Gandalf Shows Aragorn a Sapling of the White Tree of Gondor

Recently I have been thinking a lot about a line from a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things…” When I say, think, I mean to say that it often comes to mind and then I repeat it as a prayer. The line comes from his poem, “God’s Grandeur” which laments the destructive behaviour of humankind upon the earth but affirms something deeper, the grandeur and glory of God.

Victory has been achieved over the Dark Lord and Aragorn has been crowned King of Gondor. But he fears for the future. He has no heir and as Gandalf says, “Though much has been saved, much must now pass away; and the power of the Three Rings also is ended”. These Rings represented what remained of the power of the Elder Days and the Elves in Middle-earth and although not controlled by the One Ring were, nonetheless, linked to its forging. These Rings were held by Gandalf, Elrond and Galadriel and it was these three who energised resistance to Sauron throughout the last centuries of the Third Age  as he began to build his forces for a renewed assault upon the West.

With the passing of the Three Rings so too must their bearers depart but that leaves Aragorn alone to govern the Western Lands. “I shall grow old,” he says to Gandalf. “And who then shall govern Gondor and those who look to this city as to their queen, if my desire be not granted? The Tree in the Court of the Fountain is still withered and barren. When shall I see a sign that it will ever be otherwise?”

Gandalf’s response is not just a reply to Aragorn’s question but is a spiritual principle based upon wisdom learned from years of long struggle.

“Turn your face from the green world, and look where all seems barren and cold!”

Gandalf reminds Aragorn that the hope of the West long lay hidden in the wastelands of the North. So unlikely did it seem that any hope could lie there that Denethor described the House of Isildur that Aragorn represented as “a ragged house long bereft of lordship and dignity”. We should learn that an answer that is cultivated in prosperous times and places leaves our pride and independence intact. Denethor desired such an answer, one that would come ideally from his own house. The danger with answers of this kind is that pride intact simply continues to grow until at the end it overreaches itself and ends in catastrophe just as it did with the Fall of Númenor. But an answer that is found in the barren place, the unexpected place, must be received as a gift. Aragorn has come from the ragged house of Isildur and the White Tree is found in the waste of the mountains high above Minas Tirith.

It is a sapling no more than three feet high, grown from a fruit planted long before by the kings of Gondor. This planting was a secret that not even the Stewards knew so that when the White Tree in the Court of the Fountain died in 2852, some 150 years before this time they had no knowledge of the fruit’s existence.

Aragorn describes the sapling as being no more than seven years old. At the time when it first began to grow Gandalf and Aragorn were fruitlessly searching for Gollum in the wild while the Ring lay hidden in the Shire, its true identity suspected but still unknown. Sauron’s power continued to grow as he put his energy into regaining the Ring. In the world outside darkness seemed to grow unchecked but the White Tree lived according to a different rhythm at its own pace and in its own time growing neither faster nor slower as events unfolded in the world around.

Hopkins reminds us of this deeper rhythm in his poem.

“And though the last lights off the black West went Oh, morning, at the brown brink Eastward springs- because the Holy Ghost over the bent world broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings!”

I think it is because I see so much that is being trodden down about me that I seek the wisdom of the deeper rhythm that I learn in Hopkins and in Tolkien. Like Gandalf and Aragorn I may have to pay close attention to the events that happen about me but if I contemplate “the dearest freshness deep down things” then I will be held by that freshness and not defeated.

This week’s artwork is by Darrell K. Sweet



The Return of the King

Last week we read about the failure of Númenor and the line of Stewards in Gondor that at its best kept the memory of Númenor and the faithfulness of the House of Elendil alive but eventually came to believe more in the memory than the reality. Memories are safer than realities. You can make of them what you will and your remembering can allow you to keep things as they are and not to change. So it is that we are reminded of Denethor’s words to Gandalf, “I would have things as they were”.

What capacity we all have for self deception! “Things as they were” in Gondor meant a dying land even without the invasion of Mordor. Legolas saw it and said, “The houses are dead, and there is too little here that grows and is glad”. When Denethor wished for things as they were all he really meant was that he would remain in power. What he really mourned was his own loss of control or prestige.

Faramir believes in the reality and so welcomes the king when he returns. At the moment when Gandalf crowns Aragorn, thus fulfilling the mission given to him by the Valar, Faramir cries out, “Behold the King!” He tells his people that the true king stands before them in flesh and blood with wisdom upon his brow, strength and healing in his hands, and a light about him. If any still long for the past then they are commanded to change. This is the kind of change that is meant in the word metanoia in the bible, the word that is usually translated as repentance. A new reality has come and we must change.

Tolkien goes on to tell us how everything does change.

“In his time the City was made more fair than it had ever been, even in the days of its first glory… and all was healed and made good”.

You would think that everyone would be glad to see this change, and I believe that thanks to Faramir’s leadership most people did, but I suspect that some longed for “the good old days” of the ruling Stewards.

When the true king rules everything is healed and becomes fruitful. This is a fundamental principle. In Gondor this means that gardens grew again and children were born and flourished. When King Energy is at work within us then our lives become ordered without being rigid, fruitful without being overgrown and we live and work in a kind of flow, of blessing, both for ourselves and for others.

Moore and Gillette put it this way in their seminal study of the masculine archetypes and psyche, King, Warrior, Magician, Lover.

This is the energy that expresses itself through a man when he takes the necessary financial and psychological steps to ensure that his wife and children prosper. This is the energy that encourages his wife when she decides to go back to school to become a lawyer… This is the energy that expresses itself through you when you are able to keep your cool when everyone else in the meeting is losing theirs… This is the energy that seeks peace and stability, orderly growth and nurturing for all people- and not only for all people but for the environment, the natural world. The King cares for the whole realm and is the steward of nature as well as of human society.”

This is what Aragorn is. It is what Faramir is too. You don’t have to be the boss in order to display King Energy. You can display it in service of another. I have a favourite movie, The Intern, in which a character played by Robert de Niro displays King Energy in lavish quantity as an enabler of others in a very humble role. Try and watch it and you will see what I mean. Actually the one in true authority is always aware of being a servant. In the prayers for the Queen in the Church of England we say this, “that she, knowing whose minister she is, may seek thy honour and glory”. It is only those who know that they are a servant who are able to be trusted with authority over others who can bring life-giving order, fruitfulness and blessing to them.

This week’s image was drawn by Anna Lee


Éowyn of Rohan Is In Great Unrest in The Houses of Healing

The times in our lives of not knowing are a great trial and Éowyn, the Princess of Rohan who rode to the Battle of the Pelennor Fields in deep despair close to Théoden who had been as a father to her and there did battle with the Lord of the Nazgûl and slew him, is “in great unrest”. I will not try to compare her suffering with that of Frodo and Sam in their last journey through Mordor or that of the Host of the West as they march without hope towards inevitable annihilation at the Black Gate. This is not a desire to diminish her suffering. She must carry her own load as best they may and do, as we all must, to support others in theirs. But Éowyn’s burden is hard in part because there seems to be no meaning to it. When she rode to battle with her people she looked for death in battle because the man that she had hoped would bring the meaning and the dignity that she desired had rejected her and now this same man had brought her back from the edge of death. But for what?

The Warden of the Houses of Healing is in no doubt as to what her purpose is and that is to get better and he is distressed to see that she has left her bed. “You should not have risen from your bed for seven days yet, or so I was bidden. I beg you to go back.”

Éowyn, on the other hand, knows that this is not her purpose. Simply to be healed in body is not enough for her. She does not even desire it. Gandalf spoke of her true dis-ease when she was first brought to the Houses of Healing from the battle.

“She, born in the body of a maid, had a spirit and courage at least the match of yours. Yet she was doomed to wait upon an old man, whom she loved as a father, and watch him falling into a mean dishonoured dotage; and her own part seemed to her more ignoble than that of the staff he leaned on.”

For Tolkien there is nothing unusual about a woman with the spirit that Éowyn has. His greatest love story is the tale of Beren and Lúthien, names that are written upon the stones beneath which he and his wife, Edith, are buried in an Oxford churchyard. In that story Lúthien goes into battle alongside the man she loves with a passion and ferocity that overcomes both Morgoth and Sauron too, the greatest foes of all. That Tolkien gave the name of Lúthien to his wife means that he recognised this spirit in her. Aragorn was inspired by this greatest of love stories in his love for Arwen of Rivendell and Éowyn is a woman who longs for a hero of Beren’s quality.

She also wants to be a queen. Gandalf spoke of this too to her brother, Éomer as he remembered Saruman’s contemptuous words at the doors of Orthanc.

“What is the house of Eorl but a thatched barn where brigands drink in the reek, and their brats roll on the floor among their dogs?”

So Éowyn is “in great unrest”. Death in battle has been denied her, for a time at least, and she is permitted no other occupation. What can she do?

I think that she reaches inside herself and begins to find her own answer. She is a woman of truth. She may not yet know her own heart but she does not lie to it or seek to deceive it either. This is essential to the healing that she will find in this place.

“Who commands in this City?”

“I do not rightly know,” the  Warden answers. “Such things are not my care. There is a marshal over the Riders of Rohan; and the Lord Húrin, I am told, commands the men of Gondor. But the Lord Faramir is by right the Steward of the City”

I am so glad that it was not the marshal of Rohan or the Lord Húrin that Éowyn asks to see, but I am not surprised either. Éowyn rightly knows her own greatness and that only an equal can meet her need.



Did Gandalf Plan to Rescue Frodo and Sam From Mount Doom?

Thanks to some challenging questions from my readers recently I have been thinking a lot about the question of strategy and planning in The Lord of the Rings. And because this blog is in essence an extended reflection on the relationship between spirituality and life with the aid of J.R.R Tolkien I have been thinking about the relationship between the way in which we act in a time of crisis. What is the connection between our plans and our actions at such a time? Do our plans have any meaning when we have gambled all that we have on one slender possibility?

At the climax of the battle before the Black Gate, as the armies of the West make their last stand, Gwaihir, Lord of Eagles of the North, arrives with all of his vassals. Their first intention is to engage the Nazgûl but even as the Eagles arrive the Nazgûl flee from the battle answering the desperate call of their master as the Ring stands upon the brink of destruction. Soon the Ring has gone to the Fire, the realm of Sauron is at an end and Gandalf meets with Gwaihir.

” ‘Twice you have borne me, Gwaihir my friend,” said Gandalf. “Thrice shall pay for all, if you are willing. You will not find me a burden much greater than when you bore me from Zirakzigil, where my old like burned away.’

‘I would bear you,’ answered Gwaihir, ‘whither you will, even were you made of stone.'”

And so Gandalf and the Eagles fly to the rescue of Frodo and Sam at Mount Doom.

But what plans for Frodo and Sam had Gandalf made before the battle? The answer that I would like to make was that he had made no plans whatsoever. Of course, as soon as the eagles have come and the battle is won, he does all that he can to save them but if there had been no eagles there would have been no rescue. The eagles may have been hoped for but never planned for.

Does this reveal Gandalf’s essential heartlessness? Is he a general so fixed upon his goal that he is prepared to spend the lives of any of his men in order to achieve it? Again I would argue, no.

It was at the Black Gate some days before that Frodo had given much thought to the question of Gandalf’s intentions. Gollum had just made his suggestion that they try to enter Mordor by his “secret way”. As Frodo pondered this Gandalf was standing upon the steps of Orthanc, speaking with Saruman and yet thinking too of Frodo and Sam. Maybe Frodo felt this, even though he believed that Gandalf was gone for ever, but as he sat in silent thought he tried to recall all that Gandalf had said about the plans for the journey and the way he should enter Mordor.

“For this choice he could recall no counsel. Indeed Gandalf’s guidance had been taken from them too soon, too soon, while the Dark Land was still very far away. How they should enter it at the last Gandalf had not said. Perhaps he could not say.”

And Frodo concludes his reflections with a remembering of his decision “in his own sitting-room in the far off spring of another year” to take the Ring. This is critical. We are not talking about plans but about choices, decisions and commitments. Gandalf had made no plans for the entry into Mordor or any other part of the journey. The whole quest was a stepping forth into the complete unknown in which all plans were meaningless but all choices and commitments critical. The whole thing is a crazy gamble, a “Fool’s Hope”, as Denethor rightly described it. Frodo called it an “evil choice” and he is right too.

There are no plans, only a desperate gamble “costing not less than everything”, as T.S Eliot puts it in his Four Quartets.

Is Gandalf lucky that the Eagles turn up at the right moment? Of course he is. But it is the kind of luck that can only come to those who are prepared to risk everything for the best good.


Gollum Takes The Ring to The Fire

Frodo cannot cast the Ring into the Fire. It has mastered him and will not be destroyed in that way. In the last two weeks, firstly in my own post, Frodo Claims The Ring For Himself and in Anne Marie Gazzolo’s wonderful meditation, The Ring Claims Frodo we saw that Frodo spent all that he could of himself just to bring the Ring to the Mountain. He had nothing more to give. As Tom Hillman put it, with typical wisdom in a comment on Frodo Claims The Ring For Himself, “no-one could have achieved the Quest by throwing the Ring into the Fire”

I think it is necessary to pause here a moment to say that when Tom says no-one he means that not Elrond, nor Galadriel nor Gandalf nor Aragorn could have thrown the Ring into the Fire. There is an amusing meme that does the rounds of the World Wide Web in which the entire plot of The Lord of the Rings is simplified by Gandalf and the Eagles flying to the Mount Doom and dropping the Ring into the Fire. All that the witty purveyors of this meme achieve is to reveal their spiritual shallowness. For one thing, as a comment from Gwen showed on the same post the mountain would not have been undefended except through the remarkable coalescing of circumstances that Tolkien gives us. Secondly, there is no such thing as a simple throwing of the Ring into the Fire.

And so a grace is given in a form that could not have been anticipated and that form is the last desperate attack by Gollum. It is a form that Sauron ignores entirely regarding it as being completely insignificant. When Shagrat took his report to Barad-dûr of the events in Cirith Ungol did he leave out the detail of “her ladyship’s sneak” turning up again after a long absence? I doubt it. I think that, compared to the news of the dangerous spy who has somehow got past Shelob, Sauron thought that there was nothing more for him to learn about Gollum than he already knew.

That is Sauron’s fatal weakness. He is only capable of seeing things in terms of power and once he had extracted from Gollum all that he had done and all that he knew Sauron had no more interest in him allowing him to play the role in relation to Shelob that Shagrat and Gorbag referred to.

Only Gandalf had a sense that Gollum might have a role to play in the story. “My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end.” Gandalf learned respect for small things in his long pilgrimage and for deeds that no-one else notices. “The pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many- yours not least.”

Gandalf has learned a deep wisdom through a conscious attentiveness to small people and small deeds, a wisdom that began with his long tutelage in the school of the Lady Nienna, a school in which I suspect he may have been the only pupil. It was Nienna, one of the Valar, who taught him pity, both its necessity as a moral quality and its significance in the history of the world. It is Gandalf who realised that in the long, violent and malicious history of the Ring only Bilbo took it without violence and only Bilbo gave it up freely. Grace takes Bilbo’s kindly disposition, a very small thing in the great scheme of things and puts it to world-transforming use. Grace perfects Nature and so opens the door to Frodo’s pity for Gollum and Sam’s realisation that he too cannot kill Gollum, much as he wished to do so. And it opens the door to Gollum’s last attack upon Frodo and his fall into the Fire with the Ring on his grasp. Without all these small things the Ring could not have been destroyed. Grace would have had no door by which to enter the story. Grace cannot achieve perfection without Nature.

“But for him, Sam,” says Frodo after the Ring has gone, “I could not have destroyed the Ring. The Quest would have been in vain, even at the bitter end. So let us forgive him!”

And let us all forgive Gollum too and trust that he finds his way at the last to peace and to healing just as we long for peace and healing for ourselves too.


The Mercy of Sam Will Rule the Fate of Many

Throughout the journey through Mordor Frodo and Sam have been aware that Gollum is not far away but although Sam, in particular, has remained wary, the sheer immensity of their task has meant that they have not been overly concerned about him. Sam’s attention has been primarily centred upon getting Frodo to, and then up, the mountain. Frodo’s attention has been given to the Ring. He has little choice. He is almost in its power. So it is, as Sam carries Frodo up towards the Cracks of Doom upon his back, that they are taken by surprise by Gollum’s attack.

“A sudden weight smote him and he crashed forward, tearing the backs of his hands that still clasped his master’s. Then he knew what had happened, for above him as he lay he heard a hated voice. ”

Gollum’s attack rouses Frodo in a way that nothing else could do and he resists fiercely. Gollum too has the same desire for the Ring but whereas Frodo has been sustained on his journey by lembas, which, while not satisfying hunger, has the capacity to give “a potency that increased as travellers relied on it alone and did not mingle it with other foods”, Gollum has had no such sustenance. He is starved and greatly weakened.

Frodo drives him away and makes his way, “walking slowly but erect, up the climbing path”.

And now,  at long last, Sam has the opportunity to do what he has long wished to do, and that is to kill his enemy, the one who betrayed Frodo to Shelob, the one that he has hated ever since they first caught him in the Emyn Muil. But when he has Gollum at his mercy and his sword is held, ready to strike the fatal blow, he finds that he cannot do it.

“He could not strike this thing, lying in the dust, forlorn, ruinous, utterly wretched. He himself, though only for a little while, had borne the Ring, and now dimly he guessed the agony of Gollum’s shrivelled mind and body, enslaved to that Ring, unable to find peace or relief ever in life again.”

Sam is not able to put what is happening to him into words but the same thing is happening to him as happened to Bilbo at the entrance to the tunnels of the Misty Mountains, the same thing as happened to Frodo when they caught Gollum in the Emyn Muil and he cried out to an absent figure, “Now that I see him I do pity him”.

The absent figure was, of course, Gandalf, and at the moment when Frodo had the opportunity to kill Gollum he was remembering the words that Gandalf had to spoken to him in Bag End when Frodo first learned the story of the Ring.

“Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity and Mercy: not to strike without need… My heart tells me that [Gollum] has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that time comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many- yours not least.”

And now the end has come and Bilbo’s Pity and Mercy, and Frodo’s too, have brought them all, with the Ring, to this place. And what Sam finds is that Pity and Mercy are not abstract concepts arrived at in leisurely reflection but they are a Connection that binds us to each other. We find that we are not separate from each other but that we belong to each other. When we discover this reality about someone that we love it is the cause of profound joy but when we discover it about someone that we hate then our first response may well be horror. At a level deeper than words Sam realises his connection to Gollum, the suffering that they have both shared and that they share now at this terrible moment.

Would Sam have been just if he had killed Gollum? Probably. Gollum’s desire will lead him to one last attack upon Frodo and he deserves to die for every murder that he has committed but as with Bilbo and Frodo,  the pity of Sam will “rule the fate of many” not least his own and Frodo’s.


Frodo and The Ring

For a few minutes Sam and Frodo are able to rest in their happiness in finding one another again but soon the reality of their situation begins to take hold of them and at the heart of that reality lies one thing above all; and that is the Ring.

When Sam had found Frodo’s seemingly lifeless form lying beside the path after Shelob’s attack he took the Ring and so kept it from Shagrat and Gorbag and ultimately from Sauron himself. For a little while he felt the lure of the Ring imagining himself a great hero but soon saw the fantasy for what it truly was, as a deception that would lure him into the grip of one far greater than he.

The Ring searches out the deepest desire of the one who holds it and then twists it to its own enslaving ends. It is not even necessary to hold the Ring to feel its power. It is enough that there is something in the world that can grant you everything that you desire if only you can possess it. For Gollum the desire is merely fish every day and revenge on all who he perceives to have done him harm. For Boromir the desire is to be the liberator of his people from the shadow of their enemy and to be loved and admired by all. Even the best of desires is capable of being perverted. When Gandalf praises the pity of Bilbo he also recognises that the way of the Ring to his own heart would be by pity.

In what way is Frodo corrupted as the journey continues? We never hear the kind of speech from him as we do from Boromir. Frodo is a true hobbit and not much given to the making of speeches (Bilbo is an exception!). He hears far more than he ever speaks. One thing that he does speak of is his desire to “save the Shire”. As with Boromir, and with Gandalf also, his desire is noble. He also has a deep sense of having been given a task to fulfil, a mission to achieve. He did not claim the mission to destroy the Ring at the Council of Elrond as if it were somehow his right. When he spoke it was as if another voice had spoken through him. His offering of himself for the task came with the deepest reluctance.

The Ring has few footholds into Frodo’s heart unless it is by way of possession itself. Perhaps that is why he sees his kinship with Gollum and pities him. When Sam reluctantly returns the Ring to him Frodo sees him “changed before his very eyes into an orc again, leering and pawing at his treasure, a foul little creature with greedy eyes and slobbering mouth.” Frodo has entered the mean world of the orc and it is horrible.

What is essential at this unhappy moment is that it does not lead to the kind of struggle to the death as it did with Sméagol and Déagol long before. Sam gives up the Ring to Frodo while Frodo himself repents of his accusations against Sam. Both are left devastated by the exchange but their relationship remains firm. Even at the very moment when Frodo sees Sam as a thief the perverted vision does not take possession of him. He remains aware that what he thinks he sees is not real.

“What have I said? What have I done? Forgive me! After all you have done. It is the horrible power of the Ring.”

This ability to step away from the horrible fantasy and to see it for what it is is essential. It saves both of their lives. Frodo must have had practice in being able to step away from his initial reaction to the actions of others and to be able to see that his reaction was not something inevitable and ungovernable but something that he could choose. And he retains enough independence from the Ring to be able to see its power. For the time being it is enough.