The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 267-269
I have learned over the years in which I have written this blog that I have readers who know their Tolkien very well, often much better than I do, and so I am sure that there will be readers who will instantly know that the quotation that heads this week’s post is not from The Lord of the Rings. It is in fact from Tolkien’s Unfinished Tales. It comes from a chapter in which Frodo describes a conversation with Gandalf that takes place in Minas Tirith after the Ring has gone to the fire and Sauron has fallen. In that conversation Gandalf speaks of how he came to be convinced that Bilbo should be a part of the company that would make the journey to Erebor, the Lonely Mountain, under the leadership of Thorin Oakenshield.
I write about it here because we are thinking about the choosing of Frodo’s companions in the Quest of the Ring. We have already seen that the company is chosen, as much for its symbolic quality as for its effectiveness. Nine walkers will oppose nine riders. Nine of the free peoples of the earth will oppose the slaves of the Dark Lord. And as we journey through the unfolding of the story we find that it is the hobbits who will play central roles in it. The journey of Frodo and Sam to Mordor and the Mountain and the journey of Merry and Pippin, carried as prisoners of the orcs, to the borders of Fangorn Forest and the meeting with Treebeard are these central actions and none of the rest of the company go with them on these journeys. They will have other parts to play.
Gandalf’s support for Pippin is described as “unexpected”. When Pippin announced his intention to go with Frodo because there needed to “be someone with intelligence in the party”, Gandalf’s response was that Pippin would certainly not be chosen on that basis. But Gandalf is greatly drawn towards Pippin. Indeed I rather think that Gandalf liked Pippin to be nearby and found his simple honesty and friendliness to be a comfort. Was it because he needed such comfort that Gandalf liked to go to the Shire? In his account of how he came to choose Bilbo to go with the Dwarves to Erebor he speaks of how he had been going to the Shire “for a short rest” after a twenty year absence. “I thought that if I put [my dark thoughts] out of my mind for a while I might perhaps find some way of dealing with these troubles”.
Gandalf’s “dark thoughts” were about the reappearing of Sauron in Dol Guldur, about the ever present danger to the north of Middle-earth that was posed by Smaug the dragon in his occupation of the Lonely Mountain, about the fragility of the free peoples and about the opposition of Saruman to any direct action against Sauron. Gandalf’s thoughts are like a hammer striking against a hard surface with the intention of making it give way before the force of its blows. He knows that his thinking will not bring about a solution by itself. It will only keep bringing him back to that which is insoluble and so he heads for the Shire and a rest from his anxiety. The Shire folk have taught him how to play. It is there that he makes fireworks and it is there that he enjoys wholesome food, good beer and pipeweed. And it is on his way there, just outside Bree, that he encounters Thorin Oakenshield who is also beset with his own dark thoughts.
Is it because he is in search of rest that Gandalf is open to something entirely unexpected? Is it his proximity to the Shire and to hobbits that makes the participation of Bilbo a possibility for the expedition to Erebor? In Carl Jung’s idea of synchronicity it is the empty space between the spokes of a wheel that give the wheel its usefulness just as much as do the spokes themselves. So it is the empty space that the Shire is for Gandalf in his endless labours that gives him the idea of Bilbo. And when the idea comes it does so with such force that he describes it as a foresight. Not that he knows what is to come but he knows that he has to listen to his inner voice and that Thorin has to listen to it too when he declares it aloud. Perhaps it is in knowing the power of Gandalf’s inner voice that Elrond too gives way to him about Merry and Pippin despite his own misgivings.
“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.”
So ended last week’s thoughts on Sam Gamgee’s reflection on adventure in “a dark crevice between two great piers of rock” in the Pass of Cirith Ungol. Are we then saying that we cannot live a life of our own choosing and still be part of a tale that really matters? Carl Jung most certainly would agree with such a statement. He wrote:
“To this day God is the name by which I designate all things which cross my willful path violently and recklessly, all things which upset my subjective views, plans and intentions and change the course of my life for better or worse.”
In writing this, Jung challenged the sense that God exists in our psyche solely as a source of comfort for anxious souls. In doing so he was true to the great encounters with God that we find in the bible such as Moses meeting God in the Burning Bush and Mary meeting the angel who tells her that she is to bear the Messiah. A Christian would say that there is more to an understanding of the nature of God than Jung’s insight but would accept that his challenge is just. It is not through the achievement of our goals or the fulfillment of our dreams that we become our True Selves but through our response to the things that cross our willful path “violently and recklessly”. In other words it is through the unexpected, even the unwanted, events that enter our lives that we grow. In his story, Leaf by Niggle, Tolkien tells of an artist who is constantly and annoyingly interrupted by the needs and demands of others and so is never able to complete his master work. After his death he discovers that his work has been completed, not primarily by his own efforts, but as a gift and the very interruptions that he found so irksome in his lifetime are the mysterious means by which this happens.
To come to realise that the deepest meaning of our lives lies in the things that cross our path rather than in our successful journeying down the path is not to mean that we will not have our own desires. Sam shows this himself when he replies to Frodo’s statement that at some point their role in the story will come to an end with the words, “And then we can have some rest and some sleep…And I mean just that, Mr Frodo. I mean plain ordinary rest, and sleep, and waking up to a morning’s work in the garden. I’m afraid that’s all I’m hoping for all the time. All the big important plans are not for my sort.”
Frodo may have thought only in terms of his own death but Sam longs for life and for life at work in his garden. As with all of us Sam’s Selfhood is made from the relationship between his longings and the events that enter his life. At the start of The Lord of the Rings he longed to “see elves” and to experience adventure. That longing has been satisfied beyond his expectation but with it has come an experience of darkness from which he longs to be free. All who experience wonder will also know darkness. They belong together. Perhaps that is why for most people it feels safer to have limited ambition, to agree with Sam’s Gaffer in saying that “Cabbages and potatoes are better for me and you.” But although Sam now longs for cabbages and potatoes himself they will never be the same cabbages and potatoes as they are for the Gaffer. They will be transformed by all that he has been through.
Sam is being “Selved” (to use Gerard Manley Hopkins’ wonderful word) by his desire and by his experience and so are we. Key to this is that we stay on the journey and not turn back. Sam thinks of his own story in this way and it is to this not turning back that we will come in our reflection next week.
Free at last from their orc captors Merry and Pippin run deeper into Fangorn Forest along the line of the Entwash as quickly as the tangled forest will allow until they reach a steep hill with what appears to be a kind of natural stair cut into its side. They can see the sun shining upon the hill top and keen to get some kind of idea of where they are and to enjoy the sun they decide to climb the stair.
“Up we go!” said Merry joyfully. “Now for a breath of air and a sight of the land!”
And so they arrive in time to encounter Treebeard, the oldest of the Ents who are the shepherds of the trees of the forest, an encounter that will change the direction of the whole story. And we might be forgiven for thinking that Tolkien has given way here to one of those rather lazy “just in time” moments, an unlikely coincidence, except for the fact that he believed that such moments do happen. Tolkien believed in Providence and you may remember that Gandalf once said to Frodo that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring and therefore that Frodo was meant to have it too.
For some, like me, who believe in Providence as did Tolkien, it might be enough to have a sense that there is an unseen hand for good at work in the world. Gandalf calls this “an encouraging thought” and it is for those of us who believe in it. I am struck that some normally sceptical people are prepared to believe in Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” of the Market, forgetting perhaps that as well as being an economist Smith was also a moral theologian. I know too that in the 20th century, Carl Gustav Jung developed the idea of Synchronicity, arguing that as well as events being linked by cause and effect they could also be linked by meaning and that in the search for meaning a skilled therapist might help someone look for events that appeared to be coincidences. More recently, Joseph Jaworski, founder of the American Leadership Forum, wrote a book of the same name as a reflection on his own experience as he sought to move from a self-centred and inauthentic life to one that was consciously meaningful and of service to others. The book argues that once we begin the search for meaning in our lives events will, in a sense, conspire to aid us in that search. In his excellent foreword to the book Peter Senge speaks of the essential importance of commitment if we are to live a life that will be shaped, as it were, by synchronous events.
As we saw last week we might find Pippin scratching his head and smiling ruefully if we were to try and explain this to him. He is unlikely to engage in the kind of search for meaning that we have talked about. But Pippin and Merry know about commitment and have practiced it ever since they decided that they would go with Frodo and Sam when they left The Shire carrying the Ring with them. Gandalf knew about their commitment too and persuaded Elrond that he should trust their friendship as being of more importance to the success of the Quest of the Ring than the presence in the Fellowship of two trusted members of his household. Merry and Pippin may have thought of themselves as being a nuisance, mere luggage on the journey, but it is their friendship, their total commitment to Frodo, that brings them, carried as it were by the orcs, to the story changing encounter with Treebeard that we will think about in the next few weeks. I wonder where the events of your life might be carrying you?