Until I began to think about writing this post I had never wondered how it was that Snaga managed to be one of only two orcs left alive in the Tower of Cirith Ungol (the other being Shagrat) after the fight over Frodo’s mithril coat. To be honest I had never really thought much about Snaga at all. But as I thought about this part of the story I began to see that Snaga is one of life’s survivors until, that is, he thinks himself safe enough to strike out at Frodo with a whip. Until that point I think that Snaga managed to stay out of the trouble. As he tells Shagrat he sees it “through a window”. There is more than one way to be an orc. One is to be a warrior thug like Gorbag bullying your way to the top until you meet your match as he does in Shagrat. Another is to be a mean sneak with a keen nose for danger and how to stay out of it, a bigger version of Gollum you might say. You take whatever you need to survive, prepared to murder, if necessary, but you let the Gorbags and the Shagrats get their way. It is safer that way.
And that is where Snaga helps us to understand something that has been happening ever since Frodo raised the Star Glass of Galadriel in the darkness of Shelob’s Lair. A Power has entered Mordor, Snaga can sense it, and he is afraid.
If we recall some of the events since that moment it will help us to see what is happening. In raising the Star Glass Frodo brings the light of a Silmaril into Shelob’s endless night. In defeating Shelob in battle Sam finds a strength to do something that no one has done before. When Sam raises the phial of Galadriel before the hideous malice of the Watchers he feels “their will waver and crumble into fear”. And when Snaga confronts Sam on the tower steps it is not a small frightened hobbit that he meets but “a great silent shape, cloaked in a grey shadow, looming against the wavering light behind; in one hand it held a sword, the very light of which was a bitter pain, the other was clutched at his breast, but held concealed some nameless menace of power and doom”.
The menace, of course, is the Ring, but this is not the Power that has entered Mordor. We saw that the Power is not the Ring last week when Sam was tempted to claim it and to challenge Sauron. The Ring is trying to return to its master and will betray Sam. Sam realises this. “He’d spot me pretty quick, if I put the Ring on now, in Mordor.” The Power can use the menace of the Ring as it does to terrify Snaga but its purpose is not the same as the purpose of the Ring. If it was then it would have succeeded in betraying Sam and returning to Sauron.
No, the Power that has entered Mordor is something that Snaga can sense and is afraid of but it is not something that he can understand and nor even can his master, the Dark Lord. Snaga has spiritual insight of a kind but only the kind that knows about power over others. Such a spiritual insight knows about exercising power over those who are weaker or submitting to those whose power is greater. It knows it well because it has practiced that spirituality for a long time. But it knows nothing about Goodness, Beauty, Truth, Mercy or Pity because it has rejected all of these for the sake of gaining power over others. The gospels call it gaining the world but losing your soul.
It is Goodness, Beauty, Truth, Mercy and Pity that have entered Mordor keeping company with two small hobbits who have done the simple act of laying down their lives for their friends. No one has greater love than this. No one who has rejected Love can ever grasp it. And only those who have chosen the way of humility in the way that Frodo and Sam have done can keep company with this kind of Power.
When Frodo raises the star glass and cries out, “Hail, Eärendil, O Brightest of Stars!” he invokes a history of which, with Sam, he is now a major part. Throughout the history of Arda (the earth) there has been a war against the Light that began with Morgoth and now continues with his lieutenant, Sauron. The light of the Silmarils captured in the star glass once blazed forth from Morgoth’s iron crown after he stole them from Fëanor, their maker. One now shines out in the heavens at morning and at evening in the ship, Vingilot, with “Eärendil the mariner sat at the helm, glistening with dust of elven-gems, and the Silmaril was bound upon his brow”. We see it still today and know it as Venus, the Morning Star and the Evening Star.
Eärendil carried the Silmaril back across the seas to the Undying Lands and brought too the prayer of the peoples of Middle-earth to the Valar for mercy. For Morgoth had reduced them to ruin and, perhaps worse even than this, the sons of Fëanor, bound by a terrible oath to their father not to allow the Silmarils to fall into the hands of anyone even a friend, attacked Eärendil’s people and destroyed their homes. Eärendil, even as he bore this sorrow in his heart, prayed too for the sons of Fëanor when he came before the Valar.
Why do I tell this story even as Frodo holds the Star Glass before Shelob? It is because of the place of mercy in the whole of Tolkien’s great story. Tolkien said of Morgoth that “to him that was pitiless the deeds of pity are ever strange and beyond reckoning”. All through Tolkien’s tale it is such deeds that undo the enemy. Why is Frodo’s cry effective? It is because of the pity of Eärendil. It is because of the pity of Bilbo. It is because of the pity of Galadriel who gave the glass to Frodo. We do not stand because of our own deeds but because of all who have come before us.
In his poem on the Advent antiphon, O Oriens, Malcolm Guite makes this point exactly. Oriens is the Morning Star, the Dayspring, the herald of grace and of hope. Guite quotes from Dante’s Paradiso at the heading of his poem when Dante tells us that he saw “light in the form of a river”. The story of light is a river in which we, by grace and mercy, now stand.
“Dante and Beatrice are bathing in it now, away upstream… so every trace of light begins a grace in me, a beckoning. ”
Once again we remember Frodo’s dream in the halls of Elrond in Rivendell; a dream that ended with the sound of Bilbo telling the story of Eärendil. And we begin to understand that we too receive so much from the mercy of others and that every act of mercy that we perform today is a gift to people yet unborn. We stand here because of the prayers of others before us. Others stand today and will stand in times to come because of our prayer and our acts of mercy.
“Very well,” he answered aloud, lowering his sword. “But still I am afraid. And yet, as you see, I will not touch the creature. For now that I see him, I do pity him.”
As Frodo speaks these words Sam stares at him in some confusion for he seems to be addressing someone who is not there. Sam is there and so too is Gollum for Sam and Frodo have just captured him as he fell spider-like from the wall of the Emyn Muil. And the unseen person that Frodo addresses is Gandalf as he remembers the long talk they had in the April morning at Bag End when Gandalf revealed to Frodo the true identity of Bilbo’s ring and how it had come to Bilbo in the first place in the dark tunnels of the Misty Mountains.
On that day Gandalf told Frodo how Gollum had first taken the Ring by murder; how the Ring came to Bilbo, it seemed, by the strangest of chances as it began to try to find its way back to Sauron, its true master; how Bilbo had not killed Gollum when he had the chance, standing behind him, cloaked in the invisibility that the Ring gave him; but how Bilbo had already revealed his name and homeland to Gollum when they first encountered one another so that when Gollum eventually left the shelter of the mountain tunnels he had tried to find the Shire. Worst of all, Gandalf told Frodo, Gollum had fallen into Sauron’s hands and had revealed to him under torture all he knew so that the servants of the Dark Lord were searching for the Shire, for Baggins and for the Ring.
A terrified Frodo had cried out then, “What a pity Bilbo did not stab the vile creature, when he had a chance!” so prompting Gandalf’s response, “Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity and Mercy: not to strike without need.” And Gandalf went on to say that it was his belief that Gollum “has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many- yours not least”.
It is an easy thing to trace a history of violence and the history of the Ring from the moment of its conceiving and making in deceit was a history that was entirely violent. When we observe violence anywhere in the world we can be sure that it has been caused by previous actions of the same nature and by investigating we can begin to work back from one sad cause and effect to another. So in the history of the Ring we can journey back through Gollum’s murder of Déagol to the killing of Isíldur by orcs to Isíldur’s refusal to destroy the Ring after he had taken it from Sauron’s hand to the making of the Ring by the Dark Lord as he sought to bring all things under his rule. “One Ring to rule them all…”
But Bilbo’s Pity in the dark tunnels of the Misty Mountains is of a different order and in the showing of Pity something quite new and entirely unexpected entered the story. Even Gandalf does not know of what nature this new reality is, or whether it is “for good or ill”, but he chooses to place his trust in the uncertain and unexpected consequences of Bilbo’s Pity as against the melancholy certainty of the consequence of violence. So Gandalf did not kill Gollum to prevent his doing further harm when he captured him thus leaving open the door to Gollum’s escape from the Elves of Thranduil’s realm and to his pursuit of the Fellowship from Moria until the moment that Frodo and Sam caught him.
Once again Tolkien reveals his profound spiritual insight and offers us wisdom. We, like Frodo, are faced with the choice of making our choices according to Law with its just yet implacable principles or according to the fearful uncertainty of grace, pity and mercy. Sam longs to put an end to the uncertainty by putting an end to Gollum. Until this moment Frodo had wanted to put an end to uncertainty as well. Frodo now knows that he cannot do this. He too must follow the way of Bilbo’s Pity and of Gandalf’s. But to what end?