Gandalf Speaks of a Time to Risk Everything

I never thought that I would ever quote Lenin in this blog but there is no doubt that he was a man who knew how to recognise and then to seize opportunity when it came. These words are ascribed to him.

“There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks when decades happen.”

Lenin recognised one of those weeks a hundred years ago and was ready to seize power in the November 1917 coup that brought the Bolsheviks to power in Russia. He knew that there are moments in life when everything must be risked for the biggest prize of all. Lenin might not thank me for this but Jesus makes the same point in the gospels in the story he tells, of the man who sells everything in order to buy the pearl of great price. First we must assess the value of the thing that we wish to gain. Then we must decide what we are prepared to gamble in order to gain it.

Gandalf first came to Middle-earth about two thousand years before the events that are recorded in The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien tells us that the arrival of the Istari, the order of wizards, came when a shadow fell upon Greenwood and it first began to take the name of Mirkwood. A thousand years after Sauron fell at the hands of Isildur and the Ring was taken from him he was beginning to regain the strength that he lost in the great battle that ended the Second Age. For two thousand years Gandalf watched and gave encouragement to the free peoples of Middle-earth. He built friendships with the Wise and to the surprise of many and the contempt of Saruman he learned to play in the Shire delighting folk there with his fireworks and developing a taste for simple food, good ale and pipeweed. Perhaps even he did not know how important the Shire would become and how, one day, hobbits would take everyone by surprise. Perhaps it was necessary that he should not know. The greatest things that happen to us in our lives are not the result of our plans and calculations but come to us as a surprise. There is an old word for this surprise. It is called grace. Sauron is the great planner. He is prepared to spend two thousand years putting everything in place for the moment in which he will try to achieve the domination of Middle-earth and so grace becomes an impossibility for him. Gandalf is the entire opposite. He has done all that he can but recognises after the great battle of the Pelennor Fields that only grace, and a complete surrender to grace, can save them.

The great opportunity, or as Denethor put it, the “fool’s hope” has come to them in the form of the Ring of Power. In Aragorn’s challenge to Sauron in the Palantir a seed of doubt has been sown in Sauron’s mind. Does the heir of Isildur wield the Ring? Is this why the Battle of the Pelennor Fields was lost? Is this why the Lord of the Nazgûl fell? Gandalf counsels the captains of the West to encourage this doubt and so to give Frodo, the Ring bearer, a chance to take the Ring to the fires of Orodruin and so destroy it and the power of its master, for ever.

“We must push Sauron to his last throw. We must call out his hidden strength, so that he shall empty his land. We must march out to meet him at once. We must make ourselves the bait, though his jaws should close on us.”

It is Aragorn who speaks for all the captains in reply.

“We come now to the very brink, where hope and despair are akin. To waver is to fall. Let none now reject the counsels of Gandalf, whose long labours against Sauron come at last to their test.”

So everything is to be risked on one last effort. A small force will challenge the might of Mordor. If it were not for the possibility that a captain of this force might possess the Ring Sauron would laugh at it. But they do not possess the Ring and so victory by force of arms is impossible. All the hope of the West rests now upon two exhausted hobbits and upon grace.

Gandalf Thinks About the Weather

We can forgive Gandalf for mixing not just two but three metaphors because of who he is. Perhaps he mixes them deliberately in order to leave his hearers in no doubt about the point that he is making. The hearers are the lords of the allies gathered at the gates of Minas Tirith. Denethor and Théoden are dead and Faramir is recovering from his wounds in the Houses of Healing so it is Aragorn, Imrahil of Dol Amroth, Éomer and Elladan and Elrohir, the sons of Elrond who listen to what Gandalf is saying.

“Other evils there are that may come; for Sauron is himself but a servant or emissary. Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world,  but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.”

Weather is one of those elements of life over which we have no immediate control although climate is something that we have always had the capacity to influence. Climate usually changes gradually while weather can change from day to day. Those who live on the Atlantic coast of Europe know this very well as the prevailing wind blows from that ocean more often than not. In order to live successfully in such a changeable climate it is necessary to be prepared for it. And those who wish to be happy will learn to enjoy the changes.

Two of my favourite characters in C. S Lewis’s That Hideous Strength are Frank and Camilla Denniston. I know that if I ever met them I would like them. And one of the things that I like about them is their attitude to Weather.

“That’s why Camilla and I got married… We both like Weather. Not this or that kind of weather, but Weather. It’s a useful taste if one lives in England.”

And the Dennistons explain to Jane Studdock that we tend to grow up by learning to mistrust attitudes to life that once came quite naturally. Mistrust seems to be something that too many people regard as a necessary life skill. Eventually as they proceed upon this unhappy pathway they come to regard life itself as something to be guarded against. They may fear death but come to exist, and only exist, in a kind of half life. This is the existence that Théoden endured under the tutelage of Wormtongue until Gandalf delivered him and it is no accident that one of the first things that Gandalf did after setting Théoden free was to take him out into the weather, into the rain that was falling.

It has been my habit for a few years now to take my dog out for a walk in the Worcestershire countryside at about 6 in the morning. I do this in every season and whatever the weather. For part of the year I take the walk in the dark, for part of it in the light, and part too in the days when the earth moves from dark to light at that time of the day. No two days are ever quite the same and slowly this walk is teaching me a wisdom for living that is not about mustering sufficient resources to overcome the world about me but about learning to live with the world as my friend.

Next week we will think about Gandalf’s counsel to those gathered in the tents of Aragorn but this week it is this central element within his wisdom that we highlight. We cannot chose the challenges that we will have to face in our lives. We can only choose the manner in which we deal with them.

Next week we will think about how the lords of the West choose to deal with the impossible challenge that faces them.

 

The Palantir, Knowledge and Corruption

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.

Théoden and The Lord of the Nazgûl

It is but thirteen days since Gandalf came to Edoras and restored a shrivelled old man to life and to vigour. Now his body lies broken upon the field of battle and life ebbs swiftly away. It is Merry who is near him at the end, who hears the words of a man at peace.

“Farewell, Master Holbytla!” he said. “My body is broken. I go to my fathers. And even in their mighty company I shall not now be ashamed. I felled the black serpent. A grim morn, and a black day, and a golden sunset!”

And we remember, that day after day, the wizened creature enslaved by the leechcraft of Grima Wormtongue had to look upon the image of his mighty forefather, Eorl the Young, as he rode to victory and glory long ago and so won the plains of Calenardhon for his people as a gift from the Steward of Gondor. Doubtless this torture was a part of Wormtongue’s purpose as the shame Théoden felt worked its way into his heart and so unmanned him. It was from this that Gandalf freed him so that he could lead his people into battle, casting down the chieftain of the Haradrim and his serpent banner and driving his forces from the field. And it was from this that Gandalf freed him so that he could lie broken before the wreck of the Lord of the Nazgûl and the foul monster that the Ringwraith had ridden through the air into the battle.

If Gandalf had failed to heal him or if he had chosen to leave him in his chair then doubtless Théoden would have held onto life a little longer. For many it is this clinging onto life that is regarded as the final work of old age and when the weakness and the pain of the last days of life is borne with courage as it was by Pope John Paul II who allowed the world to watch his final struggle and, as I remember it, by my own father who bore great pain with quiet dignity in his last days, then this is praiseworthy. But to hold onto life merely for the sake of extending our existence just a short while longer is hardly an achievement of any merit.

At the ending of The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen Aragorn speaks to Arwen as he draws near to the end of his great life. Arwen finds the choice of her husband to lay down his life a hard one but Aragorn replies, “Take counsel with yourself, beloved, and ask whether you would indeed have me wait until I wither and fall from my high seat unmanned and witless.”

Aragorn chooses the grace given to the Númenorians by the Valar of old to lay down their lives freely and so entrust themselves to the mystery of death unafraid. “In sorrow we must go,”  he says, “but not in despair. Behold! we are not bound for ever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory.”

Aragorn lays down his life in freedom in the glory of his kingship. Théoden lays down his life in freedom upon the field of battle in the glory of a promise kept and his people raised from shame to honour. It is this freedom that is the essence of both in the ending of their lives. At the end of his great book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl, a survivor of Auschwitz, puts it like this, “Man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.” Frankl recognised that our choice to find life as meaningful is the greatest one that we make and that we must make it daily. Théoden made the choice on that day in Edoras, made it again on the Pelennor Fields and so he ends his life in peace.

A Cock Crow Announces the Fall of Mordor

The Lord of the Nazgûl chooses to enter the gates of Minas Tirith on horseback. He has waited long years for this moment and it must be done in the appropriate manner. All the defenders of the city flee before him except one. Gandalf remains upon Shadowfax who does not desert him. Gandalf is steadfast but even he cannot stand alone before his enemies.

And then something happens that surely no one notices and yet Tolkien, as narrator, knows is of the most profound significance.

“Gandalf did not move. And in that very moment, away behind in some courtyard of the City, a cock crowed. Shrill and clear he crowed, recking nothing of wizardry or war, welcoming only the morning that in the sky far above the shadows of death was coming with the dawn.”

It is a glorious moment and one easily missed because of the event that follows immediately after. And Tolkien gives space to the moment because there is a theme that has run throughout The Lord of the Rings and that is the resistance of the natural world against all that the powers of darkness can hurl against it.

Contrast the massive effort that turns the mûmakil of the Harad, the “oliphaunts” that Sam so delighted to see in Ithilien into engines of war to the simplicity of the cockcrow. Think of how after all the effort to train them the Lord of the Nazgûl casually wastes their lives, for “their purpose was only to test the strength of the defence and to keep the men of Gondor busy in many places”. Contrast too the one horse upon which the Lord of the Ringwraiths rides, a once free and proud beast, savagely broken so that it might become the instrument of its master’s will, to the free  choice of Shadowfax who does not flee when  all others do, whether man or beast. Cavalry is the one thing that the forces of Mordor do not possess. The bond between horse and rider that Gandalf and Shadowfax display or which brings the Rohirrim to the battlefield can only be created by the armies of Mordor with the most brutal force and it is easier to put the energy that is required to break the horses to a different, though equally savage, use.

The cock crows in the city because it is a cock. As Gerard Manley Hopkins wonderfully declares in his great poem, As Kingfishers Catch Fire, 

“Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; Selves- goes itself; myself it speaks and spells; crying What I do is me: for that I came.”

 Note please that Hopkins does not say “What I do is for me”. The Lord of the Nazgûl says that endlessly even in his service of Sauron. What Hopkins declares is far more profound because unlike the slave King of Angmar Hopkins is free, as is the kingfisher, as is the cock in the city courtyard, as is Shadowfax, as is Gandalf. And so he can say “What I do is me”!

The day has dawned in the sky above the war in Minas Tirith despite all the mighty efforts of the Dark Lord. Far away Ghân-buri-Ghân sniffed the air on the previous day and a light came into his eyes as he said, “Wind is changing!” Sauron is not the lord of the weather despite all the outpouring of his might and for that brief and glorious moment as the cock crows in complete indifference of all the powers of darkness, “recking nothing of wizardry or war” he is not even lord of a simple creature who is being itself.

We will encounter many who claim to be “lords” and sometimes we will feel quite powerless before them. If we are to stand against them in total freedom as Gandalf does then we need to learn how to commune with all that is free, with the free creation that Selves. We need to learn how to delight in all around us in its freedom and its beauty. To allow it to be itself even as we learn to become our true selves.

 

 

Pippin Follows His Captain

When I wrote last week’s blog post on Denethor’s cry of despair that “the West has failed” I came across something that took me by surprise. That moment came when I read Pippin’s speech to Denethor after he is released from the Steward’s service. It is a speech of some nobility and it shows how far Pippin has come since he looked into the Stone of Orthanc just a few days before. He is becoming the “very valiant man” that Gandalf declared him to be when they passed through the outer defences of the Pelennor Fields. He is making the kind of journey that someone with good foundations will make when those foundations are challenged. He will grow up into mature adulthood and become a source of strength to others.

“I will take your leave, sir,” he said; “for I want to see Gandalf very much indeed. But he is no fool; and I will not think of dying until he despairs of life. But from my word and your service I do not wish to be released while you live. And if they come at last to the Citadel, I hope to be here and stand beside you and earn perhaps the arms that you have given me.”

In saying this Pippin displays a kind of courage that was very dear to Tolkien and one that he saw in the heroic tales of northern lands. It is a courage that is not dependant on a happy outcome. It is a courage that is most truly displayed when hope is lost. We see it in the cheerfulness of spirit that Merry and Pippin display when they are prisoners of the orcs and when the Ents march upon Isengard. And we see its absence in Denethor’s despair. The Tolkien scholar, Tom Shippey, puts it this way. “Its great statement was that defeat is no refutation. The right side remains right even if it has no ultimate hope at all.”

This is courage indeed and it requires great inner strength to maintain it. And in Pippin’s speech we get an idea of where he finds that strength. “I will not think of dying until he [Gandalf] despairs of life.” All through the story the young hobbits have been aware of being of no great significance to the final outcome of the quest. For Merry this realisation has been a burden. He feels himself to be an item of baggage in someone else’s story and it hurts him to feel in this way. Pippin is not burdened in the same way. He is happy to leave the big decisions, even the big beliefs, in more competent hands. If Gandalf has not given in, well, then neither will Peregrin Took.

Let us not judge the value of Pippin’s courageous choice and find it wanting because it seems to require the greater courage and faith of someone else. Pippin does make brave choices and when he urges Beregond to stop great harm coming to Faramir he inspires a brave choice in another. But he is content, not to be a leader, but a follower. What matters is that he has a worthy cause to give his “gentle loyalty” to and a captain worth following.

If we think about this with some care we will come to this conclusion. We are all followers in certain aspects of life and if our leaders are of the right quality then it will be easier for us to keep going even in challenging times. Equally if our captains let us down our own capacity to keep on going gets a little harder. And we will also realise that other people depend upon us to keep going and that we must not let them down. We are all part of a community that needs each other and sometimes we can be surprised how widely that community extends and that people look to us that we rarely think about. Faramir will survive his father’s despair because Beregond gains strength from Pippin.

Denethor Declares that The West has Failed!

The battle still rages at the walls of Minas Tirith as the Lord of the Nazgûl prepares his final assault, great siege towers built in Osgiliath rolling forward to overwhelm what remains of the city’s defences. But in the Chamber of the Steward in the White Tower the Lord Denethor fights no more. When messengers come seeking orders and telling him that men flee the defences leaving the walls unmanned, his only response is:

“Why? Why do the fools fly? Better to burn sooner than late, for burn we must. Go back to your bonfire! And I? I will go now to my pyre. To my pyre! No tomb for Denethor and Faramir. No tomb! No long slow sleep of death embalmed. We will burn like heathen kings before ever a ship sailed hither from the West. The West has failed. Go back and burn!”

The West has failed.

And all the great vision of the Valar, and of the Free Peoples of the Earth, of Elves and of Humankind, of Valinor and of Númenor, of Gondolin and of Nargothrond, of Rivendell and of Lothlórien, of Arnor and of Gondor, is at an end before the inevitable triumph of the Dark.

The West has failed.

This is not a conclusion that Denethor has drawn based upon what he can see from his windows. This is a belief that he has long held but against which he has fought bravely for as long as he could. Whereas Saruman, with whom he shares the belief, has sought to become an ally to darkness, to reach some accommodation with it, Denethor has refused such a path and has resisted the dark with all his might. He is no traitor. But at the end he bows down before the power of darkness and declares the great story of the West, of which he has been a steward, to be no more than a preparation for a funeral.

The West has failed!

So must all hope fail? Whether we rage, rage against the dying of the light or sit down before its inevitable arrival and quietly despair, going gentle into the night, must darkness fall?

Pippin is a simpler soul than his lord. When Denethor releases him from his service and bids him go to die his response is straightforwardly hobbit-like. “I will take your leave, sir… for I want to see Gandalf very much indeed. But he is no fool; and I will not think of dying under he despairs of life.”

Pippin has no great philosophy of life. For him it is enough that those who to whom he has chosen to give his trust, and at this point of the story this means Gandalf, have not given way to despair. And Gandalf has not given way to despair because long ago he said a great, Yes! to life and to light and to love. He said his, Yes! without dissembling or ambiguity. It was this, Yes! that Cirdan recognised when first Gandalf came to Middle-earth and so gave him Narya, one of the three rings of the Elves, that had power to inspire others to resist tyranny and despair. It was this, Yes! that enabled Gandalf to stand before the Balrog at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm, to declare, “You shall not pass!” and to give himself up to death itself in battle against him. And it is this, Yes! that will enable him to stand alone before the Lord of the Nazgûl when all others have fled.

The early Fathers of the Church taught that repentance, a word that we tend to understand as merely saying sorry for our wrongdoing, was something much more fundamental, much greater than that. It means the renunciation of despair. It means the great, Yes! It does not mean that we hope things are going to turn out for the best. It means a great, Yes! to the Light that shines in the darkness and the darkness can never put it out. And once we have made the great renunciation of despair and through our daily spiritual practice root it deep at the heart of our lives then we will find strength even in the darkest night.