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.

Gandalf Pities the Slaves of Sauron

There is a character in Tolkien’s legendarium who exercises a profound influence on The Lord of the Rings and yet is not mentioned there. She is Nienna and in The Silmarillion we read this of her.

“She is acquainted with grief and mourns for every wound that Arda has suffered in the marring of Melkor. So great was her sorrow, as the music unfolded, that her song turned to lamentation long before its end, and the sound of mourning was woven into the themes of the World before it began. But she does not weep for herself; and those who hearken to her learn pity, and endurance in hope.”

Chief among those who hearkened to her was a Maia whose name was Olórin. The Maiar are spirits who serve the Valar. Tragically the greatest in power among them is Sauron who served Melkor, who Fëanor named, Morgoth. But The Silmarillion tells us that:

“Wisest of the Maiar was Olórin… His ways took him often to the house of Nienna, and of her he learned pity and patience.”

It is when Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli encounter Gandalf, restored from death in the Forest of Fangorn, that Gandalf briefly reflects upon his name. “Many are my names in many countries: Mithrandir among the Elves, Tharkûn to the Dwarves; Olórin I was in my youth in the West that is forgotten, in the South Incanus, in the North Gandalf, to the East I go not.” So it is that we learn that Olórin is Gandalf and that he is the one who learned pity and patience from Nienna.

Immediately this brings to mind the conversation between Gandalf and Frodo at Bag End in the Shire when Frodo first learned how the Ring came to Bilbo and so to him. In fear and disgust Frodo cries out when he learns how Bilbo had spared Gollum’s life: “What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had a chance!”

Gandalf’s reply shows how well he had learned his lesson from the Lady Nienna.

“Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity.”

And so we see the importance of spiritual formation in the lives of each one of us. Sadly the vital importance of this central element in our education is in danger of being lost because it has been long confused with religious practice and as such practice is in decline so too is spiritual formation. Of course good religious practice can lead to good spiritual formation but, as Simone Weil once perceptively pointed out, religious practice can only prepare us for faith, it isn’t faith itself. Wisely Tolkien speaks little of religious practice in his works even though he was a lifelong Catholic in every respect including his practice; and one of the conclusions that we might draw from this is that he gives precededence to Olórin/Gandalf’s inner life. How much we need teachers as Nienna was to Olórin and Olórin is to Frodo, to Aragorn, to Faramir, even to Pippin. Readers will remember that when Frodo first encountered Gollum he spoke aloud as if to someone who was not there, “But now that I see him I do pity him”. The one who was not there was Gandalf. Frodo had learned his lesson from his master.

Sadly, though, Denethor has not. And, of course, this proud man will call no one but himself, master. As Gandalf puts it, Denethor thinks “of Gondor only” and in thinking of Gondor he thinks of his own pride. In the Second Age the kings of Númenor came to see Sauron, not as an evil to be resisted, but as a rival to their own greatness. So it was that when Ar-Pharazôn the Golden, the last king of Númenor defeated Sauron, he was corrupted by the one he had conquered. Denethor’s spiritual formation has made him a disciple of Ar-Pharazôn and thus a short step from being a disciple of Sauron. Not so, Gandalf. He Pities even Sauron’s slaves.

 

Éowyn After Aragorn: What Becomes of the Broken-hearted?

We all know the clichés that attend a broken heart.

Hell hath no fury like a woman spurned! 

We know the stories of revenge and bitterness. They have been told again and again. But what of Éowyn? We know her shame as she watched the dishonouring of her people and of their king. We know that she was always aware that she was being watched by Wormtongue. She was to be one of the prizes that he would gain amidst the ruin of Rohan, a trinket to be carried off and enjoyed by the victor in the fight. We know too that although she was a warrior her role was always confined to be dry nurse to the broken man who was Théoden.

Then Aragorn comes into her life and with him comes the awakening of hope and the possibility of happiness. She knows that he is a captain that men will follow. The arrival of the Dúnedain in Edoras, a mighty company following their lord and hero, merely confirms to her what she can already see for herself.

And then he leaves her and he will not take her with him even though she pleads with him. All the hope that has begun to awaken in her heart is dashed; both hope for her people and hope for herself. And perhaps, too, in the lonely watches of the night, she has pictured herself as a mighty queen adored by her people. Can we blame her? We may remember the moment when Frodo offered the Ring to Galadriel.

“You will give me the Ring freely! In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair!”

Such words do not come from nowhere as if in an unthinking manner. Galadriel, too, had allowed herself dreams of greatness. So too had Boromir. So too had Saruman. So too had Lotho Sackville-Baggins. So too had Gollum “the Great”. Dreams of greatness are common both to the mighty among us and also to the weak. It is not our dreams that distinguish us from one another but the actions that we take in consequence of our dreams. Among the list of dreamers that we have just named Boromir tries to take the Ring from Frodo although he triumphs gloriously over his temptation in giving his life for Merry and Pippin; Saruman betrays the peoples of Middle-earth and the Valar who gave him his mission; Lotho becomes an ally of Saruman and betrays the Shire into his hands; and we know the long and tragic tale of Gollum.

And Galadriel?

“I pass the test,” she said. “I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel.”

Éowyn, too, will “pass the test” eventually, but even in her darkest moments she will not betray her people and become an agent of darkness. In her deepest despair and desire for death she will remain true to the love that she has for Théoden who has been as a father to her. When, in the battle, Théoden falls under the attack of the Lord of the Nazgûl and all his household knights are slain or, through the terror of their horses, desert him, Éowyn does not desert him. And, as Anne Marie Gazzolo recently commented on this blog, she is there to be the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy.

Ultimately it is not her dreams that will determine her destiny but her long practice of faithfulness to the drudgery of her life in Meduseld and the practice, too, of her love for Théoden. It is our practice that will determine our destiny although eventually we will have to surrender to a grace that is greater even than our practice, even as Éowyn will in order to fulfil that destiny. And it is that practice that will sustain us through our darkest nights as it did for Eówyn “when all her life seemed shrinking, and the walls of her bower closing in about her, a hutch to trammel some wild thing in.”

Gollum Worships His God

Their relationship must have begun because they were so similar in spirit. For Shelob is consumed with a lust for all life, true daughter as she is of Ungoliant the ancient monster in spider form. This lust is insatiable but it is limited by a need for secrecy and so prey must fall unawares into her lair. Gollum in time past has brought such prey to her. He is her “sneak” as the orcs call him.

Similar in spirit they are but she is so much mightier than he. And so Tolkien tells us, “in past days he had bowed and worshipped her, and the darkness of her evil will walked through all the ways of his weariness beside him, cutting him off from light and from regret.”

So it is that Gollum worships his god. She represents to him the embodiment of the principle that shapes and drives him, the desire to eat. Readers may remember the debate between the Gollum and the Sméagol principle that Sam overheard and could not be sure who had won at the end of it. In it the Gollum principle declares: “Perhaps we grows very strong, stronger than Wraiths. Lord Sméagol? Gollum the Great? The Gollum?  Eat fish every day, three times a day, fresh from the sea.” We might allow ourselves a smile at Gollum’s expense but the only difference between him and Shelob or even between him and Sauron is one of degree. Their lust is greater and more all encompassing and their power is greater too but there the difference ends. Sauron is simply a more powerful version of Gollum. Gollum is simply a weaker version of Sauron. Sauron can hurt Gollum but Gollum cannot hurt him.

At least, not yet, for Gollum dreams of the day when he will “pay everyone back!” And when he says, “everyone” he means all those for whom he carries a sense of resentment; and this is so great that all creatures must be punished for the wrong that he believes they have done to him.

And what does worship mean in this respect? It is simply this. That some creatures are more powerful than others and we must bow down to those who are more powerful than we are. As Sweeney Todd declares in Stephen Sondheim’s musical of the same name, “Because in all of the whole human race… there are two kinds of men and only two. There’s the one staying put in his proper place and the one with his foot in the other one’s face.” And so those, like Gollum, in the “proper place”, worship those above them who have their feet in their faces. It is a miserable and servile kind of worship and it is offered in endless resentment. And those who seek such worship must take care never to take the foot away from the worshipper’s face for fear that revenge might be taken.

This is the spiritual universe in which Gollum exists, a universe that he entered on the day he murdered his best friend in order to take the Ring for himself. It is a universe made up of endless lust and endless resentment and from which both regret and light must be expelled for ever. And there lies it’s vulnerability for from the moment that Bilbo first entered it deep below the Misty Mountains and chose, for the sake of pity, not to kill Gollum it has been at risk. Gandalf said that the pity of Bilbo “may rule the fate of many” and it does. This is what it means that Hell is harrowed by the crucified Christ whose words spoken to his executioners are “Father forgive them for they know not what they do”. Hell simply absorbs into itself an attack mounted in its own terms of lust and resentment. It falls when the attack is mounted in pity and in mercy and by those who have no desire to rule in Hell.

Frodo and Sam Lead Us into the Dark

Should I say that Frodo and Sam lead us into the dark? It is the last place that either of them wish to go and this is no ordinary dark.  This is the  dark of Shelob’s Lair, a deeper and a denser dark even than the tunnels of Moria, “a black vapour wrought of veritable darkness itself that, as it was breathed, brought blindness not only to the eyes but to the mind, so that even the memory of colours and of forms and of any light faded out of thought.  Night had always been,  and always would be, and night was all.”

Neither Frodo nor Sam ever wished to be here. Gollum wished otherwise for this is his act of betrayal.  He has led them into this trap into to have them killed and so, he hopes, to recover the Ring. Perhaps I should have entitled this piece, “Gollum leads us into the dark.” But my choice of title was deliberate.  Readers of The Lord of the Rings are here because they have come to love Frodo and Sam.

And I have another meaning. I  cannot read this part of the story without thinking of my own experience of darkness.  I have never been in a darkness in which I have been afraid. Once in Africa  I remember being guided through a darkness so deep that I could only just make out my guide in front of me but I was not afraid because I trusted him, even though he was a stranger, and my trust proved justifiable. I reached a safe place from which I could continue my journey the next day. No, for me the darkness that is fearful is an inner darkness. This is the darkness in which “even the memory of colours and of forms and of any light” fades out of thought. In his “East Coker” T.S Eliot puts it this way :

“O dark, dark, dark. They all go into the dark…/ And we all go with them into the silent funeral. No one’s funeral for there is no one to bury.”

And in the lines between those that I have quoted he makes it clear that being of good reputation is of no protection from the journey into the dark. It is one that we all must take. And the darknesses through which we pass during our lives are most fearful because they speak to us of the dark at the end of life.  The dark from which we fear there will be no end. Frodo and Sam feel this: “One hour, two hours, three hours : how many had they passed in this lightless hole? Hours- days, weeks rather.”

The dark that we are certain will end does not have the power of the dark that we fear to be endless. Yet so many of the great myths seem to require of their heroes such a journey. Tolkien knew this very well and the True Myth that he spoke of in a conversation with C.S Lewis,  a conversation that changed Lewis’s life for ever, speaks of a journey through the total darkness of death itself, a journey into an a aliveness so complete that death can have nothing to do with it at all. Eliot speaks of it in “East Coker”, “I said to my soul, be still,  and let the dark come upon you which shall be the darkness of God.”

So there is a darkness of God.  And it is a real darkness,  not the gentle turning down of the lights for an intimate evening together but the terrible darkness of death itself, the dark through which Jesus passed of which the creeds speak saying that he descended into hell. Eliot speaks of it in our experience in these words:

“I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope for hope would be hope of the wrong thing; wait without love for love would be love of the wrong thing;  there is yet faith but the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting. ”

So we have to learn how to die before we die so that we can truly live without fear of death or of the darknesses that come upon us in our lifetime.  We learn how to die in order to be fully alive.

A Scene which Caused Tolkien to Weep as He Wrote It

As Frodo and Sam take a final rest of peace before they seek to enter Mordor Gollum returns. He has been making final preparations for the betrayal of the hobbits that he has guided since falling into their hands at the foot of the Emyn Muil; a betrayal that he hopes will enable him to regain the Ring. His desire for the Ring, The Precious for poor Sméagol, as Sam put it, has shaped his very being ever since he lost it to Bilbo Baggins in the tunnels deep beneath the Misty Mountains. Indeed the Ring has dominated every waking thought and every dream since he first caught sight of it as his friend, Déagol, held it aloft by the waters of the Gladden Fields long ago. This desire, overcoming him, caused him to murder his friend and has come to separate him from all companionship and  all affection.

But not quite…

“Gollum looked at them. A strange expression passed over his lean hungry face. The gleam faded from his eyes and they went dim and grey, old and tired. A spasm of pain seemed to twist him, and he turned away, peering back up towards the pass, shaking his head, as if engaged in some interior debate. Then he came back, and slowly putting out a trembling hand, very cautiously he touched Frodo’s knee- but almost the touch was a caress. For a fleeting moment, could one of the sleepers have seen him, they would have thought that they beheld an old weary hobbit, shrunken by the years that had carried him far beyond his time, beyond friends and kin, and the fields and streams of youth, an old starved pitiable thing.”

As Tolkien wrote this scene, this all too fleeting moment of grace, he did so with tears in his eyes. Gollum may have been corrupted by his desire for the Ring but there remains a part of his heart that has not been entirely vanquished by evil. This part of his heart awoke when he played the riddle game with Bilbo and images of wind, of rain and of sunshine entered his prison and it awakes again as he gazes upon the sleeping hobbits. Gandalf was able to recognise it during his long and wearisome interrogations of the miserable creature and Frodo recognised it when pity awoke within him at the moment when he captured Gollum. It was not just the unconquered part of Gollum that awoke this pity. It was the realisation that they too could be corrupted. Gandalf saw this possibility in the fall of Saruman, the greatest of his order and Frodo saw it in a fellow hobbit, the humblest of creatures. True pity, not the pity of one certain of their own moral superiority but the pity of one who knows their own capacity for corruption, is one of the truest marks of a great soul. But even the most profound pity cannot save another. A moment after longing is awoken within him Sam’s suspicion drives him back into hatred and a determination to do murder.

In a letter, Tolkien wrote this of Gollum:

“By temporising, not fixing the still not wholly corrupt Sméagol-will towards good in the debate in the slag hole, he weakened himself for the final chance when dawning love of Frodo was too easily withered by the jealousy of Sam before Shelob’s lair.”

Tolkien remembers the debate between Gollum and Sméagol that Sam overheard and notes that it was never resolved. Sam could not tell who had won. In saying this we must believe that it was possible for Sméagol to win and to become a willing ally in the destruction of the Ring and in his own liberation from its power. And in saying this we must believe that it is possible for each one of us to be freed of all that will keep us from our own freedom.

Frodo and Faramir are asked “How is the Next Generation to Live?”

It is not always given to us to have the privilege of a clear choice. Good parents are anxious to help their children learn the difference between right and wrong and encourage them to choose right on all occasions. They are right to do so because without such a foundation little of value will be achieved in life and whatsoever of value does emerge will be unintended. We might wish such a foundation to be sufficient to guide us through every challenge that we might meet throughout our lives but sadly this will not always be the case. We will meet occasions in which there will be no good alternative that we can choose.

Such is the challenge that faces Frodo as he prepares to continue his journey after his encounter with Faramir and after the unhappy recapture of Gollum at the Forbidden Pool beneath Henneth Annûn. Such too is the challenge that faces Faramir as he seeks to counsel Frodo. All he is able to do is to warn Frodo of the dangers of the path that he has chosen in his efforts to enter Mordor and of the faithlessness of the guide he has chosen to take him there. “Do not go that way!” he cries in a last desperate attempt to dissuade Frodo from the way he intends to go.

That Frodo’s choice both of path and of guide is unwise is beyond doubt but so too is the alternative and this he makes clear to Faramir:

“If I turn back, refusing the road in its bitter end, where then shall I go among Elves and Men? Would you have me come to Gondor with this Thing, the Thing that drove your brother mad with desire? What spell would it work in Minas Tirith? Shall there be two cities of Minas Morgul, grinning at each other across a dead land filled with rottenness?”

Thankfully few of us will be called to make a choice as impossible as this but all who seek to live life with a moral seriousness will have to make choices in which the alternatives appear equally intolerable. Is there any guidance available to us for such a time?

In 1943 the German pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrote a remarkable document to two fellow members of the Resistance within Nazi Germany that he entitled “After Ten Years”. In it he declared: “One may ask whether there have ever before in human history been people with so little ground under their feet- people to whom every available alternative seemed equally intolerable, repugnant and futile.” Bonhoeffer goes on to outline the insufficiency of all responses to the circumstances facing himself and his fellow resisters, responses based upon such abstract principles such as reason, moral fanaticism, conscience, duty, freedom or private virtue. The only ones who can stand fast, he declares are those who are ready to sacrifice these principles when called to “obedient and responsible action in faith… the responsible man, who tries to make his whole life an answer to the question and call of God.”

Later he makes clear what shape such an answer might take: “The ultimate question for a responsible man to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation is to live.” As Frodo and Faramir part in sorrow and with little hope both have made such a choice. Heroism is the last thing on either of their minds but both now offer up their lives that the next generation might be able to live.