Enemy should recover what he lost.”

Let us set aside Denethor’s judgement of Frodo for the moment. It is precisely because Faramir did not judge Frodo to be witless but a figure of some greatness that he chose to aid his mission and not to bring him to Minas Tirith. But Denethor regards his son to be as foolish as Gandalf and so we cannot use our knowledge of Frodo as a defence for the course of action decided at the Council of Elrond. Frodo is as much involved in the fool’s hope as everyone else at the Council. If he is witless then so too are they.

In order to read The Lord of the Rings properly we need to agree with Denethor. Frodo’s mission is impossible. Even if the Fellowship had not been sundered at the Falls of Rauros and Aragorn and Boromir, Legolas and Gimli had been at Frodo’s side on the journey to Mount Doom it would have remained impossible. When Gandalf describes Cirith Ungol and the Morgul Vale as cursed places one is tempted to ask what other route he would have counselled Frodo to take? Each one would have been as impossible as the next and the likely outcome of all that the Ring would fall into Sauron’s hands.

And in order to read The Lord of the Rings properly we need to leave behind the heroic tale that Peter Jackson tells. There we see that “even the smallest” can be heroes and that is an inspiring thought. In his telling of the story it is the heroism of Frodo and perhaps even more of Sam that stands in contrast to the weakness of Faramir and the cowardice of Denethor. It is that heroism that is the axis upon the whole story turns and each character is judged by whether they support or oppose it.

Tolkien tells a story that is profoundly different and it recalls words that St Paul writes to the Corinthians in the New Testament when he says that “God foolishness is wiser than human wisdom and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” (1 Corinthians 1.25) The foolishness and weakness to which Paul points is the cross and the proclamation of the cross. The death that Jesus dies alone, betrayed, abandoned is a foolishness and a weakness that shapes all reality. Paul says it himself that Christ crucified is “the power of God and the Wisdom of God”.

The Lord of the Rings is set in a world that has not known the Gospel message of God becoming one of us. That is what makes it different from C.S Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia in which Aslan is a participant in the stories. But it is a world that is shot through with the wisdom and power of which Paul speaks. In it we see that reality is shaped by the Cross. The Lord of the Rings knows it as Providence  showing that there is a hidden Power at work in the world greater than any other that meant Frodo to have the Ring. Gandalf’s Yes to this Providence is indeed a Fool’s Hope but I am on the side of his foolishness and against the wisdom of Denethor.