Sauron and Frodo and Sam Show Us Two Different Relationships to Darkness

Frodo and Sam begin the last stage of their journey. A fifty mile walk, or stagger, that Sam estimates will take a week because of Frodo’s condition. There is only one path that they can take and that is the main road from the Black Gate to Barad-dûr itself. It ought to be bustling with traffic and it usually is. But not now. Now there is a strange quiet and so Frodo and Sam are able to take the direct road to the mountain.

Tolkien tells us why.

“Neither man nor orc now moved along its flat grey stretches, for the Dark Lord had almost completed the movement of his forces, and even in the fastness of his own realm he sought the secrecy of night, fearing the winds of the world that had turned against him, tearing aside his veils, and troubled with tidings of bold spies that had passed through his fences.”

In other places Tolkien tells us that after the fall of Morgoth, the first Dark Lord, at the end of the First Age, Sauron submitted for a little while to the authority of the Valar. Sauron had been Morgoth’s chief lieutenant in the wars of the First Age, second to him in power but not in malice and his brief submission was a recognition of the greater power of the Valar but when their command to him to go to Valinor for judgement was not enforced and when he perceived that there was no lordship in Middle-earth but rather a kind of anarchy he began to try to make himself its lord.

There is no time here to reflect upon the history of the Second Age but we could remember that this was the age of great Elven kingdoms and Durin’s great kingdom of Moria, of Khazad-dûm, as well as the age of Númenor and the glory of Men. For a time Sauron appeared to be an ally to them all but always he was plotting his own rise to supreme power chiefly through the forging of the Rings of Power that he would bind and rule through the One Ring.

This was always his desire but with the desire came also a fearfulness. Sauron may have sometimes miscalculated his power but the experience of failure made him cautious. There is one thing missing that will make his triumph complete and that is the Ring itself. He will risk everything in order to regain it but his fear is that either Aragorn, the heir of Isildur, who once cut the Ring from his hand, or Gandalf the Maia, now wealds the Ring against him. Their forces may be small but he fears them nonetheless and the change in the wind just at the moment of triumph and those spies…

In other words Sauron is always in search of the ever elusive experience of total and perfect control, always anxious about everything and anything that could be a threat to that experience. Eventually this will mean anything that has its own will. Only that which is entirely enslaved and that has no longer any capacity for freedom will allay his anxiety. Until that time comes he requires darkness and secrecy to protect himself. When that time comes there will be only darkness.

Sauron has spent millenia seeking this certainty. Frodo and Sam have learned, in just a few short years, that such certainty is impossible. Sauron is the ultimate example of one who in seeking to save his own life loses it. Frodo and Sam walk freely into a darkness knowing that it is likely that they will lose their lives. Indeed Frodo fully expects that he will lose his life and it is possible that by this point he even looks forward to death as a kind of release. For Frodo and Sam the darkness, an experience that they have not chosen yet, in so far as they are able, they have embraced, is the road to life, both to the world that they will save and to themselves.

This is the difference between them. For Sauron the darkness is a defence that will ultimately prove futile. For Frodo and Sam the darkness is something that they feel they must embrace and will lead to life.

Gandalf’s Dark Journey

Already we have seen signs that Gandalf is not what he was before Moria. He is no longer Gandalf the Grey but the White and he describes himself as being what Saruman should have been. There is a potency in him that Aragorn and his companions have not seen before so that when Aragorn names him, Captain, it is a recognition of that potency. It is a recognition too of a turning of the tide. The brave but seemingly hopeless pursuit of the young hobbits and their captors is at an end and now there is a call to war.

And this moment of transformation comes for them all after a dark journey. For Aragorn it comes after doubt and then a commitment to a hopeless task. For Gandalf it comes after his mighty battle against the Balrog in Moria, a battle described in the language of myth, a struggle of super beings, of warfare in heaven where Michael the Archangel does battle with Satan and casts him out down to the earth. It is a battle that takes Gandalf to unimaginable depths and heights and eventually it costs him his life.

“Then darkness took me, and I strayed out of thought and time, and I wandered far on roads that I will not tell…Naked I was sent back- for a brief time, until my task is done.”

The great spiritual traditions all know the dark journey. The long sojourn of the children of Israel in the wilderness and the captivity in Babylon; Jesus in the wilderness, fasting forty days and nights, surrounded by wild beasts and tempted by the devil; St Anthony in the desert doing battle with the demons and the spiritual tradition of the monastary that was inspired by his example; the Dark Night of the Soul of St John of the Cross in which all consolation is taken away so that the soul learns at last to cleave to God without consolation. And if we listen to the wisdom that the great traditions have to teach us then our own journeys through the dark can be journeys not of loss but of transformation.

I suspect that it has never been easy for us to be able to embrace the dark journey. If it were easy then why is the journey so often described in the language of elemental struggle? It is striking that so much literature written for children lives with this language quite comfortably and that so much so called “adult” literature shies away from it. Even in the world of contemporary spiritual literature the really popular titles are of books that promise “success” and the overcoming of our inner demons. The language that we are most comfortable with is that of ascent. This is not surprising. Our fear is that when we descend into the abyss it may be without a bottom and there may be no way out of it. When William Shannon first wrote his excellent biography of the 20th century American monk, Thomas Merton, he entitled it, “Thomas Merton’s Dark Journey.” When I bought my copy a few years later the title had become “Thomas Merton’s Paradise Journey.” I did not mind too much. The content was the same and I knew that the Dark Journey and the Paradise Journey are one and the same thing for those prepared to travel on them but I suspect that the publishers may have felt that the second title may have been easier to sell than the first.

The Lord of the Rings is a dark journey and Tolkien employs the language of myth to take us on it. Wisely he does not try to preach to us but I suspect that much of its popularity is because as we read it we are taken on this journey at a level below our consciousness. This will have done more good than any can tell. Deeds done in the unseen world can never be measured. But it is possible to allow this great myth to teach us to embrace our own dark journeys and to find the courage to endure them and the hope that we will at last find transformation just as Gandalf and Aragorn do.