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.

Christmas! A Good Time to Start a Venture that will Save the World From Evil.

“Go now with good hearts! Farewell, and may the blessing of Elves and Men and all Free Folk go with you. May the stars shine on your faces!”

So says the Lord Elrond at dusk on the 25th December in the year 3018 in the Third Age of the Earth as the Fellowship of the Ring sets out upon the quest to take the Ring of Power to the fires in which it was created upon Orodruin, Mt Doom, in the land of Mordor.

Within the story the date upon which the Fellowship sets out is determined by events such as Frodo’s decision to leave Bag End upon his birthday, the 23rd of September. This means that it is in the dead of winter that the great quest will leave Rivendell. But for Tolkien there is another reason why the 25th of December is chosen and that, of course, is because of the place of that date within the church’s calendar. It is Christmas, the Feast of the Nativity, of the birth of the Saviour to Mary and Joseph in a stable in Bethlehem. It is the day upon which the great adventure begins, “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

In Tolkien’s legendarium, unlike C. S Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, there is no incarnation. There is no figure like Aslan, around whom the whole story turns, who will die and rise again for the world. But the whole story is a preparation for the Incarnation. All of Tolkien’s great work prepares us to hear the great words that are proclaimed in the Christmas gospel, that “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

The destruction of the Ring of Power and the Fall of Sauron is not the end of the story. Tolkien goes to great lengths to show that. It is the point of the heartrending chapter near the end of The Lord of the Rings that he entitles, The Scouring of the Shire. The Ring may have gone to the Fire but a small band of brigands under a malicious leader can still do serious harm. It is the point of the departure from Middle-earth of Galadriel, Elrond and Gandalf and the ending of the great works that they were able to do with the three Elven Rings whose power fades with the destruction of the One Ring to which they were inextricably linked. For with the end of Sauron comes also the fading of Lothlórien and of Rivendell.

Christmas is yet to come in Middle-earth. We sense that when it does come it will do so as Tolkien’s great eucatastrophe, “the sudden happy turn in a story that pierces you with a joy that brings tears.” The long slow defeat of Tolkien’s story and our own experience of the world will end, not with the going out of the light for ever, but with the dawning of endless day that grows ever brighter. To this Great Day the Fall of Sauron and the Coronation of Aragorn as the returning King of Gondor and of Arnor is but a signpost. The reality that the sign points to has not yet come.

But for now we get ahead of ourselves in the story. It is the 25th of December and a small company without much gear of war goes south with the Ringbearer.

“There was no laughter, and no song or music. At last they turned away and faded silently into the dusk.”

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.

 

Gandalf Pities the Slaves of Sauron

There is a character in Tolkien’s legendarium who exercises a profound influence on The Lord of the Rings and yet is not mentioned there. She is Nienna and in The Silmarillion we read this of her.

“She is acquainted with grief and mourns for every wound that Arda has suffered in the marring of Melkor. So great was her sorrow, as the music unfolded, that her song turned to lamentation long before its end, and the sound of mourning was woven into the themes of the World before it began. But she does not weep for herself; and those who hearken to her learn pity, and endurance in hope.”

Chief among those who hearkened to her was a Maia whose name was Olórin. The Maiar are spirits who serve the Valar. Tragically the greatest in power among them is Sauron who served Melkor, who Fëanor named, Morgoth. But The Silmarillion tells us that:

“Wisest of the Maiar was Olórin… His ways took him often to the house of Nienna, and of her he learned pity and patience.”

It is when Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli encounter Gandalf, restored from death in the Forest of Fangorn, that Gandalf briefly reflects upon his name. “Many are my names in many countries: Mithrandir among the Elves, Tharkûn to the Dwarves; Olórin I was in my youth in the West that is forgotten, in the South Incanus, in the North Gandalf, to the East I go not.” So it is that we learn that Olórin is Gandalf and that he is the one who learned pity and patience from Nienna.

Immediately this brings to mind the conversation between Gandalf and Frodo at Bag End in the Shire when Frodo first learned how the Ring came to Bilbo and so to him. In fear and disgust Frodo cries out when he learns how Bilbo had spared Gollum’s life: “What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had a chance!”

Gandalf’s reply shows how well he had learned his lesson from the Lady Nienna.

“Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity.”

And so we see the importance of spiritual formation in the lives of each one of us. Sadly the vital importance of this central element in our education is in danger of being lost because it has been long confused with religious practice and as such practice is in decline so too is spiritual formation. Of course good religious practice can lead to good spiritual formation but, as Simone Weil once perceptively pointed out, religious practice can only prepare us for faith, it isn’t faith itself. Wisely Tolkien speaks little of religious practice in his works even though he was a lifelong Catholic in every respect including his practice; and one of the conclusions that we might draw from this is that he gives precededence to Olórin/Gandalf’s inner life. How much we need teachers as Nienna was to Olórin and Olórin is to Frodo, to Aragorn, to Faramir, even to Pippin. Readers will remember that when Frodo first encountered Gollum he spoke aloud as if to someone who was not there, “But now that I see him I do pity him”. The one who was not there was Gandalf. Frodo had learned his lesson from his master.

Sadly, though, Denethor has not. And, of course, this proud man will call no one but himself, master. As Gandalf puts it, Denethor thinks “of Gondor only” and in thinking of Gondor he thinks of his own pride. In the Second Age the kings of Númenor came to see Sauron, not as an evil to be resisted, but as a rival to their own greatness. So it was that when Ar-Pharazôn the Golden, the last king of Númenor defeated Sauron, he was corrupted by the one he had conquered. Denethor’s spiritual formation has made him a disciple of Ar-Pharazôn and thus a short step from being a disciple of Sauron. Not so, Gandalf. He Pities even Sauron’s slaves.

 

“He Would Have Brought Me a Mighty Gift.” Denethor and the Ring.

Denethor sits with Faramir and Gandalf in his chamber with Pippin standing in attendance. Until now he has maintained a courteous front but in the presence of his son, the wrong son, the mask slips and both his anger, his resentment and his desire are displayed to all.

“Boromir was loyal to me and no wizard’s pupil. He would have remembered his father’s need, and would not have squandered what fortune gave. He would have brought me a mighty gift.”

With these words Denethor displays his lack of self-knowledge. He believes himself to be greater than the Ring. Lesser beings than himself may fear the Ring but he is not weak as they are. He is the Steward of Gondor and a true son of Númenor and the Ring holds no terror for such as he. And when Gandalf asks him what he would have done with the Ring Denethor replies:

“It should have been kept, hidden, hidden dark and deep. Not used, I say, unless at the uttermost end of need, but set beyond his grasp, save by a victory so final that what befell would not trouble us, being dead.”

So Denethor would use the Ring “at the uttermost end of need” and he judges that he above all others has the capacity to judge when that time has come. We have seen already that the Ring will twist the heart of even the strongest. Gandalf and Galadriel have both been offered it by Frodo and both have been sorely tempted to take it but both have resisted the temptation. Denethor does not even recognise this as a temptation. To him it would be a gift, an opportunity to be grasped by the bold and by those who are worthy to receive it. And he judges himself to be worthy.

Denethor has lived his life as one given to fantasy. In his fantasy he is the wise and benevolent lord of the West, the one who achieves the final victory over Sauron and all his allies, the one who receives the grateful thanks and submission of all free peoples, the one who rules over them in wisdom and might. In another post at a later date on this blog we will think more about Denethor and the Palantir but suffice to say on this occasion that Sauron, who sees all weakness in others but never their greatness, has fed this fantasy over many years. Indeed the very reason that Denethor has used the Palantir is because of this fantasy. Denethor believes himself to be strong enough to use it even as he believes himself strong enough to use the Ring. But his belief is a delusion. He has disastrously misjudged his own capacity.

True strength and true wisdom involves the capacity to judge these things aright. The strong know their weakness better than any. This is why Faramir does not take the Ring, either for himself or for Denethor and why Aragorn deems that he can challenge Sauron in the Palantir. Faramir knows that he could only take possession of the Ring by force against one weaker than himself and he will not dishonour himself and all that he holds dear by doing so. Not even his father’s specious argument of “uttermost need” could persuade him otherwise. On the other hand Aragorn is the heir of Elendil to whom the Palantir were given and so he judges that he has the right and the strength to use it. Denethor has neither the right nor the strength either to take the Ring nor use the Palantir. He recognises only that he has the opportunity and he misjudges his own strength. The end can only be disaster.

We must achieve wise self-knowledge if we are to act rightly and an essential part of this is to know our weakness. When we are given an honourable job to do then we should act with all boldness believing that we will be given strength to do it. This is why Frodo can take the Ring even though he is only too aware of his weakness. Denethor on the other hand does not and so Gandalf is glad that the Ring never fell within his grasp.

 

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.

 

The White Tree of Gondor Teaches us about Death and Resurrection

Gandalf and Pippin enter the Citadel in Minas Tirith and the white-paved Court of the Fountain where, in the midst, “drooping over the pool, stood a dead tree, and the falling drops dripped sadly from its barren and broken branches back into the clear water. ”

Pippin does not understand why, in such a beautifully tended place, something dead is at the centre. Then some words that Gandalf had spoken come to mind:

Seven stars and seven stones and one white tree.

These are the emblems of Elendil whose ships carried the faithful to Middle-earth from the wreck of Númenor after Sauron had seduced their king into rebellion against the Valar. The white tree was a symbol of renewal descended, as it was, from Nimloth the Fair the tree of Númenor and before that from Galathilion of Telperion in the Deathless Lands. Thus there remains a link between the peoples of Gondor and the Valar and High Elves but it is a link  contained in something that is dead.

Sauron has always had a particular hatred for the tree, knowing what it represents. To Sauron it means that only through submission to the Valar and their judgement could there ever be a reconciliation and forgiveness.  He clings to the belief that he can achieve mastery over all life, that he can resist the Valar and the Ring is the entire focus of that belief. When he was a prisoner in Númenor he persuaded Ar Pharazôn to cut down Nimloth the Fair. Númenor’s king had become convinced that the Valar held the gift of immortality and kept it deliberately from him. Through Sauron’s persuasion Ar Pharazôn had come to see all links to the Valar as a part of their denial of life to him. Nimloth the Fair was a key symbol of that link. But to the Elf Friends, the house of Elendil, it was not a symbol of denial but of hope and renewal. Isildur, at great risk to himself,  took a sapling of Nimloth before it could be cut down. He was wounded almost to his death in the attempt but in the first spring after he had taken the sapling the young tree flowered and Isildur was healed.

It was only after the failing of the line of kings in Gondor that the tree finally died and no sapling could be found but the tree was never cut down. Always it stood in the Court of the Fountain in Minas Tirith as a sign of hope that one day the king would return but now the dead tree has stood there for over three hundred years and is there any hope left?

The hope lies, not in some form of resuscitation, the continuing of some kind of existence in a body that must inevitably die, but in an ending that must lead to a renewing. The Gondor of the Stewards that has so bravely resisted the darkness is about to come to an end but the king will return.

I write this at the beginning of the week that Christians call, Holy. It is a week when we are called to think most especially about the ending of things as we follow Jesus on his journey towards the cross and towards death and burial. If we understand these things aright then we will come to know that our lives are not about an effort to continue existence, to hold the day of ending at bay for as long as a we can. We will come to know that we can face all our endings without fear, whether they are the loss of a job, of a career, of reputation, of wealth or health or even the loss of someone we love or the loss of our own life. We will come to know that our all our endings are beginnings that point to the day of resurrection and a transformation that can have nothing to do with death but only life. About what that means we can can catch only glimpses now but even the glimpses tell us that what lies before us is entirely wonderful, it is bliss, it is delight.