The Valley of the Shadow of Death,opposite page 70 and seventh plate in the book The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan (London: John C. Nimmo, 1895)
This post is a part of the online book Philosophical Counseling with Tolkien.
In Love´s Knowledge, Martha Nussbaum argues that literature humanizes philosophy by giving philosophy a corpus, a body, in which to live. Outside of this humanizing process, philosophy remains abstracted and disconnected from life experience. You can certainly say that about modern and postmodern philosophy. Moreover, in portraying characters whose actions mimic the lived experiences of human beings, literature offers us a lens into the philosophical dimensions of human actions – ethical, aesthetic, and ontological. If this is true, then Tolkien´s characters can be said to humanize and clarify aspects of Western philosophy.
In The Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series volume on The Lord of the Rings, J. Lenore Wright claims, in her article Sam and Frodo´s Excellent Adventure, that the narrative of Western philosophy is a journey-narrative. Considered together, the narratives that form the history of Western thought reflect journey motifs of two general types: a journey directed outwardly into the world, and a journey into the self [or the Soul]. The former – the journey without – is typified by a series of conflicts often initiated by the introduction of evil in the journey narrative. The latter – the journey within – is typified by a series of dramatic encounters wither within oneself (an inner psychological battle) or with another character. This encounter is often initiated by a strong emotion or force, such as love, and culminates in a union with the force against which a character struggles.
I begin my first book Meditation as an Art of Life with the claim that I would like to tell the reader the story of my life. I write:
It is first by now I, as Karen Blixen could have put it, can begin to see the dreaming tracks and songlines in the artwork of my life. By now I, seen with collective and universal eyes, consider it as a philosophical journey, that began in the dawn of time, before this universe.
Anyhow, seen with the personal eyes, the memory of my philosophical journey goes back to when I was 5 years old. Here I started to reflect over, whether life is a dream. This philosophical question has always followed me: whether we sleep, whether we dream this long dream, which is life? Therefore my adolescence has always been accented by a strong wonder over life, and a strong longing after something inexpressible, after something that can´t be satisfied by explanations and interpretations - perhaps a longing after awakening.
You could say that this story continues in this book.
Wright claims that one of the most famous journeys in Western thought is St. Augustine´s. In his autobiography, Confessions, Augustine depicts his early childhood in North Africa, his adulthood spent teaching rhetoric in Carthage, Rome, and Milan, and finally his conversion to Christianity and his subsequent rise to the position of Bishop of Hippo. In reading his life story, we also bear witness to his philosophical journey toward a vision of Truth found in the triune image of the Christian God. Augustine´s description of his conversion draws heavily upon Plato´s Allegory of the Cave, which appears in Book VII of the Republic. The Allegory of the Cave tells the story of a slave who breaks free from his shackles inside a dark dwelling and makes his way out into an unknown world filled with sunlight and “real” objects. As the slave comes to recognize the world beyond the cave, he denounces his allegiance to shadowy images and affirms eternal Forms, the source and constituents of all that is true and knowable. Plato offers an epistemological account of this experience in the Phaedrus, where he claims that every human soul once lived in communion with the Forms, contemplating the Beautiful and the Good, aware of true being in its supreme and uncorrupted state.
Following in Plato´s footsteps, Augustine searches to understand Gooness and Beauty in the world. He begins his journey out of the cave of Pagan Rome by ambracing Manichean philosophy, a materialist philosophy of good and evil. After meeting the spiritual guide of the Manichean sect, Faustus, Augustine flirts with astrology and then Academic skepticism, until he finally encounters an allegorized rendering of Christian thought in the preaching of St. Ambrose. Once Ambrose teaches Augustine how to allegorize scripture, Augustine sees himself in the image of God and begins his pilgrimage of faith.
A journey is a movement from one place to another. “But not all journeys are movements in space or through time”, says Wright. Many are spiritual, like St. Augustine´s passage from Manicheanism to Christianity. Others are intellectual. Wright suggests as an example the journey of the townspeople in the movie, Pleasantville, who see the beauty of reality once the stifling veil of repressive rules is removed from their lives. Although a journey involves movement – physical, spiritual, intellectual, or philosophical – there is more to a journey than reaching one´s destination. As Bilbo points out, “Not all those who wander are lost” (FR, p. 278). Indeed, movement requires one to accept and act upon at least two kinds of freedom: freedom from material belongings (a freedom to uproot and wander), and freedom from conflicting duties.
In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo´s journey out of the cave is a journey out of the Shire. He frets over his journey and delays the decision longer than he should. Though he has longed to travel for some time, he confesses that leaving one´s home under these conditions is an “exile” (FR, p. 69). Frodo becomes increasingly burdened by his outward journey as he recalls Bilbo´s admonition that leaving one´s home is dangerous business. The first step Frodo takes outside of his cave occurs when Gandalf recites the history of the Ring and Frodo infers the role he might play in its destruction. He thereby becomes part of the Greater History. As second step occurs when Frodo sells Bilbo´s home and belongings to the Sackville-Bagginses, the relatives he despises (FR, pp. 64-69). A third step occurs when Elrond offers Frodo freedom from the burden of the Ring. “Frodo glanced at all the faces, but they were not turned to him. All the Council sat with downcast eyes, as if in deep thought.”
At last with an effort he spoke, and wondered to hear his own words, as if some other will was using his small voice. “I will take the Ring,” he said, “though I do not know the way.” (FR, p. 303).
As Frodo and his hobbit companions journey further and further from the comfortable Shire, they forge new self-identities. Though typical hobbits are passive and fearful, Sam, Merry, Pippin face their fears and confront the horrors of war, engaging in varied forms of battle themselves. They suffer physical and psychological wounds, wounds that with each stage of healing, make them stronger, braver, and more confident. As a result the wounding and healing process they undergo, they unchain themselves from their natural instincts and hobbit-like desires. Only then does their physical journey become existential; that is: they begin to realize the five existential categories of suffering: unreality, division, stagnation, anxiety and meaninglessness. These five categories constitute together the suffering, which in this way is a part of their lifesituation. Like this suffering has a past and a future. The past and the future form an unbroken continuum, unless the Now´s releasing power is activated through their aware presence. Behind all the different circumstances which constitute their lifesituation, and which exist in time, there in other words exists something deeper, more essential: life itself, their being in the timeless Now itself.
On their journey they begin to activate this deeper dimension and sense the opposite categories: reality, cooperation, movement, safety and meaning. Once this transformation occurs their self-conceptions become harmonized with their duties, and they fulfill the existential charge to “become who you are.”
Though Frodo makes his decision to carry the Ring to Mordor without obvious compulsion, his choice illustrates the limits of human freedom. Not only is freedom tethered to responsibility, it is contingent upon a willingness to choose between two viable options – a choice that is shaped by many historical situations. Frodo is the Ring-bearer in part because his cousin, Bilbo, surreptitiously acquired the Ring from Sméagol (a.k.a. Gollum) and then passed it down to him. He is also the Ring-bearer because the Ring remains ín his possession – “the ring chooses the bearer.” Clearly, Frodo´s choice is not a choice for himself; his lack of knowledge regarding the location of the Cracks of Doom compels others to bear his burden along with him. His decision to carry the Ring, however, means that he is not only responsible for destroying the Ring, but he is also responsible for the individuals who help him achieve his Quest. His decision offers freedom for the Ring, not from the Ring. And Frodo´s decision to destroy the Ring creates the Fellowship; it is productive. It simultaneously binds the fellows to Frodo, and it frees them to travel with Frodo on his journey to Mordor. Hence, Frodo´s commitment to carry the Ring is a commitment to create freedom in fellowship.
Like philosophical inquiry, Tolkien´s journey motif moves in two directions: it is a movement outside the dark cave of illusion and into the light of knowable reality, and it is a turning away from the façade of the self into the innermost Soul. The journey inward into the Soul presupposes an existential freedom that is itself part of the structure of authentic human existence. The Ring-bearer and his fellows must break free from their assumptions and false beliefs if they wish to be transformed by the journey inwards.
Boromir attains his philosophical transformation and self-knowledge only at death´s door, when he confesses to Aragorn, “’I tried to take the Ring from Frodo…I am sorry. I have paid…go to Minas Tirith and save my people! I have failed’ (TT, p. 4). Aragorn replies, ‘No!...You have conquered. Few have gained such a victory. Be at peace!’” Burdened by his wish to save his people, Boromir succumbs to his deep desire to use the Ring to destroy enemies of his land. His enslavement to this desire brings about his own demise.
Wright says that a key step in the transition from enslavement to freedom is personal transformation. Once we break free from our inner chains, we are free to grow as individuals. For example, Gandalf´s transformation from “Gandalf the Grey” to “Gandalf the White” begins in the bowels of Moria while battling a Balrog. When he reappears in The Two Towers, he represents a new beginning, the dawning of a new day. And as Aragorn assures Gamling, “dawn is ever the hope of men” (TT, p. 152). Other chracters that achieve personal transformation include Aragorn, who began the hourney as “Strider” and in the end is crowned “King Elessar,” and Sam Gamgee who becomes “Master Samwise.”
Wright makes us aware that the endowment of new titles and the changing of names is a sign of pilgrims making progress in journey tales. In the Eastern tale, Monkey, the main character acquires a new name along each stage of his journey toward Buddhahood. He begins as “Handsome Monkey King,” then he is named by the Patriarch Subodhi, “Aware of Vacuity.” And finally he becomes “Buddha Victorious in Strife.”
But other characters never accomplish this existential feat. For instance, though he pretends to be a devoted disciple of Frodo, Sméagol secretly plans to take the Ring from him, with the help of the hideous spider-like creature, Shelob.
Tolkien suggests that Sam and Frodo´s physical journey may have been mapped out for them by the circumstances of time and history. But he also suggests that their existential journey – their choices to either affirm or deny each element of the journey – is a matter of their own choosing. The two procceses mutually fertilize each other.
Unlike the hobbits, Sméagol and Saruman are lamenting their own failures, licking their wounds, and wallowing in self-pity. Sméagol remains enslaved by the Ring even when it is out of his possession, pitying himself for his lack of food, lack of rest, and lack of trustworthiness. Saruman refuses to accept the mercy of Gandalf and company, stating, “Pray, do not smile at me! I prefer your frowns” (RK, p. 283), to which Gandalf replies, “alas for Saruman! I fear nothing more, can be made of him. He has withered altogether” (RK, p. 285). Both Sméagol and Saruman live inauthentic lives in the constant self-producing Becoming, and the denial of universal history.
Despite being burdened by nature and history, Tolkien´s little hobbits, Sam and Frodo, set their own course as they journey toward self-knowledge and authentic living: the self-forgetful Being. This happens only by surrendering to the universal history they are set in.
Though most journey narratives adopt either the outward or inward model of journey narratives, The Lord of the Rings utilizes both. As John Dunne remarks, Tolkien´s saga is “a great journey, but it´s a conflict, a war, between good and evil; it´s both of those at the same time.” By drawing out the philosophical implications of the outward and inward journeys within The Lord of the Rings, we not only connect the past to the present historically, we confront and affirm the past existentially – we find ourselves in Tolkien´s story. By confronting both the historical and existential facets of human experience, we begin to understand something new about our tasks as contemporary philosophers – the task to gaze into the fragmented abyss of postmodern culture and find meaning and value therein.
Wright mentions other great texts – both Western and non-Western – that contain journey motifs include The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Ramayana, Homer´s Iliad and Odyssey, Virgil´s Aeneid, The Song of Roland, Tristan, Bunyan´s Pilgrim´s Progress, Dante´s Divine Comedy Chaucer´s Cantebury Tales, Boccaccio´s Decameron, Marguerite de Navarre´s Heptameron, and Shakespeare´s The Tempest.
Throughout The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien describes the journey of Frodo and his fellows not as a heroic ecapade, but as a “Quest.” Like most quests with great or exalted purposes, the hobbits´ journey is unexpected and undesired. It begins in the familiar Shire and moves quickly to lands unknown to them. Like Monkey´s journey to India in search of sacred Buddhist scrolls in the Chinese epic, Journey to the West, Sam and Frodo´s journey occurs mainly on foot, takes place over several months, and involves a series of clashes and battles. It also unfolds in stages. When Frodo first learn of his journey, Gandalf says to him, “It may be your task to find the Cracks of Doom; but that quest may be for others: I do not knot know. At any rate you are not ready for that long road yet” (FR, p. 73).
Sam and Frodo appear to be typical pilgrims – a little mad, weal-willed, and very reluctant to endanger themselves or their fellow travellers. For instance, as Frodo considers the journey before him, he says to Gandalf:
Of course, I have sometimes thought of going away, but I imagined that as a kind of holiday, a series of adventures like Bilbo´s or better, ending in peace. But this would mean exile, a flight from danger into danger, drawing it after me…But I feel very small, and very uprooted, and well – desperate. The Enemy is so strong and terrible. (FR, p. 69).
Wright says that hese friends need guides in part because they are weak-willed. Tolkien´s description of Frodo and Sam is analogous to the medieval pilgrim, Dante, and the fear he experiences as he makes his way through hell with his guide, Virgil. As Dante´s trepidation begins to overcome him at various points in the Inferno, he faints, incapable of facing reality before him. Likewise, Frodo struggles against the increasing weight of the Ring, his own self-doubt, and his deep weariness. Historically, philosophers have received aid in their intellectual struggles by teachers and guides. For example, Plato burned his tragedies when he met Socrates. Aristotle joined Plato´s Academy and became a teacher in his own right. St. Augustine studied under Albert the Great. Kant relied under Hume to “wake him from his dogmatic slumbers.” And Jean-Paul Sartre, Hannah Arendt, and Hans-Georg Gadamer contributed to the burgeoning field of existentialism after studying with Martin Heidegger, who himself was deeply indebted to Edmund Husserl.
“What would a journey be without a guide (or two)?” Wright asks. Tolkien´s mythical guide, the one who finds freedom in wandering, is Gandalf. Though Gandalf is often called away from Sam and Frodo to aid in the war effort, he never abandons his hobbit friends, assisting them in both word and deed. Gandalf arranges for Aragorn to serve as a guide to the hobbits. Later, thanks to Gandalf´s wise counsel that “Sméagol may yet have ‘some part to play’” (FR, p. 65), Gollum serves as Sam and Frodo´s last guide in their almost hopeless Quest to destroy the One Ring.
Pilgrims are different from heroes in the classical sense of the term. According to both ancient mythology and modern epics, heroes are courageous, large in stature, often of divine ancestry or noble birth, sometimes magical, athletic, intelleigent, adept at specific skills, and knowledgeable of the arts (often they play musical instruments). Classic Greek examples include Theseus, who with help of his beloved Ariadne slays the Minotaur who guards the labyrinth in Knossos, and Odysseus, who Homer represents as the noblest and most respected hero for his courage, cunning and eloquence.
Unlike these heroes, Sam and Frodo experience constant fear and dread; their journey is overshadowed by despair. Like all hobbits, they are small in stature, often mistaken for children. Nor are they of noble ancestry or exceptionally knowledgeable, intelligent, skilled, or athletic. Their strength lies in devotion, determination, and single-mindedness of purpose. They are not heroes in the classical sense; rather, they exemplify the traits of modern pilgrims. As their journey to Mount Doom approaches its end, the Quest transforms these two reluctant pilgrims into resilient, bold masters whose characters reflect the potency of the Ring. We see this transformation in Sam most clearly in his battle with Shelob. Tolkien writes:
As if his indomitable spirit had set its potency in motion, the glass [Phial of Galadriel] blazed suddenly like a white torch in his hand…No such terror out of heaven had ever burned in Shelob´s face before…She fell back…Sam came on. He was reeling like a drunken man, but he came on. And shelob, cowered at last, shrunken in defeat, jerked and quivered as she tried to hasten from him. (TT, p. 383).
We see the transformation in Frodo through Sam´s eyes when the two companions capture Sméagol: “For a moment it appeared to Sam that his master had grown and Gollum had shrunk: a tall stern shadow, a mighty lord who hid his brightness in grey cloud, and at his feet a little whining dog” (TT, pp. 249-250). Despite their individual growth, these two friends realize their change may be of no consequence as they near the end of their journey to the Cracks of Doom. Sam, in particular, fears that even if they manage to destroy the Ring, they have no hope of escaping Mordor alive:
But even as hope died in Sam, or seemed to die, it was turned into a new strength. Sam´s plain hobbit-face grew stern, almost grim, as the will hardened in him, and he felt through all his limbs a thrill, as if he was turning into some creature of stone and steel that neither despair nor weariness nor endless barren miles could subdue. (RK, p. 225).
Sam and Frodo´s strength of character is the source of their authenticity as pilgrims.
Our contemporary concept of “hero” is rooted in the conflicts described in Greek literature, battles between great divinities and god-like humans. It emerged out of our primordial desire for immortality, along with an emergent need for divinity and unity. Despite our affluence and technological advances, the need for extraordinary creatures and events still exists. Wright asks: “So why are Sam and Frodo so ordinary?” In Plato´s Symposion, his great dialogue on love, Diotima teaches that profound ideas emerge from one small intellectual spark. Tolkien teaches us the same lesson. The humblest creatures, as small as children, are capable of extraordinary feats.
Now, more than ever, we are realizing that we need ordinary people to be extraordinary. We need people to be all too human and frail. We need Sam and Frodo to be ordinary, not heroic. Tolkien´s reluctant pilgrims show us that when ordinary people bind themselves to the good, life can be extraordinary.
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