“The trumpets sounded. The horses reared and neighed. Spear clashed on shield. Then the king raised his hand, and with a rush like the sudden onset of a great wind the last host of Rohan rode thundering into the West.
Far over the plain Eowyn saw the glitter of their spears, as she stood still, alone before the doors of the silent house.”
And so the host of Rohan rides to do battle with the forces of Isengard. Gandalf has roused Théoden, King of Rohan from his slow decline and with Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas, he rides with them upon Shadowfax, mightiest of all horses in Middle Earth. Brave words have been spoken; courage has been roused in the hearts of the Riders; but Tolkien does not end this chapter with the sound of horses’ hooves or the sound of the wind in the ears of the riders but with silence before the doors of Meduseld as we stand with Eowyn as she gazes after them.
The silence that ends the chapter is intentional. We are meant to stay in a space that is almost empty. The action is taking place somewhere else and we wait alone. Not for us the comforting sound of the thunderous gallop of horses to keep our courage up. We must be brave in a silence that is an absence of sound and an emptiness that is an absence of the people that we love. And there is a fear also that the silence will end with the harsh cries of orcs as they advance upon us.
It is this kind of waiting that has been the lot of women in time of war throughout the ages. I remember speaking once with an elderly woman in the cottage in which she had been born and had lived in throughout her life as she described to me the day when her father had walked down the garden path to go to war in France in the autumn of 1914. For her that memory was as vivid and fresh as if she had just lived it and I could feel the warm autumn sun and see the closing of the gate as he walked down the village lane as she told her story. What I cannot remember is whether he ever came home again.
Tolkien was himself one of the young men who left for war in that same conflict. He did come home but lived the rest of his life with the memory. He never made his writings a vehicle for his memories but his experience of war shapes each page of The Lord of the Rings as they must have shaped the life that he lived after that experience.
Tolkien was never a propagandist but a story teller. In propaganda it is the message that is of prime importance. All experience must be reduced to the message. Each story must be flattened and simplified. Propaganda cannot allow complexity because to allow this is a betrayal of the purity of the message. Robert Runcie was Archbishop of Canterbury between 1980 and 1991 and had served as a tank commander during the Second World War, winning the Military Cross for bravery in action. Later in life he described how his tank had destroyed a German tank and how he and his men had gone to check for survivors in it. There were none and he told how as he looked at the faces of the dead men he suddenly saw them as sons, husbands, boyfriends; that there were people waiting for them who would never see them again. Such a story cannot be used by a propagandist and Runcie was no friend to propagandists during his time in office as Archbishop. Story will always leave the reader or hearer to choose how to respond, shaping lives that grow in sympathy and compassion and not reducing them to cartoon automata. Propaganda only wants automata who will do the bidding of the propagandist.
Last week I tweeted the link to my Blog “The Darkness Shall be the Light” and then became anxious. What if people should think that I was a supporter of Sauron, the Dark Lord himself? Surely this would be the kind of slogan that either he or his lord, Morgoth, might use? And so I rapidly typed in the words, “And I don’t mean Sauron!” into my Tweet. But after sending it I began to think. Why should I not mean Sauron? For Sauron would try to twist anything to his own purpose, even light itself. Readers of this Blog will know that I have thought of Morgoth’s hunger for light, a story that Tolkien told in The Silmarillion, on a number of occasions. Tolkien tells how Morgoth destroyed the Trees of Light with the aid of the monstrous spider like creature, Ungoliant, and later how he stole the Silmarils, jewels made by Feanor that captured the light of the Trees, and placed them in his iron crown even though they caused him torment. Thus the relationship between Morgoth and his followers, Sauron foremost among them, is ambiguous and contradictory from the start. And how could it be otherwise? For Morgoth and Sauron desire that which will expose them and leave them vulnerable and will also remind them for ever of the blessed state that they have rejected in favour of their own desire for power over others.
And this makes him different from the members of the Fellowship of the Ring. They too fear the dark and yet they love the light more and for the sake of the light they will journey down dark roads, facing their own fear and overcoming it. It is because of the dark journeys that they themselves have taken that Gandalf and Aragorn are able to bring Théoden out of his dark places into the light and then onwards into battle with little hope first against Saruman and then the Dark Lord himself. They teach Théoden that beyond all nights there is a dawn and that at the ending of this world of shadows there is the True Dawn.
Near my home there is a woodland with two streams running through it that join at its heart. Last year in the dark months I did not venture into it except in the daylight. This year I have decided to make a daily journey in it to the point where the streams join a spiritual exercise. I want to make my own dark journey through the woods. It is only a journey of a couple of hundred yards but each day I leave the known way of the path that runs past the woods and step into them into sudden and deeper dark. I realise that I am reliant on my memory of familiar points along my way and also the feel of the ground beneath my feet. There is a narrow path through the woods though it is not distinct enough for me to be able to see it, even at my feet. I rely on making out the difference between feel of the trodden down ground of the path and the softer ground that lies to either side of it beneath my boots. At present I am concentrating on the physical experience. How it feels not to be able to see, the moments of anxiety when I miss my way, and the excitement and relief when I meet the joining of the streams or clasp a great beech tree that tells me that I am near the end of my own dark journey. Eventually I would like to develop a form of prayer that will make the experience more consciously my own and help me to open my self to whatever gifts this place and the walk through it at this dark time of the year might be awaiting me. Most of all I seek the dawn that come only through journeying through the dark of the night. Maybe I will meet and overcome the monsters in my own psyche. Maybe I will journey through my own sense of loss and the death of my hopes as Aragorn does.
I have not written this Blog since Easter. My silence began because I was invited to give a series of talks in a church near by that took up all my creative energy at that time. I don’t know if it was the talks that took away the energy, or their subject matter, or something that was going on inside me at that time and since, or a combination of all three, but I have not done much by way of creative work since that time. In the next few weeks I will be leading a couple of days entitled “Our Wounds are Our Teachers”. The title comes from Richard Rohr, an American Franciscan. Much of the most helpful material, to me at least, comes from Bill Plotkin’s “Soulcraft” and especially the chapter, “The Darkness Shall Be The Light”. Perhaps it is a testimony to this new work (both inner and outer) that I am able to write again.
This Blog has been an attempt to read J.R.R Tolkien’s great work, “The Lord of the Rings” as a source of wisdom and to share what I find there. When I last wrote I was standing with Théoden, Gandalf, Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas in the rain outside the Golden Hall of Meduseld in Edoras. The rain was washing away the cloying dust of Théoden’s long imprisonment, both within his own hall and within the darkness of his own soul. His liberators had come to him with a power born of their own dark journeys. Gandalf the Grey, the secret pilgrim, was now clothed in white, his true greatness revealed at last, after his battle with the Balrog of Moria and his journey through death itself. Aragorn, the true King of Gondor and Arnor, as he reveals himself to Eomer and to Hama at Théoden’s door, has passed through his own sense of failure at the breaking of the Fellowship, the death of Boromir and the capture of Merry and Pippin by Orcs. He abandons the Quest of the Ring in order, as he believes at the time, to lay down his life in a hopeless attempt to free the young hobbits. Gimli and Legolas have been his faithful companions in this attempt and together they stand with a power that they have not known before.
For Gandalf, Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas, their Dark Journeys have truly been their light and now they can share this with Théoden and his people who rise from darkness and despair by their aid to go to war with Saruman at Helms Deep. In our imaginations we go with them in that journey to war against the lords of darkness and despair. In our lives it may be that we are better able to stand with others in their dark journeys so that they too can discover that these journeys have been givers of light even as we discover that our own dark journeys are the greatest source of light in our own lives.