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.

 

Sauron and Frodo and Sam Show Us Two Different Relationships to Darkness

Frodo and Sam begin the last stage of their journey. A fifty mile walk, or stagger, that Sam estimates will take a week because of Frodo’s condition. There is only one path that they can take and that is the main road from the Black Gate to Barad-dûr itself. It ought to be bustling with traffic and it usually is. But not now. Now there is a strange quiet and so Frodo and Sam are able to take the direct road to the mountain.

Tolkien tells us why.

“Neither man nor orc now moved along its flat grey stretches, for the Dark Lord had almost completed the movement of his forces, and even in the fastness of his own realm he sought the secrecy of night, fearing the winds of the world that had turned against him, tearing aside his veils, and troubled with tidings of bold spies that had passed through his fences.”

In other places Tolkien tells us that after the fall of Morgoth, the first Dark Lord, at the end of the First Age, Sauron submitted for a little while to the authority of the Valar. Sauron had been Morgoth’s chief lieutenant in the wars of the First Age, second to him in power but not in malice and his brief submission was a recognition of the greater power of the Valar but when their command to him to go to Valinor for judgement was not enforced and when he perceived that there was no lordship in Middle-earth but rather a kind of anarchy he began to try to make himself its lord.

There is no time here to reflect upon the history of the Second Age but we could remember that this was the age of great Elven kingdoms and Durin’s great kingdom of Moria, of Khazad-dûm, as well as the age of Númenor and the glory of Men. For a time Sauron appeared to be an ally to them all but always he was plotting his own rise to supreme power chiefly through the forging of the Rings of Power that he would bind and rule through the One Ring.

This was always his desire but with the desire came also a fearfulness. Sauron may have sometimes miscalculated his power but the experience of failure made him cautious. There is one thing missing that will make his triumph complete and that is the Ring itself. He will risk everything in order to regain it but his fear is that either Aragorn, the heir of Isildur, who once cut the Ring from his hand, or Gandalf the Maia, now wealds the Ring against him. Their forces may be small but he fears them nonetheless and the change in the wind just at the moment of triumph and those spies…

In other words Sauron is always in search of the ever elusive experience of total and perfect control, always anxious about everything and anything that could be a threat to that experience. Eventually this will mean anything that has its own will. Only that which is entirely enslaved and that has no longer any capacity for freedom will allay his anxiety. Until that time comes he requires darkness and secrecy to protect himself. When that time comes there will be only darkness.

Sauron has spent millenia seeking this certainty. Frodo and Sam have learned, in just a few short years, that such certainty is impossible. Sauron is the ultimate example of one who in seeking to save his own life loses it. Frodo and Sam walk freely into a darkness knowing that it is likely that they will lose their lives. Indeed Frodo fully expects that he will lose his life and it is possible that by this point he even looks forward to death as a kind of release. For Frodo and Sam the darkness, an experience that they have not chosen yet, in so far as they are able, they have embraced, is the road to life, both to the world that they will save and to themselves.

This is the difference between them. For Sauron the darkness is a defence that will ultimately prove futile. For Frodo and Sam the darkness is something that they feel they must embrace and will lead to life.

Sam Gamgee Finds Strength to Finish the Job.

It was in trusting to luck on the roads of Mordor that Frodo and Sam were driven northward by the orcs in a forced march almost to the same Black Gate that they had seen from the other side just two weeks before. In those short days they have encountered Faramir and his Rangers of Ithilien; journeyed through the Morgul Vale; made the long climb to the pass of Cirith Ungol and there Frodo has been assailed by Shelob and carried by orcs into Mordor and the tower that guards the pass while Sam has defeated Shelob, briefly taken the Ring and rescued Frodo. 

Now as Frodo lies, exhausted by the torment of the march, Sam begins to ponder the journey that still lies before them to Mount Doom. 

“‘It looks every step of fifty miles,’ he muttered gloomily, staring at the threatening mountain, ‘and that’ll take a week, if it takes a day, with Mr Frodo as he is.’ He shook his head, and as be worked things out, slowly a new dark thought grew in his mind. Never for long had hope died in his staunch heart, and always until now he had taken some thought for their return. But the bitter truth came home to him at last: at best their provision would take them to their goal; and when the task was done, there they would come to an end, alone, houseless, foodless in the midst of a terrible desert. There could be no return.”

As we shall see as they make this last journey Sam is never quite able to despair. There is always an action that can be taken to get them a little nearer to their goal and, even at the very end, a place that is a little safer than the utter destruction that lies within the Cracks of Doom. Sam cannot quite abandon the optimism that has played such a part in bringing them so far upon the impossible journey. Trusting to luck, to wyrd, on the roads of Mordor that we thought about two weeks ago, was not just the consequence of dire necessity but a part of Sam’s character formed long before. And even when all hope has gone he must give luck every opportunity that he can.

Sam longs for a happy ending to his story and to Frodo’s and it is Rosie Cotton that he first recalls. His longings are for home and family and a woman to share them with and now, for the first time, it seems to him that he is never to enjoy these things. He would have the right to be angry, with Gandalf or Elrond who sent him on such a hopeless task, or with whatever sense of higher power that Sam has but at this moment he discovers something quite new, and even exciting. “He felt through all his limbs a thrill, as if he was turning into some creature of stone or steel that neither despair nor weariness nor endless barren miles could subdue.”

It is only possible to make such discoveries at moments when they become necessary. Life must be entirely wagered on a venture whose outcome is, at best, doubtful, and most likely impossible, before such strength is given. Sam has laid his bets already, choosing to leave the comfortable world from which he came in order to go with Frodo. It is the kind of wager that we all consider at some point of our lives when the really big choices are laid before us. For only the big choices have the kind of degree of uncertainty about them that make us truly afraid. Now Sam sees, for the first time, the possible consequences of his wager and with it his will hardens and mighty strength is given. He is ready to carry himself, and Frodo if necessary, to the mountain and to the end of their journey. And that readiness to see the wager through to the end is what makes Sam great.  

    

Sam Gamgee Sees Something More Real Than the Shadow.

Whether it is day or night in the ever dark land of Mordor Sam and Frodo hardly know but the darkness seems to be deepening and they are weary and in need of rest. Frodo falls asleep almost immediately but Sam remains wary and stays awake. And it is in this state of exhaustion that he experiences a moment of absolute clarity of vision.

“Far above the Ephel Dúath in the West the night sky was still dim and pale. There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a bright star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach. His song in the Tower had been defiance rather than hope; for then he was thinking of himself. Now, for a moment, his own fate, and even his master’s, ceased to trouble him. He crawled back into the brambles and laid himself by Frodo’s side, and putting away all fear he cast himself into a deep untroubled sleep.”

As we saw last time “the blind dark” is getting into Frodo’s heart and he can no longer see as Sam can see. The Ring exercises an ever greater hold upon him and so Sam must see for them both. So often we mistakenly believe that we walk alone not realising that at all times we bear one another’s burdens. Frodo must bear the Ring, not just for Sam but for the whole world. This is his destiny and in order to fulfil it he must remain in desolation. We do not blame him for the moments of anger or the growing silence that is taking hold of him. Our hearts go out to him just as Sam’s does.

For even as Frodo falls into “the blind dark” Sam’s heart becomes ever more compassionate and his capacity for the vision of beauty grows. We have reflected on more than one occasion on how Sam’s adventures begin with a desire “to see Elves”, but it is one thing to be able to see, and to long for, beauty in the Shire, it is another thing to be able to see it in Mordor. Sam does see it and sees it as something that is deeper and more real than the “small and passing thing” that is the Shadow.

In the seeing of the beauty of the star Sam is able to carry Frodo through Mordor; in the bearing of the burden of the Ring Frodo carries the hopes and fears of the world.

And there is something more and this is what Sam is able to glimpse for a moment and that is that it is neither Sam’s vision of beauty nor Frodo’s ability to bear the Ring that matters most but that there is “light and high beauty” for ever beyond the reach of the Shadow. That such light and beauty should be matters more even than the success or failure of their mission. It matters even more than whether they live or die. There is a Love that holds and cradles Frodo and Sam of which they are only dimly aware, catching glimpses of it when they find water in the Morgai, attributing their good fortune to the favour of the Lady of Lothlórien but that there should be such a Love for them matters less than the reality that the Love, the Beauty, the Goodness and the Truth simply are.

And Sam does what such a vision always calls those who see to do. He puts away all fear and casts himself into a deep untroubled sleep. It is not that he feels safe in the land of Shadow. It is a still a place of danger as he will soon find out but he has seen something deeper than the danger and that is enough.

Frodo and Sam are a Part of Intimate and Great Events in Mordor.

It is not long after Frodo and Sam’s escape from the Tower of Cirith Ungol that the pursuit of their enemies begins. But they are able to escape by sliding into the dark down a steep slope at the end of which their fall is broken by a particularly unpleasant thorn bush. After this they begin to follow a way northward always seeking for a way east towards their goal at Orodruin, Mount Doom.

As they journey on Tolkien shows us two things that run together in his narrative. One is Frodo and Sam’s experience of the journey. Frodo is capable of short bursts of energy but is soon exhausted by them. The weight of the orc gear that Sam found in Cirith Ungol to disguise him is soon too much for him. Added to this, the Ring is an increasing burden not just to his body but to his mind and soul too. “This blind dark seems to be getting into my heart,” he says.

Sam’s spirits rise and fall quickly, buoyed by a moment of good fortune then brought down by anxiety for Frodo, but always ready again for another cause for thankfulness.

And such causes are at hand, even in the dark land of Mordor, for alongside the experience of the hobbits runs the events in the world about them. As they struggle onward the Battle of the Pelennor Fields is taking place beyond the western border of Mordor that they have just entered at such great peril. A war is taking place in the skies and the smokes of Mordor are giving way to a fresh wind from the sea that will bring Aragorn and his host up the Anduin from Pelargir. And even as Sam becomes excitedly aware of the battle in the skies the cry of a Nazgûl goes up but this time with no sense of threat. “It was a cry of woe and dismay, ill tidings for the Dark Tower. The Lord of the Ringwraiths had met his doom.”

Closer to them, Sam’s desire for light and water expressed in a plea to the Lady of Lothlórien is quickly met. The light breaks through the shadows by means of the retreat of Sauron’s smokes while the water comes in the form of an oily steam that trickles across their path. To the hobbits the finding of the stream, whose water they would have disdained had they met it in the Shire, is just as worthy of praise as the great events out westward. Sam declares that if he ever meets the Lady again he will tell her!

In these few brief pages Tolkien wonderfully weaves together the personal and intimate events of our lives with the great events that go on around us. Of course the death of the Lord of the Nazgûl was an event that was deeply personal for Éowyn and Merry but it was also an event of the greatest significance in the history of Middle-earth. Tolkien’s experience of war in the trenches informs this reality. For the protagonists each event is intimate. Sam falls asleep in the most unlikely places as soldiers, sleep deprived, must have done even in the midst of battle and the filling of a waterbottle is an event as much a cause of joy as a victory.

Too much is happening for the hobbits to be more than briefly aware that their story is woven into others but Tolkien steps away from the sheer rush of events to reveal this ever intricate weaving of a pattern in which we are always a part even when we are entirely unaware of it. It is the kind of perspective that can be achieved on reflection and points us to the value of taking such opportunities.

Sauron is only too aware of the “great” events but he has lost a sensitivity to the intimate. One cannot imagine him enjoying a glass of water, savouring its coolness in his mouth. Perhaps that is why he is vulnerable to hobbits who have spent centuries engaged in the small and have only been brought into the great very much against their will and, perhaps, shows us that something has been lost in his practice of reflection showing that it is possible for one of great intellect to lose the means to achieve wisdom.

 

Sam Gamgee Finds Strength to Resist The Ring.

To cry out, “I’m coming Mr. Frodo!” is one thing. Most of us have made promises in a moment of passion that we have regretted later in the cold light of day. It can be one of the bravest things that we ever do in life to keep such a promise long after the initial ardour has gone.

For Sam reality strikes home very soon as he looks out across the plains of Mordor beyond its mountainous defences towards Orodruin, the very mountain that he and Frodo have been trying to reach. It is clear that the task that lies ahead is way beyond his strength and ability. And to enter the Tower of Cirith Ungol is just as impossible. Unless…

There is one thing that he holds that might enable him to defeat his enemies and that is the Ring. Even as he ponders the possibility, “Wild fantasies arose in his mind; and he saw Samwise the Strong, Hero of the Age, striding with a flaming sword across the darkened land, and armies flocking to his call as he marched to the overthrow of Barad-dûr.” Observant readers will note that there no place for Frodo in this fantasy. That is the nature of the Ring. Those who possess it have no heart room for any but themselves. Sam’s fantasy reminds us of Boromir’s, the desire to be the hero of the story and not to share that with anyone else. A moment later and we are reminded of Gandalf and Galadriel and the desire to do good.

“And then all the clouds rolled away, and the white sun shone, and at his command the vale of Gorgoroth became a garden of flowers and trees and brought forth fruit.”

It is a beautiful vision and who is better qualified than Sam to achieve it? Of course when Frodo offered Galadriel the Ring in Lothlórien it was Sam who encouraged her to take it and to put things right. Surely it is the desire of all good people to want to put things right and an obstacle to belief in God for many whose desire is to do good that God does not seem to be interested in putting things right. Well, not as interested as Sam Gamgee and people like, well, me…

Then Tolkien offers us all wise counsel as he describes the inner debate within Sam. It is striking how strong Sam is at this moment as he resists the Ring. Such strength does not come in the moment of crisis for the one who has done no inner work. When Sméagol murdered Déagol in order to take the Ring for himself we are not aware of any inner conflict. Sam’s inner work comprises two spiritual disciplines, one consciously practiced and delighted in, the other so long practiced that he is hardly aware of it even being a moral choice. The one is Sam’s love for Frodo. We noted that Sam’s fantasy had no place for Frodo but as soon as Sam becomes even half aware of this he sends the fantasy packing. The other is more complex, even controversial, and Tolkien calls it “his plain hobbit-sense”.

Sam’s upbringing has had two major influences. One has been the kindness of Bilbo who drew him into the world of imagination and delight. To have received such an invitation has been the greatest joy in Sam’s life and his love for Frodo is an act of gratefulness made deeper by all that they have endured together. The other influence has been the ungentle and highly critical voice of the Gaffer. It is a voice that comes to mind at those points in the story when Sam wants to berate himself for some mistake. The Gaffer’s guiding principle in life is to be satisfied with his lot although it also means defending his small territory, the garden at Bag End and his role in keeping it, with all the strength that he can muster.

Perhaps Sam needed both voices in his head and in his heart. They give him strength in his “hour of trial”. Perhaps too they give us a greater appreciation of what we may have regarded as negative influences as well as thanksgiving for all the love that we have received in our lives.

Frodo’s Dark Journey

Frodo and Sam begin their journey to Mordor from the Emyn Muil with a guide without whom they could make little progress but a guide who wishes them ill. Frodo makes Gollum swear by the Ring not to betray them but he is aware that Gollum will break his promise if he can and that the Ring is stronger and more treacherous than Gollum’s oath.

“Would you commit your promise to [the Ring], Sméagol? It will hold you. But it is more treacherous than you are. It may twist your words. Beware!”

When Dante takes his journey through Hell that he describes in the first book of The Divine Comedy he was guided by the noble Roman poet, Virgil. Time and again he finds himself dependent upon the wisdom and authority of his guide. Although Dante is in Hell he is not beyond the authority of God and Virgil has been tasked as a kind of herald of God, pagan though he is, to bring his charge safely through his dark journey. When Virgil demands that the devils of hell permit them to pass he does so with divine authority and although the devils hate God they have no choice but to allow Dante to continue on his way. Hell in Dante’s vision is not a contested region. It may be hopeless but it has been harrowed.

The journey that Frodo and Sam make to Mordor is also a journey into Hell but as in the whole of Tolkien’s vision of Middle-earth it remains very much a contested region. Sauron not only hates the light but would deny it any place within his dominions. When Frodo seeks to gain entry there is no word that he can speak that has the authority to force those who guard the dominion of the Dark Lord to grant him entry except, it would seem, the word of treachery that Gollum will speak in the Pass of Cirith Ungol.

In his the first of his series of nine poems On Reading the Commedia the poet, Malcolm Guite speaks of his own dark journey (with typical generosity he posts the poem on his blog  https://malcolmguite.wordpress.com/2015/03/08/dante-and-the-companioned-journey-1 where you can also find links to ways to buy his book from which series comes,”The Singing Bowl”). Guite speaks of the call of his “shadow-beasts…the leopard, lion, wolf, My kith and kin, the emblems of my kind” who come to draw him “back across the gulf, Back from the path I wanted to have chosen.” Is Gollum a guide of this kind? Is he, like Guite’s “shadow-beasts”, Frodo’s “kith and kin” the emblems of his kind? I think he is. When Gollum swears “by the Precious” and he grovels at Frodo’s feet Sam recognises the kinship that Gollum and Frodo share. “They could reach one another’s minds.” Frodo knows too that Gollum is what he himself will become unless he can cast the Ring into the fire, that Gollum’s call to him is the call to despair as Guite expresses it

Fall back, they call, you can’t run from yourself,

Fall to the place where every hope is frozen…

The place in Dante’s Inferno where every hope is frozen is the ninth and deepest circle of Hell to which Gollum himself journeys by means of his own treachery. But must Frodo travel there in the same way as his shadow guide? Will he fall into the same despair and become himself a traitor to those who have trusted him? Guite offers to us a different path:

“This time I choose to choose

The other path, path of the dead and risen,

To try the hidden heart of things, to let go, lose,

To lose myself and find again the voice

That called and drew me here, my freeing muse.

Begin again she calls, you have the choice,

                Little by little, you can travel far,

Learn to lament before you can rejoice.”

And so we travel on with Frodo through the Dead Marshes on the way to Mordor as he struggles to make the same choice.