“The Danger of Light and Joy”. Gimli Weeps Openly as He Bids Farewell to Galadriel and Lothlórien.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp.369-370

As the three small boats that contain the members of the Fellowship are swept down the Great River, the Anduin, Gimli weeps openly as he mourns a loss that he never expected to experience.

In bidding farewell to Galadriel Gimli takes his worst wound.

“Tell me, Legolas, why did I come on this Quest? Little did I know where the chief peril lay! Truly Elrond spoke, saying that we could not foresee what we might meet upon our road. Torment in the dark was the danger that I feared, and it did not hold me back. But I would not have come, had I known the danger of light and joy. Now I have taken my worst wound in this parting, even if I were to go this night straight to the Dark Lord. Alas for Gimli, son of Glóin!”

Those who know the story will know that for Gimli there will be a torment in the dark that lies ahead for him that will almost cause him to abandon his fellows. They know too that in his finding of the glittering caves of Aglarond Gimli will find a beauty that will delight him, and give him a labour for years to come to satisfy his soul but none of this can diminish the sense of loss that overwhelms him now as the river carries him away from Lothlórien.

Hannah Joy Patterson’s beautiful imagining of the Caves of Aglarond.

For Gimli, in his encounter with Galadriel, has met something far greater than a beautiful person. He has met Beauty itself and now cannot know peace and contentment in anything less than an abiding in its presence. And Gimli has also discovered what it means to have been wounded by Beauty, to be utterly surprised by that wound, and to feel the pain that cannot be satisfied by anything less.

Gimli’s experience was one to which the members of the Inklings paid much attention. C.S Lewis chose as the title of his autobiography words from a poem by William Wordsworth, “Surprised by Joy” in which he speaks of his entire life as being a search for something that came upon him unawares in his childhood. Wordsworth’s poem is a telling forth of the way in which an unexpected encounter with Joy recalls him to the recollection of one that he has lost and back to the experience of that loss with almost the same keenness with which he first knew it. Gimli would understand what Wordsworth was trying to say and what both of them felt. Wordsworth could not understand how he was able to live his life forgetting, even for a moment, his “most grievous loss” but he does and so will Gimli. Perhaps it is a kindness that we are granted not to have to bear such pain constantly but both Wordsworth, and Gimli too, tell us that any kind of life that is smaller than the present moment in which both the joy and the pain are known in their entirety is not really to be alive at all.

For Lewis, the search for Joy led him eventually to Christian faith. Here, it is vitally important to understand that this faith is not in itself a satisfaction of the longing for Joy or for Beauty. For Lewis, and for all who follow this way, faith in Christ is not the end of the journey but a sure way forward that leads at the last to an entire participation in them both. The well known quotation of the 2nd century theologian, Iranaeus of Lyon, that “the glory of God is a human being who is fully alive” continues by saying that to be alive is to have the vision of God, by which he does not mean that we spend eternity staring at an old man with a long white beard but that we contemplate and entirely participate in, as Dante put it, “the love that moves the sun and other stars”.

Those who have been “surprised by joy” or wounded by beauty and by love know that any life that is less than a complete participation is in them is no life at all. Gimli knows this now and knows too that he will not find rest in anything less than that complete participation. There is no comfort for him now but Legolas is right in saying that his friend is blessed in suffering the loss of the Beauty that he has glimpsed of his own free will. The true search for Beauty and for Joy always lies onwards and never back until it finds at last its fulfilment in the divine vision.

“I Feel As If I Was Inside a Song, if You Take My Meaning.” The Fellowship at Cerin Amroth.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 340-343

As so often in The Lord of the Rings Tolkien chooses Sam Gamgee to try to express the inexpressible. The Fellowship have arrived at Cerin Amroth after walking blindfolded all day through Lothlórien. At last messages come from the Lady Galadriel and all the blindfolds are removed. Frodo has had a growing sense that he is journeying back into the Elder Days and that here the ancient world is more than a memory, it still lives.

Alan Lee evokes Elanor and Niphredil on Cerin Amroth

“Frodo stood awhile still lost in wonder. It seemed to him that he had stepped through a high window that looked on a vanished world. A light was upon it for which his language had no name.”

For Frodo language is no longer adequate for what he is experiencing.

“He saw no colour but those he knew, gold and white and blue and green, but they were fresh and poignant, as if he had at that moment first perceived them and made for them names new and wonderful.”

Eleniel imagines Cerin Amroth

This is the unmediated experience in which the ordinary, here expressed as colours with which we are all familiar, is transfigured. Such an experience is possible in any place and at any moment. It always comes as a surprise, surprised by joy as Wordsworth put it, and which C.S Lewis chose as the title of his autobiography. It is never possible to manufacture such an experience, to somehow create the right conditions for it to happen, but Frodo has developed a capacity better than many do to receive it through long practice of a love of beauty and a deep longing for it.

And so does Sam. Whereas Frodo knows that language is hopelessly inadequate for what he is experiencing and so remains silent Sam has no such inhibitions. He does not have any regard for his own ability to put things into words and so retains a childlike simplicity of speech. Whereas his old adversary, Ted Sandyman, constantly congratulates himself for his own cleverness, his ability to see through things and not be caught out, Sam has no such confidence. At the beginning of the story Sam expresses his desire to go on the journey in two simple ways. He wants to go with Frodo wherever Frodo goes and he wants to see Elves. Ted Sandyman would have laughed at him for this and no doubt he did but though Sam might be a little hurt by the scorn of others he is not deflected from his course by it. He is the truly simple one who wills one thing.

And so he is chosen as the right member of the Fellowship to put into words the experience of Cerin Amroth.

“It’s sunlight and bright day, right enough,” he said. “I thought that the Elves were all for moon and stars; but this is more elvish than anything I ever heard tell of. I feel as if I was inside a song, if you take my meaning.”

A song has words but it is rare that they have the intention to explain things. The language of a song is the language of the heart, sometimes of the gut, but rarely of the head. And the music of a song, whether it is a marching tune to send soldiers into battle, or a gentle ballad to help lovers express how they feel about each other, can never be an explanation of anything. So Haldir does take Sam’s meaning, the meaning of Sam’s heart and he smiles.

“You feel the power of the Lady of the Galadhrim,” he said. And this is most certainly true. But might we say that what Sam feels is not a power that originates in Galadriel but that which flows through her, enabling her to subcreate this earthly paradise in praise of Eru?

In his joyous essay, The Ethics of Elfland, G.K Chesterton tries to put into words what Frodo and Sam experience here and he does rather well! In it Chesterton says that perhaps God, like a child (like Sam Gamgee?) never tires of repetition so that the world can never be monotonous to God. “It may be that God makes each daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them.” And that repetition in nature is never “a mere recurrence” but an encore.

And it is in this encore in Cerin Amroth that Frodo and Sam delight and applaud.

Arwen Undómiel at the Feast in Rivendell. A Woman in Whom it Was Said That The Likeness of Lúthien Had Come Again on Earth.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 220-21

There is one more person to whom Frodo pays attention at the table at which he sits in a place of honour and Tolkien devotes more space to her than he does to Elrond, Gandalf and Glorfindel put together. This is the first time that we meet the daughter of Elrond, the Lady Arwen of Rivendell, Arwen Undómiel, the Evenstar of her people, “in whom it was said that the likeness of Lúthien had come on earth again.”

Arwen, as she creates the royal standard of the King of Gondor and Arnor, by Anna Kulisz

Frodo’s attention to his fellow diners is more akin to a visitor to one of the great art galleries of the world than to a guest enjoying the company that he finds himself in. Even Gandalf, who he knows well, is presented to him, and to us, in his symbolic guise. The excellence of the food upon his plate provides him ample excuse for not worrying about his situation. When was the last time that Frodo enjoyed a good meal? Was it at the Prancing Pony almost four weeks before? He need not worry overmuch about other matters, not just yet at any rate.

Frodo has seen great beauty before in the house of Tom Bombadil in the person of Goldberry but there “less keen and lofty was the delight, but deeper and nearer to human heart; marvellous and yet not strange.”

Arwen has an altogether different effect. “Such loveliness in living thing Frodo had never seen before nor imagined in his mind”. Goldberry’s beauty was of an order in which Frodo might feel that he could be close to even as Tom Bombadil was close. Tom might be eldest but he is close to the same soil that nurtures hobbits, the soil that he speaks of approvingly when he speaks of Farmer Maggot. Goldberry belongs to the “little rivers” in which Frodo delights, whose loveliness has nurtured his heart all his life. Arwen is of another order altogether. Frodo may, on reflection, use the word, loveliness in thinking of her, but in gazing upon Arwen he knows that he will never use that word in quite the same way again, or that he will never quite feel that the word could possibly do justice to the one he has tried to describe in this manner. Either he will have to find new words, (and what words might they be?) or he will be reduced to wordless admiration, to silence. He will have to learn how to gaze upon such beauty for a long time in order to be able to appreciate it as it should be. One day, in the Undying Lands, he will have such opportunity.

“Deeper and Nearer to Human Heart”. The Loveliness of Goldberry.

Perhaps there will come a time when he can look upon beauty such as Arwen possesses and not have to gaze, to admire, to delight in, at a distance. For Arwen Undómiel is not only a symbol but a living being with a beating heart. She is a woman in love and the man she loves is not at the feast. It is almost, it would appear, as an afterthought that Tolkien tells us that Frodo “could see no sign of Strider”. I was going to say a few weeks ago when I wrote about Gandalf putting Frodo right about Rangers that we will never refer to Aragorn, Son of Arathorn, as Strider again but here at the feast when we meet Arwen for the first time Tolkien uses the name by which Aragorn first introduced himself to Frodo and his companions in Bree. Of course, this is the name by which Frodo knows him and it is a name that brings a man who himself could be a symbol of greatness and of potency, close to a hobbit of the Shire. It has even allowed Frodo to refer to this man as “only a Ranger”. What is the place where Arwen Undómiel, the Evenstar of her people, and Aragorn, Son of Arathorn, Estel, the hope of his people, can meet and fall in love? Surely it is a place where they are man and woman in total simplicity. And yet maybe none of us are quite permitted to live lives of total simplicity. Elrond has already made it clear to this young man that his daughter “shall not be the bride of any Man less than the King of both Gondor and Arnor”. Our roles will be probably not be quite so exalted but we all have roles to play in which the people that we are are symbols appropriate to those roles as well as being mere flesh and blood.

Where can these two symbols of their people meet and fall in love?

The Marriage of Aragorn and Arwen

Minas Tirith is invaded and conquered but in a manner that no one could have foreseen although one or two great souls, such as Faramir, might have dreamt of the possibility. But you would have had to have been a very great soul indeed to have foreseen this and a person of exceptional imagination too, for this is an invasion of beauty and few of us anticipate such a possibility breaking into the ordinariness of our lives although we might try to manufacture such a possibility through a vacation of some kind.

I try to imagine how the people of the city reacted to this invasion. Have they begun to forget the threat of the Shadow that lay over them for so many years? Is the freedom that they now enjoy becoming the new normal? Or are they a thankful people who will not forget the mortal danger that once hung over them? The order of the King means that they must make preparation for the coming of the Fair Folk but, with the exception of Legolas, they cannot have ever seen any.

And even those who have been close to Legolas cannot have had any experience that would fully prepare them for what they see at Midsummer in this blessed year. Even Frodo is overwhelmed by what he sees as Arwen enters the city.

“And Frodo when he saw her come glimmering in the evening, with stars on her brow and a sweet fragrance about her, was moved with great wonder, and he said to Gandalf: ‘At last I understand why we have waited! This is the ending. Now not day only shall be beloved, but night too shall be beautiful and blessed and all its fear pass away!'”

Every marriage is a triumph; an overcoming of obstacles and a uniting of difference. And every marriage is a sign of a longed for future in which all that is divided will be made whole and all life burst into a springtime of possibility and fruitfulness that will never die and every marriage is a sign of the uniting of the earthly and the heavenly. In every culture we have found ways, rites and ceremonies with which to celebrate this sign. We unite the personal and private happiness and hopefulness of two people and the public celebration of a whole community. Promises are made, rings may be exchanged, the couple may be garlanded with flowers and crowns placed upon heads. Even in poor communities this is a day when all dress as finely as they can. All eyes turn towards the bride as she enters, delighting in her beauty and wishing her happiness. And the bridegroom waits as he must, as he has made to do, in choosing to make this woman and this woman alone his happiness, and waiting for her to say yes to him too.

This is true for every marriage. No marriage is a matter of insignificance or inconsequence. It carries far too much meaning for that. But this marriage between the heir of Isildur, Elendil, Eärendil and Beren and the daughter of Elrond of Rivendell and the descendant of Lúthien Tinúviel is a consummation and an opening of hope that makes it a symbol for all peoples. Even as the long sojourn in Middle-earth of the Eldar begins to draw to its close so with the uniting of the Hope for Humankind and the Evenstar of the Elves life is rekindled for all.

For a while I have been thinking about the way in which I wanted to reflect on the story of Aragorn and Arwen. I thought that I would turn to the story as Tolkien tells it in the appendices to The Return of the King and that I would do it after the moment when Sam says to Rosie, “Well I’m back.” But the telling of their story seems to belong to this moment in the story as “Aragorn the King Elessar wedded Arwen Undómiel in the City of the Kings upon the day of Midsummer, and the tale of their long waiting and labours was come to fulfilment.” And so I intend to leave the main text of The Lord of the Rings for a little while to speak of their love and their labours.

This week’s artwork is by Hildebrant and comes from councilofelrond.com

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!