Pippin Follows His Captain

When I wrote last week’s blog post on Denethor’s cry of despair that “the West has failed” I came across something that took me by surprise. That moment came when I read Pippin’s speech to Denethor after he is released from the Steward’s service. It is a speech of some nobility and it shows how far Pippin has come since he looked into the Stone of Orthanc just a few days before. He is becoming the “very valiant man” that Gandalf declared him to be when they passed through the outer defences of the Pelennor Fields. He is making the kind of journey that someone with good foundations will make when those foundations are challenged. He will grow up into mature adulthood and become a source of strength to others.

“I will take your leave, sir,” he said; “for I want to see Gandalf very much indeed. But he is no fool; and I will not think of dying until he despairs of life. But from my word and your service I do not wish to be released while you live. And if they come at last to the Citadel, I hope to be here and stand beside you and earn perhaps the arms that you have given me.”

In saying this Pippin displays a kind of courage that was very dear to Tolkien and one that he saw in the heroic tales of northern lands. It is a courage that is not dependant on a happy outcome. It is a courage that is most truly displayed when hope is lost. We see it in the cheerfulness of spirit that Merry and Pippin display when they are prisoners of the orcs and when the Ents march upon Isengard. And we see its absence in Denethor’s despair. The Tolkien scholar, Tom Shippey, puts it this way. “Its great statement was that defeat is no refutation. The right side remains right even if it has no ultimate hope at all.”

This is courage indeed and it requires great inner strength to maintain it. And in Pippin’s speech we get an idea of where he finds that strength. “I will not think of dying until he [Gandalf] despairs of life.” All through the story the young hobbits have been aware of being of no great significance to the final outcome of the quest. For Merry this realisation has been a burden. He feels himself to be an item of baggage in someone else’s story and it hurts him to feel in this way. Pippin is not burdened in the same way. He is happy to leave the big decisions, even the big beliefs, in more competent hands. If Gandalf has not given in, well, then neither will Peregrin Took.

Let us not judge the value of Pippin’s courageous choice and find it wanting because it seems to require the greater courage and faith of someone else. Pippin does make brave choices and when he urges Beregond to stop great harm coming to Faramir he inspires a brave choice in another. But he is content, not to be a leader, but a follower. What matters is that he has a worthy cause to give his “gentle loyalty” to and a captain worth following.

If we think about this with some care we will come to this conclusion. We are all followers in certain aspects of life and if our leaders are of the right quality then it will be easier for us to keep going even in challenging times. Equally if our captains let us down our own capacity to keep on going gets a little harder. And we will also realise that other people depend upon us to keep going and that we must not let them down. We are all part of a community that needs each other and sometimes we can be surprised how widely that community extends and that people look to us that we rarely think about. Faramir will survive his father’s despair because Beregond gains strength from Pippin.

Denethor Declares that The West has Failed!

The battle still rages at the walls of Minas Tirith as the Lord of the Nazgûl prepares his final assault, great siege towers built in Osgiliath rolling forward to overwhelm what remains of the city’s defences. But in the Chamber of the Steward in the White Tower the Lord Denethor fights no more. When messengers come seeking orders and telling him that men flee the defences leaving the walls unmanned, his only response is:

“Why? Why do the fools fly? Better to burn sooner than late, for burn we must. Go back to your bonfire! And I? I will go now to my pyre. To my pyre! No tomb for Denethor and Faramir. No tomb! No long slow sleep of death embalmed. We will burn like heathen kings before ever a ship sailed hither from the West. The West has failed. Go back and burn!”

The West has failed.

And all the great vision of the Valar, and of the Free Peoples of the Earth, of Elves and of Humankind, of Valinor and of Númenor, of Gondolin and of Nargothrond, of Rivendell and of Lothlórien, of Arnor and of Gondor, is at an end before the inevitable triumph of the Dark.

The West has failed.

This is not a conclusion that Denethor has drawn based upon what he can see from his windows. This is a belief that he has long held but against which he has fought bravely for as long as he could. Whereas Saruman, with whom he shares the belief, has sought to become an ally to darkness, to reach some accommodation with it, Denethor has refused such a path and has resisted the dark with all his might. He is no traitor. But at the end he bows down before the power of darkness and declares the great story of the West, of which he has been a steward, to be no more than a preparation for a funeral.

The West has failed!

So must all hope fail? Whether we rage, rage against the dying of the light or sit down before its inevitable arrival and quietly despair, going gentle into the night, must darkness fall?

Pippin is a simpler soul than his lord. When Denethor releases him from his service and bids him go to die his response is straightforwardly hobbit-like. “I will take your leave, sir… for I want to see Gandalf very much indeed. But he is no fool; and I will not think of dying under he despairs of life.”

Pippin has no great philosophy of life. For him it is enough that those who to whom he has chosen to give his trust, and at this point of the story this means Gandalf, have not given way to despair. And Gandalf has not given way to despair because long ago he said a great, Yes! to life and to light and to love. He said his, Yes! without dissembling or ambiguity. It was this, Yes! that Cirdan recognised when first Gandalf came to Middle-earth and so gave him Narya, one of the three rings of the Elves, that had power to inspire others to resist tyranny and despair. It was this, Yes! that enabled Gandalf to stand before the Balrog at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm, to declare, “You shall not pass!” and to give himself up to death itself in battle against him. And it is this, Yes! that will enable him to stand alone before the Lord of the Nazgûl when all others have fled.

The early Fathers of the Church taught that repentance, a word that we tend to understand as merely saying sorry for our wrongdoing, was something much more fundamental, much greater than that. It means the renunciation of despair. It means the great, Yes! It does not mean that we hope things are going to turn out for the best. It means a great, Yes! to the Light that shines in the darkness and the darkness can never put it out. And once we have made the great renunciation of despair and through our daily spiritual practice root it deep at the heart of our lives then we will find strength even in the darkest night.

Gandalf Shows Us that the Greatest Wisdom is Learned Through Weakness and Suffering.

The Fords at Osgiliath are taken and its defenders, commanded by Faramir, are in full retreat back across the Pelennor Fields to Minas Tirith. Meanwhile Denethor awaits the end in his tower.

Pippin fears that the Dark Lord himself has come but Denethor replies with a bitter laugh:

“Nay, not yet Master Peregrin! He will not come save only to triumph over me when all is won. He uses others as his weapons. So do all great lords, if they are wise, Master Halfling. Or why should I sit here in my tower and think, and watch, and wait, spending even my sons?”

In recent weeks on this blog we have seen that Denethor is not the self-indulgent coward that Jackson portrays him to be in his films. He lives and eats austerely and even sleeps in his armour so that his body should not “grow soft and timid.” It is so important that we should take note of the way in which Tolkien describes him here so that we understand the full tragedy of his story. Denethor’s journey to despair is the fruit of his greatness not his weakness. To understand it in this way will teach us a profoundly wise self-awareness if we will allow it. There is a time in the first half of life in which we believe that we must eliminate our weakness and develop our strength. If we do that then we will achieve great things as Denethor does but there will come a time when we must learn to see that our strength has the capacity to bring us to disaster while our weaknesses, those qualities that we have pushed into the shadow that follows us, will teach us wisdom if we will allow them. In a powerful passage in his second letter to the Corinthians the mighty Paul speaks of an affliction that brings him low, that he prays will be taken away from him. Eventually God tells him that his power is made perfect in weakness. In many ways The Lord of the Rings is a story that displays that reality. It is not Denethor’s greatness that will bring down Sauron but Frodo’s weakness and Gandalf’s fool’s hope!

Gandalf recognises this. At one point Denethor taunts him with his weakness when Gandalf reveals that the captain of the armies of Mordor is none other the Witch King of Angmar, the Lord of the Nazgûl. “Then, Mithrandir, you have a foe to match you… For myself, I have long known who is the chief captain of the hosts of the Dark Tower. Is that all that you have returned to say? Or can it be that you have withdrawn because you are overmatched?”

Pippin is horrified! Denethor is accusing Gandalf of cowardice, of running away. How will Gandalf react? Will he strike out in anger? But Gandalf is no young hothead but has become one who has nothing left to defend. He has learned the wisdom of weakness choosing the life of a wandering pilgrim, sometimes driven from the doors of those from whom he seeks shelter, habitually bearing insults such as the one that Denethor hurls against him. He has learned a patient long-suffering and a deep pity for the suffering of others. And he knows that among all the foes that he has faced, greater even than the Balrog of Moria, the greatest is Sauron’s chief captain. It may be that when they meet he will be defeated but for Gandalf that matters far less than the future of Middle-earth. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it to fellow members of the resistance to Hitler, whether they emerged from the struggle as heroes mattered very little. What mattered was whether the coming generation would be able to live. That too is the wisdom of one who had learned through suffering and weakness.

The Boldness of the One Necessary Deed

For a few moments before they take what rest they can Gandalf and Pippin speak together of the debate with Denethor and Faramir. For Pippin the question that is uppermost in his mind is whether there is any hope for Frodo, any hope for any of them? Gandalf’s reply is to take Denethor’s words and to make them his own.

“There never was much hope,” he answered. “Just a fool’s hope, as I have been told.”

And even this hope, slender as it is, is shaken by news that Frodo and Sam seek to enter Mordor by way of Cirith Ungol and guided by Gollum.

But then Gandalf begins to give a little substance to his hope. The substance comprises two hobbits and their treacherous guide, a foolish hobbit gazing into the Seeing Stone of Orthanc drawn by his own curiosity, and a captain, “bold, determined, able to take his own counsel and dare great risks at need” who challenges Sauron in the very same stone. All are bold deeds, even that of Pippin’s foolish act but they amount to very little. Of themselves they will win no battles. Of themselves they cannot withstand the armies of Mordor.

But it is the boldness that exposes both Sauron’s desire and his fear. His desire we know. He desires the Ring and he desires the power that the Ring can bring him. We know that Sauron has become reduced to little more than the sum of his desire. He is no more than a bigger version of the hungry Gollum. “Eat fish every day!” When we saw that desire in Gollum we found it pathetic, even sadly laughable. Somehow when such desire is allied to power it seems to have a semblance of dignity but it is in essence the same thing, both entirely destructive and ultimately empty.

And because Sauron of his own prideful choice can see all reality only in terms of scale, “who or what is bigger or smaller than he is?”, he has a strange and fearful vulnerability. The foolish boldness of Frodo and Sam is something that does even enter his calculations. The Council of Elrond declared that at the very outset of Frodo’s mission. It is an action that is beneath even his contempt and certainly outside of his understanding. No one who possesses the Ring could possibly do so with the intention of not using it, even destroying it! This is the weakness that Frodo and Sam expose.

But there is also something that Aragorn’s boldness exposes and that is his fear. All things seek to hide from Sauron. Until now even Aragorn has done so. Now he challenges him face to face, the heir of Isildur displaying Narsil, the sword that once took the Ring from Sauron’s finger, reforged. This alone brings doubt into Sauron’s mind but it is connected to something else and that is to Pippin’s foolishness. Sauron has seen the face of a hobbit, associating it with the fall of Saruman. Does the heir of Isildur possess the Ring? And so he launches his attack just a little too soon.

What hope Gandalf can find in this remains slender. All that he can offer to Pippin at the end in response to Pippin’s anxiety about Gollum is one of those proverbs that can mean either one thing or another. You take your choice. But Gandalf takes his leave of Pippin with a firm “Good night!” and his determination is renewed.

Such boldness is what is meant by the story that Jesus told in the Gospels of the man who on finding the treasure in the field goes away and sells all that he has in order to buy the field. At that moment there remains no more place for calculation only for the deed. This does not mean that such recklessness becomes the determining principle for every action. There is a place for caution and for prudence especially when care for others is concerned but happy is the one who listens so carefully that they know that all caution must be set aside for the one necessary deed.

 

Father and Son: Denethor and Faramir

Dressed in the livery of the Tower of the Guard, Pippin is hardly noticed as he enters the Chamber with Faramir and Gandalf as they come to speak with Denethor. He stands behind Denethor’s chair as befits his servant and so he is able to watch Gandalf and Faramir as Faramir gives his report to his father.

As we have learnt in recent weeks, Pippin sees with his heart and soul when Faramir reveals that he has met Frodo and Sam Pippin looks at Gandalf’s hands, “white they seemed now and very old, and as he looked at them, suddenly with a thrill of fear Pippin knew that Gandalf, Gandalf himself, was troubled, even afraid.”

Gandalf is afraid, and we will think more about this in another post on this blog, but Denethor is angry. He is angry, even beside himself with rage, because Faramir has chosen, not to bring Frodo and the Ring to Minas Tirith but to allow him to continue his journey to Mordor. Faramir has chosen to disobey his father.

“I know you well. Ever your desire is to appear lordly and generous as a king of old, gracious, gentle.”

As far as Denethor is concerned, that which made Pippin’s heart goes out to Faramir in love is mere play acting. Faramir is playing the part of a gracious lord. We can imagine that from childhood Denethor delighted in his warrior son, Boromir giving him praise even though it was Faramir who was more like his father in wisdom and insight. Does this suggest that Denethor secretly despised his own qualities and wished that he had those that Boromir displayed? I think that it does. After all, when Aragorn served Denethor’s father, Ecthelion, in disguise under the name of Thorongil, Denethor was jealous of him. Aragorn too displayed the warrior qualities that Denethor aspired to.

Aspiring to certain qualities that he perceived himself as lacking, learning to despise the ones that he had, Denethor even comes to believe that Faramir is merely acting. Here too we can see that Denethor has learned, himself, how to play a part. He is the same age as Aragorn and yet he is an old man sitting in his chair in the tower. It is one thing to play a part in our youth. In order to make our way in life we may even have to present ourselves for a time in a manner that others will respect and, perhaps, even admire; but as we grow older and our energy diminishes the effort required to play our chosen part begins to take its toll. Our lives lose the joy and spontaneity that comes when we are freely our true selves. In place of that joyous freedom comes both hardness and anger. The anger is directed at all who seem to display, naturally, the qualities that we desire. And when that person is someone close to us, especially when that person is a son to an embittered father that anger goes very deep indeed.

We can see why in the face of such hostility Faramir turned to Gandalf as a father. In Gandalf Faramir saw one who said a, Yes, to his true self. Under Gandalf’s loving and approving gaze Faramir, just as Aragorn did, was able to grow into his true self and to flourish. That is what true fathering does. It is not that the son has to find a self that is acceptable to the father. That is what Denethor desired of his sons. To find an acceptable self is just as destructive of the true self, of what we might also term as the soul, as is the rebellious self.

That is why we probably need others to be fathers to our sons. Sometimes we are just too close to be able to give them the freedom that they need to flourish. Perhaps that is where the old wisdom of godfathers comes from. It is a wise father who knows when to give way to another to provide what he lacks.

Denethor cannot do that. He needs to control and so his unhappy relationship to his son will play itself out to its tragic conclusion. Of that need to control we will see more next week when we think of Denethor and the Ring.

 

Peregrin Took and Faramir of Gondor.

Few first meetings could be more dramatic. When Pippin first sees Faramir he is standing on the walls of Minas Tirith with Beregond looking over the unnaturally darkened fields beneath him towards the great river. Faramir is riding with four companions towards the city when they are attacked by five of the Nazgûl from the sky. Faramir is able to master his horse even amidst such terror but the others are not able to do so. They are thrown by their maddened horses who flee for their lives. Bravely, Faramir returns to aid his men but despite his courage all would have ended tragically had it not been for Gandalf’s intervention. Revealed in light, Gandalf rides to their aid and is able to drive the Nazgûl away and together all return safely to the city. Faramir’s men will never forget that he went back to them.

Pippin is among the crowd that greets the heroes calling out their names. He looks upon Faramir’s face and sees it as the face of “one who has been assailed by a great fear or anguish, but has mastered it and now is quiet”. He is reminded immediately of Boromir who he had always liked for his “lordly but kindly manner” but in Faramir he sees something more, “one of the Kings of Men born into a later time, but touched with the wisdom and sadness of the Elder Race” and his heart goes out to him. Pippin knows that Faramir is one that he would be prepared to followed even under the wings of the Nazgûl.

Last week we thought together about the great masculine archetypes of king, magician, warrior and lover and the role that they play in the journey towards wholeness and maturity. We saw that the least developed of these in Pippin is the magician. The immature boy magician is usually expressed as the trickster and we have certainly seen that in him. He needs Gandalf at this point in his life if he is to grow up. But now we see the most developed of the archetypes within him. Pippin is a lover and from this moment onwards Faramir is the object of his love and devotion.

The ancients knew that eros is the energy of life and the Fathers of the Church were to take that insight and develop it in their wonderful reflections on God and reality at a time when theology was mysticism and mysticism was theology. Occasionally we see an elder in whom eros is wonderfully alive but sadly we often see its absence in a barrenness or its twisted presence in the well known caricature of the “dirty old man”. When it is mature and alive it is seen in a profound love for life, in a compassion that reaches out to all and a warmth, even a fire, that transforms everything about it. How wonderful it is when we encounter an elder like this.

Readers may have noticed that I have said nothing here about sex and the lover. Of course eros is profoundly connected to sex but not primarily to sexual intercourse. When the two become interchangeably one we are left with a destructive immaturity. Eros is reduced to sexual conquest and the Other, whether male or female, merely to the object of conquest. This is usually linked to the immature bullying warrior archetype.

The mature expression of eros is a wild desire for the blessedness of the Other.

So when we say that Pippin loves Faramir, and he does love him, we do not mean that Pippin wanted to go to bed with Faramir. What we mean is that Pippin wishes with all his heart to be the cause of blessing in Faramir and to be blessed by him. Quite simply he would die for Faramir and regard it as gain. And soon Pippin will be able to show his love by saving Faramir’s life.

How vitally important it is that we learn eros in this way and that we teach it in this way to our young people. It is not only we who learn who will be transformed but the whole of reality too. All life will have a fruitful and a joyous energy about it.

 

 

Peregrin Took’s Journey from Boyhood to Manhood

After the tale of how Eówyn and Merry ride to war together Tolkien takes us back to Minas Tirith and to the unhappy Peregrin Took, lonely, hungry and afraid as war draws ever closer.

“Why did you bring me here?” He asks Gandalf and the answer brings him little comfort.

“You know quite well,” said Gandalf. “To keep you out of mischief; and if you do not like being here, you can remember that you brought it on yourself.”

I said that Gandalf’s answer gave him little comfort and that is true in the sense that we normally mean it, to take a child in our arms and to hold that child in loving safety until the unhappiness passes. That is the right thing to do with a small child and not to give a child that kind of comfort is to deny her or him something very precious. In order to become a true man or woman a child must know the happy innocence of the garden but there comes a time when either the child must either leave the garden or the world outside will enter it by force.

Pippin probably thought that when he left the Shire to go with Frodo and Sam that it was a glorious “growing up” moment in his happy life. All that lay ahead was adventure and Tolkien must have been thinking about the young men crowding into the recruiting stations at the outset of the First World War in happy expectation of something magnificent before the reality hit home in the long misery of war in the trenches.

Pippin does not realise that something of great significance is happening to him. He only knows that he feels unhappy. Even when he is attired in the magnificent livery of the Tower Guard, something that once would have given him great delight he simply feels uncomfortable “and the gloom began to weigh on his spirits.”

An immature person just tries to make the gloom go away just as Pippin wants it to go. From time to time in this blog we have looked at Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette’s fine study of the masculine psyche, King, Warrior, Magician, Lover.  Moore and Gillette show the importance of these classical archetypes in shaping each man’s life. A boy who has grown up in the garden protected by good parents and a nurturing community will journey towards the adult king by way of becoming a divine child, a chosen one. He will journey towards the adult warrior by way of becoming a hero and some might think that the hero is the adult warrior. The journey to the adult magician is by way of the precious child and to the adult lover by way of the oedipal child.

Each of us, as we gain insight into ourselves, will see which of these archetypes are best developed in us and to what degree we are still held in an immature stage of development. In Pippin’s case it is pretty clear that the least developed aspect of his psyche is the magician. He needs Gandalf at this point in his life if he is to have any chance of growing up.

Readers might be thinking of mature men in The Lord of the Rings such as Aragorn and Faramir. They may remember that we spent some weeks last year thinking about Faramir when Frodo and Sam were with him in the refuge of Henneth Anûn and that he has little interest in being the hero of the story. His focus lies solely in doing the job. His desire is not his own glory but the restoration of Gondor; not just that Gondor wins but that something of the true greatness of Númenor should live again among his people. That is why he will welcome Aragorn as king with joy. Something that his father could not do.

Pippin is on the way to becoming a man and Gandalf knows that he is. That is why he does not treat him like a child. Pippin has to be miserable and to do his duty nevertheless if he is to be the “very valiant man” that Gandalf declared him to be when they first reached the defences of the Pelennor Fields.

Aragorn or Sauron, Who is Lord of the Palantir?

The day after the Grey Company overtake Théoden and his escort and deliver their messages to Aragorn, he emerges from a chamber in the Hornburg with Halbarad, the sons of Elrond, and Legolas and Gimli. Merry gazes at him in shock. It is “as if in one night many years had fallen on his head. Grim was his face, grey-hued and weary.”

Later Aragorn tells them that he has looked into the Stone of Orthanc and that there he has confronted Sauron himself. Gimli is horrified, remembering what had happened to Pippin when he looked into it and perhaps thinking, too, of Saruman and how he had been corrupted by Sauron and turned traitor.

“‘You have looked in that accursed stone of wizardry!’ exclaimed Gimli with fear and astonishment in his face. ‘Did you say aught to – him? Even Gandalf feared that encounter.'”

The implication in what Gimli says is that Aragorn has no more business looking into this tool of the Dark Lord’s than Pippin. Aragorn’s response is almost frightening.

“You forget to whom you speak… What do you fear that I should say to him? Did I not openly proclaim my title before the doors of Edoras?”

But Gimli has forgotten. The travel stained warrior with whom he has gone through so much is the heir of Isildur and Elendil. He rightfully bears Andúril, Narsil, the sword that cut the Ring from Sauron’s hand, reforged. He is the heir of Eärendil, the Morning Star, who brought aid to the defeated peoples of Middle-earth when it seemed that Morgoth and his lieutenant, Sauron, had triumphed. And he is heir to Beren and to Lúthien who took a Silmaril from the iron crown of Morgoth. He is  “the lawful master of the Stone and has “both the right and the strength to use it.”

It is essential here to understand that Aragorn is not trying to present himself as one who has gained some kind of extra special bragging rights. There is no, “Look at me, everyone!” going on here. This is what it means to respond to a calling. George, Duke of York, was gripped by fear as he approached a coronation that he never expected before his brother, Edward VIII, abdicated. The fear was connected to the terrible stammer from which he suffered, a story told in the film, The King’s Speech.  Later he was to describe how, when the Archbishop of Canterbury anointed him, a strength came into him and he left Westminster Abbey a different man. He was King George VI. He continued to struggle with many fears and there is a particularly poignant story of a day when he was to meet British troops in North Africa and had almost to be dragged from his tent because once again the fear had overcome him. When I first heard this story my love and admiration for him deepened, knowing the inner fears that he had to overcome, almost daily, in order to fulfil his duty to his people. The struggle ultimately brought him to an early death when in his 50s. Strength is given to fulfil a calling but a price has to be paid as well. This is rarely understood by those who seek power.

That is why Aragorn overcomes Sauron in the struggle for ownership of the Stone of Orthanc, just. He is its true lord and yet he recognises that he is the servant of a destiny that is far greater than he is. Thomas Merton put this tension wonderfully in his book, No Man is an Island. 

“Our Christian destiny is, in fact, a great one: but we cannot achieve greatness unless we lose all interest in being great. For our own idea of greatness is illusory, and if we pay too much attention to it we will be lured out of the peace and stability of the being God gave us, and we will seek to live in a myth we have created for ourselves. And when we are truly ourselves we lose most the futile self-consciousness that keeps us constantly comparing ourselves with others to see how big we are.”

It is not Aragorn but Sauron who lives in a self-created myth and that is why he loses this struggle but, as Gimli puts it, “he wields great dominion, nonetheless.” Aragorn’s challenge will bring forth a terrible response.

 

Meriadoc Brandybuck Feels Like Baggage in Someone Else’s Story

When Aragorn makes the speech that we thought about in last week’s reflection Gimli and Legolas hear it as a call to arms. They have no doubt about what they must do. It is a thrilling thing to hear such words from a great captain. In a young man the warrior within is awakened and he feels himself grow taller and stronger and more truly himself. How important it is that the captain who makes the call is worthy  of such devotion. There are too many who call it forth for unworthy causes to the great hurt of all who follow them.

But there is one who hears Aragorn’s words who feels but a spectator to a great event in which he can play but a little part. When Aragorn declares that “an hour long prepared approaches”, Merry cries out:

“Don’t leave me behind! I have not been of much use yet, but I don’t want to be laid aside, like baggage to be called for when all is over. I don’t think the Riders will want to be bothered with me now. Though, of course, the king did say that I was to sit by him when he came to his house and tell him all about the Shire.”

If readers who know the story well think back to the first time that we meet Merry properly it is on the lane between the Bucklebury Ferry and Farmer Maggot’s farm when he meets Frodo, Sam and Pippin hiding in the back of Maggot’s cart for fear of the Black Riders. Merry is both confident and competent. He is on home territory and he knows what to do. There is food and there are hot baths awaiting the anxious travellers in the cottage at Crickhollow. He even leads the other hobbits in revealing what they know of the true purpose of Frodo’s journey and he makes sensible proposals regarding what they should do next.

But at this moment in the story all that must feel both a long time ago and a long way away as if it all belonged to someone else and not to him. Now Merry feels like unnecessary baggage and when, a little while later, Théoden’s party is overtaken by a mounted company and it is possible that there might be a fight that feeling deepens miserably.

Has he forgotten that it was he and Pippin who roused Treebeard and the Ents and so brought about the downfall of Saruman and the destruction of his fortress at Isengard and his army? Saruman may not forget and he does not forget but Merry does. For even there he was carried by the mighty leader of the Ents just as he had been carried by the Orcs as a captive. It has been a very long time since Merry has felt that he is a necessary part of this great enterprise and he desperately wants to feel as if he matters.

In this blog we have often gone back to this theme of being carried. In particular we have thought about it in relation to Frodo,  who, the closer he comes to the conclusion of his journey the less he is able to act on his own behalf. Indeed the last time we saw him he was being carried into Mordor by Shagrat and Gorbag and their orc companies.

We are so anxious to feel that we matter, that we can act on our own behalf and that we can make a difference. It is a thing that the young and the old share in common that their ability to act independently is small. The young long to emerge from the control of their elders. The old fear that they will become increasingly dependent upon others. And yet we know that Merry, simply by being where he is and offering himself as he is in all his weakness and fearfulness and yet with all his love and devotion too, shapes Tolkien’s great story in a way that few others do.

And that is an encouragement to all of us to do the same.

Peregrin Took Teaches Us the Value of Cheerfulness in Dark Times

It is Pippin’s cheerfulness that gives courage to Beregond, the soldier of Gondor. It was the kind of cheerfulness that Tolkien met among the soldiers from the villages of England in the trenches of the First World War. On July 1st of this year we will remember the first day of the Battle of the Somme on which 20,000 British soldiers were killed and about 40,000 wounded. Tolkien was present at the battle and survived. My great uncle, Tommy Young, was also present and did not survive. I shall think of him especially on that day.

Tolkien received what was known, amongst the soldiers, as a blighty wound during the battle. This was a wound not serious enough to cause lasting damage but serious enough to mean that the soldier who received it would be withdrawn from the front line for a lengthy period of recuperation. To receive such a wound was generally regarded as good luck among the soldiers. Tolkien though had to live with the fact that among his closest friends he was the only survivor of the war.

It is with this memory that Tolkien begins to describe the preparations for the great battle of The Lord of the Rings at the Pelennor Fields. It may not have been this battle that was to be the decisive action of the story. That was the journey of Frodo and Sam to Mount Doom and the events in the Sammath Naur. But if Minas Tirith had fallen to the armies of Minas Morgul there would have been nowhere to return to for Frodo and Sam.

Pippin’s cheerfulness before the overwhelming might of Mordor reminds us of Sam Gamgee’s reflection at the Black Gate when  it appeared that the journey was at an end. Tolkien tells us that Sam “never had any real hope in the affair from the beginning; but being a cheerful hobbit he had not needed hope, as long as despair could be postponed.”

It is this spirit that enables Sam to bring Frodo and the Ring to Mount Doom; that brings Merry and Eowyn to the place in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields where they are able to slay the Lord of the Nazgûl; and which enables Pippin to save the life of Faramir in the face of Denethor’s despair and the passivity of his guard. It is not quite the same thing as the great joy that Pippin sees in Gandalf after the encounter with Denethor. Gandalf’s joy is a heavenly thing that Pippin, as yet, can only catch glimpses of; it is the inbreaking of another world into the world that Pippin knows and one that declares that even in the darkest of times the last word belongs to love and to joy and not to darkness. The cheerfulness of the hobbits is of a different order and belongs to the earth. It is a peasant quality that determines to make the best of whatever life brings, enjoying the good without too much expectation that it will last for long and bearing up under times of difficulty. It takes a quiet pride in maintaining the right kind of face. This is not a kind of dissembling, a deliberate attempt to deceive, unless it is to deceive an enemy, but it is a kind of virtue, most closely akin to fortitude. Perhaps the last time it was seen in British life to a great degree was during the heavy bombing of British cities during the Second World War by the German Luftwaffe, an action that was intended to demoralise the civilian population but which failed to do so. Perhaps it should be noted here that the bombing of German cities proved to be just as ineffective in this regard.

Pippin’s cheerfulness will be needed much in the days that lie ahead for the “darkness has begun”. But it will be no mere whistling in the wind. It will be a source of strength that will enable him to do brave deeds and will prevent the doing of great harm. We will do well to honour this quality and to develop it ourselves.