Don lives and works at Apple Farm.
Last autumn Barack Obama spoke of what is needed at this time, “The only way anything gets done is to recognize the truth of the person opposite you; get in their heads and see through their eyes.” Now autocratic governance, exemplified by arbitrary exercise of power, and assertions that those in power may act without regard for truth, or the well-being of all life and the planet itself, challenges our ways of response. Obama has put his finger on a basic and ancient truth.
We all know stories where virtues of empathy or compassion triumph against ruthless power. I have long thought that J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is a myth for our times. Most of us are familiar enough with this myth to permit me to pick up within the story. The hero Frodo is not trying to achieve a great prize. No, the task is to destroy something that appears to confer power on its possessor; to rid middle earth of the Ring of Power through which its possessor can dominate and control all others.
The Ring of Power must never be put on, even to try to destroy the power of domination. Those with legitimate authority can act from that authority but not with the Ring of Power. Aragon, the rightful king, can fight for the restoration of Gondor; Gandalf can fight against the evils of corrupted wizards; Frodo has inherited the Ring from his uncle Bilbo. Nevertheless the Ring of Power itself can’t conquer the evil of Sauron.
‘Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and mercy: not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity.’
‘I am sorry,’ said Frodo. ‘But I am frightened; and I do not feel any pity for Gollum.’
‘You have not seen him,’ Gandalf broke in.
‘No, and I don’t want to,’ said Frodo...’Now at any rate he is as bad as an Orc, and just an enemy. He deserves death.’
‘Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it. And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring. My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many - yours not least.’ (Vol.1, 93, Ballantine edition, 1965)
The word pity is not entirely alien to us. We do see outpourings of relief and support for those who suffer - whether refugees from Syria or homeless people. Its meaning is enlarged when we are aware that it derives from the Roman pietas - the personification of familial affection. Pietas – piety - is reverence for God and devout fulfillment of religious obligations. This virtue means fulfilling one’s duty to relatives, ancestors, and the gods: it is the virtue of giving justice.
The essential story appears to be the journey toward Mordor, threatened by many evils including Orcs and the giant spider Shelob. I think that the true center of the myth is what happens between Frodo and Gollum. It involves another journey, one of Frodo’s inner life with his struggle to exercise empathy and compassion and then integrate these virtues into his psychological and spiritual life. He does not initiate this process but rather must practice acceptance and humility toward what is demanded of him through Gandalf’s wisdom.
The Lord of the Rings, like a true myth, or a dream, can offer energy for us as well as depict a situation. The violence to dominate others must be abandoned, not only in the large arena of national politics but also in the minute particulars of our daily lives. There is not a fundamental difference in kind between the power the Dark Lord wields and that which we exercise on a day to day basis. Helen Luke speaks so clearly of this on page 35 of Dark Wood to White Rose: “Which of us has not been tempted to manipulate the psyche of another, or to abuse some trust, or to parade some unearned merit, turning "inner truth to expedience," in Dorothy Sayers' phrase? How often do we steal energy from another, breaking into the house of his personality, invading his privacy; or secretly welcome fraud by silence or pleasure in another's sin? And the sowing of discord is something we do daily whenever we evade our own shadow and project it onto another.”
Efforts small and large can help to drain some of the hate so prevalent in the current political and social atmosphere. We can protest actions that corrupt and demean; orient ourselves toward what strengthens our inner life; nurture what helps us build trust that we are made for these times; remind ourselves that the creative solution is usually something unexpected. Each of us discriminating what our real authority and responsibility ask of us.
The forsaking of power allows for the possibility of something other than brute force to prevail. How difficult to do the mental and spiritual gymnastics this calls for! Another way is not impossible; it has been imagined. The Gospels proclaim it, yet most of us are still Romans coveting power and adulation! Jung commented: “The religion of love was the exact psychological counterpart to the Roman devil-worship of power.” Such a reformation, he says, might take centuries of suffering to realize.
As far as I know, in no other myth is the hero required to carry something so powerful and threatening to the bearer. While wearing the Ring makes Frodo invisible to those around him, he becomes more visible to the eye of the Dark Lord with its evil intents. Worn over a period of time, the Ring “thins” the personality so it increasingly loses the qualities that characterize hobbits and human beings alike; the ability to love, to have compassion for another, and the capacity to make free conscious choices.