Gandalf Speaks of a Time to Risk Everything

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dayspring From On High Comes to the Aid of the Hobbits

Frodo and Sam are trapped in the darkness visible of Shelob’s Lair as the foul monster advances upon them. As he grips the sword that he took from the barrow Sam suddenly thinks of Tom Bombadil. “I wish old Tom was near us now.” And as he does so it is not Bombadil who comes, but Galadriel, in an insight of such clarity that it has the force of a vision. Sam sees her as the giver of gifts upon the lawn in Lothlórien when she gave to Frodo the Star Glass, “a light when all other lights go out.”

Frodo raises the glass and the light of a Silmaril blazes forth in the darkness. Frodo is wonderfully empowered by this and he advances upon Shelob crying, “Aiya Eärendil Elenion Ancalima!” Frodo does not know what words he speaks for it as if another voice has spoken them in this place of utter darkness but they and the light of a star drive Shelob  back and Frodo and Sam are able to escape.

The words that Frodo cries are “Hail, Eärendil, O Brightest of Stars! ” and readers of The Lord of the Rings will remember the verses that Bilbo chanted in the halls of Elrond in Rivendell of the great hero who brought aid to the defeated peoples of Middle-earth at the end of the First Age. They will remember too that Sam spoke of how he and Frodo were still a part of the story of Eärendil and how the great stories never seem to end.

For Tolkien these words were of the greatest significance. At the very outset of the creation of his mythology when he was a young student of old languages he read some words in an Anglo-Saxon poem that had a profound effect upon him.

Eálá Earendel engla beorhtast ofer middangeard monnum sended 

Or, “Hail Earendel, Brightest of Angels, over Middle-earth sent to men!”

Some who knew Tolkien say that for him words did not merely describe something but could convey to him the very reality they sought to signify.  It was as if he were an initiate in a mystery cult.  Thus on reading the words in the old poem he actually encountered the Brightest of Angels. It was a visionary, a revelatory experience, just as it was for Frodo in the darkness and from it was born the whole mythology from which The Lord of the Rings came.

It is this experience that Tolkien brings to one of the darkest moments in his story. It is the Brightest of Angels who drives Shelob back! And there is something more. The poem that Tolkien was reading at the moment of revelation was one that was related to Advent, the time of year when Christians focus most keenly upon the longing for the coming of Christ. In the poem are found the O Antiphons that form an introduction to the singing of the Magnificat,  the great song of Mary, at evening prayer in Advent. They are most often used today when the popular carol for Advent, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, is sung. Unlike CS Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia,  Christ is not born within the story. That was deliberate upon Tolkien’s part. But what happens at this moment is a cry of longing for an end to all darkness and even an end to death itself. Eärendil, the Morning Star, bears witness to the Sun that will rise, scattering the gloom from before our paths for ever.

And it all begins in the darkness with a moment of near despair and the thought that comes to Sam, “I wish old Tom was near us now.” For us to know light in the darkness it is not necessary that we should be scholars of old languages. Neither Sam nor even Frodo know what Frodo cries. But they have said, Yes, to their great pilgrimage and they have not turned back and so they receive “a light when all other lights go out” simply because they need that light.

And so can we when we need light in our darkness.