What Can the Weather Teach Us?

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.

8 thoughts on “What Can the Weather Teach Us?

  1. Wise words. Some years ago I was struck by how much “modern” societies are divorced from the basic reality of our world. Stars, seasons, cycles, even sights and smells that our ancestors, and those who live in less artificially developed countries, took/take for granted. We don’t have to pay attention to when things bloom or ripen, or when birds start nesting or how to identify constellations, and we take the lazy road, not realizing what we are losing in our divorce from our environment.

  2. Hi Stephen,

    My wife and I were reading about St Chad (Celtic saint) this morning, and about how he would respond to the weather: specifically, gales and storms reminded him to pray for God’s mercy on humanity, and to remember to fear God.

    It made me think of how, in the same way that we climate-control our buildings, we seek to have climate-controlled lives. We insulate ourselves from others, and from extremes of spiritual temperature, and we domesticate God to suit our needs and to protect our comfortableness.

    On Theoden: the Rohirrim are built to be outside, on horseback with their hair and banners flowing in the wind. Having left Meduseld, Theoden is an open-air king again (does he go back inside? I’m not sure, maybe at Dunharrow), and is all the better for it. Outside is good. In fact, thinking about it, in Middle-earth staying perpetually inside is nearly always a bad sign (Morgoth burying himself in Utumno and Angband, Sauron in Barad-dur, Saruman in Isengard, Denethor in the White Tower, Thorin in the Mountain), though there are probably exceptions.

  3. St Chad was the one who first brought the gospel to the pagan kingdom of Mercia in which I live! I did not know of that story. Thank you. I think you are absolutely right about the theme of burying oneself in Tolkien’s writing. The true home, like The Last Homely House, is one that welcomes people in unless they come with the intention of doing harm, and sometimes you have to take that risk too as Galadriel does when she welcomes Gimli.

  4. It is that busy time of the year for me and I’ve not had a chance to properly visit – but I just had to force some time when I saw the subject matter.
    I often wonder if the Bible should really begin with weather – with the wind slowly stirring over those dark waters of the chaotic deep (like the lift and kick of a breeze as thunderclouds gather). It can’t be surprising how much immersed in weather theophanies are, nor why, for me, weather is such an important affirmation of life.
    Funnily enough, last week I was teaching a session on ecotheologies and was trying to get over to the students how much we have been disconnected from the environment (the great ‘nature disconnect’). It was amply demonstrated that no one got right the first priority of survival (shelter).
    That last sentence of yours is brilliant – yes!!

  5. Great to hear from you again, Richard. How did your students respond to what you were saying? What texts are you encouraging them to read? Jonathan Bate’s wonderful “The Song of the Earth comes to mind. In his chapter on Wordsworth there is a wonderful connection between literary criticism and theology.

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