Whether it is day or night in the ever dark land of Mordor Sam and Frodo hardly know but the darkness seems to be deepening and they are weary and in need of rest. Frodo falls asleep almost immediately but Sam remains wary and stays awake. And it is in this state of exhaustion that he experiences a moment of absolute clarity of vision.
“Far above the Ephel Dúath in the West the night sky was still dim and pale. There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a bright star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach. His song in the Tower had been defiance rather than hope; for then he was thinking of himself. Now, for a moment, his own fate, and even his master’s, ceased to trouble him. He crawled back into the brambles and laid himself by Frodo’s side, and putting away all fear he cast himself into a deep untroubled sleep.”
As we saw last time “the blind dark” is getting into Frodo’s heart and he can no longer see as Sam can see. The Ring exercises an ever greater hold upon him and so Sam must see for them both. So often we mistakenly believe that we walk alone not realising that at all times we bear one another’s burdens. Frodo must bear the Ring, not just for Sam but for the whole world. This is his destiny and in order to fulfil it he must remain in desolation. We do not blame him for the moments of anger or the growing silence that is taking hold of him. Our hearts go out to him just as Sam’s does.
For even as Frodo falls into “the blind dark” Sam’s heart becomes ever more compassionate and his capacity for the vision of beauty grows. We have reflected on more than one occasion on how Sam’s adventures begin with a desire “to see Elves”, but it is one thing to be able to see, and to long for, beauty in the Shire, it is another thing to be able to see it in Mordor. Sam does see it and sees it as something that is deeper and more real than the “small and passing thing” that is the Shadow.
In the seeing of the beauty of the star Sam is able to carry Frodo through Mordor; in the bearing of the burden of the Ring Frodo carries the hopes and fears of the world.
And there is something more and this is what Sam is able to glimpse for a moment and that is that it is neither Sam’s vision of beauty nor Frodo’s ability to bear the Ring that matters most but that there is “light and high beauty” for ever beyond the reach of the Shadow. That such light and beauty should be matters more even than the success or failure of their mission. It matters even more than whether they live or die. There is a Love that holds and cradles Frodo and Sam of which they are only dimly aware, catching glimpses of it when they find water in the Morgai, attributing their good fortune to the favour of the Lady of Lothlórien but that there should be such a Love for them matters less than the reality that the Love, the Beauty, the Goodness and the Truth simply are.
And Sam does what such a vision always calls those who see to do. He puts away all fear and casts himself into a deep untroubled sleep. It is not that he feels safe in the land of Shadow. It is a still a place of danger as he will soon find out but he has seen something deeper than the danger and that is enough.
In last week’s blog posting we thought about the debate between Sméagol and Gollum that takes place in the foul pit just before the travellers reach the Black Gate of Mordor. We saw Sméagol feebly resisting the ravenous Gollum who wishes to take the Ring and so be free of all who might harm him and who might become great and even eat fish from the sea “three times a day”! And we see Gollum overcome Sméagol and begin to crawl menacingly toward Frodo “with long fingers flexed and twitching”.
Sméagol is Gollum’s shadow that he has sought to silence over many centuries. Sméagol is the self who on first encountering Bilbo in the dark tunnels of the Misty Mountains welcomes the sound of a friendly voice and in playing the riddle game enjoys the memories of the world that he knew before he crawled into the darkness, the world of sunlight and fresh air. But this self is fearful and cringing and Gollum hates him, though, try as he might, he cannot get rid of him.
For that is the nature of our shadow. Like Gollum, we may despise the weakness that it represents or we may be one who carries a shadow self that clings to us despite our longing for goodness or light. What is certain is that we all have a shadow. That is why I chose Hieronymous Bosch’s anguished triptych, The Temptation of St Anthony a theme that the artist often returned to, as the picture that is at the head of last week’s reflection. The saint is unable to get free of the images of his temptation but learns a serenity in their company. Those aware of Buddhist art will call to mind images of the Buddha smiling, poised in perfect balance upon the turtle that represents the world, while surrounded by demons.
Of course there is no serenity for Gollum/Sméagol only endless and unresolved torment and there is little hope that he will ever find it. But there is that within him that has never submitted entirely to the Ring. That is why he is not entirely under the sway of the Dark Lord as are the Ringwraiths. It is why he has some freedom of action in his dealings with Frodo and Sam and is not bound to bring the Ring straight to Sauron when he has it within his grasp and it is in this lingering freedom that some hope for him lies.
Like Sam who longs to be rid of Gollum, the false and treacherous servant, we might long to return to some state of uncomplicated simplicity but we cannot. But we might come to see that our liberation can only come at the end with the aid of the very shadow that we hate, fear and despise. We might learn to ask what it is that the shadow has to teach us that we could not learn without its aid, what pathways we must travel by the shadow’s guidance in order to reach our goal. And as we yearn for our liberation we are thankful for the torment that is the expression of our freedom
The great spiritual battle inside us is a universal human experience. In his letter to the Romans Paul wrote that he did not understand his own actions: “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”
This is the experience of every person who wishes to do what is right but Gollum or Sméagol has not wanted to do what is right ever since the day he murdered Déagol in order to take the Ring from him. What possible struggle could still continue in the heart of someone who has not willed the good for over five hundred years? That Tolkien could even imagine the possibility of such a struggle in the heart that is so corrupted tells us what he believed about the capacity of the heart to go on fighting, about the greatness of the person. For our greatness lies in our capacity for freedom; either freedom for the good or for the wrong. Does Sméagol still have such capacity?
There is a scene in The Lord of the Rings that suggests that he has at least a remnant of the capacity for such a struggle even as Gandalf once hinted that he might. It takes place as the hobbits draw close to the Morannon the Black Gate that forms the only way into Mordor upon its northern border. They camp in a pit that is “cold and dead” even as the land about them is also. As Frodo sleeps Sam overhears a strange conversation in which Sméagol talks to himself, or rather to Gollum. It would appear that they know each other for there is a kind of familiarity in their speech with each other that suggests that they have been doing this for a very long time indeed. Gollum is angry and cruel, seeking to regain the Ring, seeking to make those who have hurt him pay for what they have done. Sméagol, on the other hand, is a cringing, whining creature. Do we have here something of a hint of the creature that lived before he took the Ring? Was Sméagol a weak creature who immediately desired the Ring seeing it as something that might help him overcome his own weakness? Was Gollum the persona that he developed in his own spiritual battle? For the one who wishes to do right the battle is always against that within themselves that does what is wrong. It is a battle that they lose again and again but they keep on fighting. For Gollum it is the weak and miserable Sméagol that must be overcome if he is to survive. For Gollum the Ring must be regained if he is to defeat his own weakness as well as those who are his enemies. For such a person the shadow is goodness understood as weakness.
But whoever wins out it is clear that both Gollum and Sméagol are small, unhappy creatures. The limit of Gollum’s ambition is to become strong, to become “Gollum the Great”. And his greatness will be expressed by eating fish “every day, three times a day, fresh from the sea.” Perhaps before we smile at this we might want to examine what we wish for when we are tempted to be great. In what manner would we express our greatness? In what does true greatness lie if it does not lie in our fantasies?
We have already spoken of greatness not as the desire for power over others as Gollum, Sauron or Saruman would have us believe but as the desire for goodness. We have seen that those who desire goodness will have to fight throughout their lives against that within themselves that will do wrong. It is the battle that expresses greatness. It is the battle that declares that we are free people. As Paul puts it later in his letter: “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.”