A Magnificent Madness
At the beginning of June 2020, the Taoiseach of Ireland gave a speech signalling the acceleration of measures to ease the lockdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Many will be aware that he quoted Samwise Gamgee, a Lord of the Rings character, with the words: 'In the end, it's only a passing thing this shadow, even darkness must pass. A new day will come, and when the sun shines, it'll shine out the clearer.'
On one level, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, written by J.R.R. Tolkien, describes an incredible adventure through distant lands that brings to life a multitude of compelling characters. On a deeper level, the books are a religious work that embed Catholic truths within a fictional mythology.
The overall narrative tells of an epic battle against evil with storylines that represent the good and bad in our journeys through this life. Fantastical characters populate the pages. There are Hobbits, Wizards, Elves, Orcs, Ents, Trolls, Wraiths as well as others, each with their own languages, cultures, histories and myths.
A key theme is that evil cannot persist on its own in this world but can only feed off what is good. It is the corruption of the good that sustains evil, which constantly acts to tempt and enslave us all.
Like the characters, we are each called to play a role in a much larger providential story that is far more significant than we can fully understand. Even though we might not feel up to the task before us, we are each chosen to play an important role in the grand plan of defending goodness.
The character Samwise Gamgee is a Hobbit. It is Hobbits who represent the simple life that Christians are called to live by. They are the meek who inherit the earth and the pure in heart who naturally resist corruption.
Quoting Samwise Gamgee is almost countercultural in today’s world. The value of a humble servant can often be overlooked in our world that normally prefers celebrating the contributions of material progress and achievement. Yet, during a pandemic, it is truly fitting. Samwise is patient and loyal, traits that are essential during ongoing challenges that are not easily solved especially when nature has been damaged.
The theme of nature is very real in Lord of the Rings, which stems from the overwhelming impression that the land and its people are linked together. Both contribute to the greater story. This is a lesson that resonates more deeply during times of pandemic. The wonder, beauty and mystery of nature grounds us to our place and time in the unfolding story of life; mountains, forests or meadows; lakes, rivers or oceans; the moon, the sun or the stars. All possess their own particular goodness and perfection. To use Samwise’s words: I feel like spring after winter, and sun on the leaves; and like trumpets and harps and all the songs I have ever heard!’
When Frodo lacked the strength to continue his journey, Samwise carried him and so the world was saved with the words: ‘Come, Mr. Frodo … I can't carry it for you, but I can carry you.’ Other characters played their part: the wise elves, the good wizard Gandalf and the noble King Aragorn. But, it was the smallest and least likely character who carried an extra burden at the end with the conviction that it was both a privilege and a gift.
Throughout the trilogy, the characters do not escape suffering during their great quest, nor did they expect to. Instead, they see their sacrifices as an essential part of working through their salvation. They are helped by mystical gifts that convey spiritual grace through earthly rites. More than mere symbols, these sacramental gifts are essential in ensuring that the recipients are less susceptible to the destructive power of evil.
Samwise’s words chosen by the Taoiseach are apt. The coronavirus is a passing shadow and darkness must pass. But another quote from Samwise has always stood out in my mind: ‘There's some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it's worth fighting for.’ For Catholics, Frodo is a Christ figure who saves the world not by exercising power but by embracing a loving weakness.
Samwise remained with Frodo throughout. He did not abandon his friend no matter what happened to him. In today’s world, when our path of salvation is constantly being obscured, it is this message that remains potent. It is also fitting that the day on which the terrible Ring was destroyed is 25th March, which is the Feast of the Annunciation in Catholic tradition, a day when we celebrate God’s action in entering the world and our acceptance of God’s plan.
This is our journey of faith, a quest no less epic than the exploits of the characters portrayed by J.R.R. Tolkien. Perhaps it is best to leave the final words to the author of the Lord of the Rings: ‘One tiny Hobbit against all the evil the world could muster. A sane being would have given up, but Samwise burned with a magnificent madness, a glowing obsession to surmount every obstacle, to find Frodo, destroy the Ring, and cleanse Middle Earth of its festering malignancy. He knew he would try again. Fail, perhaps. And try once more. A thousand, thousand times if need be, but he would not give up the quest.’