“Books Ought to Have Good Endings”. Bilbo and Frodo Speak Together of Euchatastrophe and Dyscatastrophe.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 265-267

As a young person I used to read practically everything that I could lay my hands on. Books were not such common things back in the 60s and early 70s as they are now. There was not the market for children’s and young people’s literature and consequently I was forced to read books that were intended for older readers and many of them had sad endings. Some of them had terrible endings, the kind that shook my sense of safety in the world. I can still feel the memories of reading the ending to Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’urbervilles, and the moment when Lear staggers onto the stage bearing the body of Cordelia in the play that bears his name. I felt his Howl! Howl! Howl! in my own body then and that memory still lingers physically. Such experiences had a major impact on my passage from childhood to adulthood and created, I hope, a deepening sensitivity towards the suffering of others.

But now I find myself to be increasingly in agreement with Bilbo. “Books ought to have good endings. How would this do: and they all settled down and lived together happily ever after?” To such an ending I want to say a resounding, Yes! If I possibly can.

Stories ought to have good endings! Bilbo the story teller.

In my work as a parish priest I find myself in the company of people as they narrate their stories and the stories of the people that they love. The Church of England still has a role in this country in the way that people want to tell their life stories and so in the past week I have been with young couples preparing to marry and for two couples, I have shared the day on which they declare their love for one another to their families, friends and the communities in which they have grown up. And I have shared the gathering of a family from all parts of the country as they honoured a grand old French lady of 96 as she was laid to rest in an English country churchyard with the husband that she lost 50 years ago and I shared the grief of a woman at the funeral of her husband, knowing that as an almost palpable presence in the crematorium chapel she also carried the loss of her son who died earlier this year from Covid 19. Perhaps it was in part the shaping of my inner life through reading that has taught me to listen to these stories intently and, over the years, to develop a reverence for ordinary life. Perhaps too, it was those early visceral responses to the stories that I read that has shaped my listening to and participation in the lives of others. My whole being has soared into the heavens with joy in this past week and it has plunged into dark places in communion with the people with whom I have shared it.

For me there is a story that enables me both to bear this joy and sorrow and that is the universal story told in the liturgies of the funeral and marriage services of my church. My task as the story teller in the lives of the people who come to church on these days is to hold both their story and the universal story together in a way that gives the highest honour and reverence that I can possibly give to both and so when I invite a couple to love and cherish one another until they are parted by death or when I declare the great promise of the sure and certain hope of the resurrection through Christ I deliberately and purposely lay aside all my doubts and the simple reality that I am speaking of mysteries that far surpass anything that I will ever understand. It is not my business to intrude into their lives or into the great story of which the liturgy speaks.

But there needs to be somewhere that I can go to afterwards and here I find myself resonating with Sam Gamgee’s question to his fellow hobbits and to Gandalf, “And where will they live? That’s what I often wonder.” Sam is reflecting upon the simple fact that he does not know how the story is going to turn out. Will they succeed in their task or will the Dark Lord conquer? What he does not know is that he is prophesying regarding Frodo’s story. There will be nowhere for Frodo to live even though he will save the Shire for his own people.

Where will they live? Frodo arrives at a far green country under a swift sunrise.

Tolkien makes wise use of the word, good, in this passage. Good endings to stories and good days in Rivendell with meals, words and songs in which the hobbits take pleasure. As they do so “health and hope” grows strong within them again. The red star low in the southern sky is an ever present reminder of the threat that lies ahead of them all but how they need the “virtue of the land of Rivendell” to enable them to face all that lies ahead.

Tolkien’s own imagining of the Good Land of Rivendell

“We Must Send The Ring to The Fire”. Elrond Concludes The Debate on What To Do With The Ring.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 257-260

After Gandalf ends his tale about his long journey, his battle with the Nazgûl upon Weathertop that the hobbits and Aragorn had witnessed from a distance and his long ride northward upon the mighty Shadowfax in order to draw some of his enemies, at least, away from the Ring and its bearer, he apologises to Frodo and then asks:

“Well, the Tale is now told, from first to last. Here we all are, and here is the Ring. But we have not come any nearer to our purpose. What shall we do with it?”

What Shall We Do With The Ring?

In response to a consideration of Gandalf’s question Elrond makes brief reference to Saruman’s treachery and the dangers of studying too closely the arts of the Enemy. But he gives his closest attention to a reflection upon Frodo’s story subtly drawing both him and hobbits into the long tale of the years. The Shire is placed at the edge of the great primeval forest and hobbits are named as neighbours to Iarwain Ben-adar, oldest and fatherless, Tom Bombadil of the eastern edge of The Old Forest. Briefly the thought is considered that Bombadil might be asked to be guardian of the Ring but Gandalf swiftly dismisses the idea. “He would be a most unsafe guardian; and that alone is enough”.

Perhaps most significantly Elrond speaks of Frodo and hobbits with respect and some surprise. “Of the tales that we have heard today the tale of Frodo was most strange to me. I have known few hobbits, save Bilbo here; and it seems to me that he is perhaps not so alone and singular as I had thought him. The world has changed much since I was last on the westward road.”

Elrond leaves that thought hanging as the Elves begin to debate whether the Ring should be hidden in some fashion or destroyed. Should it be taken westward to the Undying Lands where it will lie beyond the reach of Sauron? Elrond is confident that those in the Undying Lands would refuse to receive the Ring. For them the memory of Feänor and the corrupting power of the Silmarils will be fresh. Not that the Silmarils were evil in themselves but that Feänor’s absolute desire to possess something that he had made at all costs corrupted him absolutely. It led to the rebellion of the Noldor and the kinslaying at Alqualondë, the only occasion of violent death in the long history of Valinor. Neither the Elves nor the Valar would give welcome to an object of power that was inherently evil.

Ted Nasmith’s imagining of the Kinslaying at Alqualondë

Glorfindel suggests that Saruman’s lie, that the Ring had rolled down the Anduin to the depths of the ocean should be made true. They should cast it there themselves. But Gandalf dismisses this idea. No solution to the problem of the Ring will be permanent save its destruction and so Elrond brings the debate to its conclusion.

“But it seems to me now clear which is the road that we must take. The westward road seems easiest. Therefore it must be shunned. It will be watched. Too often the Elves have fled that way. Now at this last we must take a hard road, a road unforeseen. There lies our hope, if hope it be. To walk into peril- to Mordor. We must take the Ring to the Fire.”

The taking of the hard road, the road into peril, lies at the very heart of Tolkien’s meditation on the problem of evil. He gives no attention whatsoever to the question of why there is evil in the world. It is here and that is all we need to know. And he rejects the two solutions to the problem of evil in our own time, that either we flee from it to some absolute place of safety or that we overcome it by some greater force, defeating evil with evil. Next week we will give greater consideration to this latter solution thinking about Boromir’s suggestion that the Free Peoples use the Ring against its maker. It is enough to know now that Elrond and the Wise reject this possibility. There is only the hard road. The road into the very heart of darkness allowing it to do its very worst. The way of the cross.

The Hard Road

“Saruman, You Missed Your Path in Life. You Should Have Been the King’s Jester”. On Seeing Through Saruman’s Fantasy World.

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!”

Is Harold Jig depicting the court jester in the figure of Saruman?

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.

Gandalf’s Laughter. Despair or 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.

A Far Green Country

“Where Am I, and What is the Time?” Frodo Awakes in the House of Elrond.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp.213-219

I think that I shall be spending the next few weeks with Frodo and Gandalf in the flat ceilinged room with “dark beams richly carved” in the House of Elrond. This is partly because there are few feelings more pleasant than to awaken safely in a comfortable bed after a time of trial. Frodo is so well rested that he has no desire to do anything other than to continue in that state. At first he is so content just to be that he has little or no curiosity about his whereabouts but at last he speaks aloud and says,

“Where am I, and what is the time?” he said aloud to the ceiling.

“In the House of Elrond, and it is ten o’clock in the morning,” said a voice. “It is the morning of October the twenty-fourth, if you want to know.”

Where am I and what is the time?

And that is another pleasure for me. Few people tell the time, ‘o’clock’, anymore and it is a pleasure to hear that word. But it is a greater pleasure to hear the voice in my head and imagination of the one who speaks in reply to Frodo’s question, for it is Gandalf, and just like Frodo I am always delighted when Gandalf turns up. All my life I have sought the company of men like Gandalf. I have liked many older men but I have met few elders, few truly wise old men. O truly fortunate Aragorn, to have been fathered by two such men, by Elrond and by Gandalf, but then Aragorn was being prepared to become a king, to be the father of his people.

Frodo too has been prepared for a great task and both Bilbo and then Gandalf have been fathers to him. And please note that none of the men mentioned here were biologically fathers to either Aragorn or Frodo. That is a relatively simple task, accomplished in a few moments. To be a father like Gandalf is the work of long years and requires much wisdom. Fascinatingly, in the baptism service of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer of 1662, the priest addresses only the godparents and not the birth parents. If only we had more godparents like Gandalf or Elrond or Bilbo today, men or women who are teachers of wisdom.

Frodo and Gandalf Speak Together

In a relatively brief conversation Frodo and Gandalf will say much to each other and their speech will be of great importance. That is another reason why I will gladly spend a few weeks thinking about what they say. They will speak of Frodo’s journey, of Aragorn and the Rangers of the North, of Frodo’s close shaves with death, or with something worse even than death, and with his healing by the skill of Elrond, and they will speak of the danger that lies ahead for all the free peoples of Middle-earth. There will be much for us to think about. But here I will end with a thoughtful speculation on Gandalf’s part as he looks upon the hobbit who appears to be healed.

“Gandalf moved his chair to the bedside, and took a good look at Frodo. The colour had come back to his face, and his eyes were clear, and fully awake and aware. He was smiling, and there seemed to be little wrong with him. But to the wizard’s eye there was a faint change, just a hint as it were of transparency, about him, and especially about the left hand lay outside upon the coverlet.”

What can the wizard see that is hidden from those who cannot see as he can? Does this hint of transparency denote Frodo’s journey towards becoming a wraith as was the intention of the one who left the splinter of the Morgul blade within his body? Gandalf ponders this and other possibilities.

“To what he will come in the end not even Elrond can foretell. Not to evil, I think. He may become like a glass filled with a clear light for eyes to see that can.”

Two kinds of transparency are considered here. One is that shared by the ringwraiths who have rejected their bodies in return for a miserable form of immortality. The other about which Gandalf ponders must surely remind Tolkien’s readers of the glass that Galadriel will give to Frodo in Lothlorien that contains the light of the Silmaril borne by Eärendil in the heavens a light in dark places “when all other lights go out”.

A Light When All Other Lights Go Out

Frodo is Cheered by Old Trolls. With a Little Help from a Song by Sam Gamgee.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 197-203

In attempting to keep away from the great East-West Road that runs from Rivendell to the Grey Havens, fearing that it will be upon the road that the Nazgûl will be lying in wait, Strider has taken the hobbits a little too far to the north. It is at this point that Tolkien’s maps of Middle-earth that he drew for The Lord of the Rings give us little guidance about the exact route of their journey. Although it is clear from Tolkien’s wonderfully evocative description that the travellers have to negotiate some difficult terrain with steep climbs and descents the map shows us none of this and we are left to our imaginations to trace their path. Indeed for a long time there is no path. They have to find their way through what is literally a trackless waste until Pippin stumbles upon one.

We remember the paths created by Tom Bombadil in the Old Forest, respectfully even tenderly weaving in and out among the trees following the line of the Withywindle. This path in the wild is a brutal affair “made by strong arms and heavy feet. Here and there old trees had been cut or broken down, and large rocks cloven or heaved aside to make a way. “

Eventually we learn that the heavy lifting machinery is, in fact, three trolls, the very three who years before had captured the thirteen dwarves of the expedition to the Lonely Mountain that had been Bilbo’s great adventure; and the reason why they are now effigies seated on the ground in a clearing in the Trollshaws is that Gandalf had tricked them into continuing an argument about how to cook their prey until the rising sun had turned them into stone.

Ted Nasmith’s evocation of the tale of Bilbo and the Trolls from The Hobbit

Throughout this stage of the journey Frodo has been drifting in and out of a shadowy world. We will not find out until later in Rivendell that a tiny sliver of the Morgul blade that had pierced his shoulder has been working its way inwards towards his heart, slowly but inexorably drawing him into the world of shadows in which his attackers dwell, but the progress of this deadly invader does not seem to be an even one and moments like this seem to stay its malevolent influence, for a time at least.

The person whose wholesome influence has this effect upon Frodo is Sam. I wonder if in this scene Tolkien was recalling the way in which soldiers in the trenches of the First World War would try to cheer each other up with songs like the one that Sam sings here in the shadow of the frozen trolls. Probably some of them were pretty bawdy but some would, as with Sam’s simple ditty, have simply made their hearers smile. And Frodo does smile. In the trenches such songs would have kept at bay a slow freezing of the heart for men, lice infested and surrounded by death. Here Sam’s song slows the progress of the splinter towards Frodo’s heart. Frodo jokingly declares that Sam might “end up by becoming a wizard-or a warrior” and wizards and warriors will both play a vital part in this story.

Alan Lee depicts the travellers amongst the stone trolls in the Trollshaws

But so too will jesters. That is the word that Frodo uses, somewhat dismissively we have to acknowledge, to describe Sam at this point of the story. Frodo does not yet know that the part that this jester is going to play in getting him and the Ring to the Cracks of Doom is going to be absolutely vital. Sam will prove to be a warrior, although never one by choice, especially in his heroic battle with Shelob in her lair and in his storming of the Tower of Cirith Ungol but it is his simple refusal to abandon his cheerful spirit that will play the kind of role that only someone who is learning to see through the eyes of a child will ever come to value. Those who study to achieve a cultured sophistication will never have that vision. Frodo might have been tempted to be such a sophisticate but his terrible suffering in the course of his Ringbearing journey will teach him that it is not cleverness that sustains us in our darkest days but pure and simple goodness.

Ted Nasmith’s tender imagining of Sam singing to cheer his companions

The Enigma of Arrival. Frodo makes Preparation to Go Home.

In the last few weeks on this blog we have been thinking about the love story of Aragorn and Arwen “both the sweet and the bitter” as Arwen herself calls it. Now we return to the moment in which the sweetness is at its most intense. It is the first days of the marriage of Aragorn and Arwen after their long separation and for Aragorn all is healed. When Frodo comes to see the king and queen to ask permission to go home he is kingly in all that he offers. “If there were any gifts that I could give that could match with your deeds you should have them; but whatever you desire you shall take with you, and you shall ride in honour and arrayed as princes of the land.”

This is seemly and befits a king in his triumph and bliss but Arwen sees more keenly, even in her happiness. She speaks of her father departing for the Havens and that because she has made the choice of Lúthien she will not go with him. Then she speaks to Frodo showing that she understands the extent of the price that he has paid and the hurt that he has taken, wounded by the Nazgûl knife, the sting of Shelob and the tooth of Gollum and perhaps most of all by the Ring that he bore to its destruction and yet did not choose to destroy it at the end needing the crazed passion of Gollum to enable him to accomplish his task. Others, like Aragorn, rightly honour him for all that he has done, but he gives no honour to himself.

“In my stead you shall go, Ring-bearer, when the time comes, and if you then desire it. If your hurts grieve you still and the memory of your burden is heavy, then you may pass into the West until all your wounds and weariness are healed.”

We will return at a later time to think more about Frodo’s need for healing and a little of the means by which he will be healed but it is worth noting here that he is freely offered, by the grace of the Valar and the loving choice of Arwen, that which long before Ar-Pharazôn sought to seize by force. He is granted free passage to the Undying Lands. But note that he is not granted the immortality of the Elves but the gift of healing. When he is healed, when his soul learns again its true road to heaven and he is wholly free of the burden of the Ring at last and he has lived out his days then he will die. The tragedy of Ar-Pharazôn is that he sought to gain something that was never his and so lost the gift that was his for ever and could not be lost unless it was cast away.

In 1912 the artist Giorgio de Chirico painted The Enigma of Arrival and the Afternoon. In the painting two figures are seen walking through a classical landscape as the ship that has perhaps brought them there is seen already in full sail and leaving on its way to somewhere else. In 1987 the great Trinidadian novelist V.S Naipaul made this the title of one of his finest works. In it he tells of a man who is constantly in search of a home but finds that as soon as he reaches a place it begins inexorably to move away from him. His arrival coincides with its departure. It is a beautiful and poignant description of the endless flow of things. There are moments within this exquisite work in which, in a Proustian manner, Naipaul makes time almost stop still for a moment, but I had to use the word, almost. Time does not stand still. This tragic insight is displayed in a comic courtesy soon after the scene that we have considered in The Lord of the Rings when the quarrel between Éomer and Gimli over the question as to whether the Lady Galadriel is the most beautiful of all ladies is at last resolved. Éomer begs Gimli’s forgiveness. He cannot call Galadriel the most beautiful for now he has seen the Queen Arwen. Gimli forgives him but with great sadness. “You have chosen the Evening; but my love is given to be Morning. And my heart forbodes that soon it will pass away for ever.”

This week’s artwork is a digital reproduction of the The Enigma of Arrival and the Afternoon by Giorgio de Chirico downloaded from Pinterest.