The Palantir, Knowledge and Corruption

Denethor’s end, when it comes, is both tragic and yet utterly pointless. The pyre that he has prepared in the House of the Stewards is intended to be a magnificent gesture in which he will declare his freedom from tyrants whoever they are, Dark Lord or White Rider. And he will take his son with him so that he too will not fall into the hands of others. And yet at the last it is but a small, mean thing in the light of the events of the day. Peter Jackson portrays this well in his film showing the flaming body of Denethor at first filling the screen before suddenly pulling the camera back as if to a great distance so that Denethor’s fall becomes just another incident within a great battle. The words of  King Lear come to mind as he rails impotently at  his daughters,

“I will have such revenges on you both that all the world shall- I will do such things- what they are I know not but they shall be the terrors of the earth.”

As with Saruman it is a palantir that is revealed at the moment of crisis. Denethor shows it to Gandalf with furious pride as the symbol of his so-called freedom.

“Didst thou think that the eyes of the White Tower were blind? Nay, I have seen more than thou knowest, Grey Fool. For thy hope is but ignorance. Go then and labour in healing! Go forth and fight! For a little space you may triumph on the field, for a day. But against the Power that now arises there is no victory.”

Note what Denethor says, that to hope is mere ignorance and folly and that to know is to be certain of the victory of darkness. Saruman, if he were present, would say much the same thing. He too is corrupted by what he believes that he knows though there is a difference between them. Saruman is so convinced of his own greatness that he believes that he can become the ally of Sauron. He even believes that his own ringlore might enable him to out manoeuvre the Dark Lord. Denethor has no such illusion. He knows that the triumph of Mordor will inevitably mean his own enslavement and so refuses to become the ally of Sauron. But both Saruman and Denethor are corrupted by what they believe that they know.

So is Tolkien saying that all knowledge must lead to corruption and despair? Is it, as Denethor accuses Gandalf, that to hope must mean to be ignorant? Even from our knowledge of Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings we know that Denethor’s accusation is untrue. The Council of Elrond makes it clear that Gandalf is entirely aware of Sauron’s strength. There is also the wonderful passage in which Galadriel declares, “I perceive the Dark Lord and know his mind, or all of his mind that concerns the Elves. And he gropes ever to see me and my thought. But still the door is closed!”

So it is not knowledge that corrupts Denethor and Saruman just as it is not ignorance that sustains the hope and the defiance of Gandalf or of Galadriel. What precedes knowledge in each of these figures is a fundamental moral choice. When Frodo offers the Ring, first to Gandalf and then to Galadriel, we are made aware of the inner struggle through which both of them have gone. And we see both of them reject the Ring and the power that it could bring to them. Both choose the possibility of defeat rather than the kind of victory that would be gained through the Ring. Such a victory would be entirely catastrophic. Denethor and Saruman have failed to make this choice, this fundamental rejection of evil and of despair. Denethor may not have chosen to be an ally to evil as Saruman has but his belief in the ultimate triumph of evil makes him an ally whether he wills it or not. And our fundamental moral choices will determine which side we will choose at the moment of crisis.

A Cock Crow Announces the Fall of Mordor

The Lord of the Nazgûl chooses to enter the gates of Minas Tirith on horseback. He has waited long years for this moment and it must be done in the appropriate manner. All the defenders of the city flee before him except one. Gandalf remains upon Shadowfax who does not desert him. Gandalf is steadfast but even he cannot stand alone before his enemies.

And then something happens that surely no one notices and yet Tolkien, as narrator, knows is of the most profound significance.

“Gandalf did not move. And in that very moment, away behind in some courtyard of the City, a cock crowed. Shrill and clear he crowed, recking nothing of wizardry or war, welcoming only the morning that in the sky far above the shadows of death was coming with the dawn.”

It is a glorious moment and one easily missed because of the event that follows immediately after. And Tolkien gives space to the moment because there is a theme that has run throughout The Lord of the Rings and that is the resistance of the natural world against all that the powers of darkness can hurl against it.

Contrast the massive effort that turns the mûmakil of the Harad, the “oliphaunts” that Sam so delighted to see in Ithilien into engines of war to the simplicity of the cockcrow. Think of how after all the effort to train them the Lord of the Nazgûl casually wastes their lives, for “their purpose was only to test the strength of the defence and to keep the men of Gondor busy in many places”. Contrast too the one horse upon which the Lord of the Ringwraiths rides, a once free and proud beast, savagely broken so that it might become the instrument of its master’s will, to the free  choice of Shadowfax who does not flee when  all others do, whether man or beast. Cavalry is the one thing that the forces of Mordor do not possess. The bond between horse and rider that Gandalf and Shadowfax display or which brings the Rohirrim to the battlefield can only be created by the armies of Mordor with the most brutal force and it is easier to put the energy that is required to break the horses to a different, though equally savage, use.

The cock crows in the city because it is a cock. As Gerard Manley Hopkins wonderfully declares in his great poem, As Kingfishers Catch Fire, 

“Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; Selves- goes itself; myself it speaks and spells; crying What I do is me: for that I came.”

 Note please that Hopkins does not say “What I do is for me”. The Lord of the Nazgûl says that endlessly even in his service of Sauron. What Hopkins declares is far more profound because unlike the slave King of Angmar Hopkins is free, as is the kingfisher, as is the cock in the city courtyard, as is Shadowfax, as is Gandalf. And so he can say “What I do is me”!

The day has dawned in the sky above the war in Minas Tirith despite all the mighty efforts of the Dark Lord. Far away Ghân-buri-Ghân sniffed the air on the previous day and a light came into his eyes as he said, “Wind is changing!” Sauron is not the lord of the weather despite all the outpouring of his might and for that brief and glorious moment as the cock crows in complete indifference of all the powers of darkness, “recking nothing of wizardry or war” he is not even lord of a simple creature who is being itself.

We will encounter many who claim to be “lords” and sometimes we will feel quite powerless before them. If we are to stand against them in total freedom as Gandalf does then we need to learn how to commune with all that is free, with the free creation that Selves. We need to learn how to delight in all around us in its freedom and its beauty. To allow it to be itself even as we learn to become our true selves.

 

 

Denethor Declares that The West has Failed!

The battle still rages at the walls of Minas Tirith as the Lord of the Nazgûl prepares his final assault, great siege towers built in Osgiliath rolling forward to overwhelm what remains of the city’s defences. But in the Chamber of the Steward in the White Tower the Lord Denethor fights no more. When messengers come seeking orders and telling him that men flee the defences leaving the walls unmanned, his only response is:

“Why? Why do the fools fly? Better to burn sooner than late, for burn we must. Go back to your bonfire! And I? I will go now to my pyre. To my pyre! No tomb for Denethor and Faramir. No tomb! No long slow sleep of death embalmed. We will burn like heathen kings before ever a ship sailed hither from the West. The West has failed. Go back and burn!”

The West has failed.

And all the great vision of the Valar, and of the Free Peoples of the Earth, of Elves and of Humankind, of Valinor and of Númenor, of Gondolin and of Nargothrond, of Rivendell and of Lothlórien, of Arnor and of Gondor, is at an end before the inevitable triumph of the Dark.

The West has failed.

This is not a conclusion that Denethor has drawn based upon what he can see from his windows. This is a belief that he has long held but against which he has fought bravely for as long as he could. Whereas Saruman, with whom he shares the belief, has sought to become an ally to darkness, to reach some accommodation with it, Denethor has refused such a path and has resisted the dark with all his might. He is no traitor. But at the end he bows down before the power of darkness and declares the great story of the West, of which he has been a steward, to be no more than a preparation for a funeral.

The West has failed!

So must all hope fail? Whether we rage, rage against the dying of the light or sit down before its inevitable arrival and quietly despair, going gentle into the night, must darkness fall?

Pippin is a simpler soul than his lord. When Denethor releases him from his service and bids him go to die his response is straightforwardly hobbit-like. “I will take your leave, sir… for I want to see Gandalf very much indeed. But he is no fool; and I will not think of dying under he despairs of life.”

Pippin has no great philosophy of life. For him it is enough that those who to whom he has chosen to give his trust, and at this point of the story this means Gandalf, have not given way to despair. And Gandalf has not given way to despair because long ago he said a great, Yes! to life and to light and to love. He said his, Yes! without dissembling or ambiguity. It was this, Yes! that Cirdan recognised when first Gandalf came to Middle-earth and so gave him Narya, one of the three rings of the Elves, that had power to inspire others to resist tyranny and despair. It was this, Yes! that enabled Gandalf to stand before the Balrog at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm, to declare, “You shall not pass!” and to give himself up to death itself in battle against him. And it is this, Yes! that will enable him to stand alone before the Lord of the Nazgûl when all others have fled.

The early Fathers of the Church taught that repentance, a word that we tend to understand as merely saying sorry for our wrongdoing, was something much more fundamental, much greater than that. It means the renunciation of despair. It means the great, Yes! It does not mean that we hope things are going to turn out for the best. It means a great, Yes! to the Light that shines in the darkness and the darkness can never put it out. And once we have made the great renunciation of despair and through our daily spiritual practice root it deep at the heart of our lives then we will find strength even in the darkest night.

“He Would Have Brought Me a Mighty Gift.” Denethor and the Ring.

Denethor sits with Faramir and Gandalf in his chamber with Pippin standing in attendance. Until now he has maintained a courteous front but in the presence of his son, the wrong son, the mask slips and both his anger, his resentment and his desire are displayed to all.

“Boromir was loyal to me and no wizard’s pupil. He would have remembered his father’s need, and would not have squandered what fortune gave. He would have brought me a mighty gift.”

With these words Denethor displays his lack of self-knowledge. He believes himself to be greater than the Ring. Lesser beings than himself may fear the Ring but he is not weak as they are. He is the Steward of Gondor and a true son of Númenor and the Ring holds no terror for such as he. And when Gandalf asks him what he would have done with the Ring Denethor replies:

“It should have been kept, hidden, hidden dark and deep. Not used, I say, unless at the uttermost end of need, but set beyond his grasp, save by a victory so final that what befell would not trouble us, being dead.”

So Denethor would use the Ring “at the uttermost end of need” and he judges that he above all others has the capacity to judge when that time has come. We have seen already that the Ring will twist the heart of even the strongest. Gandalf and Galadriel have both been offered it by Frodo and both have been sorely tempted to take it but both have resisted the temptation. Denethor does not even recognise this as a temptation. To him it would be a gift, an opportunity to be grasped by the bold and by those who are worthy to receive it. And he judges himself to be worthy.

Denethor has lived his life as one given to fantasy. In his fantasy he is the wise and benevolent lord of the West, the one who achieves the final victory over Sauron and all his allies, the one who receives the grateful thanks and submission of all free peoples, the one who rules over them in wisdom and might. In another post at a later date on this blog we will think more about Denethor and the Palantir but suffice to say on this occasion that Sauron, who sees all weakness in others but never their greatness, has fed this fantasy over many years. Indeed the very reason that Denethor has used the Palantir is because of this fantasy. Denethor believes himself to be strong enough to use it even as he believes himself strong enough to use the Ring. But his belief is a delusion. He has disastrously misjudged his own capacity.

True strength and true wisdom involves the capacity to judge these things aright. The strong know their weakness better than any. This is why Faramir does not take the Ring, either for himself or for Denethor and why Aragorn deems that he can challenge Sauron in the Palantir. Faramir knows that he could only take possession of the Ring by force against one weaker than himself and he will not dishonour himself and all that he holds dear by doing so. Not even his father’s specious argument of “uttermost need” could persuade him otherwise. On the other hand Aragorn is the heir of Elendil to whom the Palantir were given and so he judges that he has the right and the strength to use it. Denethor has neither the right nor the strength either to take the Ring nor use the Palantir. He recognises only that he has the opportunity and he misjudges his own strength. The end can only be disaster.

We must achieve wise self-knowledge if we are to act rightly and an essential part of this is to know our weakness. When we are given an honourable job to do then we should act with all boldness believing that we will be given strength to do it. This is why Frodo can take the Ring even though he is only too aware of his weakness. Denethor on the other hand does not and so Gandalf is glad that the Ring never fell within his grasp.

 

Master Peregrin, Do you see any hope that we shall stand?

Pippin sits with the brave and kind, Beregond, at an embrasure in the walls of the citadel while they break their fast together. Pippin speaks a little of his journeys  but more than this he wishes to hear of the story of Minas Tirith. And so he learns of the brief moment of hope when the young Denethor retook the ancient city of Osgiliath, but how the Nazgûl came and robbed them of whatever hope they might have had.

So Beregond turns to Pippin and asks him, “And, Master Peregrin, do you see any hope that we shall stand? ”

Where does hope come from? Pippin looks about him at the walls of the city and the citadel, “The towers and brave banners, and the sun in the high sky.” The towers and banners are symbols of the proud history of Gondor standing ever in the vanguard against the darkness, reminding all who stand beneath them of the day when the armies of Elendil and Isildur and the last great alliance overthrew Sauron before his gates. And the sun in the sky is a reminder of that which lasts beyond the lives of even the longest lived in Middle-earth. But nearer still is the shadow that creeps towards them. Pippin looks “at the gathering gloom in the East,” and thinks of the “the orcs in the woods and the mountains, the treason of Isengard, the birds of evil eye, and the Black Riders even in the lanes of the Shire- and of the winged terror, the Nazgûl.” All of these he has experienced personally and no shutting of the eyes or of any gate, however mighty, can make that experience go away or make it less real. The powers of darkness are real and Pippin knows that only too well. Denethor knows that too and here we receive a hint of how he has sought to  confront them. Beregond tells Pippin of Denethor’s sitting alone in his high chamber bending “his thought this way and that” searching “even the mind of the Enemy, wrestling with him.”

Later we will learn that Denethor has learned to use one of the Palantir, the seeing stones of Númenor, even as Saruman did. Unlike Saruman the vision of the growing darkness does not lead him to treachery but it did lead him to despair.

And here we see the contrast to Gandalf as we thought about last week. It is not the long intense gaze into the dark that leads to treachery or despair. Gandalf too has wrestled with the dark and so too has Galadriel. They have no illusions about its might. But along with the gaze into the dark has come also a deep and long contemplation of the good, the beautiful and the true. On their journey to Minas Tirith Gandalf told Pippin of how he longed to gaze into the mind of the greatest of artists, Fëanor the maker of the Silmarils, but unlike Fëanor he does not desire their possession. To possess adds nothing to who he is. He wishes to commune only with the beauty of Fëanor’s creation and with the maker himself. Such contemplation and such communion lead to an enlivening and as we saw when we thought of Gandalf’s laughter last week, to an abiding joy.

In the New Testament it is the writer to the Hebrews who puts this best of all. He speaks to his fearful readers first of the great heroes of their faith as a source of courage and then speaks of Jesus, “who for the joy that was set before him endured the  cross, despising the shame”. It is the contemplation of the joy that sustained Jesus and the writer to the Hebrews calls upon his readers to learn to look through Jesus’ eyes. Pippin may not yet be able to see the same joy that Gandalf can but he can see Gandalf and for now that is enough. We must do whatever we can to make the same connection. We might start with inspiring people around us and learn what sustains them.