Snaga knows that he is up against a Power much greater than he is.

Until I began to think about writing this post I had never wondered how it was that Snaga managed to be one of only two orcs left alive in the Tower of Cirith Ungol (the other being Shagrat) after the fight over Frodo’s mithril coat. To be honest I had never really thought much about Snaga at all. But as I thought about this part of the story I began to see that Snaga is one of life’s survivors until, that is, he thinks himself safe enough to strike out at Frodo with a whip. Until that point I think that Snaga managed to stay out of the trouble. As he tells Shagrat he sees it “through a window”. There is more than one way to be an orc. One is to be a warrior thug like Gorbag bullying your way to the top until you meet your match as he does in Shagrat. Another is to be a mean sneak with a keen nose for danger and how to stay out of it, a bigger version of Gollum you might say. You take whatever you need to survive, prepared to murder, if necessary, but you let the Gorbags and the Shagrats get their way. It is safer that way.

And that is where Snaga helps us to understand something that has been happening ever since Frodo raised the Star Glass of Galadriel in the darkness of Shelob’s Lair. A Power has entered Mordor, Snaga can sense it, and he is afraid.

If we recall some of the events since that moment it will help us to see what is happening. In raising the Star Glass Frodo brings the light of a Silmaril into Shelob’s endless night. In defeating Shelob in battle Sam finds a strength to do something that no one has done before. When Sam raises the phial of Galadriel before the hideous malice of the Watchers he feels “their will waver and crumble into fear”. And when Snaga confronts Sam on the tower steps it is not a small frightened hobbit that he meets but “a great silent shape, cloaked in a grey shadow, looming against the wavering light behind; in one hand it held a sword, the very light of which was a bitter pain, the other was clutched at his breast, but held concealed some nameless menace of power and doom”.

The menace, of course, is the Ring, but this is not the Power that has entered Mordor. We saw that the Power is not the Ring last week when Sam was tempted to claim it and to challenge Sauron. The Ring is trying to return to its master and will betray Sam. Sam realises this. “He’d spot me pretty quick, if I put the Ring on now, in Mordor.” The Power can use the menace of the Ring as it does to terrify Snaga but its purpose is not the same as the purpose of the Ring. If it was then it would have succeeded in betraying Sam and returning to Sauron.

No, the Power that has entered Mordor is something that Snaga can sense and is afraid of but it is not something that he can understand and nor  even can his master, the Dark Lord. Snaga has spiritual insight of a kind but only the kind that knows about power over others. Such a spiritual insight knows about exercising power over those who are weaker or submitting to those whose power is greater. It knows it well because it has practiced that spirituality for a long time. But it knows nothing about Goodness, Beauty, Truth, Mercy or Pity because it has rejected all of these for the sake of gaining power over others. The gospels call it gaining the world but losing your soul.

It is Goodness, Beauty, Truth, Mercy and Pity that have entered Mordor keeping company with two small hobbits who have done the simple act of laying down their lives for their friends. No one has greater love than this. No one who has rejected Love can ever grasp it. And only those who have chosen the way of humility in the way that Frodo and Sam have done can keep company with this kind of Power.

 

 

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.

 

Éowyn After Aragorn: What Becomes of the Broken-hearted?

We all know the clichés that attend a broken heart.

Hell hath no fury like a woman spurned! 

We know the stories of revenge and bitterness. They have been told again and again. But what of Éowyn? We know her shame as she watched the dishonouring of her people and of their king. We know that she was always aware that she was being watched by Wormtongue. She was to be one of the prizes that he would gain amidst the ruin of Rohan, a trinket to be carried off and enjoyed by the victor in the fight. We know too that although she was a warrior her role was always confined to be dry nurse to the broken man who was Théoden.

Then Aragorn comes into her life and with him comes the awakening of hope and the possibility of happiness. She knows that he is a captain that men will follow. The arrival of the Dúnedain in Edoras, a mighty company following their lord and hero, merely confirms to her what she can already see for herself.

And then he leaves her and he will not take her with him even though she pleads with him. All the hope that has begun to awaken in her heart is dashed; both hope for her people and hope for herself. And perhaps, too, in the lonely watches of the night, she has pictured herself as a mighty queen adored by her people. Can we blame her? We may remember the moment when Frodo offered the Ring to Galadriel.

“You will give me the Ring freely! In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair!”

Such words do not come from nowhere as if in an unthinking manner. Galadriel, too, had allowed herself dreams of greatness. So too had Boromir. So too had Saruman. So too had Lotho Sackville-Baggins. So too had Gollum “the Great”. Dreams of greatness are common both to the mighty among us and also to the weak. It is not our dreams that distinguish us from one another but the actions that we take in consequence of our dreams. Among the list of dreamers that we have just named Boromir tries to take the Ring from Frodo although he triumphs gloriously over his temptation in giving his life for Merry and Pippin; Saruman betrays the peoples of Middle-earth and the Valar who gave him his mission; Lotho becomes an ally of Saruman and betrays the Shire into his hands; and we know the long and tragic tale of Gollum.

And Galadriel?

“I pass the test,” she said. “I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel.”

Éowyn, too, will “pass the test” eventually, but even in her darkest moments she will not betray her people and become an agent of darkness. In her deepest despair and desire for death she will remain true to the love that she has for Théoden who has been as a father to her. When, in the battle, Théoden falls under the attack of the Lord of the Nazgûl and all his household knights are slain or, through the terror of their horses, desert him, Éowyn does not desert him. And, as Anne Marie Gazzolo recently commented on this blog, she is there to be the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy.

Ultimately it is not her dreams that will determine her destiny but her long practice of faithfulness to the drudgery of her life in Meduseld and the practice, too, of her love for Théoden. It is our practice that will determine our destiny although eventually we will have to surrender to a grace that is greater even than our practice, even as Éowyn will in order to fulfil that destiny. And it is that practice that will sustain us through our darkest nights as it did for Eówyn “when all her life seemed shrinking, and the walls of her bower closing in about her, a hutch to trammel some wild thing in.”

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.

Sam Shows Us How to Make Good Mistakes

Perhaps we should not be too harsh on Sam. Ever since the sundering of the Fellowship at Parth Galen above the Falls of Rauros he has been forced by reason of necessity to live on a diet of the Elves’ waybread alone. “This waybread keeps you on your legs in a wonderful way,” he said to Frodo earlier in the journey, “though it doesn’t satisfy the innards proper as you might say: not to my feeling anyhow, meaning no disrespect to them as made it.”

Sam has long desired for something he can put in the pot and with that purpose in mind he has carried his cooking gear on the journey across the Dead Marshes to the Black Gate and then into Ithilien. Now at last in the woodlands of that once fair land he has the chance to use his gear and with the aid of Sméagol he is able to clean, prepare, cook and then eat two rabbits on his campfire. At least Sméagol offered his aid to catch the rabbits. Once he realised that Sam did not intend to eat them raw no more aid was forthcoming and soon he departed to catch and eat his own prey.

It was the campfire that led to the capture of the hobbits. Perhaps Sam is a little too content after doing the first cooking he has been able to do for such a long time for when he goes to wash his gear he forgets to smother his fire and it is the smoke rising from it that draws his captors to him. Four tall men stand before Frodo and Sam, two with spears in their hands and two with great bows; all with swords at their sides. They are men of Gondor and their Captain is Faramir, son of Denethor, the Steward of Gondor.

I said a few moments ago that perhaps we should not be too harsh on Sam. He longed to cook something that he regarded as properly nourishing for Frodo, the master that he loves. Sam’s whole identity is founded upon his determination to serve and to deny this would be to do harm to something essential, even holy in himself. It is this sense of identity that causes him to hate Gollum who he regards as utterly false. So if Sam is going to make a mistake we would expect it to be the result of his identity. That is what makes Sam and Gollum so different. When Gollum murdered Déagol long ago in order to take the Ring from him he had to deny something essential in himself. Sam does not do this when he forgets to smother his fire. He has made a mistake but he has not denied his true self.

Is it because of this that Sam and Frodo fall into the hands of a good man and not one who is false or into the hands of a company of orcs? I wish I could say so but to do that would be to say that in some way those who enjoy good fortune deserve it; or, alternatively, that those whose fortune is bad equally deserve theirs. To say such a thing is not true and does no good either to those who say it or to those about whom it is said. “Somewhere in my youth or childhood I must have done something good,” sings Captain von Trapp as he holds Maria in his arms. I think we can safely say that he is happily mocking himself and giving thanks for a good fortune he does not feel he deserves. I am glad that Tolkien does not make Frodo and Sam suffer for Sam’s gentle mistake. Such suffering still lies before them. But whether we suffer or not we cannot do good with a mistake that flows from a denial of our true self. One that flows from the true self can always lead to good because good was always intended.

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.

Happy are Those Who Struggle

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.

But…

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.