Gandalf Speaks of His Stewardship

Poor Pippin!  For a long and exhausting hour he has to stand between Denethor and Gandalf and to tell his story the best he can. As he does so he is aware of Gandalf “holding in check a rising wrath and impatience”.

At the last Denethor speaks: “The Lord of Gondor is not to be made the tool of other men’s purposes, however worthy. And to him there is no purpose higher in the world as it now stands than the good of Gondor; and the rule of Gondor, my lord, is mine and no other man’s, unless the king should come again.”

Those last words should be read with a fierce irony for Denethor knows of Aragorn. Indeed he has known him for a long time because Aragorn served his father, Ecthelion, hiding his true identity and going by the name of Thorongil. Denethor resented Thorongil’s  masterful nature, “the most hardy of living Men” and “elven-wise”, “worthy of honour as a king who is in exile.” This is why when Denethor speaks of the good of Gondor he speaks, as it were in the same breath, of his own dignity. For him the two have become one and the same.

So it is that when Gandalf speaks it is with a courteous ferocity:

“The rule of no realm is mine, neither of Gondor nor any other, great or small. But all worthy things that are in peril as the world now stands, these are my care. And for my part, I shall not wholly fail of my task, though Gondor should perish, if anything passes through this night that can still grow fair or bear fruit and flower again in days to come. For I also am a steward. Did you not know?”

This is a wonderful speech and is the nearest that we find to a confession of faith throughout the whole of Tolkien’s great story. Gandalf was sent to Middle-earth, not to preserve a kingdom, praiseworthy though that would be, but to preserve something deeper, something for which all earthly kingdoms exist, and that is all “that can still grow fair or bear fruit and flower again.” To fulfil this task given him by the Valar it would be a distraction, an unnecessary burden to rule a kingdom and yet Denethor does not believe him. Neither for that matter does Saruman and if Sauron were ever to question Gandalf he would not believe him either. Why is it that people are sure that someone of the stature of Gandalf must want to rule over others? Is it that they fear their own powerlessness, believing that only those who rule over others have any value? Eventually Denethor will abandon even his care for his people finally reaching a place where only his own grIief has any meaning. In the same way Saruman will reach this place regarding his bitterness. Nothing else will have meaning for him either.

We live in a world that suffers from those like Denethor or Saruman. Even in our democracies we seem all too ready to elect them to power. What the world really needs is more people like Gandalf; those who give their lives to be stewards of that which is good, beautiful and true. It may be that we live in a time in which the kingdoms that we love may decline and even fall but if we understand aright our calling as stewards then we will not be discouraged because we will be working and praying for the coming of a kingdom. And we do not need the power that Gandalf has in order to be stewards even as he is. All we need is to have the same love for “all worthy things that are in peril as the world now stands” and to offer ourselves as we are with all our weakness. Gandalf has called many people to share his stewardship from the great like Aragorn to the weak like Pippin and each will play his part. Sadly Denethor will reject the call. Pippin will give more to Gondor than its lord. We can give more to the world as stewards than its rulers do seeking their own glory.

What Was Gandalf?

When we read the story of the journey of Frodo and Sam into Mordor we noted that he did so through the voice of Sam. Now he tells the story through Pippin and later he will do so through Merry. It is Pippin who watches Gandalf and Denethor wrestling with one another.

“Pippin saw a likeness between the two, and he felt the strain between them, almost as if he saw a line of smouldering fire, drawn from eye to eye, that might suddenly burst into flame.”

Pippin’s first reaction as he gazes at them both is that Denethor is the more kingly and that he is older.  In fact Denethor is only one year older than Aragorn and yet Denethor is indeed old while Aragorn is at the height of his powers. Both are descended from the race of Númenor and yet the story of Númenor runs more truly in Aragorn and this is not just because he is descended from Elendil and Isildur.

Pippin begins to see this as he gazes at them. Denethor may look more kingly and yet “by a sense other than sight Pippin perceived that Gandalf had the greater power and the deeper wisdom and a majesty that was veiled. And he was older, far older.”

Pippin is growing up. He is beginning to see things as they really are. In the New Testament this is called the discerning of spirits. Pippin still thinks of himself as a boy and when he meets Bergil later in the day he will feel the relief of not being among the mighty any longer but whether he wishes it or not he is leaving childhood behind. Thankfully he will carry the best of childhood with him as Gandalf did when he played with fireworks in the Shire at Bilbo’s party. The best of adults never lose it. There is a playfulness about them that travels along with the seriousness. In some like Tom Bombadil it is very strong indeed. In characters like Saruman and Denethor it has been lost almost entirely. In Théoden it is found through his brief friendship with Merry.

“What was Gandalf?” Pippin asks. Tolkien never quite reveals the mystery of one of his greatest characters. He tells us that the wizards, the Istari, first came to Middle-earth after the first thousand years as the darkness begins to grow once more. Their task is to encourage the free peoples of Middle-earth to resist it, each doing so in their own particular way. But what they were before this we are not told. When Gandalf confronts the Balrog at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm he declares that he is “a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the  flame of Anor.” In his excellent book on Tolkien’s spiritual vision, Secret Fire, Stratford Caldecott speaks of the fire as Tolkien’s term “for the distinctive creative power of Eru” that represents “life, love and creativity, the wisdom and love of God that burns at the heart of the world and sustains it in existence- it is a willed emanation from the creative energy of God’s own self; it is the life of God shared with the world.” This is the fire that Melkor/Morgoth seeks for himself but he cannot find it “because it is with Ilúvatar”. Even Morgoth’s own existence is dependent upon God and so is Sauron’s and all who serve him. Thus they cannot create and can only mar as is most terribly true of the orcs who are twisted forms of the Elves the most beautiful of God’s creatures.

This is what Gandalf serves and yet it is, as Pippin realises, veiled. And that is the nature of love and of grace. It has to be veiled if it is to inspire courage and goodness in others and not to overwhelm them or force them to behave in a particular way thus taking away their freedom. There is nothing veiled about Saruman who seeks the admiration of others. And just like Pippin we have begun to learn wisdom when we stop looking for greatness in the obvious and begin to see it in the hidden and in the veiled.

You Have Come to the End of the Gondor that You Have Known

These are not the kind of words that we want to hear from our prophets. When times are hard we want to be comforted; we want to be encouraged. We do not want to hear of endings but of continuings. In my work as a priest I am not sure that I have ever heard someone at the end of life when their body is failing actually look forward to the adventure that lies ahead so that the laying down of life is something that is done in faith and with joy. Sometimes sheer weariness may be expressed; a longing for the struggle to come to an end but often the desire is to return to a normality to which they have become used even if there is little or no  pleasure to look forward to within it.

This is the kind of normality to which Gondor has become used. This is a once great kingdom founded by Elendil and by his sons, Anárion and Isildur, and which in alliance with Gil-galad, the last High King of the Noldor, was able to overthrow Sauron even when he carried the Ring. Minas Morgul, the city of the Ringwraiths, was once Minas Ithil, the tower of the moon. The Black Gate that was shut against Frodo and Sam was first built not to keep enemies out of Mordor but by Gondor in her pride to keep her enemies shut within it.

Pippin’s first impression of Minas Tirith is of this glory. He “gazed in growing wonder at the great stone city, vaster and more splendid than anything he had dreamed of; greater and stronger than Isengard, and far more beautiful.” But what he sees is not the great city in the glory of its  maturity but in the fading of its declining years. “It was in truth falling year by year into decay; and already it lacked half the men that could have dwelt at ease there.” Pippin and Gandalf make the thousand foot climb up to the Citadel of the Stewards at the summit of the city and as they do so in every street they pass “some great house or court over whose doors and arched gates were carved many fair letters of strange and ancient shapes: names, Pippin guessed of great men and kindreds that had once dwelt there; and yet now they were silent, and no footsteps rang on their wide pavements, nor voice was heard in their halls, nor any face looked out from door or empty window.”

This is one of the most poignant expressions of the slow defeat that has been a major theme of The Lord of the Rings and we have seen it in many places through our journey; in the once great halls of Khazad-dûm and in the bleak city of Edoras and the darkened hall of Théoden in Meduseld. In each place we have seen something that once was great after its fashion now falling into decay and ruin and even as we have seen this we have seen also the rise of the powers of darkness. Who can triumph over them? Surely at the end even the bravest resistance is ultimately futile. Saruman thought this and so chose to side with the dark seeing such an alliance as the only means to further his own ambition. Soon we will meet Denethor, Steward of Gondor who has no more hope than Saruman and who although he does not take the way of betrayal also believes resistance to be futile.

This is the defeated world to which Gandalf declares: “Whatever betide, you have come to the end of the Gondor that you have known.” It may be that Gondor will fall and Gandalf does not hide this possibility from them; but it is not despair that Gandalf brings to Minas Tirith but hope and in the weeks ahead we will think about this hope both in the time of the War of the Ring and in our own time for we too are come to the end of a world that we have known and we too need such hope as can be brought to us. Gandalf calls Gondor not to despair but to fight on and so must we.

A Scene which Caused Tolkien to Weep as He Wrote It

As Frodo and Sam take a final rest of peace before they seek to enter Mordor Gollum returns. He has been making final preparations for the betrayal of the hobbits that he has guided since falling into their hands at the foot of the Emyn Muil; a betrayal that he hopes will enable him to regain the Ring. His desire for the Ring, The Precious for poor Sméagol, as Sam put it, has shaped his very being ever since he lost it to Bilbo Baggins in the tunnels deep beneath the Misty Mountains. Indeed the Ring has dominated every waking thought and every dream since he first caught sight of it as his friend, Déagol, held it aloft by the waters of the Gladden Fields long ago. This desire, overcoming him, caused him to murder his friend and has come to separate him from all companionship and  all affection.

But not quite…

“Gollum looked at them. A strange expression passed over his lean hungry face. The gleam faded from his eyes and they went dim and grey, old and tired. A spasm of pain seemed to twist him, and he turned away, peering back up towards the pass, shaking his head, as if engaged in some interior debate. Then he came back, and slowly putting out a trembling hand, very cautiously he touched Frodo’s knee- but almost the touch was a caress. For a fleeting moment, could one of the sleepers have seen him, they would have thought that they beheld an old weary hobbit, shrunken by the years that had carried him far beyond his time, beyond friends and kin, and the fields and streams of youth, an old starved pitiable thing.”

As Tolkien wrote this scene, this all too fleeting moment of grace, he did so with tears in his eyes. Gollum may have been corrupted by his desire for the Ring but there remains a part of his heart that has not been entirely vanquished by evil. This part of his heart awoke when he played the riddle game with Bilbo and images of wind, of rain and of sunshine entered his prison and it awakes again as he gazes upon the sleeping hobbits. Gandalf was able to recognise it during his long and wearisome interrogations of the miserable creature and Frodo recognised it when pity awoke within him at the moment when he captured Gollum. It was not just the unconquered part of Gollum that awoke this pity. It was the realisation that they too could be corrupted. Gandalf saw this possibility in the fall of Saruman, the greatest of his order and Frodo saw it in a fellow hobbit, the humblest of creatures. True pity, not the pity of one certain of their own moral superiority but the pity of one who knows their own capacity for corruption, is one of the truest marks of a great soul. But even the most profound pity cannot save another. A moment after longing is awoken within him Sam’s suspicion drives him back into hatred and a determination to do murder.

In a letter, Tolkien wrote this of Gollum:

“By temporising, not fixing the still not wholly corrupt Sméagol-will towards good in the debate in the slag hole, he weakened himself for the final chance when dawning love of Frodo was too easily withered by the jealousy of Sam before Shelob’s lair.”

Tolkien remembers the debate between Gollum and Sméagol that Sam overheard and notes that it was never resolved. Sam could not tell who had won. In saying this we must believe that it was possible for Sméagol to win and to become a willing ally in the destruction of the Ring and in his own liberation from its power. And in saying this we must believe that it is possible for each one of us to be freed of all that will keep us from our own freedom.

Wait not for the Dawn!

One of the greatest illusions from which we can suffer is the belief that life works out as a consequence of our strategies and plans. We believe that if we can get the strategy right we will get the outcome right. But life rarely works out that way. As British prime minister, Harold MacMillan once said when asked what he feared most, “Events, dear boy, events”.

After the encounter with Saruman at Isengard the company begin to make a steady progress back towards Helms Deep. It is when they make camp after the first day’s travel that an entirely unexpected event changes the story completely. Pippin had been the first to reach the Palantir, the Seeing Stone of Orthanc, after Wormtongue, ignorant of its purpose, tried to drop it from a high window onto one of his enemies below. From the moment Pippin touched the Stone he wished to look more closely at it but when he did so he encountered the one person that anyone using it was able to see, Sauron the Dark Lord. And so for the first time Sauron looked upon a hobbit, the creature he had wanted to see ever since he first heard the name of Bilbo Baggins and learned that a hobbit possessed the Ring of Power that he made and then lost in battle at the end of the Second Age over three thousand years before.

Immediately Gandalf knows that everything has changed, that Sauron will believe a hobbit to be held by Saruman in Isengard and that it is Saruman who still holds the Stone of Orthanc, for it is by this means that they have communicated while Saruman has fallen into treason and betrayal. “That dark mind will be filled now with the voice and face of the hobbit and with expectation,” says Gandalf. Any belief that Gandalf had that there might be still some time to make preparation has gone; and when a moment later a Nazgul flies overhead, one of Sauron’s mightiest servants, making his way to Orthanc to confront Saruman there. Gandalf’s response is immediate.

“The storm is coming. The Nazgul have crossed the River! Ride, ride! Wait not for the dawn! Let not the swift wait for the slow! Ride!”

Gandalf sweeps up Pippin and rides with him upon Shadowfax, the swiftest steed of the age. They must go to war at Minas Tirith, the great citadel of Gondor, and they will reach it before anyone else.

Events, coming suddenly upon Gandalf, have changed everything, requiring a leap of faith with no guarantee of the outcome. All he knows is that everything must be risked upon one venture. All must be at the battle and give all in the battle. Nothing can be kept in reserve.

There will be times in our own lives when all must be risked in such a manner. How can we be ready when such a time comes? As we have seen we cannot determine when the moments of crisis will come in our lives and that it is an illusion to believe that we can exercise control over them. What we must do is to live our lives in such a manner that will prepare us to act just as Gandalf does when such moments come. The tradition of the Christian faith calls such moments the coming of the Kingdom when all comes to judgement, when all must be ventured upon a leap of faith. It is the tradition of this faith that “the Law leads us to Christ”,  that if we are to be ready for the Kingdom we must develop a life of disciplined waiting. Simone Weil called this disciplined waiting, “Forms of the Implicit Love of God” and said it can be expressed in three ways, by love of neighbour expressed in acts of justice, by love of the order and beauty of the world and by love of religious practice. Each of these, she said, can prepare us for the Kingdom that is at hand, the moment of crisis to which all our lives will come.

Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, Merry, Pippin, Théoden and Eomer have all come to the great crisis of their lives and they must venture their lives upon it. How they will acquit themselves will be determined by the preparation that they have made for this moment.

An Agent of Saruman or a friend to Treebeard

Treebeard has learnt sympathy during the long years of his sojourn in Middle-earth. On learning from Gandalf that Saruman has refused to leave Orthanc he says:

“So Saruman would not leave?… I did not think he would. His heart is as rotten as a black Huorn’s. Still, if I were overcome and all my trees destroyed, I would not come while I had one dark hole left to hide in.”

“No,” said Gandalf. “But you have not plotted to cover all the world with your trees and choke all other living things.”

For Saruman had indeed dreamed and plotted to cover the world and to rule over it. Many have commented that it was the creeping spread of industrial Birmingham in the English Midlands into the Worcestershire countryside where Tolkien grew up that inspired much of the story of The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien grew up in the village of Hall Green. I know this now as a suburb of Birmingham that lies well within the modern city boundary a few miles to the north of my own home. I can well see how he would have seen this encroachment as an invasion.

My own home lies still within the Worcestershire countryside. As I write this on a frosty February morning I can detect the first signs of approaching Spring about me. Soon I will see swans, ducks, moorhens and coots marking out their territories in the waters around my home and soon after I will see them raising their young once more. I have made the acquaintance of an angler who sits patiently by the waters through the warmer months of the year. I say acquaintance for like most anglers he is a marsh wiggle by nature and keeps himself to himself but he is ready to share his wisdom as long as I don’t disturb him from more important matters. The best time to talk is at the end of the day when he is about to make his way home. He has taught me where the kingfishers will make their nest and, for me, most exciting of all, where he has seen an otter and her cub, something not seen near here for many a year. And he knows the difference between the native otter and the pernicious foreign mink so I believe in his sighting. One day…one day… I hope to see an otter near my home myself.

I think that Tolkien would have loved the country near my home. Indeed he probably knew it himself. And yet if I walk towards the small town near where I live it is not long before I reach a major highway that cuts through the heart of the county. I have written before about my early morning walks through woodland with my dog in the autumn and winter darkness. What I have not mentioned is the noise of traffic from the highway. The dark of the woodland is real thanks both to the trees themselves and to a high embankment that lies between them and the road but so too is the noise.

I have developed a form of prayer for my daily walks with my dog and more and more I feel that the place in which I pray is a part and a vital part of the prayer. It is not some simplistic expression of “all that is green and living is good and all that is asphalt is bad”. I am too much implicated by own participation in the modern world to be able to do that without being justly called a hypocrite. But it is right that my prayer should happen at this point of tension in the woodland by the highway in which I do not know how much I am an agent of Saruman or a friend to Treebeard. Last year a group of folk planted the land between the woodland and the highway with hundreds of young saplings. That was a fine deed. Perhaps by supporting it I can offer something to Treebeard and to the Worcestershire man who created that character and in whose Shire I still live.

Freely We Serve Because We Freely Love

So Saruman is defeated and Pippin turns to Gandalf and asks, “What will you do to him?” .

“I? Nothing!” said Gandalf. “I will do nothing to him. I do not wish for mastery.”

And so we see once more the contrast between Gandalf and Saruman, the one who lives “in terror of the shadow of Mordor,” yet “will not serve” but “only command”. In previous postings I have compared Saruman to Adolf Hitler, not suggesting that Tolkien based Saruman upon Hitler, but arguing that spiritually they are kin. I will offer one more character to whom I believe both to be related and that is the figure of Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost.

“Better to reign in Hell, than to serve in Heaven,” is now one of the most famous lines from Paradise Lost and it is perhaps a sign of our time that many believe such a sentiment to be praiseworthy, a declaration of freedom from a divine tyranny that would keep us infants and deny us the divine fire as it did to humankind before the heroic sacrifice of Prometheus.

Praiseworthy it may be to stand in defiance of tyranny, whether such be divine or human, but in creating the character of Saruman and the character of Gandalf, Tolkien shows us both the true nature of divinity and the defiance that seeks to reign in despite of the majesty of God.

All who have read The Lord of the Rings will have noted a marked absence of divine intervention in the story unless we count Gandalf’s comment that Frodo was “meant to have” the Ring. Even Frodo is given freedom either to accept the task that is given to him or to reject it and the task is not at its beginning to take the Ring to Mordor but only to the temporary safety of Rivendell. Those who have read The Silmarillion will know that Tolkien had a sense of divine purpose in the mythology that he created but they will also know that Middle-earth is from the very beginning a sphere of freedom and that the divine purpose is always shrouded in mystery. Tolkien never tries to explain the mystery of the immortality of the Elves nor the mystery of human mortality and although he shows in the myth of the Music of the Ainur that there will be a wonderful conclusion to the story he never tries to tell us what it is. The Lord of the Rings is a story,not of metaphysical speculation, but of doing the necessary deed.

And the reason for this is that as a story-teller Tolkien takes the side, not of Saruman, the one who would reign in Hell rather than serve in Heaven, but of Gandalf, the one who does not wish for mastery. Saruman will have a certain ending to the story if he can, one in which he alone will reign. He may begin with words about a higher purpose but he will end with tyranny. For we know that Satan’s brave words of defiance are intended for himself alone. He will not share his reign in Hell so as to set us free and the purpose of the rest of us is to help him achieve his freedom at the price of our own enslavement.

We thought about that last week in the posting about spiritual guides. Gandalf will lead us down the hard road of joyful responsibility, doing the task that is at hand, until we find true freedom. As Milton wrote elsewhere in Paradise Lost:

“Freely we serve
Because we freely love, as in our will
To love or not; in this we stand or fall.”

How to Choose the Right Spiritual Guide

Two weeks ago I wrote about Saruman and Gandalf as the spiritual guides of our day trying to show how Saruman had come to put his trust in the exercise of power through things that are made for indeed the thing he desired most was the Ring, the ultimate expression of power and Sauron’s greatest work. If our spirituality is a description of that which we desire most and that which we make the ground of our being then Saruman and those like him are indeed spiritual guides.

Saruman sees all reality as an expression either of power or weakness. Only that which enables the expression of power has any validity. And those he considers weaker than he is only have validity in so far as they may further his own ends. The problem for him as we have seen is that his estimate of strength and weakness is desperately flawed. He has no respect for hobbits or for Rohan and until this point of the story he has not even considered the Ents of Fangorn forest. This tendency to ignore that which he has no use for is the cause of his downfall.

“What is the house of Eorl but a thatched barn where brigands drink in the reek, and their brats roll on the floor among the dogs?” he screams in fury when Théoden rejects his offer of peace.

In other words Saruman is a spiritual guide who seeks to convince us that we need his power and that without him we can do nothing of any significance. It is a guidance that seeks to convince us that we are not worth very much. It is a guidance that plays upon our lack of self-worth and our sense of unworthiness. It is a guidance that works with the Dunlendings who are his allies in the war against Rohan. The Dunlendings, near neighbours of Rohan, have long nursed a sense of grievance against the Rohirrim and grievance is another fuel that spiritual guides like Saruman use.

Gandalf plays no such games. Often his friends express their conviction that they can do no nothing without him but he does nothing to encourage them in that belief. He is the pilgrim who has spent long years journeying from place to place among the free peoples of the Middle-earth seeking to help those who live there find courage within themselves to resist evil that they might not believe even exists. He does this with Frodo, helping him find the courage to take the journey to Rivendell bearing the Ring. He does this with Théoden, helping him to emerge from his inner darkness and confront the danger that threatens his people. If Saruman seeks to make others dependent upon him, Gandalf seeks to help others find strength within themselves.

We would do well to consider our own spiritual guides and make the right choice of them. On one hand there are the experts, the gurus, who “know” what we need and who “know” that we need them. They believe in their own expertise and also our weakness and our need of them. Such a culture of the “expert” shapes a certain kind of education and a certain kind of religion. On the other hand there are those who challenge us to think for ourselves and help us to take responsibility for our own lives. They do not try to hide the price that we will have to pay if we do seek to live the responsible life but they also demonstrate that the truly responsible life is also the truly joyous life and that the truly joyous life is also the truly responsible life.  And this life is the life that is truly free!

Saruman Still Fails to Get the Joke!

The stage is set and Saruman stands at a balconied rail above the heads of his foes ready to address them, appearing as “a kindly heart aggrieved by injuries undeserved.” And so he begins to weave his magic over those who stand beneath him until Gandalf laughs and “The fantasy vanished like a puff of smoke.”

“Saruman, Saruman!” said Gandalf still laughing. “Saruman, you missed your path in life. You should have been the king’s jester and earned your bread, and stripes too, by mimicking his counsellors.”

Those who know the story well will remember that much happened between the moment that Saruman first appears upon the balcony, wreathed in shadow and ever changing colour and the moment when Gandalf laughs at him and the spell is finally broken. They will remember that Saruman tried to persuade first Théoden and then Gandalf to ally with him and how the company who had ridden to Isengard with their king were convinced that either one or the other would submit to Saruman’s persuasive powers so reasonable did his words appear to be. Even his words of contempt for Rohan seemed to them to be deserved and we shall return to that in a later blog, but at the end all is revealed as Tolkien shows us as “Fantasy”.

Those who have seen Der Untergang (Downfall) the remarkable film about the last days of Hitler will know the power of fantasy. As the Soviet forces enter Berlin Hitler still gives orders to armies that no longer exist and his anger against his staff who cannot carry out his orders still has power to frighten them. And they are right to be frightened because the SS still carry out orders of execution against those who know that resistance is futile and refuse to fight on. Hitler believes his own fantasy until the very end and still has the power to persuade others to join him in his belief. We might even argue that he had that power from the very beginning, that the Nazi enterprise was always a fantasy.

Gandalf’s laughter demonstrates the most powerful weapon that exists against such fantasies. When that which we fear or admire is displayed to us for our ridicule then it no longer has the same power over us. Hans Christian Anderson’s tale, “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is one tale that demonstrates the power of laughter over fantasy, J.K Rowling’s Ridikulus Charm demonstrated by Remus Lupin in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkhaban is another. In the first tale the crowd believe the myth of the magical new clothes until a boy cries out that the Emperor is, in fact, naked; in the second the members of Harry Potter’s class are taught how to laugh at their own fears embodied in certain people or creatures and so dispel their power. We do not need to be able to do magic to learn how to do the same with the embodiments of our own fears.

Sadly Der Untergang shows us that fantasy, however far-fetched, has the power to do great harm. In The Lord of the Rings, as we shall see, Saruman still retains some power to do harm himself. Our laughter cannot protect us from all that fantasy can do to us but it can give us great strength to resist that power. Gandalf shows to all that Saruman’s power is broken and when we do see him again it is at the head of a band of cut-throats and thieves. That is for another day. On this day, if I may presume to mix our tales, we learn, with Gandalf and Remus Lupin, to stand against those who make us afraid with our laughter and our cry of Ridikulus!

   

Saruman and Gandalf: The Spiritual Guides of our Day

Soldiers everywhere have a clear sense of priority and Tolkien, drawing on his memories of the trenches of the First World War, knew that well. The sharing of news, unless that news requires immediate action, must always follow after food and some rest. So it is that it is only after they have feasted together and smoked in companionable silence that Merry and Pippin begin to tell the tale of the Fall of Isengard and the revenge of the natural world against the world of the machine.

“An angry Ent is terrifying,” said Merry. “Their fingers and their toes just freeze onto rock; and they tear it up like bread-crust. It was like watching the work of great tree-roots in a hundred years, all packed into a few moments.”

Saruman at first is utterly bewildered by an attack that he never anticipated so it is the bewildered wizard that the hobbits first encounter and they are not impressed.

“His wizardry may have been falling off lately, of course; but anyway, I think he has not much grit, not much plain courage alone in a tight place without a lot of slaves and machines and things, if you know what I mean. Very different from old Gandalf. I wonder if his fame was not all along mainly due to his cleverness in settling at Isengard.”

I want to suggest here that Saruman stands as a warning to the West in our own time. As Aragorn says of Saruman, the West was once as great as our fame made us. Our “knowledge was deep” our “thought was subtle” our “hands marvellously skilled”. But we have come to put our trust in the things that we have made and in the armies of slaves who keep us. Our food is grown by workers paid hardly enough to survive, the temples of Mammon in our great cities cleaned by people who disappear into the shadows once their work is done. Meanwhile we fantasise about artificial intelligence and the development of robots and in our right to live as if the whole of creation exists simply in order to serve us. Like Saruman in his speech made to Gandalf when he imprisoned him in Orthanc we “approve the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order” believing ourselves to be numbered among the great who must by right be the beneficiaries of this “purpose”.

In Saruman and Gandalf Tolkien offers us two contrasting spiritual journeys. The one, a journey towards the destruction of humanity both in body and in soul, a journey towards the ultimate victory of Mordor; the other, a pilgrimage made in service of all who seek true freedom not just for themselves but for all peoples, knowing as Augustine said: “What does love look like? It has the hands to help others. It has the feet to hasten to the poor and needy. It has eyes to see misery and want. It has the ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of men”.  And knowing, as all pilgrims do, that each place where we lay our heads can never be permanent, however long we may remain there, but only a brief rest along the way. The pilgrim knows that to build our own Isengard is a fantasy at best and at worst the creation of a slave’s imitation of Barad-dur. The pilgrim knows that our true rest lies only at the end of the journey and that all other rests are respites gratefully received when they come but to be left behind before they become temptations. And the pilgrim knows as Augustine prayed in his Confessions “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”