Christmas! A Good Time to Start a Venture that will Save the World From Evil.

“Go now with good hearts! Farewell, and may the blessing of Elves and Men and all Free Folk go with you. May the stars shine on your faces!”

So says the Lord Elrond at dusk on the 25th December in the year 3018 in the Third Age of the Earth as the Fellowship of the Ring sets out upon the quest to take the Ring of Power to the fires in which it was created upon Orodruin, Mt Doom, in the land of Mordor.

Within the story the date upon which the Fellowship sets out is determined by events such as Frodo’s decision to leave Bag End upon his birthday, the 23rd of September. This means that it is in the dead of winter that the great quest will leave Rivendell. But for Tolkien there is another reason why the 25th of December is chosen and that, of course, is because of the place of that date within the church’s calendar. It is Christmas, the Feast of the Nativity, of the birth of the Saviour to Mary and Joseph in a stable in Bethlehem. It is the day upon which the great adventure begins, “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

In Tolkien’s legendarium, unlike C. S Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, there is no incarnation. There is no figure like Aslan, around whom the whole story turns, who will die and rise again for the world. But the whole story is a preparation for the Incarnation. All of Tolkien’s great work prepares us to hear the great words that are proclaimed in the Christmas gospel, that “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

The destruction of the Ring of Power and the Fall of Sauron is not the end of the story. Tolkien goes to great lengths to show that. It is the point of the heartrending chapter near the end of The Lord of the Rings that he entitles, The Scouring of the Shire. The Ring may have gone to the Fire but a small band of brigands under a malicious leader can still do serious harm. It is the point of the departure from Middle-earth of Galadriel, Elrond and Gandalf and the ending of the great works that they were able to do with the three Elven Rings whose power fades with the destruction of the One Ring to which they were inextricably linked. For with the end of Sauron comes also the fading of Lothlórien and of Rivendell.

Christmas is yet to come in Middle-earth. We sense that when it does come it will do so as Tolkien’s great eucatastrophe, “the sudden happy turn in a story that pierces you with a joy that brings tears.” The long slow defeat of Tolkien’s story and our own experience of the world will end, not with the going out of the light for ever, but with the dawning of endless day that grows ever brighter. To this Great Day the Fall of Sauron and the Coronation of Aragorn as the returning King of Gondor and of Arnor is but a signpost. The reality that the sign points to has not yet come.

But for now we get ahead of ourselves in the story. It is the 25th of December and a small company without much gear of war goes south with the Ringbearer.

“There was no laughter, and no song or music. At last they turned away and faded silently into the dusk.”

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?

 

I Do Not Think I Shall Ever Get There

The fear may have passed and Faramir proved faithful even though he has discovered that he has the Ring of Power within his grasp, but it has been too much for Frodo. “A great weariness came down on him like a cloud. He could dissemble and resist no longer.”

As we said some weeks ago Frodo has never lied to Faramir but he has done all that he can to hide the truth knowing what the truth can do. He has tried with all the strength he has to prevent Faramir from learning what it is that he carries. But now Faramir does know and Frodo has no strength left.

“I was going to find a way to Mordor,” he said faintly. “I was going to Gorgoroth. I must find the Mountain of Fire and cast the thing into the gulf of Doom. Gandalf said so. I do not think I shall ever get there.”

It is as if Frodo no longer has any will left in the matter. It is not even his choice as to whether he goes to Mordor. “Gandalf said so.” This is a thing that children say when they try to excuse themselves upon being caught doing something naughty. They try to pass the responsibility onto someone else, someone with sufficient authority to explain their actions. To do such a thing is not the action of a hero but Frodo is passed caring about being a hero, passed caring about being the centre of the story. He just has a task to fulfil; a job to do.

There are times in our lives when we seek for a sense of vocation, a word which means being called. We need such a sense to give us strength to do the hard things when they come. Perhaps Frodo briefly had such a sense when he first learnt what it was that he possessed in his front room before his fireplace with Gandalf. At that moment he a great desire “to follow Bilbo, and even perhaps to find him again.” It was a desire “so strong that it overcame his fear”. It was not a calling to do a great deed but it was enough to get him out of his front door and onto the journey. When the debate in the Council of Elrond concluded with the decision to take the Ring to Mordor Frodo had no such desire but a “great dread”. His longing was to remain at peace with Bilbo in Rivendell and so great was that longing that when eventually he did speak it was if  “some other will was using his small voice”.

I said just now that we need a sense of vocation, a sense of being called to do something, to give us strength when times get hard. Perhaps I should have said that with the really important things there will come a time when we no longer have any sense of vocation at all. The really important things are too big for us. Indeed if the thing that engages our best and our truest is not too big for us then maybe it is not that important. It is one of the key elements of the imagery in the most ancient forms of the Christian rite of baptism that the one who is baptised is plunged into the waters of death and of chaos. As they do so they find that Christ has already made this journey, the journey into the deep waters of death, but that he has overcome our ancient enemy and death no longer has any power over him. Baptism is thus not just a cleansing from all that is passed but a prophecy of what lies ahead. As Jesus says to the disciples who want greatness, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptised with the baptism I am baptised with.” How can we face such things without the same sense of dread that Frodo felt that day in Rivendell? And if we do continue the journey then there will be times when we have no strength left just as Frodo has none at this moment.

And what happens next when there is no strength?

Peregrine Took’s Guide to Life

There is a clue in the words that Pippin speaks that we considered last week to the way in which he will deal with the feeling of uselessness. “I wish I could get free!” he says to himself.

If we were to read a hobbits’ guide to Life, some kind of self-help manual or at least if we were to read a self-help manual as written by Peregrine Took we would find little reflection upon a search for meaning. It is not that Pippin is incapable of reflection and later in the story we will come across a particularly moving conversation that he and Merry have together about what they have learned upon their travels but on the whole Pippin is not given to much introspection or much forethought for that matter. Sometimes this will get him into trouble but at this moment it is a source of strength to him because he is able to give all of his attention to the matter at hand. How is he to get to free?

And from the moment that he moves from asking questions to which he has no answer to the moment when he and Merry step into the Forest of Fangorn, free from their Orc captors but with no idea of what to do next except that they know that they would rather face the Forest than the Orcs this is how Pippin will deal with every challenge that he has to face. He will not ask himself whether he has the capacity to escape from the orcs he will simply deal with one thing at a time. And as he does so his confidence in his capacity to face each challenge will grow.

At times when life seems to overwhelm us it might actually be Pippin who can help us through. He won’t be able to help us make sense of the bigger questions like, “why is this happening to me?” or “why does God allow suffering in the world?” If you were to ask him a question like that he would probably say something like, “You had better ask Gandalf or Elrond. I don’t think I could help you on that one. Let’s go and find something to eat!” Pippin does not spend too much time speculating. He gets on with the task that lies to hand and saves his energy for the next task and then the next one too. Key to being able to do this is staying cheerful and Merry and Pippin put a lot of effort into that task. When they make a joke and Ugluk tries to terrify them into silence by threatening them with the terror that lies ahead of them they pay little attention to him. They will deal with the terror when they get to it with as much courage as they can. They won’t waste what energy they have by being afraid of it now.

This reminds me of the spirituality of the boy who offers his lunch as an answer to the question “How are we to feed all these people?” in the story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand. He does not seem to be worried by the problem as the disciples are. He simply offers what he has. Pippin would approve! And at those times when we seem to be confronted by problems that are too big for us to solve then we might do the same: we might simply offer what we have.