O Dayspring, Come and Enlighten Those in the Shadow of Death

When Frodo raises the star glass and cries out, “Hail, Eärendil, O Brightest of Stars!” he invokes a history of which, with Sam, he is now a major part. Throughout the history of Arda (the earth) there has been a war against the Light that began with Morgoth and now continues with his lieutenant, Sauron. The light of the Silmarils captured in the star glass once blazed forth from Morgoth’s iron crown after he stole them from Fëanor, their maker. One now shines out in the heavens at morning and at evening in the ship, Vingilot, with “Eärendil the mariner sat at the helm, glistening with dust of elven-gems, and the Silmaril was bound upon his brow”. We see it still today and know it as Venus, the Morning Star and the Evening Star.

Eärendil carried the Silmaril back across the seas to the Undying Lands and brought too the prayer of the peoples of Middle-earth to the Valar for mercy. For Morgoth had reduced them to ruin and, perhaps worse even than this, the sons of Fëanor, bound by a terrible oath to their father not to allow the Silmarils to fall into the hands of anyone even a friend, attacked Eärendil’s people and destroyed their homes. Eärendil, even as he bore this sorrow in his heart, prayed too for the sons of Fëanor when he came before the Valar.

Why do I tell this story even as Frodo holds the Star Glass before Shelob? It is because of the place of mercy in the whole of Tolkien’s great story. Tolkien said of Morgoth that “to him that was pitiless the deeds of pity are ever strange and beyond reckoning”. All through Tolkien’s tale it is such deeds that undo the enemy. Why is Frodo’s cry effective?  It is because of the pity of Eärendil. It is because of the pity of Bilbo. It is because of the pity of Galadriel who gave the glass to Frodo. We do not stand because of our own deeds but because of all who have come before us.

In his poem on the Advent antiphon, O Oriens,  Malcolm Guite makes this point exactly. Oriens is the Morning Star, the Dayspring, the herald of grace and of hope. Guite quotes from Dante’s Paradiso at the heading of his poem when Dante tells us that he saw “light in the form of a river”. The story of light is a river in which we, by grace and mercy, now stand.

“Dante and Beatrice are bathing in it now, away upstream…  so every trace of light begins a grace in me, a beckoning. ”

Once again we remember Frodo’s dream in the halls of Elrond in Rivendell; a dream that ended with the sound of Bilbo telling the story of Eärendil. And we begin to understand that we too receive so much from the mercy of others and that every act of mercy that we perform today is a gift to people yet unborn. We stand here because of the prayers of others before us. Others stand today and will stand in times to come because of our prayer and our acts of mercy.

 

To Have Found Such Friendship Turns Evil to Great Good

It is with the greatest reluctance that I must leave Faramir today. Frodo and Sam only had the briefest of stays with him and for much of that time were uncertain about the true nature of the man they had just met. Over this summer I have had the pleasure of returning once again to their encounter and to spend some months both enjoying it and reflecting upon it.

Faramir now bids farewell to his guests, allowing the Ring to depart with them, not clinging to the last opportunity to achieve certain victory for Gondor, choosing rather to risk defeat, enslavement and darkness than a victory that would in reality be an even greater darkness than the triumph of Sauron. In this refusal to cling Faramir chooses to empty himself and as they part so Frodo speaks:

“Most gracious host… it was said to me by Elrond Halfelven that I should find friendship upon the way, secret and unlooked for. Certainly I looked for no such friendship as you have shown. To have found it turns evil to great good.”

Surely as Frodo speaks he is thinking of the evil of Boromir’s attempt to seize the Ring and to do what Faramir refused to do. At this moment of the story Frodo knows nothing of Boromir’s final triumph over the power of evil at work in his soul and can see only the uncontrolled lust disfiguring that once fair face. The memory of that face has stayed with him from that moment until now and it has darkened Frodo’s heart. Not only has he not looked for such friendship as Faramir has shown him but he has feared untruth, hidden intent and betrayal. Such fear has a way of gaining a creeping hold even upon the most noble of hearts and so in Frodo’s thanks he speak of the evil that such a creeping hold will bring about. It is his own heart that has been set free from that evil by Faramir’s friendship.

And what of the future? Neither Frodo nor Faramir can look ahead to see what the future might bring. Faramir has already said that he cannot speak to Frodo with “soft words”.

“I do not hope to see you again on any other day under this Sun.”

Neither Frodo nor Faramir expects to escape the evil of the final triumph of the Dark Lord any more any more than Saruman expects it and so becomes an ally of Sauron hoping either to share in his triumph or to gain the Ring for himself or to even to make one when his Ring lore is complete. Faramir and Frodo have no more expectation of victory than Saruman does and yet they refuse to follow his way, the way of despair.

Surely this is the insight that Dante had when he spoke of the words written over the gateway into Hell, “Abandon all hope all you that enter here!” at the beginning of his Divine Comedy? There is a profound difference between the loss of hope for one’s own personal survival and even the triumph of one’s cause and the loss of hope that leads to either a passive or active embracing of evil. The latter is surely the despair of Hell, the despair of Sauron or of Saruman. The former believes that in the rejection of despair even the greatest of evil will be turned to good in a manner that as yet is entirely unforeseen. In the friendship that Faramir offers to Frodo and that Frodo at last is able to receive they both say their “Yes” to this belief.

To have found such friendship must turn even the greatest evil to great good.

Frodo’s Dark Journey

Frodo and Sam begin their journey to Mordor from the Emyn Muil with a guide without whom they could make little progress but a guide who wishes them ill. Frodo makes Gollum swear by the Ring not to betray them but he is aware that Gollum will break his promise if he can and that the Ring is stronger and more treacherous than Gollum’s oath.

“Would you commit your promise to [the Ring], Sméagol? It will hold you. But it is more treacherous than you are. It may twist your words. Beware!”

When Dante takes his journey through Hell that he describes in the first book of The Divine Comedy he was guided by the noble Roman poet, Virgil. Time and again he finds himself dependent upon the wisdom and authority of his guide. Although Dante is in Hell he is not beyond the authority of God and Virgil has been tasked as a kind of herald of God, pagan though he is, to bring his charge safely through his dark journey. When Virgil demands that the devils of hell permit them to pass he does so with divine authority and although the devils hate God they have no choice but to allow Dante to continue on his way. Hell in Dante’s vision is not a contested region. It may be hopeless but it has been harrowed.

The journey that Frodo and Sam make to Mordor is also a journey into Hell but as in the whole of Tolkien’s vision of Middle-earth it remains very much a contested region. Sauron not only hates the light but would deny it any place within his dominions. When Frodo seeks to gain entry there is no word that he can speak that has the authority to force those who guard the dominion of the Dark Lord to grant him entry except, it would seem, the word of treachery that Gollum will speak in the Pass of Cirith Ungol.

In his the first of his series of nine poems On Reading the Commedia the poet, Malcolm Guite speaks of his own dark journey (with typical generosity he posts the poem on his blog  https://malcolmguite.wordpress.com/2015/03/08/dante-and-the-companioned-journey-1 where you can also find links to ways to buy his book from which series comes,”The Singing Bowl”). Guite speaks of the call of his “shadow-beasts…the leopard, lion, wolf, My kith and kin, the emblems of my kind” who come to draw him “back across the gulf, Back from the path I wanted to have chosen.” Is Gollum a guide of this kind? Is he, like Guite’s “shadow-beasts”, Frodo’s “kith and kin” the emblems of his kind? I think he is. When Gollum swears “by the Precious” and he grovels at Frodo’s feet Sam recognises the kinship that Gollum and Frodo share. “They could reach one another’s minds.” Frodo knows too that Gollum is what he himself will become unless he can cast the Ring into the fire, that Gollum’s call to him is the call to despair as Guite expresses it

Fall back, they call, you can’t run from yourself,

Fall to the place where every hope is frozen…

The place in Dante’s Inferno where every hope is frozen is the ninth and deepest circle of Hell to which Gollum himself journeys by means of his own treachery. But must Frodo travel there in the same way as his shadow guide? Will he fall into the same despair and become himself a traitor to those who have trusted him? Guite offers to us a different path:

“This time I choose to choose

The other path, path of the dead and risen,

To try the hidden heart of things, to let go, lose,

To lose myself and find again the voice

That called and drew me here, my freeing muse.

Begin again she calls, you have the choice,

                Little by little, you can travel far,

Learn to lament before you can rejoice.”

And so we travel on with Frodo through the Dead Marshes on the way to Mordor as he struggles to make the same choice.

Théoden Unbound!

Perhaps one of the most tragic elements of the prisons that we build for ourselves is that they seem to be eternal and that there is no way out of them. Théoden’s very body seems to conspire with him to ensure that he remains locked inside it. You may remember that I described him as being very old and yet he is younger than Aragorn. In part this is because of Aragorn’s lineage. He is of the house of Elendil the Numenorean, a people granted long life because of their faithfulness in the long struggle against the powers of darkness, but even among his own people Aragorn is regarded as exceptional. Théoden’s decrepitude is due in part to the whisperings of Wormtongue but also it is his own work. He has chosen to become the shrunken creature that Gandalf and his companions first encounter in the darkened halls of Meduseld.

Théoden’s own personal prison is one of shame. He feels the condemnation of his mighty ancestor whose image he looks upon each day. Eorl the Young rides into battle and glory while he sits helplessly by as his kingdom disintegrates about him. The agony of his shame is slowly killing him and yet he chooses this over the way of Eorl, who risked all upon one charge against overwhelming odds. He may be in misery but at least he is alive. We may question whether it is a life worth holding onto but habit is a powerful thing and Théoden fears the unknown more than the dark he has become accustomed to.

The seemingly eternal nature of our prisons is one of the most tragic elements of them but because they are in large part self-built our hope lies in the fact that in a moment we can be free of them. The most human of the three books that make up Dante’s great work, The Divine Comedy, is the second, entitled Purgatory. It is the most human because it is closest to our own condition, that is neither eternal bliss nor eternal misery. Those who dwell in purgatory are in chains and yet carry the hope of liberation even if that hope feels like the last flickering ember of a fire that once burnt brightly. It is also most human because those in purgatory can be free in a moment. They can learn that the burdens they carry are not an eternal punishment but can be cast away. Bunyan’s pilgrim finds the same thing at the foot of the cross when his burden falls from his back. Théoden journeys from shrunken old man to leader in battle in a few short steps and with his liberation comes the liberation of his people too.

John O’Donohue describes both the building of prisons and our liberation from them in his wonderful book, Eternal Echoes. In it he speaks of the kind of prisons we choose to build for ourselves, the fixed images that we assign to ourselves, images that inevitably begin to atrophy just as soon as we create them. He writes: “Fear and negativity are immense forces which constantly tussle with us. They long to turn the mansions of the soul into haunted rooms. These are the living conditions for which fear and negativity long and in which they thrive. We were sent here to live life to the full. When you manage to be generous in your passion and vulnerability, life always comes to bless you.”

“When you manage to be generous in your passion and vulnerability life always comes to bless you.” What wonderful words of hope! Dante’s prisoners of purgatory, Bunyan’s pilgrim at the cross and Théoden stepping out from his darkened hall into the light all find this blessing and all find it as they take the first steps of vulnerability. And so can we if we do the same.