Choice and Serenity: A Lesson from Aragorn

It is some weeks since this blog reflected upon the adventures of Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas, and their pursuit of the captors of Merry and Pippin across the wide plains of Rohan. It has been longer still since we thought about Aragorn’s inner turmoils after the fall of Gandalf; how he was torn between his longing to go to Minas Tirith with Boromir to aid its people in the wars against Mordor and his sense of responsibility to Frodo, the Ringbearer. I wrote about the day when Aragorn ran uselessly here and there as Boromir first tried to sieze the Ring from Frodo and then fell alone in battle trying to protect Merry and Pippin from the orcs of Isengard.

I wrote about the moment when he crashed through the trees into the glade, wielding the mighty sword of his glorious ancestors that had cut the Ring from the hand of Sauron, crying “Elendil”  he did so and finding that the battle was already at an end. At that moment Aragorn was in despair. http://www.stephenwinter.net/page6.htm#140191

“This is a bitter end. Now the Company is all in ruin. It is I that have failed. Vain was Gandalf’s trust in me. What shall I do now?”

The choice that he makes at that moment is one that takes him away, both from the Quest of the Ring and from his longing to fulfill the promise to Boromir to go to Minas Tirith. He chooses to follow Merry and Pippin, the two members of the Company, who, until that point in the story, have contributed least to their task. Any utilitarian assessment of the greatest good at the moment when he makes his choice would tell him that regretably he must abandon Merry and Pippin to their fate and that at least their deaths might be worthwhile if the Ring can be destroyed and Minas Tirith be delivered. But Aragorn is no utilitarian and neither is he a soft-hearted or, might we say, soft-headed sentimentalist. He chooses to trust Frodo’s choice to go on alone knowing that the Council have entrusted him with the task of destroying the Ring. And he cannot go to Minas Tirith having abandoned his comrades. He will follow them even if the pursuit is in vain.

In one sense the pursuit, though heroic, is indeed in vain. It is not through his efforts that Merry and Pippin are freed. It is not Aragorn who rouses the Ents to march upon Isengard. At one point Legolas remarks that they have made this great journey to little purpose and as they journey further into Fangorn Forest Gimli is even more blunt.

“If we do not find them soon, we shall be of no use to them, except to sit down beside them, and show our friendship but starving together.”

Yet Aragorn is serene through all this. “If that is indeed all we can do,” he says, “then we must do that. Let us go on.”

Aragorn has made his choice and once made he will waste no time upon regret. He has done all that needs to be done. We might say that there is some providential link, a synchronicity, between his choice and all the great events that will follow. We might say that if we choose rightly then good things will follow even if we cannot prove a direct link between our choice and the subsequent good. But we cannot prove such a link and Aragorn would not wish to attempt such a proof. He would regard this as an attempt at self-justification and a craven act to which he would never stoop. That is his greatness and the reason why Legolas and Gimli will go with him. And if we would know the peace that Aragorn knows then we too will seek only to make the right choice and then to act upon without regret.

A Hobbit’s Guide to Synchronicity

Free at last from their orc captors Merry and Pippin run deeper into Fangorn Forest along the line of the Entwash as quickly as the tangled forest will allow until they reach a steep hill with what appears to be a kind of natural stair cut into its side. They can see the sun shining upon the hill top and keen to get some kind of idea of where they are and to enjoy the sun they decide to climb the stair.

“Up we go!” said Merry joyfully. “Now for a breath of air and a sight of the land!”

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And so they arrive in time to encounter Treebeard, the oldest of the Ents who are the shepherds of the trees of the forest, an encounter that will change the direction of the whole story. And we might be forgiven for thinking that Tolkien has given way here to one of those rather lazy “just in time” moments, an unlikely coincidence, except for the fact that he believed that such moments do happen. Tolkien believed in Providence and you may remember that Gandalf once said to Frodo that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring and therefore that Frodo was meant to have it too.

For some, like me, who believe in Providence as did Tolkien, it might be enough to have a sense that there is an unseen hand for good at work in the world. Gandalf calls this “an encouraging thought” and it is for those of us who believe in it. I am struck that some normally sceptical people are prepared to believe in Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” of the Market, forgetting perhaps that as well as being an economist Smith was also a moral theologian. I know too that in the 20th century, Carl Gustav Jung developed the idea of Synchronicity, arguing that as well as events being linked by cause and effect they could also be linked by meaning and that in the search for meaning a skilled therapist might help someone look for events that appeared to be coincidences. More recently, Joseph Jaworski, founder of the American Leadership Forum, wrote a book of the same name as a reflection on his own experience as he sought to move from a self-centred and inauthentic life to one that was consciously meaningful and of service to others. The book argues that once we begin the search for meaning in our lives events will, in a sense, conspire to aid us in that search. In his excellent foreword to the book Peter Senge speaks of the essential importance of commitment if we are to live a life that will be shaped, as it were, by synchronous events.

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As we saw last week we might find Pippin scratching his head and smiling ruefully if we were to try and explain this to him. He is unlikely to engage in the kind of search for meaning that we have talked about. But Pippin and Merry know about commitment and have practiced it ever since they decided that they would go with Frodo and Sam when they left The Shire carrying the Ring with them. Gandalf knew about their commitment  too and persuaded Elrond that he should trust their friendship as being of more importance to the success of the Quest of the Ring than the presence in the Fellowship of two trusted members of his household. Merry and Pippin may have thought of themselves as being a nuisance, mere luggage on the journey, but it is their friendship, their total commitment to Frodo, that brings them, carried as it were by the orcs, to the story changing encounter with Treebeard that we will think about in the next few weeks. I wonder where the events of your life might be carrying you?