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!”

A Chance for Faramir, Captain of Gondor, to Show his Quality!

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 Teaches Us How to Remember Well

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.

The Interrogation of Frodo Baggins

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.

A Dishevelled Dryad Loveliness

Frodo and Sam have journeyed through many landscapes since they left Bag End together stepping out onto the Road that Bilbo once sang about, that “Goes ever on and on”. From the gentle woodlands and fields of the Shire to the tangling branches of the Old Forest to the wilds of Eriador; from the magical lands of Rivendell and Lothlorien to the dreadful desolation before the Gate of Mordor, they have seen so much that will change them for ever.

Now they have arrived in the land of Ithilien, once the garden of Gondor upon its northern borders but now fallen into the hands of the Enemy who has already begun his work of destruction. But the foul work of his servants has only recently begun and although Frodo and Sam see many signs of that work they still see for the first time upon their journey Spring “busy about them” with small flowers “opening in the turf” and birds singing. And Tolkien tells us that “Ithilien, the garden of Gondor now desolate kept still a desolate dryad loveliness”.

I cannot think of another occasion in The Lord of the Rings where Tolkien strays from his own mythology, so carefully formed, to bring in an image from another. Perhaps it was a mistake. But it is a phrase of such beauty that maybe we can imagine that if on re-reading his work Tolkien noticed it there, a stray from a classical land, he allowed it to remain and to work its own particular magic upon the land that he described by means of it.

For Ithilien is a land that for centuries has been tended by men and women. It bears testimony to the possibility that human beings of the highest civilisation are capable of living in such harmony with nature they can make a garden that can yet give space to wildness. After many pages of dreariness Tolkien gives space himself to rich language as he writes of the many things that still grow there, of groves and thickets “of tamarisk and pungent terebinth, of olive and of bay…and many herbs of forms and scents beyond the garden-lore of Sam”. Simply to write the names of the plants that grow in this land is to write a poetry that delights the senses as well as mind and spirit.

In his recently published book, Landmarks, that wonderful writer about wildness, Robert Macfarlane notes that a recent edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary had culled many words related to nature from its pages so that “acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron…” had all been removed to be replaced for the first time with “attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player and voicemail”.

The cull did not go unnoticed and when the head of children’s dictionaries at the OUP was asked about them she replied that the dictionary needed to reflect the consensus experience of modern-day childhood. “When you look back at older versions of dictionaries, there were lots of examples of flowers, for instance,” she said; “that was because many children lived in semi-rural environments and saw the seasons. Nowadays, the environment has changed.”

Nowadays the environment has changed and if we are to accept what she says, children no longer see the seasons. It is hard not to think that if Frodo and Sam were to find themselves in our own world they might think that the servants of the Enemy had been at work among us and that the diminishment of our language was a part of that work even as they saw “wounds made by the Orcs and other foul servants of the Dark Lord” all of whom were just trying to make a living.

I passed by proud swans this morning watching carefully over their newly born brood of five cygnets and a heron rising ponderously from the ground a little further on and rejoiced in them. I have hopes that one day I will see otters near by as others have seen them in the past year. And I write these words in a blog, using a broadband connection and complain when the connection lets me down as it sometimes does in my semi-rural home and I am grateful to them for what they enable me to do.

How do I live this tension well?

Frodo Shows What the Gift of Laughter can Teach Us

Frodo has come at last to the Morannon, the Black Gate of Mordor, with its mighty watch-towers. “Stony-faced they were, with dark window-holes staring north and east and west, and each window was full of sleepless eyes.”. He has come with no idea of how he is to go any further and only his sense of duty can impel him to to try to go on. All he can foresee is his own death and the failure of his mission but he stands with his face “grim and set, but resolute,” and his eyes are clear. Sam never had much hope in the affair but, as Tolkien tells us, “being a cheerful hobbit he had not needed hope, as long as despair could be postponed,” and even as he reaches the end he can still die beside his master and so know that his life has not been without meaning.

It is at this moment that Gollum offers them an alternative: “a little path leading up into the mountains; and then a stair, a narrow stair…And then… a tunnel, a dark tunnel; and at last a little cleft, and a path high above the main pass.”

So this then is the choice that lies before them. On the one hand there is a brave, even noble, death at the hands of the Enemy, but with the knowledge that with their capture and death so too will die all the hopes of their friends and all that they hold dear. On the other hand there is a possibility offered to them by one they know to be false and murderous. How should they choose at such a moment?

For Sam there is only one choice and that is to stay true to his master. He sees no need to choose between options. All he needs to do is to follow. Sam is sure that Gollum will betray them if he can but that will not sway his own choice in any way. Frodo, on the other hand, must make a choice that gives at least some possibility that his mission his can be fulfilled.

How then does he decide?

The moment of decision comes when something entirely unexpected breaks into hours of agonised thought. Even as the day of choice has been passing companies of soldiers have been arriving at the gate in order to swell the armies of Mordor and as one arrives from the far south Sam’s curiosity causes him to forget his fear and to ask Gollum if he has seen oliphaunts among them, “Grey as a mouse, big as a house”. Sam chants a verse about them and tells Gollum what he knows of them and Frodo laughs. He laughs “in the midst of all his cares” and the laugh releases him from all hesitation. He will entrust himself to Gollum once more.

Frodo’s laughter is not the grim laughter of one staring the inevitability of death in the face and so making one last gesture of defiance before the night falls. And it is most certainly not the ravenous and mocking laughter most usually heard in that land, a laughter taking pleasure in the misfortune of another. Frodo’s laughter is the inbreaking of a reality that runs entirely counter to the reality of death that seems to govern our lives declaring endlessly and monotonously as it does so that there is no alternative; that the best we can make of this cruel joke is to try to make some deal with it just as those who belong to the peoples who have made Sauron their overlord have done, just as the many minor functionaries of the Third Reich did. Theologian, James Alison speaks of the alternative reality that breaks in upon Frodo’s unhappy thoughts in these terms when he speaks of Jesus going to his own death:

“I am going to my own death,” he imagines Jesus saying in his reflection on John 15.12-14 ” to make possible for you a model of creative practice which is not governed by death. From now on this is the only commandment that counts: that you should live your lives as a creative overcoming of death.”

Sam’s rhyme about oliphaunts and Frodo’s cheerful laughter makes the life that is not governed by death real once more and in the light of that reality they can continue their journey.

Frodo Carries Sam to Mordor

All who know the story of The Lord of the Rings know that without Sam Gamgee Frodo Baggins could never have reached Mordor so that, in other words, Sam carried Frodo to Mordor. But this week we are going to think about the way that Frodo carried Sam to Mordor and we will show how Sam could never have made the journey he did without Frodo or become the person that he did without him. It was Sam’s relationship with Frodo that enabled him to grow into someone who could inhabit this story that is far too big for him even though he is never really aware that this is what is happening to him.

In the very first scene of The Lord of the Rings we meet Sam’s father, Gaffer Gamgee, sitting in The Ivy Bush on the Bywater Road talking over the news with the assembled gathering there as the Shire prepares for Bilbo Baggins’s great party. As they talk the Gaffer ruminates aloud over his anxiety that Sam is being taught how to read and write by Bilbo and that he loves to listen to Bilbo’s stories.

“Elves and Dragons! I says to him. Cabbages and potatoes are better for me and you, I says to him. Don’t go getting mixed up in the business of your betters, or you’ll land in trouble too big for you, I says to him.”

Of course the Gaffer’s words are prophetic because the stories of Elves and Dragons in which Bilbo had been a participant draw Sam right into the heart of the Quest of the Ring and a trouble that is indeed far too big for him. When some years later Sam overhears the discussion between Gandalf and Frodo  on the true nature of Bilbo’s ring and how Frodo would have to leave the Shire it is his love for tales of “dragons and a fiery mountain, and- Elves, sir” that draws him to the window then through the window as Gandalf drags him through it. It is his longing to see Elves that leads Gandalf to say to him, “I have thought of something… to shut your mouth, and punish you properly for listening. You shall go away with Mr. Frodo!”

Sam’s love for the tales he has heard will take him straight to Mordor but there is another love that will take him there too and that is his love for Frodo. It is when Sam hears that Frodo is leaving the Shire that he chokes and so gives away his hiding place outside the window. It is his love that first awakens his imagination in a way beyond anything that the Gaffer could ever conceive and would fear to do so and it is through the awakening of his imagination that Sam longs to see and to know for himself.

This is what I meant when I said that Frodo carries Sam to Mordor. This is what happens when one person awakens the imagination of another. The Gaffer, fearful of the unknown, deliberately tries to keep his son within the known world of cabbages and potatoes. Bilbo, and then Frodo after him, takes Sam into an unknown, fearful and wonderful world. I look back now with the deepest gratitude to the teachers who read wonderful stories to me, who introduced me to beautiful music and who taught me wonder. But even as my heart was opening to beauty I was already aware that most of my playmates were making different choices. And who can say which was the right one? Sam’s drinking partners in the pub laugh at his dreaminess and so it is that they never go to Rivendell; but then neither are they attacked by Ringwraiths or, wracked with hunger and thirst, stagger through the hell of Mordor to the fiery mountain. It is both a wonderful and a fearful thing to have our imaginations awakened. And it is both a wonderful and a fearful thing to truly love another. Sam is carried to Mordor by Frodo. His life would have been safer but also poorer if he had stayed at home. If we choose safety then we must also choose poverty. But if we choose wonder then we must also choose fearfulness.

Sustained by a Longing for Beauty

“The wizard leapt upon the horse’s back. Aragorn lifted Pippin and set him in Gandalf’s arms, wrapped in cloak and blanket.

‘Farewell! Follow fast!’ cried Gandalf. ‘Away, Shadowfax!’

The great horse tossed his head. His flowing tail flicked in the moonlight. Then he leapt forward, spurning the earth, and was gone like the north wind from the mountains.”

Shadowfax’s mighty leap evokes the great leap of faith that Gandalf now takes. All plans, for the time being at least, are put aside. There can only be action and Gandalf rides for Minas Tirith with Peregrine Took who is now a part of Gandalf’s baggage. The rest of the company will follow soon after. They will not wait for the dawn. All are swept up into the same necessary deed.

In last week’s posting we reflected on the preparation that we can take in order to be ready and able to take the leap of faith when required to do so. There is no certain or necessary connection between our preparation and the ability to do the deed. We may do all the preparation necessary but when the deed must be done or the sacrifice made we may draw back. In Christopher Tolkien’s collection of his father’s unpublished writings, Unfinished Tales, Gandalf speaks of Bilbo’s longing for adventure before the events recorded in The Hobbit. Gandalf wishes to recruit Bilbo for the quest with some foresight that he may play a vital role in it but when he meets him he is disappointed:

“For Bilbo had changed, of course. At least he was getting rather greedy and fat, and his old desires had dwindled down to a sort of private dream. Nothing could have been more dismaying than to find it actually in danger of coming true!”

We all know that the whole history of Middle-earth turns on the moment when Bilbo the fat and rather frightened hobbit runs down the path to join the dwarves on their quest but how easily all might have come to nothing and worse than nothing. Gandalf may have sustained himself through long years by meditating on the glory that he longs to see restored in Middle-earth, a glory that still survives in Rivendell, the Grey Havens, in Lothlorien and also by a slender thread in Gondor but it is Bilbo’s dwindling private dream that proves to be decisive. Gandalf cannot accomplish anything without the participation of a greedy, fat hobbit.

What unites Bilbo’s private dream and Gandalf’s profound meditations is that both are focussed on the glory. Gandalf gives us a hint of his dreams when he tells Pippin that if he had the Palantir he would wish to “look across wide seas of water and of time to Tirion the Fair, and the unimaginable hand and mind of Feanor at their work while both the White Tree and the Golden were in flower.” Bilbo has “a love of tales and questions about the wide world outside the Shire” and a desire to see Elves just as Sam Gamgee did years after. Both Bilbo and Gandalf are called by a longing for beauty to risk all to preserve it in the world. For Gandalf this longing has been a conscious discipline sustained throughout his long pilgrimage in Middle-earth; for Bilbo it is a longing that is awakened within him almost against his will. But however the longing for beauty was awakened and sustained Sauron could not be overcome without both Gandalf and Bilbo.

And what of ourselves? To what adventures might our longings lead us? To what great leaps of faith?

Gimli Teaches Us The Importance of Seeing

After the victorious ending of the Battle of Helm’s Deep Gandalf takes Théoden and a small company with him to go to Isengard and for the first time since the sundering of the Fellowship at the Falls of Rauros the pace of the story is able to slacken somewhat. The pursuit of the orc company who seized Merry and Pippin, the rush to Edoras and the battle that followed all lie behind and many and great dangers lie ahead, but for a brief time Legolas and Gimli have time to look about them and to wonder.

Both of them are drawn to those things that delight them most. For Legolas this means all that grows in the earth and he wonders at the Ents and the trees that they tend; and for Gimli this means the earth itself and the wondrous caves of Aglarond that he has just encountered.

Legolas is drawn to the ancient wonder that dwells within the Forest of Fangorn that we thought about when Merry and Pippin escaped from their captors and met Treebeard in Fangorn. Immediately he wants to know, to understand and to communicate: “They are the strangest trees that ever I saw…and I have seen many an oak grow from acorn to ruinous age. I wish that there were leisure now to walk among them: they have voices, and in time I might come to understand their thought.”

And in this we remember that Treebeard told the hobbits that it was Elves who first taught speech to the Ents. It is Elves who long to commune with all living things and to draw them into their own beatitude, their own state of blessing, that all creation might find its own voice and thus speak with the One.

But if Legolas is moved by his delight in the living forest he is outmatched in this by his good friend Gimli. The three pages in The Lord of the Rings in which Gimli describes the Glittering Caves of Aglarond are among the most beautiful in the whole work and Tolkien gives this beauty to a dwarf! Even Legolas declares, “I have never heard you speak like this before.” I wish I had space to quote them in full but I will just have to encourage you to read them for yourself. Just one section must be quoted and that is Gimli’s response to Legolas’ concern that Dwarves might mar the natural beauty of the caves in their greed for gain.

“No, you do not understand,” said Gimli. “No dwarf could be unmoved by such loveliness. None of Durin’s race would mine these caves for stones or ore, not if diamonds and gold could be got there. Do you cut down groves of blossoming trees in the springtime for firewood? We would tend these glades of flowering stone, not quarry them. With cautious skill, tap by tap- a small chip of rock and no more, perhaps, in a whole anxious day- so we could work…”

As we read these words they call to mind Leonardo da Vinci working in this way on his great fresco of The Last Supper at the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. It is said that he would spend whole days just looking at his work as it unfolded and doing nothing. Imagine describing such a way of working in an appraisal interview!

What we see described here at this brief moment of rest in the story is the fruit of intense seeing and then the using of the language of seeing. Tolkien gives to these two friends the roles of artist and poet. And why do so at this moment in the story? Is it perhaps to make the contrast with Saruman, the man whose mind is full “of metal and wheels”, who we are about to meet face to face, even greater? Or is it to show that these heroes are more than just warriors and are only warriors at all at greatest need? Surely at the least he shows us that his warriors are first of all great lovers and that it is because of this that their prowess in battle can bring forth good. Tolkien will return to this later in the story in his reflection on the contrast between the brothers, Boromir and Faramir, but we will leave this part of the story, perhaps, contemplating our own need to train our ability both to see and to learn to describe what we can see.