Sam Gamgee Finds Simplicity at the Tower of Cirith Ungol

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!”


Frodo and Sam Lead Us into the Dark

Should I say that Frodo and Sam lead us into the dark? It is the last place that either of them wish to go and this is no ordinary dark.  This is the  dark of Shelob’s Lair, a deeper and a denser dark even than the tunnels of Moria, “a black vapour wrought of veritable darkness itself that, as it was breathed, brought blindness not only to the eyes but to the mind, so that even the memory of colours and of forms and of any light faded out of thought.  Night had always been,  and always would be, and night was all.”

Neither Frodo nor Sam ever wished to be here. Gollum wished otherwise for this is his act of betrayal.  He has led them into this trap into to have them killed and so, he hopes, to recover the Ring. Perhaps I should have entitled this piece, “Gollum leads us into the dark.” But my choice of title was deliberate.  Readers of The Lord of the Rings are here because they have come to love Frodo and Sam.

And I have another meaning. I  cannot read this part of the story without thinking of my own experience of darkness.  I have never been in a darkness in which I have been afraid. Once in Africa  I remember being guided through a darkness so deep that I could only just make out my guide in front of me but I was not afraid because I trusted him, even though he was a stranger, and my trust proved justifiable. I reached a safe place from which I could continue my journey the next day. No, for me the darkness that is fearful is an inner darkness. This is the darkness in which “even the memory of colours and of forms and of any light” fades out of thought. In his “East Coker” T.S Eliot puts it this way :

“O dark, dark, dark. They all go into the dark…/ And we all go with them into the silent funeral. No one’s funeral for there is no one to bury.”

And in the lines between those that I have quoted he makes it clear that being of good reputation is of no protection from the journey into the dark. It is one that we all must take. And the darknesses through which we pass during our lives are most fearful because they speak to us of the dark at the end of life.  The dark from which we fear there will be no end. Frodo and Sam feel this: “One hour, two hours, three hours : how many had they passed in this lightless hole? Hours- days, weeks rather.”

The dark that we are certain will end does not have the power of the dark that we fear to be endless. Yet so many of the great myths seem to require of their heroes such a journey. Tolkien knew this very well and the True Myth that he spoke of in a conversation with C.S Lewis,  a conversation that changed Lewis’s life for ever, speaks of a journey through the total darkness of death itself, a journey into an a aliveness so complete that death can have nothing to do with it at all. Eliot speaks of it in “East Coker”, “I said to my soul, be still,  and let the dark come upon you which shall be the darkness of God.”

So there is a darkness of God.  And it is a real darkness,  not the gentle turning down of the lights for an intimate evening together but the terrible darkness of death itself, the dark through which Jesus passed of which the creeds speak saying that he descended into hell. Eliot speaks of it in our experience in these words:

“I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope for hope would be hope of the wrong thing; wait without love for love would be love of the wrong thing;  there is yet faith but the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting. ”

So we have to learn how to die before we die so that we can truly live without fear of death or of the darknesses that come upon us in our lifetime.  We learn how to die in order to be fully alive.

Frodo Teaches Us about a Condition of Complete Simplicity Costing not less than Everything

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.

And The Stillness The Dancing

Last week I wrote about Théoden, King of Rohan, offering himself as suffering servant to his people in their darkest hour; and the week before about Eowyn gazing into the west as the armies of Rohan went to war. And there is a line from T.S Eliot’s “Four Quartets” that comes to mind as I think about these moments in the story.

“So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.”

In thinking about this line I hope we will see that Théoden and Eowyn are in different places in their spiritual journeys at this point of the story and perhaps we might gain some insight into our own story, our own journey.

Théoden has embraced the dark journey not as one who seeks to be the servant of the dark as does Sauron and now Saruman too but as one who has come to trust a loving goodness that can only be found upon that journey. Through all the sad days of his decline he had believed the great lie that Grima Wormtongue had told him that the dark was both something to be feared and yet also inevitable. And in believing the lie he did what all who believe it must do and that is do all he can to shut out the dark for as long as possible. Now he is able to lead his people into battle not as some last despairing howl of rage but as an act of faith. Théoden and the people who will follow him will find through this act of faith that the darkness is the light.

Proud and faithful Eowyn whose part in the story has been to watch the decline of her king who was a man who had been as a father to her, and with him her people also, has not yet reached that place of rest. As she gazes after the riders as they pass into the west her hope is in one of them and her longing is for him also. For in her encounter with Aragorn, mighty heir of Elendil and Isildur, she has met one she believes can free her from her shame and despair. She longs to be at peace but by choosing this way to peace she can never find it.

One day she will find her peace even as Théoden has found it but she must make her dark journey too and we must be lovingly patient with her and with ourselves also. Few of us will discover that the darkness is the light and the stillness the dancing except by way of despair. We may spend years hoping for the wrong thing or loving the wrong thing but on making that journey we will eventually learn to wait and as Théoden has found, “the faith and the hope and the love are all in the waiting.”

“I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope

For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love

For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith

But the faith and the hope and the love are all in the waiting.

Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:

So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.”