The hobbits are eager for home and set out for the Shire with Gandalf. It is the sixth of October when they reach the Ford of Bruinen, a place redolent with memory for Frodo as he almost fell into the grasp of the Nazgûl there. The date too is filled with ominous significance. It was on this date a year before that the Nazgûl attacked the camp below Weathertop and Frodo received a wound that almost made him a wraith like them but under their power.
The combination of the two is almost too much for Frodo and he says to Gandalf: “I am wounded with knife, sting and tooth, and a long burden. Where shall I find rest?”
Right from the very beginning of the quest it has been clear that Frodo and his companions have taken on a task that is too big for them. For the briefest of moments Frodo is excited by the thought of the adventure that lies ahead but soon that excitement is replaced by the unhappy realisation that he must leave the Shire, leave his friends, leave home. And soon it is clear that there are powers in the world that are far greater than he is. Old Man Willow in the Old Forest; the Wight in the Barrow Downs; and most deadly of all, the Nazgûl haunting their every step along the way. Aragorn doubts the hobbits’ capacity for the task. Butterbur fears they behave like gentlemen engaged in nothing more dangerous than a walking holiday.
But that is exactly the point. That is the mysterious wisdom of The Lord of the Rings. This is a task that can only be achieved by those for whom it is too great. Those who might have the capacity to undertake the task, who might be strong enough to carry the Ring to Mordor in order to destroy it are those who are in the greatest danger. Gandalf and Galadriel are both offered the Ring and both reject it despite being profoundly tempted to take it. They have come to realise that it is stronger than they are and that in taking it they would begin the road to becoming the Dark Lord or Lady. Boromir does not understand this believing that his noble spirit is sufficient defence against the Ring and he is almost overthrown entirely.
The task and the Ring itself is most certainly too great for Frodo and he knows that it is. Even he begins to ponder what it might mean to seek to possess and to use the Ring as he shows in his questioning of Galadriel at her mirror. Eventually it will overcome him and only through the strange mercy of Gollum’s attack will he and all Middle-earth be saved.
Frodo is saved but he is broken too. The knife that the Witch King of Angmar drove into his shoulder at Weathertop, the sting of Shelob in her lair, Gollum’s tooth biting the Ring from his finger at the Cracks of Doom and worst of all, the slow, inexorable overpowering that the Ring achieves over him, all these have done their terrible work.
“Where shall I find rest?”
Frodo knows that the return to the Shire will be no true home-coming for him. It may be the same but he will not be. This is a powerful insight and one that Tolkien must have gained on his return from the trenches of the First World War as did so many of his generation. It was not just the journey from the familiarity of home to the horror of the battlefield that lead to a profound sense of displacement but the journey back again to what should have been familiar but was no longer. Frodo puts it this way. “It shall not be the same; for I shall not be the same”.
Frodo knows that if there is to be a place of rest for him then it will be somewhere else than the Shire but he does not know where such a place can be. We might know that this sense of displacement, of homelessness, of exile is that which will lead us in search of our true home but when we are gripped by this it is nothing less than terrible.
There comes a moment on their journey through Mordor when Frodo and Sam are able to look across the “hateful land” towards Orodruin, Mount Doom and the vast shadow beyond of Barad-dûr. Between them and the mountain they can see the armies of Mordor moving along its roads and the many military camps, some of tents and others like small towns “with straight dreary streets of huts and low drab buildings.” To their surprise it is Men and not Orcs that they can see upon the road.
We have already met some of the allies of Mordor earlier in the story. The force that Faramir and his Rangers of Ithilien ambush near Henneth Annûn, the Corsairs of Umbar that are defeated by Aragorn and the army of the Dead at Pelargir and the army of Harad whose king is slain at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields by the charge of Théoden’s knights. In addition to these there are the forces of the Easterlings who dwell near to the great inland sea of Rhûn. What all share in common is that they have long been enemies of Gondor and also allies of Mordor.
Why do those who are not Sauron’s slaves so willingly fight for him? As they journey through the dreary land can they not see that the future that they fight for looks like this? Everything that Sauron touches is spoilt and eventually dies. He values power and control over everything else and it is his power and his control that he values most. The lands of the East may be his allies now but surely the only destiny open to them is to become as much Sauron’s slaves as are the orcs.
Some of humankind have been allies of the dark ever since the First Age, siding then with Morgoth and later from the Second Age with Sauron. It is likely that that some of the Nazgûl, Lords of Men who were given Rings of Power by the Dark Lord, were descendents of these early allies. Others were Númenóreans who had returned to Middle-earth during the Second Age and had fallen under Sauron’s sway. What all shared in common with him was the desire for power and a hatred for the peoples of the West. The glory of the kingdoms of Beleriand in the First Age and then of Númenor in the Second and of Gondor in the Third all excited both envy, resentment and ultimately hatred.
It might be argued that this was not entirely their fault. It is hard to be treated with contempt, to be regarded as deplorables from one generation to another. Even the loyal allies of Rohan feel inferior to Gondor. Denethor’s policy might easily be summarised as “Gondor first…Gondor first”. In fact the words that he actually uses in an angry exchange with Gandalf are, “Gondor alone”. Denethor might need Rohan in time of need but only as an inferior within the alliance. The words of contempt that Théoden and his men actually heard came from the lips of Saruman but might they have come too from Denethor in an unguarded moment?
Sauron certainly shares this contempt as he does for all creatures saving only himself and his lord, Morgoth. But he focuses the resentment of his allies upon Gondor and he offers power, real power. We might be able to see that, as with the Ringwraiths, Sauron’s gifts may bring power but they also ultimately enslave, but when the gift is offered what is most enticing is revenge over an ancient foe and a share in a seemingly inevitable victory. We are more than willing, so it seems, to believe that we might be exceptions to the slavery and the misery.
I end this piece with the word, we, for any wise reader of The Lord of the Rings must know that they or we, too, are capable of falling under Sauron’s spell. All of us are likely to have reasons for envy and resentment at some time or other and the opportunity to have power over someone else will be tempting too. These are the temptations that make us vulnerable to the darkness and its power. Our hearts need to be guarded against them with constant vigilance.
“So now at last the City was besieged, enclosed in a ring of foes.” And in the next few pages Tolkien relentlessly builds a picture of hopelessness as the hosts of Mordor begin the assault upon Minas Tirith until he reaches the appalling climax of the winged ride of the Nazgûl.
“Ever they circled above the City, like vultures that expect their fill of doomed men’s flesh. Out of sight and shot they flew, and yet were ever present, and their deadly voices rent the air. More unbearable they became, not less, at each new cry. At length even the stout-hearted would fling themselves to the ground as the hidden menace passed over them, or they would stand, letting their weapons fall from nerveless hands while into their minds a blackness came, and they thought no more of war; but only of hiding and of crawling, and of death.”
And so Tolkien brings us to a dark place once again and, as with Frodo and Sam in Shelob’s Lair, a light will break in that will proclaim that there is no darkness so deep that it cannot bebreached. And the words of the one hundred and thirty-ninth psalm come to mind declaring:
If I say surely the darkness shall cover me; even the night shall be light about me.
Yea, the darkness hideth not from thee; but the night shineth as the day: the darkness and the light are both alike to thee.
This week’s posting on my blog is dedicated to all those who are in dark places; to all those who see no way to light and life beyond the darkness. It is dedicated to those for whom everything in which they have placed their trust has proved to be a broken reed. They are like the men of Gondor looking out across the Pelennor and seeing no possibility of relief; like the defenders of the city thinking “only of hiding and of crawling and of death”.
In a few days time on this blog I will tell the story of a man whose wife lies, an innocent prisoner in a foreign jail, a pawn in a game played by people of power; a man who cannot reach her or see her. Today I dedicate this piece to him and to his wife. And if you know something of the darkness that the defenders of Gondor know then this is for you as well.