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.
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.
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!
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!”
Poor Sam! It is so long since he has enjoyed what he would call “proper” food and the wine has gone to his head. Add to that the way in which talk has drifted away from the melancholy decline of Gondor and its people to the abiding beauty of Galadriel, “Hard as di’monds, soft as moonlight. Warm as sunlight, cold as frost in the stars,” and Sam’s guard is gone completely and he has told Faramir about his brother, Boromir’s desire for the Ring.
And so Faramir is put to the test: “In the wild I have you: two halflings, and a host of men at my call, and the Ring of Rings”. He has within his grasp the means to bring victory to Gondor, to vanquish the ancient enemy of his people and perhaps even to restore the dream of Númenor that he has nourished for so long. So why then does he turn down the opportunity to take the Ring from Frodo and Sam? Why does he pass the test and Boromir fail?
Faramir tells us: “We are truth-speakers, we men of Gondor. We boast seldom, and then perform or die in the attempt. Not if I found it on the highway would I take it I said. Even if I were such a man as to desire this thing, and even though I knew not clearly what this thing was when I spoke, still I should take those words as a vow, and be held by them.”
Perhaps Faramir is a little too generous in his assessment of the moral quality of his people. After all Boromir was present at the moment when Frodo was charged by the Council in Rivendell with the task of taking the Ring to the Fire in order to unmake it and in choosing to be one of the Fellowship committed himself to defend the Ring from those who would seek to take it. Perhaps he shows us his humility by speaking not of his own virtue but of that of his people. For we have seen that the vision of Númenor and of Gondor that he has nourished has not been one of greatness as a mighty power, “a mistress of many slaves” but greatness of wisdom and of beauty, “not feared, save as men may fear the dignity of a man, old and wise.” It is moral greatness that Faramir desires above all else and it is in the cherishing of this desire that he passes the test.
In the 16th century a young Spanish soldier called Íñigo López de Loyola nourished his soul with tales of military romance such as the tales of the knights of Camelot, dreaming of the kind of greatness that they achieved. We can imagine that the young Boromir would have done likewise so learning to dream of his own glory. Eventually Íñigo was badly wounded in battle and during the enforced rest that followed found that the only book available to him was a Life of Christ by Ludolph of Saxony in which the reader is encouraged to place her or himself imaginatively within the Gospel stories. So began a new spiritual and imaginative practice that changed his life and led to the formation of The Society of Jesus, the Jesuits. Pope Francis is a member of this society.
We cannot avoid spiritual discipline. As soon as we begin to make conscious choices we nourish our souls by means of our imagination. It is not that Íñigo’s dreams of military valour were bad. He took the ardour, the passion, that they inspired to his reading of the Gospels and the Lives of the Saints, especially that of Francis of Assisi, and to a courageous life as a follower of Christ that inspired many other young men to join him. But it was the conscious discipline of meditating on the Gospels that transformed him. We have seen in our recent reflections that Faramir is a man of disciplined reflection and so when the Ring comes within his grasp he shows his quality. He renounces all that the Ring might give both to himself and his people.
Faramir has completed his interrogation of Frodo and now he takes Frodo and Sam to a secret refuge. As they walk together Faramir begins to speak of what is in his heart.
“For myself… I would see the White Tree in flower again in the courts of the kings, and the Silver Crown return, and Minas Tirith in peace: Minas Anor again as of old, full of light, high and fair, beautiful as a queen among other queens: not a mistress of many slaves, nay, not even a kind mistress of willing slaves.”
Faramir is a man of memory. Each beauty that he recalls, the White Tree, a scion of Nimloth the Fair, the tree given to Elros, first king of Numenor, by the Valar and the Silver Crown of Elendil that awaits the return of the true king, is alive within his heart. Indeed these beauties, and his long contemplation of them, shape his heart. Now that Boromir is dead Faramir is heir of Denethor, Steward of Gondor, whose task is to rule until the King returns and yet Faramir does not speak of ruling as did his brother. For the White Tree cannot flourish until the king returns and when the king returns the Steward will rule no longer. And even the task of ruling is not seen as being the mistress of slaves, “not even a kind mistress of willing slaves” but as a beautiful queen among other queens, “loved for her memory, her ancientry, her beauty; and her present wisdom. Not feared, save as a men may fear the dignity of a man, old and wise.” When someone remembers in the way that Faramir does that which is remembered is not an expression of a longing to return to some idealised past. Later we will see Denethor expressing his wish that all could remain unchanged, that all could be as it once was. For people such as Denethor the way in which meaning in life is formed connects to something perceived as lost. For such a person life becomes a matter for regret and the ability to do good is sadly diminished. Such a person may become so wedded to that which is lost that they may even try to hinder the good that others would yet do. This is not so with Faramir. He does not allow memory to become the pathway to despair. For Faramir, the memory, the beauty and the ancientry are an inspiration to present action and to present wisdom.
When Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings it formed part of his desire to make a mythology for England. Mythology has been described as that which never happened and that which is always true. The nature of modernism is to believe that the only truth is that which has happened and seeks to reduce everything to something that can be observed and measured. Thankfully modernism has never held complete sway over our hearts and minds or else we would have no ability to perceive beauty or to experience joy or grief. But when we experience such things those who are modernists whether consciously or not do not know what to do with them. Modernism offers us no narrative that allows the experience of beauty, joy or grief to enrich or enliven us. All we are left with, at best, is mere nostalgia and its attendant regret. At worst we give way to despair completely. Tolkien’s work challenges all its readers to engage with the gift of our own history in such a way that we can be enlivened and as we examine our own lives we will want to consider the role that memory plays; whether it enlivens us or leads us toward despair.
After the successful conclusion of the battle against the force from the south Faramir begins an interrogation of his prisoner. When Sam awakens from his sleep he finds Frodo standing before Faramir’s men seated “in a wide semicircle, between the arms of which Faramir was seated on the ground… It looked strangely like the trial of a prisoner.”
At the heart of Faramir’s questioning is the verse that Boromir took to Rivendell in order to seek counsel from Elrond.
Seek for the sword that was broken: In Imladris it dwells; There shall be counsels taken Stronger than Morgul-spells. There shall be shown a token That Doom is near at hand, For Isildur’s Bane shall waken, And the Halfling forth shall stand.”
It is Isildur’s Bane about which Faramir shows most interest and Frodo tries to deflect this by speaking of the sword of Elendil and about Aragorn for Isildur’s Bane is the Ring of Power that Isildur took from the hand of the Dark Lord and which slipped from his finger so betraying him to the Orcs that had ambushed him. Frodo has already seen what the Ring can do when he narrowly escaped from the clutches of Boromir; now he learns that Faramir is Boromir’s brother and for the first time he learns that Boromir is dead.
Frodo may have tried to deflect Faramir from asking more about Isildur’s Bane but at no point does he try to deceive his captor. Frodo is a truth teller and he simply tells Faramir that he cannot speak more of his errand or of the nature of what Isildur’s Bane might be.His authority comes, not from himself, but from the Council that charged him with his task. When he speaks to Faramir and his men it is as if Elrond himself stands there and alongside him Gandalf, Aragorn heir of Elendil and Glorfindel, long ago the conqueror of the Witch King of Angmar, the Lord of the Nazgul; for all were present at the Council and all charged Frodo with the task of taking the Ring to the fire in order to destroy it. Frodo is their messenger and he does not speak for himself alone.
When a person with authority speaks to another who has authority and a person who sis a truth-teller speaks to another who is a truth-teller they will recognise each other. Frodo feels in his heart that Faramir though “much like his brother in looks, was a man less self-regarding, both sterner and wiser”; and Faramir says to Frodo, “there is something strange about you… an Elvish air, maybe.” So Faramir chooses not to make a final judgement but to take Frodo and Sam to his secret refuge in order to give himself time to think more about what he should do.
Only those who speak the truth can discern the truth when it is spoken to them. Faramir’s caution in dealing with Frodo is not the consequence of a mistrust of the one with whom he has to do but a consequence of the gravity of the choice he has to make.
There is a lovely story in the gospels of an encounter between Jesus and a Roman Centurion, whose servant is near death. Jesus, the man of occupied Palestine, gives the centurion of the occupying army an order. Immediately the centurion recognises that Jesus has the right to do this, obeys the order and finds his servant healed. Those who learn to live most effectively in the world are those who learn to live under the authority of the deepest reality of all.