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.