The Paths of the Dead. A Journey from Despair to Life .

At the end of the Second Age the King of the Mountains swore allegiance to Isildur at the Stone of Erech. But when war against the Dark Lord came the king proved faithless for he had worshipped Sauron in the Dark Years and still believed the dark to be greater than the light. And so Isildur said to him:

“Thou shalt be the last king. And if the west prove mightier than thy Black Master, this curse I lay upon thee and thy folk: to rest never until your oath is fulfilled. For this war will last through years uncounted, and you shall be summoned once again ere the end.”

The miserable story of the King of the Mountains acts as a kind of parable within The Lord of the Rings concerning the fate that awaits all who give way to the Dark believing either that their advantage lies that way, or that they have no choice, or some combination of the two. The story of Saruman is another expression of this reality and, if Sauron had triumphed, no doubt the story of the king and people of Harad and the other allies of Mordor would have been another. Isildur’s curse is not an act of arbitrary power. He simply declares what all worshippers of the Dark most truly desire; to exist in the darkness.

When Aragorn declares that he is the true king, the heir of Isildur, he calls the Dead to fulfil their oath. They must now serve him. Unlike the hapless Baldor, son of Brego the second king of Rohan, who sought to tread the Paths of the Dead in his own pride and without authority, Aragorn comes as one to whom authority has been given and so the dead must obey him. Baldor died because the way was shut “until the time comes”. The time has now come. The king has spoken and the dead must hear.

In one of his Advent reflections that you can find in his collection, entitled Waiting on the Word, Malcolm Guite calls Jesus “the king who walks alongside us disguised in rags, the true Strider.” https://malcolmguite.wordpress.com/2015/12/22/o-rex-gentium-a-sixth-advent-reflection/ This reference to Aragorn belongs to a poem inspired by the Advent antiphon,  O Rex Gentium, O King of the Nations and their desire. The Lord of the Rings is an Advent work proclaiming light in the darkness as we saw a few months ago when we heard Frodo cry out “Aiya Eärendil Elenion Ancalima!”, Hail Eärendil O Brightest of Stars! when he was lost in the utter darkness of Shelob’s Lair. https://stephencwinter.com/2016/01/12/the-dayspring-from-on-high-comes-to-the-aid-of-the-hobbits/ Advent is also the time when we long for the true king to come and heal the lands. We long for “the true Strider”. The Lord of the Rings shows us those, like Faramir, who have kept the faith, waiting for the true king and perhaps for the restoration of Númenor and maybe even the deepest reality of all, that to which Númenor, even at its most true, could only point to. It also shows us those, like Denethor, who lose faith, or those like Saruman or the King of Harad who come to believe in a perversion of the Advent hope believing the lie that declares that it is the dark that is the true reality.

Aragorn’s journey through The Paths of the Dead calling the dead to obedience and so to an end to their misery also recalls the ancient story of how Jesus went down to the dead after his death on the cross and so harrowed hell leading the dead from despair to life.

This is the journey that Aragorn now takes with the companions who follow him and he points us to the true Strider who calls us, too, to follow him through darkness into light.

 

Eowyn of Rohan: a Call for Guestblogs

During the life of this Blog that is a slow and careful reading of J.R.R  Tolkien’s  The Lord of the Rings and my own reflections upon the story, the characters and the great themes of the book, one character has inspired many comments from readers and that is Eowyn of Rohan.

Over the years many have criticised Tolkien for what they have perceived as his “male centred” story. One might argue that Eowyn, herself, demands the attention of the men in her world. We don’t know about the women as I cannot call to mind a single interaction between Eowyn and any other woman in the story. Perhaps that is something a reader might like to reflect upon.

For a number of years now I have been wrestling with what constitutes an authentic male spiritual journey to true maturity. The Lord of the Rings has helped me greatly with this task. Now I want to reflect on the journey of one of the most significant women in Tolkien’s story and I would like to ask the help of my readers. Please offer your reflections upon Eowyn of Rohan. Certain themes come to mind as I think about her:

  • Eowyn the captive in the wasteland created by the lies of Wormtongue and the decline of Théoden.
  • Eowyn and her hopeless love for Aragorn.
  • Eowyn and her despair and her joining the Ride of the Rohirrim with Merry.
  • Eowyn, the death of Théoden and the battle with the Lord of the Nazgûl.
  • Eowyn in the Houses of Healing.
  • Eowyn and Faramir of Gondor.

If there are other themes that come to mind then please feel free to write about them. Do not feel restricted by my suggestions. They are merely guidelines. I will do some simple editing of grammar, spelling and punctuation but not of the substance of the material you write. I want to read your ideas and to learn from them. I might also include art work, photos etc.

Please send me your material in a Word document as an attachment to an email sent to mail@stephenwinter.net. My usual posts are about 600-800 words in length but please feel free to make your contribution longer or shorter. You may use a reflective style similar to my own but if you normally use another style, for example an imaginative style such as poetry or fan fiction, feel free to use that. Please include your name and any other details about yourself that you care to include. These might include website details, blogs, Facebook pages etc. I promise to include them when I post your material. I promise to acknowledge every contribution and give you some idea when it will be used. For example, if you write about Eowyn and Faramir in the land of Ithilien I may not use it for another couple of years or so.

If possible I would like to post for the first time on Eowyn in the week beginning July 25th so please endeavour to get your material to me by Friday July 22nd.

And could you please publicise my blog in your own web publishing space? I would appreciate that very much.

I am married to a remarkable woman and have two wonderful daughters emerging into adult life. I have been enriched beyond measure by each one of them. I have also enjoyed many friendships with women ever since I emerged from my adolescent shyness and still do today. I grow constantly more convinced that men and women will only achieve wholeness and maturity in good adult relationships to each other and yet this seems quite rare. Maybe together we achieve something towards this goal as we think about Eowyn. I do hope so.

With grateful anticipation,

Stephen Winter

 

Aragorn the Lover

Halbarad, the Ranger of the North, bears a gift for Aragorn. It is a thing of mystery, “close furled in a black cloth bound about with many thongs”. And there is a message with it from Arwen, Lady of Rivendell, to Aragorn.

“The days now are short. Either our hope cometh, or all hopes end. Therefore I send thee what I have made for thee. Fare well, Elfstone!”

The final greeting of her message is one of deep uncertainty. Her “Fare Well”, if joined together, becomes a last word, a final blessing, spoken to one that Arwen does not expect to see again. When the words are separated, as they are here, they remain a word of hope. But which are they to be?

Aragorn feels their power.

“Now I know what you bear. Bear it still for me a while!” And he turned and looked away to the North under the great stars, and then he fell silent and spoke no more while the night’s journey lasted.”

So it is that we see Aragorn the lover and find that in him the lover is woven close to the warrior who has great battles to fight and the king who must unfurl the royal standard that Arwen has made for him. The man who rides in silence through the night, his mind filled with thoughts of the woman he loves, knows that his longing for her cannot be fulfilled unless Sauron be overthrown and the Ring of Power cast into the fires at the Cracks of Doom. He cannot separate these things even if he would.

All great love stories are triumphs over adversity. I have a particular love for the story of Rapunzel and the prince who first climbs the tower to reach his imprisoned beloved and then must wander the world, separated from her, his eyes made sightless by the thorns that surround the tower and the malice of the witch who wants to keep Rapunzel for herself. And I love the story of how, for love of her prince, Rapunzel climbs down those same thorn trees that have imprisoned her so long and then searches the world for him until she finds him and heals him with her tears.

In both the old German tale and in Tolkien’s story true love can only be won through great trial. And it is also the source of strength that enables the lover to triumph over all adversity. Although Eros is a word that is absent from the New Testament, replaced there by agape, a word that was a wonderful gift to the world, denoting a love that is an unbreakable commitment to the blessedness of another and a delight that they too are in the world, it was not long before the Fathers of the Church found that they could not ignore it. They discovered that Eros (in the Greek) or Amor (in the Latin) was the divine energy that will bring about the union and communion of all things. At one time there was no division between the passionate, even erotic, language of the mystics and the technical language of the theologians. The two were one and the same. They spoke of drawing the mind into the heart. Sadly we seem to live in a time when mind and heart have become separated. How we need to find a way to unite them once more!

In Aragorn the great archetypes of the King, the Warrior, the Magician and the Lover are wonderfully united. He has been the warrior lover over many years but now we see him growing into his kingship. See how Arwen, his beloved, declares him king, through the banner that she has made, even before her father does! In doing so she spurs him on to the great deeds that he will do. But he has needed the wisdom of the magicians in his life, Elrond and Gandalf, to know what task he must achieve. Eventually he will lose them and then he will have to find the magician wisdom within himself but not quite yet.

Aragorn has received a message from Elrond but it is Arwen’s words that bring about his silence. Eventually he will respond to both messages together as he must and in doing so he will be propelled onwards to the great crisis of his life and towards the union with his beloved for which he longs with all his heart.

Meriadoc Brandybuck Feels Like Baggage in Someone Else’s Story

When Aragorn makes the speech that we thought about in last week’s reflection Gimli and Legolas hear it as a call to arms. They have no doubt about what they must do. It is a thrilling thing to hear such words from a great captain. In a young man the warrior within is awakened and he feels himself grow taller and stronger and more truly himself. How important it is that the captain who makes the call is worthy  of such devotion. There are too many who call it forth for unworthy causes to the great hurt of all who follow them.

But there is one who hears Aragorn’s words who feels but a spectator to a great event in which he can play but a little part. When Aragorn declares that “an hour long prepared approaches”, Merry cries out:

“Don’t leave me behind! I have not been of much use yet, but I don’t want to be laid aside, like baggage to be called for when all is over. I don’t think the Riders will want to be bothered with me now. Though, of course, the king did say that I was to sit by him when he came to his house and tell him all about the Shire.”

If readers who know the story well think back to the first time that we meet Merry properly it is on the lane between the Bucklebury Ferry and Farmer Maggot’s farm when he meets Frodo, Sam and Pippin hiding in the back of Maggot’s cart for fear of the Black Riders. Merry is both confident and competent. He is on home territory and he knows what to do. There is food and there are hot baths awaiting the anxious travellers in the cottage at Crickhollow. He even leads the other hobbits in revealing what they know of the true purpose of Frodo’s journey and he makes sensible proposals regarding what they should do next.

But at this moment in the story all that must feel both a long time ago and a long way away as if it all belonged to someone else and not to him. Now Merry feels like unnecessary baggage and when, a little while later, Théoden’s party is overtaken by a mounted company and it is possible that there might be a fight that feeling deepens miserably.

Has he forgotten that it was he and Pippin who roused Treebeard and the Ents and so brought about the downfall of Saruman and the destruction of his fortress at Isengard and his army? Saruman may not forget and he does not forget but Merry does. For even there he was carried by the mighty leader of the Ents just as he had been carried by the Orcs as a captive. It has been a very long time since Merry has felt that he is a necessary part of this great enterprise and he desperately wants to feel as if he matters.

In this blog we have often gone back to this theme of being carried. In particular we have thought about it in relation to Frodo,  who, the closer he comes to the conclusion of his journey the less he is able to act on his own behalf. Indeed the last time we saw him he was being carried into Mordor by Shagrat and Gorbag and their orc companies.

We are so anxious to feel that we matter, that we can act on our own behalf and that we can make a difference. It is a thing that the young and the old share in common that their ability to act independently is small. The young long to emerge from the control of their elders. The old fear that they will become increasingly dependent upon others. And yet we know that Merry, simply by being where he is and offering himself as he is in all his weakness and fearfulness and yet with all his love and devotion too, shapes Tolkien’s great story in a way that few others do.

And that is an encouragement to all of us to do the same.

For Aragorn “An Hour Long Prepared Approaches”

At this point of the story Tolkien leaves Pippin and Gandalf in Minas Tirith as the dawnless day begins that heralds the beginning of the assault of the forces of Minas Morgul upon the city. We return to Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli and Merry just after Gandalf leaves with Pippin as they prepare to ride with Théoden to Edoras and Aragorn speaks to his companions.

He tells them that Théoden will go to “the muster that he commanded at Edoras, four nights from now. And there, I think, he will hear tidings of war, and the Riders of Rohan will go down to Minas Tirith. But for myself, and any that will go with me… it is dark before me. I must go down to Minas Tirith, but I do not see the road. An hour long prepared approaches.”

Aragorn knows that this is his moment of destiny. He has lived upon the earth for nearly 90 years and each one of them has been a step towards it. He was born to a noble but dwindling people in the north who carried little more than a memory of the greatness of the past. His father, Arathorn, was killed by orcs when he was just two years old, and so he became the heir of Isildur and chieftain of his people. He was named, Estel, meaning hope, and went to live in Rivendell and Elrond became as a father to him.

One day Elrond called him by his true name and gave him the heirlooms of his house. “Here is the ring of Barahir,” he said, “the token of our kinship from afar; and here also are the shards of Narsil. With these you may yet do great deeds; for I foretell that the span of your life shall be greater than the measure of Men, unless evil befalls you or you fail at the test. But the test will be long and hard. The sceptre of Annúminas I withhold, for you have yet to earn it.”

What words to speak to a young man of twenty years of age! What gifts to give to him! In Peter Jackson’s films this moment is recalled just before Aragorn takes the Paths of the Dead when Elrond gives Andúril,  Narsil reforged, to him with the words, “Be who you were meant to be.” It is a fine moment in Jackson’s telling of the tale but in his telling Elrond gives Aragorn the sword as a beaten man with a dying daughter and his people leaving for the ships. In Tolkien’s telling of the story Elrond addresses Aragorn as one of the great lords of Middle-earth at the height of of his powers. When such a father speaks, his very words convey power upon his son. How we need more fathers like him!

The ring of Barahir speaks of Aragorn’s mighty lineage. It was the ring that Beren carried when he and his beloved Lúthien won a Silmaril from the iron crown of Morgoth in his impenetrable fortress of Thangorodrim. The shards of Narsil speak of his mighty ancestor, Elendil, on the day that he stood against Sauron before the gates of Barad-dûr and fell in the battle. It tells of how Isildur took the shards of the broken sword and cut the Ring from the finger of the Dark Lord and so defeated him winning long years of peace for the world. The sceptre of Annúminas speaks of a throne that Aragorn must still win through his deeds.

It is this lineage to which Aragorn must aspire and that he thinks of as he speaks to his friends. He also recalls that Elrond told him that only the king of both Arnor and of Gondor would be worthy of the hand of his daughter, Arwen. This is his destiny. This is the moment through which he has been through so many hard tests in order to face. Will he achieve his destiny or will he fail at this last and greatest test?

So few young men ever get to hear words like this from their fathers or those who stand in the place of fathers to them. One generation of beaten and embittered men sends the next generation disabled into their adult lives so that they are boys in men’s bodies. In the sacrament of Baptism our children are anointed with the same oil that is used at the coronations of our kings and queens. This is intended to proclaim to them that they are sons and daughters of the living God. When will we teach our children who they really are and what their destiny is?

 

Gandalf Laughs!

It has been one of the joys of writing this blog over the last three and a half years that many new discoveries have been made in a work that I thought I knew well. And one of those discoveries has been of the role of laughter in The Lord of the Rings. Readers of my blog may remember a piece that I wrote about Frodo’s laughter at the Black Gate of Mordor that enabled him to make the decision to seek to enter Mordor by Gollum’s “secret way”. They will remember too the wonderful moment that comes, just before Frodo and Sam enter the darkness of Shelob’s Lair, when Frodo laughs and the very rocks of the Ephel Dúath seem to strain forward to hear a sound that has never come before to that unhappy place.

And now, after the encounter with Denethor in his joyless hall, Pippin is walking along with Gandalf and Gandalf laughs!

“Pippin glanced in some wonder at the face now close beside his own, for the sound of that laugh had been gay and merry. Yet in the wizard’s face he saw at first only lines of care and sorrow; though as he looked more intently he perceived that under all there was a great joy: a fountain of mirth enough to set a kingdom laughing, were it to gush forth.”

Pippin is learning to see deeper than surfaces as we have noted in the last few weeks and he encourages us to do the same. And here he sees the joy that lies deep within Gandalf’s soul. This is not a joy that is an alternative to care and sorrow but which lies deeper than the sorrow. As the poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, put it in his poem, God’s Grandeur, “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” Hopkins, a Jesuit priest, sharing the same faith as Tolkien himself, reflects on the way human activity has trodden down nature “so that the soil is bare now, nor can the foot feel, being shod.” And he, like Tolkien, discerns that the deepest reality is not the spoiling activity of grasping humanity but the “dearest freshness”.

This is no sentimental gush. Hopkins finds these words that come from a deeper place than the depression with which he struggled throughout his life. In his description of Gandalf’s laughter Tolkien finds something that lies deeper than Gandalf’s care and sorrow and deeper even than the terrible danger that threatens all that is beautiful, true and good in the world. Frodo saw it for just a brief moment at the Crossroads when he saw the garland of flowers about the fallen head of the king’s statue and declared, “They cannot conquer for ever!”

To see this deeper reality, as Pippin does as he gazes into Gandalf’s face, does not come by accident. We have already noted that Pippin is growing and later, after the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, we will listen to a conversation that he will have with Merry that will show what has been happening to him. I do not know how the miracle of grace comes to each of us and I know that the stories of the saints lay the greatest emphasis upon the undeserved nature of this inbreaking of joy that we have been considering. But for myself I recognise that I need to practice a daily discipline of delight if I am to connect more deeply to the joy that Pippin sees in Gandalf. The great 20th century American saint, Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Workers Movement used to speak of this discipline often. She was arrested often, standing with workers against over mighty bosses, the last time when at a great age during a strike of agricultural workers in California, but she never became cynical or bitter, always remembering the joy of bearing a child that  first drew her to her faith. In Gandalf and in Tolkien the delight had as much to do with fireworks at parties or good ale, a good pipe and good company as it did with so called higher things. But for them, and for such as Hopkins or Dorothy Day, it also meant a daily contemplation of what is eternally true so learning to see with Mother Julian that, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

The White Tree of Gondor Teaches us about Death and Resurrection

Gandalf and Pippin enter the Citadel in Minas Tirith and the white-paved Court of the Fountain where, in the midst, “drooping over the pool, stood a dead tree, and the falling drops dripped sadly from its barren and broken branches back into the clear water. ”

Pippin does not understand why, in such a beautifully tended place, something dead is at the centre. Then some words that Gandalf had spoken come to mind:

Seven stars and seven stones and one white tree.

These are the emblems of Elendil whose ships carried the faithful to Middle-earth from the wreck of Númenor after Sauron had seduced their king into rebellion against the Valar. The white tree was a symbol of renewal descended, as it was, from Nimloth the Fair the tree of Númenor and before that from Galathilion of Telperion in the Deathless Lands. Thus there remains a link between the peoples of Gondor and the Valar and High Elves but it is a link  contained in something that is dead.

Sauron has always had a particular hatred for the tree, knowing what it represents. To Sauron it means that only through submission to the Valar and their judgement could there ever be a reconciliation and forgiveness.  He clings to the belief that he can achieve mastery over all life, that he can resist the Valar and the Ring is the entire focus of that belief. When he was a prisoner in Númenor he persuaded Ar Pharazôn to cut down Nimloth the Fair. Númenor’s king had become convinced that the Valar held the gift of immortality and kept it deliberately from him. Through Sauron’s persuasion Ar Pharazôn had come to see all links to the Valar as a part of their denial of life to him. Nimloth the Fair was a key symbol of that link. But to the Elf Friends, the house of Elendil, it was not a symbol of denial but of hope and renewal. Isildur, at great risk to himself,  took a sapling of Nimloth before it could be cut down. He was wounded almost to his death in the attempt but in the first spring after he had taken the sapling the young tree flowered and Isildur was healed.

It was only after the failing of the line of kings in Gondor that the tree finally died and no sapling could be found but the tree was never cut down. Always it stood in the Court of the Fountain in Minas Tirith as a sign of hope that one day the king would return but now the dead tree has stood there for over three hundred years and is there any hope left?

The hope lies, not in some form of resuscitation, the continuing of some kind of existence in a body that must inevitably die, but in an ending that must lead to a renewing. The Gondor of the Stewards that has so bravely resisted the darkness is about to come to an end but the king will return.

I write this at the beginning of the week that Christians call, Holy. It is a week when we are called to think most especially about the ending of things as we follow Jesus on his journey towards the cross and towards death and burial. If we understand these things aright then we will come to know that our lives are not about an effort to continue existence, to hold the day of ending at bay for as long as a we can. We will come to know that we can face all our endings without fear, whether they are the loss of a job, of a career, of reputation, of wealth or health or even the loss of someone we love or the loss of our own life. We will come to know that our all our endings are beginnings that point to the day of resurrection and a transformation that can have nothing to do with death but only life. About what that means we can can catch only glimpses now but even the glimpses tell us that what lies before us is entirely wonderful, it is bliss, it is delight.

 

 

On, Shadowfax! We must Hasten. Time is Short.

Pippin awakes from a “swift moving dream in which he had been wrapped so long since the great ride began”. Shadowfax, the mightiest of horses,  is rushing through Anórien, the most northerly region of the land of Gondor, bearing Gandalf and Pippin towards Minas Tirith and towards war. It is the third night since Pippin looked into the Stone of Orthanc and so was forced to endure the gaze of Sauron. Now the Dark Lord believes that a hobbit is at Isengard. He gloats ravenously at him. Is this the one who has the Ring?

Sauron is so overcome by his own anticipation that he does not wait to ask further questions. He has servants who can reach Isengard swiftly and bring the prize to him. When he has the Ring there will be no further need for questions and ample time to punish the creature who has kept it from him.

And so by a lack of curiosity Sauron gives his foes just a little time for action. Gandalf siezes the time, removing Pippin from the palantir and from the place that the Dark Lord believes him to be, and rushing as fast as possible towards the place of crisis where the battle must be fought. So too do Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli; they must find their way to Minas Tirith as quickly as they can. And so too must the hosts of Rohan and messages are sent far and wide by Théoden, their king,  calling them to gather at Dunharrow. All must reach Minas Tirith in time for if the city of Gondor falls then even if Frodo is able to succeed in his mission and the Ring is unmade in the fires of Mount Doom there will be nothing to save and Frodo can go no faster than his feet can carry him and his burden will permit him. On the night on which Pippin gazes at the moon setting in the west Frodo watches it from the refuge of Henneth Anûn. He has far yet to go.

Wisdom trains us, through life and hard experience, that there are times when we can do nothing but wait; times when we must labour patiently, perhaps hoping against hope; times when we must get up again after failure and defeat; and then there times when we must grasp the slimmest of chances as swiftly as we can when they are presented to us. Gandalf has known all of these. He has laboured over two thousand years,  bearing Narya, the Ring of Fire, to keep hope alive in the hearts of the free peoples of Middle-earth and in all that time he has been forced to wait as Sauron has grown in power. He has been the captive of Saruman in Orthanc, watching helplessly as the Nazgûl seek for the Ring. He has been a beggar at the gates of Théoden, forced to endure the humiliations of Wormtongue. He has even journeyed through death after the battle with the Balrog of Moria. Now there is a moment, just the briefest of moments, when he can act and even now it may be too late.

We must live our lives with our eyes open,  watching for moments of opportunity. It may be given to a few to know that these are of great significance in the history of an age. They are like Simeon and Anna in the temple in Jerusalem looking for the coming of the Messiah. But all of us are called to be people of hope like them and while we wait for the dawning of the day we are called to do the acts of mercy in the knowledge that each one of them brings that dawn nearer. And we must do them most of all when it seems that the night is darkest.

 

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.

 

 

The Dayspring From On High Comes to the Aid of the Hobbits

Frodo and Sam are trapped in the darkness visible of Shelob’s Lair as the foul monster advances upon them. As he grips the sword that he took from the barrow Sam suddenly thinks of Tom Bombadil. “I wish old Tom was near us now.” And as he does so it is not Bombadil who comes, but Galadriel, in an insight of such clarity that it has the force of a vision. Sam sees her as the giver of gifts upon the lawn in Lothlórien when she gave to Frodo the Star Glass, “a light when all other lights go out.”

Frodo raises the glass and the light of a Silmaril blazes forth in the darkness. Frodo is wonderfully empowered by this and he advances upon Shelob crying, “Aiya Eärendil Elenion Ancalima!” Frodo does not know what words he speaks for it as if another voice has spoken them in this place of utter darkness but they and the light of a star drive Shelob  back and Frodo and Sam are able to escape.

The words that Frodo cries are “Hail, Eärendil, O Brightest of Stars! ” and readers of The Lord of the Rings will remember the verses that Bilbo chanted in the halls of Elrond in Rivendell of the great hero who brought aid to the defeated peoples of Middle-earth at the end of the First Age. They will remember too that Sam spoke of how he and Frodo were still a part of the story of Eärendil and how the great stories never seem to end.

For Tolkien these words were of the greatest significance. At the very outset of the creation of his mythology when he was a young student of old languages he read some words in an Anglo-Saxon poem that had a profound effect upon him.

Eálá Earendel engla beorhtast ofer middangeard monnum sended 

Or, “Hail Earendel, Brightest of Angels, over Middle-earth sent to men!”

Some who knew Tolkien say that for him words did not merely describe something but could convey to him the very reality they sought to signify.  It was as if he were an initiate in a mystery cult.  Thus on reading the words in the old poem he actually encountered the Brightest of Angels. It was a visionary, a revelatory experience, just as it was for Frodo in the darkness and from it was born the whole mythology from which The Lord of the Rings came.

It is this experience that Tolkien brings to one of the darkest moments in his story. It is the Brightest of Angels who drives Shelob back! And there is something more. The poem that Tolkien was reading at the moment of revelation was one that was related to Advent, the time of year when Christians focus most keenly upon the longing for the coming of Christ. In the poem are found the O Antiphons that form an introduction to the singing of the Magnificat,  the great song of Mary, at evening prayer in Advent. They are most often used today when the popular carol for Advent, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, is sung. Unlike CS Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia,  Christ is not born within the story. That was deliberate upon Tolkien’s part. But what happens at this moment is a cry of longing for an end to all darkness and even an end to death itself. Eärendil, the Morning Star, bears witness to the Sun that will rise, scattering the gloom from before our paths for ever.

And it all begins in the darkness with a moment of near despair and the thought that comes to Sam, “I wish old Tom was near us now.” For us to know light in the darkness it is not necessary that we should be scholars of old languages. Neither Sam nor even Frodo know what Frodo cries. But they have said, Yes, to their great pilgrimage and they have not turned back and so they receive “a light when all other lights go out” simply because they need that light.

And so can we when we need light in our darkness.