On the Temptation to Sin

The Palantír


Temptation, consolation, and hope (Source)

In The Lord of the Rings there are perhaps three major arcs of temptation over which the reader may follow. There is the fall and restitution of Boromir, a temptation seen at a distance, in small glances and subtle framing until it explodes upon the final pages of the first volume. There is the slow corruption of Frodo, and his interaction with Gollum, perhaps the most important study of the effect of sin by the allure of the Ring which will form a focus of the book ahead. And then there is the brief but intense occurrence of the temptation of Pippin, of his succumbing, and his narrow escape.

It lasts only for a few pages and for a passing moment in the greater tale of the War of the Ring, but with Pippin and the Palantír we gain an intimate and detailed affair of the temptation to sin and the wrestling of one against it. For any of us (or, perhaps better to say, for all of us) who have ever struggled with a recurring temptation, the picture placed in Pippin before us should come as no surprise. It begins with a subtle desire, a fleeting thought we suppress in the back of our heads: what is the stone, why was it so beautiful, why does Gandalf not want me to see it? Then, in a quiet and unassuming time, it begins to gnaw at us, keeping us from sleep or ease at mind. We make argue with ourselves or internally realize our folly, and yet our will moves without our mind, and we find ourselves approaching the temptation again. We justify it to ourselves – just this one, just a peek, just for a bit – but then we prepare defenses to hide our temptation from those around us. And then, at last, when we have lost all our strength to resist, we fall into temptation, and in that collapse we endanger ourselves.

Our hazard need not be as great as Pippin’s in the Palantír for our folly to be evident. For us, it often takes many a retreat into temptation before we realize our error and our hurt if no person or institution jars us into knowledge. Yet, and especially when we are discovered and held accountable by those who love us, we feel the guilt, the shame, the remorse, and we might not be able to recover as quickly as the young hobbit. And even more so is the risk that the cycle will repeat itself, and the temptation will come again.

The temptation to sin is often great and overwhelming, and in the wisdom of Gandalf we find some hope for our own Lenten shortcomings. First, like Gandalf, we must remove the objects of temptations from the grasps of those most in danger of falling into it, whether it be ourselves or others. Gandalf takes the Palantír from Pippin, but he does not keep it (we even later learn that he himself was tempted to look into it); instead, he hands it over to a rightful keeper, Aragorn, who has the authority and will to look over it. As well, we must balance urgency and healing in response to any temptation. Gandalf rigorously determines what Pippin told the Enemy, and what threat they all might now be in, but at the same time weaves in moments of comfort, consolation, and forgiveness to ensure Pippin recovers from his shortcoming.

As such, Pippin’s dance with the Palantír signals to the reader something about the whole book: this is a story about sin, death, and the choices that really matter. During our Lenten pilgrimage, we would be wise to remember the fall of Boromir, and prepare for the struggle of Frodo, and reflect on the brief but bitter temptation of Pippin Took with both a spirit of humility and of hope.

2016’s Reflection: “On Forgiving Others
2015’s Reflection: “On the Lost Seeing Stones


On Modernity

The Voice of Saruman


The excesses of modernity (Source)

Tolkien’s views on modernity (and those espoused by the characters of The Lord of the Rings) are simultaneously simple and complicated to understand. Certainly, Tolkien is wary of what we today might call economic progress, industrialism, and social modernity, and he places the sources of those movements in the homes of his antagonists, in particular Saruman. Yet Tolkien is no Luddite, nor oblivious to the times: his Elves recognize that times is passing and much of what they thought fair cannot be maintained indefinitely. The men of Rohan, the hobbits, the friendship of Elves and Dwarves – these are all new things in the world for ancient ones like Treebeard, more hasty and modern people and structures than those that lived during the earlier ages of the world.

Nevertheless, it is with Saruman where Tolkien displays most evidently his concern and anxiety about the forces of modernity. Sauron is a primal, aboriginal, pure, and unadulterated evil; Saruman instead is corruption, decay, pettiness, and “best intentions” embodied. He is a man of ambition, but with steps “too big for his boots,” as one might say. He is full of craft and knowledge without wisdom, full of haste and action without reflection, full of change and upheaval without consideration. All others are tools or fleeting allies for his continued track up the ladder of success. In many ways, Saruman is the modern politician, as both Tolkien saw in his own time and we still see: the twisting of words, the manipulation of friends, the betrayal of spoken word. It is an ugly mirror to what we see in our own day.

Within the ring of Isengard are the excesses of modernity. Industry is not in and of itself problematic: the Elves have forges, the Dwarves delve deep, and the men of Gondor have long built cities of great size and scope. At Isengard, however, industry overpowers all else, and it destroys any other objective beauty that could be seen: it tears up the old gardens, burns down the forests, and makes everything dirt and foul. It wastes resources, cutting down trees for sport instead of fuel. Compare the care of the dwarves of Gimli’s mind for the caves near Helm’s Deep versus the way the orcs delved at Isengard.

But modernity is more than just industry for Saruman. It is the way he experiments with the nature of things, combining like and unlike, orc and man, into foul concoctions. It is the way he betrays neighbors and yet speaks sly and slippery words of tempting kindness and needed arrangement. It is the way his speech breeds fear instead of counsel, self-serving instead of oriented to the common good. It is the way in which Saruman is clad in all colors instead of wearing the raiment of one.

We largely abhor Saruman, and we disdain what he has done. Yet we must be careful, for deeper in Saruman is a strain of modernity that we must consider in ourselves: for as Treebeard notes, even he might hide out like Saruman if all that he held were taken from him. The difference, as Gandalf retorts, is that he did not seek to cover the world in his trees, like Saruman in his modernity. Do we seek to impose something on the world around us? Do we place self-interest above the common good? Do we hold all friendships as temporary, and twist words for our own ends, however well-intentioned they might be? Have we lost ourselves, in the quest after something greater?

2016’s Reflection: “On Treachery
2015’s Reflection: “On Speech

On Small Mysterious Details

Flotsam and Jetsam


A barrel of Old Toby (Source)

In the grand scheme of Merry and Pippin’s account of the siege and flooding of Isengard, it’s a small detail: the discovery of Longbottom Leaf (“Old Toby”), the pipeweed of pride of the South Farthing, in the storehouses of Saruman. Compared to the froth of the Ents, the visits of both Gandalf and Wormtongue, and the events at Helm’s Deep, it seems an insignificant addendum, an out-of-place observation. Aragorn adds a couple more layers to the puzzle, and as we learned when we first set out from Rivendell, it is wise to listen to what a Ranger notes. That the trade routes in the Western lands have long been sundered; the some of the half-men at Helm’s Deep looked oddly similar to the Southron spy they first dealt with in Bree; that Saruman would have even knowledge of the best product of such a craft: all hint at something more beyond the small and mysterious details. Aragon muses that he should mention this to Gandalf, however small; yet, at least explicitly, he never does, and so the detail is lost to both the Fellowship and the reader in the passage of time and pages.

The Longbottom Leaf is a small, mysterious detail, one which will have no great significance for many a chapter ahead: in fact, one might argue that the question of the barrels is the last mystery solved in The Lord of the Rings, the last puzzle piece placed in the closing scenes of The Return of the King (which I shall not spoil). As such, the pipeweed of the South Farthing, a seemingly insignificant piece of color added for authenticity and charm, may teach those on the Lenten journey something of great value. Old Toby reminds us of the importance of small, mysterious details.

In our times of distraction and anxiety, when much needs to be accomplished and there is no time for pause or reflection, it is easy for the details – especially those small and obscure ones – to slip through the cracks. It is all too easy for our eyes to brush over the words, to overlook the occurrence, to miss the slight of tongue or the added word. We cannot observe or understanding everything that happens around us: we are not perfect, or robotic. But in the midst of some of those small and mysterious details might be valued clues or hints at what is to come, and might draw our attention to things that need us that may not seem otherwise.

How then can we restore our ability to better discern the small and mysterious details of our lives? First, we can remember to pause, and think, and reflection on occasion. Like our five companions in the storeroom, sometimes haste is not the answer, and especially after many miles travels and many hurdles overcome we often need to recuperate with conversation and musing. Second, we can hone our minds on the details on the things that matter most to us, the things for which we have the comparative advantage in observation. Few others would have recognize the Longbottom Leaf, or known its significance, outside of Merry and Pippin: yet they observed and noted it because it is part of their discipline, their specialty. Aragorn is very keen at observing tracks on the grounds; Legolas’s eyes give him keenness over things far away. Each plays to their strengths.

Finally, there is a place for memory: “she took all these things and pondered them in her heart.” Sometimes the small mysterious details won’t reveal their true natures immediately. Then we must hold on to such things as best we can, and await their fulfillment in true time.

2016’s Reflection: “On the Paying of Debts and the Smoking of Pipes
2015’s Reflection: “On Being Positively Hasty

On Being Drawn

The Road to Isengard


Mesmerized, its draws us back to it (Source)

In the title of this short piece, I am not implying any sort of wisdom in the act of drawing with pencil and pen things into life to understand them, even though such an act might parallel well with the method of writing into life such characters. Both, in some manner, might be considered an act of sub-creation, a concept near and dear to Tolkien’s heart. Nor am I suggesting the act of being drawn and quartered, a quite gruesome form of punishment and one upon which I rather not linger.

Instead, I thinking instead of the act of being drawn to something, as Legolas is to the awoken and moving forests. “The trees have eyes,” he says, and they speak a language that the wood elf might learn with time and patience. We do not know exactly why the trees draw Legolas so intensively: perhaps they are so similar and yet so different from his home, or perhaps because they speak to an inner core of his being the led the original Elves to wake the Ents in the beginning. And though Legolas cannot fulfill his desire and spend time in the forest, it is nevertheless clear how much an attraction to his mind it has become by the time he leaves its eaves.

Gimli, on the other hand, is not drawn to the forest: in fact, quite the opposite. He cries aloud and demands to let off the ride before it returns to dwell long among those mysterious trees. Not everything has the same impact on everyone; we are not all drawn to the same wonders. Yet Gimli has his own desire, his own drawing force, in the caves of Aglarond There is something out there that draws us, and in doing so impacts us.

The ac of being drawn is almost a subconscious, irrational experience: it is this sense of both desire and inevitability, this losing control as one slips into awe and wonder. It can serve both masters, both good and evil: the draw of holiness and the draw of sin are both powers in the world, though one is ultimately the great. In this Lenten season, we may find ourselves like Legolas being drawn to some great unknown, some great discovery: or we may find ourselves like Gimli, concerned that we are unwillingly being drawn to a great disaster, a great weakness. The challenge for us is to discern which is which, and how to respond to them.

Sometimes, like Gimli, we may need to rouse ourselves or call for others to bring those we love back from the brink of temptation. Sometimes, like Legolas, we may have to delay embracing what we are being drawn to so that we may fulfill other obligations and responsibilities. But ultimately, like both Elf and Dwarf, we must not forget those things that draw us in, and hold each other accountable to return to them, so that no matter what business or errands are set before us now, we might before the end return to those things that leave us with awe and wonder.

2016’s Reflection: “On the Glittering Caves of Aglarond
2015’s Reflection: “On a Few Well-earned Comforts

On Taking Stock and Making Preparations

Helm’s Deep


Many provisions stored under ancient stone (Source)

Many miles into Lent have we journeyed. Many days of Middle-earth have passed. Wonders have we seen and companions met. Struggles we have had, and surprises too. Now we come upon a stronghold, Helm’s Deep, where we might weather for a while those things that have pursued us into our pilgrimage: doubts we had thought we cast aside, sins we had set out to rid ourselves us. They have tracked us to the very gates of the Hornburg, and they may seem very strong and very many.

Yet, we are not alone. We can take stock of what we have experienced thus far and where we must go from here in a place of strength, a place that others in their wisdom have long prepared with provisions and supplies. For us, such a place might be a welcomed rest, or a place of defense, or for a regrouping, or for reflection. And very likely it is a place where we can meet others like us, others who are also taking stock and making preparations.

What are the Helm’s Deeps of our lives? They are the institutions built long ago (or perhaps not so long) that have ever been the keeps among challenges. There is the citadel of the Church, built seemingly long ago in the time of legends, ancient and well-designed. We may not often think to come here, or may find ourselves only seeking it when the Enemy is loose upon our lands, but many over the ages have stored up sustenance and supplies in its inner court.

There is also the deep of community – the clubs, the organizations, the formalized networks to which we belong – that at times may seem to blend into the hills themselves. Yet they are a feature distinguished, separate from our normal homesteads and different from where we have come. The horses we have journeyed the miles of road along we can rest here, and share stories with those who have come from west and east, north and south. Brought together by a common purpose, in the deep of community we may find the kindling of companionship.

There are also the caves of family, and deep friendships, hidden in the mountains. Beautiful and yet mysterious, known and yet so much left to discover, the caves are that last refuge, a place where we might hold out long or find some escape. We are wary, because the Enemy that seeks our doom has long scoped out these lands, and knows of these caves, and may know their weaknesses. Yet we nevertheless can take comfort here, in both the light and the darkness, and though we may need the patience of a dwarfs to bring them to their fullest glory, we hold them as a treasure for our protection.

The journey has been long, and many days and miles lay ahead to Mt. Doom, to Calvary. We cannot linger here at Helm’s Deep for much time: just enough to weather one assault, for one night’s rest, to catch one’s breath. But in this stronghold and all the ancient castles that litter the path ahead we may find defense and good provision. From within them, which the wise have kept secure, we may find the needed moments to take stock of what we had already done, and make preparations for the deeds ahead.

2016’s Reflection: “On the Dawn
2015’s Reflection: “On Spiritual Warfare

On Defending the Honor of One’s Lady

The King of the Golden Hall


The making of a knight (Source)

Oh, that Gimli. We who live so far removed from what might be considered an “honor culture” may find the dwarf to be an endearing, old-fashioned character. Gimli berates Éomer for knowing little of Galadriel; he basically challenges the Third Marshall of the Mark to a duel if he does not name her fairest of all ladies; and the moment Wormtongue speaks ill of the Elven Lady and her land, the dwarf makes moves to defend her honor. There is a charm to this strange sort of chivalry for a much more noble (and already married) woman; yet perhaps in our times this might be deemed unwarranted and unwelcomed by some. Yet it is not so foreign – or so uncommon – as we might first believe.

For chivalry, in its purest and unadulterated form, is exactly what Gimli displays: honor, devotion, and defense of a lady for no ulterior motives than that she deserves it. Whether because of her beauty, her wisdom, her charity, or what she represents, such ladies have been the inspiration for knights and other chivalrous folk down the ages, challenging such men to be better than themselves for their lady’s sake. And such a devotion is all the more worth considering when there is no possibility of amorous passion or unfolding partnership: where a single token – say, three strands of hair – is all the defender has to remember and behold of the lady which he serves. Such a form of chivalry was and remains rare, and even the great bards and storytellers often point to its shortcomings, whether around the tables of Camelot or the halls of other kings. Of course, in our times, such set gender roles may seem frustratingly inflexible: perhaps now a great tale could be told about a marvelous woman who serves nobly for the sake of an unobtainable man.

Yet, there is wisdom to be had in reflecting on Gimli’s chivalry, and the defending of a lady’s honor, that bleeds across sexes and statuses. For one, it is interesting to compare his reaction to Éomer verses that of Wormtongue: where as the former allows for conversation and a future promise, for the other actions must immediately speak louder than words. To me it raises a similar questions to one I have long considered about the deliverance of God’s word: why was it that when Zechariah doubted he was made mute, while when Mary raised a question is was answered? Perhaps it had something to do with the interior considerations of the heart that we are not told; perhaps it relates to the tone of the question that cannot be conveyed via written text. But I also wonder if it had not to do with their relative positions and expectations of what they should know: Zechariah, as a priest and one in the immediate presence of the Lord, should have a better reaction than the poor and humble Mary. Yet their roles are reversed, and God responds in kind!

Similarly, Éomer is young and untested, a soldier who questions but clearly considers women with high regard given his relationship with his sister. Wormtongue, on other hands, as a counselor of kings, should possess greater “wisdom” that he displays, and should not speak ill of things clear to the wise as good, for it betrays his duplicity. We might consider where in our own lives we have the wisdom to speak well and for some reason refrain, or where our learning should raise our capacity to know.

And also, consider this: ultimately it is Gandalf who defends Galadriel’s honor, not Gimli, with those beautiful lines that must have been close to his heart:

In Dwimordene, in Lórien
Seldom have walked the feet of Men,
Few mortal eyes have seen the light
That lies there ever, long and bright.
Galadriel! Galadriel!
Clear is the water of your well;
White is the star in your white hand;
Unmarred, unstained is leaf and land
In Dwimordene, in Lórien
More fair than thoughts of Mortal Men.

We are not alone in our defense of beautiful things: a lady may have multiple knights who serve her. When others step up to the defense of the things we love, we must refrain from the temptation of envy or pride, but instead embrace them as friends and compatriots: as others who see the truth of things, and are willing to sacrifice to defend another’s honor.

2016’s Reflection: “On Counseling the Doubtful
2015’s Reflection: “On Halls, Horsemen, and Horns

On Memory

The White Rider


Gandalf reborn (Source)

One of the more perplexing scenes in The Lord of the Rings takes place on the outskirts of the forests of Fangorn, when Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli meet the mysterious old man and uncover him as – SPOILER ALERT! – Gandalf. Why should Gandalf be so coy and reserved with them? Why let them assume he is their enemy Saruman, and only reveal his true nature after they have made efforts to attack him? And why refrain from telling them more about the fate of the hobbits, or of himself, beyond riddles without much pressing on their parts?

An initial hypothesis might be that Gandalf wants to test them. He has been away from the Company for a long time, and he does not know much of what has passed save that Frodo went his own way. Perhaps he is concerned why they would desert Frodo, or that some other change of heart had come on them. But this does not seem congruent with Gandalf’s character, or with his long relationship with Aragorn and the largely incorruptible nature of the Elves. As well, he has seen Galadriel in recent days, and hear from her all that had happened, so surely he would know that at least these three of the Fellowship had remained true.

Gandalf may instead be seeking to warn them. As he notes later on, he has often counselled his friends “to suspect even their own hands when dealing with the Enemy.” Perhaps this show of Gandalf serves as a reminder that there is much that is dangerous and mysterious that lies on their journey ahead, and they must assume nothing and use wisdom with every interaction. This would foreshadow their coming dealings with both Theoden of Rohan and Denethor of Gondor, and may also link to the fact that Gandalf, since he has become Saruman “as he should have been,” needs people to actively choose him again as opposed to blindly trusting him by name.

Yet, this does not fully feel correct, and I suspect another aspect is at play: Gandalf’s memory. “I have forgotten much that I thought I knew, and learned again much that I had forgotten.” Gandalf struggle with the Balrog, rebirth, and his wrestling with Sauron to save Frodo when he put on the Ring have spent much of Gandalf’s energy, and because he has been sent back, he is no longer “Gandalf” as he once was. The name is a memory to him, because he has been renewed. So too his relationships with each of the Three Hunters: they exist, but they are also memories, memories that must be made real again through interaction, through the speaking of a name, through a moment of recollection. If we accept that when Gandalf says that every day as he lay on the mountain-top was as long as a life-age of the earth, then for Gandalf, eons have seemingly passed. It is not surprising that such an interaction might take place, then.

Such musing do not achieve the full heart of Gandalf’s “transfiguration” before the Three Hunters: there is an element of mystery that defies all explanation. But such a moment speaks to we who live both in time and outside it, who also seek rebirth, transformation, and renewal. Memory is a tricky thing, and we also forget much we learn. We who are baptized in water enter into a new life, one that is both the same and different from the old one. When we are called by our old name, it may take time for us to realize that such a person is still ourselves. And sometimes there are mysteries that defy complete explanations.

2016’s Reflection: “On the Division of Darkness
2015’s Reflection: “On the Turning of the Tide