'all is dark and empty'


LotR as a "Fundamentally Catholic and Religious Work"    

'all is dark and empty'
Sixth mansions/The passive night of the spirit

Note: For anyone who hasn't yet read letter #246 in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, I'd highly recommend reading it either before the next few essays or in conjunction with them.


When I first started seeing parallels between Frodo's journey and John's dark nights, I considered Frodo's claiming of the Ring at the Sammath Naur to be his passive night of the spirit. After all, everything, even his free will, was taken from him. And if his story had ended there, if Frodo had died on Mount Doom as he'd expected to, I'd probably still think that. But the suffering he goes through afterward suggests otherwise; his spiritual journey isn't over yet.

Perhaps the clue is in that previous paragraph. At the crucial moment, Frodo has no free will. He has no ability to decide even how to respond to what's happening.

According to Tolkien (Letter #246), what Frodo's still holding onto - and what he takes back to the Shire with him - is his pride. This goes back to the idea talked about in "Did Frodo Fail?", that is, that Frodo was someone who wanted to - and, actually, usually did - do things without depending on others. But he hadn't been able to save Middle-earth on his own. I also wonder if he didn't have some self-doubt (which, I guess, would be a kind of pride); because he didn't die, did he perhaps question whether he had given it his all?

At "the end of all things," Frodo had given everything he could: physically, mentally and spiritually. You could say he'd reached a "dead end" as far as any active nights of either the senses or the spirit; there was nothing left for him to willingly surrender. He'd already reached a spiritual level that many of us won't attain this side of death.

But Frodo hasn't reached perfection. He still has what Tolkien called "a temptation out of the Dark, a last flicker of pride: desire to have returned as a 'hero', not content with being a mere instrument of good." In addition, there's still a part of him that desires the Ring ('It is gone forever, and now all is dark and empty'), something we also see in Bilbo even after the Ring is destroyed ('What a pity... I should have liked to see it again').

Frodo could have ended his active night of the spirit by abandoning the Quest. In his suffering - both physical and otherwise - after he returns to the Shire, he is facing a darkness he has no control over, although he can always decide how to respond to it. John of the Cross saw the passive night of the spirit as the most intense of the nights, when every spiritual light a person has traveled by is blown out. As said at the beginning of this exercise, that's the person's perception. The reality is that the light of God is so close (or, perhaps better, the person has become so open to it) that the person is blinded by it, but what's experienced is complete spiritual darkness. Passing through this night requires the person to continue on the Road guided by nothing but faith. We know that Frodo has continued his journey because he sails West; otherwise, he wouldn't have accepted the invitation. Even so, he doesn't seem to see his leaving Middle-earth as a way out of his suffering. He tells Sam that he has been "too deeply hurt" to take up his old life in the Shire, but in the scenes leading up to his embarkation he doesn't mention any hope of healing. He leaves Middle-earth for the same reason that he originally left Bag End and then Rivendell: he's been called, and he responds as he always has, with each response requiring more faith and trust than the one before it.  

I think the following quote from Thomas Merton (a Trappist monk who became a popular spiritual writer) in Contemplation in a World of Action is completely applicable to Frodo's experience after he returns to the Shire:

The life of Christian contemplation is not a life of willful concentration upon a few clear and comforting ideas, but a life of inner struggle in which the monk, like Christ himself in the desert, is tested. In a certain sense, the monk, alone with God, fully aware of his own poverty, fallibility and blindness, suffers the same trial of faith as other Christians, and suffers it in a more acute and penetrating way. It can be said that the contemplative is often less a "professional of vision" than a professional of crisis and of intellectual suffering. What he learns is not a clearer idea of God but a deeper trust, a purer love and a more complete abandonment to One he knows to be beyond all understanding.

Throughout the Quest, Frodo acted from trust, love and abandonment. After returning to Bag End, as he slips gradually out of public life, you could say that in a way he's slipping into the life of a monk - alone with his thoughts and his writing and the One of whom he has little understanding. Away from the moment-by-moment demands of the Quest, he has the space and time to undergo the "intellectual suffering"*. that solidifies his testing and begins to show him the truth about himself.

In an unusual parallel, much of Teresa's description of the sixth mansions sounds a lot like John's description of the passive night of the spirit. Especially interesting when looking at Frodo is Teresa's statement that in the sixth mansions physical and spiritual suffering not only reach their most intense but are linked. The suffering isn't caused by exterior circumstances: acclaim would be as painful as being despised or forgotten. Teresa also notes that someone in these mansions is at a spiritual level few reach, increasing the feeling of isolation.

As Frodo prepares to sail, we get another of those little language shifts that, when Tolkien is the one writing them, carry a lot of significance: 'I wanted to save the Shire... and it has been saved.' Rather than simply sharing the other Travelers' desire to see the Shire saved and safe, Frodo had had the desire 'to save the Shire' himself. I think this statement shows that, although Frodo still has a Road ahead of him as he leaves Middle-earth, he at least understands the direction in which he needs to go.

This is different from his, "I do not now choose to do..." at the Sammath Naur, where he had no will and no choice. Here, he is fully aware of what he's saying, and I believe that includes the verbal shift between his past desire to save the Shire himself and its present condition of having been saved. Maybe it was one of those experiences most of us have had in which we don't quite grasp the meaning of our own words until we hear ourselves say them, but because of Frodo's stage of spiritual and personal maturity at this point in the story I tend to think the wording was consciously chosen. If that's true, it shows that he fully realizes the final thing he needs to let go of - that last flicker of pride - and that is a very big step toward accomplishing it.


Several times in these essays, I refer to differences between the book and the recent movies to comment on Tolkien's Catholic perspective. There are also a few things about movie-Frodo that give us a glimpse of the Catholic way of looking at life as a separate entity from Catholic doctrine: by listening to what Elijah Wood says about him. The last I heard, Elijah believes in God but doesn't practice any religion. His early years, though, were spent in a Catholic environment; he even attended one or two years of Catholic school before he started acting. (I don't know anything about his mother's current religious beliefs, but the fact that he was sent to a Catholic school during the short time that he attended "regular" school seems to indicate there's some kind of Catholic worldview involved somewhere.) As I've discovered within myself by writing these essays, those early years can have a profound influence on how a person inherently looks at life - those fundamentals that Tolkien wrote from "unconsciously at first" that make LotR a "fundamentally Catholic and religious work." (I nodded knowingly when I first read that Elijah loves Babette's Feast.)

There are a number of places in the movies where I think Elijah "gets" Frodo better than the script writers did. I'm not going to chalk up all of those to his Catholic foundation; I'd ascribe most of them to his unique ability as an actor to connect with the inner life of a character, when he's given a good, complex character to work with (and we are talking about Frodo here!). But while the movies were being promoted, I'd occasionally run across a comment of his that would have me nodding knowingly. One of these is in an official movie guidebook. [If you see this bracketed statement, it means I'm still going through the official movie guidebooks looking for the spot.] After saying that Sam, Merry, and Pippin were "better off" because of the experiences they lived through and learned from, Elijah said, "You might even say Frodo was better off."

If you look only at the script and events in the movie, this doesn't make much sense. In the movie, we see the Frodo who's "broken down" but not the one who's "made into something quite different." We lose events that show us how he's grown spiritually: his confrontation with Saruman, his detailed prophecy to Sam, even his bouts of extreme suffering. Those are just examples of the many book-only indications, and along with them we have Tolkien's statement that Frodo had grown in a way that was different from the other Travelers - not physically or mentally, but spiritually. (I'm just pointing out the book-to-movie alteration here, not necessarily saying that the movie handled things the wrong way; even at 3+ hours, the movie had limited time, and what needed to be driven home for those who hadn't read the book was Frodo's brokenness - in order to make sense of his sailing.)

There was an interesting difference between what the script writers said about Frodo sailing West and what Elijah said about it. All of them interpreted the event from a pre-Letters/pre-Sil direction, calling it "a metaphor for death." But only Elijah said that Frodo was going "to heaven." I don't know whose idea it was for movie-Frodo's facial expression to gradually change from depression, to questioning, to wonder, as he approaches the ship. But we do know the little nod before he finally turns away is purely Elijah's. It wouldn't be correct to say it was Elijah's idea, because apparently it was unconscious; when asked later about its meaning, he didn't even remember doing it, which seems to indicate it was coming from something so fundamental within him that he didn't need to think about it in order for it to guide his action.  

According to John of the Cross, the passive night of the spirit is the final purification before spiritual perfection. It's not something we witness very often on this earth. Even though LotR has a sad ending as seen through Sam's eyes, I'd venture to say that from a Catholic perspective it's one step away from a eucatastrophe for Frodo - of which we get a hint in the smile and the little nod at the end of the LotR:RotK movie, but which the book asks us to accept through hope without assurance.


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*Even though John of the Cross and Thomas Merton were both contemplatives, they were also distinct individuals. I can't imagine John calling this type of suffering "intellectual," because he wouldn't equate the intellect with the spirit. I don't think Merton would, either, but being of the twentieth century rather than the sixteenth, he'd be more likely than John to see the intellect as the place where we can be aware of what's happening in the spirit. (The fact that I put "intellectual" in quotes when I used it myself - without making a conscious decision to do so - is pretty good evidence that I'd personally be closer to John's point of view.)