The Least of My Brothers
Verily, I say unto you, inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of
the least of my brethren, ye have done it unto me." - MATTHEW 25:40
The danger of Christian apologia in the world of J.R.R. Tolkien lies in its propensity to smack of Allegory, which any decent Tolkien scholar knows is a dubious proposal at best, given the author's stated intent.
"Myth and fairy-story must, as all art, reflect and contain in solution elements of moral and religious truth (or error)," he wrote, "but not explicit, not in the known form of the primary 'real' world 1....I dislike Allegory - the conscious and intentional allegory...." 2 And though Tolkien was devoutly Catholic, he chose not to construct his story within the parameters of his own nominal beliefs but to create a world, in the words of one correspondent, "in which some sort of faith seems to be everywhere without a visible source, like light from an invisible lamp" 3 - a notion which prompted the author to respond: "If sanctity inhabits (a man's) work or as a pervading light illumines it then it does not come from him but through him." 4
The light of sanctity comes not only through Tolkien's paper and ink, but also through the celluloid of the film it inspired. Upon the release of Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, a film critic obviously unfamiliar with the back-story begged the question of believable plot: why would the three strongest members of the Fellowship - Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli - go haring off after "the least important" (meaning Merry and Pippin) when the "most important" (meaning Frodo, in possession of the Ring and attended only by the devoted but militarily unskilled Sam) were headed in the opposite direction? This is a question that is illumined in the misty consecration of Christian values and imagery in The Lord of the Rings.
It is an unlikely band of brothers and internal conflicts that make up the Fellowship of the Ring, the company of Nine Walkers that must help Frodo see Sauron's evil Ring to its destruction. In a world in which brute strength is fast becoming an ascendant value (a world much like our own in this respect), this company represents both the great and small of Middle Earth and brings to bear against insurmountable evil a somewhat ragged assortment of seeming strengths and weaknesses.
There is the Wizard Gandalf, the Maiar spirit sent from beyond the circles of the world, tasked to aid the Men and Elves of Middle Earth in their struggle against evil - but limited in power by human form, in capacity by natural law, in ruthlessness by the love he bears the mortals in his charge.
There are the two princes of Men: Aragorn, long-hidden heir to Isildur and the lost kings of Gondor, a consummate warrior shadowed by doubt, hesitant in taking up a crown that is tainted by a legendary failure of human strength; and Boromir, heir to Gondor's House of Stewards that has for a thousand years served in the place of the missing kings, himself a lord and leader of men, but desperate now and nearly done with waiting, reckless in his need to save his imperiled land and people.
There are the two princes of the strong, ancient and often rival races of Middle Earth, whose numbers are diminishing before the rise of Men: Legolas, Prince of Elves, the beautiful Elder Children of Illuvatar; and Gimli, descended of Durin the Deathless, Father of Dwarves, the rugged race created of Aü le but confirmed by Illuvatar. These two bring the hopeful and valedictory blessings of their dwindling peoples, along with skills of the Ages, to the aid of the Fellowship and to the quest to free Middle Earth of evil.
And then there are the four hobbits of the Shire, the little folk who have been brought into the greatest story of their time almost inadvertently, and certainly without the credentials required of the wider world, where worth is measured in size and wealth and influence and power.
Among the hobbits are the gentle Ring-bearer, small, refined Frodo, who is seemingly an accidental heir to the One Ring through his adventurous Uncle Bilbo; his friend Sam, a simple gardener possessed of unerring moral attentiveness and absolute devotion; and Frodo's young cousins, Merry and Pippin, a genial pair of somewhat feckless adolescents who in both book and film enlist in Frodo's forced enterprise out of a hobbit's sense of fondness and pluck, but without any frame of reference by which to imagine what will soon be happening to them.
Indeed, when the Fellowship is formed in Rivendell, Merry and Pippin are nearly excluded. The Lord of Rivendell deems them too young and inexperienced to provide any kind of support for the Ring-bearer. It is only at Gandalf's insistence - he being prompted by a niggling sense of rightness - that they are allowed to continue. "Trust rather to their friendship than to great wisdom," Gandalf says to Elrond in defense of their fond hearts and feelings, and Elrond acquiesces with grave misgivings. 5
Frodo quickly becomes the focus and the most important member of the Fellowship, as he bears both the treacherous Ring and the burden of the unwanted evil attention it draws. The ever-ready Sam, tenacious in loyalty and defense, assumes a pride of place that is unquestioned. The wizard and elder princes serve in every capacity they can, fighting off forces of evil to shepherd their small companions through the wide and dangerous world to Mordor.
Merry and Pippin, eager to help but lacking the heroic skills and martial instincts that the others possess, find themselves at a considerable disadvantage, and indeed are somewhat of a liability at times, particularly at the beginning. They are no match for the Ringwraiths who attack Frodo at Weathertop and they must, along with Frodo and Sam, be carried through the deep snows of Carradhras and protected elsewhere along the road as well. Pippin's reckless casting of a pebble into a deep well in Moria brings untold devastation upon the Company - chiefly the loss of Gandalf to the Balrog at the Bridge of Kazad'dum - and Boromir dies defending them against the Uruk-Hai at Amon Hen.
These two are seemingly in all ways "the least of my brothers." When they are taken by the Uruk-Hai at Amon Hen, it seems almost inevitable, as they are so small and sadly defenseless. And even they cannot help but see themselves as useless baggage: "What good have I been?" Pippin wonders, suffering in the captivity of the Uruk-Hai. "Just a nuisance: a passenger, a piece of luggage." 6 And Merry laments, in the "safekeeping" of King Thè oden, "I would not have it said of me in song only that I was always left behind!" 7 The evil wizard Saruman, in an acid reprisal of Elrond's kinder concerns, dismisses them outright to Gandalf as "these... small rag-tag that dangle at your tail." 8
Why then would the three remaining princes of the Fellowship agree to relinquish the ring quest so as not to "abandon Merry and Pippin to torment and death"? As Jesus' friends ultimately came to see why it had been necessary for him to "go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed... " 9, these three sworn and devoted friends recognize that in the end the Ring-bearer's task must be his own, and that Merry and Pippin are, in point of simple fact, representative of all the sweet and simple good that is at stake in this struggle for Middle Earth. "Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens,"10 declares Gimli, son of Gloin, and Legolas mourns that "the thought of those merry young folk driven like cattle burns my heart."11 Says Aragorn, who will one day be King: "We will make such a chase as shall be accounted a marvel among the Three Kindreds... !" 12 and his steadfast care and concern for these "least important of the Fellowship" is answered in the story of the shepherd who will search out the lamb who is strayed and lost, for so must shepherds look after their flocks, and kings their people, as this is the greatest trust that is placed in them.
"... but God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; and base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to naught things that are." 1 CORINTHIANS 1:27-28
But as Merry and Pippin move from the Fellowship out into the larger world by virtue of their kidnapping and subsequent plucky escape (a clever, hobbitish gamble in which they take control of their destiny), amazing things begin to happen. While the small Ring-bearer attends to his fatal duty in Mordor (another set of iconic images altogether), and the Three Kindred seek and find an unexpected destiny of their own, the least important of the company begin to have their own unwitting effect on events, stumbling upon parts to play that are completely unforeseen and extraordinarily fortuitous. Such small skills as they have acquired through hardship and necessity do serve them, but it is that ephemeral quality that Gandalf sensed early in them - heart and the capacity for friendship and unerring perception of truth - that ultimately see them on their way: "My grace is sufficient for thee, for my strength is made perfect in weakness."13
At Merry and Pippin's open and ingenuous coming into the world, the Ents of Fangorn - a powerful and timeless force of nature, as old as Creation - awake from long complacency with a renewed sense of connection to the living world at large, and the might of Fangorn Forest rises along with them. "They are the first new thing under Sun or Moon that I have seen for many a long, long day," says Treebeard of Merry and Pippin as he adds hobbits to the Long List, "and I shall not forget them....they shall remain friends as long as leaves are renewed." 14
In consequence of Merry and Pippin, the Ents march on traitorous Saruman, bringing the full weight of nature to bear in laying the industry of Isengard to ruin and dispossessing the once-White Wizard and his wretched underling, Wormtongue. In so doing, they are also instrumental in saving the kingdom of Rohan, upon whom Saruman was making war, freeing the Rohirrim to ride to the aid of Gondor and the rest of Middle Earth in the final battle with the Dark Lord.
Gandalf returns, it seems, from the dead. But Gandalf the Grey has become a far more powerful Gandalf the White through his great struggle with the Balrog, an event that would not have occurred save for Pippin's pebble in the well, and in the realization of this renaissance a foolish act - the natural impulse of a curious, childlike creature - attains suddenly the patina of destiny and the whisper of providence: "But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us."15
Following the destruction of Isengard, Pippin is drawn in untoward curiosity to the palantir that Wormtongue hurls from the tower and Gandalf subsequently collects. Pippin barely escapes serious harm, but through his seeming meddling and weakness, Sauron is deceived as to the whereabouts of the Ring and the identity of the hobbit who carries it. Time is won for Frodo and Sam, and also for Aragorn, whose path of destiny has become as complicated and dangerous as the hobbits' in Mordor.
The business of the palantir forces then a separation: Pippin goes to Minas Tirith with Gandalf to be protected, and Merry to Rohan with Aragorn and King Thèoden. Alone now, with only the comfort and simple wisdom of their hearts to guide them, each finds a path that leads inexorably to destiny.
Accepting the debt he owes to Boromir, Pippin on behalf of the Shire pledges fealty to Boromir's father, Denethor, the Steward of Gondor, and becomes part of the Tower Guard. In Rohan, Merry lays his sword before King Thèoden and becomes a Rider of the Mark. And once again their strange and random paths effect miracles.
The Steward is teetering on the edge of madness after a long and perilous psychic duel with the Lord of Mordor. During the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, when his gentle younger son Faramir returns critically injured from the carnage into which he sent him forth, Denethor abandons hope and seeks to kill both his only living son and himself on a horrifying funeral pyre. Pippin, answering immediately the protest of his heart over the orders of his sovereign, calls Gandalf from the battle below to rescue Faramir from sure cremation.
At the same time, however, Gandalf's removal leaves Angmar the Witch King, Sauron's greatest weapon, in a position to enter the city, and it is the charge of the Rohirrim that distracts his attention. Merry and the shieldmaiden Eowyn of Rohan - inadvertently fulfilling an ancient prophecy that "no man" can kill the Ringwraiths - do in fact, in a moment born of Eowyn's desperate despair and Merry's desperate compassion for her, kill the terrible Witch King at the gates of Minas Tirith, incurring deadly injury to themselves, but providing also a stunning psychological setback for Sauron and his armies, and a critical infusion of relief for Gondor as "... suddenly their hearts were lifted up in such a hope as they had not known since the darkness came out of the east, and it seemed to them that the light grew clear and the sun broke through the clouds." 16
Pippin finds Merry in the wreckage of the battle, sick and failing; and now, in seemingly the weakest position of all, Merry (along with Eowyn and Faramir, whom he and Pippin have saved for Rohan and Gondor) provides the means by which Aragorn proves his right of kingship. Grievously enfolded in the Black Breath, all three lie dying in the Houses of Healing. With no cure or hope at hand, another ancient prophecy is recalled: "For it is said in the old lore: The hands of the king are the hands of a healer. And so the rightful king could ever be known." 17
And thus, all unlooked for, Aragorn, whose quiet skill at healing is sought and proves successful, sets in motion the coming of the King. Faramir survives, allowing the House of Stewards to bear the city in hope through the last days of the war and to relinquish in grace and honor its charge of a thousand years; Eowyn survives to find in Faramir and a ransomed world the answer to the bitter turmoil of her battered and isolated heart; and Merry survives to go home again to the Shire, where he and Pippin plan and execute the stunningly successful Battle of Bywater, by which the besieged Shire is relieved of a wartime occupation led by Saruman, the savagely degraded Wormtongue, and a host of marauding Ruffians.
So do "the least of my brothers" bring ability and honor to their places in the Fellowship of the Ring, with skills born not of battle but of character - of pure hearts, and honest instincts and respect for all things living under the sun - and of humility, an unassuming acceptance of their limitations in the wide world which allows them to become vessels of great destiny. Such values as these, central to an understanding of Christian humility, will survive any accusations of "accidental" or "unintentional and thus not valid" by virtue of the outcome, for much would have fallen out differently had not Merry and Pippin been included in the Fellowship of the Ring.
Had Saruman remained White and Gandalf Grey, and the Ents and the Forest of Fangorn remained remote and unconcerned, and had Faramir burned and no one faced the Witch-King, and had Aragorn been without a sign of prophecy to prove his authenticity, then would the people of Rohan have been annihilated, and Gondor been left leaderless, and the Pelennor have become the grave of Men and all the hopes of Middle Earth. And so would the Ring-bearer have been left without armies to draw the Eye from his desperate progress, and then would Sauron have covered all the world with darkness.
It is easy in our competitive culture today to assume that the weak are powerless. We reserve a fair amount of contempt for children who can't make the premier soccer team, or get into the designated best schools, for adults who are poor, or disabled, who live or speak truths we do not want to hear. Like the film critic who wondered why the future king would waste time on a couple of useless hobbits when he could follow fortune and glory, we forget that lost lambs as well as kings may have parts to play in God's world, and that denying the "least of my brothers" the dignity of a chance may well deprive the world of a saviour.
Frodo and Sam remind us that "even the smallest person can change the course of the future." 18 Merry and Pippin remind us that the most unlikely persons imaginable can stumble into paths of greatness, and that destiny attends us all.
Elanor / '03
1 The Letters of JRR Tolkien, page 144
2 The Letters of JRR Tolkien, page 145
3 The Letters of JRR Tolkien, page 413
4 The Letters of JRR Tolkien, page 413
5 The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, Chapter III: "The Ring Goes South"
6 The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers, Chapter III: "The Uruk-Hai"
7 The Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King, Chapter III: "The Muster of Rohan"
8 The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers, Chapter X: "The Voice of Saruman"
9 The King James Bible, Matthew 16:21
10 The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, Chapter III: "The Ring Goes South"
11 The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers, Chapter II, "The Riders of Rohan"
12 The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers, Chapter I, "The Departure of Boromir"
13 The King James Bible, 2 Corinthians 12:9
14 The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers, Chapter X: "The Voice of Saruman"
15 The King James Bible, 2 Corinthians 4:7
16 The Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King, Chapter VII, "The Pyre of Denethor"
17 The Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King, Chapter VIII, "The Houses of Healing"
18 The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, New Line Cinema, 2001
Christianity and Middle-Earth