Their relationship must have begun because they were so similar in spirit. For Shelob is consumed with a lust for all life, true daughter as she is of Ungoliant the ancient monster in spider form. This lust is insatiable but it is limited by a need for secrecy and so prey must fall unawares into her lair. Gollum in time past has brought such prey to her. He is her “sneak” as the orcs call him.
Similar in spirit they are but she is so much mightier than he. And so Tolkien tells us, “in past days he had bowed and worshipped her, and the darkness of her evil will walked through all the ways of his weariness beside him, cutting him off from light and from regret.”
So it is that Gollum worships his god. She represents to him the embodiment of the principle that shapes and drives him, the desire to eat. Readers may remember the debate between the Gollum and the Sméagol principle that Sam overheard and could not be sure who had won at the end of it. In it the Gollum principle declares: “Perhaps we grows very strong, stronger than Wraiths. Lord Sméagol? Gollum the Great? The Gollum? Eat fish every day, three times a day, fresh from the sea.” We might allow ourselves a smile at Gollum’s expense but the only difference between him and Shelob or even between him and Sauron is one of degree. Their lust is greater and more all encompassing and their power is greater too but there the difference ends. Sauron is simply a more powerful version of Gollum. Gollum is simply a weaker version of Sauron. Sauron can hurt Gollum but Gollum cannot hurt him.
At least, not yet, for Gollum dreams of the day when he will “pay everyone back!” And when he says, “everyone” he means all those for whom he carries a sense of resentment; and this is so great that all creatures must be punished for the wrong that he believes they have done to him.
And what does worship mean in this respect? It is simply this. That some creatures are more powerful than others and we must bow down to those who are more powerful than we are. As Sweeney Todd declares in Stephen Sondheim’s musical of the same name, “Because in all of the whole human race… there are two kinds of men and only two. There’s the one staying put in his proper place and the one with his foot in the other one’s face.” And so those, like Gollum, in the “proper place”, worship those above them who have their feet in their faces. It is a miserable and servile kind of worship and it is offered in endless resentment. And those who seek such worship must take care never to take the foot away from the worshipper’s face for fear that revenge might be taken.
This is the spiritual universe in which Gollum exists, a universe that he entered on the day he murdered his best friend in order to take the Ring for himself. It is a universe made up of endless lust and endless resentment and from which both regret and light must be expelled for ever. And there lies it’s vulnerability for from the moment that Bilbo first entered it deep below the Misty Mountains and chose, for the sake of pity, not to kill Gollum it has been at risk. Gandalf said that the pity of Bilbo “may rule the fate of many” and it does. This is what it means that Hell is harrowed by the crucified Christ whose words spoken to his executioners are “Father forgive them for they know not what they do”. Hell simply absorbs into itself an attack mounted in its own terms of lust and resentment. It falls when the attack is mounted in pity and in mercy and by those who have no desire to rule in Hell.
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!
Gollum guides Frodo and Sam away from the dead valley of Minas Morgul up a steep stairway seemingly cut into the rock of the Ephel Dúath, the outer fence of the dark shadow of Mordor, up, up, reaching toward the pass of Cirith Ungol through which they must go in order to reach their goal at the fires of Orodruin, Mount Doom and so to destroy the Ring. Just before they are about to make the final climb into the pass Frodo and Sam take a moment to rest. To Frodo it seems that they are about to begin the “final lap” and so he must gather his strength.
As they rest Sam begins to reflect on all that they have been through together:
“We shouldn’t be here at all, if we had known more about it before we started. But I suppose it’s often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures as I used to call them.”
Sam thinks back to the times of delightful pastime when as a young hobbit in the Shire he would listen to stories at Bilbo’s knee and so found his imagination awakening and his desire to see the things of which he had heard in those tales begin to grow. For Sam these tales were adventures and his hearing of them something to which he looked forward. And just as he chose to listen so he used to feel that the heroes of the stories that he loved had somehow chosen to be a part of their own tale.
“I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk in the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport as you might say.”
So Sam used to think until he found that he was within a great tale himself. He knows that he did not choose this tale and that from the very beginning he was, in effect, chosen for it but he does not regard this as some kind of honour that has been done to him. Sam’s own involvement in the tale of the Ring began with Gandalf hauling him through an open window from the garden at Bag End into Frodo’s drawing room and even though it was his desire to see Elves and his distress at the thought that Frodo might be going away that first led him to his hiding place beneath the window he had no idea that his desire and his distress would eventually bring him to this place on the borders of Mordor. He has been “landed” in this place, in this tale and, as he puts it, that seems to be “the way of it” with the tales that really matter.
We live in a time in which the ability to shape the events of our lives and to be the mistress or master of our fate is praiseworthy almost above any other quality. As German sociologists, Ulrich Beck and Elizabeth Beck-Gernsheim put it, it is the ability to “live one’s own life” in the world. “Money means your own money, space means your own space, even in the elementary sense of a precondition for a life you can call your own. Love, marriage and parenthood are required to bind and hold together the individual’s own, centrifugal life story. It would be only a slight exaggeration to say that the daily struggle for a life of one’s own has become the collective experience of the Western world. It expresses the remnant of our communal feeling.” Thus in this understanding the adventure of all of our lives is this expression that Beck and Beck-Gernsheim speak of.
We will think more about this in the next few weeks as we pause with Frodo and Sam before attempting the pass of Cirith Ungol but just for now I hope that you can see that Frodo and Sam are not living “a life you can call your own”. As Sam puts it, their paths have been “laid that way”. And as we consider our own lives so we too must think of the tension between our desire to live a life that we can call our own and the tales that really matter.
In last week’s blog posting we thought about the debate between Sméagol and Gollum that takes place in the foul pit just before the travellers reach the Black Gate of Mordor. We saw Sméagol feebly resisting the ravenous Gollum who wishes to take the Ring and so be free of all who might harm him and who might become great and even eat fish from the sea “three times a day”! And we see Gollum overcome Sméagol and begin to crawl menacingly toward Frodo “with long fingers flexed and twitching”.
Sméagol is Gollum’s shadow that he has sought to silence over many centuries. Sméagol is the self who on first encountering Bilbo in the dark tunnels of the Misty Mountains welcomes the sound of a friendly voice and in playing the riddle game enjoys the memories of the world that he knew before he crawled into the darkness, the world of sunlight and fresh air. But this self is fearful and cringing and Gollum hates him, though, try as he might, he cannot get rid of him.
For that is the nature of our shadow. Like Gollum, we may despise the weakness that it represents or we may be one who carries a shadow self that clings to us despite our longing for goodness or light. What is certain is that we all have a shadow. That is why I chose Hieronymous Bosch’s anguished triptych, The Temptation of St Anthony a theme that the artist often returned to, as the picture that is at the head of last week’s reflection. The saint is unable to get free of the images of his temptation but learns a serenity in their company. Those aware of Buddhist art will call to mind images of the Buddha smiling, poised in perfect balance upon the turtle that represents the world, while surrounded by demons.
Of course there is no serenity for Gollum/Sméagol only endless and unresolved torment and there is little hope that he will ever find it. But there is that within him that has never submitted entirely to the Ring. That is why he is not entirely under the sway of the Dark Lord as are the Ringwraiths. It is why he has some freedom of action in his dealings with Frodo and Sam and is not bound to bring the Ring straight to Sauron when he has it within his grasp and it is in this lingering freedom that some hope for him lies.
Like Sam who longs to be rid of Gollum, the false and treacherous servant, we might long to return to some state of uncomplicated simplicity but we cannot. But we might come to see that our liberation can only come at the end with the aid of the very shadow that we hate, fear and despise. We might learn to ask what it is that the shadow has to teach us that we could not learn without its aid, what pathways we must travel by the shadow’s guidance in order to reach our goal. And as we yearn for our liberation we are thankful for the torment that is the expression of our freedom
“Very well,” he answered aloud, lowering his sword. “But still I am afraid. And yet, as you see, I will not touch the creature. For now that I see him, I do pity him.”
As Frodo speaks these words Sam stares at him in some confusion for he seems to be addressing someone who is not there. Sam is there and so too is Gollum for Sam and Frodo have just captured him as he fell spider-like from the wall of the Emyn Muil. And the unseen person that Frodo addresses is Gandalf as he remembers the long talk they had in the April morning at Bag End when Gandalf revealed to Frodo the true identity of Bilbo’s ring and how it had come to Bilbo in the first place in the dark tunnels of the Misty Mountains.
On that day Gandalf told Frodo how Gollum had first taken the Ring by murder; how the Ring came to Bilbo, it seemed, by the strangest of chances as it began to try to find its way back to Sauron, its true master; how Bilbo had not killed Gollum when he had the chance, standing behind him, cloaked in the invisibility that the Ring gave him; but how Bilbo had already revealed his name and homeland to Gollum when they first encountered one another so that when Gollum eventually left the shelter of the mountain tunnels he had tried to find the Shire. Worst of all, Gandalf told Frodo, Gollum had fallen into Sauron’s hands and had revealed to him under torture all he knew so that the servants of the Dark Lord were searching for the Shire, for Baggins and for the Ring.
A terrified Frodo had cried out then, “What a pity Bilbo did not stab the vile creature, when he had a chance!” so prompting Gandalf’s response, “Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity and Mercy: not to strike without need.” And Gandalf went on to say that it was his belief that Gollum “has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many- yours not least”.
It is an easy thing to trace a history of violence and the history of the Ring from the moment of its conceiving and making in deceit was a history that was entirely violent. When we observe violence anywhere in the world we can be sure that it has been caused by previous actions of the same nature and by investigating we can begin to work back from one sad cause and effect to another. So in the history of the Ring we can journey back through Gollum’s murder of Déagol to the killing of Isíldur by orcs to Isíldur’s refusal to destroy the Ring after he had taken it from Sauron’s hand to the making of the Ring by the Dark Lord as he sought to bring all things under his rule. “One Ring to rule them all…”
But Bilbo’s Pity in the dark tunnels of the Misty Mountains is of a different order and in the showing of Pity something quite new and entirely unexpected entered the story. Even Gandalf does not know of what nature this new reality is, or whether it is “for good or ill”, but he chooses to place his trust in the uncertain and unexpected consequences of Bilbo’s Pity as against the melancholy certainty of the consequence of violence. So Gandalf did not kill Gollum to prevent his doing further harm when he captured him thus leaving open the door to Gollum’s escape from the Elves of Thranduil’s realm and to his pursuit of the Fellowship from Moria until the moment that Frodo and Sam caught him.
Once again Tolkien reveals his profound spiritual insight and offers us wisdom. We, like Frodo, are faced with the choice of making our choices according to Law with its just yet implacable principles or according to the fearful uncertainty of grace, pity and mercy. Sam longs to put an end to the uncertainty by putting an end to Gollum. Until this moment Frodo had wanted to put an end to uncertainty as well. Frodo now knows that he cannot do this. He too must follow the way of Bilbo’s Pity and of Gandalf’s. But to what end?
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?