I’m not much for writing sequels to my own novels (though I’ve read some good ones by other authors), but feedback from my recent Catholic World Report article, “Denethor’s Ghost”, prompts me to offer a “Denethor’s Ghost” Part 2 that shines a brighter light on the character of Faramir in J. R. R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of The Rings”.
Though they aren’t called rangers in Tolkien’s story—that designation is reserved for Aragorn’s kin in the north—Faramir’s band functions as rangers, ranging far and wide in a former garden land turned wilderness east of the river Anduin, keeping the Ithilien border lands as free and as clean as possible with the few men and resources available to him, all this while Sauron’s forces are on the move and rapidly multiplying. Thus, Faramir skirmishes when he can, retreats when he needs to retreat, and hides when he needs to hide.
What does this have to do with 21st century Christians? In “Denethor’s Ghost”: “storytelling is altogether different (than rational argument, religious tracts, etc.) in the way it affects our thoughts, emotions, and imaginations. While a story may not say anything new, truths are depicted in a new way, a way that allows us to see them in a different light”, even when the story is drastically different from the here and now, as is Tolkien’s story.
Faramir has a demanding life, with few consolations. He’s realistic about the dire threats he faces but he doesn’t let them break his spirit, a mark of humility. His father Denethor’s pride stokes the despair that comes from gazing into a Palantir, while Faramir’s humility ameliorates the darkness that comes from his impossible mission, and even from the Ringwraith’s attack on him on the Pelennor fields.
Likewise for us, when we are confronted with assaults on faith and culture, pride pulls us toward despondency, while humility—not rose colored glasses—keeps us attentive to what we can do and can influence. If we need a real life example of this kind of humility in the face of ringwraith-like terror and despair, we can look to Maximilian Kolbe at Auschwitz, who lived heroically in a place where doing anything except surviving seems impossible, and to Christians in many Muslim dominated cultures who know that their lives hang by a thread, as did the Coptic Christians who were murdered by jihadists.
Knowing the end of historical events, or of a story, can cause us to discount the virtue and valor of those who don’t know what’s going to happen. In “Denethor’s Ghost”, it was said that Tolkien (and C. S. Lewis for that matter) couldn’t foretell the outcomes of World Wars I and II, or the Cold War that kept millions in virtual slavery, nor did Faramir have any confidence that Sauron could be defeated. In “The Lord of The Rings”, we get snippets of Faramir’s determined resistance to Sauron’s incursions, but the backstory is that he’s been pushing this boulder uphill all of his adult life, as William Wilberforce, Maximilian Kolbe, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and Cardinal Kung had to do, whether these Saurons were slavery in the British empire, Nazism, the Soviet Union, communist China, or today’s Islamism or Western materialism and relativism.
Today, we don’t know whether the Western democracies will keep drifting away from faith and virtue, or if a turning will occur. What’s more important is described in a conversation between Frodo and Gandalf that goes like this: “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. ”So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
Faramir understands and accepts that staying true to his beliefs and duties may result in his death. He responds not with “noble” stoicism or fatalism but with as much camaraderie and good cheer as one could expect in such desperate straits, even as Maximilian Kolbe sang in the Nazi starvation bunker. And what about the “noise” Faramir is subjected to, especially his father’s rants about how he would have preferred Faramir’s death to his brother Boromir’s, or that all Faramir is doing and sacrificing is for naught? Right up to the time when he is grievously wounded, Faramir instead attends to what he should do and can do.
By the way, in Peter Jackson’s film, Faramir isn’t as consistently noble as he is in the story, but that’s okay as the film visually depicts, in events and words, the internal struggle that would be natural for Faramir to experience.
Then, there is the matter of Gollum. Faramir knows that Gollum is a wicked and devious creature, and he has his orders with respect to such creatures. He’s within his rights to kill Gollum, and good sense demands it, but he allows Gollum to go on with Frodo and Sam, though reason must tell him this will only increase his own peril and jeopardize the hobbits’ already impossible mission. Faramir gives in because he trusts—humility fostering keen discernment—the judgment of a weak, defenseless hobbit.
What about us? Are the things we’re facing, spiritually speaking, much different than Faramir’s trials? The Church tells us we mustn’t use the world’s “Ring”—defamation, character assassination, vengeance—against our enemies, even as we lose one cultural battle after another; that we must love the enemies coming at us loud and hard, that we should be of good cheer when we feel discouraged.
Yes, this is what Faramir’s rangers are called to do in the War of the Ring, and what we are called to do in this time and place, even to the example of Maximilian Kolbe and the Coptic martyrs, if it ever comes to that. Faramir was badly hurt, and many of his rangers were lost in a worldly sense. That wasn’t the end of Tolkien’s story, and we’ve been promised it won’t be the end of ours either.