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.