Well, I’m Back

The Three Companions make their silent way back from the Grey Havens and their farewells to Frodo and Bilbo and their glorious fellow travellers.

“At last they rode over the downs and took the East Road, and then Merry and Pippin rode on to Buckland; and already they were singing again as they went. But Sam turned to Bywater, and so came back up the Hill as day was ending once more. And he went on, and there was yellow light, and fire within; and the evening meal was ready, and he was expected. And Rose drew him in, and set him in his chair, and put little Elanor upon his lap.

He drew a deep breath. ‘Well, I’m back,’ he said.”

For me these are some of the most poignant lines in all literature, the last lines of a story that I have loved ever since I first encountered it in my teens nearly fifty years ago. When I first read those lines I was filled with a deep sadness because it meant that I would have to leave a story that had somehow taken me to its heart. Middle-earth was now a place within my inner world, a world that was now peopled with new races whose history was a part of my history. A few years ago I was walking with my dog along a lane in Worcestershire, England, with high hedges upon either side. Suddenly I was captured by the thought that Gandalf might be walking towards me in the opposite direction and that when I turned the bend in the road he might meet me there to invite me upon an adventure. I was filled with excitement at the prospect and a little disappointment when he was not there.

Sam is in that world but his own adventure is over. It was an adventure that took him to places that were far beyond his imagining. All of this is now a part of him but all of this is now over. Rosie sets the scene for his future endeavours and she is right to do so. The fire in his own hearth is lit, the meal at his own table is set and his child is upon his knee. He is a husband, a father and a householder. He grows food for his growing family in his garden and from this place, from this homestead, a place worthy of the greatest respect, he leads his community.

Sam has returned from his journey bearing many gifts. The one that all can see is Galadriel’s box, and the fruits of that gift are clear for all to see. The Mallorn Tree in the Party Field, the beauty of the children born in 1420, the flourishing of the woodlands of the Shire that Saruman tried so hard to destroy and the excellence of the beer brewed in that year that satisfied the taste of the gaffers of the Shire for long years after. Galadriel saw this for herself as she passed through the Shire on her way to the Havens and she complimented Sam on the work that he had done.

But there are other gifts too. Sam has brought a wisdom and a fortitude from his journey that he did not know before he set out. He possesses a mastery over himself and over the ebb and flow of life that could only come from being tested to and beyond his limits. And he has brought to the Shire the gifts of Elfland. Not just the box that Galadriel gave him, not just the fulfilment of his longing for beauty that was satisfied by the encounter with Gildor even before he left the Shire. Sam carries Elfland in his soul and Elfland carries him. For a time at least, the Shire will be a place that treasures the memory of Elfland within Middle-earth. Sam’s beloved daughter, Elanor the Fair, will marry Fastred of Greenholm on the Far Downs and their family, the Fairbairns, the keepers of the Red Book, will dwell in the new Westmarch on the Tower Hills and by the gift of the king will be its wardens.

The history of Middle-earth must continue but the great story, in which the Fellowship of the Ring played such a part, that brought such gifts to its peoples must now come to an end.

But all who love this tale know that they can always turn back to the first page and start again.

The Fall and Rise of Meriadoc Brandybuck and the Battle of Bywater

If you click on the tag, Merry, at the foot of this post you will find a series of reflections on his progress through The Lord of the Rings at least since I began to publish them on WordPress in October 2013. At that point I had just begun to read The Two Towers and so my first encounter with Merry was as a prisoner of the Uruk Hai of Isengard. I intend to return to The Fellowship of the Ring later in the year and hope to do it better justice than I did when I wrote my early reflections on another website. But even though the reflections on Merry’s early story are missing from this blog I hope that you will see that they do form a true “pilgrim’s progress” as do all of the stories of the major major characters in Tolkien’s great tale.

Merry’s story is of a soul formed through a fall and a rise and if you have already noted that this is the opposite direction to the journey that Lotho Pimple takes and that we thought about last week then you are right. The tragedy of Lotho’s story is not so much that he fell but that he did not live to face the truth about himself and so to rise again. I wrote last week about gaining the world and so losing the soul. Lotho never saw the grace of losing the world before Wormtongue murdered him.

Merry begins The Lord of the Rings as a competent organiser just as he is at the Battle of Bywater when he takes command of troops who have no experience of battle but plenty of spirit and leads them to victory over Saruman’s brigands. Merry slays the leader of the outlaws who, if he had known that the hobbit that he faced had done battle with the deadliest warrior of the Age and lived to tell the tale would never have dared to confront him.

At our first meeting with Merry he is the “leader” of the conspiracy that seems to know more about Frodo’s business than he does. He has food, hot baths and ponies organised at Crickhollow and a secret escape route from the Black Riders through the Old Forest about which he also has local knowledge. But as soon as he is in the forest he is out of his depth, he has to be rescued from Old Man Willow by Tom Bombadil and he remains more or less out of his depth for the rest of the story.

Which of us is ever at our ease in being out of our depth? I mean, truly out of our depth, beyond our competence and in an unfamiliar element? For much of the story Merry sees himself as no more than unwanted extra baggage in someone else’s story and yet without realising it he is becoming at ease with unfamiliarity, at ease with the sense that each experience is beyond his capacity to cope with. And so, without being aware that this is what he is doing, he wins the trust of the mistrusting Treebeard and so brings about the fall of Isengard and it is in “being overlooked” at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields that he aids Éowyn in bringing about the fall of the Witch King of Angmar, the Lord of the Nazgûl. And he achieves all this because he is one who lives for love. Love for the Shire, love for his friends and love for those, like Théoden and Éowyn, who give their love to him.

And now, back on familiar territory, battle hardened but not heart hardened, he deploys his troops swiftly and effectively and so brings to a speedy end the occupation of the Shire. Does he know how he has made this journey and why he has become such an effective leader? I suspect not. But neither does he mind. It is enough that the work is done and that the Shire can begin to be healed once more but we can enjoy the growth of his soul and love him just as do all who know him well.

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.  

    

How to Choose the Right Spiritual Guide

Two weeks ago I wrote about Saruman and Gandalf as the spiritual guides of our day trying to show how Saruman had come to put his trust in the exercise of power through things that are made for indeed the thing he desired most was the Ring, the ultimate expression of power and Sauron’s greatest work. If our spirituality is a description of that which we desire most and that which we make the ground of our being then Saruman and those like him are indeed spiritual guides.

Saruman sees all reality as an expression either of power or weakness. Only that which enables the expression of power has any validity. And those he considers weaker than he is only have validity in so far as they may further his own ends. The problem for him as we have seen is that his estimate of strength and weakness is desperately flawed. He has no respect for hobbits or for Rohan and until this point of the story he has not even considered the Ents of Fangorn forest. This tendency to ignore that which he has no use for is the cause of his downfall.

“What is the house of Eorl but a thatched barn where brigands drink in the reek, and their brats roll on the floor among the dogs?” he screams in fury when Théoden rejects his offer of peace.

In other words Saruman is a spiritual guide who seeks to convince us that we need his power and that without him we can do nothing of any significance. It is a guidance that seeks to convince us that we are not worth very much. It is a guidance that plays upon our lack of self-worth and our sense of unworthiness. It is a guidance that works with the Dunlendings who are his allies in the war against Rohan. The Dunlendings, near neighbours of Rohan, have long nursed a sense of grievance against the Rohirrim and grievance is another fuel that spiritual guides like Saruman use.

Gandalf plays no such games. Often his friends express their conviction that they can do no nothing without him but he does nothing to encourage them in that belief. He is the pilgrim who has spent long years journeying from place to place among the free peoples of the Middle-earth seeking to help those who live there find courage within themselves to resist evil that they might not believe even exists. He does this with Frodo, helping him find the courage to take the journey to Rivendell bearing the Ring. He does this with Théoden, helping him to emerge from his inner darkness and confront the danger that threatens his people. If Saruman seeks to make others dependent upon him, Gandalf seeks to help others find strength within themselves.

We would do well to consider our own spiritual guides and make the right choice of them. On one hand there are the experts, the gurus, who “know” what we need and who “know” that we need them. They believe in their own expertise and also our weakness and our need of them. Such a culture of the “expert” shapes a certain kind of education and a certain kind of religion. On the other hand there are those who challenge us to think for ourselves and help us to take responsibility for our own lives. They do not try to hide the price that we will have to pay if we do seek to live the responsible life but they also demonstrate that the truly responsible life is also the truly joyous life and that the truly joyous life is also the truly responsible life.  And this life is the life that is truly free!