Frodo and Sam Rest For a While in The Woods of Ithilien

Frodo and Sam have been here before because the Field of Cormallen lies close to the refuge of Henneth Annûn. These are the woods that they came to on their journey, guided by Gollum, from the desolation that lay before the Black Gate of Mordor to the Crossroads, the Morgul Vale and then the great climb up to the Pass of Cirith Ungol. These are the woods in Ithilien, the desolate garden of Gondor that “kept still a dishevelled dryad loveliness” even as they were ravaged by orcs and other foes of Gondor.

It is only a few short weeks since Frodo and Sam were last in these woods in the first days of March. Even then Spring was beginning and the life of the Earth was already breaking through the destructive grip of Mordor after the cold of Winter. “Fronds pierced moss and mould, larches were green fingered, small flowers were opening in the turf, birds were singing.” Now the Spring is advanced and in its full riotous glory of smells, sights and sounds. Even amidst the fearfulness of their last visit to Ithilien Frodo and Sam were refreshed by the gentle beauty of this place, now they linger there without fear “visiting again the places that they had passed before.” This time they know that there are no dangers hiding in a shadow or behind a rock or tree. The song of a bird can be heard clearly without the possibility of an iron clad footfall of an orc being listened for amidst its beauty. The “groves and thickets… of tamarisk and pungent terebinth, of olive and of bay” can be gazed upon and their aromas drank in without fear that they may conceal an enemy who might do them hurt.

The last time that they were here Frodo and Sam were pressing forward, always aware that every moment’s delay in their journey to the mountain might lead to disaster for their friends and all that they loved. The curtain of water cascading down the rocks that concealed the refuge of Faramir and his Rangers might be gazed upon for a moment as the setting sun lit it with light and colour but always there was the sense as they paused in their journey that there was another step to be taken, another danger to be faced.

Tolkien’s story is filled with pauses in which the characters encounter beauty in a manner that takes hold of them, making them stop to take it in. The hidden valley of Rivendell, the woods of Lothlórien, the glittering caves of Aglarond and the refuge of Henneth Annûn in the woods of Ithilien are all such places. Each one calls them to turn aside for a moment from their task but they are not thereby distractions. A distraction is a pulling or dragging away of the mind from the needful thing. In The Lord of the Rings the encounter with beauty is not a distraction but a recollection. The essential is that which is good, true and beautiful and it is the essential that is threatened by the Dark Lord and yet so woven into the very fabric of reality that the Dark Lord cannot touch and destroy it. We recall Frodo’s cry of “They cannot conquer for ever!” at the flower-crowned head of the statue of the King of Gondor cast down by orcs and Sam’s vision of the star beyond the mirks of Mordor that is inaccessible to the reach of Sauron.

Already Frodo and Sam have known that there is “the dearest freshness deep down things” and so they can wander through Ithilien without fear and contemplate it in a way far beyond that which those who have not known the dark as they have done can do. This is the dawn that awaits those who watch through the dark of the night, the Springtime prepared for those who have endured through Winter.

A Day of Praisegiving upon The Field of Cormallen

After Sam and Frodo have woken in a soft bed for the first time in many days, delighting in the sheer wonder of being alive, they are made ready to play the central part in a day of Praisegiving.

“‘What shall we wear?’ said Sam; for all he could see was the old tattered clothes that they had journeyed in, lying folded on the ground beside their beds.

‘The clothes that you wore on your way to Mordor,’ said Gandalf. ‘Even the orc clothes that you wore in the black land, Frodo, shall be preserved. No silks and linens, nor any armour or heraldry could be more honourable.'”

And so Frodo and Sam are brought before the host of the West and the Praisegiving begins. There are mighty shouts, “Long live the Halflings! Praise them with great praise!” The King leads his people in doing honour to the heroes by bowing the knee and leading Frodo and Sam to thrones set up beside his own. And a minstrel sings praise before the host and the heroes telling them of “Frodo of the Nine Fingers and the Ring of Doom”, so making Sam’s joy complete. So great is the skill of the minstrel that the hearts of all who listen are “wounded with sweet words” and they overflow with a joy “like swords” until they pass “in thought out to regions where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness.”

This Day of Giving Praise is one that enables all who are gathered together on The Field of Cormallen to create a sacred space within their hearts to hold all that has happened to them as a treasure that in days to come they will be able to take out and gaze upon to make some sense of all that will happen to them in their lives. For they will know many more days of sorrow and of joy and will share those days with others too. But they have been to the very edge of darkness and have seen it gather about them, ready to devour them, and then the light has broken through to carry them to blessedness and they hardly know how they have got there or what the place is that they have reached.

Stories must be told and doubtless a story of the deeds of Frodo and Sam has been told to the army before they appear before them. Of course they know nothing of the journey through Mordor or the final events upon the Mountain. All that they know is that the Halflings who stand before them, clothed in orc rags, are their deliverers. Even the minstrel who tells the story with such skill does not know what we would call the facts. What he knows is a truth that is so real that even the hobbits, who lived the facts, recognise it as their own lived experience and recognise it too as something that transcends that experience. Both the praise that the host gives and the song of the minstrel rely upon formulae, of recognised forms of speech, but the overflow of their hearts is in no way diminished by this. Rather it is contained as a river channel contains a mighty flood enabling the water’s force to empower rather than destroy.

Once again we are taken back to Frodo’s experience in the halls of Elrond when Bilbo’s singing of the Tale of Eärendil and Frodo’s experience of the mighty river of the Music of the Ainur all became one thing for a moment.

It is this experience that all who gather upon the Field of Cormallen will be able to draw upon in years to come. The giving of praise, a king who kneels before hobbits of the Shire clothed in orc rags, and a tale sung by the greatest of minstrels that transported them briefly to a place of blessedness and then brought them back to the ground upon which they must stand and then leave to the feast and then to their duties.

And if they should choose each duty will be transfigured from this day on by the treasure that they carry within their hearts and even those who allow the treasure to be choked and buried by the cares of their lives may, in a moment of illumination, find the light that they once experienced upon The Field of Cormallen breaking through once more.

The image in this week’s blog post is by Tolman Cotton.

Sam Wakes Up in Bed at The Field of Cormallen

I have many favourite moments in The Lord of the Rings and two of the very best are when Frodo wakes up in bed in Rivendell after the flight to the Fords of Bruinen and this scene at The Field of Cormallen.

“When Sam awoke, he found that he was lying on some soft bed, but over him gently swayed wide beechen boughs, and through their young leaves sunlight glimmered, green and gold. All the air was full of a sweet mingled scent.”

Tolkien mixes some beautiful images, springtime after winter, light after darkness, rich verdant plenty after a wasteland and my own particular favourite, waking up in a comfortable bed after a hard journey.

As a young man I spent six years as a teacher in a secondary school (high school) in Africa. I loved to travel and soon learned that every journey was in itself an adventure to a degree that in the West we have tried to eliminate. We have “more important” things to do with our time such as being on time for meetings and other apparently essential things than we have for adventure. Adventure, after all, is always an interruption to our plans. It is exciting to watch the adventures of others but, on the whole, most of us are hobbits and we find adventures to be “nasty, disturbing, uncomfortable things” that “make you late for dinner”.

My African experience was that dinner and a bed for the night when travelling was always a triumph and usually depended upon an act of kind hospitality on the part of someone else. What this certainly taught me was to value the gift of a comfortable bed. It was certainly better than the hard ground although I learned to sleep on that too.

But I think that my love for the scene of Sam waking up in bed links to an earlier and deeper experience and that is of the profound feeling of being safe, and everything being alright, that I felt from time to time in childhood. Childhood has many insecurities even in the happiest ones. Dark corners hide possible dangers while the fear of an encounter with a bigger boy with whom you have some unresolved matter can occupy the imagination for a long time. Waking up in bed feeling safe with the sun streaming through the curtains and the prospect of a day of delight ahead is a simple pleasure that is rarely surpassed through life and the likelihood is that the day of delight belongs to the holidays and those who know their C.S Lewis know what a joy the holiday is. He links it closely to the joy of heaven.

As always, Tolkien is a little more reticent about making such links openly than is Lewis. But surely heaven is, at least in part, that sense of waking up and knowing, knowing at the depths of one’s being, that everything is alright. As a serious grown-up I usually awake with the knowledge that there is work to do. But I remember the childhood experience and it has a ring of truth to it that makes all my adult awakenings seem pallid by comparison. I may catch glimpses of joy but that was the real thing.

This is Sam’s experience. It is one of “bewilderment and great joy”, of being “glad to wake”, and his great cry of joy, of praise, “is everything sad going to come untrue?”

This is truly one of those glimpses of “the world made new”. Gandalf’s response to Sam’s cry of praise is not to point out that there will be struggles ahead. We all know that there will be. Gandalf joins Sam’s hymn of praise to “the dearest freshness deep down things” by laughing and his laughter is a “sound like music, or like water in a parched land.”

Like Sam we sometimes catch glimpses of this reality although for for few, if for any, are they so hard won. My enjoyment of the triumph of finding a good meal and a bed for the night in my journeys in Africa point me to the deeper authenticity of Sam’s experience on the Field of Cormallen but for both of us the fulfilment of that joy lies ahead at the fulfilment of all things, the great conclusion of the Music of the Ainur.

Did Gandalf Plan to Rescue Frodo and Sam From Mount Doom?

Thanks to some challenging questions from my readers recently I have been thinking a lot about the question of strategy and planning in The Lord of the Rings. And because this blog is in essence an extended reflection on the relationship between spirituality and life with the aid of J.R.R Tolkien I have been thinking about the relationship between the way in which we act in a time of crisis. What is the connection between our plans and our actions at such a time? Do our plans have any meaning when we have gambled all that we have on one slender possibility?

At the climax of the battle before the Black Gate, as the armies of the West make their last stand, Gwaihir, Lord of Eagles of the North, arrives with all of his vassals. Their first intention is to engage the Nazgûl but even as the Eagles arrive the Nazgûl flee from the battle answering the desperate call of their master as the Ring stands upon the brink of destruction. Soon the Ring has gone to the Fire, the realm of Sauron is at an end and Gandalf meets with Gwaihir.

” ‘Twice you have borne me, Gwaihir my friend,” said Gandalf. “Thrice shall pay for all, if you are willing. You will not find me a burden much greater than when you bore me from Zirakzigil, where my old like burned away.’

‘I would bear you,’ answered Gwaihir, ‘whither you will, even were you made of stone.'”

And so Gandalf and the Eagles fly to the rescue of Frodo and Sam at Mount Doom.

But what plans for Frodo and Sam had Gandalf made before the battle? The answer that I would like to make was that he had made no plans whatsoever. Of course, as soon as the eagles have come and the battle is won, he does all that he can to save them but if there had been no eagles there would have been no rescue. The eagles may have been hoped for but never planned for.

Does this reveal Gandalf’s essential heartlessness? Is he a general so fixed upon his goal that he is prepared to spend the lives of any of his men in order to achieve it? Again I would argue, no.

It was at the Black Gate some days before that Frodo had given much thought to the question of Gandalf’s intentions. Gollum had just made his suggestion that they try to enter Mordor by his “secret way”. As Frodo pondered this Gandalf was standing upon the steps of Orthanc, speaking with Saruman and yet thinking too of Frodo and Sam. Maybe Frodo felt this, even though he believed that Gandalf was gone for ever, but as he sat in silent thought he tried to recall all that Gandalf had said about the plans for the journey and the way he should enter Mordor.

“For this choice he could recall no counsel. Indeed Gandalf’s guidance had been taken from them too soon, too soon, while the Dark Land was still very far away. How they should enter it at the last Gandalf had not said. Perhaps he could not say.”

And Frodo concludes his reflections with a remembering of his decision “in his own sitting-room in the far off spring of another year” to take the Ring. This is critical. We are not talking about plans but about choices, decisions and commitments. Gandalf had made no plans for the entry into Mordor or any other part of the journey. The whole quest was a stepping forth into the complete unknown in which all plans were meaningless but all choices and commitments critical. The whole thing is a crazy gamble, a “Fool’s Hope”, as Denethor rightly described it. Frodo called it an “evil choice” and he is right too.

There are no plans, only a desperate gamble “costing not less than everything”, as T.S Eliot puts it in his Four Quartets.

Is Gandalf lucky that the Eagles turn up at the right moment? Of course he is. But it is the kind of luck that can only come to those who are prepared to risk everything for the best good.

 

Sam Gamgee Sees Something More Real Than the Shadow.

Whether it is day or night in the ever dark land of Mordor Sam and Frodo hardly know but the darkness seems to be deepening and they are weary and in need of rest. Frodo falls asleep almost immediately but Sam remains wary and stays awake. And it is in this state of exhaustion that he experiences a moment of absolute clarity of vision.

“Far above the Ephel Dúath in the West the night sky was still dim and pale. There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a bright star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach. His song in the Tower had been defiance rather than hope; for then he was thinking of himself. Now, for a moment, his own fate, and even his master’s, ceased to trouble him. He crawled back into the brambles and laid himself by Frodo’s side, and putting away all fear he cast himself into a deep untroubled sleep.”

As we saw last time “the blind dark” is getting into Frodo’s heart and he can no longer see as Sam can see. The Ring exercises an ever greater hold upon him and so Sam must see for them both. So often we mistakenly believe that we walk alone not realising that at all times we bear one another’s burdens. Frodo must bear the Ring, not just for Sam but for the whole world. This is his destiny and in order to fulfil it he must remain in desolation. We do not blame him for the moments of anger or the growing silence that is taking hold of him. Our hearts go out to him just as Sam’s does.

For even as Frodo falls into “the blind dark” Sam’s heart becomes ever more compassionate and his capacity for the vision of beauty grows. We have reflected on more than one occasion on how Sam’s adventures begin with a desire “to see Elves”, but it is one thing to be able to see, and to long for, beauty in the Shire, it is another thing to be able to see it in Mordor. Sam does see it and sees it as something that is deeper and more real than the “small and passing thing” that is the Shadow.

In the seeing of the beauty of the star Sam is able to carry Frodo through Mordor; in the bearing of the burden of the Ring Frodo carries the hopes and fears of the world.

And there is something more and this is what Sam is able to glimpse for a moment and that is that it is neither Sam’s vision of beauty nor Frodo’s ability to bear the Ring that matters most but that there is “light and high beauty” for ever beyond the reach of the Shadow. That such light and beauty should be matters more even than the success or failure of their mission. It matters even more than whether they live or die. There is a Love that holds and cradles Frodo and Sam of which they are only dimly aware, catching glimpses of it when they find water in the Morgai, attributing their good fortune to the favour of the Lady of Lothlórien but that there should be such a Love for them matters less than the reality that the Love, the Beauty, the Goodness and the Truth simply are.

And Sam does what such a vision always calls those who see to do. He puts away all fear and casts himself into a deep untroubled sleep. It is not that he feels safe in the land of Shadow. It is a still a place of danger as he will soon find out but he has seen something deeper than the danger and that is enough.

Sam Finds Frodo in the Tower of Cirith Ungol

I was rather charmed last week when I found that my post on Sam’s song in the Tower of Cirith Ungol was “liked” by some fellow bloggers who write about beauty and fashion. Such affirmation both amuses and, slightly, impresses my daughters (23 and 19) who find it difficult to associate their ageing father with such a world. At first I could noty understand why I was attracting such interest but then I realised that I had tagged my post with the word, beauty, as I reflected on Sam’s spiritual journey, quoting C.S Lewis when he said that we do not wish merely to see beauty but to bathe in it. Just in case any of these bloggers have decided to return this week I offer my prayer for them that they will eventually find the Beauty that transcends all of the beauty that we seek here upon the earth.

Those who know The Lord of the Rings well will know that this is Sam’s journey in the story. It begins with Sam lamenting the passing of the Elves from Middle-earth as Ted Sandyman jeers at him, and when Gandalf tells him that he will go with Frodo when Frodo leaves the Shire part of his joy lies in the possibility that he might see Elves.

Throughout the journey Sam deepens his appreciation of beauty as he first meets the company of Gildor Inglorion within the boundaries of the Shire itself and then stays in Rivendell and Lothlórien. But his most profound encounters with beauty are in the darkest places; the Star Glass of Galadriel in the darkness visible of Shelob’s Lair, the song that he finds within himself in the Tower of Cirith Ungol that is given to him at the moment of despair. And there will be one more on the deathly plains of Mordor that is yet to come.

And one day Sam will see the Beauty that transcends even these moments and will recognise it (and the Beauty will not be an it but a thou) to be what he was always seeking. The thou will be both a homecoming and also an invitation to go deeper and ever deeper.

But Sam has been nourished by another guiding light that does not contradict but deepens his longing for beauty. Sam is guided by his love for Frodo. This transcends the social divide that exists between them and it survives Frodo’s descent into darkness that takes place as he falls under the power of the Ring as they approach Mount Doom, the place of its forging. Nothing can diminish Sam’s love and it is this which has carried him into the orc fortress overcoming all his fear and finally brings him to Frodo’s prison at the very pinnacle of the tower.

And so he finds him at last.

” ‘Frodo! Mr. Frodo, my dear!’ cried Sam, tears almost blinding him. ‘It’s Sam, I’ve come!’ He half lifted his master and hugged him to his breast.”

Sam’s love for Frodo is such that words like master and servant no longer have any meaning for him. If Frodo were to treat him in a demeaning manner Sam would still love Frodo, not out of some slavish desire to somehow gain his approval, but out of an unquenchable desire for Frodo’s wellbeing.

The theologian, Elizabeth Wyschogrod, once wrote that the saint is marked by “a wild desire for the beautitude of the Other”. I do not think that we need to feel any embarrassment in ascribing this quality to Sam. Just as in his longing for beauty Sam will eventually find the Thou that both includes all that he has ever desired and utterly transcends it so too will Sam find in the same Thou all that he has ever loved, and will ever love, without having to make distinction between them. In the Thou there will be but one equal love and yet each of Sam’s loves will be utterly fulfilled and utterly transcended. Sam’s moment of ecstasy in his finding of Frodo will never diminish his love for Rosie Cotton or Elanor or any of his children even though as he grows in love he will for a time find himself torn in two between them.

But just now we will leave him in his ecstasy of joy, free from all growing pains, as he holds Frodo in his arms for a brief moment before the journey has to go on.

 

Sam Gamgee Sings in the Tower of Cirith Ungol

I struggled for some time with the title of this week’s blog post. I hope that what I write will show you why and if you think that you might have a better title then please offer it as a comment. I would love to hear from you. I have chosen the simplest title that I can think of. It is simply a description of what happens. Sam sings and he does so in the Tower of Cirith Ungol.

Immediately that seemingly simple statement should make us stop in wonder. The tower is an orc fortress on the border of Mordor, once a part of a ring of fortifications built by Gondor at the height of its power in order to watch over the land that had been taken from Sauron at the great battle in which the Ring was taken from him. As Gondor’s power waned it was taken from them by the Lord of the Nazgûl. And from that day one can only imagine that the kind of song that would have been sung in that place would have harsh and cruel like the song the goblins of the Misty Mountains sing as they carry their Dwarf captives through its tunnels in The Hobbit.

Sam sings because he is in despair. He is searching for Frodo amidst the carnage of the battle that the orcs have fought over Frodo’s mithril coat and he cannot find him. He hopes that if Frodo is able to hear him sing then he might be able to make some kind of reply.

And so he tries to think of something that Frodo might be able to respond to, perhaps a child’s song from the Shire or something that Bilbo used to sing, but it is no use. And then something wonderful happens. Words and music come to him that evoke the achingly beautiful struggle of life against the power of death.

“In western lands beneath the Sun the flowers may rise in Spring…”

I said earlier that the simple statement that Sam sings in the tower should make us stop in wonder. It is not just that he sings that is wonderful but what he sings. The words that come to him seem to have journeyed, perhaps from the Shire in springtime, perhaps from the Undying Lands themselves. The image of beech trees crowned with Elven-stars is one of such beauty that only a true poet could possibly have created it. By this point of the story we know that Sam is a poet. The verse that he composes in honour of the fallen Gandalf in Lothlórien tells us that he is a poet but this is something of a higher quality even than that.

What do we make of this? I want to suggest this. Great artists speak of a work of art not so much as something that they have created themselves but as something that they discover. So Michelangelo’s Pietà is found within the block of marble from the Carrara quarry. So the opening bars of the slow movement of Vaughan Williams’ 5th Symphony seem to have come from a country that, at best, we can only glimpse and that we long for. An artist can only do this work of finding if she or he gives long hours, even years, of practice to the perfection of their art. And yet what is created is never merely the sum of that practice. The work is always something found , something given. 

C.S Lewis, who shared much of Tolkien’s understanding put it this way in his 1941 sermon, The Weight of Glory. 

“We do not want merely to see beauty… we want something else which can hardly be put into words- to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.”

I think that those words capture the essence of Sam’s spiritual search. We can only guess at how he nourished it in his heart on the long journey. I am sure that he did nourish it because words like this could not have come otherwise nor the music either. They are an invasion of Mordor that cannot be resisted and they do their work. Frodo is found!