On One’s Own Folly

The Choices of Master Samwise


All is folly, and yet folly it does not remain (Source)

There is some poetic justice in the demise of Shelob: encased in a strong hide of darkness long nurtured in the depths, it is the force of her own movement down upon Sam that forces Sting into her belly. The hobbit had not the strength to render more than a light gash to her inner core, even if in his bravery he put out one of her eyes and cut off one of her claws. Yet, in her haste her destroy her attacker and her confidence in her own strength, Shelob brings about her own destruction: it is her folly that leads to her wound, even though Sam was there to aid it.

Alas, folly, that foolish or crazy behavior. Shelob was not alone in being possessed by it upon exiting the mountain tunnel. It was folly that Frodo should run so fervently toward the orc tower and away from Sam and deliberate movements in enemy lands. ‘Twas a folly that led to Frodo’s near death. It was folly that Gollum gloat over the capture of the stupid fat hobbit before both hands were around his neck. ‘Twas a folly that caused Gollum to lose his prey and nearly his head. It was folly that Sam would charge headlong into the beast of darkness with only small sword in hand. ‘Twas a folly, and yet here, foolish and crazy though it was, it brought about some greater good.

In that sense, folly, while remaining irrational, is not necessarily wrong. One’s own folly is always risky, always dangerous, always a path that should be regarded and discerned. Nevertheless, much of this quest has been folly: the journey through the Moria, the breaking of the Fellowship, the trusting of Gollum, the approach to Minas Morgul. Each step was crazy, by all accounts foolish, irrational and seemingly hopeless. At some level, the entire journey to Mt. Doom has been one folly, a folly laden on Frodo (and now Sam’s) shoulders.

And that’s important, for we all bear our follies. Many of these follies are not to be embraced, but like those of Shelob, Frodo, and Gollum, will cause us grief and suffering should we not let reason control us. Yet we also each have follies of the kind like Sam’s: a foolish question, a crazy commitment, a madness that will take control of us in defense of something that we care about or love. Such follies will be the death of us, it’s true, before the end: but death awaits us all nevertheless, for the folly of sin, the folly of Adam, the folly of humanity as a whole stands above all.

Above all, perhaps; but not the highest. For a long time ago, there was a folly that few expected. It actually consisted of two great follies, two incredible madnesses that occurred in dusty lands away from the seats of power and wisdom. It began with a crazy moment that an angel brought a message to a young woman; it ended when a young man foolishly died upon a cross. Foolish to the wisdom of the world; crazy to the rules of our minds; ended, but never ending, for the folly of God has rectified the folly of man.

2016’s Reflection: “On the Enigmatic Empathy for the Forces of the Enemy
2015’s Reflection: “On Choice


On the Holding of Hands

Shelob’s Lair


Bind us together (Source)

The human hand is a fascinating part of the body. It’s versatility is impressive, its capability inspiring. Through the hand comes most frequently our sense of touch, an under-appreciated sense at one’s disposal. It is with our hands that we grapple and manipulate the physical world. But that’s not all they can do: counting, signaling, writing, drawing, waving, embracing are all other objectives of the vitalized hand.

When it comes to hands, one of the more universal symbols is that of two hands held together. Such a simple image can, with context and understanding, express so much: the meeting of two new business partners shaking hands for the first time; two young children going hand in hand to play in the park; a man and woman before the altar about to vow their commitment to one another. But there is one avenue of the holding of hands that, while once commonplace, now seems less so: the holding of hands between adult friends.

Perhaps I am biased on this account, but at least between male friends this seems true. There is something uncomfortable about the act: it is something you grow out of, that’s uncouth, that is more proper between two young lovers or a grandparent and grandchild. Yet, this was not always so. Friendship – and in particular male friendship – once featured frequently the bringing of separate hands together in friendship. In Shelob’s Lair, it is natural for Frodo and Sam. Tolkien did not place this moment here with any thought about a sense of weirdness or otherworldliness; in fact, Tolkien probably intended to show with this how Sam has grown from a servant and lesser-status companion of Frodo’s to a true friend and compatriot.

And, for such a simple act, for such a small symbol, there is so much that we can see. There is the physical connection between two separate and individual people. There is the bonding of the hands around one another, an expression of commitment and dedication as long as the grip shall hold. There is the comfort of the warmth and touch of the other as a reminder of not being alone in the time of fear and uncertainty.There is the possibility that such a hand can keep you upright when one should stumble, or raise you again when one should fall.

In short, the holding of hands is an expression of love. But it’s a love that’s perhaps less understood and less recognized in our world today: philia, true friendship, shared purpose and commitment and loyalty to see it through.

There are, sadly, enough memes questioning the relationship between Frodo and Sam to fill one of the vast pits of Shelob’s lair. This inquiry – this application of modern preoccupations and limited understanding of relationships – has long troubled me. Let us instead reflect on Frodo and Sam, on the holding of hands, as Tolkien intended and as is actually present in our tale: as an expression of philia, a symbol of dedication, a loyal bond that may become a lifeline in the darkest of times.

2016’s Reflection: “On Light
2015’s Reflection: “On Waves, Arachnids, and That Which Haunts Our Steps

On a Place Wretched and Foul

The Stairs of Cirith Ungol


Yuk (Source)

The Morgul Vale does not sound like a particularly great place to visit. If the hobbits’ descriptions are anything to go by, the endless gloom, rotting flora, unclean water, unnatural light, and unshakable atmosphere of dread would be enough to keep all but the morbidly curious away. Throw in the unceasing watching and evil presence in the now-corrupted Tower of the Moon, and you are asking for trouble in visiting here.

What is interesting about the Morgul Vale is that perhaps more than anywhere else in Middle-earth, this is a place wretched and foul. Moria was dark; the Dead Marshes were unpleasant; the plains before the Black Gates devastated and pitiful. But even the bare and dusty stretches of Mordor that lead to Mt Doom itself are not as utterly evil as this place. In Minas Morgul darkness has seeped into the soil; while the Dark Lord’s transformation of Mordor has been intensive and sudden, here the corruption has been allowed to grow and fester for many ages of men. Perhaps only the Barrow-downs, so long left behind outside the confines of the Shire, imitate such a deep-rooted gloom, and even there not so intensely or entirely as in the dwelling place of the Nazgul.

We are in the heart of a land of evil here, and the land seeks to betray us, providing little cover for our hiding, and drawing us even closer to the presence of the Enemy. The Witch-king has such power here as to even feel the presence of some unknown entity in his lands and seek it out with his mind. Only the pure light and water of the opposing land – Lorien, the forest without stain – can resist the Nazgul and protect Frodo from falling under their spell: the basic entities of a whole land negate the foundations of a place so wretched and foul. We cannot linger long here, for every step is a burden, and every passing moment a tortuous lifetime.

Yet, the land betrays itself: this place wretched and foul hides the secret passage over the mountains into Mordor. Such a stair and tunnel are not without stain or darkness: yet in evil’s pride the unassuming road is left open. The darkness of the Morgul Vale protects the hobbits from searching eyes, and keeps them away from the roads of war over which the armies of Mordor now will travel. Into the valley of the shadow of death we travel with the hobbits, and we are kept safe by the folly of evil and the powers of good beyond our understanding.

It is not pleasant to dwell on places wretched and foul; may we be fortunate to not often need to travel through such corruption and darkness. Yet sometimes we must enter into lands unwholesome and unwelcoming to us, and in this we put ourselves in danger. In those dark times, through those dark lands, we must keep our senses to us, and remember those artifacts and instruments of the light pure and unconquered. For such a memory of things un-defiled will keep our minds and hearts on the goal ahead, and help us to pass through the Morgul Vale unhindered.

2016’s Reflection: “On the Great Tales that Never End
2015’s Reflection: “On the Sadness of Losing a Soul

On Staves and Staffs

The Journey to the Crossroads

Walking Sticks.jpg

A plethora of walking sticks (Source)

In our modern setting, the staff is most frequently assigned the role of the cane, and associated with the infirmed and elderly. Such a narrow understanding of the purposes of staves and staffs obscures their rich and fascinating history. As Faramir gifts two our two hobbits two staves of seemingly humble origin, it is valuable to remember how staffs have served men and women for generations, often in varied capacities.

The stave is a symbol of authority. Kings carried sceptres and lords rods, representing the power of their offices and the authority of their positions. In some societies a person’s status and role could be determined by the staff they carried, distinguishing a shepherd’s crook from a merchant’s walking post from a priest’s religious stave. To break one’s staff was a sign of protest; to have one’s staff broken, as we saw first-hand at Isengard, was as forceful as exile. In handing Frodo and Sam two staves, Faramir is providing them with physical guarantees of his favor while they walk through the lands he oversees, objects that will verify his word.

The stave is further a versatile tool. In it simplicity rests its incredible value, uses that go beyond support for the weary traveler or balance for the teetering walker. The Boy Scouts of America list a number of uses for a walking stick: testing the depth of a body of water; making a stretcher or splint during injury; serving as a weapon when in desperate need for self-defense. Each of these tasks has a particular instrument that may perform it better, but with the single staff all these needs are served well enough, especially in times of great haste or isolation. In providing Frodo and Sam with two staves, Faramir recognizes that he knows not what lays ahead for these two new friends of his. Therefore, he provides them with something that can serve them across multiple scenarios, against many unknown obstacles.

The stave is finally an instrument of beauty. Whether in stark simplicity or elegant adornment, a staff can hold in its form the history of an individual, the culture of a people, the tradition of a society. Whether made of wood or metal, the staff can take on the properties of its source: the color, the hue, the texture, the strength. Some staff are carved with runes or with images that snake their way around its circumference; others are gilded with jewels or other precious materials to indicate their value. From the supplejacks of the southern United States to the makilas of Basque country to the bamboo whangees of East Asia, a walking stick can embody a view of the Beautiful. In offering these two walking sticks, made from the wood of Ithilien in carved in the fashion of his people, Faramir gives a simple and yet heartfelt gift, a true outpouring of his care.

So think not the staff too small a detail; think not the stave to minor an instrument compared to the bite of Sting or the light of Galadriel. The walking sticks of Frodo and Sam offer much reflection on authority, on versatility, and on beauty, and as we near the conclusion of our own pilgrimage, we might think with care about what stave we have in our own hand.

2016’s Reflection: “On Distinctions between Books and Movies
2015’s Reflection: “On Letters and the Truth in Stories

On a Trial

The Forbidden Pool


A different kind of justice, perhaps (Source)

Faramir’s conversation with Gollum after his discovery in the forbidden pool is perhaps the closest instance of a trail in The Lord of the Rings. Justice and mercy are frequent themes, and characters such as Frodo and Gandalf often muse upon right and wrong, doom and choice. Yet here we have something that smacks more of what we associate with justice: a forum, a process, references to laws and traditions, and a highly ritualized process.

Gollum himself takes a jab at this “court” when he puts down the justice of men ill-treating him for looking for food. Faramir’s response is interesting, humbly suggesting that while he and his people may not have wisdom, nevertheless they uphold justice. Should we consider the judiciary of Gondor fair and righteous? Or is the doom set upon Gollum unreasonable and undesirable?

On the one hand, there is an argument to be made that Gollum could not have known about the punishment for visiting the forbidden pool, and that such ignorance should shield him from the harshest verdict. Faramir is very intentionally about not slaying beast or bird unnecessarily, and even given his command still pauses when meeting rational actors in the wilderness. Gollum in many ways possesses the lesser qualities of the animals: driven by hunger, without much will, at the command of others. If Faramir had not intervened in capturing him, Gollum likely would never had revealed the location of the pool to the Enemy because he would not have considered it special in any way.

Yet, on the other hand, Gollum is a rational being, and does have some choice, and has already shown himself tricky and willing to make or break deals. He, as Faramir notes, hides much in the recesses of his mind; he has not been fully honest with Frodo. Nevertheless, it’s two approaches to law that Faramir notes with interest here. First, the universality of justice: Faramir rightly notes that Gollum has committed heinous crimes both within and without the land of Gondor up until this point, and while he has not the evidence to try him on them, he weighs Gollum with a reminder of those crimes to better suit the Gondorian’s next purpose. That second principle of justice is the permeation of the law. The law is harsh and hard so as to allow space for mediation – by Frodo, by promise, by wisdom – when the opportunity is necessary. Without the preappointed doom at hand, Faramir has not the same level of power to extract the information he needs to judge fairly what should be done about Frodo and his companions.

As such, the courts of Faramir are not like our courts, and perhaps unlike the proper judicial system of Gondor, given the wilderness in which we now find ourselves. Yet we can learn much about justice, law, and trials in reflecting on the conversation of Gollum and Faramir. We can consider how wise and just are our own laws. We can muse upon the sins that have remained hidden and never rectified. And we can think on mediation, on negotiation, on determining a right course of action.

2016’s Reflection: “On the Bitter Realization of the Doom of Another
2015’s Reflection: “On Faramir, Captain of Gondor

On Laetare Sunday

The Window in the West


Behold the beauty, the majesty, the symbol given unto us (Source)

“Laetare Jerusalem: et conventum facite omnes qui diligitis eam: gaudete cum laetitia, qui in tristitia fuistis: ut exsultetis, et satiemini ab uberibus consolationis vestrae.”

Such is the origin of Laetare Sunday, the 4th Sunday of Lent: “Rejoice, Jerusalem, and all who love her. Be joyful, all who were in mourning; exult and be satisfied at her consoling breast.” This mid-point of the Lenten season, celebrated by Catholics, Anglicans, and some Protestants, serves as a brief up-springing of joy in the midst of the penance of Lent. It is a safe haven on the journey, like Faramir’s window on the west, where one can recall that which we pursuit on our quest, and our reason for doing so: for hope, for faith, for the glory of God. It is the counterpart to Gaudete Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent, and they share no few characteristics: the period of celebration amidst anticipation and reflection, the focus on music and beauty in the liturgy, and of course the rose (not pink!) colored garments.

These garments harken to a somewhat forgotten tradition of Laetare Sunday, the blessing of the golden rose. Dating at least back to the early Medieval period, on this Sunday the Pope would preach on the beauty, mystical significance, and inspiration of the rose, and then bless a beautifully crafted golden rose to be delivered to a ruler, shrine, or church of significance. This practice continues today (though not always on Laetare Sunday): Pope Francis has given two during his pontificate, and Pope Benedict XVI blessed 19 in his time.

Laetare Sunday has also sometimes been known as mothering Sunday, for two interesting and interwoven reasons. Originally, Laetare Sunday was the day of the year when Catholics would pray especially for, offer alms to, or visit their “mother church,” i.e. the cathedral. This practice (and the Epistle read with it, Galatians 4:22-31) inspired the day to also be associated with honoring one’s earthly mother alongside one’s spiritual mother (in the cathedral and the rose), and even to this day Mothering Sunday is the equivalent of Mother’s Day in England.

Joy, rose, mothers, and blessings: these are the features of Laetare Sunday, and we augment what they inspire with what we read in The Lord of the Rings. For not only with Faramir do we have a third firmness within which to rest, but we also have a counterpart for deep conversation. Here we can reflection upon preserving joy in times without much hope; about holding to our word and recalling our blessings even when the darkness seems to be building. And in Faramir’s love for Minas Tirith and his Gondorian people we have piercing words on mothering and beauty. Perhaps, for some of us, how Faramir describes and holds up the White City is how we think of the Church: “I would have her loved for her memory, her ancientry, her beauty, and her present wisdom. Not feared, save as men may fear the dignity of a man, old and wise.” We critique her for her shortcomings; we desire in her greatness without use of the powers of the Enemy.

So rejoice, O Lenten pilgrims, and all who find wisdom in his book. Be joyful, all on the long road to Calvary; exult and be satisfied, for the victory is at hand.

2016’s Reflection: “On Praying for the Living and the Dead
2015’s Reflection: “On Faith

On Long Descriptions of Nature

Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit


One possibility of Ithilien (Source)

If you thought we had left such long descriptions of nature behind in the Shire, then you were wrong: for here we have perhaps the most detailed and elaborate depiction of nature within The Lord of the Rings. Perhaps it is because the last three chapters have taken us through relative wastelands and deserts when compared to Ithilien; perhaps it is because Frodo and Sam’s story generally moves slower than that of the Three Hunters or the younger hobbits back in Rohan (we literally spent the whole last chapter thinking at the Black Gate). Whatever the reason, this long description of nature stands out to us, and even the skimming reading or uninterested party cannot miss it.

And what a detailing it is, for we see:

Ling and broom, cornel and larch, cedar and cypress, tamarisk and terebinth, olive and bay, juniper and myrtles, thyme and various colored sages, marjoram and parsley, saxifrages and stonecrops, primroses and anemones, filbert-brakes and asphodel, lilies and iris-swords, briar eglantine and clematis.

More than half of these are species or particulars that only the most avid gardener would know; and even those of us familiar with the names likely recall few images, smells, or particulars about the plants that would add to our understanding of Ithilien. So why should we bother in lingering on these plants?

For one, it signals some important information about the world of Middle-earth. According to J.A. Schulp (author of the article “The Flora of Middle-earth”), Tolkien’s maps place Ithilien 600 miles south of the Shire. If the Shire is comparable to mid-England in climate (which Tolkien basically admits in many places), then Ithilien would reside somewhere in the Eastern Mediterranean: Greece, Cyprus, or maybe Crete as examples. Though Tolkien at this time had not gone further in his travels in Europe than Switzerland, he does a particularly accurate job of detailing the nature that would be native in such an environment, likely from his reading of texts of antiquity and reports from wars afar. The flora of Ithilien, in all its details, helps us locate this pleasant location in our own world, which can give us clues to better understand it.

Second, the long descriptions of nature here help us appreciate the presence of Ithilien in our narrative. Here is a place very unlike where we have gone and where we must go from here: it is a resting place, a pause in our dark journey, a spot of beauty in an otherwise dreary approach. Here is a place where the joking conversation of Sam and Gollum does not feel out-of-place; here is a place where the notion of hobbits cooking a coney stew does not seem so ridiculous. As Helm’s Deep was a stronghold for a breath against many enemies, Ithilien is a refugee for recovering against many burdens. The long, detailed, winding descriptions of nature augment such a place.

And finally, these plants, these floral species, are details that matter because they are subtle details. For the reader that knows even on of these plants, or feels the urge to look them up following his or her reading of these pages, they provide a moment of joy, of discovery, of appreciation. They help the reader understand why Faramir and his Rangers could love this land so much and desire so wholeheartedly to defend it. They are the types of descriptions we would know about our own land, our own home, our own place that we love so fairly.

So suffer not the flora of Middle-earth: for in both the Shire and Ithilien there is much to muse over nature.

2016’s Reflection: “On the Correspondence of Conflict
2015’s Reflection: “On the Edible Virtue of Coneys