The Fords at Osgiliath are taken and its defenders, commanded by Faramir, are in full retreat back across the Pelennor Fields to Minas Tirith. Meanwhile Denethor awaits the end in his tower.
Pippin fears that the Dark Lord himself has come but Denethor replies with a bitter laugh:
“Nay, not yet Master Peregrin! He will not come save only to triumph over me when all is won. He uses others as his weapons. So do all great lords, if they are wise, Master Halfling. Or why should I sit here in my tower and think, and watch, and wait, spending even my sons?”
In recent weeks on this blog we have seen that Denethor is not the self-indulgent coward that Jackson portrays him to be in his films. He lives and eats austerely and even sleeps in his armour so that his body should not “grow soft and timid.” It is so important that we should take note of the way in which Tolkien describes him here so that we understand the full tragedy of his story. Denethor’s journey to despair is the fruit of his greatness not his weakness. To understand it in this way will teach us a profoundly wise self-awareness if we will allow it. There is a time in the first half of life in which we believe that we must eliminate our weakness and develop our strength. If we do that then we will achieve great things as Denethor does but there will come a time when we must learn to see that our strength has the capacity to bring us to disaster while our weaknesses, those qualities that we have pushed into the shadow that follows us, will teach us wisdom if we will allow them. In a powerful passage in his second letter to the Corinthians the mighty Paul speaks of an affliction that brings him low, that he prays will be taken away from him. Eventually God tells him that his power is made perfect in weakness. In many ways The Lord of the Rings is a story that displays that reality. It is not Denethor’s greatness that will bring down Sauron but Frodo’s weakness and Gandalf’s fool’s hope!
Gandalf recognises this. At one point Denethor taunts him with his weakness when Gandalf reveals that the captain of the armies of Mordor is none other the Witch King of Angmar, the Lord of the Nazgûl. “Then, Mithrandir, you have a foe to match you… For myself, I have long known who is the chief captain of the hosts of the Dark Tower. Is that all that you have returned to say? Or can it be that you have withdrawn because you are overmatched?”
Pippin is horrified! Denethor is accusing Gandalf of cowardice, of running away. How will Gandalf react? Will he strike out in anger? But Gandalf is no young hothead but has become one who has nothing left to defend. He has learned the wisdom of weakness choosing the life of a wandering pilgrim, sometimes driven from the doors of those from whom he seeks shelter, habitually bearing insults such as the one that Denethor hurls against him. He has learned a patient long-suffering and a deep pity for the suffering of others. And he knows that among all the foes that he has faced, greater even than the Balrog of Moria, the greatest is Sauron’s chief captain. It may be that when they meet he will be defeated but for Gandalf that matters far less than the future of Middle-earth. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it to fellow members of the resistance to Hitler, whether they emerged from the struggle as heroes mattered very little. What mattered was whether the coming generation would be able to live. That too is the wisdom of one who had learned through suffering and weakness.
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.
If hope means to have some expectation that things will turn out well for the one who hopes then Frodo has little of it. He does not expect that he will survive his mission. When he awakens at dusk in the foul pit in which he, Sam and Gollum have been sheltering he prepares to go to the Black Gate of Mordor with no plan of how to get past it but only a clear sense of where his duty lies. He must do what the Council has asked of him. He must do all in his power to take the Ring to the fires of Mount Doom and there unmake it. If he has hope then it must mean that he believes that what he seeks to do has meaning even if he fails and perishes in the attempt and the Ring returns to the hand of its master and maker, the Dark Lord.
During his journey across the Dead Marshes the Ring has become a terrible burden to Frodo in his body, mind and spirit, and he has often lagged behind his companions, but when he awakens in the pit Tolkien tells us:
“Strangely enough, Frodo felt refreshed. He had been dreaming. The dark shadow had passed, and a fair vision had visited him in this land of disease. Nothing remained of it in his memory, yet because of it he felt glad and lighter of heart. His burden was less heavy on him.”
Others have spoken of such an experience; that when they have no strength left to endure a great burden they receive strength to carry on from a source they may not be aware of. In his reflection on his experience in the Nazi death camps, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl writes of the power that hope gave him to survive. “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’”, he says. The German pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, spent the last two years of his life as a prisoner of the Nazis as they sought to uncover his part in the Resistance. After time in the Tegel military prison in relatively tolerable conditions he was eventually sent to Gestapo headquarters in Prinz Albrecht Strasse where he was tortured. He was given permission to write a letter to his parents at Christmas 1944 and enclosed a poem that he wrote and which is still sung as a hymn in German churches.
“With every power for good to stay and guide me,/ comforted and inspired beyond all fear” the poem begins and it ends with the words, “While all the powers of good aid and attend us,/ boldly we’ll face the future come what may./ At even and at morn God will befriend us,/and oh most surely on each newborn day!”
Bonhoeffer describes his own experience of receiving strength to endure the unendurable here and reports from reliable witnesses tell us that he continued in that way right until his execution in Flossenburg concentration camp just a few days before the ending of the war. So we learn that if we too live in hope that our actions for good have meaning, even in the face of death, then we will receive strength to endure, perhaps most especially at the darkest times.
It can almost be as hard to receive and believe unexpected good news as it is to receive and believe the opposite. Disappointment can become a habit of life and preparing for it so that we can bear it when it comes can become the main discipline of our inner lives. The expectation of disappointment and our preparation for its “inevitable” arrival has a way of creeping into every fibre of our being. We will see this negative expectation at work in two major characters of The Lord of the Rings in later postings on this blog. One is Théoden of Rohan and the other is Denethor of Gondor.
The return of Gandalf is one of the glorious moments of the whole story. We saw him fall with the Balrog into the abyss in Moria, crying, “Fly, you fools!” as he did so. We shared in the grief of his companions at his loss and in the sense that their task had become so much harder if not impossible. We have reflected more than once on how for Aragorn the unexpected burden of the leadership of the company threw him into doubt regarding his personal ambitions. And we could say that although it was the attack of the orcs that finally sundered the Fellowship of the Ring that it was from the fall of Gandalf that such a sundering became inevitable.
And now in the Forest of Fangorn as Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli bravely pursue what seems a hopeless cause, Gandalf returns to them.
“They all gazed at him. His hair was white as snow in the sunshine; and gleaming white was his robe; the eyes under his deep brows were bright, piercing as the rays of the sun; power was in his hand. Between wonder, joy and fear they stood and found no words to say.”
They are able to receive this good news with joy and then to continue their journey with renewed hope. Soon they will know that there is no point in continuing to search for Merry and Pippin. They will waste no time on comments like, “so why did we bother, then?” Only one thing will matter to them and that will be to do the next task, and then the next one and the next one. In this they differ from Théoden (at first at least) and from Denethor. Denethor, most of all, has become so set in his belief that good days are only pauses on the inevitable road to destruction that he considers all who continue to have hope as fools and so Gandalf is dismissively called the “grey fool”. In Théoden despair is mixed with guilt. He regards himself as a failed king. Aragorn is different from both. He has passed through his time of despair, not even regarding his own failure as something that disqualifies him from doing the next task with all the strength that he can bring to it.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German pastor, theologian and anti-Nazi resister, wrote powerfully about this not long before he was arrested and held in the Tegel prison in Berlin.
He reflected on ten years of resistance to the Third Reich within Germany, much of which had been ineffective, and upon all that he and his fellow resisters had learnt through those years. He wrote that he had learnt that it was of no importance whether anyone emerged as a hero from this experience. All that mattered was to keep on asking the question, day after day after day, “How is the next generation to live?” Aragorn has stopped worrying about whether he is a hero or whether others see him as one. All that matters is the task. Once that is clear to him he has no barrier within himself to weeping tears of sorrow or of joy and no barrier to living a faithful life.