And The Stillness The Dancing

Last week I wrote about Théoden, King of Rohan, offering himself as suffering servant to his people in their darkest hour; and the week before about Eowyn gazing into the west as the armies of Rohan went to war. And there is a line from T.S Eliot’s “Four Quartets” that comes to mind as I think about these moments in the story.

“So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.”

In thinking about this line I hope we will see that Théoden and Eowyn are in different places in their spiritual journeys at this point of the story and perhaps we might gain some insight into our own story, our own journey.

Théoden has embraced the dark journey not as one who seeks to be the servant of the dark as does Sauron and now Saruman too but as one who has come to trust a loving goodness that can only be found upon that journey. Through all the sad days of his decline he had believed the great lie that Grima Wormtongue had told him that the dark was both something to be feared and yet also inevitable. And in believing the lie he did what all who believe it must do and that is do all he can to shut out the dark for as long as possible. Now he is able to lead his people into battle not as some last despairing howl of rage but as an act of faith. Théoden and the people who will follow him will find through this act of faith that the darkness is the light.

Proud and faithful Eowyn whose part in the story has been to watch the decline of her king who was a man who had been as a father to her, and with him her people also, has not yet reached that place of rest. As she gazes after the riders as they pass into the west her hope is in one of them and her longing is for him also. For in her encounter with Aragorn, mighty heir of Elendil and Isildur, she has met one she believes can free her from her shame and despair. She longs to be at peace but by choosing this way to peace she can never find it.

One day she will find her peace even as Théoden has found it but she must make her dark journey too and we must be lovingly patient with her and with ourselves also. Few of us will discover that the darkness is the light and the stillness the dancing except by way of despair. We may spend years hoping for the wrong thing or loving the wrong thing but on making that journey we will eventually learn to wait and as Théoden has found, “the faith and the hope and the love are all in the waiting.”

“I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope

For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love

For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith

But the faith and the hope and the love are all in the waiting.

Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:

So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.”


11 thoughts on “And The Stillness The Dancing

  1. Mm. I had not really thought about this aspect before, but now I begin to see it.

    Eowyn means a lot to me. I do not have to be patient with her, because I understand her (or at least I think I do, one can never be sure). I think Tolkien did, too. He was never confident in writing female characters, it was a stretch for him, but when he did, we were given gems like Luthien, Galadriel, and Eowyn.
    Eowyn has been utterly powerless, for years, watching her world crumble without any ability to make a difference. She is on the point of breaking when Aragorn comes, bringing hope.
    Then, she is told that it is hope for everyone, save her. She is to remain as she has been, a symbol, serving in a way others see fit. But she has been burning with anger, frustration, and pain for too long. The choice before her is between spiritual or physical death.

    Which brings up questions.
    While I agree with what you say, in this post, about silence and waiting… there is another aspect of our faith that touches on all these scenes in the books. It is the question of purpose. We are all different, and must do what we are made to do, to the glory of God. Which, I think, means that if we are told to do, or be, something that runs against our natures, there may be a just reason to rebel.

    I realize this is dangerous ground. It is easy to think that our desires, and our true natures, are one. In modern times, we often rebel too much, resenting authority of any kind. I am far from wise enough to say, in general terms, what differentiates wise and good authority from well-intentioned but mistaken authority, but I know that it happens, and I think it happens with Eowyn.

  2. Thank you so much for writing this. I am deeply moved by it. I have wanted to write something about Eowyn for a long time; indeed I have a blog I wrote about her a few months ago that is sitting in a file on the Cloud doing nothing. Perhaps Tolkien’s reticence in writing about female characters was an expression of his wisdom and I agree with you that when he does create a female character she is always very powerful.
    I agree with everything that you have written about her and would only add that my call for patience is in no sense a judgement upon her but a recognition that she must journey through the powerlessness, the anger, frustration and pain that you so powerfully describe, and even the despair that takes her into battle upon the Pelennor fields. I emphasise the word, MUST, because I believe that if she had come to the place of letting go at any earlier point in the story than she does what would have come to birth would have been untimely and malformed.
    The great guides called what I think you do so well here “the discernment of spirits” recognising that there are no universal rules for the life of the spirit. They know that while for many the way of rebellion may do harm to the spirit that for some, for Eowyn, this is the only way she can travel. All I would say in conclusion is that at the end of the journey she too will have to wait in surrender. But not until the END of the journey.

    • I agree. 🙂 And yes, when it comes to the end, she is denied the honorable death she desires, and has to wait, instead. In many ways, I think, that is her dark night of the soul, perhaps darker than the long years that came before. There always seems to be something more to find in Tolkien’s writing, doesn’t there? Now I find myself pondering on his war experiences, and a rarely-considered (in literature) reality of the battle-wounded having to stand on the sidelines and watch, helplessly, as the war tumbles on.

      • I think it is Tolkien’s understanding of what he called “the true myth”, the Christ Story, that means that there is so much to discover in his work. Every page in The Lord of the Rings is shot through with it but he never “preaches” it.

  3. Things I find fascinating about Eowyn (that may or may not link with the comments above!)
    – She has no female role-models in her family, only male ones whom she is not permitted to emulate.
    – She rebels against her culture’s default philosophy (a slightly fatalistic Norse commitment to courageous duty, regardless of the consequences) in order to disobey orders and go looking for death.
    – Killing the Witch-king in no way satisfies her; afterwards she is jealous of Theoden for finding an honourable death while she lingers, caged.
    – She can’t abide being pitied.
    – She then vows to give up competing with the Riders, to instead become a healer and a gardener. [Does this ring true to you? It doesn’t to me.]

    The thing I also notice is that Faramir’s response to her entirely leaves the ball in her court. He never tells her what to do and doesn’t attempt either to understand or impress her, but instead makes himself emotionally vulnerable by exposing his heart to her. Perhaps that vulnerability changes her.

    • We know that she has no more living female role-models, but it does not mean that she had none, but the point is well-made. Also, her training as a shield-maiden begs the question of what she was expected to be/do. Was she always intended as a protector of house and home? Or, if circumstances had been different, would she have been allowed to fight?

      Interestingly, her vow to give up arms does ring true to me (though, being me, I would have loved her continuing on as a shield-maiden), and this is why: I think Eowyn’s two greatest struggles are with despair and pride, and the two are tangled up together. Obviously, in the houses of healing, she reaches the limit of pride’s ability to sustain her through despair. She can’t abide pity because the last of her pride is holding out, but it is at breaking-point. She has done great things, but what she is doing isn’t working anymore and she knows it. She is well and truly lost.

      When that happens, as it happened once, in a lesser form, to me, one hits a wall. Either she finds another way to die, or she makes a turn somewhere. There is no more chance of going on as she has. That time is over whether she wants it to be or not.

      And when she is in that season of decision, she encounters someone who has as rough (or nearly so) a history as her, yet who has hope. He has endured, not through pride, but through humility. Through him, more than through Aragorn, she finds healing. When she needs a new direction, why would she not seek to heal as she has been healed?

      I think Faramir’s willingness to be vulnerable is, indeed, what allows him to reach her at all. 🙂

      • I am deeply grateful once again for your reflections here. I think both you and David Rowe are right to take us onto later stages of Eowyn’s story, Aragorn’s rejection of her love, the great ride of the Rohirrim, the battle of the Pelennor Fields and the slaying of the Witch King; the despair in The Houses of Healing then the meeting with Faramir and the growing of their love; the laying down of arms and the healing of Ithilien that she and Faramir share together. I look forward greatly to those parts of the story and to sharing more with you on them at that point in the story. I was less ambitious in what I was seeking to do. I wanted to pause at a moment in her story (and in Théoden’s too) and to reflect upon it with the aid of that line from T.S Eliot’s “Four Quartets” that is in itself a reflection on St John of the Cross and his teaching on The Dark Night, the stripping away of all that has thus far sustained us upon our journey in order to prepare us for union with God.
        At the moment of the story when she watches Aragorn and the Rohirrim ride towards Helm’s Deep she is a soul in torment. For me what has emerged through this conversation is the sense that her journey must pass through torment and eventually despair before she can find healing; that there is no other way for her. That both she and Faramir find healing, and become healers together, is one of Tolkien’s miracles, I think. All too often in life damaged people find one another, cling to one another in the storm and then devour each other.
        When this Blog eventually reaches The Houses of Healing I hope we can go further with this exploration of the healing of Eowyn and Faramir. Perhaps you might offer Guest Blogs when we get there. I do hope so!

    • It’s really good to hear from you again, David. How is the book coming on? Thank you so much for the insights you offer here. I would like to make a response after Jubilare’s reply to your thoughts if I may, also after Victoria’s reply. I hope you will stay in the conversation as well.

  4. If I may make some general observations from a female point of view….? These comments, for me, have really touched a chord as they have developed. I couldn’t agree more with the last comment.

    When it is observed that Faramir attempts “neither to understand or impress”, perhaps it is in his non-defining of her, combined with his not setting a clear role model, that she finds the ability to define herself and discover her own role? Male role models often try to lead/understand and thus to heal (and by doing so simply impose another set of exterior conceptions). Perhaps if he doesn’t do this, it allows Eowyn space to form and accept her own conceptions? Especially if she has tried the other routes to no avail.

    Just a little general thought based on my experience:
    Vulnerability concedes the opportunity for change and redefinition.
    Through vulnerability, if respected, can come sharing and trust, through trust can come repair and healing. Healing and understanding can lead to a path of discovery. Discovering, perhaps, the calling to a role springing from within rather than imposed from without. And the healed often feel most dearly the needs of the broken, so the change from sword to ploughshare, in that circumstance, seems to me almost inevitable. So yes, a volte-face, to me, (is it relevant that I’m female?) is perfectly credible.

    It is, after all, for some, the case that when one stops dancing by watching others or following other’s instructions and instead places one’s hands on the source of the beat, that one can find the true rhythm of the song. Thus, perhaps is one way that ‘In her stillness was the dancing’?

  5. Thank you so much, Victoria, for offering your thoughts here. Hopefully you will have read my response to David Rowe and to Jubilare (who is a woman as well, of course).
    I particularly appreciate your thoughts on Vulnerability. They link to Jubilare’s thought on humility as well. I find Faramir one of the most attractive figures in The Lord of the Rings and look forward to writing more about him. His father, Denethor, who has rejected humility and vulnerability within himself, regards these qualities as weakness. Eowyn does not make the same mistake. The first time she sees Faramir she recognises that here is one who could match any of the finest warriors of her people in battle and I don’t think she finds that unattractive! What is new to her is precisely that he does not try to “make” her do anything. I think you are right in saying that many men try to do this to women. The combination of strength and gentleness is quite rare. I look forward to more of this conversation with you when we come to The Houses of Healing.
    Finally, I was taken by your thought on Stillness and Dancing, knowing that you are a musician. Your phrase, placing “one’s hands on the source of the beat” so that one can find “the true rhythm of the song” reminded me of the conversation we had about Helen Keller “listening” to a performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony by placing her hands upon the wireless speaker. Do you think there might be a connection. Of course, Eliot was deliberately playing with paradox in this line, seeking to shake us out of our lazy literalism, trying to take us to the place where, as St John of the Cross taught, all is stripped away so that all might be given, which is the place of the cross and the resurrection.

    • In reply I’m not sure it gets less relevant to your blog. To me it is a direct correlation, but I guess it’s probably a bit random. I suppose there was a connection, yes! I was referring in my comment about true rhythm to the comments re Eowyn & Aragorn as a shining model to uplift her, and the expectations and duties placed upon her by society, and her desperate bid for freedom by action. It seems she had found these roads one by one diverting her back to a starting point of despair/emptiness.

      The comments re Faramir, in conjunction with the TS Eliot, led to the point that only through emptiness can one be filled. Whether the jug is full of hopes, aspirations, duties, or even frustration and despairing action of defiance, it is still full.

      The point about rhythm then, was that one cannot easily dance in time by observing others – Aragorn?- one is reacting rather than creating (and often behind the beat) Following instructions (literally or otherwise) – her life fulfilling externally imposed roles? – can lead to confusion, and one is reacting to the instructor rather than the source. However tempting, well qualified, or easy these options, it is through having the courage to internally assimilate that which holds all these things together, and drives them that one can move in time. The rhythm of creation is an old analogy. I suppose, my comment is coloured by both my own experience as a musician with hearing loss, and by that wonderfully stirring and affirming account of Helen Keller’s. How much more vivid (life giving) is the physical internalisation and direct interaction with the very resonance of music, than that of the casual listener, who either takes the sounds they hear for granted (external roles), or gets so swept along by them (aspirational dreaming) they miss that rooted, immediacy of the “feeling” musical?

      To me this moment of Eowyn’s speaks of the silence, darkness and emptiness of Helen’s experience of music just before the extract about which we talked. She has lost the conventional interface one may expect, she has realised there is something special, and longs to experience it. She has a future experience (of which we know), but until her hand goes on that speaker it remains undiscovered. But then, in stillness, came the dancing. To refer to Jubilare’s comment re mistaken but well-intentioned authority, she refused to be told deaf people cannot engage with music. Anyone reading that extract may say that her experience was perhaps MORE full, rather than less.

      On a less serious ‘note’, you will be pleased to know I am about to plunge into the LOTR, and therefore may stop generalising wildly!

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