Now a great mearing went westwards from the loch and his eye lit upon it and he went to a pillar-stone which is in the plain, and he put his breast-girdle round it that he might not die seated nor lying down, but that he might die standing up. Then came the men all around him, but they durst not go to him, for they thought he was alive. (Death of Cu Chulainn)
Why am I beginning this blog with a description of an 8th Century Irish tale describing the death of one greatest heroes of Irish mythology? Mythologies articulate cultural values and they also re-inscribe them down through the generations. This passage is pretty typical of the pagan value system for a hero–a hero fights to the death, and when he has been critically wounded as Cu Chulainn has here, he simply picks up his entrails, finds a pillar in the plain and spends his last moments on earth making sure he dies standing up, preserving his honor and the honor of his people right up to the end. It is difficult for us to see, after 2,000 years of Christianity, that the Roman world, the Greek World, the Babylonian, and even the Jewish world in some ways saw this as the proper role of the hero–to avenge insult, to pillage and rout the enemy, to preserve honor.
Even in our own time, when every other movie involves a comic book super hero, we still rally behind the hero to the tune of millions of dollars a year because…well, because he wins. Even if he comes from humble beginnings and is at first defeated, he eventually wins. He avenges himself and his circumstances, he routes the foe, he preserves his honor and in the process he preserves our honor, just as heroes have been doing since the Egyptian Horus and the Babylonian Gilgamesh took up the sword 2,000 years before Christ. That is why Christ’s Gospel was and still is so revolutionary. Instead of the values of the heroes who went before him, Christ turns the role of messiah on its head. Rather than avenge the exile and slavery of the Israelites, he appears on earth as the least among them. Rather than pillage and defeat the enemy, both the Romans and equally the factions within the Sanhedrin who sought to eliminate him, he goes willingly to his death, as a lamb to the slaughter. Rather than preserve the honor and dignity of the Chosen People of God, he allows himself to be ridiculed, mocked, misunderstood and finally executed unjustly.
When J.R.R. Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings, he consciously makes his hero like us: the smallest character in stature, the most ordinary in his origins and circumstances, the least hero-like individual in the story. No, I am not taking about Frodo, who bears the ring and attempts to destroy it in Mount Doom. I am talking about the real hero, the anti-hero, Sam Gamgee, Frodo’s gardener, Tolkien’s Everyman:
‘Now for it! Now for the last gasp!’ said Sam as he struggled to his feet. He bent over Frodo, rousing him gently. Frodo groaned; but with a great effort of will he staggered up; and then he fell upon his knees again. He raised his eyes with difficulty to the dark slopes of Mount Doom towering above him, and then pitifully he began to crawl forward on his hands.
Sam looked at him and wept in his heart , but no tears came to his dry and stinging eyes. ‘I said I’d carry him, if it broke my back,’ he muttered, ‘and I will!’
‘Come, Mr. Frodo!’ he cried. ‘I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you and it as well. So up you get! Come on, Mr. Frodo dear! Sam will give you a ride. Just tell him where to go, and he’ll go.’
So in the end, the one who makes the avenging of Sauron’s betrayal possible, the one who routs the Evil One, the one who preserves the dignity and honor of all life on Middle Earth is not the one who accepted the mission to destroy the ring but actually the one who, for love of his friend alone, sacrifices his own life to bear the one who bears the burden of the ring. Tolkien’s image of Sam carrying Frodo who carries the ring up the volcanic crags of Mount Doom is his challenge to us. He asks us, as Christ does: what can we do in our time and place to most lovingly carry Christ who carries our sin for us. Because ultimately we cannot carry our own sin; it is too much for us to redeem ourselves, but we can say with Sam, “I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you and it as well!”