The Battle Before the Black Gate. Do the Best Stories have Happy Endings?

I had intended to return to Frodo and Sam at the Tower of Cirith Ungol this week but I felt that I needed to offer one last meditation on the “hopeless” battle before the Black Gate of Mordor before I leave it for a while. At the very least I felt that I owe it to Pippin who is lying under the body of a Troll chieftain that he has just valiantly slain in defence of Beregond of the Guard, his friend. I can’t just leave him there without hope!

When I first read The Return of the King as a teenager it was a volume that I had borrowed from my school library. After eating my evening meal I disappeared to my room and read and read and read…

I wonder how long it took me to read the section from the end of Book 5 and the battle before the Black Gate to the moment when Gandalf calls upon the armies of the West to “stand and wait!” I was reading as fast as I could but even so it must have been a good hour or so before I got there. Tolkien’s happy ending, his eucatastrophe, as he termed it, was something for which I was made to wait. I had to endure the endless journey through the horror of Mordor that Frodo and Sam had to make in order to reach Mount Doom and once there I had to watch helplessly with Sam as Frodo failed in his mission and all was saved only by the unlooked for intervention of Gollum.

But still the happy ending came. Did it come because of the courage of the Armies of the West and their brave captains? Did it come because of the faithful witness to the Good that Gandalf had born through the long centuries of his sojourn in Middle-earth? Did it come because of the friendship of the nine companions who set out from Rivendell just three months before? Did it come because Frodo staggered, step by weary step, supported and, at the last, carried by Sam up the slopes of Mount Doom?

After we have given due praise to all of the characters that we have come to know and love in Tolkien’s great work, and each of them deserves great praise, we have to say that none of these things actually brings about the happy ending. That comes through grace alone, from something that lies beyond the endless repetition of cause and effect.

This is one of Tolkien’s greatest contributions to the culture of our time and one which has brought the greatest anger from literary critics. Most of all Tolkien has been accused of being an escapist. Life, real life, the critics say, is not like that. Tolkien is treating us as if we are children. This is mere fairy tale and it is time for us to grow up and embrace reality.

Tolkien faced this criticism head on in an essay first printed in 1947 entitled, On Fairy-Stories. In it he wrote, “I coined the word ‘eucatastrophe’: the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears  (which I argued it is the highest function of fairy-stories to produce). And I was there led to the view that it produces its peculiar effect because it is a sudden glimpse of Truth, your whole nature chained in material cause and effect, the chain of death, feels a sudden relief as if a major limb out of joint had suddenly snapped back”.

It is this “sudden glimpse of Truth” that is so subversive to the “chain of death” that is held to be the only reality by the so-called modernists. And it is precisely from that prison, surrounded by the chain of death, from which Tolkien calls us to escape. Is it a coward who cannot face up to reality who tries to escape from this prison? Surely it is the ones who tell us that the prison is the only reality and that there is no freedom beyond it who lack courage. The courageous life is the one that refuses to submit to the tyranny of the “chain of death” as do Tolkien’s heroes.

 

 

Frodo Shows What the Gift of Laughter can Teach Us

Frodo has come at last to the Morannon, the Black Gate of Mordor, with its mighty watch-towers. “Stony-faced they were, with dark window-holes staring north and east and west, and each window was full of sleepless eyes.”. He has come with no idea of how he is to go any further and only his sense of duty can impel him to to try to go on. All he can foresee is his own death and the failure of his mission but he stands with his face “grim and set, but resolute,” and his eyes are clear. Sam never had much hope in the affair but, as Tolkien tells us, “being a cheerful hobbit he had not needed hope, as long as despair could be postponed,” and even as he reaches the end he can still die beside his master and so know that his life has not been without meaning.

It is at this moment that Gollum offers them an alternative: “a little path leading up into the mountains; and then a stair, a narrow stair…And then… a tunnel, a dark tunnel; and at last a little cleft, and a path high above the main pass.”

So this then is the choice that lies before them. On the one hand there is a brave, even noble, death at the hands of the Enemy, but with the knowledge that with their capture and death so too will die all the hopes of their friends and all that they hold dear. On the other hand there is a possibility offered to them by one they know to be false and murderous. How should they choose at such a moment?

For Sam there is only one choice and that is to stay true to his master. He sees no need to choose between options. All he needs to do is to follow. Sam is sure that Gollum will betray them if he can but that will not sway his own choice in any way. Frodo, on the other hand, must make a choice that gives at least some possibility that his mission his can be fulfilled.

How then does he decide?

The moment of decision comes when something entirely unexpected breaks into hours of agonised thought. Even as the day of choice has been passing companies of soldiers have been arriving at the gate in order to swell the armies of Mordor and as one arrives from the far south Sam’s curiosity causes him to forget his fear and to ask Gollum if he has seen oliphaunts among them, “Grey as a mouse, big as a house”. Sam chants a verse about them and tells Gollum what he knows of them and Frodo laughs. He laughs “in the midst of all his cares” and the laugh releases him from all hesitation. He will entrust himself to Gollum once more.

Frodo’s laughter is not the grim laughter of one staring the inevitability of death in the face and so making one last gesture of defiance before the night falls. And it is most certainly not the ravenous and mocking laughter most usually heard in that land, a laughter taking pleasure in the misfortune of another. Frodo’s laughter is the inbreaking of a reality that runs entirely counter to the reality of death that seems to govern our lives declaring endlessly and monotonously as it does so that there is no alternative; that the best we can make of this cruel joke is to try to make some deal with it just as those who belong to the peoples who have made Sauron their overlord have done, just as the many minor functionaries of the Third Reich did. Theologian, James Alison speaks of the alternative reality that breaks in upon Frodo’s unhappy thoughts in these terms when he speaks of Jesus going to his own death:

“I am going to my own death,” he imagines Jesus saying in his reflection on John 15.12-14 ” to make possible for you a model of creative practice which is not governed by death. From now on this is the only commandment that counts: that you should live your lives as a creative overcoming of death.”

Sam’s rhyme about oliphaunts and Frodo’s cheerful laughter makes the life that is not governed by death real once more and in the light of that reality they can continue their journey.