“Just a Nuisance: a Passenger, a Piece of Luggage.” Pippin is a Prisoner of The Orcs and Wonders What Good He Has Been.

The Two Towers by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991, 2007) pp.578-583

With the brief appearance of the mysterious old man and the loss of the horses under the eaves of Fangorn Forest the narrative switches away from Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli to the plight of Merry and Pippin. They are prisoners of the orcs and are being taken to Isengard and to Saruman whose intelligence is that a Halfling bears the One Ring but which one it is he does not know. The Orc band comprises three distinct groups who are there for three very different reasons. While the Isengarders are there to carry out Saruman’s orders there is also a company from Moria who are there to kill in revenge for their losses in the battle against the Fellowship before the escape across the Bridge of Khazad-dûm and also a company from Mordor who want to take the hobbits there.

Inger Idelfelt depicts Merry and Pippin as prisoners of the Orcs.

Pippin tries to recall all that has happened. How he and Merry had run off in panic to seek out Frodo; how they had been attacked by orcs but rescued at first by Boromir; but how the orcs had attacked again, firing arrows at Boromir, and how darkness had fallen.

And then Pippin starts to feel rather sorry for himself.

“I wish Gandalf had never persuaded Elrond to let us come,” he thought. “What good have I been? Just a nuisance: a passenger, a piece of luggage. And now I have been stolen and I am just a piece of luggage for the Orcs. I hope that Strider or someone will come and claim us! But ought I to hope for it? Won’t that throw out all the plans? I wish I could get free!”

And so begins a trope that will run through the story until just before the Battle of the Pelennor Fields of the young hobbits likening themselves to baggage being carried by others and being of no more use than that. It is a trope that reaches its climax when Elfhelm, a Marshal of the Riders of Rohan trips over Merry in the dark. “Pack yourself up, Master Bag!” he instructs Merry before going off to other tasks.

While we might ponder with a certain wry amusement the existence of a left luggage service in the Shire which might lead Pippin to liken himself to an item of lost property waiting to be claimed by its owner, we do recognise, perhaps with sympathy, the feeling that Pippin describes. At this point of the story neither he nor Merry have any idea what they are going to contribute to the successful outcome of the quest. The rousing of the Ents to overthrow Isengard; the slaying of the Lord of the Nazgûl, the Witch-king of Angmar; the rescue of Faramir from the funeral pyre of Denethor, and the raising of the hobbit rebellion against Saruman’s control over the Shire, all these still lie ahead of them. At this moment Pippin feels that he has contributed nothing. We might even speculate about whether he ever ponders the moment when he dropped a stone into the well in the guard chamber in Moria, an action that leads to the awakening of the Balrog and the fall of Gandalf. We might speculate but we do not know because Tolkien never tells us whether he thinks about this or not.

Matthew Stewart depicts Boromir’s attempt to save the young hobbits.

What we do know is that Pippin ends his speech of self pity by declaring, “I wish I could get free!” And with this we see Pippin’s essential character. He is not much given to reflection. He does not see what use too much thought is to him. What matters is what lies immediately before him. Sometimes his lack of reflection gets him into trouble. The question about the depth of a well in Moria, his curiosity about what a glass globe hurled by Wormtongue at Gandalf might possibly be. And sometimes it will lead him to acts of courage such as his determination to save Faramir. He will never think much about the outcome of this or that action and now he will put aside reflection and self-pity (actually there is rarely much self-anything at all about Pippin) and give himself to the task at hand. How can he and Merry escape from their captors?

A naughty boy at the well in Moria. There is still some growing up to be done.

“This Old Man Had a Hat Not a Hood.” Who Did The Three Hunters See Under The Eaves of Fangorn?

The Two Towers by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991, 2007) pp.573-577

Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli have found the site of the battle between the Riders of Rohan and the Orc band who had taken Merry and Pippin but they have found no sign of the hobbits themselves. Now before they continue their search they decide to make camp for the night right under the eaves of an ancient chestnut tree. They build a fire taking care not to cut wood from any living tree but only that which they can gather from the ground about them.

As they rest by their fire they ponder the journey that lies before them, a journey that is likely to take them into the forest itself.

“Celeborn warned us not to go far into Fangorn,” Legolas says. “Do you know why, Aragorn?”

But Aragorn knows little of the forest save that it is old, “as old as the forest by the Barrow-downs, and it is far greater. Elrond says that the two are akin, the last strongholds of the mighty woods of the Elder Days, in which the Firstborn roamed while Men still slept. Yet Fangorn holds some secret of its own. What it is I do not know.”

Alan Lee evokes the wonderful mystery of forests.

The journeys of The Lord of the Rings sometimes lead under the ground, such as the journey through Moria, the Paths of the Dead under the White Mountains between Rohan and Gondor and the path through Shelob’s Lair that passes under the mountains that surround Mordor. Each of these paths hide a deadly peril. The Balrog lurks in the depths of Moria; the Dead haunt the paths under the White Mountains; and Shelob lies in wait for any that might pass through her lair under the mountains of Mordor. All who pass through these dark ways will come to an end of themselves in some way and emerge the other side as different from the self that first entered in.

But the journeys through forests are different in nature. In these journeys a secret is encountered. The hobbits encounter Tom Bombadil in the Old Forest, a strange and delightful wonder. In Lothlórien, the Golden Wood, the Fellowship meet the Lady of the Wood, Galadriel. And in Fangorn Forest Merry and Pippin meet Treebeard, the oldest of the Ents, the Onodrim of which Legolas speaks by the campfire. Each forest is alive, not just as the aggregation of many things, many separate trees and other plants, but as an intelligence that holds all the separate parts together and which is expressed in the secret life hidden therein.

The night passes and Gimli is on watch by the fire when something happens that awakens all three. Or perhaps I should say that two things happen. An old man “wrapped in a great cloak” is seen standing in the firelight but who disappears when challenged by Aragorn. And the other thing is that the horses run off at the same moment.

Shadowfax, Chief of the Mearas.

Gimli is convinced that the old man is Saruman and that he has driven their horses away. He is partly correct in this. The following day the companions will meet Gandalf in the forest. It is one of the great moments of the story. Gimli will ask Gandalf if it was him or Saruman who he had seen by the fire and Gandalf will reassure him that he was not there so it was likely to have been Saruman; that Saruman had not been able to wait for his orcs to bring him the hobbits and with the hobbits the greatest prize of all, the One Ring. But it was not Saruman who drove away the horses. The following morning Aragorn will remark to the others that the horses did not sound as if they were fleeing in terror and Legolas will reply that “they spoke as horses will when they meet a friend that they have long missed.” The friend, as we will learn later, is Shadowfax, the greatest of horses who has drawn near to Fangorn in order to await Gandalf. If the companions knew this they would not have to worry about their horses. As Galadriel told them their paths are laid out before their feet and all they need do is to walk the paths in trust.

Gandalf and Saruman together.

“There Are Some Things That it is Better to Begin Than to Refuse, Even Though the End May be Dark.” Aragorn Ponders The Fate of The Young Hobbits.

The Two Towers by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991, 2007) pp. 571-573

With some misgivings expressed by his company, Eomer gives three horses to Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli. Or I should say that he gives two, because Gimli refuses the offer, feeling no more at ease on the back of a horse than Sam Gamgee felt in the Elven boats of Lothlórien. Aragorn is asked to promise that he will return the horses to Meduseld, the golden hall of the King of Rohan and this he promises to do. After that the three hunters follow the orc trail until they come to the eaves of Fangorn Forest.

There they find the scene of the battle a great burning of the orc host, the burial mound for the fifteen members of Eomer’s company, but no sign of the hobbits. Eomer has told them that only orcs were burned but Gimli is sure that the hobbits must have been among them.

The hunters search for the hobbits amidst the orcs.

“It will be hard news for Frodo, if he lives to hear it; and hard to for the old hobbit who waits in Rivendell. Elrond was against their coming.”

“But Gandalf was not,” said Legolas.

“But Gandalf chose to come himself, and he was the first to be lost,” answered Gimli. “His foresight failed him.”

Gimli bases his judgement regarding the wisdom of a choice upon one thing only; whether the choice leads to a successful outcome. Gandalf fell in Moria at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm in the battle against the Balrog. Gimli fears that Merry and Pippin have fallen in the battle under the eaves of Fangorn Forest. Gandalf chose to accompany the Fellowship on its mission to destroy the Ring. Gandalf persuaded Elrond to allow the young hobbits to be a part of their company and it seems that they too are lost. Gimli is clear that Gandalf’s wisdom failed him as did his foresight.

Merry and Pippin were determined to join the Fellowship.

To be fair to Gimli, Merry and Pippin feel the same way about the wisdom of their desire to go with Frodo and Sam. At least they feel that way while they are prisoners of the orcs. “I wish Gandalf had never persuaded Elrond to let us come,” says Merry. And who can blame him for feeling that way while he is trussed up like a piece of baggage and carried by his orc captors.

But Aragorn thinks differently. He too tried to persuade Gandalf not to go to Moria because he had a foreboding that something would befall Gandalf there. We are not told what he thought about Merry and Pippin going with the Company. His first impression of them, based upon his encounter with the hobbits at the Prancing Pony in Bree, had not been encouraging. But his respect for them grows on the journey to Rivendell as he realises that they are made of sterner stuff than he first thought. But he recognises that there are reasons for choices that outweigh any considerations the success or otherwise of the venture. Friendship is one of them. Merry and Pippin simply could not abandon Frodo and Sam just as Gimli could not abandon Legolas, just as they could not abandon the young hobbits.

The other reason is Aragorn’s own choice to go with the Fellowship. He must fulfil his destiny as the heir of Eärendil, as the heir of Isildur. Either he will succeed, thus becoming King of Gondor and of Arnor and winning the hand of Arwen, or he will fall in the attempt and be the last of his line. He can refuse the attempt but to do so will be to refuse hope both for himself and for the free peoples of Middle-earth. Like Denethor later he would have to accept that “the West has failed”. He does not know whether he will succeed or not. Indeed after the fall of Gandalf he has very little hope that he will. But he must go on, perhaps with failure the only outcome.

“The counsel of Gandalf was not founded on foreknowledge of safety, for himself or others… There are things that it is better to begin than to refuse, even though the end may be dark.”

The Counsel of Gandalf was not founded on foreknowledge of safety

“I Must See It Through, Sir”. Thoughts, With The Help of Sam Gamgee, on the Yeomen of Worcestershire on Remembrance Sunday 2022

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) p.85

Back in May 2020, early on in our experience of the Coronavirus, as I began once more to write reflections on The Lord of the Rings after a pause of over a year as I got used to my duties as a parish priest in Worcestershire, I wrote about the moment when Frodo, Sam and Pippin prepare to leave the place above Woodhall in the Shire where they have enjoyed the hospitality of Gildor Inglorien and his wandering company of High Elves. If you would like to read that piece please click on the link below.

https://stephencwinter.com/2020/05/15/

Alan Lee’s beautiful depiction of the hobbits’ stay with the Elves above Woodhall.

I want to go back to that moment in the story today in order to think, once more, about the conversation between Frodo and Sam that takes place there; and I want to think about it on Remembrance Sunday here in Great Britain, and here in the County of Worcestershire, Tolkien’s Shire. For the little village of Hall Green in which he spent his early years lies within the ancient county boundaries of Worcestershire, and his grandfather and aunt on his mother’s side of the family farmed in Dormston which is just 6 miles from where I am writing these thoughts. Tolkien’s hobbits are very much based upon the country folk that he got to know as he grew up and he said of himself that his personal tastes and habits were very much those of a hobbit. Worcestershire gave up Hall Green to the growing city of Birmingham some years ago, a development that Tolkien watched and very much regretted. Dormston is still a country village but folk who live hereabouts watch, with some anxiety, the gradual spread of the kind of housing development that Saruman was starting to create during the brief time in which he ran the Shire.

The farm known as Bag End in Dormston where Tolkien’s Suffield relatives lived.

Remembrance Sunday takes place every year on the Sunday nearest to Armistice Day, November 11th, recalling the moment at 11 am on that day in 1918 on which the guns fell silent on the Western Front in France and Belgium and the terrible slaughter of the previous four years finally came to an end. In London, at the Cenotaph in Whitehall, the King will lead a national act of Remembrance that is centred around a silence of two minutes and in villages and towns up and down the land there will be local acts of Remembrance taking place. I will lead one in the village of Ombersley and it will take about 5 minutes to read all the names of the fallen just from that village. It is about the nearest thing that this country has to a national day. There is no independence to celebrate as no conquest has taken place in nearly a thousand years and there is no overthrow of tyranny to celebrate, as in France, because we have largely been content (with all the usual grumbling) with our form of government for over 350 years now. I wonder sometimes what will be left of our national identity when the memory that this day seeks to keep alive finally begins to fade. But that would require another essay in order to ponder it.

It has been effectively shown that The Lord of the Rings is very much a personal response to Tolkien’s experience of the trenches of the Western Front. John Garth’s excellent study on the subject, Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth, very much established that as fact, as did the biopic, Tolkien, of 2019. Scholars, at least on this side of the Atlantic, still seem very reluctant to add Tolkien to the canon of war writers. I read an excellent study this year on another Worcestershire writer of the early 20th century, A.E Houseman, who never went to war himself but whose poetry was carried by thousands of British servicemen who did, that does not even mention Tolkien in its survey of war literature from this part of England. That Houseman played a vital part in the creation of English culture in the 20th century is undeniable. That Tolkien continues to do so today is surely equally so. In Blackwell’s bookshop, the largest and most important in Oxford, a whole section is devoted to Tolkien. No other writer comes even close to the the number of books on display either by or about him. The readers of Oxford do not need to be persuaded of his importance even if the university’s literary establishment may still regret it.

But let me come back in conclusion to Sam Gamgee. If one of the tasks of The Lord of the Rings is to re-enchant a world that has effectively lost touch with that which most truly nourishes its soul, then can we also say that the book also re-enchants warfare? Surely we must say that in one sense the slaughter that took place in the battlefields of Europe between 1914 and 1918 cannot be enchanted. And yet the deepest instinct of the British people is that the dead who will be remembered on this Remembrance Sunday cannot be so as if what they did was utterly useless and wasteful. Yes, the industrial nature of that conflict was simply appalling but each person whose name will be read out today was essentially beautiful. And Sam Gamgee speaks for them. He speaks for the country folk of England, of Worcestershire, who went cheerfully to war simply because they had been asked to do so.

“I have something to do before the end”.

“I seem to see ahead, in a kind of way. I know that we are going to take a very long road, into darkness; but I know I can’t turn back. It isn’t go see Elves now, nor dragons, nor mountains that I want- I don’t rightly know what I want: but I have something to do before the end, and it lies ahead, not in the Shire. I must see it through, sir, if you understand me.”

“How Shall a Man Judge What to Do in Such Times?” Eomer Ponders The Making of Choices. To Aid or To Thwart Aragorn.

The Two Towers by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991, 2007) pp. 565-571

Eomer dismisses his company in order to speak to Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli in private, and in order to give himself time to make his choice. Whether to aid or to thwart the hunters in their effort to find Merry and Pippin. He has already taken a risk in leading his men against the orc band that had slain Boromir and taken the hobbits prisoner. Theoden, the king, did not give him permission to go. Now what will he do about these three strangers who walk across the fields of Rohan?

Eomer needs space in order to make his decision. Anke Eissmann depicts the meeting between him and Aragorn.

Eomer needs space to think. He also needs space to reorient himself after all the things that he has just been told.

“It is hard to be sure of anything among so many marvels. The world is all grown strange. Elf and Dearf in company walk in our daily fields; and folk speak with the Lady of the Wood and yet live; and the Sword comes back to war that was broken in the long ages ere the fathers of our fathers rode into the Mark! How shall a man judge what to do in such times?”

In my last piece on this blog I wrote about a world “grown strange”. I wrote about how hobbits were dismissed as mere “children’s tales out of the North” while Galadriel is feared as one who belongs to “net-weavers and sorcerers”. Tolkien once wrote that if someone comes bearing tales of dragons either he will not be believed and so will be dismissed as a mad man or he will be believed and so will be regarded as dangerous and uncanny. Aragorn and his companions seem to be regarded as both at one and the same time and so Eothain, who speaks for the ordinary person dismisses them as “wild folk” who should be left to their fancies.

Bilbo tells tales of dragons and so is dismissed as mad, even though he gives very good parties.

It was not just because the world would be a more delightful place if it were to be more magical, to be re-enchanted, that Tolkien and the other Inklings wrote their stories. It was because the world would be more true. So the good, the beautiful and the true are really one and in order for something to be true it is not necessary to separate it out from the beautiful.

Nor is it necessary to separate the true from the good. “How shall a man judge what to do in such times?” Aragorn’s answer is both clear and simple.

“As he has ever judged… Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men. It is a man’s part to discern them, as much in the Golden Wood as in his own house.”

Boromir began to make his choice to take the Ring while in the Golden Wood.

So Eomer is left with a choice to make. Aragorn has made it clear to him that he will not abandon Merry and Pippin. He determined to find them when at Tol Brandir even at the cost of his own life. If the wise choice were simply about finding out what was in his own interest and then pursuing it he would certainly not have followed the orc band. The wise choice would probably have been to go on to Minas Tirith. He could have spoken of his promise made to Boromir and expressed genuine regret about the unhappy fate of Merry and Pippin but the principle of self interest would have left him little choice in the matter. Of course by going to Minas Tirith he would have brought himself into conflict with Denethor who would have contested any claim that he might have made, but then politics and the achievement of power is always a matter of navigation through one set of circumstances after another in seeking to achieve the goal. That Aragorn would not have met with Gandalf once again in the Forest of Fangorn nor played his part in the defeat of Saruman and through that to win the loyalty of Rohan not just in the battles that immediately lay ahead but in the future too would simply be unfortunate. After all, it is not possible to achieve everything at any one moment. But Aragorn does not make this choice. He chooses the good in his loyalty to the young hobbits and so wins the respect and the aid of Eomer who chooses to try to do the good also. He gives horses to the three companions to aid them in their task and this choice will cost him his freedom, for some time at least.

“Do We Walk in Legends or On The Green Earth in Daylight?” The Riders of Rohan Encounter Dreams of Legend Springing Out of the Grass.

The Two Towers by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991/2007) pp.558-565

As Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli continue their weary and hopeless march across the plains of Rohan in pursuit of the orc host that have taken Merry and Pippin captive they become aware that a band of horsemen is moving swiftly towards them back down the very trail that they are following. The horsemen are Rohirrim, riders of Rohan. Aragorn describes them to his companions.

“They are proud and wilful, but they are true-hearted, generous in thought and deed; bold but not cruel; wise but unlearned; writing no books but singing many songs, after the manner of the children of Men before the Dark Years.”

The Riders of Rohan at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields

The companions decide to wait for the riders to come to them and Aragorn greets them as they ride by. Wrapped about in their cloaks of Lothlórien it seems to the riders that they have sprung from the grass itself and what follows is a tense encounter that almost ends in disaster. For Tolkien in this scene brings us into the heroic world of the North in which honour has more meaning than even life itself and most certainly of a life, or existence, in which honour has been lost. So Gimli is ready, almost eager, to die for the sake of the honour of Galadriel, the lady of Lothlórien, when he feels that it has been slighted by Éomer, who leads the company of riders.

The Rohirrim surround the three companions

Aragorn is able to avert the disaster but then, in the manner in which he announces himself, brings us all back into the very stuff of legend.

“I am Aragorn son of Arathorn, and am called Elessar, the Elfstone, Dúnadan, the heir of Isildur Elendil’s son of Gondor. Here is the Sword that was Broken and is forged again! Will you aid me or thwart me? Choose swiftly!”

Anke Eissmann imagines the first meeting between Aragorn and Eomer

So Tolkien deliberately mingles the stuff of legend with the stuff of ordinary life and invites his readers to make the same kind of choice that Aragorn demands of the Rohirrim. For Tolkien not only makes the Rohirrim the people who would have heard tales like that of Beowulf which would have been told in the halls of their lords in the early middle ages, but he also makes them a very modern people for whom a story like Beowulf that might be one that stirred them when they were young but which would have been consigned to the pleasant, but private, world of fantasy when they grew up. For real life with its duties can, for the modern person, only be lived with stuff that can be touched, smelt, heard, seen or tasted. The life of the imagination might give a moment of pleasure amidst the grim reality of ordinary life but it can never be regarded as real.

This division between that which is heroic and that which is ordinary is one that Aragorn suggests is false. When the rider who stands beside Eomer scoffs at Aragorn’s mention of halflings Aragorn’s response is not to the rider but to his Lord. The Rider dismisses the mention of halflings as “old songs and children’s tales out of the North”. And then he asks, “Do we walk in legends or on the green earth in the daylight?”

“A man may do both,” said Aragorn. “For not we but those who come after will make the legends of our time. The green earth, say you? That is a mighty matter of legend, though you tread it under the light of day!”

I say that Aragorn addresses Eomer because, as far as the Rider is concerned, Aragorn is simply speaking nonsense that does not deserve attention. He, and his fellows, are the spiritual kin of Cervantes’ Sancho Panza, the sensible though devoted servant of Don Quixote. While Don Quixote tilts at windmills Sancho Panza does all that he can to keep his master out of trouble. Modern readers side with the servant yet wish, secretly, that they could live in the lost enchanted world of the master. Aragorn argues that it is possible to do both as he presents himself as a representative of the world of legend amidst the world of the sensible.

As far as the Riders are concerned the strange creatures who have sprung from the grass are merely “wild men”, but Eomer heard the rhyme that Boromir spoke when he came to Edoras, the rhyme that spoke of halflings as well as the blade that was broken. Eomer knows that he needs to pay closer attention to Aragorn’s words even if he does not understand them. Perhaps there is more to what Aragorn is saying than mere tilting at windmills.

An End to Hope, Maybe, But Not to Toil. Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli Pursue the Orcs of Isengard Across the Plains of Rohan.

The Two Towers by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991, 2007) pp. 547-558)

Three times the sun rises upon the chase of Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli, the three hunters, as they pursue the orcs of Isengard first through the foothills of the Emyn Muil and then across the plains of Rohan. The hunters have run many miles and yet have come no closer to their enemies and their goal, their longing to find and then rescue Merry and Pippin from their captors. Among Men, Dwarves and Elves they have done a deed that will rightly be accounted mighty but the orcs have hardly rested by day or by night.

Hope, what little hope that they had, is fading.

“For many hours they had marched without rest. They were going slowly now, and Gimli’s back was bent. Stone-hard are the Dwarves in labour or journey, but this endless chase began to tell on him, as all hope failed in his heart.”

The “hopeless” journey of the three companions across Rohan. Alan Lee depicts the pursuit and those who are pursued.

There have been moments when faint glimmers of hope have been rekindled in their hearts. The green smell, as Legolas puts it, of the wide grasslands, lifts their spirits for a time. And there is the discovery of hobbit footprints and the broach of an elven-cloak. “Not idly do the leaves of Lórien fall,”says Aragorn. It is a sign that at least one hobbit was still alive when the orc company passed that way. Aragorn thinks it was Pippin. But as the hunters begin to realise that they are coming no closer to their quarry so hope fails.

“Not idly do the leaves of Lórien fall”, as depicted by Dante 2060.

Aragorn never had much hope. He does not even think that what they seek to do has much significance within the great story in which he is a part. At one point he looks southwards across Rohan to the White Mountains that are the northern border of Gondor and in song he yearns to be there.

O Gondor, Gondor! Shall Men behold the Silver Tree,
Or West Wind blow again between the Mountains and the Sea?

And then there is a moment in which Gimli longs for a light such as Frodo bears to guide them in the dark.

“It will be more needed where it is bestowed,” said Aragorn. ‘With him lies the true Quest. Ours is but a small matter in the great deeds of this time. A vain pursuit from its beginning, maybe, which no choice of mine can mar or mend. Well, I have chosen. So let us use this time as best we may.”

So continues Aragorn’s long reflection upon the question of hope that began with the fall of Gandalf in Moria. I say that it began there but perhaps it is more true to say that his whole adult life has been a reflection, a meditation upon this theme. Even the very name, Estel, that was given to him by his mother means Hope. And not hope as in the sense of crossing one’s fingers and trusting to luck but in something that goes much deeper. The Elven king, Finrod Felagund, sought to explain this deeper sense when he says that estel “is not defeated by the ways of the world, for it does not come from experience, but from our nature and first being. If we are indeed the Eruchin, the Children of the One, then He will not suffer Himself to be deprived of His own, not by any Enemy, not even by ourselves.”

Aragorn has sought to embody estel within himself in his long years of service in Gondor, in Rohan, and as the leader of the Rangers of the North. Always he has held before him his longing for personal happiness in his desire to marry Arwen. And he has sought to be the expression of hope for his people, for the fading remnant of Númenor in the North and for the brave but beleaguered defenders of freedom in Gondor. But now he feels that he has been seperated from this hope. The fall of Gandalf has affected him deeply but, so too, has Frodo’s decision to leave the Company and to make the journey to Mordor without them. Aragorn realises that he no longer has any part to play in that journey. He may be determined to rescue the young hobbits or die in the attempt. He may be certain that what he has chosen is right. But he is bitterly aware that he has been pushed, as it would seem, to the margins of the story. For him the loss of hope is not just about whether they will be able to rescue Merry and Pippin but about the sense of destiny that has given him meaning throughout his life. We might say, to use the language of Finrod Felagund, that his sense of hope, of estel, has been founded, not upon a belief that Illuvatar will not leave himself bereft of his children within the world, but upon something much more personal, that he, Aragorn, will be the bearer of that hope. Now, as he begins his pursuit on the third morning after the breaking of the Fellowship that hope is gone and all that remains is toil.

Aragorn at the Argonath. Can he fulfil the hope of his people?

“Now May I Make a Right Choice, and Change The Evil Fate of This Unhappy Day.” Aragorn Chooses to Follow the Orcs of Isengard.

The Two Towers by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991, 2007) pp. 544-546

Boromir has passed over Rauros in the elven boat in which Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli have laid him, and by virtue of the skill learned by Elves over thousands of years in which craft and nature have become seamlessly woven together the boat is not dashed to pieces by the force of water and of rock nor have its contents been spilled into the river. The three companions have done their duty to their comrade and now they may turn their attention to their duty to the hobbits.

Already they know that Merry and Pippin have been taken by the Uruk-hai, the orcs of Isengard, back towards their fortress across the plains of Rohan and soon it becomes clear what has become of Frodo and Sam.

“So much at least is now clear,” said Legolas: “Frodo is no longer on this side of the River: only he can have taken the boat. And Sam is with him; only he can have taken his pack.”

The companions have a choice. Either they can follow Frodo, as Sam has done, and guide him to Mordor, or they can follow Merry and Pippin and their orc captors towards Isengard. Neither path holds out much hope for them. In doing their duty to Boromir they have lost many hours.

At last Aragorn makes his choice.

“Let me think!” said Aragorn. “And now may I make a right choice, and change the evil fate of this unhappy day!” He stood silent for a moment. “I will follow the Orcs,” he said at last. “I would have guided Frodo to Mordor and gone with him to the end; but if I seek him now in the wilderness, I must abandon the captives to torment and death. My heart speaks clearly at last: the fate of the Bearer is in my hands no longer. The Company has played its part. Yet we that remain cannot abandon our companions while we have strength left.”

Alan Lee depicts the hopeless chase of the three hunters.

Aragorn speaks of the fate of the day. He is seeking after the biggest story that he can find and tell about all that has befallen the Fellowship since it began. The day began with a belief among them all that they would make a decision together and follow it together. Only Boromir had made it clear from the beginning that he would travel on to Minas Tirith whatever choice was made by the others. Frodo is becoming ever more certain that he must make the journey alone to Mordor but he is afraid to tell the others, afraid too of the journey itself. But now the possibility that the Fellowship might make a decision together has been made impossible. In trying to take the Ring from Frodo Boromir has set in motion a chain of events that means that the Fellowship can never take one course of action together again. Frodo and Sam have crossed the Anduin together. Boromir has died defending Merry and Pippin from the Uruk-hai of Isengard and the young hobbits have been taken prisoner.

Frodo has made a free choice and Sam has gone with him. Merry and Pippin are prisoners. And so Aragorn must honour both Frodo’s freedom and the young hobbits’ captivity. He will not guide Frodo to Mordor. That necessary task will be undertaken by the most unlikely of people, by one who seeks to kill him and to regain the Ring. The young hobbits will regain their freedom in the confusion of battle. The three hunters will not find them again until they meet amidst the ruin of Isengard. No choice that Aragorn will take this day will lead to either course of events and yet he must still choose.

The Three Hunters look out over the plains of Rohan.

I spoke of the fate of the day, of the task of seeking the biggest story that can be found. The story that Aragorn chooses is that of freeing the captives or dying in the attempt. He knows that it is the dying that is most likely and that, like Boromir, he will probably fall in hopeless defence of two hobbits who probably should not have come with them in the first place but that in choosing this story he opens the possibility that something greater, more wonderful, might happen. And at the very least he will do something worthy of a song.

Yonatan Ayala gives a marvellous sense of the tremendous energy of the chase that will be accounted a marvel among the three kindreds of Elves, Dwarves and Men.

“They Will Look for Him From The White Tower… But He Will Not Return.” Boromir is Laid to Rest in an Elven Boat.

The Two Towers by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991,2007) pp. 538-544

Legolas and Gimli find Aragorn kneeling beside the body of Boromir and, at first, they fear that he is mortally wounded too. But soon they are reassured and learn of all that has taken place, of the slaying of Boromir by many orcs as he sought to defend the hobbits.

Now there are questions to answer. Are the hobbits still alive or have they been taken by the orcs? And if they have been taken which way have they gone? They know that Boromir had gone to defend Merry and Pippin but were Frodo and Sam among them? What should they do now? Should they follow the orcs to aid Merry and Pippin or should they find Frodo’s tracks and follow him for the sake of the quest? It is an evil choice that lies before them.

“First we must tend the fallen,” Legolas says. “We cannot leave him lying like carrion among these foul orcs.”

Aragorn stands over the body of Boromir in this poignant depiction by Anke Eissmann.

They do not have time to bury Boromir or raise a cairn of stones above him and so they determine to lay him to rest in one of the elven boats. We are reminded here of the ship burials of the Norse or Germanic peoples of Europe. The most famous of these burials here in England is the Sutton Hoo burial from the early 7th century of an Anglo-Saxon king laid to rest in a a ship that was nearly 90 feet long and when discovered in a famous excavation in 1939 was found to contain the most spectacular treasures from as far afield as Byzantium and Sri Lanka.

The Sutton Hoo ship burial and the famous warrior’s mask now kept in the British Museum.

Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli lay what treasures they can around the fallen hero, son of Denethor, Lord of Gondor. “The grey hood and elven-cloak they folded and placed beneath his head. They combed his long dark hair and arrayed it about his shoulders. The golden belt of Lórien gleamed about his waist. His helm they set beside him, and across his lap they laid the cloven horn and the hilt and shards of his sword; beneath his feet they put the swords of his enemies.”

And so the Anduin, the mighty river of Gondor, takes Boromir over the Rauros falls and down through Osgiliath “out into the Great Sea at night under the stars”.

It is a deeply poignant moment within the story. A brief pause amidst all the frantic action that has taken place that day and all that lies ahead of the three companions. As Tolkien was writing this scene he must have thought of the many fallen soldiers at the Battle of the Somme in which he fought and, most of all, of Robert Gilson and Geoffrey Bache Smith of the Tea Club, Barrovian Society, the T.C.B.S of King Edward’s School in Birmingham, both of whom fell in 1916.

For so many of the dead in that war there could be no pause amidst the fighting and the carnage amidst the trenches of the western front. Many bodies could not even be identified and it was not until after the war ended that the people of Great Britain began the long and patient task of creating memorials to their war dead. From the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey, over which Queen Elizabeth’s coffin was carried at her funeral, to the memorial at the Menin Gate in Ypres in Belgium where those whose bodies were never identified are remembered, to the war cemeteries in Belgium and in France where thousands upon thousands lie, among whom are two of my mother’s uncles, and then the memorials raised in communities up and down the land for those who they had lost, the people of Britain did all that they could to honour their fallen. And we still do on each Sunday nearest to the 11th of November every year at those same memorials in all but a small number of villages across the land where everyone came home from the war. No such villages exist in my county of Worcestershire.

There is much debate among Tolkien scholars about the extent to which The Lord of the Rings is as much a memorial to the fallen of the Great War as it is the creation of a myth that reaches back into a distant past. The recent biopic about Tolkien’s early life certainly suggests this and I, for one, am persuaded. Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli do all that they can to give meaning to the fall of Boromir and Tolkien makes heroes of the thousands who fell on the western front by creating a myth big enough to contain their stories.

One of the many war cemeteries in Belgium and Northern France from the Great War of 1914-18.

“It is I That Have Failed. Vain Was Gandalf’s Trust in Me.” Aragorn’s Despair at The Breaking of the Fellowship.

The Two Towers by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991, 2007) pp. 537-540

“Alas!” said Aragorn. “Thus passes the heir of Denethor, Lord of the Tower of the Guard! This is a bitter end. Now the Company is all in ruin. It is I that have failed. Vain was Gandalf’s trust in me. What shall I do now? Boromir has laid it on me to go to Minas Tirith, and my heart desires it; but where are the Ring and the Bearer? How shall I find them and save the Quest from disaster?”

The Death of Boromir by Anke Eissmann

Boromir is dead, having fallen in the attempt to protect Merry and Pippin from the Uruk-hai of Isengard, and Aragorn kneels in despair beside his body. At the moment when he makes this speech he knows nothing of the whereabouts of any other member of the Fellowship. Boromir died before he could tell Aragorn whether Frodo and Sam were captured along with the young hobbits and he does not even know where Legolas and Gimli are. For all intents and purposes it seems that the Quest has failed and that all hope has died.

Aragorn does not know it yet, but this, for him, is the lowest and the darkest point of the story. From the moment when the Company was defeated in its attempt to cross the Misty Mountains beneath Caradhras and the decision was taken to attempt the journey through Moria Aragorn has been an inner pathway downwards to this place. It seems clear that he had some kind of foresight of Gandalf’s fall in Moria even before the battle at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm. Apart from the speech that he makes to the Fellowship in the dark of the Mines in order to raise their faltering morale he remains silent and a little distant. The next speech that he makes is to a grief stricken Company who have come through Moria but are themselves in despair at the loss of their guide. “We must do without hope, ” he says to them, and there is little doubt then that he has lost his own.

When, at last, the Fellowship reach the refuge of Lothlórien, Frodo descends from the hill of Cerin Amroth to find Aragorn “standing still and silent as a tree”, and hears him say, “Arwen vanimelda, namarië!” These are words of longing and of farewell as Aragorn bids his own farewell to any hope that he might achieve happiness in this life.

At the last parting from Lothlórien Galadriel reminds Aragorn of his mighty lineage and gives to him “the Elessar”, the green stone that Idril, the daughter of Turgon of Gondolin gave to Eärendil, her son, with the words, “there are grievous hurts to Middle-earth which maybe thou shalt heal”. Galadriel reminds Aragorn that he holds this story of healing as heir of Gondolin and of Eärendil, as rightful King of Gondor and of Arnor, and sends him upon his journey down the Anduin with this declaration ringing in his ears. When the boats of the Fellowship pass through the Argonath Aragorn greets his mighty ancestors as one who has come to claim the inheritance that is his but soon after comes the sundering and now he is alone amidst the wreckage of all his hope, both for personal happiness and for the world.

The Hildebrandt brothers depict the moment when Galadriel gives the Elessar to Aragorn.

Boromir dies with the horn of Gondor and his sword in his hand. Despite his own sense of failure Boromir dies a hero’s death in a way that both he and his warrior people understand. Such a death for them is a good death, offered in despite of despair. But at the very moment in which Boromir was fighting his last battle Aragorn was running first up, and then, down Amon Hen first in vain search for Frodo and then in vain attempt to come to Boromir’s aid. All is vain and Aragorn carries this sense in his unhappy heart even as he kneels beside Boromir. As those who know the ending of the story we know that this is Aragorn’s lowest point but he does not know this. For him it seems that a door is opening that bears the words that Dante reads above the gate of Hell. “Abandon all hope you that enter here.” There is no comfort that can be offered to Aragorn. Not yet. We must simply wait with him in silence.

Abandon all hope. Inger Edelfelt depicts Aragorn’s despair.