“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.

“There Must Be Someone of Intelligence in The Party”. On the Choosing of The Heroes Who Will Help Frodo to Take The Ring to The Fire.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp.264-267

Elrond honoured Frodo’s offer of himself to take the Ring to the Fire by speaking of the heroes of the past. “If you take it freely,” he says, “I will say that your choice is right; and though the mighty elf-friends of old, Hador and Húrin, and Túrin, and Beren himself, were assembled together, your seat should be among them.”

Alan Lee depicts Túrin Turambar, one of the children of Húrin

When The Lord of the Rings was first published in 1954 little was known of these names except for Beren because of the story that Strider told to the hobbits in the camp below Weathertop on the night on which the Nazgûl attacked and wounded Frodo. The Silmarillion was not published until after Tolkien’s death and in the years since our knowledge of them all has grown thanks to the work of Christopher Tolkien. But if all we knew of them was the list that Elrond gives us, that phrase, “mighty elf friends” would be sufficient to evoke our deepest respect and even a little awe.

The four “mighty elf-friends of old” that Elrond names are figures of the First Age of Arda. They were the mortal Children of Ilúvatar who, upon entering Beleriand, chose to side with the Elves against Morgoth. Deeply flawed though they were, it was their implacable denial of despair in the face of the seemingly inevitable victory of darkness that shines out again and again through the long defeat of that age. Typical of this spirit we read of Húrin at the terrible battle of Nirnaeth Arnoediad.

“Last of all Húrin stood alone. Then he cast aside his shield, and wielded an axe two-handed; and it is sung that the axe smoked in the black blood of the troll guard of Gothmog until it withered, and each time that he slew Húrin cried: “Aurë entuluva! Day shall come again!”

Jenny Dolfen imagines Húrin at Nirnaeth Arnoediad

It is of heroes like this to which Elrond likens Frodo, not because of his martial ferocity but because of his quiet courage in the face of an impossible task. When he and Sam and Bilbo meet with Merry and Pippin, Frodo describes his mission as “a hopeless journey”. There is no point at which he regards it as anything less than hopeless and yet he never thinks of turning back, of resting in Rivendell, “a long while, perhaps for good”.

Frodo is a hero to stand with the Elf-friends of old because of the choice that he makes but what of Sam, Merry and Pippin? At first glance we might think that Tolkien uses them as some kind of comic relief and Pippin’s words about “someone with intelligence in the party” and Gandalf’s response to what Pippin says seem to show that this is indeed their purpose in the story. But at all times Tolkien wants us to see that the bonds of fellowship that bind the hobbits together have a power that cannot be measured through force of arms or even their intelligence. Later when Elrond chooses the party that will accompany Frodo, Sam and the Ring, he is minded to choose someone like Glorfindel, a mighty elf-lord, but Gandalf disagrees.

“I think, Elrond, that in this matter it would be well to trust rather to their friendship than to great wisdom”

It is not that Gandalf has given way to sentimentality at this vital moment in the story but that he is true to his own charism, the grace that he has been given and which he has long nurtured. His teacher, the Lady Nienna, taught him to see with pity, not with blame and to warm the hearts of free peoples everywhere. He knows the power of a warmed heart especially when the world has grown cold and time and again, I suspect without really knowing why, his heart was drawn to the Shire and the simple hospitality of its people. His pleasure in good, simple food, good beer and a pipe to follow dinner meant that his own heart was warmed when he made these visits and if the only fruit of them was rest and the enjoyment of fireworks then this would have been sufficient for him but it was to these simple folk to whom the Ring was entrusted. Folk who live in the “merrier world” in which “food and cheer and song” are valued above hoarded gold.

The friendship of hobbits

“We Are Your Friends, Frodo.” A Conspiracy Unmasked.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 96-105

If Frodo has a fault, and I will allow my readers to decide whether or not it really is a fault, it is that he has a sense of himself that he, and he alone, must shoulder the burden of this quest. In my imagination I picture him sitting alone by the fire in his study in Bag End, sucking on the stem of his pipe, and seeing himself walking alone in the wild towards a far horizon as the light fades about him. And already he is nursing a feeling of desolate loneliness but he is also beginning to enjoy a feeling of greatness that, if anything, grows with the loneliness. The lonely hero is a figure much loved in the mythology of Europe and, as my North American readers will confirm, travelled across the Atlantic to the vast empty spaces of that continent. Indeed, it was as if this kind of hero was just waiting for those vast spaces in order to be reborn there.

Frodo bears his burden alone

Of course, the reason that I can picture Frodo almost starting to enjoy this sense of having “a high and lonely destiny” is that I have been drawn to the temptation of wanting to be this kind of hero myself. And I also think that I have evidence within The Lord of the Rings to support my case. You will remember how, in the Council of Elrond, Frodo heroically chooses the task of taking the Ring to Orodruin in Mordor and how, straight away, Sam cries out, “But you won’t send him off alone surely, Master?” And you will remember how, after Boromir tries to seize the Ring, Frodo announces to himself, “I will go alone. At once.”

Thankfully, Frodo always fails in his attempts to “go alone”. Even without Sam’s intervention at the Council Elrond swiftly decides that Frodo cannot go alone and creates The Fellowship of the Ring, the nine walkers who will oppose the nine riders, the Nazgûl. And it is Sam, the confounded nuisance, who prevents him from going alone to Mordor after the breaking of the Fellowship. But now, at the very beginning of the journey, it is Frodo’s friends who keep him from trying to go alone.

Of course they have no idea what lies ahead of them but then, as Gandalf remarks to Elrond later on, “neither does Frodo”. Indeed, he emphasises, “Nor do any of us see clearly. ” We are all spared the burden of knowing what lies ahead for us. We are neither robbed of the surprise of joy nor of knowing what pain or sorrow lies before us. Joy cannot be joy unless it comes to us by surprise and who would wish to rob their days of what contentment that can be enjoyed by knowing the sufferings of the future?

What Merry and Pippin and Sam have to offer is not their foreknowledge but their friendship. Frodo makes a blustery speech about not being able to trust anyone once he realises that his secret has been long known. Merry answers him magnificently. “You can trust us to stick to you through thick and thin- to the bitter end… But you cannot trust us to face trouble alone, and go off without a word. We are your friends, Frodo.” And it is friendship that will prevail against all the power of the Enemy and not might nor even wisdom.

Ted Nasmith “Bathing at Crickhollow”

Friendship will take Merry into combat against the very foes that pursue them when he decides not to allow Éowyn to fight the Lord of the Nazgûl alone and it is through friendship and not might that he enables Éowyn to prevail against him. And it is friendship that takes Pippin to the high place in Minas Tirith where Denethor would take the life of his own son so that he need not die alone in his despair. It is through friendship, not might, that Pippin saves the life of Faramir. And it is through friendship that Sam brings Frodo step by intolerable step through the deserts of Mordor to Mount Doom before he carries him up the slopes of the mountain. It is not good to be alone. We were made for friendship, for belonging.

That’s What Friends Are For. Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin Gather For the Last Time By the Great Sea.

It is just over three years since the Four Travellers sat together with Fredegar Bolger at Crickhollow and the “conspiracy” was revealed that led to Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin leaving the Shire together on the great adventure of the Age. Only three years but in that time the whole world has changed and so have they. Now they stand together for the last time by the shores of the Great Sea as Frodo prepares to board ship for the West and the Undying Lands. Sam is there because Frodo wants him to be there. Merry and Pippin are there because Gandalf in his wisdom and in his kindness knows that it would be almost unbearably hard for Sam to return alone from the Grey Havens back to Hobbiton and Bag End.

“‘You tried to give us the slip once before and failed, Frodo'” says Pippin amidst his laughter and his tears. “‘This time you have nearly succeded, but you have failed again. It was not Sam, though, that gave you away this time, but Gandalf himself!'”

Pippin can be forgiven for only remembering one occasion when Frodo tried to slip away alone from his friends. On the second he and Merry were the prisoners of the Uruk-hai of Isengard when Frodo tried to cross the River alone in order to make the journey to Mordor. Frodo had always had a sense that he could not take his friends with him on a journey that would lead almost certainly to failure and death. Perhaps, too, his sense of responsibility for others fitted neatly into his solitary temperament. Frodo was raised as an only child and after Bilbo’s departure for Rivendell he lived alone often preferring his own company on long walks alone. It is not inevitable that those who are solitaries are also lonely but what solitaries have to learn is that friends are necessary, that we cannot live without them.

It was the great German theologian and anti-Nazi resister, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who taught: “Let him who is not in community beware of being alone”. The kind of solitariness to which Bonhoeffer and, I suspect, Frodo, was drawn, was inhabited by books and a rich interior conversation that never became dull. The danger of such a life is that in such a conversation the solitary is never in danger of being challenged. It was the Inklings that turned Tolkien’s own rich interior conversation into The Lord of the Rings. Without the others who listened, criticised and encouraged, that richest of imaginations would have remained a private possession and we would all be the poorer for it. Bonhoeffer discovered the power of community in a gathering of young theologians in the 1930s hidden briefly away from the Nazi tainted official training establishments for Lutheran pastors. He was its director but he found friendship there that was to sustain him later when he was an enforced solitary in the Tegel Military Prison in Berlin. Frodo would never have reached the Cracks of Doom without his friends and most especially without Sam.

My hope is that, in company with Bilbo, Frodo came to learn true community during his gentle purgatory in the Undying Lands. Of course the True Self will enjoy a natural rhythm of aloneness and community both of which will nourish one another. Bonhoeffer, with equal wisdom also taught, “Let him who cannot be alone beware of community.” It is those who are at peace with themselves who will be able to give most to their communities. Those who are not peace will always be taking from them and rarely giving.

It is good that Gandalf recognises that there are times when it is hard to be alone and that he sends a message to Merry and Pippin to come to the Grey Havens as quickly as possible. And it would have been unkind for Merry and Pippin not to have been allowed to make their own farewells. But let us forgive Frodo. At this point in his life he is so burdened still that he does not always think of the needs of others. And let us remember too that he has been wounded so deeply in laying down his life for others. He will be healed at last of the hurt in the Undying Lands and Sam, Merry and Pippin will have “great comfort” in one another “on the long grey road” back to the Shire.

“I am Wounded; it will Never Really Heal”. Frodo Begins to Fade Away From the Shire.

After Sam and Rosie Cotton are married they move into together with Frodo in Bag End. It is a good arrangement for all. Sam and Rosie have a fine home in which to raise a family together. Frodo has kind and loving friends to watch over him. Sam is close enough to the Gaffer to keep an eye on him. But not too close.

It is the beginning of a golden age in the history of the Shire. Restoration work is underway everywhere and everything returns to how it was but perhaps it is even more beautiful than it was before the troubles. Tolkien gives us a vision, perhaps, of how England might have been restored after the destruction of the Second World War. One thinks of the beautiful medieval city of Coventry that was badly bombed during the war and its ancient cathedral almost completely destroyed. It is a grim joke told by the people of that city that the Luftwaffe only began the destruction of the city. It was completed by the city authorities. It is as if Lotho Pimple and Ted Sandyman had seized control of the country after the war for long enough until they had changed it for ever.

Not so the Shire. The Shire is seized, not by brutalist architects, but by a spirit of merriment. And the spirit is manifested above all in Merry and Pippin. “The two young Travellers cut a great dash in the Shire with their songs and their tales and their finery, and their wonderful parties. ‘Lordly’ folk called them, meaning nothing but good; for it warmed all hearts to see them go riding by with their mail-shirts so bright and their shields so splendid, laughing and singing songs of far away.”

Merry and Pippin bring something new to the Shire in a way that even hobbits, that most conservative of peoples, could receive. They give the Shire back to itself but more itself than ever it was before. And there is one other who does this work also and that is Sam the Gardener who will eventually take the name of Gardener for his family.

Sadly there is one who cannot share this joy, delight and glory and that is Frodo. It is not that Frodo becomes angry or embittered, withdrawing into a windowless inner darkness. It is just that Frodo has been hurt and cannot wholly be healed in Middle-earth.

Sam is away in March in the Year of Plenty on his duties as forester to the Shire. All his attention and his energy is given to looking forward. So he misses March 13th, the day one year before when Frodo lay helpless, poisoned by Shelob, a prisoner of the orcs in Cirith Ungol, and the Ring was gone. On that day Frodo had not known that Sam had taken the Ring in order to prevent it from falling into the hands of the orcs but what Frodo relives a year later is not a sense of misery at the failure of the mission but an utter emptiness because the Ring has gone. It is the same emptiness that Gollum felt when Bilbo took the Ring and which was to fuel his obsessive search thereafter. The Ring has a hold over Frodo from which he can never wholly escape.

This is an experience that the Shire cannot share. The story of the Ring and its utterly malevolent maker is something that it has never shared. Even when the Ring was in the Shire it remained hidden and it was only revealed for the briefest of moments in the uncanny goings on at Bilbo’s farewell party. And when the War of the Ring came to the Shire it was through Saruman and his brigand ban, already defeated though able to do some small mischief before being caught. The Shire never shared Frodo’s heroic sacrifice of himself and so it cannot understand it. As Frodo himself says: “I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me.”

Frodo is the wounded healer, the prophet without honour in his own country. Merry, Pippin and Sam are all closer to the Shire and are able to bring the great story of deliverence to their people in such a way that they can receive it and learn to be grateful for it. For Frodo healing must come somewhere else.

 

What Happens When Hobbits Fall Prey to Greed and Self-importance. (The Scouring of the Shire)

The Scouring of the Shire is one of the saddest chapters in The Lord of the Rings. We expected Mordor to be as desolate as it turned out to be and, step by step, we followed Frodo and Sam to the Cracks of Doom longing to be free of it. But then the impossible happened and the Ring went to the Fire. Sauron fell into nothingness and his realm crumbled, Frodo and Sam awoke in a soft bed in the woodlands of Ithilien and Sam cried out, “Is everything sad going to come untrue? What’s happened to the world?”

But the spirit of Mordor was never something forced upon the world by one evil being. Sauron fed upon the selfishness, the meanness and the fearfulness of others to become the mighty lord of darkness. And he had many imitators not least Saruman of Isengard and Lotho Sackville-Baggins of the Shire. For those critics who have accused Tolkien of moral banality, of writing a simplistic “good guys versus bad guys” story, one need only read this chapter of the story to know that this criticism is arrant nonsense.

The Shire was never an earthly paradise with no knowledge of good and evil. It was never a realm of pure innocence. It was always a land inhabited by a people subject to the same passions and the same temptations as we are. But Tolkien gave us a land in which a people live securely because of the protection of the Rangers of the North and in which no one lives either in poverty or great wealth. There are two great families in the Shire, the Tooks and the Brandybucks, but although both enjoy great comfort it is a comfort shared with the community at large. Brandybuck Hall and the Great Smials of Tuckborough are more like communal villages than private residences.

But once there are those who regard the acquiring of private wealth well beyond that of their neighbours as a goal worth pursuing, a seed of meanness is sown in the Shire that will not be easily dug out. So it is with Lotho Sackville-Baggins as we will consider next week in more detail. Suffice to say at this point that it is this seed that infects the Shire and its fruits that the four companions encounter when they return from their adventures.

Some readers might wish to remind me of the avariciousness of the dwarves and their love for gold or that of Thranduil of the woodland realm or the Master of Esgaroth. To which I would answer that they are right! If it had not been for the lust for revenge of the goblins of the Misty Mountains all Gandalf’s efforts to unite the free peoples of the North against the growing threat in Dol Guldur might have ended in disaster. Tolkien’s characters are morally complex and are all subject to spiritual conflict, even the greatest of them. Perhaps especially the greatest. Only those such as the orcs who have long ago given up the inner struggle are morally simple.

The Hobbits of the Shire are far from morally  simple and when enough are encouraged to feed upon their sense of self-importance such as the Shirrifs or upon their fearfulness of the big world outside as with the easily cowed general populace then it becomes possible for a few people to take control of the whole country. I have often thought that it is only because Britain was never invaded during the Second World War that it is possible to make simplistic generalisations about “British Values”. If the Nazis had taken control there would have been plenty of British people in sympathy with their philosophy, plenty who would have collaborated simply out of self-interest and many who would have done so out of fear. Much of that which we would like to proclaim as innate goodness or decency is more the product of historical good fortune.

We should, all of us, especially those of us who live in some comfort, be grateful for our good fortune. But I do not want to be overly pessimistic about ourselves even as I wish to avoid over optimism. As we shall see there is a goodness and a courage lying deep down within the hobbits that is only waiting to be reawoken. And it dwells in us too.

 

 

Barliman Butterbur Speaks of his Troubles and Receives Some Comfort.

When the travellers arrive at Bree they find the gate locked against them and their welcome at first is anxious and even suspicious. But Barliman Butterbur is pleased to see them and after politely listening to the story of their adventures he gets down to the things that really matter, the news of events in Bree.

“There was trouble right here in Bree, bad trouble. Why, we had a real set-to, and there were some folk killed, killed dead! If you’ll believe me.”

And the travellers do believe him because all trouble is real to the one who has to undergo it. It may be that the listeners have done battle with a troll before the Black Gate, with the Witch King of Angmar before Minas Tirith, with the Balrog of Moria, with Shelob in her lair and with the Ring of Doom step by impossible step across the plains of Mordor to the very place in which it was made by the Dark Lord. All this may be true but each violent death is a crime against nature itself and five of the people of Bree died in the struggle against ruffians from the south.

It is the travellers who have seen so much and who have been through so much who have to be the listeners and that is the way of things. Each experience has deepened their understanding and broadened their sympathy and their imagination. Not so Barliman whose knowledge of the world has come only from the stories that he has heard told by travellers staying at his inn. His personal experience has come only from his life within the borders of the Breeland and within them he is a man of some wisdom and courage. We can admire his rushing to the doors of The Prancing Pony armed only with a club ready to defend it against desperate bandits but beyond these narrow limits he could not help much as Aragorn reminded him once when Bree was threatened by the Nazgûl of Mordor.

The travellers have begun to learn a new and a sad lesson and that is that they will find few interested listeners when they return home. Even their wives will be unable to make the kind of sympathetic leap of imagination that is required from a good listener. What I hope the wives will possess will be the quality of listening that comes of a loving heart. They may not fully comprehend what their husbands have experienced but they will care that each thing will have happened to someone that they love. But perhaps in the midst of worries about young children or problems in the household they will not  be able to spare much time for listening.

At one time as a parish priest in Birmingham, England I found that I often had to take the funerals of men for whom a major part of their life experience had been service in the military during the Second World War. Two things began to impress me deeply about these men. One was just how young they had been when they were torn away from ordinary life and all that they had seen and done. The other was of a different kind of courage. The courage to return to ordinary life as husbands, fathers and useful members of their communities. As I began to hear these stories I began to develop as much respect for the second kind of courage as for the first.

Now the hobbits will have to learn how to find peace within themselves and not seek it from others. Frodo will pass into the West and find healing there. Merry and Pippin will draw upon the optimism that has been such a source of strength to them and they will draw too upon their friendship with each other. Sam will develop a deep connection to his daughter, Elanor the Fair, to whom he will give the Red Book, the record of the deeds of the Great Years, before he too passes into the West after the death of Rosie Cotton to whom he will remain faithful through the long years.

And Butterbur will find comfort in the turning of the affairs of Bree for the better and after he has learned that the bandits will soon go and peace restored he will go to his bed more comforted than he has been for a long time.

Saruman Fails To Get The Joke!

After a journey of wonders the company led by Théoden and Gandalf arrive at the gates of Isengard to find them cast down and in ruins with a great rubble heap piled up beside them “and suddenly there were aware of two small figures lying on it at their ease…There were bottles, bowls and platters laid beside them, as if they had eaten well, and now rested from their labour.” And so it is that after all the adventures that have befallen the company since its sundering at Tol Brandir Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas are re-united with Merry and Pippin.

This is a good tale to tell at Christmas for as Mary’s great song from The Gospel of Luke chapter 1 tells us, with the coming of the Messiah the mighty are cast down from their seats and the humble and meek are exalted, the hungry are filled with good things and the rich are sent empty away. It was indeed Saruman’s intention to bring the hobbits to Isengard but we can be sure that he had no intention to feast them upon the best of his food amidst the ruins of his once mighty fortress. And yet it is precisely because of his intentions that Saruman has been cast down from his seat and that hobbits, the least significant of creatures, have been the means of his downfall. For the orcs that Saruman sent to bring the hobbits to his dungeons were able to bring them swiftly to Fangorn where they met Treebeard, the most ancient of Ents. And it was through that meeting that the Ents were roused from their long slumber, marched upon Isengard and reduced it to ruins.

There is no doubt that Tolkien takes pleasure in the comic elements of the scene he paints for us. The small figures who could not be less heroic, the piles of empty dishes and bottles, the smoke rising from pipes smoked at ease (and as anyone who has ever tried to smoke a pipe will tell you it is necessary to be at ease in order to smoke one well!) and all this amidst the scene of a terrible battle.

And you can be sure that Saruman does not get the joke! Nor, of course, did Herod when the Magi asked him where the King of the Jews had been born. Perhaps we get closest to the truth of Christmas if we learn to see it as a cosmic joke. So much religion seems hung up with efforts to portray itself as mighty, as deserving of a place at the tables of the powerful. If the wonderful joke of the nativity were to manifest itself at such tables then the religious might well be discomfited as much as kings and princes. Before the modern era it was the custom for kings to have a joker nearby them to remind them of who they truly were. Where are the jokers of our own age? How many board rooms of our great corporations make sure they have a joker among them? Or might they fear that the joker might bring them crashing down to ruins?

If Saruman were to get the joke then he would be free from the prison that he has created for himself. And so too would we if, as Mary sang, we allow that which desires to be rich and dominating of the weak within our souls to be “sent empty away”. Our laughter would truly be that of the merry and so would our Christmas too.

Peregrine Took’s Guide to Life

There is a clue in the words that Pippin speaks that we considered last week to the way in which he will deal with the feeling of uselessness. “I wish I could get free!” he says to himself.

If we were to read a hobbits’ guide to Life, some kind of self-help manual or at least if we were to read a self-help manual as written by Peregrine Took we would find little reflection upon a search for meaning. It is not that Pippin is incapable of reflection and later in the story we will come across a particularly moving conversation that he and Merry have together about what they have learned upon their travels but on the whole Pippin is not given to much introspection or much forethought for that matter. Sometimes this will get him into trouble but at this moment it is a source of strength to him because he is able to give all of his attention to the matter at hand. How is he to get to free?

And from the moment that he moves from asking questions to which he has no answer to the moment when he and Merry step into the Forest of Fangorn, free from their Orc captors but with no idea of what to do next except that they know that they would rather face the Forest than the Orcs this is how Pippin will deal with every challenge that he has to face. He will not ask himself whether he has the capacity to escape from the orcs he will simply deal with one thing at a time. And as he does so his confidence in his capacity to face each challenge will grow.

At times when life seems to overwhelm us it might actually be Pippin who can help us through. He won’t be able to help us make sense of the bigger questions like, “why is this happening to me?” or “why does God allow suffering in the world?” If you were to ask him a question like that he would probably say something like, “You had better ask Gandalf or Elrond. I don’t think I could help you on that one. Let’s go and find something to eat!” Pippin does not spend too much time speculating. He gets on with the task that lies to hand and saves his energy for the next task and then the next one too. Key to being able to do this is staying cheerful and Merry and Pippin put a lot of effort into that task. When they make a joke and Ugluk tries to terrify them into silence by threatening them with the terror that lies ahead of them they pay little attention to him. They will deal with the terror when they get to it with as much courage as they can. They won’t waste what energy they have by being afraid of it now.

This reminds me of the spirituality of the boy who offers his lunch as an answer to the question “How are we to feed all these people?” in the story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand. He does not seem to be worried by the problem as the disciples are. He simply offers what he has. Pippin would approve! And at those times when we seem to be confronted by problems that are too big for us to solve then we might do the same: we might simply offer what we have.