A Knife in the Dark & Flight to the Ford
As Book I of The Lord of the Rings ends, Strider takes our band of hobbits “as straight as he could over the wild lands.” Our story for the next forty days (especially for Frodo and Sam) will by and large take place in the “wild-er-ness,” in places that are more wild than the word might naturally connote. We are inclined to contrast the “wilderness” with civilization, but we should be wary of such a dichotomy. Many urban and well-developed areas may in fact be wildernesses in all but name, while civilization may endure beyond all expectations in the Wilderness, as we note with Strider and the Rangers.
The Rangers are the remnants of the Northern Kingdom of Arnor, a once-equal partner of Gondor that was destroyed by the evil of the Witch-King, the same wraith who has now stabbed Frodo on Weathertop. These descendants of ancient men live not in civilized towns or great castles: they are outcasts, wanders, those who “range” about. Yet they maintain the nobility and ideals of their ancestors: without praise or reward, they have guarded the lands of the Shire and elsewhere from evil things. In secret, they have remained the protectors of the realm.
The Wilderness is a necessary residence for Strider, for this Ranger who by passing reference and subtle line we suspect is more than meets the eye. Though the Wilderness be filled with dangerous creatures and intimidating obstacles, it is also a place of training, a place of preparation, a place of quiet reflection. In the Wilderness we, like Strider, view the broken ruins of our ancestors and muse on our own past failings. In the Wilderness we, like Strider, hone our skills to strength us for the tasks soon to be set before us. In the Wilderness we, like Strider, confront those things that hunt us and seek our ruin and, with courage, drive them back.
Deep down, we know that Strider does not belong to the Wilderness, that the Wilderness is not his home:
“‘I have,’ said Strider. ‘I dwelt there [in Rivendell] once, and still I return when I may. There my heart is; but it is not my fate to sit in peace, even in the fair house of Elrond.’”
We, just like Strider, long to rest in peaceful abodes, and for most of us that is where our hearts do lie. Yet there is some purpose, some challenge that draws us into the Wilderness, one from which we must not back away. For though the Wilderness be filled with darkness, in it shine forth opportunities of light.
Hence why Jesus went on multiple occasions into the Wilderness. Jesus went into the Wilderness – a deserted place – to pray on multiple occasions while traveling with his disciples. Jesus went into the Wilderness – the desert – for forty days (in solidarity with the forty years the Israelites wandered the Wilderness upon departing Egypt) to prepare Himself for his public ministry. In the natural Wilderness of the desert, Jesus was set upon by his spiritual enemies, and confronted temptation. In the urban Wilderness of Jerusalem, of Gethsemane, Jesus was set upon by his human enemies, and confronted his own death.
As we near Ash Wednesday and the start of our long Lenten journey through the Wilderness, let us learn from this brief passage through the wild lands. Let us muse upon what deep purpose soon draws us out of restful abodes into the dangerous wilds of our hearts and souls. In looking out from Weathertop we still maintain our hope. For even in the Wilderness, a straight path might be found; and though perhaps hidden to our eyes, our King strides with us.