The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins) pp. 251-254
I am sure that my readers have recognised that the quotation from The Lord of the Rings that is contained in this week’s title does not come from the encounter between Gandalf and Saruman that Gandalf describes at the Council of Elrond in Rivendell but from the chapter entitled The Voice of Saruman that comes after the Battle of Helms Deep in The Two Towers. I have deliberately done this because I want to come back to the question of humour that I began to discuss in last week’s post and the critique of modernity that lies within Tolkien’s work and the work of the Inklings. Last week I compared the speech made by Saruman in Isengard to the captured Gandalf with speeches made by Uncle Andrew in The Magician’s Nephew and by Weston in Out of the Silent Planet both written by C.S Lewis. I noted that each speech seemed “well rehearsed” and then I noted that each speech was as much an exercise in self-aggrandisement as it was in presenting something that was objectively true. At all times the speaker was saying, “Look at me!”
There have been times when I have thought that humour is merely an expression of despair. I imagine myself standing in the queue for the gas chamber in a concentration camp and standing beside us is an entertainer whose job it is to cheer us up. The entertainer is doing the funniest imitations of the guards and even the camp commandant and despite ourselves we are all enjoying his performance but one by one, even amidst the laughter, we are all disappearing into the gas chamber. Perhaps when we are all gone the entertainer will follow us and perish just as we all did. Sometimes I have felt that the satire on late night TV is of that nature. We share the joke with the performer, congratulating ourselves on our ability to see through the person or situation that is being satirised but deep down we know that we are laughing on the way to the gas chamber.
Is Gandalf’s humour and the laughter in Lewis’s works at the expense of Weston and of Uncle Andrew of that nature? Are they merely trying to cheer us up as we make our inevitable journeys into the dark? Certainly the fantasy worlds that these characters create in which they are the central figure, these are risible. The genius that Lewis displays in putting the words “Ours is a high and lonely destiny” into the mouth of a character as obviously contemptible as Uncle Andrew is to render those same words as equally contemptible no matter who speaks them. When Saruman makes his speech he reveals himself as just another Uncle Andrew but what do we gain from such awareness if we are all on our way to the gas chamber? In Tolkien’s legendarium it is the archetypal figure of Morgoth who infects the world with his assertion that the darkness is the final reality. Verlyn Flieger shows how Tolkien struggled with the fear that Morgoth might be right throughout his life speaking of the loss of his parents in his childhood and then the loss of all his closest friends during the First World War. She shows how in his seminal essay “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” he speaks of a world ringed with a shoreless sea in which “as in a little circle of light about their halls, men with courage as their stay went forward to that battle with the hostile world and the offspring of the dark which ends for all, even the kings and champions, in defeat”. Gandalf’s laughter at Saruman’s expense may be no more than defiance in the face of inevitable defeat or it can be an expression of hope.
Flieger speaks of two words that Tolkien coined that, in many ways, described both his own inner spiritual conflict and also the spiritual conflict of our age. These are dyscatastrophe and euchatastrophe. If dyscatastrophe is at best a heroic life in the face of inevitable defeat then euchatastrophe is a world in which I might lose myself but then find it again “in another and perhaps higher world”. This, of course, is Frodo’s journey to the “far green country under a swift sunrise” that follows his defeat in Middle-earth. Tolkien chose this ending to The Lord of the Rings, a poignant, tear stained but ultimately hopeful ending. We have the same choice of possible endings for our own story and the story of our world.