Merry Thinks About “Being Overlooked” Just One More Time

When Meriadoc Brandybuck enters the City he is just one more weary soldier among many others at the end of battle. All attention is given to the King of Rohan whose body is covered in a great cloth of gold and received with state and reverence. And with the king is Éowyn who is borne upon a litter and whose beauty calls forth tender sorrow from all who look upon her.

At the last it is Pippin who finds him as he wanders aimlessly along a narrow lane and as the friends meet again at last Merry sits down upon a step and weeps.

“I wish I could carry you,” Pippin anxiously declares. “You aren’t fit to walk any further. They shouldn’t have let you walk at all; but you must forgive them. So many dreadful things have happened in the City, Merry, that one poor hobbit coming in from the battle is easily overlooked.”

Now those who know Tolkien’s story well will know that Merry has carried a certain resentment about “being overlooked” throughout it. When we first meet him near the Bucklebury Ferry early in the journey of the Ring from the Shire he exudes competence and confidence in everything he does. He is the one who has prepared the cottage at Crickhollow for the frightened travellers, who have encountered the Nazgûl for the first time, with hot baths and a good meal. He is the one who reveals the conspiracy to Frodo and announces that wherever Frodo goes he and Pippin and Sam will go too. He has ponies and provisions ready for the journey and is able to offer local knowledge about the way into The Old Forest and even a little about the forest itself.

And then as soon as he steps outside the world he knows it all starts to unravel. The encounters with Old Man Willow, the Barrow Wight and the later the Nazgûl in Bree, the last of which leads Barliman Butterbur to wonder if he might actually be on his holidays rather than a dangerous adventure, all cause him to lose the confidence with which he began. He is way out of his depth in a story so great and often so terrifying that it is always beyond his conceiving.

And yet he goes on.  It is Gandalf who says to Elrond of Merry and Pippin, “It is true that if these hobbits understood the danger, they would not dare to go. But they would still wish to go, or wish that they had dared, and be shamed and unhappy.” And it is Merry’s refusal to be overlooked that leads him to go to the battle with Éowyn. At no time does he ever feel competent as he did at the outset of the journey but he never gives in and even his resentment, his feeling that he is no more than a piece of luggage to the great ones around him ultimately plays its part. It leads him to the moment when The Lord of the Nazgûl stands over the wounded Éowyn and is about to kill her. So intent is the deadly king upon his prey that he neither sees nor fears what lies behind him. And so it is Merry, “Master Bag”, who thrusts his sword into the tendons behind the knee of one who, until this moment, has believed himself invulnerable. Only Merry the hobbit and Éowyn the woman could have brought down this deadliest of foes and in the strangest of ways it is rejection and “being overlooked” that brings them both together to this vital moment.

Never again will Merry feel resentment about “being overlooked” or, if he does, it will be his memory of this moment that will transform that feeling.

“It’s not always a misfortune being overlooked,” he says to Pippin. “I was overlooked just now by…”

Merry is now both sadder and wiser. His journey to adulthood, as it is for all who really get there, has been one that has been through fear and failure and sorrow. He has given his heart away and seen it broken and now he sits and weeps. But he does not give up. Step by step he keeps on going both to adulthood and a greatness of which he is entirely unaware.

On Gandalf and His “Fool’s Hope”.

Denethor is right!

I never thought that I would be saying this but I seem to have no choice. In the last few weeks on this blog we have been thinking about the weaknesses in his character but especially in the debate following the piece I wrote entitled https://stephencwinter.com/2016/10/27/he-would-have-brought-me-a-mighty-gift-denethor-and-the-ring/ I was strongly challenged by The Joviator to rethink my view of Denethor. I do hope that you can read that debate and the excellent piece that The Joviator wrote on his own blog http://www.idiosophy.com/2016/11/denethor-as-tragic-hero/. I have decided to start by turning away from my own judgement of Denethor and to take what he says of Gandalf seriously. And if I decide still to follow Gandalf it will be for reasons entirely other than my judgement of Denethor’s motives.

“What then is your wisdom?” said Gandalf.

“Enough to perceive that there are two follies to avoid. To use this thing is perilous. At this hour, to send it in the hands of a witless halfling into the land of the Enemy himself, as you have done, and this son of mine, this is madness”

“And the Lord Denethor what would he have done?”

“Neither. But most surely not for any argument would he have set this thing at a hazard beyond all but a fool’s hope, risking our utter ruin, if the Enemy should recover what he lost.”

Let us set aside Denethor’s judgement of Frodo for the moment. It is precisely because Faramir did not judge Frodo to be witless but a figure of some greatness that he chose to aid his mission and not to bring him to Minas Tirith. But Denethor regards his son to be as foolish as Gandalf and so we cannot use our knowledge of Frodo as a defence for the course of action decided at the Council of Elrond. Frodo is as much involved in the fool’s hope as everyone else at the Council. If he is witless then so too are they.

In order to read The Lord of the Rings properly we need to agree with Denethor. Frodo’s mission is impossible. Even if the Fellowship had not been sundered at the Falls of Rauros and Aragorn and Boromir, Legolas and Gimli had been at Frodo’s side on the journey to Mount Doom it would have remained impossible. When Gandalf describes Cirith Ungol and the Morgul Vale as cursed places one is tempted to ask what other route he would have counselled Frodo to take? Each one would have been as impossible as the next and the likely outcome of all that the Ring would fall into Sauron’s hands.

And in order to read The Lord of the Rings properly we need to leave behind the heroic tale that Peter Jackson tells. There we see that “even the smallest” can be heroes and that is an inspiring thought. In his telling of the story it is the heroism of Frodo and perhaps even more of Sam that stands in contrast to the weakness of Faramir and the cowardice of Denethor. It is that heroism that is the axis upon the whole story turns and each character is judged by whether they support or oppose it.

Tolkien tells a story that is profoundly different and it recalls words that St Paul writes to the Corinthians in the New Testament when he says that “God foolishness is wiser than human wisdom and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” (1 Corinthians 1.25) The foolishness and weakness to which Paul points is the cross and the proclamation of the cross. The death that Jesus dies alone, betrayed, abandoned is a foolishness and a weakness that shapes all reality. Paul says it himself that Christ crucified is “the power of God and the Wisdom of God”.

The Lord of the Rings is set in a world that has not known the Gospel message of God becoming one of us. That is what makes it different from C.S Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia in which Aslan is a participant in the stories. But it is a world that is shot through with the wisdom and power of which Paul speaks. In it we see that reality is shaped by the Cross. The Lord of the Rings knows it as Providence  showing that there is a hidden Power at work in the world greater than any other that meant Frodo to have the Ring. Gandalf’s Yes to this Providence is indeed a Fool’s Hope but I am on the side of his foolishness and against the wisdom of Denethor.

 

Peregrin Took’s Journey from Boyhood to Manhood

After the tale of how Eówyn and Merry ride to war together Tolkien takes us back to Minas Tirith and to the unhappy Peregrin Took, lonely, hungry and afraid as war draws ever closer.

“Why did you bring me here?” He asks Gandalf and the answer brings him little comfort.

“You know quite well,” said Gandalf. “To keep you out of mischief; and if you do not like being here, you can remember that you brought it on yourself.”

I said that Gandalf’s answer gave him little comfort and that is true in the sense that we normally mean it, to take a child in our arms and to hold that child in loving safety until the unhappiness passes. That is the right thing to do with a small child and not to give a child that kind of comfort is to deny her or him something very precious. In order to become a true man or woman a child must know the happy innocence of the garden but there comes a time when either the child must either leave the garden or the world outside will enter it by force.

Pippin probably thought that when he left the Shire to go with Frodo and Sam that it was a glorious “growing up” moment in his happy life. All that lay ahead was adventure and Tolkien must have been thinking about the young men crowding into the recruiting stations at the outset of the First World War in happy expectation of something magnificent before the reality hit home in the long misery of war in the trenches.

Pippin does not realise that something of great significance is happening to him. He only knows that he feels unhappy. Even when he is attired in the magnificent livery of the Tower Guard, something that once would have given him great delight he simply feels uncomfortable “and the gloom began to weigh on his spirits.”

An immature person just tries to make the gloom go away just as Pippin wants it to go. From time to time in this blog we have looked at Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette’s fine study of the masculine psyche, King, Warrior, Magician, Lover.  Moore and Gillette show the importance of these classical archetypes in shaping each man’s life. A boy who has grown up in the garden protected by good parents and a nurturing community will journey towards the adult king by way of becoming a divine child, a chosen one. He will journey towards the adult warrior by way of becoming a hero and some might think that the hero is the adult warrior. The journey to the adult magician is by way of the precious child and to the adult lover by way of the oedipal child.

Each of us, as we gain insight into ourselves, will see which of these archetypes are best developed in us and to what degree we are still held in an immature stage of development. In Pippin’s case it is pretty clear that the least developed aspect of his psyche is the magician. He needs Gandalf at this point in his life if he is to have any chance of growing up.

Readers might be thinking of mature men in The Lord of the Rings such as Aragorn and Faramir. They may remember that we spent some weeks last year thinking about Faramir when Frodo and Sam were with him in the refuge of Henneth Anûn and that he has little interest in being the hero of the story. His focus lies solely in doing the job. His desire is not his own glory but the restoration of Gondor; not just that Gondor wins but that something of the true greatness of Númenor should live again among his people. That is why he will welcome Aragorn as king with joy. Something that his father could not do.

Pippin is on the way to becoming a man and Gandalf knows that he is. That is why he does not treat him like a child. Pippin has to be miserable and to do his duty nevertheless if he is to be the “very valiant man” that Gandalf declared him to be when they first reached the defences of the Pelennor Fields.

The Hero’s Journey of Sam Gamgee

After Frodo invokes Eärendil, the Morning Star, the bearer of the sorrows of Middle-earth to the Valar at the end of the First Age, he and Sam are able to break free of Shelob’s webs and for a moment it seems they are free. Frodo is drunk with the wonder of his escape, while Sam, for his part, is almost too cautious; so it is that Sam hides the Star Glass and in the darkness Shelob attacks Frodo while Gollum attacks Sam. All seems lost and yet a few minutes later Gollum is fleeing for his life while Shelob is “cowed at last, shrunken in defeat” and she hides herself away in a hole to nurse her malice and to heal herself from within.

During those few minutes Sam fights two mighty battles, both of which are far beyond him, and he emerges as a mighty and a victorious hero.

And he does not have any sense that this is what he is!

In his great work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces , Joseph Campbell describes the elements common to what he calls, the Hero’s Journey. And this is what Sam’s story has been. The story begins with Sam caring for Frodo’s garden and his longing to see the wonders of the wider world and, most of all, to “see Elves!” This dissatisfaction is the classic beginning of Campbell’s monomyth and it takes him on the journey that has now led him to Shelob’s Lair and the battles in defence of the master that he loves more even than his own life. Readers of my blog who know Campbell’s work will know of the resistance to the call to adventure that in Sam’s case is his sense of insignificance and also of the importance of a mentor. For Sam, my own belief is that the mentor takes various guises including Gandalf, Aragon and Galadriel but perhaps, most important of all, Frodo himself, who Sam regards as “the wisest person in the world.” Last year I wrote in this blog a posting that I entitled Frodo Carries Sam to Mordor https://stephencwinter.com/2015/03/24/frodo-carries-sam-to-mordor/ and it was Campbell’s sense of the vital role of the mentor that I had in mind there. At the beginning of the story Sam could only connect to the wondrous world through Frodo as mediator. That changes, and the change begins now, as Sam becomes a mighty warrior, part of the great ordeal of which Campbell also speaks. Later Sam will be revered as one of the great figures of his age and still he will hardly notice it!

This is what is unusual in Sam’s heroic journey. Sam has little or no awareness that he is on such a thing. To him if there is a hero then it must be Frodo. Even in the battle with Shelob Sam cries out in admiration when Shelob retreats before Frodo as he holds the Star Glass aloft. What songs will be sung about this great deed! I wonder if even Tolkien was taken by surprise by Sam? In The Fellowship of the Ring the story is told through Frodo but from the sundering of the Fellowship and through the journey to Mordor it is through Sam that the story is told. I will have much more to say about their different roles but here I want to show the way in which Sam grows through the journey.

This is where we will leave Sam today, covered in glory after his mighty battles but thinking only of Frodo. And I will end too on a personal note. Unlike Sam I have always lived with a consciousness of playing a part in a story. Often I have longed for Sam’s self forgetfulness but if I am to achieve it then the work must be a conscious forgetting. I must become the nothing (the no thing) of which the mystics speak. Not to be a zero but to become free of being a thing and to become a person. Once I wanted to be the hero of my own story albeit a religious one. Now I wish simply to be a man.