There and back again
Reflections on re-reading Lord of the Rings during COVID-19.
If there’s one book to rule them all, then in my opinion it’s The Lord of the Rings.
My much-annotated copy of the three volumes of this classic novel has a sticker inside the front cover reminding me that I was given it as a book prize for topping my 5th Form (Year 11) class in a few subjects, including English. That was in 1974 and over the ensuing 45 years I’ve returned to The Lord of the Rings many times, making hand written notes to line up the timing of the various strands of the story, to cross-reference passages and to note key themes. At my last complete read-through in 2003 I added many comments about what movie-maker Peter Jackson got wrong or, occasionally, right in his Academy Award winning films.
So naturally, during COVID, I picked it up once again.
And once again, couldn’t put it down. If you haven’t read LOTR, or haven’t read it for a while, then I recommend you do so. It’s not only one of the most epic stories ever told and compelling drama from start to finish, but it’s so beautifully written that it’s simply a pleasure to spend the time in Middle Earth.
Each time I come back to The Lord of the Rings, I discover more or am reminded of key themes that I’d forgotten. On this reading, I was particularly struck by something that Gandalf says to the hobbits as they head off to return home to the Shire. This is something totally ignored in the movies, but is actually quite critical to understanding Tolkien’s thinking about what this ‘one ring to rule them all’ idea really meant.
What are we being trained for?
Let me set the scene. Frodo and Sam have been to Mordor, battling the forces of the evil Lord Sauron and the wicked intentions of the creature Gollum, before destroying the Ring of Power in the fires of Mt Doom. Gandalf and Aragorn have led the armies of men to battle to distract Sauron from the two hobbits creeping through his lands, living out a forlorn hope that it just might work. The other two hobbits, Merry and Pippin have both been near death several times during the journey, overcoming fear and danger at many turns. But now the mission had been accomplished, the King had returned, been enthroned and married to his bride, the Elf princess Arwen. And the hobbits are refreshed from their labours, ready to go home.
However, the closer they get to home, the more they realise that things are amiss in the Shire. At this stage Gandalf is travelling with them and Merry says, “well, you’ve got to go with us, so things will soon be cleared up.”
Gandalf delivers a bombshell. “I am not coming to the Shire.” Then, this amazing statement: “You must settle its affairs yourselves; that is what you have been trained for.”
The epic journey to destroy the ring and Sauron was a training run?
That’s not how we like to think of the great challenges of life, is it? That’s not how they’re treated in the movies. Certainly not in Peter Jackson’s trilogy, where it’s all pleasant and sweet back in the Shire at the end – no scouring, no battle of Bywater, no driving out the evil Saruman.
So the thought has been with me: what if all the things that the COVID19 pandemic are forcing us to do, the changes we’re having to make in our churches, in our workplaces, in our families and communities, are really just a training run too? What if the purpose of us being called to a time such as this (to coin a phrase from the Old Testament book of Esther) is not merely to battle through the pandemic and emerge in one piece, but to be trained by it for something else, beyond now?
I often heard it said as we went into lockdown in April that we shouldn’t waste a good crisis. That is indeed the wisdom and genius of Tolkien in concluding The Lord of the Rings, not with the enthronement of Aragorn as King, but with the election of Sam Gamgee as Mayor of the Shire. That was unthinkable for the self-conscious and somewhat clumsy hobbit we meet at the start of the book, but for the faithful companion of the hero Frodo, it’s what he’s been trained for.
On the importance of mercy
Getting through COVID as a society and as the church is a significant challenge. These are awful times. They are draining, difficult and deadly.
However, if we also reframe the experience as one that is training us, giving us new experiences, showing us that we can do things beyond our previous imagining, then perhaps we’ll have heard something of what God’s trying to say to us right now. I’m hearing some encouraging things from around the church already and can only urge us all to continue to search our hearts.
In what ways were the hobbits trained? I’ll just comment on one.
They learned the importance of mercy. We see this no more clearly than through the eyes of Frodo. Early in the story, Frodo says to Gandalf that it was a pity that Bilbo didn’t stab the ‘vile creature’ Gollum when he had the chance.
To which the wizard replies, “Pity? It was pity that stayed his hand, not to strike without need”. Frodo retorted, “He deserves death”, which takes Gandalf to an even deeper spirituality. “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 judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. (and when the end comes) the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many.” (Fellowship of the Ring, chapter The Shadow of the Past)
That exchange comes back to Frodo when he finally encounters Gollum and Sam is urging his master to eliminate their nemesis. Famously, Frodo spares Gollum: “now that I see him, I do pity him.” He’s not naïve in this, but cleverly uses Gollum’s inside knowledge of the place they’re going to lead them to Mt Doom. Where of course, Gollum ultimately plays a crucial role in the final destruction of the Ring, when Frodo himself succumbs to its power and refuses to cast it into the fire. (The Two Towers, chapter The Taming of Smeagol)
And, finally, it is evident in the passage near the end, when they confront Saruman who has wrought havoc in the Shire. Saruman speaks of taking pleasure in the pain of the hobbits as they witness his work in their homeland. “Well, if that’s what you take pleasure in,” said Frodo, “I pity you.” Then, as the rest of the local hobbits cry out for his execution, Frodo declares “It is useless to meet revenge with revenge: it will heal nothing”, before ordering Saruman to leave, “by the speediest way.” (The Return of the King, chapter The Scouring of the Shire.)
A living sacrifice
One is reminded of Romans 12 in this episode, watching Saruman’s stature decline as Frodo refuses to hate him or hurt him. Truly, he heaped burning coals on the wizard’s head (Romans 12:20).
Frodo had presented his body as a living sacrifice and has been transformed by the renewal of his mind and, by testing, discerned the good, acceptable and perfect will of God. (Romans 12:1-2)
If as a result of our COVID experience we can do the same, then we will also have been trained for what lies ahead.
I mentioned earlier the quality of the writing in The Lord of the Rings. Allow me to conclude this reflection with just one example of Tolkien’s grand ability to capture the mood of the participants in his story, in a passage that brought tears to my eyes as I read it again recently. It has, I think, something poignant to say to us at such a time as this. This passage is from the end of the story, as Frodo sails away from his friends and Middle Earth:
“And then it seemed to him that … 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.
“But to Sam the evening deepened to darkness as he stood at the Haven; and as he looked at the grey sea he saw only a shadow on the waters that was soon lost in the West. There still he stood far into the night, hearing only the sigh and murmur of the waves on the shores of Middle-Earth, and the sound of them sank deep into his heart. Beside him stood Merry and Pippin, and they were silent.” (Return of the King, chapter titled ‘The Grey Havens’.)
May those who die from COVID-19 behold the white shores as they pass; and those of us left behind, stand silently alongside one another in silence as we grieve.