The Kenosis of Aragorn

Thorongil, alias Aragorn, part 6

In the Appendix A account of Thorongil/Aragorn, the statement that the latter was not “holding himself higher than the servant of his [Denethor’s] father” is evocative of the Apostle Paul’s discussion of the kenosis (“self-emptying”) of Christ in Philippians 2:5-11:

“Let this mind be be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men:And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name:That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth;And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

We’ve already noted Aragorn’s kenosis in The Lord of the Rings in his being the suffering servant, “despised and rejected” (Isaiah 53), in Bree, but we might also mention here his entering his kingdom (Gondor) through his own act of “obedience unto death” (following the Paths of the Dead), as well as his camping outside Minas Tirith as a stranger even after bringing victory and healing to the city (cp. Hebrews 13:12). Like Christ, Aragorn becomes a king only after first becoming an obedient and dying servant.

Denethor’s mimetic rivalry with Aragorn

Thorongil, alias Aragorn, part 5

Again, from Appendix A of The Return of the King:

Denethor II was a proud man, tall, valiant, and more kingly than any man that had appeared in Gondor for many lives of men; and he was wise also, and far-sighted, and learned in lore. Indeed he was as like to Thorongil as to one of nearest kin, and yet was ever placed second to the stranger in the hearts of men and the esteem of his father. At the time many thought that Thorongil had departed before his rival became his master; though indeed Thorongil had never himself vied with Denethor, nor held himself higher than the servant of his father. And in one matter only were their counsels to the Steward at variance: Thorongil often warned Ecthelion not to put trust in Saruman the White in Isengard, but to welcome rather Gandalf the Grey. But there was little love between Denethor and Gandalf; and after the days of Ecthelion there was less welcome for the Grey Pilgrim in Minas Tirith. Therefore later, when all was made clear, many believed that Denethor, who was subtle in mind and looked further and deeper than other men of his day, had discovered who this stranger Thorongil in truth was, and suspected that he and Mithrandir designed to supplant him.

The mimetic rivalry of Denethor towards Thorongil/Aragorn calls to mind the many instances of fraternal conflict throughout Scripture: Cain and Abel, Abraham and Lot, Ishmael and Isaac, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, Saul and David. It’s a pattern that culminates in the “envy” the Pilot observes in the Jewish leaders who hand Jesus over to be crucified. The Appendix A account of Denethor’s rivalry with Thorongil also sets into even sharper relief the very different response of Denethor’s son, Faramir, to Aragorn, calling to mind Jonathan’s willing acquiescence to David in the Book of Samuel and John the Baptist’s preference of Jesus’s person and ministry over his own in the Gospels.

“A Disciple is Not Greater than His Master”: Frodo and Aragorn

Thorongil, alias Aragorn, part 4

Some more observations on Appendix A’s account of “Thorongil.” Thorongil’s departure from both his friends and from Gondor on the shores of Anduin while he set “his face towards the Mountains of Shadow” adds some additional perspective and pathos to what is essentially Frodo’s recapitulation of that same act at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring, as well as to Aragorn’s decision not to follow Frodo (and Sam) but to rescue Merry and Pippin instead. Frodo, as it turns out, is having to do what Aragorn did before him (and Aragorn, accordingly, is having to let Frodo do what he did before him). Observe Sam’s summary of Frodo’s dilemma and Aragorn’s response:

‘Begging your pardon,’ said Sam. ‘I don’t think you understand my master at all. He isn’t hesitating about which way to go. Of course not! What’s the good of Minas Tirith anyway? To him, I mean, begging your pardon, Master Boromir,’ he added, and turned. It was then that they discovered that Boromir, who at first had been sitting silent on the outside of the circle, was no longer there.
`Now where’s he got to? ‘ cried Sam, looking worried. ‘He’s been a bit queer lately, to my mind. But anyway he’s not in this business. He’s off to his home, as he always said; and no blame to him. But Mr. Frodo, he knows he’s got to find the Cracks of Doom, if he can. But he’s afraid. Now it’s come to the point, he’s just plain terrified. That’s what his trouble is. Of course he’s had a bit of schooling, so to speak-we all have-since we left home, or he’d be so terrified he’d just fling the Ring in the River and bolt. But he’s still too frightened to start. And he isn’t worrying about us either: whether we’ll go along with him or no. He knows we mean to. That’s another thing that’s bothering him. If he screws himself up to go, he’ll want to go alone. Mark my words! We’re going to have trouble when he comes back. For he’ll screw himself up all right, as sure as his name’s Baggins.’
‘I believe you speak more wisely than any of us, Sam,’ said Aragorn. `And what shall we do, if you prove right? ‘
‘Stop him! Don’t let him go! ‘ cried Pippin.
‘I wonder? ‘ said Aragorn. `He is the Bearer, and the fate of the Burden is on him. I do not think that it is our part to drive him one way or the other. Nor do I think that we should succeed, if we tried. There are other powers at work far stronger.’ (“Breaking of the Fellowship”)

Frodo, as a kind of disciple of Aragorn, is having to take up Aragorn’s “cross,” as it were, turning his back on his friends (and hence on Gondor) as he turns his face towards Mordor. Later, Aragorn gives this account of Frodo’s purpose which we may presume to give us an insight into what his own thinking was in departing from his companions and from his ministry in Gondor so many years earlier:

I met Sam going up the hill and told him to follow me; but plainly he did not do so. He guessed his master’s mind and came back here before Frodo had gone. He did not find it easy to leave Sam behind!’ ‘But why should he leave us behind, and without a word?’ said Gimli. ‘That was a strange deed!’ ‘And a brave deed,’ said Aragorn. ‘Sam was right, I think. Frodo did not wish to lead any friend to death with him in Mordor. (“The Departure of Boromir”)

Finally, we have Aragorn’s decision not to follow Frodo but to rescue Merry and Pippen. Again, I’m suggesting that, in light of Appendix A, we may read Aragorn’s own personal history and experience as part of the relevant context:

‘Let me think!’ said Aragorn. ‘And now may I make a right choice and change the evil fate of this unhappy day!’ He stood silent for a moment. ‘I will follow the Orcs,’ he said at last. ‘I would have guided Frodo to Mordor and gone with him to the end; but if I seek him now in the wilderness, I must abandon the captives to torment and death. My heart speaks clearly at last: the fate of the Bearer is in my hands no longer. The Company has played its part. Yet we that remain cannot forsake our companions while we have strength left. Come! We will go now. Leave all that can be spared behind! We will press on by day and dark!’ (“The Departure of Boromir”)

More Aragorn Typology

Thorongil, alias Aragorn, part 3

Another possible christological allusion in the Appendix A (Return of the King) account of Thorongil/Aragorn is his taking a boat across a body of water, only to take leave of his “disciples” on the other side: “For he took boat and crossed over Anduin, and there he said farewell to his companions and went on alone; and when he was last seen his face was towards the Mountains of Shadow.” While there is no exact parallel to this scene in Scripture, it might be seen to combine and compress a number of iconic moments in Jesus’s ministry; for example, his crossing the Sea of Galilee (once by walking on the water, another time by calming a storm) and his occasional withdrawal from his disciples to pray. Also of note here are the words used to describe Thorongil’s sense of purpose or destination, “setting his face towards the Mountains of Shadow.” The expression “set his face towards” occurs only a handful of times in the English Bible, most of these appearing in the synoptic Gospels to describe Jesus’s determination to go to his own “Mountain of Shadow,” the City of Jerusalem.

Aragorn and the Prophet’s Reward

Thorongil, alias Aragorn, part 2

I began posting a few days ago on Appendix A’s account of Thorongil, Aragorn’s alias in Gondor while in the service of Ecthelion II, father of Denethor. Another somewhat surprising feature of the account is the warm welcome and esteem Thorongil receives from the Gondorians, especially in contrast to the the suspicion and scorn we know Aragorn to have been held in by the Breelanders, and this despite the fact that Aragorn’s Numenorean lineage is of the Northern line of Arnor, and not of the Southern line of Gondor. To quote from the Prologue of John’s Gospel, “he came to his own, but his own received him not.” I’ve already commented on Aragorn’s Melchizedekian union of the offices of king and priest, but it would seem he only assumes these roles after enduring the fate of the prophet, the one Jesus describes as being “not without honour, but in his own country” (Mark 6:4).

Aragorn, King and Priest after the Order of Melchizedek

The story in Appendix A of Thorongil, Aragorn’s alias while in the service of Denethor’s father, Ecthelion II, adds a great deal to the christological typology surrounding Aragorn’s character. I quote the passage at length:

In much that he [Ecthelion II] did he had the aid and advice of a great captain whom he loved above all. Thorongil men called him in Gondor, the Eagle of the Star, for he was swift and keen-eyed, and wore a silver star upon his cloak; but no one knew his true name nor in what land he was born. He came to Ecthelion from Rohan, where he had served the King Thengel, but he was not one of the Rohirrim. He was a great leader of men, by land or by sea, but he departed into the shadows whence he came, before the days of Ecthelion were ended.

     Thorongil often counselled Ecthelion that the strength of the revels in Umbar was a great peril to Gondor, and a threat to the fiefs of the south that would prove deadly if Sauron moved to open war. At last he got leave of the Steward and gathered a small fleet, and he came to Umbar unlooked for by night, and there burned a great part of the ships of the Corsairs. He himself overthrew the Captain of the Haven in battle upon the quays, and then he withdrew his fleet with small loss. But when they came back to Pelargir, to men’s grief and wonder, he would not return to Minas Tirith, where great honour awaited him.

   He sent a message of farewell to Ecthelion, saying: “other tasks now call me, lord, and much time and many perils must pass, ere I come again to Gondor, if that be my fate.” Though none could guess what those tasks might be, nor what summons he had received, it was known whither he went. For he took boat and crossed over Anduin, and there he said farewell to his companions and went on alone; and when he was last seen his face was towards the Mountains of Shadow.

   There was dismay in the City at the departure of Thorongil, and to all men it seemed a great loss, unless it were to Denethor, the son of Ecthelion, a man now ripe for the Stewardship. to which after four years he succeeded on the death of his father.

   Denethor II was a proud man, tall, valiant, and more kingly than any man that had appeared in Gondor for many lives of men; and he was wise also, and far-sighted, and learned in lore. Indeed he was as like to Thorongil as to one of nearest kin, and yet was ever placed second to the stranger in the hearts of men and the esteem of his father. At the time many thought that Thorongil had departed before his rival became his master; though indeed Thorongil had never himself vied with Denethor, nor held himself higher than the servant of his father. And in one matter only were their counsels to the Steward at variance: Thorongil often warned Ecthelion not to put trust in Saruman the White in Isengard, but to welcome rather Gandalf the Grey. But there was little love between Denethor and Gandalf; and after the days of Ecthelion there was less welcome for the Grey Pilgrim in Minas Tirith. Therefore later, when all was made clear, many believed that Denethor, who was subtle in mind and looked further and deeper than other men of his day, had discovered who this stranger Thorongil in truth was, and suspected that he and Mithrandir designed to supplant him.

My first comment is on the statement that of Thorongil “no one knew his true name nor in what land he was born.” A few Sciptural associations come to mind, the first being that the lack of known provenance or genealogy for Thorongil suggests a possible connection with the biblical Melchizedek, the king and priest who seems to come out of nowhere in Genesis 14 (“without father, without mother, without descent, having neither beginning of days, nor end of life; but made like unto the Son of God; abideth a priest continually”–Heb. 7:3), and whose name literally means “king of righteousness.” One of the unique qualities of the Numenorean kings was that they were both priests and kings, a coincidence of roles that Tolkien implies Aragorn resumed after assuming the throne of Gondor:

when the ‘Kings’ came to an end there was no equivalent to a ‘priesthood’: the two being identical in Númenórean ideas. So while God (Eru) was a datum of good* Númenórean philosophy, and a prime fact in their conception of history. He had at the time of the War of the Ring no worship and no hallowed place. And that kind of negative truth was characteristic of the West, and all the area under Numenorean influence… It later appears that there had been a ‘hallow’ on Mindolluin, only approachable by the King, where he had anciently offered thanks and praise on behalf of his people; but it had been forgotten. It was re-entered by Aragorn, and there he found a sapling of the White Tree, and replanted it in the Court of the Fountain. It is to be presumed that with the reemergence of the lineal priest kings (of whom Lúthien the Blessed Elf-maiden was a foremother) the worship of God would be renewed, and His Name (or title) be again more often heard. (Letters no. 156)

The uncertainty surrounding Thorongil’s identity and origin also calls to mind the same uncertainty that surrounds Jesus throughout the Gospels, an uncertainty, moreover, that Jesus himself identifies as the mark of one who is “born of the Spirit.” As Jesus explains to the uncomprehending Pharisee Nicodemus, “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). Normally this passage would more naturally apply to Gandalf, the self-described “servant of the Secret Fire” (i.e., the Holy Spirit), but then again, much of the above passage about Thorongil sounds more like Gandalf than the Aragorn we are used to, suggesting that Tolkien’s purpose is to establish these two characters as far more similar than we might otherwise have realized. As the above passage from Tolkien’s letter reveals, it is not just Gandalf, but also Aragorn who is a “servant of the Secret Fire.” Being “born of the Spirit,” he goes whither the Spirit blows him.

(To be continued….)

When Elves Flirt

Reading from Appendix A of The Return of the King this evening and was amused by what could be construed as Arwen’s not-so-subtle come-on line to Aragorn at their first meeting:

Then the maiden turned to him and smiled, and she said: “Who are you? And why do you call me by that name [Tinúviel]?”

And he answered: “Because I believed you to be indeed Lúthien Tinúviel, of whom I was singing. But if you are not she, then you walk in her likeness.”

   “So many have said,” she answered gravely. “Yet her name is not mine. Though maybe my doom will be not unlike hers. But who are you?” 

 

Gollum and Frodo, the Suicide and the Martyr

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 47

It’s possible that his link between suicide and world-annihilation is also behind an early, alternative climax Tolkien envisioned to The Lord of the Rings, in which Gollum, rather than falling accidentally into the fires of Mount Doom with the Ring (as the final, published version has it), instead “commits suicide” by leaping into the fires with the Ring of his own accord, but not before pronouncing to Frodo that, in doing so, “I will destroy you all” (Sauron Defeated 5). Gollum’s statement may merely be referring to the eventuality that, in destroying the Ring along with himself, he would also succeed in killing Frodo and Sam in the conflagration to follow. However, it’s not at all obvious that Gollum could or would have known that the destruction of the Ring would result in such a cataclysm. Another, more tantalizing possibility, accordingly, is that Gollum’s declaration has a more symbolic (though for him, very real) force. Throughout the passage, it is worth noting, Tolkien emphasizes the state of Gollum’s “wretchedness” (he mentions it twice), and it is perhaps significant that, although Frodo and Sam are the only other individuals present, Gollum does not say “I will destroy you both,” but “I will destroy you all.” If Gollum, therefore, in this alternative ending saw his own death as a kind of ritual world-annihilation, together he and Frodo, who by contrast saw his own likely death as the means for saving the world, together rather precisely embody the radical metaphysical difference that Chesterton draws between the martyr and the suicide in Orthodoxy (a work that Tolkien was familiar with). As Chesterton puts it:

a suicide is the opposite of a martyr. A martyr is a man who cares so much for something outside him, that he forgets his own personal life. A suicide is a man who cares so little for anything outside him, that he wants to see the last of everything. One wants something to begin: the other wants everything to end. In other words, the martyr is noble, exactly because (however he renounces the world or execrates all humanity) he confesses this ultimate link with life; he sets his heart outside himself: he dies that something may live. The suicide is ignoble because he has not this link with being: he is a mere destroyer; spiritually, he destroys the universe. (Orthodoxy 78-9)

And linking Chesterton’s view of suicide back to his Thomistic doctrine of creation, in a manner no less applicable to Tolkien, Mark Knight writes that “the unique threat of suicide lies in the way that it inverts the act of Creation through an individual’s choice to undo that act” (Knight, Chesterton and Evil, 51). Self-annihilation is an act of resentment towards the fact that God alone gives and ultimately controls being.

Annihilation and suicide

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 46

In the previous post in this series I suggested that, in its final manifestation as annihilation, evil makes a kind of return to its beginning: what began as a creaturely attempt to usurp the Creator’s power to give being ends in the equally futile attempt to altogether obliterate it. There is a way, however, in which one can, at least ritually, enact after a fashion, and with some efficacy, the annihilation of the world, and that is through suicide, through the “annihilation,” that is, of one’s own self. Evil may never be able to “corrupt the whole good,” as Thomas says, yet because evil is the privation of being, it follows that every act of evil succeeds in eroding something of the evil-doer’s own being, causing him to be less than what he is. For Aquinas, as Philipp Rosemann observes, “to do evil, or to sin, means to act against one’s own conscience, that is to say, against the innermost core of one’s own being. This split within the human being, this division of the self against itself, is at the same time a split outside the human being, that is to say, a division between the sinner and God” (Rosemann, Understanding Scholastic Thought with Foucault, 170). One way of striking out at God, accordingly, is to strike at oneself as his image-bearer, and one way of obliterating the world is, so to speak, to obliterate oneself. We have seen an aspect of this in Sauron and Melkor, who in their desire to dominate and destroy are willing and even required to do violence to their own selves, rending their own spirits in an act that for Tolkien mythically dramatizes the spiritual suicide of the modern self, and all in order that they might invest part of themselves in the instruments and objects of their domination. (This idea has been revisited recently in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter stories, in which the “Dark Lord” Voldemort, in an effort to make himself immortal and invincible, creates “horcruxes” by violently splitting his own soul into seven different parts and putting each part into some fetish-object held to be of great value or lineage in the wizarding-world.)

The link between the destruction of the world and the self-destruction of suicide is brought out in the grim nihilism of Denethor, Steward of Gondor, who when asked by Gandalf what he would have if his will could have its way, answers:

‘I would have things as they were in all the days of my life,’ answered Denethor, ‘and in the days of my longfathers before me: to be the Lord of this City in peace, and leave my chair to a son after me, who would be his own master and no wizard’s pupil. But if doom denies this to me, then I will have naught: neither life diminished, nor love halved, nor honour abated.’ (ROTK 130, emphasis original)

When it becomes evident that he cannot have things as they once were, Denethor indeed chooses “naught” and sets himself on fire (like one of the “heathen kings,” as he puts it), thus revealing the will to annihilation or nihilism latent not only within the will to domination, but even within the will to mere preservation examined earlier.

“How Awful Goodness Is”: Milton’s Satan and Tolkien’s Saruman

Saruman the Gollum, part 3

In a previous post I compared in passing Saruman’s mimetic rivalry with Radagast (and Gandalf) to Satan’s encounter with the angel Zephon in book four of Milton’s Paradise Lost. The passage, however, is too good not to republish in full here, as Zephon’s humble yet righteous put-down of Satan has got to be one of the best in the history of western literature. Apropos my comparison of Saruman to Gollum, it might also be worth noting that, in the following scene, Satan has just been caught, in the form of a toad, whispering into the ear of the sleeping Eve. (And Saruman, we may recall, will corrupt Theoden in the form, not of a toad exactly, but of a “Wormtongue,” whispering, as Gandalf later puts it, “poison … for Théoden’s ears.”) Even after he has been forcibly transformed back into his normal form, there is a great deal of irony and, I would submit, humor in Zephon’s continued difficulty in recognizing who Satan is.

Know ye not then said SATAN, filld with scorn,
Know ye not me? ye knew me once no mate
For you, there sitting where ye durst not soare;
Not to know mee argues your selves unknown,
The lowest of your throng; or if ye know,
Why ask ye, and superfluous begin
Your message, like to end as much in vain?
To whom thus ZEPHON, answering scorn with scorn.
Think not, revolted Spirit, thy shape the same,
Or undiminisht brightness, to be known
As when thou stoodst in Heav’n upright and pure;
That Glorie then, when thou no more wast good,
Departed from thee, and thou resembl’st now
Thy sin and place of doom obscure and foule.
But come, for thou, be sure, shalt give account
To him who sent us, whose charge is to keep
This place inviolable, and these from harm.

So spake the Cherube, and his grave rebuke
Severe in youthful beautie, added grace
Invincible: abasht the Devil stood,
And felt how awful goodness is, and saw
Vertue in her shape how lovly, saw, and pin’d
His loss; but chiefly to find here observd
His lustre visibly impar’d; yet seemd
Undaunted. If I must contend, said he,
Best with the best, the Sender not the sent,
Or all at once; more glorie will be wonn,
Or less be lost. Thy fear, said ZEPHON bold,
Will save us trial what the least can doe
Single against thee wicked, and thence weak.

I won’t develop these at any length, but the above scene calls to mind a number of related passages from Tolkien. The linking elements throughout the following episodes  are (1) an encounter or conflict between a hierarchically lower yet more virtuous being and a higher yet morally compromised being, (2) the rebuke of some formally great being and the latter’s resentful shame, (3) some commentary on the futility and self-dehumanization of the formally great being’s rebellion, or (4) some combination of the above. Without suggesting that Tolkien’s politics were those of Milton, so far as Paradise Lost itself is concerned, the following passages harmonize with Milton’s observations into the ultimately and tragically pathetic destiny of rebellion (however heroic, proud, and noble may be its beginnings) and, in contrast with it, the humble “awfulness” of an obedient goodness.

1. Iluvatar’s rebuke and Melkor’s humiliation after the contest of the Music in the Ainulindale:

Then Ilúvatar spoke, and he said: ‘Mighty are the Ainur, and mightiest among them is Melkor; but that he may know, and all the Ainur, that I am Ilúvatar, those things that ye have sung, I will show them forth, that ye may see what ye have done. And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.’

    Then the Ainur were afraid, and they did not yet comprehend the words that were said to them; and Melkor was filled with shame, of which came secret anger. 

2.   Fëanor’s humiliating and contemptuous dismissal of Morgoth from Formenos:

he came to Formenos, and spoke with Fëanor before his doors. Friendship he feigned with cunning argument, urging him to his former thought of flight from the trammels of the Valar… Fëanor looked upon Melkor with eyes that burned through his fair semblance and pierced the cloaks of his mind, perceiving there his fierce lust for the Silmarils. Then hate overcame Fëanor’s fear, and he cursed Melkor and bade him be gone, saying: ‘Get thee gone from my gate, thou jail-crow of Mandos!’ And he shut the doors of his house in the face of the mightiest of all the dwellers in Eä.
    Then Melkor departed in shame, for he was himself in peril, and he saw not his time yet for revenge; but his heart was black with anger. (Silmarillion, “Of the Silmarils and the Unrest of the Noldor”) 

3. Merry and Aragorn’s discussion of Saruman’s former greatness in comparison to his later degradation:

‘They [the Ents] pushed, pulled, tore, shook, and hammered; and clang-bang, crash-crack, in five minutes they had these huge gates just lying in ruin; and some were already beginning to eat into the walls, like rabbits in a sand-pit. I don’t know what Saruman thought was happening; but anyway he did not know how to deal with it. His wizardry may have been falling off lately, of course; but anyway I think he has not much grit, not much plain courage alone in a tight place without a lot of slaves and machines and things, if you know what I mean. Very different from old Gandalf. I wonder if his fame was not all along mainly due to his cleverness in settling at Isengard.’

            ‘No,’ said Aragorn. ‘Once he was as great as his fame made him. His knowledge was deep, his thought was subtle, and his hands marvellously skilled; and he had a power over the minds of others. The wise he could persuade, and the smaller folk he could daunt. That power he certainly still keeps. There are not many in Middle-earth that I should say were safe, if they were left alone to talk with him, even now when he has suffered a defeat. Gandalf, Elrond, and Galadriel, perhaps, now that his wickedness has been laid bare, but very few others.’ (The Two Towers, “Flotsam and Jetsam”)

4.  Saruman’s attempt to parley with Theoden, Theoden’s remonstration, and Saruman’s response:

‘I say, Theoden King: shall we have peace and friendship, you and I? It is ours to command.’

      ‘We will have peace,’ said Theoden at last thickly and with an effort…. Yes, we will have peace,’ he said, now in a clear voice, ‘we will have peace, when you and all your works have perished – and the works of your dark master to whom you would deliver us. You are a liar, Saruman, and a corrupter of men’s hearts. You hold out your hand to me, and I perceive only a finger of the claw of Mordor. Cruel and cold! Even if your war on me was just as it was not, for were you ten times as wise you would have no right to rule me and mine for your own profit as you desired – even so, what will you say of your torches in Westfold and the children that lie dead there? And they hewed Hama’s body before the gates of the Hornburg, after he was dead. When you hang from a gibbet at your window for the sport of your own crows, I will have peace with you and Orthanc. So much for the House of Eorl. A lesser son of great sires am I, but I do not need to lick your fingers. Turn elsewhither. But I fear your voice has lost its charm.’

    The Riders gazed up at Theoden like men startled out of a dream. Harsh as an old raven’s their master’s voice sounded in their ears after the music of Saruman. But Saruman for a while was beside himself with wrath. He leaned over the rail as if he would smite the King with his staff. To some suddenly it seemed that they saw a snake coiling itself to strike.
     ‘Gibbets and crows!’ he hissed, and they shuddered at the hideous change. ‘Dotard! What is the house of Eorl but a thatched barn where brigands drink in the reek, and their brats roll on the floor among the dogs? Too long have they escaped the gibbet themselves. But the noose comes, slow in the drawing, tight and hard in the end. Hang if you will!’ Now his voice changed, as he slowly mastered himself. ‘I know not why I have had the patience to speak to you. For I need you not, nor your little band of gallopers, as swift to fly as to advance, Theoden Horsemaster. Long ago I offered you a state beyond your merit and your wit. I have offered it again, so that those whom you mislead may clearly see the choice of roads. You give me brag and abuse. So be it. Go back to your huts!

5. Saruman’s attempt to parley with Gandalf, and Gandalf’s mockery and control over Saruman (note once again Saruman’s Gollum-speak–“so condescending, and so very kind”–as well as Gandalf’s description of Saruman’s Gollum-like condition–“But you choose to stay and gnaw the ends of your old plots”):  

‘But you, Gandalf! For you at least I am grieved, feeling for your shame. How comes it that you can endure such company? For you are proud, Gandalf – and not without reason, having a noble mind and eyes that look both deep and far. Even now will you not listen to my counsel?’… Are we not both members of a high and ancient order, most excellent in Middle-earth? Our friendship would profit us both alike. Much we could still accomplish together, to heal the disorders of the world. Let us understand one another, and dismiss from thought these lesser folk! Let them wait on our decisions! For the common good I am willing to redress the past, and to receive you. Will you not consult with me? Will you not come up?’

       ….Then Gandalf laughed. The fantasy vanished like a puff of smoke. ‘Saruman, Saruman!’ said Gandalf still laughing. ‘Saruman, you missed your path in life. You should have been the king’s jester and earned your bread, and stripes too, by mimicking his counsellors. Ah me!’ he paused, getting the better of his mirth. ‘Understand one another? I fear I am beyond your comprehension. But you, Saruman, I understand now too well…. Nay, I do not think I will come up. But listen, Saruman, for the last time! Will you not come down? Isengard has proved less strong than your hope and fancy made it. So may other things in which you still have trust. Would it not be well to leave it for a while? To turn to new things, perhaps? Think well, Saruman! Will you not come down?’

        A shadow passed over Saruman’s face; then it went deathly white. Before he could conceal it, they saw through the mask the anguish of a mind in doubt, loathing to stay and dreading to leave its refuge. For a second he hesitated, and no one breathed. Then he spoke, and his voice was shrill and cold. Pride and hate were conquering him.

        ‘Will I come down?’ he mocked. ‘Does an unarmed man come down to speak with robbers out of doors? I can hear you well enough here. I am no fool, and I do not trust you, Gandalf. They do not stand openly on my stairs, but I know where the wild wood-demons are lurking, at your command.’

         ‘The treacherous are ever distrustful,’ answered Gandalf wearily. ‘But you need not fear for your skin. I do not wish to kill you, or hurt you, as you would know, if you really understood me. And I have the power to protect you. I am giving you a last chance. You can leave Orthanc, free – if you choose.’

      ‘That sounds well,’ sneered Saruman. ‘Very much in the manner of Gandalf the Grey: so condescending, and so very kind…. But why should I wish to leave?…’

      ‘Reasons for leaving you can see from your windows,’ answered Gandalf. ‘…But you will first surrender to me the Key of Orthanc, and your staff. They shall be pledges of your conduct, to be returned later, if you merit them.’

       Saruman’s face grew livid, twisted with rage, and a red light was kindled in his eyes. He laughed wildly. ‘Later!’ he cried, and his voice rose to a scream. ‘Later! Yes, when you also have the Keys of Barad-dur itself, I suppose; and the crowns of seven kings, and the rods of the Five Wizards, and have purchased yourself a pair of boots many sizes larger than those that you wear now. A modest plan. Hardly one in which my help is needed! I have other things to do. Do not be a fool. If you wish to treat with me, while you have a chance, go away, and come back when you are sober! And leave behind these cut-throats and small rag-tag that dangle at your tail! Good day!’ He turned and left the balcony.

      ‘Come back, Saruman!’ said Gandalf in a commanding voice. To the amazement of the others, Saruman turned again, and as if dragged against his will, he came slowly back to the iron rail, leaning on it, breathing hard. His face was lined and shrunken. His hand clutched his heavy black staff like a claw. ‘I did not give you leave to go,’ said Gandalf sternly. ‘I have not finished. You have become a fool, Saruman, and yet pitiable. You might still have turned away from folly and evil, and have been of service. But you choose to stay and gnaw the ends of your old plots…. Saruman!’ he cried, and his voice grew in power and authority. ‘Behold, I am not Gandalf the Grey, whom you betrayed. I am Gandalf the White, who has returned from death. You have no colour now, and I cast you from the order and from the Council.’ He raised his hand, and spoke slowly in a clear cold voice. ‘Saruman, your staff is broken.’ There was a crack, and the staff split asunder in Saruman’s hand, and the head of it fell down at Gandalf’s feet. ‘Go!’ said Gandalf. With a cry Saruman fell back and crawled away. (The Two Towers, “The Voice of Saruman”) 

6. The Fellowship’s encounter with Saruman while returning to Rivendell:

As they came out again into the open country at sundown they overtook an old man leaning on a staff, and he was clothed in rags of grey or dirty white, and at his heels went another beggar, slouching and whining. ‘Well Saruman!’ said Gandalf. ‘Where are you going?’

          ‘What is that to you?’ he answered. ‘Will you still order my goings, and are you not content with my ruin?’

         ‘You know the answers,’ said Gandalf, ‘no and no. But in any case the time of my labours now draws to an end. The King has taken on the burden. If you had waited at Orthanc, you would have seen him, and he would have shown you wisdom and mercy.’

     ‘Then all the more reason to have left sooner,’ said Saruman, ‘for I desire neither of him. Indeed if you wish for an answer to your first question, I am seeking a way out of his realm.’

       ‘Then once more you are going the wrong way,’ said Gandalf, ‘and I see no hope in your journey. But will you scorn our help? For we offer it to you.’

      ‘To me?’ said Saruman. ‘Nay, pray do not smile at me! I prefer your frowns. And as for the Lady here, I do not trust her: she always hated me, and schemed for your part. I do not doubt that she has brought you this way to have the pleasure of gloating over my poverty. Had I been warned of your pursuit, I would have denied you the pleasure.’

      ‘Saruman,’ said Galadriel, ‘we have other errands and other cares that seem to us more urgent than hunting for you. Say rather that you are overtaken by good fortune; for now you have a last chance.’

       ‘If it be truly the last, I am glad,’ said Saruman, ‘for I shall be spared the trouble of refusing it again. All my hopes are ruined, but I would not share yours. If you have any.’

     For a moment his eyes kindled. ‘Go!’ he said. ‘I did not spend long study on these matters for naught. You have doomed yourselves, and you know it. And it will afford me some comfort as I wander to think that you pulled down your own house when you destroyed mine. And now, what ship will bear you back across so wide a sea?’ he mocked. ‘It will be a grey ship, and full of ghosts.’ He laughed, but his voice was cracked and hideous…. As the wretched pair passed by the company they came to the hobbits, and Saruman stopped and stared at them; but they looked at him with pity.

        ‘So you have come to gloat too, have you, my urchins?’ he said. ‘You don’t care what a beggar lacks, do you? For you have all you want, food and fine clothes, and the best weed for your pipes. Oh yes, I know! I know where it comes from. You would not give a pipeful to a beggar, would you?’

      ‘I would, if I had any,’ said Frodo.

      ‘You can have what I have got left,’ said Merry, ‘if you will wait a moment.’ He got down and searched in the bag at his saddle. Then he handed to Saruman a leather pouch. ‘Take what there is,’ he said. ‘You are welcome to it; it came from the flotsam of Isengard.’

       ‘Mine, mine, yes and dearly bought!’ cried Saruman, clutching at the pouch. ‘This is only a repayment in token; for you took more, I’ll be bound. Still, a beggar must be grateful, if a thief returns him even a morsel of his own. Well, it will serve you right when you come home, if you find things less good in the Southfarthing than you would like. Long may your land be short of leaf!’

      ‘Thank you!’ said Merry. ‘In that case I will have my pouch back, which is not yours and has journeyed far with me. Wrap the weed in a rag of your own.’ ‘One thief deserves another,’ said Saruman, and turned his back on Merry, and kicked Wormtongue, and went away towards the wood. (The Return of the King, “Many Partings” 

7. Finally, Frodo’s encounter with Saruman-cum-Sharkey in the Shire:

‘[A]nd so I am able to welcome you home.’ There standing at the door was Saruman himself, looking well-fed and well-pleased; his eyes gleamed with malice and amusement.

         A sudden light broke on Frodo. ‘Sharkey!’ he cried.

        Saruman laughed. ‘So you have heard the name, have you? All my people used to call me that in Isengard, I believe. A sign of affection, possibly. But evidently you did not expect to see me here.’

      ‘I did not,’ said Frodo. ‘But I might have guessed. A little mischief in a mean way: Gandalf warned me that you were still capable of it.

        ‘Quite capable,’ said Saruman, ‘and more than a little. You made me laugh, you hobbit-lordlings, riding along with all those great people so secure and so pleased with your little selves. You thought you had done very well out of it all, and could now just amble back and have a nice quiet time in the country. Saruman’s home could be all wrecked, and he could be turned out, but no one could touch yours. Oh no! Gandalf would look after your affairs.’

       Saruman laughed again. ‘Not he! When his tools have done their task he drops them. But you must go dangling after him, dawdling and talking, and riding round twice as far as you needed. “Well,” thought I, “if they’re such fools, I will get ahead of them and teach them a lesson. One ill turn deserves another.” It would have been a sharper lesson, if only you had given me a little more time and more Men. Still I have already done much that you will find it hard to mend or undo in your lives. And it will be pleasant to think of that and set it against my injuries.’

         ‘Well, if that is what you find pleasure in,’ said Frodo, ‘I pity you. It will be a pleasure of memory only, I fear. Go at once and never return!’

       The hobbits of the villages had seen Saruman come out of one of the huts, and at once they came crowding up to the door of Bag End. When they heard Frodo’s command, they murmured angrily:

        ‘Don’t let him go! Kill him! He’s a villain and a murderer. Kill him!’

        Saruman looked round at their hostile faces and smiled. ‘Kill him!’ he mocked. ‘Kill him, if you think there are enough of you, my brave hobbits!’ He drew himself up and stared at them darkly with his black eyes. ‘But do not think that when I lost all my goods I lost all my power! Whoever strikes me shall be accursed. And if my blood stains the Shire, it shall wither and never again be healed.’

       The hobbits recoiled. But Frodo said: ‘Do not believe him! He has lost all power, save his voice that can still daunt you and deceive you, if you let it. But I will not have him slain. It is useless to meet revenge with revenge: it will heal nothing. Go, Saruman, by the speediest way!’…..

        Saruman turned to go, and Wormtongue shuffled after him. But even as Saruman passed close to Frodo a knife flashed in his hand, and he stabbed swiftly. The blade turned on the hidden mail-coat and snapped. A dozen hobbits, led by Sam, leaped forward with a cry and flung the villain to the ground. Sam drew his sword.

        ‘No, Sam!’ said Frodo. ‘Do not kill him even now. For he has not hurt me. And in any case I do not wish him to be slain in this evil mood. He was great once, of a noble kind that we should not dare to raise our hands against. He is fallen, and his cure is beyond us; but I would still spare him, in the hope that he may find it.’

        Saruman rose to his feet, and stared at Frodo. There was a strange look in his eyes of mingled wonder and respect and hatred. ‘You have grown, Halfling,’ he said. ‘Yes, you have grown very much. You are wise, and cruel. You have robbed my revenge of sweetness, and now I must go hence in bitterness, in debt to your mercy. I hate it and you!….’ (Return of the King, “The Scouring of the Shire”)  

Tolkien’s “Divine Comedy”: Purgatory as Faërie-land

Furthering the Tolkien-Dante connection I’ve been entertaining lately are some passages from Tolkien’s early writings which re-cast the Middle-earth mythology as a kind of Tolkienian “Divine Comedy.” Summarizing an episode from his father’s account of the Valar’s arrival in Arda and their settlement in Valinor as originally told in The Book of Lost Tales, Christopher Tolkien writes:

Nienna is the judge of Men in her halls named Fui after her own name; and some she keeps in the region of Mando (where is her hall), while the greater number board the black ship Mornië–which does no more than ferry these dead down the coast to Arvalin, where they wander in the dusk until the end of the world. But yet others are driven forth to be seized by Melko and taken to endure ‘evil day’ in Angamandi (in what sense are they dead, or mortal?); and (most extraordinary of all) there are a very few who go to dwell among the Gods in Valinor. (Book of Lost Tales 90)

An early name for Arvalin, the purgatorial region where the souls of the deceased men go who are neither “seized by Melko” nor “who go to dwell among the Gods in Valinor,” is Habbanan, which also happens to have been the subject of a poem written even earlier by Tolkien while he was in camp during the Great War. Much like Dante’s Purgatory, the star-imagery in Habbanon beneath the Stars is pervasive and determinative; both regions are also places of song, of desire, and of new and clear celestial vision.

One key difference between the two, however, is that in comparison to Dante and other traditional accounts, already at this early stage Purgatory in Tolkien’s imagination is less a place of penitence for and purgation of sin than it is a place of healing, rest, and the satiation of restless desire, a distinctive that we see preserved, for example, as late as the characterization of Frodo’s anticipated convalescence in Valinor at the end of The Lord of the Rings. (Tolkien does give, it should be noted, a slightly more conventional, though still highly original and imaginative portrayal of Purgatory in Leaf by Niggle.) Many readers have no doubt been tempted to see Frodo’s departure from Middle-earth into the West as an iconic image of Christian death and the soul’s departure to Heaven at the end of its mortal life. Yet such an interpretation overlooks an important intermediary stage in Tolkien’s Catholic understanding of the afterlife, to say nothing of his Faërie-fascination with the perpetual mediation of desire and the postponement of its satisfaction (a postponement that is itself intensely and strangely desirable). Tolkien’s more typical treatment of such mediation, of course, is through his mythopoetic creation of a longed for but now lost and irretrievable past, yet in cases such as Frodo’s we may see Tolkien as working in the opposite temporal direction, eliciting and sustaining desire through an indefinitely delayed consummation of all things (a deliberately “non-immanentized” eschatology, as it were). As Tolkien writes in one letter of the circumstances surrounding Frodo’s fate:

‘Alas! there are some wounds that cannot be wholly cured’, said Gandalf … – not in Middle-earth. Frodo was sent or allowed to pass over Sea to heal him – if that could be done, before he died. He would have eventually to ‘pass away’: no mortal could, or can, abide for ever on earth, or within Time. So he went both to a purgatory and to a reward, for a while: a period of reflection and peace and a gaining of a truer understanding of his position in littleness and in greatness, spent still in Time amid the natural beauty of ‘Arda Unmarred’, the Earth unspoiled by evil. (Letters 328)

Thus, much as Tolkien, for example, in his apologetic poem “Mythopoeia,” profoundly reinterprets the traditional, Thomistic account of heavenly beatitude, exchanging theoria for poiesis–the beatific vision for beatific sub-creation–as the pinnacle of human potential (“In Paradise perchance the eye may stray / from gazing upon everlasting Day / … Be sure they still will make, not being dead, / and poets shall have flames upon their head, / and harps whereon their faultless fingers fall: / there each shall choose for ever from the All), so we also find him remaking that other region of the Christian after-life in his own image. In Tolkien’s hands, Purgatory becomes nothing less than Faërie-land, a realm

wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords. In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveller who would report them. And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys be lost. (“On Fairy-Stories”)

Returning, in conclusion, to Tolkien’s purgatorial poem Habbanan beneath the Stars, I find Christopher’s following analysis to be on point:

This poem … offer[s] a rare and very suggestive glimpse of the mythic conception in its earliest phase; for here ideas that are drawn from Christian theology are explicitly present…. [and] they are still present in this tale [of The Coming of the Valinor]. For in the tale there is an account of the fates of dead Men after judgement in the black hall of Fui Nienna. Some (‘and these are the many’) are ferried by the death-ship to (Habbanan) Eruman, where they wander in the dusk and wait in patience till the Great End; some are seized by Melko and tormented in Angamandi ‘the Hells of Iron’; and some few go to dwell with the Gods in Valinor. Taken with the poem and the evidence of the early ‘dictionaries’, can this be other than a reflection of Purgatory, Hell, and Heaven? (Lost Tales 92)

As I say, Tolkien’s Middle-earth mythology as a kind of modern, fantasy “Divine Comedy.”

Minas Tirith and Dante’s Mnt. Purgatory

Was Dante’s Mnt. Purgatory any kind of inspiration for Tolkien’s Minas Tirith? I doubt it, but aside from both structures involving seven terraces or levels (profound, I know), the illustration of Purgatory from my copy of the Penguin Portable Dante always makes me think of Peter Jackson’s representation of Gondor’s white-walled city (which, speaking of things medieval, I understand to have been modeled on Mont Saint-Michel, also below).

 

Tolkien’s use of parataxis

Parataxis is the literary technique of using short, simple sentences joined by coordinating conjunctions (e.g., “and”) instead of more complex sentences using subordinate clauses and conjunctions. As John Garth observes, the technique “became a hallmark of Tolkien’s writing,” using it to achieve a sense of “breathless excitement” and “cranking up the tension and foreboding before the denouement” (Tolkien and the Great War, 271). Below are a couple of examples from The Return of the King. The first is from “The Ride of the Rohirrim” and involves Theoden:

Suddenly the king cried to Snowmane and the horse sprang away. Behind him his banner blew in the wind, white horse upon a field of green, but he outpaced it. After him thundered the knights of his hohuse, but he was ever before them. Éomer rode there, the white horsetail on his helm floating in his speed, and the front of the first éored roared like a breaker foaming to the shore, but Théoden could not be overtaken. Fey he seemed, or the battle-fury of his fathers ran like new tire in his veins, and he was borne up on Snowmane like a god of old, even as Orome the Great in the battle of the Valar when the world was young. His golden shield was uncovered, and lo! it shone like an image of the Sun, and the grass flamed into green about the white feet of his steed. For morning came, morning and a wind from the sea; and the darkness was removed, and the hosts of Mordor wailed, and terror took them, and they fled, and died, and the hoofs of wrath rode over them. And then all the host of Rohan burst into song, and they sang as they slew, for the joy of battle was on them, and the sound of their singing that was fair and terrible came even to the City.

The second example is from “The Battle of Pelennor Fields,” involving Éomer :

These staves he [Éomer] spoke, yet he laughed as he said them. For once more lust of battle was on him; and he was still unscathed, and he was young, and he was king: the lord of a fell people. And lo! even as he laughed at despair he looked out again on the black ships, and he lifted up his sword to defy them. And then wonder took him, and a great joy; and he cast his sword up in the sunlight and sang as he caught it. And all eyes followed his gaze, and behold! upon the foremost ship a great standard broke, and the wind displayed it as she turned towards the Harlond. There flowered a White Tree, and that was for Gondor; but Seven Stars were about it, and a high crown above it, the signs of Elendil that no lord had borne for years beyond count. And the stars flamed in the sunlight, for they were wrought of gems by Arwen daughter of Elrond; and the crown was bright in the morning, for it was wrought of mithril and gold.”

Atheism in Middle-earth: “The Sea has no shore. There is no Light in the West.”

“The Sea has no shore. There is no Light in the West.” These are the words spoken by one of Melkor’s spies, disguised as Amlach, son of Imlach, at the council of Men convened in the First Age to decide what to do about the perils facing them in Middle-earth (Silmarillion, “Of the Coming of Men into the West,” 145). The literal significance of these words, of course, is their denial of Valinor, of the Valar, of their light, by implication, a denial of Ilúvatar himself, and therefore also a denial of Men’s own dignified status as the Children of Ilúvatar.

More symbolically, pseudo-Amlach’s words are an expression of philosophical atheism: they constitute a rejection of transcendence, of a future hope and resurrection, of a reconciliation of the world to God and the restoration of all things, of a final judgment upon evil and the righting of all wrongs. In exchange for these things, pseudo-Amlach’s words offer (again, symbolically) a worldview that is reductionistic, wholly immanentized, materialistic, anti-supernatural, and hence anti-humane and therefore anti-humanistic. It is the counsel of despair under the guise of an urbane but (in reality) enervating cynicism.

Against such philosophical reductionism, accordingly, Tolkien’s entire legendarium sounds a clarion reminder that the seemingly endless Sea does have a shore, and that however dark things may seem, there is indeed a “Light in the West.” (This is The Lord of the Rings as counter-atheism.) A couple of familiar passages reinforce the point. The first is from Frodo’s peculiar dream while at Crick-Hollow:

Then he heard a noise in the distance. At first he thought it was a great wind coming over the leaves of the forest. Then he knew that it was not leaves, but the sound of the Sea far-off; a sound he had never heard in waking life, though it had often troubled his dreams. Suddenly he found he was out in the open. There were no trees after all. He was on a dark heath, and there was a strange salt smell in the air. Looking up he saw before him a tall white tower, standing alone on a high ridge. A great desire came over him to climb the tower and see the Sea. He started to struggle up the ridge towards the tower: but suddenly a light came in the sky, and there was a noise of thunder.

As Verlyn Flieger comments in her fine analysis of this passage in Splintered Light, 

The episode invites comparison with the final line of the allegory in the Beowulf essay. In both instances, the effect comes less from the images of tower and sea than from the stated or implied desire to climb up and look outward to the immense unknown. Tolkien’s use of this idea in both the [Beowulf] essay and The Lord of the Rings suggests that for him it transcended allegory to express an indefinable but very real attribute of the human psyche: the desire to seek something without knowing what it is.” (Flieger, Splintered Light, 16)

As St. Thomas would put it, man seeks God as an end that surpasses the grasp of his reason. The second passage is one I cited recently (Tolkien’s last voyage), when Frodo himself finally comes to the shore and Light beyond the Sea:

Then Frodo kissed Merry and Pippin, and last of all Sam, and went aboard; and the sails were drawn up, and the wind blew, and slowly the ship slipped away down the long grey firth; and the light of the glass of Galadriel that Frodo bore glimmered and was lost. And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed on into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.

This scene answers to and is the fulfillment of Frodo’s earlier dream: no longer in a state of mere anticipation of that which he has most deeply longed for, he has come to that place where his desire can at last be satiated and his joy made full. For this reason the passage really stands as the climactic and consummating eucatastrophe of the entire Lord of the Rings, when the work is at its most theological–reminding us, as Augustine so memorably put it, that “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee”–as Frodo is ushered into a vision of divine light, not as an oblique “ray of light through the very chinks of the universe” (as Tolkien describes eucatastrophe in one place), but now (as St. Paul put it) “face to face.”

Of Kings and Hobbits

Both Théoden and Denethor take hobbits as retainers, but their relationship to their respective hobbits differ from each other. Merry tells Théoden that he will be a “father” to him, but Denethor’s relationship is more pragmatic or utilitarian: although he is genuinely touched by Pippin’s gratitude for Boromir’s sacrifice and his offer of service, and as Gandalf himself generously recognizes, Denethor effectively uses Pippin to extract information from him about the Fellowship, as Gandalf also astutely perceives. Both men enter into a feudal relationship with their hobbits, a relationship that has mutual obligations, and yet both men, despite their being in the position of lords, default on their responsibilities to their vassals when they dismiss them from their service. Once you accept someone’s service, you cannot then refuse it at will. Merry is therefore in a sense entitled to accompany Théoden into battle, as Éowyn rightly recognizes. Unlike Denethor, of course, Théoden’s dismissal of Merry is at least partly solicitous: he naturally does not want Merry to come to harm. At the same time, it is also neglectful: Théoden is going into battle and (understandably) doesn’t want to be hindered by what he (wrongly, it turns out) perceives as unnecessary and encumbering “baggage.” The irony, of course, is that, in yet another exhibition of Tolkien’s gospel-logic, it is the small and seemingly insignificant Merry who will deal the all-important blow to the Witch King, giving Éowyn the crucial opportunity to destroy him altogether. Like King Lear’s Cordelia, in other words, they are precisely the two individuals most disenfranchised (or at least least enfranchased) by Théoden who render him the most faithful and effective service in the end. Théoden’s lapse in judgment here is to be contrasted with the gospel-logic exhibited, for example, by Elrond at the Council and Gandalf throughout the Third Age, the ingenious and paradoxical strategy of whom, beginning in The Hobbit, is the calculated enfranchisement of the hobbits, exposing them to and including them in the wider affairs of Middle-earth.

Denethor’s treatment of Pippin, however, is far worse. I have already mentioned his using Pippin to get extract information that Gandalf is loath to divulge, but he later disingenuously and hypocritically, even if indirectly, accuses Pippin of being a spy when he tells Gandalf that he has deliberately planted Pippin in his service for that purpose. It is disingenuous, because Denethor knows the genuineness of Pippin’s offer. If anything, Gandalf suffers Pippin to enter Denethor’s service against his own “better judgment,” and in part for Pippin’s own sake, knowing that he (Gandalf) has more to lose or risk than gain by having Pippin so attached and indebted to Denethor:

“I do not know what put it into your head, or your heart, to do that. But it was well done. I did not hinder it, for generous deed should not be checked by cold counsel. It touched his heart, as well (may I say it) as pleasing his humour. And at least you are free now to move about as you will in Minas Tirith – when you are not on duty. For there is another side to it. You are at his command; and he will not forget. Be wary still!”

In this we see something of Gandalf’s own “generosity” and self-sacrifice in allowing Pippin to serve Denethor despite the risk it may mean for Gandalf’s own purposes. So Denethor sees and recognizes the selflessness of Pippin’s offer, only to insult it later when he feigns to suspect it as a plot. And it is hypocritical in that, as has already been pointed out, it is Denethor himself who employs Pippin as an unwitting spy against Gandalf and the Fellowship.

Théoden and Denethor compared and contrasted

Gandalf describes Théoden to Pippen as “a kindly old man,” whereas “Denethor is of another sort, proud and subtle, a man of far greater lineage and power.” How are Théoden and Denethor similar and different? How does Denethor’s “far greater lineage and power” contribute to and characterize this difference?

Both are rulers of their people, but one is king, the other a mere steward. However, despite not being king, Denethor’s is “of far greater lineage and power.” Denethor’s ancestors have been stewards in Gondor for some 800 (?) years, longer than there has even been a Rohan.

One similarity is that they are rulers who are both weighed down by the cares of ruling and who eventually “fall” and are corrupted. Théoden, of course, is retrieved and redeemed from his fall and Denethor is not. But before that, the way in which they fall is also very different. Saruman is able to subdue Théoden directly by means of Théoden’s counselor and confidant, Wormtongue. Denethor, by contrast, is not able to be cowed even by Sauron himself—in this he proves himself even more resilient and in that sense even greater than Saruman the White Wizard. Thus, where there is a chain of corruption running from Sauron through Saruman to Wormtongue to Théoden, Denethor succeeds in resisting Sauron’s overt efforts to dominate him. Suaron’s influence over Denethor, accordingly, is limited to the more indirect means of leaking misleading information. Denethor does not believe Sauron’s lies, but in the process allows himself to be swayed by Sauron’s “truths.” Two examples of this are when Denethor is allowed to see that Frodo (whom Denethor knows to have the Ring) has been captured and when he is shown the fleet of Corsairs sailing up the Great River (but under the command, it turns out, of Aragorn—thus bringing to pass Gandalf’s prediction to Pippin that Aragorn may make his “return” under a guise that no one, not even Denethor, expects). Part of Denethor’s resistance to Sauron lies in his independence: unlike Saruman, who, as Treebeard observes, wants to become a “power,” Denethor is already a great lord of “lineage and power,” and unlike Théoden who, though a king, seems overly dependent on his ministers or counselors (as he says in Helm’s Deep, speaking not only of Gandalf but also of the now exposed and disgraced Wormtongue, “I miss now both my counsellors, the old and the new”), Denethor’s superiority means that in an important respect he needs no counselor (can you imagine Denethor having a Wormtongue-counterpart?) This, I think, is part of the significance of the conspicuous emptiness of Denethor’s hall: when Gandalf and Pippin first enter Denethor’s halls, they see no one except Denethor himself (they don’t even see who it is—if anyone—responsible for opening the doors to the hall, and it is not until Denethor rings the bell, that Pippen even notices that servants are present). This is very strange for a lord’s court, which is usually filled with, well, courtiers, advisees and dependents of the court. The emptiness of Denethor’s hall, however, is indicative of his independence and autonomy, qualities that exhibit both his remarkable greatness but also that weakness which will prove his greatest tragedy undoing. Denethor greater than Boromir in that, whereas Boromir at the Council of Elrond sees the Ring as a “gift” for the enemies of Sauron, Denethor realizes that the Ring cannot be used but ought to have been brought to Minas Tirith to be kept safe. Denethor reveals his own Boromirism, however, when he admits that the Ring was only to be used in utmost emergency. In this Faramir distinguishes himself, however, as greater still, in that he says he would not take up the Ring even if he found it by the side of the road.

Faramir’s commentary on Beowulf

Yesterday I posted on Tolkien’s admiration for the pagan “martial heroism as its own end” of Beowulf, yet which he immediately follows with his Christian caution towards the same: “But we may remember that the poet of Beowulf saw clearly: the wages of heroism is death.” In The Lord of the Rings, it is this same perspective that we found put in the mouth of Faramir, that most Christian and Tolkien-like of characters. Comparing and contrasting the Anglo-Saxon Rohirrim to his own people, the Gondorians, who are of a much higher and mightier lineage, Faramir says to Frodo:

‘Yet now, if the Rohirrim are grown in some ways more like to us, enhanced in arts and gentleness, we too have become more like to them, and can scarce claim any longer the title High. We are become Middle Men, of the Twilight, but with memory of other things. For as the Rohirrim do, we now love war and valour as things good in themselves, both a sport and an end; and though we still hold that a warrior should have more skills and knowledge than only the craft of weapons and slaying, we esteem a warrior, nonetheless, above men of other crafts. Such is the need of our days. So even was my brother, Boromir: a man of prowess, and for that he was accounted the best man in Gondor. And very valiant indeed he was: no heir of Minas Tirith has for long years been so hardy in toil, so onward into battle, or blown a mightier note on the Great Horn.’ Faramir sighed and fell silent for a while.

Much of the significance of Faramir’s courtship of Eowyn, it might be said, lies in his “converting”–indeed, healing and saving–this courageous but fey “shieldmaiden” of Rohan from her noble but pagan (and so ultimately enervating and no less nihilistic) martial obsession.

‘I stand in Minas Anor, the Tower of the Sun,’ she said; ‘and behold the Shadow has departed! I will be a shieldmaiden no longer, nor vie with the great Riders, nor take joy only in the songs of slaying. I will be a healer, and love all things that grow and are not barren.’ And again she looked at Faramir. ‘No longer do I desire to be a queen,’ she said.

     Then Faramir laughed merrily. ‘That is well,’ he said, ‘for I am not a king. Yet I will wed with the White Lady of Rohan, if it be her will. And if she will, then let us cross the River and in happier days let us dwell in fair Ithilien and there make a garden. All things will grow with joy there, if the White Lady comes.’

     ‘Then must I leave my own people, man of Gondor?’ she said. ‘And would you have your proud folk say of you: “There goes a lord who tamed a wild shieldmaiden of the North! Was there no woman of the race of Númenor to choose?”‘

     ‘I would,’ said Faramir.

Therein, I submit, lies much of Tolkien’s Christian response to Nietzsche: it is not ultimately the agonistic will-to-power, but the pastoral will-to-garden, that is the cure for modern nihilism.

Tolkien’s last voyage

A couple of passages, set in juxtaposition, and without comment (the reader is invited to provide his own meditation). The first is from the final chapter of The Lord of the Rings:

Then Frodo kissed Merry and Pippin, and last of all Sam, and went aboard; and the sails were drawn up, and the wind blew, and slowly the ship slipped away down the long grey firth; and the light of the glass of Galadriel that Frodo bore glimmered and was lost. And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed on into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.

The second passage is from the last of Tolkien’s published letters, written on August 29, 1973 to his daughter Priscilla, four days before his death at the age of eighty-one: “It is stuffy, sticky, and rainy here at present–but forecasts are more favourable.”

Angelic bodies as “machines”

In Tolkien’s fictional world, despite the attachment of the angelic spirits to the physical world, their relationship to their bodies, and thus to the physical world as a whole, still remains a fundamentally dualistic one. Tolkien likens the relationship between the Valar and their bodies to that between human beings and their clothes, a metaphor Plato also used in his account of the human soul’s relationship to the body (see, for example, Phaedo 87b). For Tolkien, however, one interesting implication of the dualism of angelic incarnation is their apparent systemic temptation towards the domination of other beings. As Tolkien writes in one place:

But since in the view of this tale & mythology Power—when it dominates or seeks to dominate other wills and minds (except by the assent of their reason)—is evil, these “wizards” were incarnated in the life-forms of Middle-earth, and so suffered the pains both of mind and body. They were also, for the same reason, thus involved in the peril of the incarnate: the possibility of “fall,” of sin, if you will. The chief form this would take with them would be impatience, leading to the desire to force others to their own good ends, and so inevitably at last to mere desire to make their own wills effective by any means. To this evil Saruman succumbed. Gandalf did not. (Letters 237, emphasis added)

In another letter Tolkien writes of the wizards Saruman and Gandalf that, although angelic, spiritual beings in themselves, “being incarnate [they] were more likely to stray, or err,” and that it was because of his “far greater inner power” in comparison to his companions that Gandalf’s self-sacrifice on the Bridge of Kazad-dum was a true “humbling and abnegation” (Letters 202, emphasis added). A little later in the same letter Tolkien again writes of the “temptation” of Gandalf’s incarnate being:

But if it is ‘cheating’ to treat [Gandalf’s] ‘death’ as making no difference, embodiment must not be ignored. Gandalf may be enhanced in power (that is, under the forms of this fable, in sanctity), but if still embodied he must still suffer care and anxiety, and the needs of flesh. He has no more (if no less) certitudes, or freedoms, than say a living theologian. In any case none of my ‘angelic’ persons are represented as knowing the future completely, or indeed at all where other wills are concerned. Hence their constant temptation to do, or try to do, what is for them wrong (and disastrous): to force lesser wills by power: by awe if not by actual fear, or physical constraint. (Letters 203)

Similar to the physical matter which they do not and cannot control directly, other free rational beings are not—or at least ought not to be—subjected to the dominating will of the angelic spirit. Rather, the latter’s influence over others must involve the same kind of sub-creative patience that moves their subordinates to action, not by coercion but by persuasion, a responsibility they share with Thomas’s angels who are said not to be able to directly or violently move another creature’s will, but can nevertheless “incline the will to the love of the creature or of God, by way of persuasion” (ST 1.106.2). And of the Istari or Wizards Tolkien similarly writes that the mission they were “primarily sent for” was to “train, advise, instruct, arouse the hearts and minds of those threatened by Sauron to a resistance with their own strengths; and not just to do the job for them” (Letters 202).

Nevertheless, because their embodiment is not natural but voluntary and therefore provisional or conditional, requiring that they lay aside some of their own native powers, Tolkien seems to implicitly recognize that their relationship to their bodies will be, as a consequence, much more artificial, extrinsic and utilitarian or pragmatic than is the case for Men and Elves. In short, the angelic body is, for the angelic spirits, ultimately a kind of “machine,” a form of technology and therefore a mere tool to be used rather than part of their fundamental nature and identity. We perhaps see something of the artificial nature of angelic incarnation, incidentally, in the immediate degeneration of the “angel” Saruman’s body after he is “killed” at the end of The Return of the King. As Tom Shippey writes, “[t]he body that is left once the ‘mist’ and the ‘smoke’ have departed seems in fact to have died many years before, becoming only ‘rags of skin upon a hideous skull’” (Shippey, J.R.R.Tolkien: Author of the Century, 127). With the departure of Saruman’s spirit, in other words, his body is revealed for the tool or instrument that it was and had become.

In conclusion, as the demiurgic sub-creators and masters of their own bodies to which they do not belong by nature, the temptation for the Valar and Maiar, Tolkien almost seems to suggest, will be for them to adopt the same attitude of mastery and domination towards others and towards the physical world they are supposed to shepherd.

Gandalf’s apostolic ministry to Middle-earth

In 2 Corinthians 1:24, the Apostle Paul tells the Corinthian Church: “Not for that we have dominion over your faith, but are helpers of your joy: for by faith ye stand.” The apostolic office, he explains, is not about dominion, but about encouragement and joy. What does the fruit of genuine apostolic labor look like? Not a cowed subservience, but believers being given a hand up to stand on their own two feet.

This, I submit, is as good a description of Gandalf’s ministry in Middle-earth as may be found. There’s far more to be said on this subject than I’m able to say here (for another reflection on the same subject, see here), but here are a few pertinent passages. The first is Gandalf’s statement to Denethor that, although the “rule of no realm” is his, he too, like Denethor, is nonetheless a “steward”: “all worthy things that are in peril as the world now stands, those are my care. And for my part, I shall not wholly fail of my task, though Gondor should perish, if anything passes through this night that can still grow fair or bear fruit and flower again in days to come.” Gandalf’s stewardship, in other words, is an apostolic stewardship, a ministry not of ruling over others, but of seeing to it that there remain living beings free to rule over themselves.

A second passage is from Tolkien’s infamously long letter to Milton Waldman, in which he describes the ministry of the Istari or “Wizards,” again in explicitly angelic, but by extension, also recognizably apostolic terms:

they were as one might say the near equivalent in the mode of these tales of Angels, guardian Angels. Their powers are directed primarily to the encouragement of the enemies of evil, to cause them to use their own wits and valour, to unite and endure. They appear always as old men and sages, and though (sent by the powers of the True West) in the world they suffer themselves, their age and grey hairs increase only slowly. Gandalf whose function is especially to watch human affairs (Men and Hobbits) goes on through all the tales. (Letters no. 131)

A third and final passage is Gandalf’s statement to the Hobbits toward the end of The Return of the King:

‘I am with you at present,’ said Gandalf, ‘but soon I shall not be. I am not coming to the Shire. You must settle its affairs yourselves; that is what you have been trained for. Do you not yet understand? My time is over: it is no longer my task to set things to rights, nor to help folk to do so. And as for you, my dear friends, you will need no help. You are grown up now. Grown indeed very high; among the great you are, and I have no longer any fear at all for any of you.’

As apostle to the Hobbits, Gandalf’s task has not been to take care of the Hobbits so much as it has been to “train” them, through word and deed, to take care of themselves and their people. The success of this training is implicit in Frodo’s words to Sam later on in the book that his objective was to “save the shire, and it has been saved.” This, incidentally, is also why the “scouring of the Shire” is so important as a conclusion to the whole saga, for in it we see the fruit of all Gandalf’s great labor, and in it the reader himself is, in a sense, asked whether he, by undergoing this journey as well, has not been similarly equipped and charged with scouring his own “Shire,” wherever or whatever that may be.

Gandalf’s speech here to the Hobbits is interesting for another, related reason, which is that it recollects the speech of that great “apostle of apostles” before departing from his Hobbit-disciples and leaving them to accomplish their great task which was nothing less than to “scour” the world through their message of God’s triumph over sin and death. I conclude with a string of verses from John chapters 14-17:

“Verily, verly, I say unto you, He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto my Father….” (14:12) “Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you. Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that ye should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain: that whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father in my name, he may give it you.” (15:15-16) “”Nevertheless I tell you the truth; It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you.” (16:7).  “These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (16:33).