Gandalf and Théoden emerge from the darkened hall and stand upon the highest stair. How long is it since Théoden last stood there? As if to emphasise the point Tolkien tells us that a keen wind is whistling in through the doors and breaking up the musty stillness of the hall.
“Now, lord,” says Gandalf, “look out upon your land! Breathe the free air again!”
And as Théoden breathes and the cold air fills his lungs Tolkien tells us that “curtains of wind-blown rain were slanting down.” In his first venture into the open air in many a long day the king of Rohan is getting wet!
It is, of course, no mistake that Tolkien wishes to draw our attention to the weather. The contrast must be drawn between the dead and darkened air of Théoden’s hall with a wizened old man shrinking into the shadows and the keen air that blows over a wide land bearing a cleansing rain upon a mighty king who has come into the light. Théoden is being washed clean and he must stand and take whatever the weather chooses to throw at him. We might even say that he needs this weather; that a warm and gentle breeze upon a spring morning would not be sufficient for him.
It is the essence of the Babel story found in the bible that humankind wishes to create a city that shuts God out, one that is self-controlled and self-contained. In our own time we seem closer than ever before to making the story a reality. Our ability to create micro-environments in homes, places of leisure and work and in the modes of transport that take us from one to another of these places bears witness to our mastery over the world. We are the lords of Babel indeed! We are our own gods now! We may note that just as in the old story the peoples may be divided from one another but we have progressed from the early story-tellers and their world. We can build high walls with strong gates to bar the outsider so that our personal Babels are both environmentally and socially controlled. London may be the tuberculosis capital of Europe but as long as we can keep the poor who are afflicted by the disease from our gates then it matters very little. We may even be able to persuade our government to withdraw the right to free healthcare from such people and so reduce our taxes.
And while this happens we do not even notice that spiritually we are becoming the shrunken dwarf that was Théoden before Gandalf freed him. We do not know that we become ever more helpless before our foes for we surround ourselves with counselors like Wormtongue in the form of our newspapers and other media outlets and in our gatherings of like minded acquaintances.
How we need a Gandalf to set us free from our darkened halls, to lead us out into real and uncontrolled weather and to make us stand there until we are made clean by the icy rains of reality. How we need a counselor who will say to us, “cast aside regret and fear… do the deed at hand.” One who will take us out of the half lives of our present age and make us truly human, fully alive.
And if we do not have such a counselor then we must take ourselves out into the weather day after day until it has taught us that which we need to hear.
Perhaps one of the most tragic elements of the prisons that we build for ourselves is that they seem to be eternal and that there is no way out of them. Théoden’s very body seems to conspire with him to ensure that he remains locked inside it. You may remember that I described him as being very old and yet he is younger than Aragorn. In part this is because of Aragorn’s lineage. He is of the house of Elendil the Numenorean, a people granted long life because of their faithfulness in the long struggle against the powers of darkness, but even among his own people Aragorn is regarded as exceptional. Théoden’s decrepitude is due in part to the whisperings of Wormtongue but also it is his own work. He has chosen to become the shrunken creature that Gandalf and his companions first encounter in the darkened halls of Meduseld.
Théoden’s own personal prison is one of shame. He feels the condemnation of his mighty ancestor whose image he looks upon each day. Eorl the Young rides into battle and glory while he sits helplessly by as his kingdom disintegrates about him. The agony of his shame is slowly killing him and yet he chooses this over the way of Eorl, who risked all upon one charge against overwhelming odds. He may be in misery but at least he is alive. We may question whether it is a life worth holding onto but habit is a powerful thing and Théoden fears the unknown more than the dark he has become accustomed to.
The seemingly eternal nature of our prisons is one of the most tragic elements of them but because they are in large part self-built our hope lies in the fact that in a moment we can be free of them. The most human of the three books that make up Dante’s great work, The Divine Comedy, is the second, entitled Purgatory. It is the most human because it is closest to our own condition, that is neither eternal bliss nor eternal misery. Those who dwell in purgatory are in chains and yet carry the hope of liberation even if that hope feels like the last flickering ember of a fire that once burnt brightly. It is also most human because those in purgatory can be free in a moment. They can learn that the burdens they carry are not an eternal punishment but can be cast away. Bunyan’s pilgrim finds the same thing at the foot of the cross when his burden falls from his back. Théoden journeys from shrunken old man to leader in battle in a few short steps and with his liberation comes the liberation of his people too.
John O’Donohue describes both the building of prisons and our liberation from them in his wonderful book, Eternal Echoes. In it he speaks of the kind of prisons we choose to build for ourselves, the fixed images that we assign to ourselves, images that inevitably begin to atrophy just as soon as we create them. He writes: “Fear and negativity are immense forces which constantly tussle with us. They long to turn the mansions of the soul into haunted rooms. These are the living conditions for which fear and negativity long and in which they thrive. We were sent here to live life to the full. When you manage to be generous in your passion and vulnerability, life always comes to bless you.”
“When you manage to be generous in your passion and vulnerability life always comes to bless you.” What wonderful words of hope! Dante’s prisoners of purgatory, Bunyan’s pilgrim at the cross and Théoden stepping out from his darkened hall into the light all find this blessing and all find it as they take the first steps of vulnerability. And so can we if we do the same.
Gandalf and his companions enter Théoden’s darkened hall whose majesty lies half hidden in shadows. Around them upon the walls hang many woven cloths and “over their wide spaces marched figures of ancient legend”. To one in particular their eyes are drawn even before they look upon the king himself because in the dark the light of the sun has fallen upon it through an opening high in the roof. “A young man upon a white horse… blowing a great horn… his yellow hair flowing in the wind.”
“Behold Eorl the Young!” said Aragorn. “Thus he rode out of the North to the Battle of the Field of Celebrant.”
That we should look upon Eorl before we see the king is no accident. Eorl is forever young and Théoden is old; very old indeed. He is a man “so bent with age that he seemed almost a dwarf.” Eorl is bathed in sunlight while Théoden is hidden in the shadows. Tolkien means us to gaze upon Eorl in his majesty because that is where Théoden himself looks and what he sees acts as a constant reproach to him. Eorl rides to battle, to victory and to glory while Théoden sits helplessly by as he hears daily of defeat, of the death of his only son in battle and of the impending doom of his house and of his people. Almost his last words just a few weeks later at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields will be, “I go to my fathers. And even in their mighty company I shall not now be ashamed.”
Théoden has been ashamed, literally crippled and shrunken by shame even as Wormtongue’s whisperings have steadily weakened his resolve. Faced by the dangers that surround him he has withdrawn behind the diminishing safety of his own walls yet even there the image of his mighty ancestor rebukes him. Age must come to us all if we live long enough to see it and many find that the world about them becomes a more fearful place. Tove Jansson, writer of the wonderful Moomintroll stories, summered for many years on an island some way off the coast of Finland. One day she stepped out of her hut on the island to gaze upon the sea and she was suddenly afraid, a feeling she had never known before in that place. When she left her island as the summer ended it was to be for the last time. She never returned there again.
Théoden is freed from the prison of his own walls by Gandalf. We will think more about that next week. He will then throw himself into life for a few brief and dangerous days before finally falling in battle before the walls of Minas Tirith. Those for whom the most important thing in life is to achieve security will find Gandalf’s behaviour reprehensible and Théoden’s foolish. What kind of care for the aged is it that counsels leaving safety and care and going into battle? Yet Gandalf’s counsel will enable Théoden to break free from fear and from shame and to die a free man. Who would deny him this? And which of us are in danger of denying freedom to ourselves and building darkened prisons for our own souls?