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.

Ready to Risk Everything

Treebeard has lived for ages beyond the reckoning of almost every living creature, except perhaps Tom Bombadil. He has seen the rise and fall of many kingdoms, the glory of Gondolin and Nargothrond and the terrible might of Angband and its master, Morgoth. And he has weathered all this like a mighty oak delighting in the summer sun and standing fast against the storms of winter. To live through all that he has seen has required above all the ability to survive, to harvest whatever is given, to store when necessary, and to endure, always to endure. “I do not like worrying about the future,” he tells Merry and Pippin. For him it is enough to live each day as best he can, fulfilling the task given to him to be the shepherd of the trees.

But now he is prepared to risk all upon an attack on Saruman’s stronghold of Isengard, an attack that may well see the end of the Ents and their age long vigil. “It is likely enough that we are going to our doom,” he says, “the last march of the Ents.”

When the human enterprise is reduced, either to a desire to dominate others for the sake of our own aggrandisement, or in a bid to build fortresses about ourselves when domination no longer seems to be a possibility in order to preserve whatever we can hang onto then this enterprise has been given over to the mean and diminished spirit of Saruman. There is a right and proper desire to conserve what is good, true and beautiful, but as Gandalf says to Treebeard, “You have not plotted to cover the world with your trees and choke all other living things” as Saruman has done, choosing at the moment of the wreck of his ambition to hang onto the shreds of his desire rather than submit and so become a servant once more.

Perhaps, like Treebeard, we will rightly give much of our lives to the building and preservation of some goodness in the world, a home where children can be raised and guests welcomed. Such a life is a good life and worthy of respect. It is when our homes become mean places set in competition against the need of others, with doors and windows permanently barred and shuttered, that they diminish and we with them. And the same is so when we become incapable of risking what we have for the sake of a greater good. Patrick Kavanagh expresses this in his wonderful poem, “The Self Slaved” when he declares:

Me I will throw away.
Me sufficient for the day
The sticky self that clings
Adhesions on the wings
To love and adventure,
To go on the grand tour
A man must be free
From self-necessity

Kavanagh discovered this freedom after being successfully treated for cancer and sensing that he had been given his life back again.

In the poem he discerns a meanness of spirit from which he has been liberated. Now he can truly live life. He goes on to say:

I will have love, have love
From anything made of
And a life with a shapely form
With gaiety and charm
And capable of receiving
With grace the grace of living
And wild moments too
Self when freed from you.

Treebeard knows this spirit and in marching on Isengard he gives himself up to such a wild moment with joy. Happy the one who knows how to do this, whose life does not shrivel up in meanness and diminishment.