“I Will Take The Ring, Though I Do Not Know The Way.”

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 260-264

How much we would like to view the hero as someone in an exalted state. The eyes should gaze intently to a distant point, towards the hero’s glorious destiny. The hero will stand alone and the admiring gaze of all will look up into those eyes for how could anyone look down at the hero. And the hero should be beautiful. How could it be otherwise? For the hero is the projection of our longings for ourselves, the exalted self that we long to be or, perhaps, to be with.

If this hero is beautiful it is not because he tried to be beautiful. If he is a hero it is not because he wants to be a hero.

Older and wiser heads may smile at such longing with a degree of indulgence, remembering that I used the words, high, lonely and destiny quite recently in this blog reflecting as we did so on the close kinship between Saruman the White and Uncle Andrew in The Magician’s Nephew. Am I suggesting that neither Saruman nor Uncle Andrew have never outgrown this rather adolescent longing? I rather think that I am. There is no blame attached to an adolescent being an adolescent but the world is blighted by adolescents who never grow up.

And when we compare these characters to the one who speaks the words of the title of this blog post so quietly and so reluctantly we know that we are talking about something quite different to the self admiration of these outgrown children. For Frodo shares little in common with Saruman. This is not to say that Frodo is completely free of the desire for exaltation. When he sat with Gandalf in his study at Bag End Frodo had felt “a great desire to follow Bilbo” flame up in his heart; a desire “so strong that it overcame his fear”. Perhaps at this point of the story the influence of Narya, the ring that Gandalf bears, is able to warm his heart, though even Gandalf is surprised. It is at that moment when he declares that “hobbits really are amazing creatures”. So there is a place and a time for exaltation but as the story reaches the place in which the decision has to be made concerning the Ring all exaltation, all warmth has gone. Frodo has met the implacable hatred of the Morgul Lord, has felt his blade pierce his flesh, the tiny splinter travel towards his heart. Now as he sits among the Council and listens to the debate about what should be done to the Ring he feels “a dead darkness in his heart”.

The debate continues. Boromir argues that the Ring should be used against Sauron, Elrond says that this is impossible; Glóin asks about the three Elven Rings and Elrond declares that they must remain hidden; Erestor of the Grey Havens speaks of the folly of trying to make the journey to Mordor and Gandalf answers that it is this folly that Sauron is incapable of grasping; and at the last it is Bilbo who asks what messenger should take the Ring to the fire.

No-one answers him. Either because they still feel that it is folly to take the road to Mordor or because they know that for them to carry the Ring is impossible all remain silent. And at the very last it is Frodo’s voice, this time struggling against an overwhelming desire to rest, that speaks “as if some other will was using his small voice”.

“I will take the Ring,” he said, “though I do not know the way.”

After this everything is all quite simple. So it is once the great choices are made. All falls into place around them and the people who make them. Even Sam does not argue against the choice only that Frodo should not go alone. But the choice and the manner of its expression is the most moving moment of the whole story. It is the moral heart of the story. It is made, not at the conclusion of some process of selection with all the qualities of each candidate having undergone careful assessment but simply because one person has been called, has been chosen. And the choosing is like “the pronouncement of some doom”.

Are life’s truly great choices always like this? Do they always feel unavoidable, even inevitable, and yet they still have to be made? And do they always feel like pronouncements of doom? A last judgment against which no argument can be found? Such choices are practically inexpressible. Elrond rightly places Frodo amongst his mighty ancestors even as the heroes gathered in Rivendell had to remain silent as a hobbit stood to speak but even his words feel small against the magnitude of the choice.

Gandalf Shows Us that the Greatest Wisdom is Learned Through Weakness and Suffering.

The Fords at Osgiliath are taken and its defenders, commanded by Faramir, are in full retreat back across the Pelennor Fields to Minas Tirith. Meanwhile Denethor awaits the end in his tower.

Pippin fears that the Dark Lord himself has come but Denethor replies with a bitter laugh:

“Nay, not yet Master Peregrin! He will not come save only to triumph over me when all is won. He uses others as his weapons. So do all great lords, if they are wise, Master Halfling. Or why should I sit here in my tower and think, and watch, and wait, spending even my sons?”

In recent weeks on this blog we have seen that Denethor is not the self-indulgent coward that Jackson portrays him to be in his films. He lives and eats austerely and even sleeps in his armour so that his body should not “grow soft and timid.” It is so important that we should take note of the way in which Tolkien describes him here so that we understand the full tragedy of his story. Denethor’s journey to despair is the fruit of his greatness not his weakness. To understand it in this way will teach us a profoundly wise self-awareness if we will allow it. There is a time in the first half of life in which we believe that we must eliminate our weakness and develop our strength. If we do that then we will achieve great things as Denethor does but there will come a time when we must learn to see that our strength has the capacity to bring us to disaster while our weaknesses, those qualities that we have pushed into the shadow that follows us, will teach us wisdom if we will allow them. In a powerful passage in his second letter to the Corinthians the mighty Paul speaks of an affliction that brings him low, that he prays will be taken away from him. Eventually God tells him that his power is made perfect in weakness. In many ways The Lord of the Rings is a story that displays that reality. It is not Denethor’s greatness that will bring down Sauron but Frodo’s weakness and Gandalf’s fool’s hope!

Gandalf recognises this. At one point Denethor taunts him with his weakness when Gandalf reveals that the captain of the armies of Mordor is none other the Witch King of Angmar, the Lord of the Nazgûl. “Then, Mithrandir, you have a foe to match you… For myself, I have long known who is the chief captain of the hosts of the Dark Tower. Is that all that you have returned to say? Or can it be that you have withdrawn because you are overmatched?”

Pippin is horrified! Denethor is accusing Gandalf of cowardice, of running away. How will Gandalf react? Will he strike out in anger? But Gandalf is no young hothead but has become one who has nothing left to defend. He has learned the wisdom of weakness choosing the life of a wandering pilgrim, sometimes driven from the doors of those from whom he seeks shelter, habitually bearing insults such as the one that Denethor hurls against him. He has learned a patient long-suffering and a deep pity for the suffering of others. And he knows that among all the foes that he has faced, greater even than the Balrog of Moria, the greatest is Sauron’s chief captain. It may be that when they meet he will be defeated but for Gandalf that matters far less than the future of Middle-earth. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it to fellow members of the resistance to Hitler, whether they emerged from the struggle as heroes mattered very little. What mattered was whether the coming generation would be able to live. That too is the wisdom of one who had learned through suffering and weakness.