When Gandalf Votes

“So you see, Gandalf, that by not voting for me, you’re really just voting for Sauron.”

I posted a few days ago on the subject of “When Elves Flirt.” This and my previous post might be filed under “When Gandalf Votes.” Here’s another passage from The Lord of the Rings remarkably apropos our current election season. The passage is taken from Gandalf’s speech to the traitor Saruman:

“Well, the choices are, it seems, to submit to Sauron, or to yourself. I will take neither. Have you others to offer?”

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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….)

Sauron’s Ring and the metaphysics of invisibility

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 34

Central to Tolkien’s representation of the evil of domination is the eponymous Ring of Sauron itself, about which there are three main points I would like to make in regard to its general symbolism of Tolkien’s metaphysics of domination.

The first point concerns the Ring’s mythic power to render its wearer invisible, a property Robert Eaglestone has analyzed in light of Emmanuel Levinas’s application of the Ring of Gyges from Plato’s Republic to the problem of the modern self. As Eaglestone points out, Levinas sees “in the gesture of seeing without being seen, both the phenomena of evil and one of the defining and unavoidable features of modernity” (Eaglestone, “Invisibility,” 75). For Levinas, Eaglestone explains, “our thought and daily lives are first in a relationship to the others that populate the world. Everything else is built on this fundamental relationship to the other, which ‘happens’ to us before we choose it.” This fundamental, mutual participation in the life of others “involves giving up one’s rights and acknowledging both the rights of the other and one’s own responsibility to them over and above yourself.” In modernity, however, Levinas argues a decidedly new attitude emerged, especially in Descartes’s methodical doubt which posited a radical theoretical distance between the thinking subject and the world , thus rendering the subject “invisible” to it. As Eaglestone summarizes Levinas’s argument, the modern isolation of the subject

creates the illusion that one’s subjectivity is, like Gyges, not derived from one’s relation with others but rather existing independently without society or recognition from others. Levinas continues and argues that the “myth of Gyges is the very myth of the I” which stands alone. “Seeing without being seen” is at the same time an illusion of radical separation and uprootedness from others, and the grounds of the possibility of “inner life”… Invisibility seems to turn the world into a world of spectacle, in which the observer is disengaged and free from bounds or restraint…(76)

As Eaglestone continues, in this illusion of separation at the heart of modernity, “others are turned from people into objects” (81). Like the modern conception of the subject, Sauron’s Ring, in making its wearer invisible to others and thus detaching him from his rootedness and participation in the world, in principle denies the claim that other beings have on him by virtue of their otherness. Invisible to all others while all others remain visible to him, the Ring-wearer assumes a quasi-transcendence in which their being effectively becomes an extension of his own.

In this Sauron’s Ring may be said to reverse the pattern of the Ainur’s Vision, the joyous eucatastrophe of which consists in its giving the appearance of “things other” that do not yet exist, the reality of which is later granted as a divine gift. The tragedy or dyscatastrophe of Sauron’s Ring, by contrast, is that it takes the reality of an already existing thing and belies that reality by denying its appearances. However, because things are what they are on account of their otherness, to deny a thing its appearance and its consequent relationship with those beings to whom it appears, is also to deny its reality, as we see in the case of the Ring-wraiths and all those who possess Sauron’s Ring for too long. As Gandalf explains to Frodo, if one “often uses the Ring to make himself invisible, he fades: he becomes in the end invisible permanently, and walks in the twilight under the eye of the dark power that rules the Rings… Yes, sooner or later… the dark power will devour him” (FOTR 56). Related to this, of course, is Bilbo’s complaint to Gandalf in which he unwitting reveals the effect the Ring has had on him: “I am old Gandalf. I don’t look it, but I am beginning to feel it in my heart of hearts. Well-preserved indeed!’ he snorted. ‘Why, I feel all thing, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean: like butter that has been scraped over too much bread. That can’t be right. I need a change, or something” (41).

The only person over whom the Ring seems to have no power, even to render him invisible, is Tom Bombadil, one of the earthiest characters in Tolkien’s fiction and one whose whole identity is most tied to his love of and devotion to things other.  As Tolkien writes of Tom in one letter, “he is an ‘allegory’, or an exemplar, a particular embodying of pure (real) natural science: the spirit that desires knowledge of other things, their history and nature, because they are ‘other’ and wholly independent of the enquiring mind, a spirit coeval with the rational mind, and entirely unconcerned with ‘doing’ anything with the knowledge” (Letters 192, emphasis original).

“I am the Servant of the Secret Fire”: On Gandalf’s Hobbit hobby

The following are some rough, underdeveloped notes attempting to connect some different aspects of Gandalf’s character, history, and peculiar mission and practice in Middle-earth. The first datum comes from Tolkien’s long letter to potential publisher Milton Waldman describing one of the central “motives” in The Lord of the Rings:

Here [in the story of Beren and Lúthien] we meet, among other things, the first example of the motive (to become dominant in Hobbits) that the great policies of world history, ‘the wheels of the world’, are often turned not by the Lords and Governors, even gods, but by the seemingly unknown and weak—owing to the secret life in creation, and the part unknowable to all wisdom but One, that resides in the intrusions of the Children of God into the Drama…” (Letters 149, emphasis mine)

So the first reference point for the present discussion is the central theme in Tolkien’s work of the small, the unknown, the unobtrusive, and the weak—animated by a “secret life in creation”—being responsible for accomplishing things not possible or anticipated by the strong, the noble, and the great.

A second point is that this “secret life in creation” by which “the One” unexpectedly and eucatastrophically intrudes himself and his purposes into the world sounds a lot like the Secret Fire or Flame Imperishable which Ilúvatar in the Ainulindalë, to the surprise and joy of the Ainur, sends into the Void to burn at the heart of the world, “kindling” it into its very existence. And though the Secret Fire is not mentioned by name, I think we see something of its distinctive agency in the vision Manwë is treated to in the chapter “On Aulë and Yavanna”:

Then Manwë sat silent, and the thought of Yavanna that she had put into his heart grew and unfolded; and it was beheld by Ilúvatar. Then it seemed to Manwë that the Song rose once more about him, and he heeded now many things therein that though he had heard them he had not heeded before. And at last the Vision was renewed, but it was not now remote, for he was himself within it, and yet he saw that all was upheld by the hand of Ilúvatar; and the hand entered in, and from it came forth many wonders that had until then been hidden from him in the hearts of the Ainur. (Emphasis mine)

This characterization of the Secret Fire, taken together with the first point, suggests that the above theme of the weak doing great things on behalf of the great is something of a signature or trade-mark activity of the Secret Fire. Beyond merely bringing the world into being (or rather, precisely on account of it), this is the kind of “business” that the Secret Fire is in, the kind of work that the Secret Fire does.

A third point is that, as is well known, it is this same Secret Fire whose servant Gandalf identifies himself as when facing down the Balrog on the Bridge of Khazad-dum. Assuming for the moment the principle of “like master, like servant,” we are led to the conclusion that it is this same line of work that Gandalf also specializes in, the paradoxical business of accomplishing mighty deeds through comparatively weak, insignificant, or overlooked means. (Tolkien’s indication in an interview with Clyde Kilby and elsewhere that the Secret Fire is the Holy Spirit would seem to further identify Gandalf as something of a Pentecostal, but I digress.) It is also interesting to note in this context Tolkien’s particular choice of words in one letter to explain why it is that Gandalf ultimately never has to personally fight and overcome the Lord of the Nazgûl: “so powerful is the whole train of human resistance, that he [Gandalf] himself has kindled and organized, that in fact no battle between the two occurs: it passes to other mortal hands” (Letters no. 156, emphasis added). As the protégé of the Secret Fire, Gandalf’s apostolic ministry (something I comment on elsewhere) involves him in going about and “kindling” fires among the Children of Ilúvatar, the unexpected but necessary consequence of which is that it is a mere shieldmaden of Rohan and her Hobbit-thain who together slay the Witch King whom no man is said to be able to kill.

Fourth and lastly, knowing this about Gandalf helps explain in part his attachment to and involvement with Hobbits, in whom Tolkien says above that the theme of the “great policies of world history” being accomplished by the “seemingly unknown and weak” comes to be particularly manifest. Enfranchising and fellowshipping with Hobbits, in short, is “Secret Fire” work, something that helps round out Gandalf’s already christological typology: if you’ve seen Gandalf, you’ve seen the Secret Fire who sends him.

Gandalf, O.S.A.

That’s “Order of Saint Augustine,” for my Protestant readers. I’ve commented before on the Augustinianism of Tolkien’s view of political authority (God has ordained it to humble our pride) and Gandalf’s view of torture (to be avoided if at all possible but may be necessary in dire circumstances). I’ve also noted (as doubtless others have as well) the apparent presence of Augustine’s opposition to capital punishment in the interest of mercy and repentance behind Gandalf’s reply to Frodo’s statement that Gollum “deserves death”:

“Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it.”

Gandalf’s speech is not exactly a verbatim quotation of Augustine, yet if Tolkien had any particular passage in mind in drafting the above, it would have to be the following from the Bishop of Hippo’s sermon “On the Feast of St. Lawrence.” Speaking of how “no one is allowed to strike [a condemned criminal] except the person who holds the appropriate office,” Augustine admonishes his congregation:

This office belongs to the public executioner; it’s his job to execute the condemned man. But suppose the judicial clerk puts him to death when he is already condemned and sentenced to death. Certainly the person he kills has been condemned. But still, the clerk will be found guilty of murder. True enough the man he killed was already condemned and sentenced to punishment; but it still counts as murder if someone is attacked against the regulations. Yet if it counts as murder to attack someone against the regulations, then please tell me what it counts as if you attack some crook who has not been given a hearing or been judged, and when you have no authority to attack him? I am not defending those who are bad, and I am not denying that they are bad. But leave the judges to account for this. Why do you want the difficult task of accounting for someone else’s death? The burden of authority isn’t yours to carry. God has given you the freedom of not being a judge. Why take over someone else’s position? You need to be giving an account of yourself. (Augustine: Political Writings, 114-5)

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).

The “humane” vs. the “political”: Frodo, Elrond, and Denethor

In The Return of the King, Gandalf contrasts Denethor’s mode of stewardship, which thinks of the good of “Gondor only,” with Gandalf’s own, much wider stewardship concerned with the preservation of anything that may “still grow fair or bear fruit and flower again in days to come,” and with “other men and other lives, and time still to come.” In a response he wrote to W.H. Auden’s review of the book, Tolkien articulated this antithesis in terms of the supremacy of the “humane” over the merely “political.” Objecting to Auden’s use of the word “political” to describe the central conflict of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien wrote:

I dislike the use of ‘political’ in such a context; it seems to me false. It seems clear to me that  Frodo’s duty was ‘humane’ not political. He naturally thought first of the Shire, since his roots were there, but the quest had as its object not the preserving of this or that polity, such as the half republic half aristocracy of the Shire, but the liberation from an evil tyranny of all the ‘human’–including those …. that were still servants of the tyranny.

     Denethor was tainted with mere politics: hence his failure, and his mistrust of Faramir. It had become for him a prime motive to preserve the polity of Gondor, as it was, against another potentate, who had made himself stronger and was to be feared and opposed for that reason rather than because he was ruthless and wicked. Denethor despised lesser men, and one may be sure did not distinguish between orcs and the allies of Mordor. If he had survived as victor, even without use of the Ring, he would have taken a long stride towards becoming himself a tyrant, and the terms and treatment he accorded to the deluded peoples of east and south would have been cruel and vengeful. He had become a ‘political’ leader: sc. Gondor against the rest.

     But that was not the policy or duty set out by the Council of Elrond. Only after hearing the debate and realizing the nature of the quest did Frodo accept the burden of his mission. Indeed the Elves destroyed their own polity in pursuit of a ‘humane’ duty. This did not happen merely as an unfortunate damage of War; it was known by them to be an inevitable result of victory, which could in no way be advantageous to Elves. Elrond cannot be said to have a political duty or purpose. (Letters 240-1)

Related posts: Denethor’s Machiavellianism, Denethor’s Hegelianism, The Nihilism of Feänor and Denethor