To the roots of the mountains I sank down;
the earth beneath barred me in forever.
But you, Lord my God,
brought my life up from the pit.
I love the scene in J.R.R. Tolkein’s novel The Hobbit, in the chapter titled “Riddles in the Dark”, when Bilbo Baggins encounters Gollum at the roots of the mountains. In the dark, at the edge of an underground lake, deep under the Misty Mountains, Bilbo and Gollum face off in a life or death duel of riddles. If Gollum wins, Bilbo becomes his dinner. If Bilbo wins, Gollum becomes Bilbo’s guide to lead him up from roots of the mountains into open air.
Jonah also sinks down “to the roots of the mountains” as he plunges deep into the sea, swallowed by a great fish. There are many ways to sink down in this life. Some fall off the edge of sobriety into the dark lair of addiction. Some slip away quietly into shadowlands of loneliness or despair, unable to call out for help. Some drift downward away from life and light, into the deep places of death and darkness as if dragged down by unseen weights too heavy to bear. Some walk in the valley of the shadow of death, burdened with grief and loss, their most constant companion that empty place deep within their soul which no one can fill.
Down in the roots of the mountains in the dark, most of us face an inner duel within our soul between light and dark, life and death. In their strange duel, Bilbo and Gollum are evenly matched, wit for wit. The balance is tipped in Bilbo’s favor by the unexpected gift of a ring he only recently found in the darkness of the tunnels of the Misty Mountains.
Jonah also duels with strange riddles in the dark. One voice tells him, “the earth has barred you in forever.” Another voice counters with a hopeful prayer in the dark. “But you, Lord my God, brought my life up from the pit.” Jonah is the patron saint of those who pray in the dark.
Bilbo’s final riddle to Gollum is not really a riddle but a question he asks himself as he stalls for time by fiddling with his fingers in his waistcoat: “What do I have in my pocket?” What Bilbo has is a golden ring, a ring of such great power that Tolkein will labor for three more books in his best-selling trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, to lead readers on a grand quest to know what is to become of this ring.
Like Bilbo fiddling with his waistcoat; like Jonah in the dark, we too have at our fingertips unexpected help and power when our life has sunk down to the roots. There at the roots we discover anew what sometimes lies hidden for years and years at the root of our soul: a deep longing for God, for life, for love. Though life may seem as if the darkness will imprison you forever, within the depths of your soul, cry out to the Lord your God to bring your life out of the pit into the freshness of night air, as you gaze anew into the starry wonder of the galaxies spinning overhead, and offer a cry of gratitude for sheer gift of being alive.