Gimli Teaches Us The Importance of Seeing

After the victorious ending of the Battle of Helm’s Deep Gandalf takes Théoden and a small company with him to go to Isengard and for the first time since the sundering of the Fellowship at the Falls of Rauros the pace of the story is able to slacken somewhat. The pursuit of the orc company who seized Merry and Pippin, the rush to Edoras and the battle that followed all lie behind and many and great dangers lie ahead, but for a brief time Legolas and Gimli have time to look about them and to wonder.

Both of them are drawn to those things that delight them most. For Legolas this means all that grows in the earth and he wonders at the Ents and the trees that they tend; and for Gimli this means the earth itself and the wondrous caves of Aglarond that he has just encountered.

Legolas is drawn to the ancient wonder that dwells within the Forest of Fangorn that we thought about when Merry and Pippin escaped from their captors and met Treebeard in Fangorn. Immediately he wants to know, to understand and to communicate: “They are the strangest trees that ever I saw…and I have seen many an oak grow from acorn to ruinous age. I wish that there were leisure now to walk among them: they have voices, and in time I might come to understand their thought.”

And in this we remember that Treebeard told the hobbits that it was Elves who first taught speech to the Ents. It is Elves who long to commune with all living things and to draw them into their own beatitude, their own state of blessing, that all creation might find its own voice and thus speak with the One.

But if Legolas is moved by his delight in the living forest he is outmatched in this by his good friend Gimli. The three pages in The Lord of the Rings in which Gimli describes the Glittering Caves of Aglarond are among the most beautiful in the whole work and Tolkien gives this beauty to a dwarf! Even Legolas declares, “I have never heard you speak like this before.” I wish I had space to quote them in full but I will just have to encourage you to read them for yourself. Just one section must be quoted and that is Gimli’s response to Legolas’ concern that Dwarves might mar the natural beauty of the caves in their greed for gain.

“No, you do not understand,” said Gimli. “No dwarf could be unmoved by such loveliness. None of Durin’s race would mine these caves for stones or ore, not if diamonds and gold could be got there. Do you cut down groves of blossoming trees in the springtime for firewood? We would tend these glades of flowering stone, not quarry them. With cautious skill, tap by tap- a small chip of rock and no more, perhaps, in a whole anxious day- so we could work…”

As we read these words they call to mind Leonardo da Vinci working in this way on his great fresco of The Last Supper at the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. It is said that he would spend whole days just looking at his work as it unfolded and doing nothing. Imagine describing such a way of working in an appraisal interview!

What we see described here at this brief moment of rest in the story is the fruit of intense seeing and then the using of the language of seeing. Tolkien gives to these two friends the roles of artist and poet. And why do so at this moment in the story? Is it perhaps to make the contrast with Saruman, the man whose mind is full “of metal and wheels”, who we are about to meet face to face, even greater? Or is it to show that these heroes are more than just warriors and are only warriors at all at greatest need? Surely at the least he shows us that his warriors are first of all great lovers and that it is because of this that their prowess in battle can bring forth good. Tolkien will return to this later in the story in his reflection on the contrast between the brothers, Boromir and Faramir, but we will leave this part of the story, perhaps, contemplating our own need to train our ability both to see and to learn to describe what we can see.

18 thoughts on “Gimli Teaches Us The Importance of Seeing

  1. I am hugely enjoying my re-reading of The Lord of The Rings (especially alongside your blog!). I haven’t got so far as this yet, and I’m looking forward to reading it greatly.

    One of the things I mentioned the other day to someone whilst trying to explain my enjoyment of these books is the attention to detail and beautiful descriptions of the visual world around us that run through the books. Tolkien has a great facility with words and evokes rich landscapes with really very concise passages. He also, for me, reflects the way in which the visual world in which we move can impact, both for delight and otherwise, upon us as we journey through life.

    I am a great believer in keeping my eyes open to the beauty that can be found around us, sometimes in unexpected places.

    Thank you for your words here. The narrative and characters are so potent – it is well to be attentive to these quieter moments in the books also …

  2. Although when I say “visual”, I think perhaps that is a little shallow. It’s just one access point. The joy and urge to communicate that is exemplified here by Legolas and Gimli, and by us all when we try to articulate our relationship with the world we encounter – particularly the natural world – runs deeper. It is almost more a feeling, a communion. And can be tactile or multi-sense. It is more, perhaps, of being attentive and responsive.

  3. On reflection, perhaps it speaks to the essence of our beings – and the illustration here, of two such different characters and landscapes, reminds us that we should not be bound by preconceptions of beauty. And there are many opportunities to learn and grow if we take time to see what others can communicate from other perspectives.

    I promise I’ll stop posting now 😉

  4. I haven’t read the books in a while, and had forgotten about this beautiful passage. I love that, for these characters, being skilled warriors does not necessarily mean being destructive to all facets of life; that they are still invested in the preservation of beauty. This is especially interesting, considering the fact that beauty and art are very easy targets in war: the beauty in humanity, in culture, in art, in architecture, and in nature.

    Great post! I just found your blog, but I look forward to reading more. 🙂

    • I hope you don’t mind if I reply to all three of your comments here. It strikes me that Tolkien is drawn towards the uniting of difference. I wrote in an earlier blog about the relationship between the Ents and the Entwives, the wild and the cultivated. He never makes light of such difference, neither there nor in the relationship between Legolas and Gimli, Elf and Dwarf. In this relationship, as well as the difference between the love of the earth & the love of what grows, there is also the difference between Legolas’ love of understanding and Gimli’s love of making. That is also true in the relationship between perceiving through the senses. I know that this is of great importance to you and we have written about this before.
      Please comment as often as you like. I really like dialogues.

    • Thank you for your encouragement. I am glad that you have enjoyed your first visit to the blog.
      I reflected recently on the work of Moore and Gillette on the male psyche. They speak of four archetypes, The King, The Lover, The Magician and the Warrior. I think we live in a time when many men develop only the Warrior and if the others are present they are only so in their immature form. After his encounter with Galadriel Gimli finds a freedom to develop The Lover and as we see he remains a formidable warrior. How can we help men not to be afraid to find their own mature Lover within?

  5. As always, I do appreciate your reflections. When you speak of the foundation of Tolkien’s world do you have Aule’s loving creation of his own children of the earth, the Dwarves? I love the fact that Ilúvatar does not destroy Aule’s work simply because he did it for love unlike Melkor’s parodies of the work of Ilúvatar in the orcs, trolls etc. What begins in love can always be redeemed.

    • Love is definitely a part of it, but so is repentance and the surrendering of his works to Ilúvatar. I wonder if he had not been willing to surrender them, what would have come to pass?
      When I spoke of the foundations, I was thinking more about the unknown histories of the Dwarves. We have tales of Aule and the Valar, but very few of the Dwarves (and most of those, presumably, from the perspective of the Elves). What we do know, I find alluring, like this passage that suggests the Dwarves have tended such “groves of stone” before. 😀

      • As I said in response to Victoria I agree entirely with what you say about surrender and repentance. I suspect that if Aule had refused to surrender his creation to Ilúvatar then he would have drifted into Melkor’s realm. But Melkor could not allow equals in his realm so Aule would either submit his creation to Melkor and Dwarves would have become orc like or he would have supplanted Melkor becoming Dark Lord himself. The outcome for Dwarves would have been the same. They would have been slaves to the dark and no tending of “groves of stone” would ever have happened. That image as you say is wonderfully alluring. Could we find such a spirit in all our making and building?

  6. Yes, indeed, I was so carried away on the how I forgot the why! Thank you everyone for all these comments; it’s real food for thought.

    The uniting of difference is key to me, here, rather than making it the same. To acknowledge difference whilst working in unity is a harder, but more beautiful aim. Too often it seems unity is sought through loss of identity, rather than understanding. I read your post about Ents and Entwives with great interest.

    Your comment about all being redeemable which begins in love made me think of Emeth in Lewis’ Narnia. It is what springs from the roots, that is more important than the banner it bears. As you say, perhaps Gimli and Legolas are so effective as warriors precisely because of the lover within. They will act as strongly as they must, but it is in love rather than destruction. There is a unity too, within them, of the different parts of their characters upon which they must draw. It is perhaps through these times of “seeing” that they gain the balance that brings that unity?

    Saruman, as I understand it so far, began in love and study, but did not perhaps have the balance and roots…

    • Jubilare is right when she says that what begins with love must also be offered in obedience. Beginnings and continuings are profoundly connected in each of our lives. When I read your thought about Gimli and Legolas I realised that I cannot speak with comfortable ease about the relationship of warrior and lover within them. Among all theologians Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrestled most with this because of his involvement in the resistance to the Nazis within Germany and in particular the plot to assassinate Hitler. He knew that he could never justify this action as “good”. He could not call the taking of another man’s life “good”. Yet he still supported this action to the ultimate cost of his giving his own life.

  7. I love your comments on Gimli’s description of the caves, and of Legolas’ reaction to the trees. Seeing beauty and being able to appreciate it fully are traits I hope to cultivate in my own life.

    • Thank you so much for leaving your first comment on my blog and for following it too. I do hope that you will call again!
      The ancients wove beauty, truth and goodness together. Whenever we are touched by one of them, as Gimli is in the caves of Aglarond and Legolas in the forest of Fangorn, then the other two will be close at hand. I think that you are following a good path here.

  8. I was so delighted when I recently reread these passages after a few decades. As a cave explorer, I find it difficult to do justice with words to the subterranean worlds I see, even though the passion and appreciation I have for the beauty of these places overwhelms me. I especially took note of the conservation message, even though removing even a single crystal would be against the protocols of any cavers I know. I look forward to sharing this passage with my fellow grotto members.

  9. Thank you so much for taking the time to share your thoughts with me. I wrote this piece over 8 years ago and so I could not remember what I wrote back then. When I saw Da Vinci’s Last Supper, a painting that I did see on visit to Milan a few years ago I was reminded of the fact that our guide told us that he would stand for whole days just gazing at the painting. I remember visiting a gallery in Munich a few years ago and watching visitors go up to an installation, spend a few seconds with it and then move on. I did this for an hour and no-one spent even a minute there. Who really stops to gaze?
    Do your fellow cavers ever have this opportunity? Or do you have to keep moving?

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