A Note from Cirdan’s Apprentice: Dan Hollingshead is a Grey Havens Group artist whose work will be on display at our Real Myth and Mithril Symposium on April 25-26. Prints and cards of his work will be on sale at the symposium. If you are an artist interested in displaying your work, please register here.
I considered giving this post a subtitle of ‘Shelter from the Storm’ since the Elves gave Frodo and his traveling companions much needed protection, simply by allowing the hobbits to travel with them and stay with them at Woody End that night.
This theme carries on through the entire journey of Frodo and company, and to me is an important element in the story. Several times others provided much needed protection without doing much more than any friend (or kind person) would do for another. I think of it as important in Tolkien’s thought, that significant changes can be accomplished in peoples lives, simply by reaching out and helping in whatever way is available at the time, even if it’s only a kind word and company on the road.
Frodo and his companions had started their great journey. They were still in the Shire, in the woods under starlight, when they encountered a company of Elves, Gildor and several companions traveling at night.
Earlier that day the hobbits had seen and avoided Black Riders twice and were frightened by the experience. While they were still approaching, Frodo heard the Elves speak the name of Elbereth and by that knew that they were Noldor, the High Elves who had returned to Middle Earth from Valinor.
Frodo had learned some of the language of the Elves from Bilbo and greeted Gildor ‘Elen sila lumenn omentielvo’ – the high Elven speech meaning ‘A Star shines on the Hour of our Meeting’. Gildor responded, ‘Be careful friends, speak no secrets, for here is a scholar in the Ancient Tongue! Bilbo was a good Master, Hail Elf Friend!’
It is one of my favorite chapters in the entire book! Frodo and his companions were fortunate they met Gildor and his company on the road. Gildor led them to a safe place for that night at Woody End, and Frodo learned much from Gildor who, in addition to giving him what advise he could, sent out word among the Elves for their protection while they were traveling.
Goofing off one day in the throne room at Barad-dûr, several Wraiths noticed Sauron grimacing into his glowing palantír. There stood a tiny seven-foot-tall Aragorn, waving a tiny sword. Hitting the log-off button angrily, Sauron fumed, “Thinks he’s so funny! How did he know about my feet?!”
In Tolkien’s Middle-earth we encounter nine rather gloomy Ringwraiths and it would be difficult to imagine a more serious bunch of not-quite-dead fellows. Whatever remnant of weird stuff they might be made of, not a single one of those guys could be said to have even the ghost of a decent funny bone.
Sauron’s feet were less like feet, and more like… The paws of a werebeast. In ancient days, escaping the fearsome grip of Huan, his enemy, Sauron’s shape-shifting magic had become fickle. He ever since had to wear tennis shoes around the House of Lamentation to hide the truth about his feet. Aragorn was right, the Dark Lord didn’t need to wear socks since the fur was so thick. Plus, he felt a terrible urge right now to lift one paw and scratch under his chin!
My point is that it can’t be pure coincidence that there are nine occurrences of the word “mirth” in The Lord of the Rings. When I think of this, I always conclude, oh sure, Frodo got the ring to Mount Doom and Gollum took it into the fire. But by the time Frodo found the doorway into Orodruin, he had entirely lost his sense of humor. He stood there at the Crack of Doom unable to recall even a single one of the wisecracks he had come up with, for posterity.
One Wraith turned to another. An eerie whisper floated out of the dark hood, “The boss sure would like to give that Aragorn the finger!” The hood of the other Wraith nodded and hissed, “But he already gave it to Isildur!”
Everyone knows it was Galadriel’s laughter that really saved Middle-earth. I have always liked the way she laughed when Frodo offered her the Ring. A moment later, contemplating the temptation, “suddenly she laughed again” and in so doing she passed her test. You see, the Valar exiled her because she took herself way too seriously and they found it tiresome. Mirth won back her passport to Valinor.
A third Wraith leaned near the first two, “Have you ever noticed how he counts us on his fingers when he does the roll-call at our staff meetings?” The first one shot back, “Yep! And you’re always one of the pinkies!”
There is plenty of warm good humor in the Shire, but we first glimpse “mirth” as a kind of enchantment in the House of Bombadil. It turns out that old Tom has been waiting for millennia for someone to stop by with the One Ring. Rather than fuss nervously about what to do about the fate of Middle-earth, Tom has in mind a fun practical joke. I’d bet that he told Goldberry all about the look on Frodo’s face.
Later that day in the locker room in Barad-dûr, a Wraith came rushing in, his dark hooded cloak flapping. “Didja hear the news?!” He looked around. He wasn’t sure where the other fellow was standing. When a towel and a vial of shampoo lifted up from a nearby bench, he knew where to look. A thin reedy voice quavered, “Uh-huh. We’re all gettin’ promotions!”
Tolkien’s mirth is a weighty matter of magic and wisdom. We observe this truth through Pippin’s eyes in Minas Tirith when he glimpses in Gandalf’s careworn visage “a fountain of mirth enough to set a kingdom laughing, were it to gush forth.” Galadriel must have known about Gandalf’s penchant for a good gag. She surely rejected the Ring for fear of ending up in Gandalf’s routine down at the local comedy pub in Minas Tirith.
“Garn!” rasped the first Wraith, “I sure didn’t know the Lidless Eye had that many tear ducts! You’d think he just lost another finger, instead of that pompous old No-Dude-Will-Ever-Kill-Me Lord of the Nazgûl!” The Wraith followed the floating towel and vial into the showers. An invisible throat cleared, “Well, the boss did try to give the old dwimmerlaik a few tips about what not to say on a first date!”
Describing Aragorn in the appendices, Tolkien provides us with the ninth and last use of “mirth.” Someday a diligent scholar will find among Tolkien’s scribbled manuscripts the thing that Aragorn said to Sauron while skyping him through the palantír. It’s likely that Aragorn’s jokes were pretty clunky, and on that occasion, rather than chuckle lightly to emphasize the honest effort at humor, Aragorn felt compelled to wave his sword around.
The towel came to rest on a hook and the shower came on. It flowed through empty space. The shampoo vial rested untouched on a ledge. The first Wraith stood watching for a moment and turned away, disappointed. He’d always been curious to see how the others washed their hair. He hadn’t been able to figure that out since he… faded. That’s why he always wore a big ugly cloak with a hoodie – after all these years his hair looked pretty frightful!
I’m certain that Tolkien’s Ringwraiths forgot long ago how to snicker. We can only guess how things might have gone for them if they’d retained even the slightest clue about how to pull off a decent practical joke. With even a modest amount of experience at pranking, they might have had a little warning when the punchline came for them in the end.
The second Wraith watched him leave. They always pulled this joke on that guy. Everyone knew he was desperate to figure out how they washed their hair. And he had no clue about the truth. All eight – uh, seven now – of the other Wraiths were totally bald!
Suddenly Sam saw Gollum’s long hands draw upwards to his mouth; his white fangs gleamed, and then snapped as they bit. Frodo gave a cry, and there he was, fallen upon his knees at the chasm’s edge. But Gollum, dancing like a mad thing, held aloft the ring, a finger still thrust within the circle. It shone now as if wrought of living fire.
Sometimes we find ourselves facing truths that must be confronted, but they are so colossal and insurmountable that we know we cannot face them alone. We need help. Faced with such circumstances, we can believe that for some things our human hands could never suffice, unaided. This assumption shaped how JRR Tolkien viewed humankind. As a devout Christian, he saw humankind as fallen imperfect beings who need divine intercession and mercy – the folk of this Middle-earth need help!
With this idea in mind, he also wished to encourage readers of The Lord of the Rings to trust in a sense of hope, even if it often materializes as an inexplicable mystery. Tolkien wanted us to share his sense that hope can always be found near to hand for morally worthy folk in dire situations. This optimism permeates Middle-earth. A suffusion of virtuous hope helps us negotiate the risks we take when we set our feet upon our various dangerous winding roads.
So when Tolkien brought Frodo and Sam to the slopes of Mount Doom, he preferred not to abandon them totally. And discussing “Mount Doom” one evening at Grey Havens, Liritar pointed out to us a very interesting passage. Peering through Sam’s eyes, Tolkien springs this somewhat inscrutable moment upon us: “Suddenly a sense of urgency which he did not understand came to Sam.” Here we find Sam experiencing a mystery, “as if he had been called.” Frodo also feels this inward “call.” Inspired, they resume their grueling journey to Sammath Naur, the Crack of Doom.
Tolkien nowhere explains this mystery. Perhaps it is safe to assume that this enigmatic “call” was intended to be Providential in nature. That is, originating from a deity yet to be revealed in Middle-earth, still unknown to pre-Christian hobbits. This incident probably reflects Tolkien’s belief that ideal moral accomplishments often stand somewhere beyond our reach. Frodo and Sam of their own free will succeed in taking the ring to Mordor, but they nevertheless need mysterious help.
And this also explains why, when Tolkien brings the two hobbits to Sammath Naur, the overwhelming evil of the place surpasses Frodo’s moral ability to cast the ring into the fire. Who among us, Tolkien argues, could actually choose to throw the horribly powerful One Ring into the fires of Mount Doom? If not good Frodo, then surely no one! Tolkien decided that Frodo must fail because there are moral missions beyond our capacities.
“Precious, precious, precious!” Gollum cried. “My Precious! My –” Gollum’s eyes fell upon the bloody ring. Here was the terrible thing that had warped Sméagol into Gollum. An implacable instrument of evil, this ring had cruelly refashioned him into its own heartless image. It looked vicious, unforgiving.
In Tolkien’s pre-Christian Middle-earth, Providence may come to our aid, and in the absence of divine intervention, moral ideals can still find fulfillment, but perhaps our highest achievements must happen by accident. Our merely human intentions can never truly suffice. So it is Gollum who destroys the One Ring. By accident. A chance misstep!
For Tolkien, the fate of the world is a mighty matter beyond what our humanity can manage. One might argue that the invisible hand of Providence has acted at Sammath Naur, nudging poor ecstatic Gollum over the edge. But Tolkien more likely wants us to see Gollum’s ecstasy as the outcome of a long indulgence of evil, and this precipitates his fall into fire. One thing is certain. It was not the hands of good Frodo or the hands of brave Samwise that settled the fate of Middle-earth – Christopher Tolkien notes that his father long toyed with having Sam do the deed, but ultimately he rejected this option.
Staring now at the way the ring seemed to exult, clasping Frodo’s bloody finger, Gollum turned his eyes away. There knelt Frodo, holding his pained hand. That hand with its four fingers – Frodo’s wounded hand – that hand knew the malevolence that Sméagol had endured. That torn hand knew the power of the ring to warp poor Sméagol into cruel Gollum, the implacable authority to twist everyone’s sad truths into bitterly harsh realities. Sméagol blinked. He knew what Frodo had endured, carrying the ring. In the end, Frodo had surrendered to his own inner Gollum.
I have never felt satisfied with the accidental nature of the outcome at the Crack of Doom. I do not see humankind as “fallen” from a more capable noble state or as inherently lacking the highest forms of moral wherewithal. I do not see humankind as deficient in the way Tolkien believed when he wrote that “man produces evil as the bee produces honey.” We do have the moral competence to act beyond selfish interest. I think that we lonely folk, all alone, with no Providential help, can indeed accomplish the greatest articulations of heroic selflessness.
So I find it interesting to read the sudden “call” felt by Sam and Frodo at Mount Doom in a way that avoids invocation of divine will. This is possible in a narrative sense because at the very moment when Sam and Frodo feel the “call,” Tolkien renders a very odd picture of Aragorn, standing beleaguered before the Black Gate – a leader of men who should be hewing at foes: “Aragorn stood beneath his banner, silent and stern, as one lost in thought of things long past or far away; but his eyes gleamed like stars that shine the brighter as the night deepens.”
Frodo’s eyes rose. He peered into Gollum’s face. A feeble light flickered across the wounded twists of Gollum’s victorious malice. And suddenly there stood before Frodo a wizened pitiful old hobbit like himself, but cruelly used by the ring. Sméagol! Frodo saw in Sméagol’s sudden gaze an unexpected memory of insight that had become very wispy, very tattered.
For those who would seek some answer other than Providence for the mystery of inspiration that calls to Frodo and Sam on the slopes of Mount Doom, perhaps we can say that it is Aragorn’s magic at work. The Fellowship did not fail. Whether one chooses to see this as a magical intervention or simply as Aragorn’s expressive empathy for his distant companions, I prefer to see the mystical aura of friendship and love and selflessness as somehow coming to the aid of the weary hobbits at Mount Doom. When we encounter such generosity of spirit in our companions, the power of such gifts deserves to make a difference in our storytelling.
It is surely worthwhile for Christians to find inspiration in Tolkien’s words, to feel uplifted by Tolkien’s implied religious undercurrents and outcomes. Tolkien would find this result agreeable to his moral purpose in telling the story as he told it. And no one should reasonably object to the idea that Christians might well find in their religion an inspiration to keep trying to save the world from utter destruction.
Sméagol stood holding the ring with its gory finger. He knew that the ring could never be surrendered. Gollum would never let go of it. But there should never again be another tortured Sméagol; no more tormented Frodos. No more Gollums!
In the end, it is easy to treasure the story that Tolkien gave us; it is a wonderful tale, full of mercy and compassion. But if we are told that we must appreciate the tale because it is essentially Christian in its underlying mysteries, how are we to do so when some of us hold other faith traditions? What about readers who do not adhere to any formal religious system? Whatever answer one may prefer for such questions, it would be orc-like to diminish or belittle the Christian undertones that Christian readers may appreciate in reading Tolkien. Whatever ideological moral traditions we might value, all who love Middle-earth ought to cultivate and treasure a shared fellowship.
Discussing the doom of Middle-earth at Grey Havens in our July 26 meeting, I thought it seemed useful to propose an alternate ending at Sammath Naur – Reodwyn kindly helped to fine-tune my vague idea. To envision such a thing is not to reject what Tolkien gave us; it is instead an effort to see the tale from a different angle. As an exercise in humanistic logic, we can explore a view of humankind that looks for strength beyond our flaws. Some of us may trust Providential aid for moral strength, but some of us may trust that humankind often wishes for more strength of that kind. And whatever we make of the human condition, we can bestow agency upon ourselves as actors with choices, and resist the impulse to see ourselves as helpless victims of implacable evil. And we can look to one another to share the risks we take when we set our feet together upon our various dangerous winding roads in life.
Frodo saw what passed through the old hobbit’s eyes. His own strength at an end, he whispered, “Sméagol, you must do what –” Frodo faltered. Sméagol felt very weak. He sensed Gollum lurking, battering angrily at his will. But he knew Frodo meant to say: “– what I could not!”
Gollum threw back his head and cried out, “My Precious!” Sméagol wanted to dance madly. But the shrunken hobbit gripped the bloody finger with its heavy ring. He would never again let go of the precious golden thing, the anguished weight of it. His gaze returned again to Frodo. He stepped back.
And with a shriek Gollum fell. Out of the depths came his last wail, Precioussss! And Sméagol was gone.