“Saruman, You Missed Your Path in Life. You Should Have Been the King’s Jester”. On Seeing Through Saruman’s Fantasy World.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins) pp. 251-254

I am sure that my readers have recognised that the quotation from The Lord of the Rings that is contained in this week’s title does not come from the encounter between Gandalf and Saruman that Gandalf describes at the Council of Elrond in Rivendell but from the chapter entitled The Voice of Saruman that comes after the Battle of Helms Deep in The Two Towers. I have deliberately done this because I want to come back to the question of humour that I began to discuss in last week’s post and the critique of modernity that lies within Tolkien’s work and the work of the Inklings. Last week I compared the speech made by Saruman in Isengard to the captured Gandalf with speeches made by Uncle Andrew in The Magician’s Nephew and by Weston in Out of the Silent Planet both written by C.S Lewis. I noted that each speech seemed “well rehearsed” and then I noted that each speech was as much an exercise in self-aggrandisement as it was in presenting something that was objectively true. At all times the speaker was saying, “Look at me!”

Is Harold Jig depicting the court jester in the figure of Saruman?

There have been times when I have thought that humour is merely an expression of despair. I imagine myself standing in the queue for the gas chamber in a concentration camp and standing beside us is an entertainer whose job it is to cheer us up. The entertainer is doing the funniest imitations of the guards and even the camp commandant and despite ourselves we are all enjoying his performance but one by one, even amidst the laughter, we are all disappearing into the gas chamber. Perhaps when we are all gone the entertainer will follow us and perish just as we all did. Sometimes I have felt that the satire on late night TV is of that nature. We share the joke with the performer, congratulating ourselves on our ability to see through the person or situation that is being satirised but deep down we know that we are laughing on the way to the gas chamber.

Is Gandalf’s humour and the laughter in Lewis’s works at the expense of Weston and of Uncle Andrew of that nature? Are they merely trying to cheer us up as we make our inevitable journeys into the dark? Certainly the fantasy worlds that these characters create in which they are the central figure, these are risible. The genius that Lewis displays in putting the words “Ours is a high and lonely destiny” into the mouth of a character as obviously contemptible as Uncle Andrew is to render those same words as equally contemptible no matter who speaks them. When Saruman makes his speech he reveals himself as just another Uncle Andrew but what do we gain from such awareness if we are all on our way to the gas chamber? In Tolkien’s legendarium it is the archetypal figure of Morgoth who infects the world with his assertion that the darkness is the final reality. Verlyn Flieger shows how Tolkien struggled with the fear that Morgoth might be right throughout his life speaking of the loss of his parents in his childhood and then the loss of all his closest friends during the First World War. She shows how in his seminal essay “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” he speaks of a world ringed with a shoreless sea in which “as in a little circle of light about their halls, men with courage as their stay went forward to that battle with the hostile world and the offspring of the dark which ends for all, even the kings and champions, in defeat”. Gandalf’s laughter at Saruman’s expense may be no more than defiance in the face of inevitable defeat or it can be an expression of hope.

Gandalf’s Laughter. Despair or Hope?

Flieger speaks of two words that Tolkien coined that, in many ways, described both his own inner spiritual conflict and also the spiritual conflict of our age. These are dyscatastrophe and euchatastrophe. If dyscatastrophe is at best a heroic life in the face of inevitable defeat then euchatastrophe is a world in which I might lose myself but then find it again “in another and perhaps higher world”. This, of course, is Frodo’s journey to the “far green country under a swift sunrise” that follows his defeat in Middle-earth. Tolkien chose this ending to The Lord of the Rings, a poignant, tear stained but ultimately hopeful ending. We have the same choice of possible endings for our own story and the story of our world.

A Far Green Country

Merry Wakes From a Dream as He Reaches The Shire But Frodo is Falling Asleep.

Last week I wrote about the hobbits as they prepare to return to the Shire after their adventures. In a comment  on the post Brenton Dickieson who writes the truly wonderful blog, A Pilgrim in Narnia,   https://apilgriminnarnia.com told me that his son Nicolas noted that in returning to the Shire the hobbits re-entered history once more.

When I read this it was one of those revelatory moments that causes you to see a text in an entirely new way. The idea was not entirely new and for that I am grateful to Joe Hoffman who writes as The Idiosopher http://www.idiosophy.com. Joe wrote a fascinating piece in which he noted that different places within Middle-earth exist in different periods of history and that the Shire belongs to the 18th century while Gondor, for example,  belongs to the high Middle Ages. My first reaction to this was to concede that Joe had made an excellent point but also to admit a certain disappointment to myself. I had always admired the care with which Tolkien had created his legendarium and it seemed that Joe had discovered a major flaw in Tolkien’s work. Far from being a remarkably consistent creation Middle-earth was full of historical inconsistency. Now in reading Nicolas Dickieson’s comment I realised that far from being inconsistent Tolkien had created a remarkable whole that I had never before fully realised or understood.

It is as Gandalf races away upon Shadowfax towards the Barrow Downs and beyond to his meeting with Tom Bombadil that Merry says, “Well here we are, just the four of us that started out together… We have left all the rest behind, one after another. It seems almost like a dream that has slowly faded.”

To which Frodo replies,  “Not to me… To me it feels more like falling asleep again.”

In just a few brief lines Tolkien has drawn a profound contrast between Faerie and History and yet tells us that the hobbits live in both.

The Inklings, the fellowship of like-minded academics and writers of which Tolkien was a central figure, had long explored this relationship. Perhaps it was most explicitly stated in That Hideous Strength by C.S Lewis in which the history of a research institute is gloriously invaded by mythology, by Faerie, in the figure of Merlin. Later a character by the name of Dimble reflects on this.

“There was a moment in the Sixth Century when something that is always trying to break through into this country nearly succeded. Logres was our name for it- it will do as well as another. And then we began to see all English history in a new way. We discovered the haunting.”

The haunting is the inbreaking of Faerie, of Myth, and beyond that, the True Myth of the Incarnation to which all other myth points, into History. In Lewis’s story this is íÓby means of Merlin and in Tolkien’s by means of the whole mythical story of the Ring entering the history of the Shire. Frodo and his companions embody the tension between the two. For Merry and Pippin the mythical has a dreamlike quality from which they are awaking. For Frodo it is the myth that is the real. Sam is “torn in two”.

In thinking about this I was drawn to the story of Oisín (pronounce Osheen) and Niamh (pronounce Neeve) and the mythical land of Tír na nÓg, the land of Faerie that feels so much in character like Tolkien’s Beleriand or perhaps Lothlórien. Oisín falls in love with Niamh, the Fairy princess and dwells with her in bliss for three hundred years. Eventually he wishes to visit his home in Ireland but finds that it is now Christian and effectively ruled by St Patrick. In some versions there is a debate between Patrick and Oisín http://www.ricorso.net. I have to say that in the version I read, translated from the Irish by Lady Augusta Gregory in 1904, Patrick comes across as a particularly unattractive character and my natural sympathies were with Oisín. I would like to say that in his breastplate Patrick feels much closer to Oisín’s world than in the debate that I read.

But whatever the nature of that debate I believe that in The Lord of the Rings Tolkien achieves a unity between Faerie and History and the relationship between the two. In coming weeks as we read The Scouring of the Shire and The Grey Havens I hope to explore this more closely and to consider Tolkien’s version of the Haunting and to relate it to our own experience. But now we must leave the hobbits at the shut gates of their homeland either awakening or falling asleep.

The artwork this week imagines the encounter between Oisín and St Patrick.

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!

Frodo Teaches Us about a Condition of Complete Simplicity Costing not less than Everything

Almost as soon as I reread the final sentence in last week’s blog posting, “The Darkness Cannot Overcome the Light”, I began to worry about it. For those who need to be reminded of what I wrote here it is again:

“Hell must be harrowed because Hell is but a negligible thing so vulnerable to the invasion of light and so easily overcome by it.”

It is not the negligibility of Hell that is in question. Its expression in The Lord of the Rings is, of course, Mordor, the kingdom created by Sauron during the Second Age that is the centre of his seemingly irresistible power and whose name alone is capable of striking fear into the hearts of those who hear it. Nothing it would seem can possibly withstand it and yet it will fall to two hobbits whose lives could be taken in a moment with one well aimed blow of an orc’s scimitar. Last week I wrote about the hobbits at the city of the Ringwraiths, Minas Morgul. At that point of the story they have already undertaken a journey that the greatest warrior of Gondor would not dare to take and yet how easily they potter past it and onward up the stair of Cirith Ungol. I believe that this perspective is no accidental discovery on my part but a deliberate intention of Tolkien’s and we will come across expressions of it many times as we journey through the remaining pages of his great story. It is a perspective that C.S Lewis expressed in The Great Divorce when the guide to the heavenly country, George MacDonald, affirms that “All Hell is smaller than one pebble of your earthly world: but it is smaller than one atom of this world, the Real World. Look at yon butterfly. If it swallowed all Hell, Hell would not be big enough to do it any harm or to have any taste.”

No, Hell really is negligible and it is profoundly vulnerable to the invasion of light. That is not in question. It was not that statement that bothered me but the last words of the sentence, “so easily overcome by it.” How could I describe the journey of Frodo and Sam as easy when I know how much it cost them? At first I wanted to change what I had written by some simple act of editing but the more I thought about what I wanted to write the more I knew that I needed to write something a little more substantial. I needed to affirm both Hell’s negligibility and the cost of overcoming, harrowing it. In the Christian tradition this is what is understood as the triumph of the cross, the astonishing paradox by which the execution of an accused man is the means by which Death and Hell are utterly defeated. In The Lord of the Rings it is the act by which Frodo and Sam lay down their lives in taking the Ring to the fire. In Peter Jackson’s film this is wonderfully expressed when the screen is darkened for a moment when the flames of the fiery mountain surge about the two friends as Mordor falls into chaos.

Why we can say both that Hell is negligible and yet to overcome it will cost us our lives is the strangest of paradoxes. The butterfly in the heavenly, the Real, world can eat all Hell and yet not even be aware that it has done so and yet it must take the life of the Son of God to overcome it. At the end of T.S Eliot’s The Four Quartets he expresses perfectly the wisdom that may not understand the paradox  for paradoxes are not meant to be understood but to be lived. Eliot speaks of:

“A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)”

This is the simplicity that Frodo and Sam achieve at the moment they leave the comparative security of Faramir’s refuge in Ithilien, placing themselves again into the hands of a malicious guide who wishes to do them harm. At the moment they walk away from Faramir they give up their lives. If we are to know the conquering of Hell in our own lives then it will be when we find the same simplicity paying the same cost.