The Battle Before the Black Gate. Do the Best Stories have Happy Endings?

I had intended to return to Frodo and Sam at the Tower of Cirith Ungol this week but I felt that I needed to offer one last meditation on the “hopeless” battle before the Black Gate of Mordor before I leave it for a while. At the very least I felt that I owe it to Pippin who is lying under the body of a Troll chieftain that he has just valiantly slain in defence of Beregond of the Guard, his friend. I can’t just leave him there without hope!

When I first read The Return of the King as a teenager it was a volume that I had borrowed from my school library. After eating my evening meal I disappeared to my room and read and read and read…

I wonder how long it took me to read the section from the end of Book 5 and the battle before the Black Gate to the moment when Gandalf calls upon the armies of the West to “stand and wait!” I was reading as fast as I could but even so it must have been a good hour or so before I got there. Tolkien’s happy ending, his eucatastrophe, as he termed it, was something for which I was made to wait. I had to endure the endless journey through the horror of Mordor that Frodo and Sam had to make in order to reach Mount Doom and once there I had to watch helplessly with Sam as Frodo failed in his mission and all was saved only by the unlooked for intervention of Gollum.

But still the happy ending came. Did it come because of the courage of the Armies of the West and their brave captains? Did it come because of the faithful witness to the Good that Gandalf had born through the long centuries of his sojourn in Middle-earth? Did it come because of the friendship of the nine companions who set out from Rivendell just three months before? Did it come because Frodo staggered, step by weary step, supported and, at the last, carried by Sam up the slopes of Mount Doom?

After we have given due praise to all of the characters that we have come to know and love in Tolkien’s great work, and each of them deserves great praise, we have to say that none of these things actually brings about the happy ending. That comes through grace alone, from something that lies beyond the endless repetition of cause and effect.

This is one of Tolkien’s greatest contributions to the culture of our time and one which has brought the greatest anger from literary critics. Most of all Tolkien has been accused of being an escapist. Life, real life, the critics say, is not like that. Tolkien is treating us as if we are children. This is mere fairy tale and it is time for us to grow up and embrace reality.

Tolkien faced this criticism head on in an essay first printed in 1947 entitled, On Fairy-Stories. In it he wrote, “I coined the word ‘eucatastrophe’: the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears  (which I argued it is the highest function of fairy-stories to produce). And I was there led to the view that it produces its peculiar effect because it is a sudden glimpse of Truth, your whole nature chained in material cause and effect, the chain of death, feels a sudden relief as if a major limb out of joint had suddenly snapped back”.

It is this “sudden glimpse of Truth” that is so subversive to the “chain of death” that is held to be the only reality by the so-called modernists. And it is precisely from that prison, surrounded by the chain of death, from which Tolkien calls us to escape. Is it a coward who cannot face up to reality who tries to escape from this prison? Surely it is the ones who tell us that the prison is the only reality and that there is no freedom beyond it who lack courage. The courageous life is the one that refuses to submit to the tyranny of the “chain of death” as do Tolkien’s heroes.

 

 

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.”