The Despair of Denethor

When Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli entered the halls of Théoden in Meduseld it was into a place of darkness. The throne chamber of Minas Tirith is not dark and stifling but cold and austere. The darkness of Meduseld matched the mood of its lord but Gandalf was able to deliver him, taking him outside into the wholesomeness of the wind and the rain. The throne chamber of Denethor is not dark but light but the light is cold revealing a man who has already bidden farewell to hope. Tolkien finds the image that most truly describes the man who sits upon the Steward’s chair beneath the throne of Gondor even at the one point in scene that reveals a little warmth. He speaks of “a gleam of cold sun on a winter’s evening.”

The fleeting moment comes when Pippin offers his service to Denethor. It is a moment when he shows that Gandalf’s words about him at the defences of the Pelennor Fields are true and Denethor recognises this too. “Looks may belie the man- or the halfling.” Pippin is indeed “a valiant man”. He hardly recognises it himself but he is battle hardened and the pride with which he answers Denethor is a good pride. That it is able to reach Denethor, even for a moment, shows that the Lord of Gondor has still a spark of life within him. For a true elder delights in the pride of a younger man, by one who is not daunted by hard words, who speaks courteously and yet looks him in the eye. The true elder is not threatened by a young man who displays such character.

But the moment soon passes, for Denethor is in the process of casting aside his eldership. The one young man for whom he truly cares is dead and his horn lies broken upon his lap. Boromir died at the hands of orcs at the Falls of Rauros, giving his life for Merry and Pippin, seeking to atone for his attempt to sieze the Ring from Frodo. Denethor does not attempt to hide the true state of his heart. “Though all the signs forebode that the doom of Gondor is drawing nigh, less now to me is that darkness than my own darkness.” From now on every person will only play a part in the story of his private grief. He is no longer Steward of Gondor in anything but name and even his son Faramir must be punished for being the son who is alive when Boromir is dead.

Do we condemn Denethor for this? Surely our hearts go out to him in his grief and yet we remember that Théoden too lost his only son in battle but did not then choose to lay down the burden of kingship leading his people in battle, thus restoring their pride. We honour Théoden for this event as our hearts go out to him also in his grief.

Denethor’s grief is mingled with a pride that cuts him off from all other bonds. Ultimately it will cut him off even from his true self as despair will always do. The early Fathers of the Church understood this, teaching that metanoia, the radical turning of the heart toward the light that is usually translated as repentance, must be founded upon a renunciation of despair. Sadly this was later to be reduced to the modification of certain behaviours, usually those that did not conform to the social norms of the time, thus often pushing more adventurous spirits outside of the church. But this was not the case when the church itself was the true home of the adventurous spirit. And it is never true when a saint calls humanity home to its true selfhood when it is fully alive.

And this is how we know that despair, while it may call forth our deepest sympathy, is not a true state of the heart. Denethor is already preparing his own funeral pyre even as he questions Pippin and receives his service. For the one who is connected to the true self even preparing for death is not an act of despair but of expectation.

Sam Gamgee Teaches Us to Make Good Choices

Freaky Friday was a favourite movie in our family as our girls were growing up. Jamie Lee Curtis’s mother finds herself in the body of her daughter who is played by Lindsey Lohan and her daughter finds herself in her mother’s body and both of them discover that it is tough to be the other. And there is a line that we all came to enjoy  (and most especially my wife!) which was delivered by Jamie Lee Curtis to her daughter.

“Make Good Choices!”

It was a line that summed up a parent’s desperate desire for her child as she makes the journey towards adulthood and also the feeling of powerlessness that a parent feels as the child walks out of the door (which they must!) and into a world that the parent cannot control.

After he fights his great battles with Gollum and with Shelob Sam is presented with a choice. He is sure that Frodo is dead and that if the quest of the Ring is to be completed then he alone must do it. He remembers the words he spoke to Frodo at the beginning of their journey after they had met the elven company of Gildor Inglorion. “I have something to do before the end. I must see it through, sir, if you understand.”

And so poor Sam takes Sting and he takes the Star Glass of Galadriel and he takes the Ring. A voice within him declares that “the errand must not fail” and Sam knows that he must make up his own mind. No one can else can do it for him. Not that he has any confidence that he will make the right choice.

“I’ll be sure to go wrong,” he says, “that’ll be Sam Gamgee all over.”

We have been here before with Sam and what we know is that he will strive to do the right thing and that he will never be sure that he is doing the right thing. Furthermore, this time it will be even worse for Sam because in any moment of doubt in the story until now he has had a guiding principle that has carried him through and that has been to serve Frodo the best he can. Now, as far as he is concerned, Frodo is dead and the lode star of his life has been taken from him. Sam has to make a choice without him, perhaps for the first time in his life.

We are all grateful for the choice that Sam makes because if the orcs had found him beside Frodo the end would have been heroic but also swift and horrible. Sam is able to evade capture or death because he puts on the Ring. He then learns that Frodo is not dead but only drugged because Shelob’s preference is for live meat. He is horrified when he learns this but he has done the right thing. He could not possibly have saved Frodo from the orcs.

What has Sam taught us about making good choices in the really tough times in life? Surely the first thing is that often we will not be sure that the choice is right especially when more than one possibility seems to be the right one. Like Sam we will have to learn to live with the possibility that we may have been wrong. We may even feel, as Sam does, that we have acted against the grain of our nature. What we do know is that in a moment of crisis we must make a choice. Sam has made his and the very fact that he has made a choice makes all the difference. Next week we will see the part that Providence plays in every one of our lives but neither Providence nor Grace can be of much help to us if we remain entirely passive. We must make whatever choice we can even if it the only one we can make is to bear our lot as bravely and as lovingly as we can.

 

 

Gollum Worships His God

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.

Sam Rejects the Possibility of Turning Back

For the last two weeks we have been resting with Frodo and Sam after the great climb up to the pass of Cirith Ungol. Soon they will attempt to enter Mordor. Sam takes the opportunity to think about all that they have been through together. He does not speak his thoughts often but when he does they are worth listening to. Some people cannot stop talking and so you might just miss the wisdom they have to offer because you have got out of the habit of listening to them very carefully. Sam thinks much and speaks little so that by the time he does speak his thoughts they have been carefully crafted. You really must listen when he speaks because he will give you something worth holding onto. Tolkien was like this as well, believing that words have power in themselves both in their meaning and in their sound and so must not be wasted.

Sam has been thinking of the “tales that matter” and how we do not so much choose to be part of such tales but are chosen to be in them. “Folk seem to have been landed in them, usually- their paths were laid that way.” So it has been for Frodo and so it has been for Sam who was landed in this story by overhearing what Gandalf’s words to Frodo while he was tending the garden outside Frodo’s drawing room window. At least in one sense we can say that Sam was landed in it in this way but more truly he was landed in the story of the Ring because of the love he had for Frodo.

Sam goes onto talk about the possibility of “turning back”. “I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back,” he says,”only they didn’t. And if they had we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten.” Frodo offered Sam this opportunity the morning after they had enjoyed the hospitality of Gildor Inglorion and a company of High Elves even before they had left the Shire. Sam had longed to “see Elves” and his desire had already been granted. Frodo asked whether he still wanted to go on and Sam replied that he knew that he must because there was something that he must see through to the end. He must stay faithful to Frodo. Of that he is sure all the way through the story. Eventually he also knows that he must play whatever part he can in the attempt they must make together to destroy the Ring. He is part of that bigger story too.

Whoever takes the risk of loving another is drawn inevitably into their story. For most of us this comes when we “fall in love” with another and decide to stay together and to journey onward together throughout our lives. All that the beloved has done for good or for ill becomes our story too. So too does all that has been done to the beloved. And we can turn back at any point in the story because we come to believe that the price of carrying on has become too great for us to pay. It might be our life partner about whom we have come to believe this or it might be our children or a member of our family or any community or any friendship of which we have become a part. We can choose not to be a part of their story any longer, to turn back.

I am aware that we are in a place of great sensitivity here. Women and children have been told to stay in abusive relationships and this telling can become part of the abuse itself. We cannot make a law of staying, of going on; all that we can say is that those who have blessed the rest of us who are tempted to give up are the ones who have gone on just as Sam did. We use the language of invitation. Those who carry on have taught us what there is to gain if we do not turn back. We are inspired and strengthened by their story.

 

The Tales that Really Matter and A Life of Our Own

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.

Frodo and Faramir are asked “How is the Next Generation to Live?”

It is not always given to us to have the privilege of a clear choice. Good parents are anxious to help their children learn the difference between right and wrong and encourage them to choose right on all occasions. They are right to do so because without such a foundation little of value will be achieved in life and whatsoever of value does emerge will be unintended. We might wish such a foundation to be sufficient to guide us through every challenge that we might meet throughout our lives but sadly this will not always be the case. We will meet occasions in which there will be no good alternative that we can choose.

Such is the challenge that faces Frodo as he prepares to continue his journey after his encounter with Faramir and after the unhappy recapture of Gollum at the Forbidden Pool beneath Henneth Annûn. Such too is the challenge that faces Faramir as he seeks to counsel Frodo. All he is able to do is to warn Frodo of the dangers of the path that he has chosen in his efforts to enter Mordor and of the faithlessness of the guide he has chosen to take him there. “Do not go that way!” he cries in a last desperate attempt to dissuade Frodo from the way he intends to go.

That Frodo’s choice both of path and of guide is unwise is beyond doubt but so too is the alternative and this he makes clear to Faramir:

“If I turn back, refusing the road in its bitter end, where then shall I go among Elves and Men? Would you have me come to Gondor with this Thing, the Thing that drove your brother mad with desire? What spell would it work in Minas Tirith? Shall there be two cities of Minas Morgul, grinning at each other across a dead land filled with rottenness?”

Thankfully few of us will be called to make a choice as impossible as this but all who seek to live life with a moral seriousness will have to make choices in which the alternatives appear equally intolerable. Is there any guidance available to us for such a time?

In 1943 the German pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrote a remarkable document to two fellow members of the Resistance within Nazi Germany that he entitled “After Ten Years”. In it he declared: “One may ask whether there have ever before in human history been people with so little ground under their feet- people to whom every available alternative seemed equally intolerable, repugnant and futile.” Bonhoeffer goes on to outline the insufficiency of all responses to the circumstances facing himself and his fellow resisters, responses based upon such abstract principles such as reason, moral fanaticism, conscience, duty, freedom or private virtue. The only ones who can stand fast, he declares are those who are ready to sacrifice these principles when called to “obedient and responsible action in faith… the responsible man, who tries to make his whole life an answer to the question and call of God.”

Later he makes clear what shape such an answer might take: “The ultimate question for a responsible man to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation is to live.” As Frodo and Faramir part in sorrow and with little hope both have made such a choice. Heroism is the last thing on either of their minds but both now offer up their lives that the next generation might be able to live.

Faramir remembers “That which is beyond Elvenhome and will ever be.”

“We look towards Númenor that was, and beyond to Elvenhome that is, and to that which is beyond Elvenhome and will ever be.”

So we come to the last of these three reflections on Faramir’s explanation of the silence that he and his men observe in his refuge of Henneth Annûn before they eat, a silence that is woven into the life of Gondor and most particularly into Faramir’s own heart. In the first we thought about the tragic fall of Númenor as recounted by Tolkien in The Akallabêth a chapter near the end of The Silmarillion. In the second we thought about the two mysteries of the Children of God, the immortality of the Elves and the mortality of Humankind, which neither Elves nor Humankind can penetrate. And in this last we will think about that which “will ever be”.

It was Sauron who, when a prisoner of Númenor, denied the reality of any reality beyond that which his captors could perceive save only that which they already knew which was the darkness. For all the Númenorians could perceive in respect of their mortality was the experience of death and decay and an unknown that lay beyond their perishing. So Sauron spoke to them of what he named “the Ancient Darkness”. And of this, he told them “the world was made. For Darkness alone is worshipful, and the Lord thereof may yet make other worlds to be gifts to those that serve him, so that the increase of their power shall find no end.”

And  Ar-Pharazôn, mighty king of  Númenor, facing his own mortality as an implacable limit upon all his ambitions and perceiving the Valar, the angelic rulers of the earth, as the greatest enemy of those ambitions, listened to all that Sauron had to say to him and so became a worshipper of the Dark and of its Lord first secretly and then openly desiring the worlds of which Sauron had spoken and a power that would “find no end”.

It was part of the lie that Sauron told that he should deny any other reality than the Dark, even to claim that any other reality was the malicious invention of the Valar in their desire to deny immortality to Humankind, “seeking to enchain Men in servitude to themselves.” Now, in the likelihood of the victory of the Dark and of its messenger, Sauron, Faramir rejects the Dark. He will face it courageously even in defeat. He will be a true follower of Elendil and the Elf-friends of old until the end. He will accept the limitation that his own mortality imposes upon him not as a punishment but as a gift looking towards a home that “is not here, neither in the land of Aman nor anywhere within the Circles of the World.”

Augustine, writing in the fifth century, spoke of humankind as those eager to “achieve unity by themselves, to be their own masters and to depend only on themselves”. In The Lord of the Rings it is Faramir who is given the part of articulating the rejection of such desire, a renunciation of the despair that leads to the worship of the Dark. Faramir affirms the hope that the last word of all belongs, not to the Dark, but to the Light. It is in this renunciation that his greatness lies but what will he do when he learns that the Ring of Power, the very symbol of the greatness that the Dark can confer upon its master, lies within his grasp?