Denethor has sent Faramir to the fords of Osgiliath so that he might try to hold them against the invaders for as long as possible. All remaining hope is pinned upon the arrival of the Rohirrim to raise the siege and Denethor hopes that in holding the outer defences of the Pelennor he can keep the hosts of Mordor from the walls of Minas Tirith itself and that the Rohirrim will not be divided from the defenders of the city.
That is Denethor’s hope but the invading force is too great in number for Faramir to withstand and soon they are in retreat and eventually the retreat becomes a rout. Only the action of Prince Imrahil of Dol Amroth, who turns back the attack, and of Gandalf, who withstands the Lord of the Nazgûl, saves the fleeing force from slaughter.
But for Faramir this comes too late. Even as the Nazgûl swerve aside Faramir is struck by a deadly dart and Imrahil carries him from the field of battle. Faramir is defeated and his life hangs by a thread.
Faramir has lain down his life for his friends, a line from the Gospel of John in which Jesus, on the night of his betrayal declares that “No one has greater love than this, to lay down ones life for one’s friends”. It is a phrase that Shakespeare takes up in the speech made by Henry V to his men before the Battle of Agincourt where the king calls them brothers “be he ne’er so vile”. Faramir has fallen at the head of his men seeking to ensure an orderly retreat. Imrahil declares to Denethor that Faramir has done “great deeds” but he has fallen and will play no more part in the war except to declare Aragorn, king, and then to wait.
I meet very few people who are able to wait well when their work is finally done. Often they rail against a loss of power and influence sometimes seeking to intervene when it is no longer appropriate that they should. They should have been ready to pass on a task or responsibility to another but they fail to do so. They may become angry at their apparent impotence and the lack of respect or gratitude that they feel they should receive from others and their anger may turn to bitterness or depression.
Faramir does not give way to this although he will come close to it and will need the intervention of the king in the Houses of Healing. But just as we thought of his Christlikeness in the laying down of his life for his people so too do we see him pass through dereliction on his road to healing and serenity. We are reminded of the words of Jesus on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
But why does Faramir’s dereliction end in life while Denethor’s ends in a despairing death? My conviction is that Faramir truly suffers. In saying that I use the word in its old sense of giving permission to something to happen, of believing that there is something that is bigger even than my death. Something that gives meaning to my death even if I do not know what it is. Ultimately Denethor’s death is a denial of suffering. He gives permission to nothing. Nothing has meaning. Faramir will awaken through the aid of the king and will serenely await the outcome of the final battle. If it ends with victory and the king returns he will lay down his office even as he was prepared to lay down his life. If it ends with defeat he will lead his people in a final defence of the city believing that this too will have meaning. One heart will be won entirely by the nobility of his patience but that is a story we must tell another time.
For the last two weeks we have been resting with Frodo and Sam after the great climb up to the pass of Cirith Ungol. Soon they will attempt to enter Mordor. Sam takes the opportunity to think about all that they have been through together. He does not speak his thoughts often but when he does they are worth listening to. Some people cannot stop talking and so you might just miss the wisdom they have to offer because you have got out of the habit of listening to them very carefully. Sam thinks much and speaks little so that by the time he does speak his thoughts they have been carefully crafted. You really must listen when he speaks because he will give you something worth holding onto. Tolkien was like this as well, believing that words have power in themselves both in their meaning and in their sound and so must not be wasted.
Sam has been thinking of the “tales that matter” and how we do not so much choose to be part of such tales but are chosen to be in them. “Folk seem to have been landed in them, usually- their paths were laid that way.” So it has been for Frodo and so it has been for Sam who was landed in this story by overhearing what Gandalf’s words to Frodo while he was tending the garden outside Frodo’s drawing room window. At least in one sense we can say that Sam was landed in it in this way but more truly he was landed in the story of the Ring because of the love he had for Frodo.
Sam goes onto talk about the possibility of “turning back”. “I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back,” he says,”only they didn’t. And if they had we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten.” Frodo offered Sam this opportunity the morning after they had enjoyed the hospitality of Gildor Inglorion and a company of High Elves even before they had left the Shire. Sam had longed to “see Elves” and his desire had already been granted. Frodo asked whether he still wanted to go on and Sam replied that he knew that he must because there was something that he must see through to the end. He must stay faithful to Frodo. Of that he is sure all the way through the story. Eventually he also knows that he must play whatever part he can in the attempt they must make together to destroy the Ring. He is part of that bigger story too.
Whoever takes the risk of loving another is drawn inevitably into their story. For most of us this comes when we “fall in love” with another and decide to stay together and to journey onward together throughout our lives. All that the beloved has done for good or for ill becomes our story too. So too does all that has been done to the beloved. And we can turn back at any point in the story because we come to believe that the price of carrying on has become too great for us to pay. It might be our life partner about whom we have come to believe this or it might be our children or a member of our family or any community or any friendship of which we have become a part. We can choose not to be a part of their story any longer, to turn back.
I am aware that we are in a place of great sensitivity here. Women and children have been told to stay in abusive relationships and this telling can become part of the abuse itself. We cannot make a law of staying, of going on; all that we can say is that those who have blessed the rest of us who are tempted to give up are the ones who have gone on just as Sam did. We use the language of invitation. Those who carry on have taught us what there is to gain if we do not turn back. We are inspired and strengthened by their story.
“Who can now hold the fords when the King of the Nine Riders comes? And other armies will come. I am too late. All is lost. I tarried on the way. All is lost. Even if my errand is performed, no one will ever know. There will be no one I can tell. It will be in vain.”
And so once more Frodo falls into despair as the sable clad armies of Minas Morgul pass by him on their way to take the fords of Osgiliath and then onward to assail the mighty fortress of Gondor itself, Minas Tirith. For Frodo Gondor now bears a human face and it is Faramir’s face that he can see as he watches the Lord of the Nazgul pass him by. His body still carries the memory of the wound that he received at the hands of that fell king at Weathertop. Now he sees him at the head of armies. Who can withstand him?
At all times Frodo has lived at the edge of his despair on his journey and most especially after the fall of Gandalf in Moria and then the attempt by Boromir to seize the Ring at the Falls of Rauros and the sundering of the Fellowship. At all times he is exhausted and as, he says to Sam, the Ring is “heavy on me, Sam lad, very heavy. I wonder how far I can carry it?” Yet time and again he finds strength to go on. We remember the refreshing dream just before the Black Gate and his laughter at the song of the Oliphaunt that Sam sings. We remember most of all the unexpected friendship that he found in his meeting with Faramir. Each moment has been unlooked for but each has found him out and given him strength to journey on once more. Now as he gazes upon the armies of Mordor and weeps in his despair it is a voice that reaches out to him.
“Wake up, Mr. Frodo! Wake up!”
And something in the voice, for it is Sam’s voice, calls him back to the Shire and to Bag End where everything is at peace, where he is at home. And in the inbreaking of the memory of home and of peace, entirely unsought for, he finds strength once again. “Despair had not left him, but the weakness had passed.” He knows what he must do even if there is nothing left to save and no one that he can tell. “What he had to do, he had to do, if he could, and that whether Faramir or Aragorn or Elrond or Galadriel or Gandalf or anyone else knew about it was beside the purpose.”
The purpose is the task itself and few people ever reach the maturity that Frodo displays here. It is an essential part of our growing up that we want to please the important people in our lives. At first this means our parents and grandparents. I still carry in my heart words of praise and encouragement that my grandmother spoke to me at a key moment in my life. They will always be a source of pleasure and of strength to me. But there comes a point when to go in search of such praise and to need someone to tell will keep us from doing the work that we came to this life to do. There comes a time when we must bid farewell, first to our grandparents and then to our parents, and even if we have had the fortune to find wise and kindly fathers and mothers in the communities, in the organisations, in which we have lived and worked there comes a time when we find that they must leave us. If there are to be such fathers and mothers then we must become them ourselves. The moment when we come to this place will be a lonely one but those who reach it and who do not flee from it as Frodo does not flee from it now are those who bring strength and blessing to others on the same journey.
It is with the greatest reluctance that I must leave Faramir today. Frodo and Sam only had the briefest of stays with him and for much of that time were uncertain about the true nature of the man they had just met. Over this summer I have had the pleasure of returning once again to their encounter and to spend some months both enjoying it and reflecting upon it.
Faramir now bids farewell to his guests, allowing the Ring to depart with them, not clinging to the last opportunity to achieve certain victory for Gondor, choosing rather to risk defeat, enslavement and darkness than a victory that would in reality be an even greater darkness than the triumph of Sauron. In this refusal to cling Faramir chooses to empty himself and as they part so Frodo speaks:
“Most gracious host… it was said to me by Elrond Halfelven that I should find friendship upon the way, secret and unlooked for. Certainly I looked for no such friendship as you have shown. To have found it turns evil to great good.”
Surely as Frodo speaks he is thinking of the evil of Boromir’s attempt to seize the Ring and to do what Faramir refused to do. At this moment of the story Frodo knows nothing of Boromir’s final triumph over the power of evil at work in his soul and can see only the uncontrolled lust disfiguring that once fair face. The memory of that face has stayed with him from that moment until now and it has darkened Frodo’s heart. Not only has he not looked for such friendship as Faramir has shown him but he has feared untruth, hidden intent and betrayal. Such fear has a way of gaining a creeping hold even upon the most noble of hearts and so in Frodo’s thanks he speak of the evil that such a creeping hold will bring about. It is his own heart that has been set free from that evil by Faramir’s friendship.
And what of the future? Neither Frodo nor Faramir can look ahead to see what the future might bring. Faramir has already said that he cannot speak to Frodo with “soft words”.
“I do not hope to see you again on any other day under this Sun.”
Neither Frodo nor Faramir expects to escape the evil of the final triumph of the Dark Lord any more any more than Saruman expects it and so becomes an ally of Sauron hoping either to share in his triumph or to gain the Ring for himself or to even to make one when his Ring lore is complete. Faramir and Frodo have no more expectation of victory than Saruman does and yet they refuse to follow his way, the way of despair.
Surely this is the insight that Dante had when he spoke of the words written over the gateway into Hell, “Abandon all hope all you that enter here!” at the beginning of his Divine Comedy? There is a profound difference between the loss of hope for one’s own personal survival and even the triumph of one’s cause and the loss of hope that leads to either a passive or active embracing of evil. The latter is surely the despair of Hell, the despair of Sauron or of Saruman. The former believes that in the rejection of despair even the greatest of evil will be turned to good in a manner that as yet is entirely unforeseen. In the friendship that Faramir offers to Frodo and that Frodo at last is able to receive they both say their “Yes” to this belief.
To have found such friendship must turn even the greatest evil to great good.
Frodo and Sam are carried to Mordor. The task of getting there is too great for either of them to achieve alone. It is even too great for them to achieve together. They need to be carried there and in the postings on this blog over the next few weeks we will see who carries them and how. As we begin this journey Frodo and Sam are hopelessly alone in the Emyn Muil. They cannot even descend from its heights into the marshlands below that lie between them and the northern walls of Mordor. And yet they are not alone. They are in communion with so many others living and departed and without that communion they would not be able take a step further upon their journey. The elven rope by which they descend to the lowlands and which returns to them when Sam calls it is the fruit of long years of craftsmanship placed at their service at a moment of need. The gift of lembas that will sustain them on many weary marches is given because the lady of the wood did not hide from the travellers but opened her home and heart to them.
Frodo and Sam could not take a step towards Mordor and the accomplishment of their task without this communion and in the weeks ahead we will be reminded of many that they cannot see as they stumble the weary miles that lie now before them. But we begin with their friendship. Next week we will think about how Frodo carries Sam to Mordor but this week we will begin by thinking of how Sam carries Frodo.
Many argue that Sam is the true hero of the Quest of the Ring and that Frodo could never have reached Mount Doom without him. Frodo himself agrees with this assessment. Later in the journey he will say this to Sam: “Frodo wouldn’t have got far without Sam.” And he is right. Sam’s father, the Gaffer, worried greatly about where learning to read and write would take his son but of one thing he would have approved and that is that Sam stays faithfully by his master through thick and thin. Gaffer Gamgee believes that the relationship between master and servant is part of the natural order of things. He may not always approve of the actions of the masters and he will say so if he is not happy but he will remain loyal even when he does not agree and he expects his son to do likewise. However, Sam’s loyalty is not because of his father’s precepts although he holds them to be true himself, but because he admires, even loves Frodo. Sam believes that Frodo is “the wisest person in the world (with the possible exception of Old Mr Bilbo and of Gandalf” but his admiration does not carry with it any desire to be like Frodo; even less to be Frodo. There is nothing competitive in their relationship. What gives meaning to Sam’s life is that he lays it down in free service to the hobbit he admires and loves. Such service is hard to conceive in contemporary culture in which even our friendships are often competitive in nature and in which service is often considered to be servile unless shaped by contract and a job description. Tolkien is describing what for many is an “old-fashioned” relationship but he does so in a way that both transcends and transfigures it so that it is neither old-fashioned nor contemporary but greater than both because there is nothing servile about Sam’s service to Frodo.
Perhaps in the drawing of the relationship of Sam to Frodo Tolkien comes as close as any writer to the spirit of the words of Jesus in the gospel of St John in which he says:
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.”