One of the greatest scenes in The Lord of the Rings is Gandalf’s battle with the Balrog. Whenever I watch it or read it, I cannot help but think of the Fellowship’s “plunge” into the darkness of Moria and return to daylight as a sort of baptism for the entire group, especially Gandalf the Grey. As we consider this scene, let us keep the themes of death and resurrection in our hearts and minds.
“This sacrament is called Baptism, after the central rite by which it is carried out: to baptize (Greek baptizein) means to “plunge” or “immerse”; the “plunge” into the water symbolizes the catechumen’s burial into Christ’s death, from which he rises up by resurrection with him, as “a new creature” (CCC 1214).
In the first volume, The Fellowship of the Ring, the Fellowship enters the Mines of Moria. All are anxious about it, but Gimli is excited at the possibility of meeting his cousin Balin, the last known Lord of Moria. Gandalf would like to avoid Moria completely, knowing that evil lurks there, but Saruman conjures a blizzard which blocks the Pass of Caradhras leaving the nine with no other choice but to traverse Moria.
As they steadily make their way through the mines, the Fellowship discovers that Moria has been abandoned by the dwarves. Eventually, they come upon Balin’s Tomb where they are attacked by a horde of orcs. When the orc attack begins, Moria comes alive with the sound of drums of “doom” which seem to emanate from the core of the Misty Mountains.
The fight at Balin’s Tomb escalates when Frodo is almost “skewered” by an orc chieftain’s spear. In the movie, the spear is wielded by a huge cave troll, but the effect is the same. Frodo’s mithril shirt, a gift from Bilbo, deflects the spear and the entire Fellowship barely escapes with their lives. In the book, Gandalf briefly encounters the Balrog at the door to the tomb while the rest of the group flees, but he is forced back and weakened by the demon.
The only way to get back to the light outside of Moria is to first go further into the darkness of the mines, so the nine descend lower into Moria searching for a gate to the outside.
“You cannot pass!” Gandalf yells from the center of the narrow bridge as the Balrog approaches. The rest of the Fellowship stands waiting for the wizard on the far side of the bridge. They watch the Balrog leap onto the bridge, spread its wings and brandish a fiery sword and whip. The Balrog’s sword is obliterated when Gandalf parries the demon’s weapon with his own blade, Glamdring.
“At that moment Gandalf lifted his staff, and crying aloud he smote the bridge before him. The staff broke asunder and fell from his hand. A blinding sheet of white flame sprang up. The bridge cracked. Right at the Balrog’s feet it broke, and the stone upon which it stood crashed into the gulf, while the rest remained, poised, quivering like a tongue of rock thrust out into emptiness.
With a terrible cry the Balrog fell forward, and its shadow plunged down and vanished. But even as it fell it swung its whip, and the thongs lashed and curled about the wizard’s knees, dragging him to the brink. He staggered and fell, grasped vainly at the stone, and slid into the abyss. ‘Fly, you fools!’ he cried, and was gone.”–JRR Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
At this point in the film, the remaining members of the Fellowship flee the mines as Gandalf plunges into the darkness with the Balrog. Back in the light of day, the Fellowship mourns the loss of their beloved friend, but they quickly regroup to continue their journey to destroy the Ring.
The next film, The Two Towers, begins with sweeping shots of the Misty Mountains and an epic score. And then we hear the wizard’s voice. We are brought back to the narrow bridge in Moria and we relive Gandalf’s battle with the Balrog, but this time when Gandalf is pulled off the bridge, we fall into the darkness with him.
The wizard, though greatly weakened, continues fighting the Balrog as they fall deeper and deeper into the earth. Then the seemingly endless shaft opens into a wide cave and we see Gandalf and the demon, locked in an epic wrestling match, plunge into the dark waters beneath the Misty Mountains. Imagine how terrifying this would be. To be entombed in freezing black water with the darkness and millions of tons of earth of an entire mountain range pressing down upon you. Suffocating you. And to be utterly alone and cut off from the entire world. This brings to mind the story of Jonah in the belly of the fish and Christ in the tomb on Good Friday. This experience would be hell for Gandalf. In fact, Christ descended into hell before his resurrection (CCC 631).
It is not until volume two of the novel and later in the second film that we learn more about what happened to Gandalf. The wizard meets Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli in the forest as they search for Merry and Pippin. At first, the trio does not recognize Gandalf, similar to when Christ’s disciples first saw him after his resurrection (Luke 24:31; John 20:15). But the three soon realize who stands before them.
Gandalf has died and Gandalf has also been reborn. He has become something new. Transfigured (CCC 554-556). Gandalf is now Gandalf the White and no longer Gandalf the Grey. His clothing is all shining white, reminiscent of the white garment presented to infants during the Rite of Baptism.
“You have become a new creation, and have clothed yourself in Christ. See in this white garment the outward sign of your Christian dignity” (Rite of Baptism, 99).
“Baptism not only purifies from all sins, but also makes the neophyte ‘a new creature,’ an adopted son of God, who has become a ‘partaker of the divine nature,’ member of Christ and co-heir with him, and a temple of the Holy Spirit” (CCC 1265).
Gandalf tells his three friends about the descent into the waters beneath the Misty Mountains and of his pursuit of the Balrog up a dark staircase to the highest peak of the mountain where he slays the demon. This movement, down to the waters and up to the peak, evokes images of death and resurrection.
“‘I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the holy Spirit and fire” (Matthew 3:11).
I have passed through fire and deep water, since we parted. I have forgotten much that I thought I knew, and learned again much that I had forgotten. …
Long I fell, and he fell with me. His fire was about me. I was burned. Then we plunged into the deep water and all was dark. Cold it was as the tide of death: almost it froze my heart. …
I threw down my enemy, and he fell from the high place and broke the mountain-side where he smote it in his ruin. Then darkness took me, and I strayed out of thought and time, and I wandered far on roads that I will not tell. …
And naked I lay upon the mountain-top. … There I lay staring upward, while the stars wheeled over, and each day was as long as a life-age of the earth. …
Healing I found, and I was clothed in white.-JRR Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
“This sacrament is also called ‘the washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit,’ for it signifies and actually brings about the birth of water and the Spirit without which no one ‘can enter the kingdom of God’” (CCC 1215).
People love The Lord of the Rings because of the inherent truths woven into the story. One commentator said the difference between JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis is that Tolkien’s work is sacramental and Lewis’ work is allegorical. There is something true and beautiful within Tolkien’s story that communicates more than the words on the page or the images on the screen.
Have any of us not tried to avoid trials and tests the way Gandalf did when he sought to avoid Moria? How many times have the dark experiences of our lives made us think the light might never come again, only for the brightest light to shine upon us at the darkest moment? The way to heaven is to traverse hell. Gandalf the Grey had to enter Moria and fall into its darkest pit before he could arise as Gandalf the White. Jesus Christ was crucified and descended to hell before he rose from the dead. “Hell” can be a desert experience in our faith when God feels far away. It is in the desert where we face our darkest demons and, by our faith in Christ, we slay them before we are transformed into something new. It is through death that we are reborn.
Photo courtesy New Line Cinema
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