Some people think that simplicity means having less of everything; just a few clothes and other possessions in a dwelling with little furniture. They are partly right because simplicity may lead to a life that does not carry too much about upon its back but Sam Gamgee teaches us true simplicity at the Tower of Cirith Ungol.
Not that this was ever his intention. He would rather regard it as being above himself to set himself up as a teacher to “wise folks such as yourselves”. No he never intended to be a teacher. He just finds himself in a place that he never intended to be and must do what he can. It is as… well… as simple as that.
It is over a year on this blog, that is a conscious seeking for wisdom from The Lord of the Rings, since we were last with Frodo and Sam. We spent a year journeying with them from the Emyn Muil, meeting first with Gollum, their strange guide, who took them across the Dead Marshes to the impassable Black Gate of Mordor before persuading them to take another way, a secret way, into Mordor. On that way Gollum betrays them by leading them into the lair of Shelob, a terrible monster in spider form, and although Sam gloriously drives her away Frodo receives a terrible wound from her sting that leaves Sam to believe that he is dead. His heart broken Sam takes the Ring from Frodo and is beginning to set himself to fulfilling the mission that Frodo was given at the Council of Elrond, to take the Ring of Power to the fires in which it was created and to destroy it, but no sooner has he made his choice than a company of orcs come across Frodo’s body. They announce that Frodo is not dead but only poisoned, as is the way with spiders, so that they can eat their prey alive when they wish to do so. Sam is helpless as the orcs carry Frodo into the tower and shut him out.
What can Sam do? This is the simplicity that he is granted at this moment and Tolkien puts it in this way. “He no longer had any doubt about his duty: he must rescue his master or perish in the attempt.”
This is not the kind of simplicity that someone chooses when they wish to make a lifestyle change, when some decluttering needs to take place. This is the simplicity chosen by someone when the one they love is stricken suddenly by a terrible illness and from that moment nothing else matters more to them than to care for them. Or more happily it is the simplicity of a man as he sees his bride enter the church and prepares himself to promise to love and to cherish her until death parts them.
The poet, T.S Eliot, describes this as “a condition of complete simplicity, (costing not less than everything)” that is faith. The philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard describes it as willing just one thing. And Sam himself has not always achieved this simplicity. When he first set out upon his journey he wanted to go with Frodo but he also wanted “to see Elves!” When that wish is fulfilled right at the very beginning Frodo asks him if he still wants to carry on. And when later he sees, in the mirror of Galadriel, the destruction of the Shire that Saruman and his bandits carry out he is torn between going back to sort things out and going on with Frodo. And he will not always know this simplicity. Right at the end of the story when he realises that Frodo is going to leave the Shire he tells Frodo that he is “that torn in two” as he ponders losing Frodo and leaving his new bride and family behind.
True simplicity is first and foremost given to us as a gift. It is rarely a comfortable gift because of what receiving it will cost (not less than everything) but the freedom that accompanies it points us more truly than any other experience to what it means to be fully alive. There is almost a hint of joy in Sam’s voice as his love for Frodo rises above all other thoughts and forgetting his peril he cries aloud: “I’m coming Mr Frodo!”
Almost as soon as I reread the final sentence in last week’s blog posting, “The Darkness Cannot Overcome the Light”, I began to worry about it. For those who need to be reminded of what I wrote here it is again:
“Hell must be harrowed because Hell is but a negligible thing so vulnerable to the invasion of light and so easily overcome by it.”
It is not the negligibility of Hell that is in question. Its expression in The Lord of the Rings is, of course, Mordor, the kingdom created by Sauron during the Second Age that is the centre of his seemingly irresistible power and whose name alone is capable of striking fear into the hearts of those who hear it. Nothing it would seem can possibly withstand it and yet it will fall to two hobbits whose lives could be taken in a moment with one well aimed blow of an orc’s scimitar. Last week I wrote about the hobbits at the city of the Ringwraiths, Minas Morgul. At that point of the story they have already undertaken a journey that the greatest warrior of Gondor would not dare to take and yet how easily they potter past it and onward up the stair of Cirith Ungol. I believe that this perspective is no accidental discovery on my part but a deliberate intention of Tolkien’s and we will come across expressions of it many times as we journey through the remaining pages of his great story. It is a perspective that C.S Lewis expressed in The Great Divorce when the guide to the heavenly country, George MacDonald, affirms that “All Hell is smaller than one pebble of your earthly world: but it is smaller than one atom of this world, the Real World. Look at yon butterfly. If it swallowed all Hell, Hell would not be big enough to do it any harm or to have any taste.”
No, Hell really is negligible and it is profoundly vulnerable to the invasion of light. That is not in question. It was not that statement that bothered me but the last words of the sentence, “so easily overcome by it.” How could I describe the journey of Frodo and Sam as easy when I know how much it cost them? At first I wanted to change what I had written by some simple act of editing but the more I thought about what I wanted to write the more I knew that I needed to write something a little more substantial. I needed to affirm both Hell’s negligibility and the cost of overcoming, harrowing it. In the Christian tradition this is what is understood as the triumph of the cross, the astonishing paradox by which the execution of an accused man is the means by which Death and Hell are utterly defeated. In The Lord of the Rings it is the act by which Frodo and Sam lay down their lives in taking the Ring to the fire. In Peter Jackson’s film this is wonderfully expressed when the screen is darkened for a moment when the flames of the fiery mountain surge about the two friends as Mordor falls into chaos.
Why we can say both that Hell is negligible and yet to overcome it will cost us our lives is the strangest of paradoxes. The butterfly in the heavenly, the Real, world can eat all Hell and yet not even be aware that it has done so and yet it must take the life of the Son of God to overcome it. At the end of T.S Eliot’s The Four Quartets he expresses perfectly the wisdom that may not understand the paradox for paradoxes are not meant to be understood but to be lived. Eliot speaks of:
“A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)”
This is the simplicity that Frodo and Sam achieve at the moment they leave the comparative security of Faramir’s refuge in Ithilien, placing themselves again into the hands of a malicious guide who wishes to do them harm. At the moment they walk away from Faramir they give up their lives. If we are to know the conquering of Hell in our own lives then it will be when we find the same simplicity paying the same cost.
If Sauron were leader of the Fellowship, setting out from Rivendell in possession of the Ring, what would he do? Gandalf knows that it is a question that Sauron has asked himself. Sauron knows that the Fellowship left Rivendell and that they possessed the Ring. He knows something of each member of the Fellowship and that there are hobbits among them. And Gandalf knows that he fears that the Fellowship will go to Minas Tirith and there one of them will wield the Ring, assail Mordor with war, cast him down and take his place. Boromir counselled that they should go to Minas Tirith but not that one of them should wield the Ring. He hid this desire even from himself. And Gandalf and Galadriel were tempted to wield the Ring as well. Remember the occasions when Frodo offered the Ring to them, first to Gandalf at Bag End in the Shire and later to Galadriel in Lothlorien. Remember that both were tempted to the very limits of their strength to take it and seek to use it to cast Sauron down. Sauron knows that both have the capacity to do this and so he is afraid. He will unleash war against Minas Tirith as swiftly as he can before his enemies are strong enough to use the Ring to destroy him.
What if Sauron is wrong? What if, as Gandalf says, “we should wish to cast him down and have no one in his place?” This not is a thought that “occurs to his mind”. And Gandalf continues: “that we should try to destroy the Ring itself has not entered into his darkest dream.” Indeed Sauron is incapable of dreaming such things. Our dreams, whether waking or sleeping, are the fruit of our spiritual practice. By this I do not mean our religious practices although they can be of help to us in the shaping of our spiritual practice. What I mean is how we cultivate our desire. For Gandalf and Galadriel desire is a deeply complex thing. On the one hand they long to heal the world, to right wrongs and set things right. On the other hand the thought that the power to do this might fall into their hands and that they might be the heroic saviours of the world with all flocking to their banner is deeply attractive. You will note that Boromir desired the same thing. But Sauron does not suffer this agony. He has a different agony because for him only one thing has meaning and that is power over others for it is only power that can free him from the fear that haunts him, his agony that never leaves him, the fear that one day someone will have the power to destroy him and take his place.
Happy are those who know spiritual struggle. Happy are those who wrestle against their own weakness and who begin to learn their own limitations. Happy are those who learn to laugh at themselves, who know that they are not the centre of everything and that it is just as well for everyone that this should be so. Happy are those who know that they have a contribution to make and who make it with a proper self respect but who know that others have a contribution to make too and it may be that the others will receive more praise than they will. And happy are those who just sometimes wish that they could be praised too and allow a wry smile as they recognise the lingering potency of that desire!
Unhappy is Sauron and all like him who do not know this struggle, whose spiritual lives are simple, having been reduced to the pursuit of one desire. Kierkegaard once said that simplicity is to will one thing and he is right. Perhaps it is possible to achieve such simplicity in pursuit of the good. There are signs in The Lord of the Rings that Gandalf and Galadriel have achieved such simplicity. Jesus finally achieves it at the moment when he says, “Father into your hands I commend my spirit.” But if it is achieved then it is a victory won as the fruit of a renunciation that is a profound struggle that tests them and everyone who pursue such simplicity to their limit and beyond.
The Temptation of St Anthony
This has to be a word of hope to all of us who struggle. Our struggle should not be a cause of pity in others. Rather others should pity us only if we give up fighting. But more of that next week.