Sam asks “Don’t the Great Tales Never End?”

Ever since I first encountered it I have loved and been enriched by the work of John O’Donohue, Irish poet, philosopher and some time priest who died in 2008. When I began to think about this week’s blog posting I was drawn back to other pieces that I have written and to a poem entitled, Fluent, that O’Donohue wrote and published in his 2000 collection entitled Connemara Blues.

“I would love to live / like a river flows,/ Carried by the surprise/ Of its own unfolding.”

In just a few words O’Donohue describes a way of life that is characterised by surprise. O’Donohue loved to laugh and the unexpectedness of the present moment would be the cause in him of delighted merriment. I have just returned from driving my daughter to the local railway station for a day’s classes in college and as I drove back I listened to a mathematician say that when he finds beauty in a mathematical equation it is because of a fundamental human desire for order and predictability. Oh how O’Donohue would have chuckled with amusement if he had heard that! Of course the woodland stream by which I pray each morning is capable of  being reduced to a mathematical description but once we begin to speak of beauty then it is not predictability that delights us but the endless surprise of the play of light upon the water, the way the way the stream dances about ever shifting obstacles in its path or in one heart stopping moment by the flight of a kingfisher along its length. Something much greater than mathematics has entered our hearts.

So it is that when Sam thinks of great tales he remembers the story of Beren and Lúthien taking the Silmaril from the Iron Crown of Morgoth in the terrible fortress of Thangorodrim. “That was a worse place and a blacker danger than ours,” he says, and then goes on to remember the bringing of the Silmaril to Eärendil and in surprise and wonder he cries out, “And why, sir, I never thought of that before! We’ve got- you’ve got some of the light of it in that star-glass that the Lady gave you! Why, to think of it, we’re in the same tale still! It’s going on. Don’t the great tales never end?”

A year ago I wrote a piece in this blog entitled On Hearing The Music of the Ainur https://stephencwinter.com/2014/12/31/on-hearing-the-music-of-the-ainur/ where I reflected on Frodo’s “dream of music that turned into running water, and then suddenly into a voice” and the voice is that of Bilbo telling, chanting the story of  Eärendil in the halls of Elrond in Rivendell. In his dream an “endless river of swelling gold and silver” flows over him. Later in the evening he tells Bilbo that Bilbo’s song seemed “to fit somehow” with his dream. Frodo has for a moment been given an insight into the nature of the story of which he is now a part and it is dream and flowing river and it is music and verses chanted. Sam now glimpses what Frodo experienced that night. Like Frodo he is in the same story. (Do read it and if you have time please read the Comments that followed it. They are deeply moving and enriching.)

It was G.K Chesterton, a writer who exercised great influence over Tolkien, who said that the reason we need to be told of rivers of gold and silver or trees with golden leaves and fruit is that we have forgotten the wonder of the rivers that we know or the astonishing moment when we first knew that a leaf was green! Sam touches upon the wonder that transforms the tale of which he is now a part. He speaks in the shadow of the Ephel Dúath the outer fence of Mordor, wearied by the climb up the Great Stair from the dead vale of Minas Morgul. He is hungry and the sweat of his effort has been chilled upon his body as he rests. So a parent may wearily change a nappy or feed a hungry baby in the long dark hours of the night and forget for a moment the wonder of which she is a part and then be caught up in delight once again. Perhaps she may catch a glimpse of the story of which she is a part.

Frodo Carries Sam to Mordor

All who know the story of The Lord of the Rings know that without Sam Gamgee Frodo Baggins could never have reached Mordor so that, in other words, Sam carried Frodo to Mordor. But this week we are going to think about the way that Frodo carried Sam to Mordor and we will show how Sam could never have made the journey he did without Frodo or become the person that he did without him. It was Sam’s relationship with Frodo that enabled him to grow into someone who could inhabit this story that is far too big for him even though he is never really aware that this is what is happening to him.

In the very first scene of The Lord of the Rings we meet Sam’s father, Gaffer Gamgee, sitting in The Ivy Bush on the Bywater Road talking over the news with the assembled gathering there as the Shire prepares for Bilbo Baggins’s great party. As they talk the Gaffer ruminates aloud over his anxiety that Sam is being taught how to read and write by Bilbo and that he loves to listen to Bilbo’s stories.

“Elves and Dragons! I says to him. Cabbages and potatoes are better for me and you, I says to him. Don’t go getting mixed up in the business of your betters, or you’ll land in trouble too big for you, I says to him.”

Of course the Gaffer’s words are prophetic because the stories of Elves and Dragons in which Bilbo had been a participant draw Sam right into the heart of the Quest of the Ring and a trouble that is indeed far too big for him. When some years later Sam overhears the discussion between Gandalf and Frodo  on the true nature of Bilbo’s ring and how Frodo would have to leave the Shire it is his love for tales of “dragons and a fiery mountain, and- Elves, sir” that draws him to the window then through the window as Gandalf drags him through it. It is his longing to see Elves that leads Gandalf to say to him, “I have thought of something… to shut your mouth, and punish you properly for listening. You shall go away with Mr. Frodo!”

Sam’s love for the tales he has heard will take him straight to Mordor but there is another love that will take him there too and that is his love for Frodo. It is when Sam hears that Frodo is leaving the Shire that he chokes and so gives away his hiding place outside the window. It is his love that first awakens his imagination in a way beyond anything that the Gaffer could ever conceive and would fear to do so and it is through the awakening of his imagination that Sam longs to see and to know for himself.

This is what I meant when I said that Frodo carries Sam to Mordor. This is what happens when one person awakens the imagination of another. The Gaffer, fearful of the unknown, deliberately tries to keep his son within the known world of cabbages and potatoes. Bilbo, and then Frodo after him, takes Sam into an unknown, fearful and wonderful world. I look back now with the deepest gratitude to the teachers who read wonderful stories to me, who introduced me to beautiful music and who taught me wonder. But even as my heart was opening to beauty I was already aware that most of my playmates were making different choices. And who can say which was the right one? Sam’s drinking partners in the pub laugh at his dreaminess and so it is that they never go to Rivendell; but then neither are they attacked by Ringwraiths or, wracked with hunger and thirst, stagger through the hell of Mordor to the fiery mountain. It is both a wonderful and a fearful thing to have our imaginations awakened. And it is both a wonderful and a fearful thing to truly love another. Sam is carried to Mordor by Frodo. His life would have been safer but also poorer if he had stayed at home. If we choose safety then we must also choose poverty. But if we choose wonder then we must also choose fearfulness.

On Learning to Receive Good News

It can almost be as hard to receive and believe unexpected good news as it is to receive and believe the opposite. Disappointment can become a habit of life and preparing for it so that we can bear it when it comes can become the main discipline of our inner lives. The expectation of disappointment and our preparation for its “inevitable” arrival has a way of creeping into every fibre of our being. We will see this negative expectation at work in two major characters of The Lord of the Rings in later postings on this blog. One is Théoden of Rohan and the other is Denethor of Gondor.

The return of Gandalf is one of the glorious moments of the whole story. We saw him fall with the Balrog into the abyss in Moria, crying, “Fly, you fools!” as he did so. We shared in the grief of his companions at his loss and in the sense that their task had become so much harder if not impossible. We have reflected more than once on how for Aragorn the unexpected burden of the leadership of the company threw him into doubt regarding his personal ambitions. And we could say that although it was the attack of the orcs that finally sundered the Fellowship of the Ring that it was from the fall of Gandalf that such a sundering became inevitable.

And now in the Forest of Fangorn as Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli bravely pursue what seems a hopeless cause, Gandalf returns to them.

“They all gazed at him. His hair was white as snow in the sunshine; and gleaming white was his robe; the eyes under his deep brows were bright, piercing as the rays of the sun; power was in his hand. Between wonder, joy and fear they stood and found no words to say.”

They are able to receive this good news with joy and then to continue their journey with renewed hope. Soon they will know that there is no point in continuing to search for Merry and Pippin. They will waste no time on comments like, “so why did we bother, then?” Only one thing will matter to them and that will be to do the next task, and then the next one and the next one. In this they differ from Théoden (at first at least) and from Denethor. Denethor, most of all, has become so set in his belief that good days are only pauses on the inevitable road to destruction that he considers all who continue to have hope as fools and so Gandalf is dismissively called the “grey fool”. In Théoden despair is mixed with guilt. He regards himself as a failed king. Aragorn is different from both. He has passed through his time of despair, not even regarding his own failure as something that disqualifies him from doing the next task with all the strength that he can bring to it.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German pastor, theologian and anti-Nazi resister, wrote powerfully about this not long before he was arrested and held in the Tegel prison in Berlin.

He reflected on ten years of resistance to the Third Reich within Germany, much of which had been ineffective, and upon all that he and his fellow resisters had learnt through those years. He wrote that he had learnt that it was of no importance whether anyone emerged as a hero from this experience. All that mattered was to keep on asking the question, day after day after day, “How is the next generation to live?” Aragorn has stopped worrying about whether he is a hero or whether others see him as one. All that matters is the task. Once that is clear to him he has no barrier within himself to weeping tears of sorrow or of joy and no barrier to living a faithful life.