Denethor’s end, when it comes, is both tragic and yet utterly pointless. The pyre that he has prepared in the House of the Stewards is intended to be a magnificent gesture in which he will declare his freedom from tyrants whoever they are, Dark Lord or White Rider. And he will take his son with him so that he too will not fall into the hands of others. And yet at the last it is but a small, mean thing in the light of the events of the day. Peter Jackson portrays this well in his film showing the flaming body of Denethor at first filling the screen before suddenly pulling the camera back as if to a great distance so that Denethor’s fall becomes just another incident within a great battle. The words of King Lear come to mind as he rails impotently at his daughters,
“I will have such revenges on you both that all the world shall- I will do such things- what they are I know not but they shall be the terrors of the earth.”
As with Saruman it is a palantir that is revealed at the moment of crisis. Denethor shows it to Gandalf with furious pride as the symbol of his so-called freedom.
“Didst thou think that the eyes of the White Tower were blind? Nay, I have seen more than thou knowest, Grey Fool. For thy hope is but ignorance. Go then and labour in healing! Go forth and fight! For a little space you may triumph on the field, for a day. But against the Power that now arises there is no victory.”
Note what Denethor says, that to hope is mere ignorance and folly and that to know is to be certain of the victory of darkness. Saruman, if he were present, would say much the same thing. He too is corrupted by what he believes that he knows though there is a difference between them. Saruman is so convinced of his own greatness that he believes that he can become the ally of Sauron. He even believes that his own ringlore might enable him to out manoeuvre the Dark Lord. Denethor has no such illusion. He knows that the triumph of Mordor will inevitably mean his own enslavement and so refuses to become the ally of Sauron. But both Saruman and Denethor are corrupted by what they believe that they know.
So is Tolkien saying that all knowledge must lead to corruption and despair? Is it, as Denethor accuses Gandalf, that to hope must mean to be ignorant? Even from our knowledge of Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings we know that Denethor’s accusation is untrue. The Council of Elrond makes it clear that Gandalf is entirely aware of Sauron’s strength. There is also the wonderful passage in which Galadriel declares, “I perceive the Dark Lord and know his mind, or all of his mind that concerns the Elves. And he gropes ever to see me and my thought. But still the door is closed!”
So it is not knowledge that corrupts Denethor and Saruman just as it is not ignorance that sustains the hope and the defiance of Gandalf or of Galadriel. What precedes knowledge in each of these figures is a fundamental moral choice. When Frodo offers the Ring, first to Gandalf and then to Galadriel, we are made aware of the inner struggle through which both of them have gone. And we see both of them reject the Ring and the power that it could bring to them. Both choose the possibility of defeat rather than the kind of victory that would be gained through the Ring. Such a victory would be entirely catastrophic. Denethor and Saruman have failed to make this choice, this fundamental rejection of evil and of despair. Denethor may not have chosen to be an ally to evil as Saruman has but his belief in the ultimate triumph of evil makes him an ally whether he wills it or not. And our fundamental moral choices will determine which side we will choose at the moment of crisis.
When Frodo raises the star glass and cries out, “Hail, Eärendil, O Brightest of Stars!” he invokes a history of which, with Sam, he is now a major part. Throughout the history of Arda (the earth) there has been a war against the Light that began with Morgoth and now continues with his lieutenant, Sauron. The light of the Silmarils captured in the star glass once blazed forth from Morgoth’s iron crown after he stole them from Fëanor, their maker. One now shines out in the heavens at morning and at evening in the ship, Vingilot, with “Eärendil the mariner sat at the helm, glistening with dust of elven-gems, and the Silmaril was bound upon his brow”. We see it still today and know it as Venus, the Morning Star and the Evening Star.
Eärendil carried the Silmaril back across the seas to the Undying Lands and brought too the prayer of the peoples of Middle-earth to the Valar for mercy. For Morgoth had reduced them to ruin and, perhaps worse even than this, the sons of Fëanor, bound by a terrible oath to their father not to allow the Silmarils to fall into the hands of anyone even a friend, attacked Eärendil’s people and destroyed their homes. Eärendil, even as he bore this sorrow in his heart, prayed too for the sons of Fëanor when he came before the Valar.
Why do I tell this story even as Frodo holds the Star Glass before Shelob? It is because of the place of mercy in the whole of Tolkien’s great story. Tolkien said of Morgoth that “to him that was pitiless the deeds of pity are ever strange and beyond reckoning”. All through Tolkien’s tale it is such deeds that undo the enemy. Why is Frodo’s cry effective? It is because of the pity of Eärendil. It is because of the pity of Bilbo. It is because of the pity of Galadriel who gave the glass to Frodo. We do not stand because of our own deeds but because of all who have come before us.
In his poem on the Advent antiphon, O Oriens, Malcolm Guite makes this point exactly. Oriens is the Morning Star, the Dayspring, the herald of grace and of hope. Guite quotes from Dante’s Paradiso at the heading of his poem when Dante tells us that he saw “light in the form of a river”. The story of light is a river in which we, by grace and mercy, now stand.
“Dante and Beatrice are bathing in it now, away upstream… so every trace of light begins a grace in me, a beckoning. ”
Once again we remember Frodo’s dream in the halls of Elrond in Rivendell; a dream that ended with the sound of Bilbo telling the story of Eärendil. And we begin to understand that we too receive so much from the mercy of others and that every act of mercy that we perform today is a gift to people yet unborn. We stand here because of the prayers of others before us. Others stand today and will stand in times to come because of our prayer and our acts of mercy.
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.”
If Sauron were leader of the Fellowship, setting out from Rivendell in possession of the Ring, what would he do? Gandalf knows that it is a question that Sauron has asked himself. Sauron knows that the Fellowship left Rivendell and that they possessed the Ring. He knows something of each member of the Fellowship and that there are hobbits among them. And Gandalf knows that he fears that the Fellowship will go to Minas Tirith and there one of them will wield the Ring, assail Mordor with war, cast him down and take his place. Boromir counselled that they should go to Minas Tirith but not that one of them should wield the Ring. He hid this desire even from himself. And Gandalf and Galadriel were tempted to wield the Ring as well. Remember the occasions when Frodo offered the Ring to them, first to Gandalf at Bag End in the Shire and later to Galadriel in Lothlorien. Remember that both were tempted to the very limits of their strength to take it and seek to use it to cast Sauron down. Sauron knows that both have the capacity to do this and so he is afraid. He will unleash war against Minas Tirith as swiftly as he can before his enemies are strong enough to use the Ring to destroy him.
What if Sauron is wrong? What if, as Gandalf says, “we should wish to cast him down and have no one in his place?” This not is a thought that “occurs to his mind”. And Gandalf continues: “that we should try to destroy the Ring itself has not entered into his darkest dream.” Indeed Sauron is incapable of dreaming such things. Our dreams, whether waking or sleeping, are the fruit of our spiritual practice. By this I do not mean our religious practices although they can be of help to us in the shaping of our spiritual practice. What I mean is how we cultivate our desire. For Gandalf and Galadriel desire is a deeply complex thing. On the one hand they long to heal the world, to right wrongs and set things right. On the other hand the thought that the power to do this might fall into their hands and that they might be the heroic saviours of the world with all flocking to their banner is deeply attractive. You will note that Boromir desired the same thing. But Sauron does not suffer this agony. He has a different agony because for him only one thing has meaning and that is power over others for it is only power that can free him from the fear that haunts him, his agony that never leaves him, the fear that one day someone will have the power to destroy him and take his place.
Happy are those who know spiritual struggle. Happy are those who wrestle against their own weakness and who begin to learn their own limitations. Happy are those who learn to laugh at themselves, who know that they are not the centre of everything and that it is just as well for everyone that this should be so. Happy are those who know that they have a contribution to make and who make it with a proper self respect but who know that others have a contribution to make too and it may be that the others will receive more praise than they will. And happy are those who just sometimes wish that they could be praised too and allow a wry smile as they recognise the lingering potency of that desire!
Unhappy is Sauron and all like him who do not know this struggle, whose spiritual lives are simple, having been reduced to the pursuit of one desire. Kierkegaard once said that simplicity is to will one thing and he is right. Perhaps it is possible to achieve such simplicity in pursuit of the good. There are signs in The Lord of the Rings that Gandalf and Galadriel have achieved such simplicity. Jesus finally achieves it at the moment when he says, “Father into your hands I commend my spirit.” But if it is achieved then it is a victory won as the fruit of a renunciation that is a profound struggle that tests them and everyone who pursue such simplicity to their limit and beyond.
The Temptation of St Anthony
This has to be a word of hope to all of us who struggle. Our struggle should not be a cause of pity in others. Rather others should pity us only if we give up fighting. But more of that next week.