Sméagol, Gollum and the Great Spiritual Battle

The great spiritual battle inside us is a universal human experience. In his letter to the Romans Paul wrote that he did not understand his own actions: “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”

This is the experience of every person who wishes to do what is right but Gollum or Sméagol has not wanted to do what is right ever since the day he murdered Déagol in order to take the Ring from him. What possible struggle could still continue in the heart of someone who has not willed the good for over five hundred years? That Tolkien could even imagine the possibility of such a struggle in the heart that is so corrupted tells us what he believed about the capacity of the heart to go on fighting, about the greatness of the person. For our greatness lies in our capacity for freedom; either freedom for the good or for the wrong. Does Sméagol still have such capacity?

There is a scene in The Lord of the Rings that suggests that he has at least a remnant of the capacity for such a struggle even as Gandalf once hinted that he might. It takes place as the hobbits draw close to the Morannon the Black Gate that forms the only way into Mordor upon its northern border. They camp in a pit that is “cold and dead” even as the land about them is also. As Frodo sleeps Sam overhears a strange conversation in which Sméagol talks to himself, or rather to Gollum. It would appear that they know each other for there is a kind of familiarity in their speech with each other that suggests that they have been doing this for a very long time indeed. Gollum is angry and cruel, seeking to regain the Ring, seeking to make those who have hurt him pay for what they have done. Sméagol, on the other hand, is a cringing, whining creature. Do we have here something of a hint of the creature that lived before he took the Ring? Was Sméagol a weak creature who immediately desired the Ring seeing it as something that might help him overcome his own weakness? Was Gollum the persona that he developed in his own spiritual battle? For the one who wishes to do right the battle is always against that within themselves that does what is wrong. It is a battle that they lose again and again but they keep on fighting. For Gollum it is the weak and miserable Sméagol that must be overcome if he is to survive. For Gollum the Ring must be regained if he is to defeat his own weakness as well as those who are his enemies. For such a person the shadow is goodness understood as weakness.

But whoever wins out it is clear that both Gollum and Sméagol are small, unhappy creatures. The limit of Gollum’s ambition is to become strong, to become “Gollum the Great”. And his greatness will be expressed by eating fish “every day, three times a day, fresh from the sea.” Perhaps before we smile at this we might want to examine what we wish for when we are tempted to be great. In what manner would we express our greatness? In what does true greatness lie if it does not lie in our fantasies?

We have already spoken of greatness not as the desire for power over others as Gollum, Sauron or Saruman would have us believe but as the desire for goodness. We have seen that those who desire goodness will have to fight throughout their lives against that within themselves that will do wrong. It is the battle that expresses greatness. It is the battle that declares that we are free people. As Paul puts it later in his letter: “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.”

Songs that Come to Us out of Strange Places

It is through the intervention of the Ents of Fangorn that victory is won at Helm’s Deep but this frightens the Riders of Rohan more perhaps than did the enemies they faced in the battle. For a kind of disenchantment has been at work among them for a very long time. You may remember that when Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli first encountered Eomer and his war band upon the plains of Rohan they met with mistrust and some fear. When Eomer heard that the friends had met Galadriel in Lothlorien he reacted with both wonder but also fearful hostility.

“Then there is a Lady in the Golden Wood, as old tales tell!” he said. “Few escape her nets, they say. These are strange days! But if you have her favour, then you also are net-weavers and sorcerers, maybe.”

Théoden’s reaction to his first encounter with Ents is less hostile, perhaps, after all he has just benefitted from their timely intervention, but it is hardly less ignorant! He declares that he knows nothing of them so Gandalf takes the opportunity to teach him a few home truths and he shows Théoden that they are indeed truths he once learned in his own home.

“They are the shepherds of the trees…Is it so long since you listened to tales by the fireside? There are children in your land who, out of the twisted threads of story, could pick the answer to your question. You have seen Ents, Ents out of Fangorn Forest, which in your tongue you call the Entwood. Did you think that the name was given only in idle fancy?”

Théoden’s response shows that he may be ignorant as are his people but that he does ponder things deeply.

“Out of the shadows of legend I begin to understand the marvel of the trees, I think…Songs we have that tell of these things, but we are forgetting them, teaching them only to children, as a careless custom. And now the songs have come down among us out of strange places, and walk visible under the Sun.”

Théoden’s musings tell the tale of our own times too. What we know call Fairy Tales are stories thought to be fit only for children and so the very word, Fairy, is considered childish and the culture in which these tales arose, the culture of our medieval ancestors, is thought to have been immature and in need of enlightenment. Indeed from the time of the Enlightenment onward such tales became, as Théoden put it, taught only to children “as a careless custom”.

Recently it has been noted by many critics that much of the best writing of our time has been written ostensibly for children though sadly one leading author in the UK commented that he was disturbed by the sight of adults on trains reading Harry Potter. In the packed church in which I watched a school nativity play this morning there was an atmosphere of delight as parents and grandparents gazed upon their young dressed as characters from the gospel stories. There is a general acceptance that faith is a good thing for children especially when linked to a moral education but one, sadly perhaps, that must be left behind on leaving childhood. And yet the word adult when used as an adjective to describe books, films, pictures etc. is used to denote a deeply immature sexuality that has perhaps a place in an occasional time of carnival as ancient societies knew but is deeply destructive of mature sexual relationships and mature societies when it becomes the norm.

Thankfully Tolkien himself created a mythology that speaks to both adults and children in our own time. His work has transformed the lives of many and sowed seeds of enchantment among many more that will bear fruit. I pray that we too may find songs coming down to us “out of strange places” that may “walk visible under the Sun.”

What Can the Weather Teach Us?

Gandalf and Théoden emerge from the darkened hall and stand upon the highest stair. How long is it since Théoden last stood there? As if to emphasise the point Tolkien tells us that a keen wind is whistling in through the doors and breaking up the musty stillness of the hall.

“Now, lord,” says Gandalf, “look out upon your land! Breathe the free air again!”

And as Théoden breathes and the cold air fills his lungs Tolkien tells us that “curtains of wind-blown rain were slanting down.” In his first venture into the open air in many a long day the king of Rohan is getting wet!

It is, of course, no mistake that Tolkien wishes to draw our attention to the weather. The contrast must be drawn between the dead and darkened air of Théoden’s hall with a wizened old man shrinking into the shadows and the keen air that blows over a wide land bearing a cleansing rain upon a mighty king who has come into the light. Théoden is being washed clean and he must stand and take whatever the weather chooses to throw at him. We might even say that he needs this weather; that a warm and gentle breeze upon a spring morning would not be sufficient for him.

It is the essence of the Babel story found in the bible that humankind wishes to create a city that shuts God out, one that is self-controlled and self-contained. In our own time we seem closer than ever before to making the story a reality. Our ability to create micro-environments in homes, places of leisure and work and in the modes of transport that take us from one to another of these places bears witness to our mastery over the world. We are the lords of Babel indeed! We are our own gods now! We may note that just as in the old story the peoples may be divided from one another but we have progressed from the early story-tellers and their world. We can build high walls with strong gates to bar the outsider so that our personal Babels are both environmentally and socially controlled. London may be the tuberculosis capital of Europe but as long as we can keep the poor who are afflicted by the disease from our gates then it matters very little. We may even be able to persuade our government to withdraw the right to free healthcare from such people and so reduce our taxes.

And while this happens we do not even notice that spiritually we are becoming the shrunken dwarf that was Théoden before Gandalf freed him. We do not know that we become ever more helpless before our foes for we surround ourselves with counselors like Wormtongue in the form of our newspapers and other media outlets and in our gatherings of like minded acquaintances.

How we need a Gandalf to set us free from our darkened halls, to lead us out into real and uncontrolled weather and to make us stand there until we are made clean by the icy rains of reality. How we need a counselor who will say to us, “cast aside regret and fear… do the deed at hand.” One who will take us out of the half lives of our present age and make us truly human, fully alive.

And if we do not have such a counselor then we must take ourselves out into the weather day after day until it has taught us that which we need to hear.

Living a Life that is Too Big for Us

It was a year ago, after trying to write a book about The Lord of the Rings for the best part of a couple of years and basically getting nowhere, that I discovered that although I did not seem capable of writing a thousand words a day and constructing whole chapters I could write 500-700 words each week and post it as a Blog. This isn’t a boast on my part but I seem to be able to construct what would be a weekly column if I were writing for a newspaper. And so that is what I have been doing ever since that time. I have been journeying with Frodo Baggins and his companions all the way from Bilbo Baggins’s Birthday Party till Merry and Pippin’s encounter with Treebeard in the Forest of Fangorn after their escape from the Orcs and as I have done so I have written a weekly reflection on each section that I have read. I have not tried to be scholarly. I am just someone who has been reading this great work since being introduced to it by my schoolmate, Jon Flint, when I was about 14 or 15 years old. That is over forty years now and I feel that I have something to say about a book that I have loved ever since that time. I share J.R.R Tolkien’s Christian faith although not his Roman Catholicism. Like Tolkien’s great friend and collaborator, C.S Lewis, I am an Anglican.

Reading The Lord of the Rings slowly and thoughtfully has been a rich experience and I hope that I have managed to convey some of that in my weekly blogs. I have been especially caught up with the hobbits who find themselves in a story that is too big for them. And although they grow with the story they can never become heroic figures like Aragorn or Boromir. All they can do is to offer what they can the best they can. There are some in the story who have great discernment and see this offer as a deed of great worth. Faramir of Gondor is one and so is Treebeard of Fangorn who allows Merry and Pippin to lead him into an adventure that is likely to end with the destruction of the Ents. Come to think of it, both of them allow themselves to be carried into stories too big for them as well.

If there is a Christmas message in this (and I hope you won’t mind me for looking for one at this season) then it is the idea of a God who chooses to come among us and to commit himself to the same experience that we know, living a life that is too big for us and yet doing it with faithfulness, joy and love.

If you want to look at any of my earlier blogs from December 2012 to October 2013 you will find a complete archive on my website http://www.stephenwinter.net/page6.htm and whatever you do over the Feast of the Nativity may you do it with joy and delight.