The Gospel According to The Lord of the Rings: Week 52, One Small Garden

The battle of Gondor won, Gandalf and Aragorn proceed with a desperate plan. Knowing that they can never win a military campaign against Sauron, their only hope is to move against Mordor in the hope of attracting Sauron's attention, giving Frodo and Sam the opportunity to make their way to Mount Doom. 

Meanwhile, our attention returns to Sam's plight. Frodo has been captured and Sam assumes the burden of the Ring. And Sam, like so many others before him in the story, now has to face his own temptations to power:

Already the Ring tempted him, gnawing at his will and reason. Wild fantasies arose in his mind; and he saw Samwise the Strong, Hero of the Age, striding with a flaming sword across the darkened land, and armies flocking to his call as he marched to the overthrow of Barad-dûr. And then all the clouds rolled away, and the white sun shone, and at his command the vale of Gorgoroth became a garden of flowers and trees and brought forth fruit. He had only to put on the Ring and claim it for his own, and all this could be.

It's a moment of crisis, but Sam passes the test. In one of the most important passages of the book, Tolkien writes of Sam's victory:

In that hour of trial it was his love of his master that helped most to hold him firm; but also deep down in him lived still unconquered his plain hobbit-sense: he knew in the core of his heart that he was not large enough to bear such a burden, even if such visions were not a mere cheat to betray him. The one small garden of a free gardener was all his need and due, not a garden swollen to a realm; his own hands to use, not the hands of others to command.

In this passage we find one of the clearest descriptions of Tolkien's vision. So many times we've seen the vision of the Ring, the lust and thirst for power. But we've never this clearly seen what Tolkien sets out as the alternative, a political and social vision of what it might mean to reject the Ring, articulated in positive, affirming tones. But here, in Sam's victory, we finally see it: The one small garden of a free gardener was all his need and due, not a garden swollen to a realm; his own hands to use, not the hands of others to command.

There has been a vast amount of commentary about Tolkien's political vision. It's a beautiful vision, and the witness of Wendell Berry comes to mind. But is Tolkien's vision, if cashed out politically, too agrarian? Is it too nostalgic?

I confess, I lack competence to say anything very insightful about urbanization, industrialization, environmental sustainability, and agricultural reform. But I can say something about the psychology at work in Sam's vision.

If the Ring tempts us with heroism--Samwise the Strong, Hero of the Age--Sam's "plain hobbit-sense" points us toward smaller, humbler things. As Henri Nouwen once observed, the three great temptations of the age are the temptations to be powerful, spectacular, and relevant. These are the temptations of the Ring. The call of Jesus, by contrast, is the call to what Nouwen describes as "downward mobility." 

And yet, as I describe in The Slavery of Death, this journey toward smallness and humility is hard on our self-esteem. Brene Brown calls it "the shame-based fear of being ordinary." This shame is also a manifestation of the Ring. Brown describes it as "the never enough problem," never powerful, spectacular, and relevant enough.    

My point is that every morning, as we rise to face a new day, we stand with Sam and the Ring in our hand. Two possible lives, two possible paths, two possible days unfold before us. The path of heroism, the striving to be powerful, spectacular, and relevant. And the path of an ordinary, smaller, humbler life, caring for your "one small garden," fidelity to the small tasks of the day and to the people God has put in your life. 

Rejecting the Ring is embracing the admonition of 1 Thessalonians 4:11, "make it your ambition to lead a quiet life." I love that contrast, make it your ambition to lead a quiet life. Would that more had such great and grand ambitions. To tend our one small garden with plain old hobbit-sense.

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