“A Foresight is On Me”. How Gandalf Chooses.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 267-269

I have learned over the years in which I have written this blog that I have readers who know their Tolkien very well, often much better than I do, and so I am sure that there will be readers who will instantly know that the quotation that heads this week’s post is not from The Lord of the Rings. It is in fact from Tolkien’s Unfinished Tales. It comes from a chapter in which Frodo describes a conversation with Gandalf that takes place in Minas Tirith after the Ring has gone to the fire and Sauron has fallen. In that conversation Gandalf speaks of how he came to be convinced that Bilbo should be a part of the company that would make the journey to Erebor, the Lonely Mountain, under the leadership of Thorin Oakenshield.

JEF Murray imagines Gandalf’s first encounter with Bilbo the child, seeing him high in the branches of a tree.

I write about it here because we are thinking about the choosing of Frodo’s companions in the Quest of the Ring. We have already seen that the company is chosen, as much for its symbolic quality as for its effectiveness. Nine walkers will oppose nine riders. Nine of the free peoples of the earth will oppose the slaves of the Dark Lord. And as we journey through the unfolding of the story we find that it is the hobbits who will play central roles in it. The journey of Frodo and Sam to Mordor and the Mountain and the journey of Merry and Pippin, carried as prisoners of the orcs, to the borders of Fangorn Forest and the meeting with Treebeard are these central actions and none of the rest of the company go with them on these journeys. They will have other parts to play.

Gandalf’s support for Pippin is described as “unexpected”. When Pippin announced his intention to go with Frodo because there needed to “be someone with intelligence in the party”, Gandalf’s response was that Pippin would certainly not be chosen on that basis. But Gandalf is greatly drawn towards Pippin. Indeed I rather think that Gandalf liked Pippin to be nearby and found his simple honesty and friendliness to be a comfort. Was it because he needed such comfort that Gandalf liked to go to the Shire? In his account of how he came to choose Bilbo to go with the Dwarves to Erebor he speaks of how he had been going to the Shire “for a short rest” after a twenty year absence. “I thought that if I put [my dark thoughts] out of my mind for a while I might perhaps find some way of dealing with these troubles”.

And Gandalf meets Merry and Pippin while at play at Bilbo’s party.

Gandalf’s “dark thoughts” were about the reappearing of Sauron in Dol Guldur, about the ever present danger to the north of Middle-earth that was posed by Smaug the dragon in his occupation of the Lonely Mountain, about the fragility of the free peoples and about the opposition of Saruman to any direct action against Sauron. Gandalf’s thoughts are like a hammer striking against a hard surface with the intention of making it give way before the force of its blows. He knows that his thinking will not bring about a solution by itself. It will only keep bringing him back to that which is insoluble and so he heads for the Shire and a rest from his anxiety. The Shire folk have taught him how to play. It is there that he makes fireworks and it is there that he enjoys wholesome food, good beer and pipeweed. And it is on his way there, just outside Bree, that he encounters Thorin Oakenshield who is also beset with his own dark thoughts.

Alan Lee’s beautiful imagining of the “chance” meeting of Gandalf and Thorin Oakenshield

Is it because he is in search of rest that Gandalf is open to something entirely unexpected? Is it his proximity to the Shire and to hobbits that makes the participation of Bilbo a possibility for the expedition to Erebor? In Carl Jung’s idea of synchronicity it is the empty space between the spokes of a wheel that give the wheel its usefulness just as much as do the spokes themselves. So it is the empty space that the Shire is for Gandalf in his endless labours that gives him the idea of Bilbo. And when the idea comes it does so with such force that he describes it as a foresight. Not that he knows what is to come but he knows that he has to listen to his inner voice and that Thorin has to listen to it too when he declares it aloud. Perhaps it is in knowing the power of Gandalf’s inner voice that Elrond too gives way to him about Merry and Pippin despite his own misgivings.

“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

“Ours is a High and Lonely Destiny”. Is the Lord of Isengard Saruman or Uncle Andrew?

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 251-254

Scholars of the Inklings speak of a certain cooling of the friendship between Tolkien and C.S Lewis following the publication and subsequent success of Lewis’s Narnia stories. It is not my intention to go into this here but I do want to draw the attention of my readers to a similarity between the speech that Saruman makes to Gandalf and that which Uncle Andrew makes to Digory in The Magician’s Nephew. We might extend that similarity to Weston’s speech, translated by Ransom, to the Oyarsa of Malacandra in Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet even though it was first published seventeen years before The Magician’s Nephew. Each of the speeches are similar in spirit. Each one has the sense of it being, as Tolkien describes Saruman’s speech, “long rehearsed”. And each speech is risible in nature. Lewis is quite explicit in this. Both Weston and Uncle Andrew are treated as laughable by those that they are trying to impress. Tolkien is never explicit in this manner and this might be regarded as a difference between him and Lewis as writers of fiction but I have written in this blog before of the way in which Saruman descends into absurdity as the story progresses. While Gollum’s fall into the fires of Orodruin calls upon our pity and Sauron’s fall into nothingness is a terrible thing, Saruman somehow becomes an unhappy joke. Not that anyone in the story is laughing, except perhaps for Merry and Pippin.

Harold Jig’s excellent imagining of Saruman’s display

I am sure that most of my readers recognised the quotation in the title of this week’s post as coming from The Magician’s Nephew. “Men like me, who possess hidden wisdom, are free from common rules just as we are cut off from common pleasures. Ours, my boy, is a high and lonely destiny.” Uncle Andrew is at one and the same time trying to impress his nephew with his significance while, at the same time, seeking to justify the low mean trick that he has just played upon Polly. In his speech to the Oyarsa in Out of the Silent Planet Weston is also trying to impress his audience while justifying his murder of some of the creatures of Malacandra. “To you I may seem a vulgar robber, but I bear on my shoulders the destiny of the human race”.

Andrew Ketterley imagines Uncle Andrew’s Mean Trick Upon Polly

And then there is Saruman’s speech to Gandalf. Last week we thought about Saruman’s display of his own significance. The ring upon his finger, the coat of many colours and the magnificence of Isengard itself, are all intended to impress and to intimidate. This is a strategy that works with the Dunlendings but most certainly not with Gandalf. Nor does his speech, however well rehearsed it is.

“The Elder Days are gone. The Middle Days are passing. The Younger Days are beginning. The time of the Elves is over, but our time is at hand: the world of Men that we must rule. But we must have power, power to order all things as we will, for that good which only the Wise can see.”

One can only guess that the kind of spirit that Saruman, Uncle Andrew and Weston all display must have been discussed when the Inklings met and certainly it must have been recognised and deplored by Tolkien and Lewis. Each of these characters place themselves within modernity, regarding themselves as its heralds, even its guardians and each of them enthusiastically adopt a chronological snobbery that regards any kind of morality other than the right of the strong to order and exploit the lives of the weak as being contemptible. Tolkien describes this contempt eloquently in his foreword to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings. He speaks of the difference between the War of the Ring to the Second World War that had taken place as he was writing his own work. If, he says, the two had resembled each other more, the Ring would most certainly have been used against Sauron and then he says of Saruman that if he had failed to get possession of the Ring he “would in the confusion and treacheries of the time have found in Mordor the missing links in his own researches into Ring-lore, and before long he would have made a Great Ring of his own with which to challenge the self-styled Ruler of Middle-earth. In that conflict both sides would have held hobbits in hatred and contempt: they would not long have survived even as slaves”.

All of the works of the Inklings are a critique of this version of modernity and, as we have noted, as well as this version being cruel it is also absurd. We will return to this in next week’s blog.

Bilbo’s Magnificent Party

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 25-28

Readers of works of literature from the mid 20th century might notice that food seems to play a particularly important role in many stories of the time. Later in The Lord of the Rings a clue to this is given by Beregond of the Guard of the Tower in conversation with Pippin. Pippin is anxious to find something to eat after his uncomfortable interrogation by the Lord Denethor. Beregond regretfully informs a rather disappointed Pippin that he has already broken his fast as well as any in the city but adds “They say that men who go warring afield look ever for the next hope of food and drink”.

The Lord of the Rings was written largely through a time of food rationing. Hobbits, in particular, are creatures of feast and fast and have a particular enthusiasm therefore for feasting. The description of the food and drink at Bilbo’s party is full of delight and pleasure.

Last week’s reflection led to a lively conversation in the Comments Section on Gandalf’s relationship with the Shire. The debate centred on whether Gandalf acted in the way he did in the Shire as a strategy to win the hearts of the hobbits or whether it was all unplanned and entirely providential. I think that eventually it was agreed that Gandalf did consciously seek to warm the hearts of those among whom he travelled. It was this quality that first drew Círdan of The Grey Havens to him. Círdan gave the Ring, Narya, to Gandalf, saying “Take this ring, Master… for your labours will be heavy; but it will support you in the weariness that you have taken upon yourself. For this is the Ring of Fire, and with it you may rekindle hearts in a world that grows chill.”

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Gandalf walks the lonely roads of Middle-earth doing just this work so that when Sauron begins his great war to regain the One Ring and to achieve mastery he is opposed by all the free peoples despite his efforts to divide them. But I would add something more and that is that the hobbits touch and awaken something in Gandalf’s heart too. They teach him how to play. It would be hard to imagine Elrond of Rivendell or Dáin of Erebor or Denethor of Gondor playing in the way that Gandalf does. I could imagine Galadriel dancing among hobbit maidens but it would be a queenly dance.

Gandalf is not lordly when he is in the Shire. He is childlike in the way in which a grandfather is childlike. He has seen life and he has been marked by it. From the Lady Nienna he has learned pity. From hobbits he has learned pleasure. And he knows that deeper even than sorrow lies a joy that cannot cloy.

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“The fireworks were by Gandalf: they were not only brought by him, but designed and made by him; and the special effects, set pieces, and flights of rockets were let off by him. But there was also a generous distribution of squibs, crackers, backarrappers, sparklers, torches, dwarf-candles, elf-fountains, goblin-barkers and thunder-claps. They were all superb. The art of Gandalf improved with age.”

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I would encourage readers to read that passage aloud and to savour each word and sound. Each name of a firework is meant to be musical but it is not the music of Elrond’s halls but the music of a country party with lots of laughter and a little mischief too. Peter Jackson captures this well in his films by introducing the characters of Merry and Pippin here. Their soot covered faces as they emerge from the smoke of the exploded rocket, one of Gandalf’s hands tightly gripping each of their curly heads, conveys this well.

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A serious life can be a playful life too. Rowan Williams describes his friend and colleague, Archbishop Desmond Tutu in this way, saying that Desmond Tutu loves being Desmond Tutu. The same man who risked his life in the struggle against apartheid and who wept openly as he listened to the many stories of suffering during the time that he chaired South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, also knows how to enjoy a good party.

Near the end of The Lord of the Rings Gandalf announces to the four Travellers that he is going to visit Tom Bombadil for a good long talk. I suspect that a lot of that talk was full of laughter.

 

Sam Wakes Up in Bed at The Field of Cormallen

I have many favourite moments in The Lord of the Rings and two of the very best are when Frodo wakes up in bed in Rivendell after the flight to the Fords of Bruinen and this scene at The Field of Cormallen.

“When Sam awoke, he found that he was lying on some soft bed, but over him gently swayed wide beechen boughs, and through their young leaves sunlight glimmered, green and gold. All the air was full of a sweet mingled scent.”

Tolkien mixes some beautiful images, springtime after winter, light after darkness, rich verdant plenty after a wasteland and my own particular favourite, waking up in a comfortable bed after a hard journey.

As a young man I spent six years as a teacher in a secondary school (high school) in Africa. I loved to travel and soon learned that every journey was in itself an adventure to a degree that in the West we have tried to eliminate. We have “more important” things to do with our time such as being on time for meetings and other apparently essential things than we have for adventure. Adventure, after all, is always an interruption to our plans. It is exciting to watch the adventures of others but, on the whole, most of us are hobbits and we find adventures to be “nasty, disturbing, uncomfortable things” that “make you late for dinner”.

My African experience was that dinner and a bed for the night when travelling was always a triumph and usually depended upon an act of kind hospitality on the part of someone else. What this certainly taught me was to value the gift of a comfortable bed. It was certainly better than the hard ground although I learned to sleep on that too.

But I think that my love for the scene of Sam waking up in bed links to an earlier and deeper experience and that is of the profound feeling of being safe, and everything being alright, that I felt from time to time in childhood. Childhood has many insecurities even in the happiest ones. Dark corners hide possible dangers while the fear of an encounter with a bigger boy with whom you have some unresolved matter can occupy the imagination for a long time. Waking up in bed feeling safe with the sun streaming through the curtains and the prospect of a day of delight ahead is a simple pleasure that is rarely surpassed through life and the likelihood is that the day of delight belongs to the holidays and those who know their C.S Lewis know what a joy the holiday is. He links it closely to the joy of heaven.

As always, Tolkien is a little more reticent about making such links openly than is Lewis. But surely heaven is, at least in part, that sense of waking up and knowing, knowing at the depths of one’s being, that everything is alright. As a serious grown-up I usually awake with the knowledge that there is work to do. But I remember the childhood experience and it has a ring of truth to it that makes all my adult awakenings seem pallid by comparison. I may catch glimpses of joy but that was the real thing.

This is Sam’s experience. It is one of “bewilderment and great joy”, of being “glad to wake”, and his great cry of joy, of praise, “is everything sad going to come untrue?”

This is truly one of those glimpses of “the world made new”. Gandalf’s response to Sam’s cry of praise is not to point out that there will be struggles ahead. We all know that there will be. Gandalf joins Sam’s hymn of praise to “the dearest freshness deep down things” by laughing and his laughter is a “sound like music, or like water in a parched land.”

Like Sam we sometimes catch glimpses of this reality although for for few, if for any, are they so hard won. My enjoyment of the triumph of finding a good meal and a bed for the night in my journeys in Africa point me to the deeper authenticity of Sam’s experience on the Field of Cormallen but for both of us the fulfilment of that joy lies ahead at the fulfilment of all things, the great conclusion of the Music of the Ainur.