Trusting to Luck on the Roads of Mordor

Life sometimes takes you to places that you would rather not go to. Tolkien found himself in the trenches of the Western Front on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916 when nearly 20,000 British soldiers were killed in a single attack on the German lines and a further 40,000 were wounded. He gained a great respect for ordinary British soldiers and largely based the character of Sam Gamgee upon those who he got to know. Sam, like those men, would rather not be in the trenches. He does not pretend to some kind of heroism. As far as he is concerned behaviour like that would be entirely inappropriate, like pretending to be Aragorn, or Faramir, or Boromir, or… Frodo for that matter. Sam just gets on with whatever needs to be done. Things like dealing with “Gollum’s treacherous attack, the horror of Shelob, and his own adventures with the orcs.”

Sam has no sense of entitlement. He does not believe that he has an inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. He hopes and even expects that Frodo will treat him fairly and with due respect but that expectation lies within certain bounds. He does not think of himself as Frodo’s equal.

And Sam believes in luck. Not that he thinks that he has a right to it but that he wants to give it a chance if possible. In his fine study, The Road to Middle-earth, Tom Shippey reflects on the place of luck in Tolkien at some length. Shippey tells us that the poet of Beowulf “often ascribes events to wyrd, and treats it in a way as a supernatural force.” But Shippey notes that luck or wyrd is not the same thing as fate. There is an implacability about fate, there is nothing that you can do about it; but you can change your luck. As Shippey puts it, “while persistence offers no guarantees, it does give ‘luck’ a chance to operate.”

And so Sam decides to go in search for water and, as he does so, he says to the sleeping Frodo, “I’ll have to leave you for a bit and trust to luck.”

Sam does find water but he also nearly runs into Gollum and his response to these events is to say, “Well, luck did not let me down… but that was a near thing.” In other words, it is wise not to push luck too far.

Later, when they are forced to take the road, Frodo and Sam are overtaken by a company of orcs on the way to reinforce the garrison at the Black Gate as the armies of the West approach. They know that they cannot escape and Frodo despairs. “We trusted to luck, and it has failed us. We are trapped.” Sam, however, is not so quick to give up. “Seems so,” he says. “Well, we can but wait and see.” They are not able to escape the orcs’ attention but later, in a moment of confusion, they are able to escape and so continue their journey to the mountain. Their persistence has given luck a chance to operate.

In recent weeks in this blog we have thought about the role of Providence in the hobbits’ journey through Mordor. We have seen the part played by the gifts of the Valar in the light of the Silmarils captured in the star glass of Galadriel and in the retreat of the smokes of Orodruin before the West Wind. Shippey reflects on the relationship between Providence and Luck in King Alfred the Great’s translation into Old English of The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius, a text that was one of the most influential in the shaping of the medieval mind. He comments that “What we call God’s fore-thought and his Providence is while it is there in his mind, before it gets done; but once it gets done, then we call it wyrd. This way anyone can tell that there are two things and two names, forethought and wyrd.” Sam is content to live in the experience of luck or wyrd and leave the discernment of Providence to kings or scholars. The result is that he lives life cheerfully and thankfully and he never gives up.  

Shagrat and Gorbag Carry Frodo to Mordor

As soon as Sam hangs the chain and the Ring that it holds about his neck we feel it!

“At once his head was bowed to the ground with the weight of the Ring, as if a great stone had been strung on him.”

Until this moment we have not known how great a burden Frodo has had to bear. We could not have known because the story is being told through Sam and Sam could not possibly have known for Frodo has hidden it from him.

But now we do know about Frodo’s burden even as we know that Frodo was wounded by the sword of the Lord of the Nazgûl and even as we know that he has been stung by Shelob. All that is left of him, or so it would seem, is a body bound by Shelob’s cords and that is what Shagrat, Gorbag and their orc companies find upon the road. They pick Frodo up and carry him to their tower that stands at the border of Mordor.

So this is how Frodo enters Mordor. Not as a mighty hero, sword in hand, nor even as a stealthy spy slipping through the defences of his foes; but as a body carried by orcs.

Even the orcs only carry him because, as Shagrat puts it, Frodo is “something that Lugbúrz wants.” Lugbúrz is the name that the orcs give to Barad-dûr, the fortress of Sauron. If it had not been for the orders that the orcs received from Sauron they would have left Frodo to die by the roadside or played with his body like a football. As it is The Dark Lord is concerned about news that someone has penetrated his defences and so gives some attention to the matter. His greater attention is given to the armies that he sent to overwhelm the defences of Gondor or else it would not be orcs that he would have sent to the pass of Cirith Ungol but something more trustworthy that would have carried Frodo straight to his presence. As it is the orcs carry Frodo just far enough…

For this theme is one that is very important to Tolkien. In this blog we have looked at it a number of times before, thinking about how Sam carried Frodo to Mordor https://stephencwinter.com/2015/03/17/sam-carries-frodo-to-mordor/  and how the Fellowship carried Frodo and Sam there as well https://stephencwinter.com/2015/03/31/the-fellowship-carry-frodo-and-sam-to-mordor/ . In Sam’s case he carries Frodo because it is a task that he has been given  (“Don’t you leave him, Sam Gamgee!”) and because he loves him. In the case of the Fellowship from the time of the attack by the  Uruk-hai at the Falls of Rauros until the Battle of the Pelennor Fields it is something that they are unaware that they are doing even though their thoughts often turn to Frodo and Sam. In the case of the orcs there is, of course, absolutely no sense of being a help at all. But for Tolkien what governs the actions of all that we have considered is Providence. It was Gandalf who told Frodo that he was “meant” to have the Ring and that this was “an encouraging thought”. Gandalf is reflecting on how the Ring first fell into Bilbo’s hands and was then passed onto into Frodo’s. Neither of them chose to have the Ring and this is terribly important. Sauron made the Ring, Isildur cut it from Sauron’s hand and Gollum murdered his friend so that he  could have it. Neither Bilbo nor Frodo ever desired the Ring although both found it hard to give up once they possessed it.

Here we see the vital relationship between Providence and Freedom. Providence does not destroy Freedom but works with it, but only if it is Freedom in the service of the Good. So at every point in Frodo’s journey help is given and most especially when unlooked for and at the darkest moments. Now even the implacable will of Sauron himself must serve the Good. Under his orders Shagrat and Gorbag carry Frodo into Mordor and thus bring about its destruction.

Aragorn Abandons Himself to Providence

The attack on Helm’s Deep and its fastness, The Hornburg, is relentless and eventually Saruman’s forces stand on the verge of victory and at the darkest hour Aragorn finds Théoden fretting in the prison of his fortress.

“Had I known that the strength of Isengard was grown so great, maybe I should not so rashly have ridden forth to meet it, for all the arts of Gandalf. His counsel seems not now so good as it did under the morning sun.”

But Théoden is not about to shrink into the shrivelled creature that Gandalf had found in Meduseld just a few short days before. The work that Gandalf did in liberating him from Wormtongue’s grip has been too thorough and Théoden resolves to make a final charge upon his enemies and calls upon Aragorn to join him.

“Maybe we shall cleave a road, or make such an end as will be worth a song- if any be left to sing of us hereafter.”

And Aragorn resolves to ride with him.

Ever since Gandalf returned to Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli in the Forest of Fangorn, Aragorn the man of doubt has become the man of resolve. For in that moment Aragorn chose to follow Gandalf, the man who has passed even through death itself, without reserve. https://stephencwinter.wordpress.com/2014/02/12/you-are-our-captain/

This was not always the case. In the early stages of their journey Aragorn and Gandalf debated about the wisest road for the company to take. Gandalf wished to take them through Moria and eventually they went that way though against the counsel of Aragorn. And when Gandalf fell in battle against the Balrog it seemed that Aragorn was right. But being right did not give him confidence and thereafter he was wracked by doubt at every step. His decision after the death of Boromir and the capture of Merry and Pippin at The Falls of Rauros to follow the young hobbits was one taken without hope. Aragorn was sure that he and his friends were likely to die in the forest and he abandoned his dream of claiming the throne of Gondor and Arnor and with that the hand of Arwen. But when Gandalf returns Aragorn no longer fears anything, not even death itself. He is sure even in the darkest moment at Helm’s Deep that Gandalf will keep his promise to return to them but that certainty does not prompt him to hide in The Hornburg. He will honour Théoden’s courage in choosing to attack his foes.

In essence from the moment of reunion in Fangorn Aragorn abandons himself to Providence. Such an abandonment is not to some blind unfeeling fate. To be abandoned to Providence is a commitment to the Supremacy of the Good and is wonderfully liberating and energising.

The Thirteenth Century German mystic, Meister Eckhart, wrote: “When you have emptied yourself of your own self and all things and of every sort of selfishness, and have transferred, united and abandoned yourself to God in perfect faith and complete amity then everything that is born in you, external or internal, joyful or sorrowful, sour or sweet, is no longer your own at all, but is altogether your God’s to whom you have abandoned yourself.”

So it was that Eckhart could say, “I never ask God to give himself to me: I beg him to purify, to empty me. If I am empty, God of his very nature is obliged to give himself to me.” Aragorn never asked to be emptied but this is what has happened to him and even though Tolkien never names God explicitly in The Lord of the Rings Aragorn receives a glory in the moment of his final abandonment that will sustain him through all the days that lie ahead.

Choice and Serenity: A Lesson from Aragorn

It is some weeks since this blog reflected upon the adventures of Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas, and their pursuit of the captors of Merry and Pippin across the wide plains of Rohan. It has been longer still since we thought about Aragorn’s inner turmoils after the fall of Gandalf; how he was torn between his longing to go to Minas Tirith with Boromir to aid its people in the wars against Mordor and his sense of responsibility to Frodo, the Ringbearer. I wrote about the day when Aragorn ran uselessly here and there as Boromir first tried to sieze the Ring from Frodo and then fell alone in battle trying to protect Merry and Pippin from the orcs of Isengard.

I wrote about the moment when he crashed through the trees into the glade, wielding the mighty sword of his glorious ancestors that had cut the Ring from the hand of Sauron, crying “Elendil”  he did so and finding that the battle was already at an end. At that moment Aragorn was in despair. http://www.stephenwinter.net/page6.htm#140191

“This is a bitter end. Now the Company is all in ruin. It is I that have failed. Vain was Gandalf’s trust in me. What shall I do now?”

The choice that he makes at that moment is one that takes him away, both from the Quest of the Ring and from his longing to fulfill the promise to Boromir to go to Minas Tirith. He chooses to follow Merry and Pippin, the two members of the Company, who, until that point in the story, have contributed least to their task. Any utilitarian assessment of the greatest good at the moment when he makes his choice would tell him that regretably he must abandon Merry and Pippin to their fate and that at least their deaths might be worthwhile if the Ring can be destroyed and Minas Tirith be delivered. But Aragorn is no utilitarian and neither is he a soft-hearted or, might we say, soft-headed sentimentalist. He chooses to trust Frodo’s choice to go on alone knowing that the Council have entrusted him with the task of destroying the Ring. And he cannot go to Minas Tirith having abandoned his comrades. He will follow them even if the pursuit is in vain.

In one sense the pursuit, though heroic, is indeed in vain. It is not through his efforts that Merry and Pippin are freed. It is not Aragorn who rouses the Ents to march upon Isengard. At one point Legolas remarks that they have made this great journey to little purpose and as they journey further into Fangorn Forest Gimli is even more blunt.

“If we do not find them soon, we shall be of no use to them, except to sit down beside them, and show our friendship but starving together.”

Yet Aragorn is serene through all this. “If that is indeed all we can do,” he says, “then we must do that. Let us go on.”

Aragorn has made his choice and once made he will waste no time upon regret. He has done all that needs to be done. We might say that there is some providential link, a synchronicity, between his choice and all the great events that will follow. We might say that if we choose rightly then good things will follow even if we cannot prove a direct link between our choice and the subsequent good. But we cannot prove such a link and Aragorn would not wish to attempt such a proof. He would regard this as an attempt at self-justification and a craven act to which he would never stoop. That is his greatness and the reason why Legolas and Gimli will go with him. And if we would know the peace that Aragorn knows then we too will seek only to make the right choice and then to act upon without regret.

A Hobbit’s Guide to Synchronicity

Free at last from their orc captors Merry and Pippin run deeper into Fangorn Forest along the line of the Entwash as quickly as the tangled forest will allow until they reach a steep hill with what appears to be a kind of natural stair cut into its side. They can see the sun shining upon the hill top and keen to get some kind of idea of where they are and to enjoy the sun they decide to climb the stair.

“Up we go!” said Merry joyfully. “Now for a breath of air and a sight of the land!”

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And so they arrive in time to encounter Treebeard, the oldest of the Ents who are the shepherds of the trees of the forest, an encounter that will change the direction of the whole story. And we might be forgiven for thinking that Tolkien has given way here to one of those rather lazy “just in time” moments, an unlikely coincidence, except for the fact that he believed that such moments do happen. Tolkien believed in Providence and you may remember that Gandalf once said to Frodo that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring and therefore that Frodo was meant to have it too.

For some, like me, who believe in Providence as did Tolkien, it might be enough to have a sense that there is an unseen hand for good at work in the world. Gandalf calls this “an encouraging thought” and it is for those of us who believe in it. I am struck that some normally sceptical people are prepared to believe in Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” of the Market, forgetting perhaps that as well as being an economist Smith was also a moral theologian. I know too that in the 20th century, Carl Gustav Jung developed the idea of Synchronicity, arguing that as well as events being linked by cause and effect they could also be linked by meaning and that in the search for meaning a skilled therapist might help someone look for events that appeared to be coincidences. More recently, Joseph Jaworski, founder of the American Leadership Forum, wrote a book of the same name as a reflection on his own experience as he sought to move from a self-centred and inauthentic life to one that was consciously meaningful and of service to others. The book argues that once we begin the search for meaning in our lives events will, in a sense, conspire to aid us in that search. In his excellent foreword to the book Peter Senge speaks of the essential importance of commitment if we are to live a life that will be shaped, as it were, by synchronous events.

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As we saw last week we might find Pippin scratching his head and smiling ruefully if we were to try and explain this to him. He is unlikely to engage in the kind of search for meaning that we have talked about. But Pippin and Merry know about commitment and have practiced it ever since they decided that they would go with Frodo and Sam when they left The Shire carrying the Ring with them. Gandalf knew about their commitment  too and persuaded Elrond that he should trust their friendship as being of more importance to the success of the Quest of the Ring than the presence in the Fellowship of two trusted members of his household. Merry and Pippin may have thought of themselves as being a nuisance, mere luggage on the journey, but it is their friendship, their total commitment to Frodo, that brings them, carried as it were by the orcs, to the story changing encounter with Treebeard that we will think about in the next few weeks. I wonder where the events of your life might be carrying you?