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 Remembers “Elvenhome that Is”

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

As Faramir leads his men in an act of remembrance before they eat his mind turns to “Elvenhome that is” that lies forever beyond Númenor and can no longer be reached by any save those to whom grace is given by the Valar, the angelic rulers of the earth. For after the faithless kings of Númenor sought to invade the deathless lands and so achieve immortality for themselves the world was changed, “bent” as Tolkien put it, so that those who dwelt within it could only sail endlessly and wearily within it, returning once again to the point where they began.

So it is that for Faramir, as for his ancestors, Elvenhome is a place to which they cannot go even as the fate of the Eldest is one that he cannot gain. For it is the fate of the Eldest, the Elven folk, not to die just as it is the fate of humankind to become weary of life and then to leave it. In the Akallabêth, the tale of the downfall of Númenor, messengers from the Valar try to explain this to the King of Númenor. The Eldar “cannot escape, and are bound to this world,never to leave it so long as it lasts, for its life is theirs.” Wherever they dwell upon the earth, either in the Blessed Lands or within Middle-earth they draw from each place its deepest beauty and they teach all other peoples to do the same according to their kind and their deepest longings. So it is that the lands of Rivendell and of Lothlórien represent within Middle-earth a living memory of blessedness as long as they endure and yet those who dwell within them must watch the decay of all things living about them and to hold an ever growing sorrow within the heart as they remember that which was and is no longer.

The sorrow of the Eldest is not the fate of humankind for whom even the longest life is so achingly brief. And yet for humankind is the sorrow of the discovery of delight that must then be left behind, first in weariness and then in death. The messengers of the Valar spoke of this fate, not as a punishment, for, “Thus you escape,”  they said, “and leave the world, and are not bound to it, in hope or in weariness… This we hold to be true, that your home is not here, neither in the land of Aman nor anywhere within the Circles of the World.”

So Faramir looks toward “Elvenhome that is” and knows he can never go there nor know the deathlessness that its people know. Even if he wished it the temptation to go its shores is no longer a possibility for him. He must remain within the circles of the world and its fate. He may choose, even as we may, to regard this fate either as punishment or as possibility. We live in a time in which the most powerful among us desire an immortality within the world and cry out against all that confines them whether death or the smallness of the world or the limits of its resources. They and all who wish to be like them regard all that is good in the world as something to be stolen either by guile, by wit or by force. That which is praiseworthy is only themselves and the measure of these qualities that they believe they possess. Nothing is gift to be delighted in for its sake alone and most certainly the thought of One who gives gifts freely never crosses their mind. For a gift can be enjoyed when received with gratitude but it can never be possessed as if it were never given and they wish only to possess.

Faramir has already told us that he rejects the desire of his ancestors to be a master of slaves even “of willing slaves” and so he is prepared to receive life and all good within it as a gift. And the gift of mortality? Is Faramir prepared to receive that as good? That we shall consider next week as we think with him of “that which is beyond Elvenhome and will ever be.”

Sam Shows Us How to Make Good Mistakes

Perhaps we should not be too harsh on Sam. Ever since the sundering of the Fellowship at Parth Galen above the Falls of Rauros he has been forced by reason of necessity to live on a diet of the Elves’ waybread alone. “This waybread keeps you on your legs in a wonderful way,” he said to Frodo earlier in the journey, “though it doesn’t satisfy the innards proper as you might say: not to my feeling anyhow, meaning no disrespect to them as made it.”

Sam has long desired for something he can put in the pot and with that purpose in mind he has carried his cooking gear on the journey across the Dead Marshes to the Black Gate and then into Ithilien. Now at last in the woodlands of that once fair land he has the chance to use his gear and with the aid of Sméagol he is able to clean, prepare, cook and then eat two rabbits on his campfire. At least Sméagol offered his aid to catch the rabbits. Once he realised that Sam did not intend to eat them raw no more aid was forthcoming and soon he departed to catch and eat his own prey.

It was the campfire that led to the capture of the hobbits. Perhaps Sam is a little too content after doing the first cooking he has been able to do for such a long time for when he goes to wash his gear he forgets to smother his fire and it is the smoke rising from it that draws his captors to him. Four tall men stand before Frodo and Sam, two with spears in their hands and two with great bows; all with swords at their sides. They are men of Gondor and their Captain is Faramir, son of Denethor, the Steward of Gondor.

I said a few moments ago that perhaps we should not be too harsh on Sam. He longed to cook something that he regarded as properly nourishing for Frodo, the master that he loves. Sam’s whole identity is founded upon his determination to serve and to deny this would be to do harm to something essential, even holy in himself. It is this sense of identity that causes him to hate Gollum who he regards as utterly false. So if Sam is going to make a mistake we would expect it to be the result of his identity. That is what makes Sam and Gollum so different. When Gollum murdered Déagol long ago in order to take the Ring from him he had to deny something essential in himself. Sam does not do this when he forgets to smother his fire. He has made a mistake but he has not denied his true self.

Is it because of this that Sam and Frodo fall into the hands of a good man and not one who is false or into the hands of a company of orcs? I wish I could say so but to do that would be to say that in some way those who enjoy good fortune deserve it; or, alternatively, that those whose fortune is bad equally deserve theirs. To say such a thing is not true and does no good either to those who say it or to those about whom it is said. “Somewhere in my youth or childhood I must have done something good,” sings Captain von Trapp as he holds Maria in his arms. I think we can safely say that he is happily mocking himself and giving thanks for a good fortune he does not feel he deserves. I am glad that Tolkien does not make Frodo and Sam suffer for Sam’s gentle mistake. Such suffering still lies before them. But whether we suffer or not we cannot do good with a mistake that flows from a denial of our true self. One that flows from the true self can always lead to good because good was always intended.

Saruman and Gandalf: The Spiritual Guides of our Day

Soldiers everywhere have a clear sense of priority and Tolkien, drawing on his memories of the trenches of the First World War, knew that well. The sharing of news, unless that news requires immediate action, must always follow after food and some rest. So it is that it is only after they have feasted together and smoked in companionable silence that Merry and Pippin begin to tell the tale of the Fall of Isengard and the revenge of the natural world against the world of the machine.

“An angry Ent is terrifying,” said Merry. “Their fingers and their toes just freeze onto rock; and they tear it up like bread-crust. It was like watching the work of great tree-roots in a hundred years, all packed into a few moments.”

Saruman at first is utterly bewildered by an attack that he never anticipated so it is the bewildered wizard that the hobbits first encounter and they are not impressed.

“His wizardry may have been falling off lately, of course; but anyway, I think he has not much grit, not much plain courage alone in a tight place without a lot of slaves and machines and things, if you know what I mean. Very different from old Gandalf. I wonder if his fame was not all along mainly due to his cleverness in settling at Isengard.”

I want to suggest here that Saruman stands as a warning to the West in our own time. As Aragorn says of Saruman, the West was once as great as our fame made us. Our “knowledge was deep” our “thought was subtle” our “hands marvellously skilled”. But we have come to put our trust in the things that we have made and in the armies of slaves who keep us. Our food is grown by workers paid hardly enough to survive, the temples of Mammon in our great cities cleaned by people who disappear into the shadows once their work is done. Meanwhile we fantasise about artificial intelligence and the development of robots and in our right to live as if the whole of creation exists simply in order to serve us. Like Saruman in his speech made to Gandalf when he imprisoned him in Orthanc we “approve the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order” believing ourselves to be numbered among the great who must by right be the beneficiaries of this “purpose”.

In Saruman and Gandalf Tolkien offers us two contrasting spiritual journeys. The one, a journey towards the destruction of humanity both in body and in soul, a journey towards the ultimate victory of Mordor; the other, a pilgrimage made in service of all who seek true freedom not just for themselves but for all peoples, knowing as Augustine said: “What does love look like? It has the hands to help others. It has the feet to hasten to the poor and needy. It has eyes to see misery and want. It has the ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of men”.  And knowing, as all pilgrims do, that each place where we lay our heads can never be permanent, however long we may remain there, but only a brief rest along the way. The pilgrim knows that to build our own Isengard is a fantasy at best and at worst the creation of a slave’s imitation of Barad-dur. The pilgrim knows that our true rest lies only at the end of the journey and that all other rests are respites gratefully received when they come but to be left behind before they become temptations. And the pilgrim knows as Augustine prayed in his Confessions “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

On Hearing The Music of the Ainur

Those who have been reading my Blog that seeks to distil wisdom from The Lord of the Rings will know that I have been reading the text carefully and then reflecting upon what I find there. I happen to think that Tolkien was a man of profound insight. I also think that he was an explorer and that what he discovered in his creation often surprised him. So it is that what we find when we read his work is not a carefully worked out philosophy imposed upon a narrative structure although Tolkien’s Christian faith is a springboard that is absolutely necessary for his explorations. Tolkien genuinely did not know in advance what his characters would do as the story developed. I think that is the reason why it took him so long to write his work. And perhaps one of the reasons why The Lord of the Rings speaks so powerfully to the modern mind is that none of its characters is capable of, or presumes to speak, authoritatively of God or the ultimate mystery of being and of life. You get the impression that Gandalf may know more than most but he does not tell. All that we learn from him is that there is a mystery that gives meaning to all that each character in the story chooses to do.

It was back in January 2013 that I wrote about Frodo in the halls of Elrond of Rivendell. At that time I wrote the Blog on my website http://stephenwinter.net/page6.htm#131194 and in that posting wrote about Frodo’s “dream of music that turned into running water, and then suddenly into a voice”. Music is Tolkien’s metaphor for the unfolding of history, one that he unfolds most fully in the first chapter of The Silmarillion, The Music of the Ainur. The Ainur are the angelic beings whose task it is to work with God (Ilúvatar) in the governing of his creation. I do not think therefore that Frodo’s “dream of music” is an accidental detail in the story. He connects for a moment with the Great Music and also with the Great Story for the voice that he hears as he emerges from the dream is Bilbo’s as he chants his own telling of the tale of The Voyage of Eärendil that is chapter 24 of The Silmarillion. Later when he takes the Ring at The Council of Elrond Frodo declares his own Yes to the Music and the Story. He cannot himself control the story to which he says Yes although because he bears the Ring of Power he is tempted to believe that he has the capacity to do this but he is carried by the story and by the music from the moment of choosing until the fulfilment of the choice at the Cracks of Mt Doom.

At the ending of one year and the opening of another I wanted to return to this story in Rivendell from my reflections at the ruined gates of Isengard. For we cannot drift aimlessly through life as if there were nothing to be discovered, no commitments to be made. When I started writing this Blog I intended to reflect on composers and writers who I believe to have made a connection to the Great Music and the Great Story and if my readers are interested then I will try to do so next week before returning to Isengard and to Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli as they are reunited with Merry and Pippin. Here I will just say that if 2015 is to be fruitful then it will be because of the commitments we make to the Music and the Story. If we are true to the wisdom of The Lord of the Rings then we will not seek to make authoritative statements about the Mystery but in our own commitments we will seek it out. It is because of his search that Frodo hears the music and the story in the halls of Elrond, that Merry and Pippin meet the Ents in the forest of Fangorn, that Gimli finds understanding in the words of Galadriel and heart breaking beauty in the caves of Aglarond. If we remain true to our own search then we too will find such wonders. You may remind me that I should not forget Frodo and Sam in Shelob’s lair or Merry and Pippin as prisoners of the orcs for if we are true to our Yes then our journey will take us to such places as well but what it will not be is some aimless and meaningless drifting. It will be a true adventure of Joy and Sorrow. We will be men and women who are fully alive.

Happy are Those Who Struggle

If Sauron were leader of the Fellowship, setting out from Rivendell in possession of the Ring, what would he do? Gandalf knows that it is a question that Sauron has asked himself. Sauron knows that the Fellowship left Rivendell and that they possessed the Ring. He knows something of each member of the Fellowship and that there are hobbits among them. And Gandalf knows that he fears that the Fellowship will go to Minas Tirith and there one of them will wield the Ring, assail Mordor with war, cast him down and take his place. Boromir counselled  that they should go to Minas Tirith but not that one of them should wield the Ring. He hid this desire even from himself.  And Gandalf and Galadriel were tempted to wield the Ring as well. Remember the occasions when Frodo offered the Ring to them, first to Gandalf at Bag End in the Shire and later to Galadriel in Lothlorien. Remember that both were tempted to the very limits of their strength to take it and seek to use it to cast Sauron down. Sauron knows that both have the capacity to do this and so he is afraid. He will unleash war against Minas Tirith as swiftly as he can before his enemies are strong enough to use the Ring to destroy him.

But…

What if Sauron is wrong? What if, as Gandalf says, “we should wish to cast him down and have no one in his place?” This not is a thought that “occurs to his mind”. And Gandalf continues: “that we should try to destroy the Ring itself has not entered into his darkest dream.” Indeed Sauron is incapable of dreaming such things. Our dreams, whether waking or sleeping, are the fruit of our spiritual practice. By this I do not mean our religious practices although they can be of help to us in the shaping of our spiritual practice. What I mean is how we cultivate our desire. For Gandalf and Galadriel desire is a deeply complex thing. On the one hand they long to heal the world, to right wrongs and set things right. On the other hand the thought that the power to do this might fall into their hands and that they might be the heroic saviours of the world with all flocking to their banner is deeply attractive. You will note that Boromir desired the same thing. But Sauron does not suffer this agony. He has a different agony because for him only one thing has meaning and that is power over others for it is only power that can free him from the fear that haunts him, his agony that never leaves him, the fear that one day someone will have the power to destroy him and take his place.

Happy are those who know spiritual struggle. Happy are those who wrestle against their own weakness and who begin to learn their own limitations. Happy are those who learn to laugh at themselves, who know that they are not the centre of everything and that it is just as well for everyone that this should be so. Happy are those who know that they have a contribution to make and who make it with a proper self respect but who know that others have a contribution to make too and it may be that the others will receive more praise than they will. And happy are those who just sometimes wish that they could be praised too and allow a wry smile as they recognise the lingering potency of that desire!

Unhappy is Sauron and all like him who do not know this struggle, whose spiritual lives are simple, having been reduced to the pursuit of one desire. Kierkegaard once said that simplicity is to will one thing and he is right. Perhaps it is possible to achieve such simplicity in pursuit of the good. There are signs in The Lord of the Rings that Gandalf and Galadriel have achieved such simplicity. Jesus finally achieves it at the moment when he says, “Father into your hands I commend my spirit.” But if it is achieved then it is a victory won as the fruit of a renunciation that is a profound struggle that tests them and everyone who pursue such simplicity to their limit and beyond.

The Temptation of St Anthony

This has to be a word of hope to all of us who struggle. Our struggle should not be a cause of pity in others. Rather others should pity us only if we give up fighting. But more of that next week.