An End to Hope, Maybe, But Not to Toil. Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli Pursue the Orcs of Isengard Across the Plains of Rohan.

The Two Towers by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991, 2007) pp. 547-558)

Three times the sun rises upon the chase of Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli, the three hunters, as they pursue the orcs of Isengard first through the foothills of the Emyn Muil and then across the plains of Rohan. The hunters have run many miles and yet have come no closer to their enemies and their goal, their longing to find and then rescue Merry and Pippin from their captors. Among Men, Dwarves and Elves they have done a deed that will rightly be accounted mighty but the orcs have hardly rested by day or by night.

Hope, what little hope that they had, is fading.

“For many hours they had marched without rest. They were going slowly now, and Gimli’s back was bent. Stone-hard are the Dwarves in labour or journey, but this endless chase began to tell on him, as all hope failed in his heart.”

The “hopeless” journey of the three companions across Rohan. Alan Lee depicts the pursuit and those who are pursued.

There have been moments when faint glimmers of hope have been rekindled in their hearts. The green smell, as Legolas puts it, of the wide grasslands, lifts their spirits for a time. And there is the discovery of hobbit footprints and the broach of an elven-cloak. “Not idly do the leaves of Lórien fall,”says Aragorn. It is a sign that at least one hobbit was still alive when the orc company passed that way. Aragorn thinks it was Pippin. But as the hunters begin to realise that they are coming no closer to their quarry so hope fails.

“Not idly do the leaves of Lórien fall”, as depicted by Dante 2060.

Aragorn never had much hope. He does not even think that what they seek to do has much significance within the great story in which he is a part. At one point he looks southwards across Rohan to the White Mountains that are the northern border of Gondor and in song he yearns to be there.

O Gondor, Gondor! Shall Men behold the Silver Tree,
Or West Wind blow again between the Mountains and the Sea?

And then there is a moment in which Gimli longs for a light such as Frodo bears to guide them in the dark.

“It will be more needed where it is bestowed,” said Aragorn. ‘With him lies the true Quest. Ours is but a small matter in the great deeds of this time. A vain pursuit from its beginning, maybe, which no choice of mine can mar or mend. Well, I have chosen. So let us use this time as best we may.”

So continues Aragorn’s long reflection upon the question of hope that began with the fall of Gandalf in Moria. I say that it began there but perhaps it is more true to say that his whole adult life has been a reflection, a meditation upon this theme. Even the very name, Estel, that was given to him by his mother means Hope. And not hope as in the sense of crossing one’s fingers and trusting to luck but in something that goes much deeper. The Elven king, Finrod Felagund, sought to explain this deeper sense when he says that estel “is not defeated by the ways of the world, for it does not come from experience, but from our nature and first being. If we are indeed the Eruchin, the Children of the One, then He will not suffer Himself to be deprived of His own, not by any Enemy, not even by ourselves.”

Aragorn has sought to embody estel within himself in his long years of service in Gondor, in Rohan, and as the leader of the Rangers of the North. Always he has held before him his longing for personal happiness in his desire to marry Arwen. And he has sought to be the expression of hope for his people, for the fading remnant of Númenor in the North and for the brave but beleaguered defenders of freedom in Gondor. But now he feels that he has been seperated from this hope. The fall of Gandalf has affected him deeply but, so too, has Frodo’s decision to leave the Company and to make the journey to Mordor without them. Aragorn realises that he no longer has any part to play in that journey. He may be determined to rescue the young hobbits or die in the attempt. He may be certain that what he has chosen is right. But he is bitterly aware that he has been pushed, as it would seem, to the margins of the story. For him the loss of hope is not just about whether they will be able to rescue Merry and Pippin but about the sense of destiny that has given him meaning throughout his life. We might say, to use the language of Finrod Felagund, that his sense of hope, of estel, has been founded, not upon a belief that Illuvatar will not leave himself bereft of his children within the world, but upon something much more personal, that he, Aragorn, will be the bearer of that hope. Now, as he begins his pursuit on the third morning after the breaking of the Fellowship that hope is gone and all that remains is toil.

Aragorn at the Argonath. Can he fulfil the hope of his people?

“I Only Said I Think I Shall Come.” Life With and Without Gandalf.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) p.266

I have long been drawn to the figures of old men in literature and have wanted to spend time in their company. As a small boy I read and re-read T.H White’s The Once and Future King and the scene that gave me the greatest pleasure was that in which the Wart (the young King Arthur) comes across Merlin in a clearing in the Forest Sauvage for the very first time and you just know that life is never going to be the same again and it is going to be good. Then a few years later I settled down with Frodo by the open window of his study to smoke a pipe with Gandalf and was content. Years later I read the Harry Potter stories to my daughters and found that the attraction had not gone. I was never happier than in the scenes with Albus Dumbledore and when there seemed to be some distance between Harry and Dumbledore I felt an old familiar ache and longing inside. And perhaps one of the most significant and vivid dreams in my life ended, almost uniquely, in perfect resolution when I knelt before an old man who I identified as the Pope in order to receive his blessing. I could even smell the fragrance in the air at that moment of perfect peace and harmony.

Alan Lee’s sublime imagining of Merlin and the Young Arthur together in Merlin’s study. Can anything be more perfect?

I am not sure that I ever quite met the elder that I was looking for and at the age that I have now reached the opportunity to do so is receding but the longing has not gone. It’s just that I begin to realise that I am going to have to find this father within myself and not in a figure that I am likely to meet. Maybe that is the meaning of my dream. A dream that I think was given for my whole life and not just for a moment within it.

During these weeks of the summer I have been writing about some bigger themes in The Lord of the Rings before turning to The Two Towers in the autumn and I have begun to think about both the presence and the absence of Gandalf in the story. My readers may remember that I wrote a piece entitled “We Must Do Without Hope” back on December 11th 2021 https://stephencwinter.com/2021/12/11/we-must-do-without-hope-the-company-go-on-after-the-fall-of-gandalf/ as Aragorn takes command of the Company after the catastrophe of the fall of Gandalf in Moria. These words are almost a title for the early chapters of The Two Towers as Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli pursue Merry and Pippin and their orc captors across the plains of Rohan towards the Forest of Fangorn. Again and again Aragorn reflects both upon hope and its absence. Surely he knows that to free the young hobbits is a hopeless task against so numerous a foe, as Éomer tries to convince him, but he continues with grim resolution until at last in the forest he meets Gandalf once more. From that moment onwards he is a man transformed.

Meeting Gandalf in Fangorn Forest

And we see the same reaction from Frodo when Gandalf announces to the hobbits, “I think I shall come with you.” Indeed, Tolkien writes, “So great was Frodo’s delight at this announcement that Gandalf left the windowsill, where he had been sitting, and took off his hat and bowed. ‘I only said I think I shall come. Do not count on anything yet.'”

Gandalf’s presence is so important that it gives huge confidence, energy and hope to all around him. When the Company are attacked by wargs near the western gate of Moria Sam is given hope as he says, “Whatever may be in store for old Gandalf, I’ll wager it isn’t a wolf’s belly.”

And then comes the moment when Gandalf falls at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm and for a time at least all hope is gone. Eventually Gandalf is restored to the Fellowship, for all at least except two. For Frodo and Sam have to go on alone step by step to the Cracks of Doom bearing the burden of the Ring and without even the sustaining thought that Gandalf is out there somewhere fighting on their behalf. It is worth pondering the fact that they, alone among their fellows, achieve their quest entirely without this source of strength and of hope. They know the loneliness of being a grown up and what strength they are able to find must be found within.

Frodo and Sam alone in Mordor

“Take Off the Ring!” Frodo’s Inner Struggle Upon Amon Hen.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 391-392

It all begins because Frodo has to flee from Boromir wearing the Ring in order to do so. Frodo climbs up the slopes of Amon Hen and finally reaches its top.

“He saw as through a mist a wide flat circle, paved with mighty flags, and surrounded with a crumbling battlement: and in the middle, set upon four carven pillars, was a high seat, reached by a stair of many steps.”

A beautiful depiction of Amon Hen by Woodhouse

The high seat upon Amon Hen has always been a place set apart for reflection, an expression of the belief that if only we can get high enough, if only we can somehow rise above all the chaos that surrounds us, we will achieve a kind of clarity and will know what we must do. But in all the long years since first the seat was placed upon this hill top by the men of Númenor there has never been a moment like this. No-one has been able to see as Frodo does because no-one has sat upon the chair while wearing the Ring.

And what Frodo sees is war. “The Misty Mountains were crawling like anthills; orcs were issuing out of a thousand holes. Under the boughs of Mirkwood there was deadly strife of Elves and Men and fell beasts. The land of the Beornings was aflame; a cloud was over Moria; smoke rose on the borders of Lórien.”

And last of all, and perhaps inevitably, Frodo’s gaze is drawn towards the place in which the Ring was forged and the tower in which its master dwells: “wall upon wall, battlement upon battlement, black, immeasurably strong, mountain of iron, gate of steel, tower of adamant, he saw it: Barad-dûr, Fortress of Sauron. All hope left him.”

A fascinating, almost surreal, depiction of the struggle upon Amon Hen by Joel Marriner.

It is at this moment that Frodo becomes aware that someone is searching eagerly, voraciously, for him, for the Ring that he is now wearing; and that this creature, whose very being has become an embodiment of desire, so entire, that if the thing that he longs for were to cease to exist there would be nothing left of him but a memory of what he once was, will find him. And it is at this moment too that he becomes strangely aware of a familiar voice telling him to take off the Ring.

“Take it off! Take it off! Fool, take it off! Take off the Ring!

The struggle lasts only for a moment but during that time the whole fate of Middle-earth lies, literally, in the balance. Frodo is held, “perfectly balanced” between the Voice and the Eye. If Sauron is able to find him, to identify exactly where he is, then he will regain the Ring at last and darkness will fall.

Crucially, this moment is resolved when Frodo becomes “aware of himself again” as one who is free to choose and he takes off the Ring. “Then all the sky was clean and blue and birds sang in every tree.”

Frodo is not only able to think for himself again but he is able to achieve a clarity of purpose that all his seeing could never give him. Not that the vision that he has been given upon Amon Hen has been of no value for it has enabled him to see that he cannot put his trust in any power outside of himself because every power is as nothing compared to the power that resides within Barad-dûr. All that he has is the Self who is able to make this choice, the choice to go alone to Mordor.

The problem with hope is, as T.S Eliot puts it in his Four Quartets, is that “hope would be hope for the wrong thing.” There is no hope for Frodo in Minas Tirith because, for all its courageous beauty, it cannot stand at the last before the power that is rising against it. All that he has is himself and the choice that he made at the Council of Elrond to take the Ring to the Fire though he did not know the way. As Eliot puts it, following his teacher, St John of the Cross, we come to the point in which all hope has been stripped away and there we find, as Frodo does, that “the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing”.

Wait without hope, for hope would be hope for the wrong thing”. A depiction of Minas Tirith.

“Seeing Is Both Good and Perilous”. Frodo Looks Into The Mirror of Galadriel.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp.354-357

“Do you now wish to look, Frodo?” said the Lady Galadriel. “You did not wish to see Elf-magic and were content.”

Alan Lee imagines Frodo looking into The Mirror of Galadriel.

Last week we saw how Sam did look into the Mirror of Galadriel having “wanted to see a bit of magic like what it tells of in old tales”; thinking, as he did, that all magic was of the variety of a conjuring trick and done either for the purpose of entertainment or to make the world a little more wonderful. What he did experience was nothing of this kind but deeply disturbing as he was forced to witness the destruction of his own home and his father fleeing as a refugee. And now will Frodo look into the Mirror?

What Frodo sees once he has made up his mind to do so is at first the great story of which he has become such a vital part; a hero, as Elrond put it, worthy to sit among “the mighty Elf-friends of old”. He sees the mighty sea that both destroyed the land of Númenor and brought the ships of Elendil, storm tossed to Middle-earth. He sees the mighty fortress of Minas Tirith and then the ship that will carry the King back to his city. And at the last he sees the ship that will carry him away from Middle-earth to the Undying Lands for his healing from the many wounds that he has taken in giving to it a future and a hope.

But it does not end there. Frodo sighs and prepares to turn away from the vision, having understood little, if any, of what he has seen, when he is arrested by something else. He sees at first a darkness, an emptiness, and then he sees an Eye, and soon knows that this Eye is searching for him. “Frodo knew with certainty and horror that among the many things that it sought he himself was one.”

Frodo sees the Eye that is searching for him.

Frodo has seen what Sauron has become. A lidless eye endlessly searching throughout the world for anything that might pose a threat to its own existence. Not that Sauron has been reduced yet to this alone. Gollum will speak of the nine fingers upon his hand which are enough to do terrible things, but this is the main form in which he exists within the earth. He is one who sees, or perhaps we should say, one who seeks, for he is not omniscient. Frodo knows that the Eye cannot see him unless he chooses to put on the Ring.

“Seeing is both good and perilous”. These were Galadriel’s words to Frodo when he asked whether or not he should look into the Mirror and her wisdom could have been either for Frodo or for Sauron. To Frodo because it is often the wisest course of action simply to deal with what is immediately in front of us. To see too far into the future can well render us impotent in the present. Or, as in the case of Sam, may tempt us to leave a pathway that had seemed entirely right in order to solve a problem that we will be perfectly capable of solving later on down the road after we have completed our present task.

And what of Sauron? His ability to see is good in so far as he is able to gather information about the world about him but ultimately what he sees is desperately limited and he is paralysed by the gaps in his knowledge. He cannot penetrate the minds of his enemies and even when he can, as in his use of the Palantír, the Seeing Stones, he still has to deal with the duplicity of Saruman and the essentially noble character of Denethor. And when he sees Aragorn in the Stone of Orthanc, he will misinterpret what he sees so badly as to cause him to leave himself fatally vulnerable to the one thing that he fails to predict. The painstakingly slow journey of the Ring into the very heart of his realm.

Sauron completely misinterprets what he sees in the palantír.

So does Frodo see anything of good? Well the answer is that he does. He sees that Sauron cannot see him unless he chooses to reveal himself. He will always have a choice to make and though this choice will become like an intolerable weight about his neck the power to make this choice will open a way for him to Orodruin itself.

Sam Gamgee Finds Strength to Finish the Job.

It was in trusting to luck on the roads of Mordor that Frodo and Sam were driven northward by the orcs in a forced march almost to the same Black Gate that they had seen from the other side just two weeks before. In those short days they have encountered Faramir and his Rangers of Ithilien; journeyed through the Morgul Vale; made the long climb to the pass of Cirith Ungol and there Frodo has been assailed by Shelob and carried by orcs into Mordor and the tower that guards the pass while Sam has defeated Shelob, briefly taken the Ring and rescued Frodo. 

Now as Frodo lies, exhausted by the torment of the march, Sam begins to ponder the journey that still lies before them to Mount Doom. 

“‘It looks every step of fifty miles,’ he muttered gloomily, staring at the threatening mountain, ‘and that’ll take a week, if it takes a day, with Mr Frodo as he is.’ He shook his head, and as be worked things out, slowly a new dark thought grew in his mind. Never for long had hope died in his staunch heart, and always until now he had taken some thought for their return. But the bitter truth came home to him at last: at best their provision would take them to their goal; and when the task was done, there they would come to an end, alone, houseless, foodless in the midst of a terrible desert. There could be no return.”

As we shall see as they make this last journey Sam is never quite able to despair. There is always an action that can be taken to get them a little nearer to their goal and, even at the very end, a place that is a little safer than the utter destruction that lies within the Cracks of Doom. Sam cannot quite abandon the optimism that has played such a part in bringing them so far upon the impossible journey. Trusting to luck, to wyrd, on the roads of Mordor that we thought about two weeks ago, was not just the consequence of dire necessity but a part of Sam’s character formed long before. And even when all hope has gone he must give luck every opportunity that he can.

Sam longs for a happy ending to his story and to Frodo’s and it is Rosie Cotton that he first recalls. His longings are for home and family and a woman to share them with and now, for the first time, it seems to him that he is never to enjoy these things. He would have the right to be angry, with Gandalf or Elrond who sent him on such a hopeless task, or with whatever sense of higher power that Sam has but at this moment he discovers something quite new, and even exciting. “He felt through all his limbs a thrill, as if he was turning into some creature of stone or steel that neither despair nor weariness nor endless barren miles could subdue.”

It is only possible to make such discoveries at moments when they become necessary. Life must be entirely wagered on a venture whose outcome is, at best, doubtful, and most likely impossible, before such strength is given. Sam has laid his bets already, choosing to leave the comfortable world from which he came in order to go with Frodo. It is the kind of wager that we all consider at some point of our lives when the really big choices are laid before us. For only the big choices have the kind of degree of uncertainty about them that make us truly afraid. Now Sam sees, for the first time, the possible consequences of his wager and with it his will hardens and mighty strength is given. He is ready to carry himself, and Frodo if necessary, to the mountain and to the end of their journey. And that readiness to see the wager through to the end is what makes Sam great.  

    

The Boldness of the One Necessary Deed

For a few moments before they take what rest they can Gandalf and Pippin speak together of the debate with Denethor and Faramir. For Pippin the question that is uppermost in his mind is whether there is any hope for Frodo, any hope for any of them? Gandalf’s reply is to take Denethor’s words and to make them his own.

“There never was much hope,” he answered. “Just a fool’s hope, as I have been told.”

And even this hope, slender as it is, is shaken by news that Frodo and Sam seek to enter Mordor by way of Cirith Ungol and guided by Gollum.

But then Gandalf begins to give a little substance to his hope. The substance comprises two hobbits and their treacherous guide, a foolish hobbit gazing into the Seeing Stone of Orthanc drawn by his own curiosity, and a captain, “bold, determined, able to take his own counsel and dare great risks at need” who challenges Sauron in the very same stone. All are bold deeds, even that of Pippin’s foolish act but they amount to very little. Of themselves they will win no battles. Of themselves they cannot withstand the armies of Mordor.

But it is the boldness that exposes both Sauron’s desire and his fear. His desire we know. He desires the Ring and he desires the power that the Ring can bring him. We know that Sauron has become reduced to little more than the sum of his desire. He is no more than a bigger version of the hungry Gollum. “Eat fish every day!” When we saw that desire in Gollum we found it pathetic, even sadly laughable. Somehow when such desire is allied to power it seems to have a semblance of dignity but it is in essence the same thing, both entirely destructive and ultimately empty.

And because Sauron of his own prideful choice can see all reality only in terms of scale, “who or what is bigger or smaller than he is?”, he has a strange and fearful vulnerability. The foolish boldness of Frodo and Sam is something that does even enter his calculations. The Council of Elrond declared that at the very outset of Frodo’s mission. It is an action that is beneath even his contempt and certainly outside of his understanding. No one who possesses the Ring could possibly do so with the intention of not using it, even destroying it! This is the weakness that Frodo and Sam expose.

But there is also something that Aragorn’s boldness exposes and that is his fear. All things seek to hide from Sauron. Until now even Aragorn has done so. Now he challenges him face to face, the heir of Isildur displaying Narsil, the sword that once took the Ring from Sauron’s finger, reforged. This alone brings doubt into Sauron’s mind but it is connected to something else and that is to Pippin’s foolishness. Sauron has seen the face of a hobbit, associating it with the fall of Saruman. Does the heir of Isildur possess the Ring? And so he launches his attack just a little too soon.

What hope Gandalf can find in this remains slender. All that he can offer to Pippin at the end in response to Pippin’s anxiety about Gollum is one of those proverbs that can mean either one thing or another. You take your choice. But Gandalf takes his leave of Pippin with a firm “Good night!” and his determination is renewed.

Such boldness is what is meant by the story that Jesus told in the Gospels of the man who on finding the treasure in the field goes away and sells all that he has in order to buy the field. At that moment there remains no more place for calculation only for the deed. This does not mean that such recklessness becomes the determining principle for every action. There is a place for caution and for prudence especially when care for others is concerned but happy is the one who listens so carefully that they know that all caution must be set aside for the one necessary deed.

 

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.