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!

Snaga knows that he is up against a Power much greater than he is.

Until I began to think about writing this post I had never wondered how it was that Snaga managed to be one of only two orcs left alive in the Tower of Cirith Ungol (the other being Shagrat) after the fight over Frodo’s mithril coat. To be honest I had never really thought much about Snaga at all. But as I thought about this part of the story I began to see that Snaga is one of life’s survivors until, that is, he thinks himself safe enough to strike out at Frodo with a whip. Until that point I think that Snaga managed to stay out of the trouble. As he tells Shagrat he sees it “through a window”. There is more than one way to be an orc. One is to be a warrior thug like Gorbag bullying your way to the top until you meet your match as he does in Shagrat. Another is to be a mean sneak with a keen nose for danger and how to stay out of it, a bigger version of Gollum you might say. You take whatever you need to survive, prepared to murder, if necessary, but you let the Gorbags and the Shagrats get their way. It is safer that way.

And that is where Snaga helps us to understand something that has been happening ever since Frodo raised the Star Glass of Galadriel in the darkness of Shelob’s Lair. A Power has entered Mordor, Snaga can sense it, and he is afraid.

If we recall some of the events since that moment it will help us to see what is happening. In raising the Star Glass Frodo brings the light of a Silmaril into Shelob’s endless night. In defeating Shelob in battle Sam finds a strength to do something that no one has done before. When Sam raises the phial of Galadriel before the hideous malice of the Watchers he feels “their will waver and crumble into fear”. And when Snaga confronts Sam on the tower steps it is not a small frightened hobbit that he meets but “a great silent shape, cloaked in a grey shadow, looming against the wavering light behind; in one hand it held a sword, the very light of which was a bitter pain, the other was clutched at his breast, but held concealed some nameless menace of power and doom”.

The menace, of course, is the Ring, but this is not the Power that has entered Mordor. We saw that the Power is not the Ring last week when Sam was tempted to claim it and to challenge Sauron. The Ring is trying to return to its master and will betray Sam. Sam realises this. “He’d spot me pretty quick, if I put the Ring on now, in Mordor.” The Power can use the menace of the Ring as it does to terrify Snaga but its purpose is not the same as the purpose of the Ring. If it was then it would have succeeded in betraying Sam and returning to Sauron.

No, the Power that has entered Mordor is something that Snaga can sense and is afraid of but it is not something that he can understand and nor  even can his master, the Dark Lord. Snaga has spiritual insight of a kind but only the kind that knows about power over others. Such a spiritual insight knows about exercising power over those who are weaker or submitting to those whose power is greater. It knows it well because it has practiced that spirituality for a long time. But it knows nothing about Goodness, Beauty, Truth, Mercy or Pity because it has rejected all of these for the sake of gaining power over others. The gospels call it gaining the world but losing your soul.

It is Goodness, Beauty, Truth, Mercy and Pity that have entered Mordor keeping company with two small hobbits who have done the simple act of laying down their lives for their friends. No one has greater love than this. No one who has rejected Love can ever grasp it. And only those who have chosen the way of humility in the way that Frodo and Sam have done can keep company with this kind of Power.

 

 

Master Peregrin, Do you see any hope that we shall stand?

Pippin sits with the brave and kind, Beregond, at an embrasure in the walls of the citadel while they break their fast together. Pippin speaks a little of his journeys  but more than this he wishes to hear of the story of Minas Tirith. And so he learns of the brief moment of hope when the young Denethor retook the ancient city of Osgiliath, but how the Nazgûl came and robbed them of whatever hope they might have had.

So Beregond turns to Pippin and asks him, “And, Master Peregrin, do you see any hope that we shall stand? ”

Where does hope come from? Pippin looks about him at the walls of the city and the citadel, “The towers and brave banners, and the sun in the high sky.” The towers and banners are symbols of the proud history of Gondor standing ever in the vanguard against the darkness, reminding all who stand beneath them of the day when the armies of Elendil and Isildur and the last great alliance overthrew Sauron before his gates. And the sun in the sky is a reminder of that which lasts beyond the lives of even the longest lived in Middle-earth. But nearer still is the shadow that creeps towards them. Pippin looks “at the gathering gloom in the East,” and thinks of the “the orcs in the woods and the mountains, the treason of Isengard, the birds of evil eye, and the Black Riders even in the lanes of the Shire- and of the winged terror, the Nazgûl.” All of these he has experienced personally and no shutting of the eyes or of any gate, however mighty, can make that experience go away or make it less real. The powers of darkness are real and Pippin knows that only too well. Denethor knows that too and here we receive a hint of how he has sought to  confront them. Beregond tells Pippin of Denethor’s sitting alone in his high chamber bending “his thought this way and that” searching “even the mind of the Enemy, wrestling with him.”

Later we will learn that Denethor has learned to use one of the Palantir, the seeing stones of Númenor, even as Saruman did. Unlike Saruman the vision of the growing darkness does not lead him to treachery but it did lead him to despair.

And here we see the contrast to Gandalf as we thought about last week. It is not the long intense gaze into the dark that leads to treachery or despair. Gandalf too has wrestled with the dark and so too has Galadriel. They have no illusions about its might. But along with the gaze into the dark has come also a deep and long contemplation of the good, the beautiful and the true. On their journey to Minas Tirith Gandalf told Pippin of how he longed to gaze into the mind of the greatest of artists, Fëanor the maker of the Silmarils, but unlike Fëanor he does not desire their possession. To possess adds nothing to who he is. He wishes to commune only with the beauty of Fëanor’s creation and with the maker himself. Such contemplation and such communion lead to an enlivening and as we saw when we thought of Gandalf’s laughter last week, to an abiding joy.

In the New Testament it is the writer to the Hebrews who puts this best of all. He speaks to his fearful readers first of the great heroes of their faith as a source of courage and then speaks of Jesus, “who for the joy that was set before him endured the  cross, despising the shame”. It is the contemplation of the joy that sustained Jesus and the writer to the Hebrews calls upon his readers to learn to look through Jesus’ eyes. Pippin may not yet be able to see the same joy that Gandalf can but he can see Gandalf and for now that is enough. We must do whatever we can to make the same connection. We might start with inspiring people around us and learn what sustains them.

Hobbits and Other Peasants at Christmastide

If I were to keep to my usual practice and to reflect on a passage from The Lord of the Rings as I read through the story then I would have to end the year, and to keep Christmas, with Frodo and Sam in Shelob’s Lair. I could not do this. Tolkien himself used December 25th as a day of hope in his story, the day on which the Fellowship left Rivendell to begin their mission. The dereliction of Shelob’s Lair comes later when Sam believes Frodo to be dead and wrestles with the choice of whether to leave him and to carry on the mission alone. We will reach that point in 2016. I could not spend Christmas thinking about it.

As I thought about what to write I recalled a piece that I wrote in December 2012 when I first began to write my Lord of the Rings blog. At that point I had not yet discovered WordPress and so posted it on my website. If you want to read what I wrote then please read it at http://stephenwinter.net/page6.htm#128678. In it I spoke of a story told by the great Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard. In it he tells of a mighty prince who while riding through fields in his country sees a beautiful peasant girl and falls in love with her. So great is her beauty that the prince decides to dress in peasant’s clothing and to work in the fields alongside her and so win her hand in marriage. Kierkegaard tells us that we all want to know when the prince will reveal who he really is to the girl and so take her off to be his princess. Then he asks, why should he do this at all? Why, if he really loves her, should he not remain a peasant and to share her life? Do let me know what you think of this!

Back in 2012 I was thinking of Tolkien’s reply to his publishers when, after the success of The Hobbit, they asked for “more about hobbits”. Tolkien’s hero, Bilbo Baggins, had been unlike any other that he had ever created, making excellent use of plentiful good luck, living by his wits and his kind and generous nature and finally spending the Battle of the Five Armies, the great climax of the story, in a state of unconsciousness. Clearly he did not feel that there was much more that Bilbo or any other hobbit could offer and that was what he replied.

The seventeen years between the publications of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were a journey of discovery for Tolkien, a journey in which he learnt about hobbits. The words he gave to Gandalf in the crucial chapter that sets the scene for Frodo’s journey, The Shadow of the Past, are surely Tolkien’s own: “My dear Frodo! Hobbits really are amazing creatures as I have said before. You can learn all that there is to know about their ways in a month, and yet after a hundred years they can still surprise you in a pinch. I hardly expected to get such an answer, not even from you.” Tolkien is taken by surprise by hobbits but by the end of The Lord of the Rings it is clear that only hobbits could possibly have accomplished the destruction of the Ring and the saving of the world.

Gandalf could only have heard Frodo’s words because he did spend many years in the company of hobbits, years in which for the most part, he was known to them mainly for the quality of his fireworks and for little else. Saruman regarded Gandalf’s interest in hobbits either with ill concealed contempt or with suspicion. The only hobbits that he could do business with are those who saw reality as he did, such as Lotho Sackville-Baggins or Ted Sandyman. He could never have received Frodo’s surprise as Gandalf did.

So at this Christmastide I would like to offer you Gandalf’s long apparently pointless sojourn among hobbits and Kierkegaard’s story of the Prince and the Peasant Girl as a meditation upon the Incarnation (John 1.14). I think they are related to each other. I do not say that they explain or tell us what the Incarnation means. It is not the purpose of stories to “explain” things but they do cause us to think about things. Are we the peasants among whom the Prince comes to live or the hobbits who enjoy Gandalf’s fireworks? Will the Prince reveal his true identity to us or is there some other great surprise to be revealed? I look forward to any reflections you may have to offer and in this Christmastide I pray that God may rest you merry!

 

They Cannot Conquer For Ever!

After parting from Faramir Frodo and Sam make their way southward once more as Gollum guides them toward the Morgul Valley and then to the Stairs of Cirith Ungol, the “secret way” by which they are to enter Mordor. As before Gollum prefers to travel by night and to rest by day seeking always to avoid the attention of unfriendly eyes and so it is that when Sam awakens in darkness he is sure that he has overslept and that they should be on the march once more. But it is not night. A darkness has crept across the skies from Mordor and robbed them of the day. Sauron’s armies are more at ease in a permanent half light and so he makes preparation for them by sending vapours across the sky.

I feel sure that Tolkien here remembers the slow creep of industrial Birmingham across the countryside to the village of Hall Green, now a suburb of the city, where he grew up. When I first came to the industrial West Midlands of England in the 1980s I asked an elderly man to show me an area west of Birmingham known as the Black Country, so named because of the deposits of coal and iron ore beneath the ground that had led to the creation of one of the world’s first great industrial areas. We spent the day going from one village to another up and down steep sided hills as he named each one for me, Gornal, Netherton, Tipton, Bilston, Oldbury, Lye and the larger towns of Walsall, Wolverhampton and Dudley. I call them villages because that is what they once were but there was little space between them as they had grown towards one another. But already the process of factory closure and de-industrialisation was well underway and as we stood on one hillside and looked across the great urban sprawl he turned and said to me, “If you had stood upon this place thirty years ago you could never have seen this view.” And he went on to explain that the smoke of the factories would have robbed us of the ability to see for any distance. Now the factories were going and the smoke gone and what was left was largely a post-industrial wasteland. I suspect that if Tolkien had been standing with us that day he would have spoken of it as a land through which the armies of Mordor had once passed, destroyed and then left in order to move onto some other land. I doubt if he would have been an enthusiastic visitor to The Black Country Museum a large open air heritage centre that now seeks to capture the way of life that grew amidst the factories.

Before they enter the Morgul Vale Frodo and Sam come across a statue of a king of Gondor now fallen and defiled. As they stand and look mournfully upon it suddenly the sun dips briefly beneath the smokes before descending below the horizon. It falls upon the head of the king and Frodo sees a garland of flowers encircling it, enlivened briefly by the sun’s light. “Look!” he cries, “The King has got a crown again!”

In the years since that day I have come to know the peoples of Birmingham and the Black Country and not just the traditional population that worked in the factories that created the smoke but also the many peoples who have come from around the world to settle there. I have never felt that they are an enslaved people with all humanity crushed from them. I have never seen them as the armies of Mordor. I would like to offer an application of Tolkien’s garlanded king that he might not approve. If I stand beside Frodo gazing at the beauty of the sunlit garland I see the places of worship, the schools, the friendly pubs and coffee houses, the places of culture such as theatres and concert halls and all other expressions of the building of human community in the English West Midlands. I see the desire of families to make a world for their children and grandchildren and to care as best they can for their elderly. And as I see it I cry with him, “They cannot conquer for ever!”