Living a Life that is Too Big for Us

It was a year ago, after trying to write a book about The Lord of the Rings for the best part of a couple of years and basically getting nowhere, that I discovered that although I did not seem capable of writing a thousand words a day and constructing whole chapters I could write 500-700 words each week and post it as a Blog. This isn’t a boast on my part but I seem to be able to construct what would be a weekly column if I were writing for a newspaper. And so that is what I have been doing ever since that time. I have been journeying with Frodo Baggins and his companions all the way from Bilbo Baggins’s Birthday Party till Merry and Pippin’s encounter with Treebeard in the Forest of Fangorn after their escape from the Orcs and as I have done so I have written a weekly reflection on each section that I have read. I have not tried to be scholarly. I am just someone who has been reading this great work since being introduced to it by my schoolmate, Jon Flint, when I was about 14 or 15 years old. That is over forty years now and I feel that I have something to say about a book that I have loved ever since that time. I share J.R.R Tolkien’s Christian faith although not his Roman Catholicism. Like Tolkien’s great friend and collaborator, C.S Lewis, I am an Anglican.

Reading The Lord of the Rings slowly and thoughtfully has been a rich experience and I hope that I have managed to convey some of that in my weekly blogs. I have been especially caught up with the hobbits who find themselves in a story that is too big for them. And although they grow with the story they can never become heroic figures like Aragorn or Boromir. All they can do is to offer what they can the best they can. There are some in the story who have great discernment and see this offer as a deed of great worth. Faramir of Gondor is one and so is Treebeard of Fangorn who allows Merry and Pippin to lead him into an adventure that is likely to end with the destruction of the Ents. Come to think of it, both of them allow themselves to be carried into stories too big for them as well.

If there is a Christmas message in this (and I hope you won’t mind me for looking for one at this season) then it is the idea of a God who chooses to come among us and to commit himself to the same experience that we know, living a life that is too big for us and yet doing it with faithfulness, joy and love.

If you want to look at any of my earlier blogs from December 2012 to October 2013 you will find a complete archive on my website http://www.stephenwinter.net/page6.htm and whatever you do over the Feast of the Nativity may you do it with joy and delight.

Whose Side is Treebeard on?

Whose side is Treebeard on in the War of the Ring? That is another way of asking the question, whose side is nature on? Treebeard himself is undecided. “I am not altogether on anyone’s side because nobody is altogether on my side, if you understand me: nobody cares for the woods as I care for them, not even Elves nowadays.”

Treebeard is on the side of the forests of the earth and since time immemorial he has been their shepherd. And what he has witnessed over the years has been the long slow defeat of the forest. Even the hobbits have not been on the side of the forest. You may remember how Merry  told his companions of the battle between his people, the Brandybucks, and the Old Forest early in their journey; of how fires had been lit by the Brandybucks to drive the forest back and a great hedge planted to withstand any further attempts at encroachment. You may remember too, how the Old Forest tried to trap the hobbits as they attempted to journey through it by forcing them down to the Withywindle and the clutches of Old Man Willow. The Forest had a long and bitter memory of Merry’s people and only the arrival of Tom Bombadil saved him and his friends from disaster and a speedy conclusion to the great Quest of the Ring. The Old Forest was not on their side.

And there is a sense in which even Treebeard’s world is divided against itself because the Ents, the shepherds of the wild forest, have long been separated from the Entwives, the tenders of the cultivated gardens of the world. In this world the untamed wilderness is the masculine principle, the animus, while the cultivated world is the feminine principle, the anima and as Treebeard says to Merry and Pippin, the Entwives “would like your country.”

Tolkien never answers the question of whether the wilderness and the garden, the masculine and the feminine, can ever live in peace together although he does seem to say that the final healing of the world will only come when they are finally reconciled. But one thing is sure and that is “there are some things, of course, whose side” Treebeard is “altogether not on… these Orcs and their masters.” For Saruman the wizard has betrayed the trust bestowed upon him by the Valar, the angelic lords of the earth, the task he was given to aid the free peoples of Middle Earth in their resistance to Sauron and that he has long been plotting “to become a Power”. Treebeard declares that Saruman has “a mind of metal and wheels; and he does not care for growing things, except as far as they serve him for the moment.”

And in saying this Treebeard challenges us to declare whose side we are on in the War of the Ring, whether we, like Saruman, use growing things for our own purposes, plotting to become little powers. Whether we, like Saruman, have given way to despair, believing in the inevitable victory of the dark lords of our own times, seeking only to find some accommodation with them, some way of surviving in a world that they rule. If we do then we will find that all who become, or seek to become, dark lords will have little regard for our loyalty seeking only their own ends and we will find something else too. Nature will be against us and will have its revenge upon the dark lords and all who for their own ends choose to be their allies. In our own time we are already rousing the anger of nature and would do well to find a way to make peace before it is too late.

On Learning How to Receive Good Gifts

With long but steady strides Treebeard takes Merry and Pippin on a long journey across the Fangorn Forest but at its ending they are in a safe place for the first time since leaving Lothlorien. They are in Wellinghall at the foot of the Misty Mountains, one of Treebeard’s dwelling places in the forest. “I like it,” he says. “We will stay here tonight.”

Treebeard gives Merry and Pippin a drink very like the water of the Entwash that they had drunk earlier that day near the borders of the forest after escaping the orcs and Tolkien tells us that the water had “some scent or savour in it which they could not describe: it was faint, but it reminded them of the smell of a distant wood borne from afar by a cool breeze at night.” Tolkien seems to have had a particular love for this kind of description. He hints at what it is that his characters remember. They are “reminded” of the smell and the wood is “distant” and its savour “borne from afar”. Later in his description of Aragorn’s use of athelas to heal those who have been wounded in the Houses of Healing after the Battle of The Pelennor Fields he uses it in a particularly poignant manner. Instead of a simple and straightforward description of the properties of the herb or of the drink he evokes the memory of a sensation, a memory that lies hidden at the edge of consciousness. In the case of Aragorn’s use of athelas this is especially striking. When he uses it to bathe Frodo’s wound after the attack at Weathertop we are simply told that “the fragrance of the steam was refreshing, and those that were unhurt felt their minds calmed and cleared.” In the Houses of Healing Tolkien again hints at memories that are evoked by the effect of the steam. It is as if the memory, mingled with the working upon the senses of the aroma of the herb crushed in warm water and the hands of the true king, achieves the healing of body and soul and spirit together.

 

Here it is not so much healing that is achieved. That came about if you remember when the hobbits drank of the streams of the Entwash earlier that day. Here Merry and Pippin find refreshment and nourishment but what refreshment; what nourishment! Later their friends will observe that they have grown in stature and other hobbits will find them almost intimidating.

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What a journey they have been upon since their capture by the orcs and Pippin’s unhappy description of himself as “a nuisance: a passenger, a piece of luggage”. They have been through a kind of initiation together and now they are warriors and ready for battle. There is nothing that they have done which has brought about this transformation except their refusal to give up and their total loyalty to their friends and to the quest even though all seems hopeless. Later this will be described as a “gentle loyalty” thus distinguishing it from the fierce loyalty of battle hardened members of the Fellowship like Gimli or Legolas, but it is loyalty nonetheless. In Tolkien’s Christian understanding of such things no gift can be described as a payment to honour a contractual obligation. The hobbits did not encounter Treebeard or drink “of the draughts of Fangorn” as their due wage for loyalty. But without that loyalty no gift could have been received. The same is true for us. It is by means of our commitment to the good that we, like Merry and Pippin, will be capable of receiving gifts that will transform us.

Learning to See as an Ent Sees

In meeting Treebeard Merry and Pippin are introduced to a wholly different way of seeing the world and living in it. Ents may not be trees but they think like trees and if trees could speak (and for all I know they do) they might speak as Ents do.

We do not say anything in Old Entish, says Treebeard, “unless it is worth taking a long time to say, and to listen to.” In other words we are being invited to look at reality through the eyes of a creature who never rushes and who takes a very long term view of everything and to imagine what life might be like if we were to see it as he does. For there is no doubt that Treebeard would see us as very “hasty” folk indeed. He would be horrified to see us only plant trees that will mature at great speed and then be cut down to feed our need for timber. And if he were horrified by that he would be even more horrified by our daily destruction of the forests of the world and the endless steady transformation of our planet into a vast desert. He might look at our behaviour and conclude that in actual fact the orcs had won the War of the Ring and that a new Dark Lord had indeed arisen wielding something that was very much like the One Ring, if not worse. We may remember that there were times when Sauron took on the appearance of a benevolent lord. Perhaps he would know how to use words like freedom as a cloak for his true purposes but now with the possibility of real and everlasting power he needs cloaks no longer. At the time of The Lord of the Rings he is revealed as he truly is.

Thankfully Sauron and his lesser ally, Saruman, overlook the Ents. It is not that they do not know of their existence but that they discount them as they weigh up who their most dangerous opponents might be. As far as they are concerned Ents are too slow, just like the trolls made by Morgoth in mockery of them, to be a real threat. But as we shall see they have dangerously miscalculated. Evil always discounts that which does not seem to threaten it on its own terms. Evil will always say, as Stalin said of the Pope, “How many divisions does he have?” Maybe it will be those who learn to see like Ents or Hobbits who will prove to be our most doughty champions.

“I can see and hear (and smell and feel) a great deal from this a-lalla-lalla-rumba-kamanda-lind-or-burume. Excuse me: that is part of my name for it; I do not know what the word is in the outside languages: you know this thing we are on, where I stand and look out on fine mornings and think about the Sun, and the grass beyond the wood, and the horses, and the clouds, and the unfolding of the world…”

“Hill?” suggested Pippin. “Shelf? Step?” suggested Merry.

Treebeard repeated the words thoughtfully. “Hill. Yes, that was it. But it is a hasty word for a thing that has stood here ever since this part of the world was shaped.”

 

What would it be like to learn how to Name things as Ents do? We won’t even begin to know the answer to that question unless we learn to take time to look at things. When we look at something as an Ent does then we might begin to learn its long story and to learn to tell it ourselves.

Perhaps we might learn to see through the eyes of that great prophet, William Blake, in his “Auguries of Innocence..”

“To see a World in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, And eternity in an hour.”