Gandalf Speaks of Stewards and Kings

Gandalf and Pippin are about to enter the Citadel and Gandalf gives Pippin a few last minute instructions.

“Leave quiet the matter of Frodo’s errand. I will deal with that in due time. And say nothing about Aragon, either, unless you must.”

Pippin is confused. “What is wrong with Strider?” he asks. The very fact that Pippin still refers to Aragorn by the nickname by which he is known in Bree tells us much, both about Pippin and the way in which Aragorn has behaved towards him throughout their journey together. Readers of my blog may remember a piece I wrote over a year ago about the reunion of Aragorn and the young hobbits at Isengard that I entitled, “Strider has come back!” It was about a weary Aragorn smoking his pipe with his feet up. It was about the way that Pippin sees his friend.

But now Pippin needs to understand things better. “See, Master Pippin, there is no time to instruct you now in the history of Gondor… It is scarcely wise when bringing the news of the death of his heir to a mighty lord to speak overmuch of the coming of one who will, if he comes, claim the kingship.”

The history to which Gandalf refers took place almost a thousand years before the events of The Lord of the Rings. It refers to the time when the Lord of the Nazgûl, the Witch King of Angmar, had brought about the final downfall of the northern kingdom of the Dunedain in Arnor but how he in his turn had been defeated in battle by Glorfindel of Rivendell and had retreated to Mordor. The Witch King had then taken the city of Minas Ithil from Gondor and made it his capital, Minas Morgul and how he had then taunted the young and still childless king of Gondor , challenging him to single combat. Eärnur finally accepted the challenge and rode to Minas Morgul, never to be seen again.

Gondor now had no king but instead of choosing another from one of her great houses she made Mardil the Steward,  “until the king returns”. Many stewards had ruled Gondor in the long years since but the king was still awaited. Boromir once asked his father, Denethor, how long they should wait until the Steward   could become the king. “Few years, maybe, in other places of less royalty,” came Denethor’s reply. “In Gondor ten thousand years would not suffice.”

Ten thousand years would not suffice. And here we see the true meaning of royalty. To be a king does not mean simply being the one who sits at the top of the heap or to be the one, to use British prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli’s words, who has climbed to the top of the greasy pole. Richard Wagner captured the essence of true kingship in his final opera, Parsifal, his own telling of the Grail myth. He told of how the keepers of the Grail are ruled by a priest king, Amfortas, who has lost the spear that pierced the side of Christ when seduced by Kundry and who is now the Fisher King presiding over a dying kingdom. Parsifal, the perfect fool, is able to overcome Kundry’s temptations and the power of the witch king, Klingsor, and when he returns to the knights of the Grail bearing the sacred spear he brings healing to the land and to Amfortas and his men. It is through this healing that all recognise that Parsifal is the true king. There is no palace revolution. Amfortas lays down the kingship willingly.

Tolkien also tells the tale of a dying land and of a king who returns “with healing in his wings”. As with Parsifal, Aragorn passes through many trials in his own dark journey before he can claim the kingship.  In doing so Tolkien does not steal an idea from Wagner but draws from the same archetype. The true king is divinely anointed. The Steward can only watch over the kingdom until the true king comes. To be a steward is a position of high honour, and Gondor knows this, but Denethor sits in a simple chair beneath the throne. He is not the king.

The White Tree of Gondor Teaches us about Death and Resurrection

Gandalf and Pippin enter the Citadel in Minas Tirith and the white-paved Court of the Fountain where, in the midst, “drooping over the pool, stood a dead tree, and the falling drops dripped sadly from its barren and broken branches back into the clear water. ”

Pippin does not understand why, in such a beautifully tended place, something dead is at the centre. Then some words that Gandalf had spoken come to mind:

Seven stars and seven stones and one white tree.

These are the emblems of Elendil whose ships carried the faithful to Middle-earth from the wreck of Númenor after Sauron had seduced their king into rebellion against the Valar. The white tree was a symbol of renewal descended, as it was, from Nimloth the Fair the tree of Númenor and before that from Galathilion of Telperion in the Deathless Lands. Thus there remains a link between the peoples of Gondor and the Valar and High Elves but it is a link  contained in something that is dead.

Sauron has always had a particular hatred for the tree, knowing what it represents. To Sauron it means that only through submission to the Valar and their judgement could there ever be a reconciliation and forgiveness.  He clings to the belief that he can achieve mastery over all life, that he can resist the Valar and the Ring is the entire focus of that belief. When he was a prisoner in Númenor he persuaded Ar Pharazôn to cut down Nimloth the Fair. Númenor’s king had become convinced that the Valar held the gift of immortality and kept it deliberately from him. Through Sauron’s persuasion Ar Pharazôn had come to see all links to the Valar as a part of their denial of life to him. Nimloth the Fair was a key symbol of that link. But to the Elf Friends, the house of Elendil, it was not a symbol of denial but of hope and renewal. Isildur, at great risk to himself,  took a sapling of Nimloth before it could be cut down. He was wounded almost to his death in the attempt but in the first spring after he had taken the sapling the young tree flowered and Isildur was healed.

It was only after the failing of the line of kings in Gondor that the tree finally died and no sapling could be found but the tree was never cut down. Always it stood in the Court of the Fountain in Minas Tirith as a sign of hope that one day the king would return but now the dead tree has stood there for over three hundred years and is there any hope left?

The hope lies, not in some form of resuscitation, the continuing of some kind of existence in a body that must inevitably die, but in an ending that must lead to a renewing. The Gondor of the Stewards that has so bravely resisted the darkness is about to come to an end but the king will return.

I write this at the beginning of the week that Christians call, Holy. It is a week when we are called to think most especially about the ending of things as we follow Jesus on his journey towards the cross and towards death and burial. If we understand these things aright then we will come to know that our lives are not about an effort to continue existence, to hold the day of ending at bay for as long as a we can. We will come to know that we can face all our endings without fear, whether they are the loss of a job, of a career, of reputation, of wealth or health or even the loss of someone we love or the loss of our own life. We will come to know that our all our endings are beginnings that point to the day of resurrection and a transformation that can have nothing to do with death but only life. About what that means we can can catch only glimpses now but even the glimpses tell us that what lies before us is entirely wonderful, it is bliss, it is delight.

 

 

You Have Come to the End of the Gondor that You Have Known

These are not the kind of words that we want to hear from our prophets. When times are hard we want to be comforted; we want to be encouraged. We do not want to hear of endings but of continuings. In my work as a priest I am not sure that I have ever heard someone at the end of life when their body is failing actually look forward to the adventure that lies ahead so that the laying down of life is something that is done in faith and with joy. Sometimes sheer weariness may be expressed; a longing for the struggle to come to an end but often the desire is to return to a normality to which they have become used even if there is little or no  pleasure to look forward to within it.

This is the kind of normality to which Gondor has become used. This is a once great kingdom founded by Elendil and by his sons, Anárion and Isildur, and which in alliance with Gil-galad, the last High King of the Noldor, was able to overthrow Sauron even when he carried the Ring. Minas Morgul, the city of the Ringwraiths, was once Minas Ithil, the tower of the moon. The Black Gate that was shut against Frodo and Sam was first built not to keep enemies out of Mordor but by Gondor in her pride to keep her enemies shut within it.

Pippin’s first impression of Minas Tirith is of this glory. He “gazed in growing wonder at the great stone city, vaster and more splendid than anything he had dreamed of; greater and stronger than Isengard, and far more beautiful.” But what he sees is not the great city in the glory of its  maturity but in the fading of its declining years. “It was in truth falling year by year into decay; and already it lacked half the men that could have dwelt at ease there.” Pippin and Gandalf make the thousand foot climb up to the Citadel of the Stewards at the summit of the city and as they do so in every street they pass “some great house or court over whose doors and arched gates were carved many fair letters of strange and ancient shapes: names, Pippin guessed of great men and kindreds that had once dwelt there; and yet now they were silent, and no footsteps rang on their wide pavements, nor voice was heard in their halls, nor any face looked out from door or empty window.”

This is one of the most poignant expressions of the slow defeat that has been a major theme of The Lord of the Rings and we have seen it in many places through our journey; in the once great halls of Khazad-dûm and in the bleak city of Edoras and the darkened hall of Théoden in Meduseld. In each place we have seen something that once was great after its fashion now falling into decay and ruin and even as we have seen this we have seen also the rise of the powers of darkness. Who can triumph over them? Surely at the end even the bravest resistance is ultimately futile. Saruman thought this and so chose to side with the dark seeing such an alliance as the only means to further his own ambition. Soon we will meet Denethor, Steward of Gondor who has no more hope than Saruman and who although he does not take the way of betrayal also believes resistance to be futile.

This is the defeated world to which Gandalf declares: “Whatever betide, you have come to the end of the Gondor that you have known.” It may be that Gondor will fall and Gandalf does not hide this possibility from them; but it is not despair that Gandalf brings to Minas Tirith but hope and in the weeks ahead we will think about this hope both in the time of the War of the Ring and in our own time for we too are come to the end of a world that we have known and we too need such hope as can be brought to us. Gandalf calls Gondor not to despair but to fight on and so must we.

His Name is Peregrin, a Very Valiant Man.

Thus declares Gandalf when challenged by the guards of the Rammas Echor, the defence that surrounds the fields of the Pelennor, the fertile farm lands that lie before the great city of Minas Tirith. Ingold, their commander, recognises Gandalf who has been to the city many times but who is his small companion? Gandalf replies:

“As for valour, that cannot be computed by stature. He has passed through more battles and perils than you have, Ingold, though you be twice his height; and he comes now from the storming of Isengard, of which we bear tidings, and great weariness is on him, or I would wake him. His name is Peregrin, a very valiant man.”

A few weeks ago we thought about the journey of Samwise Gamgee from simple gardener to mighty warrior. By doing so we did not seek to diminish the calling of gardener. Sam will return to his gardens gladly but he will be a kingly gardener even as Faramir will be a kingly gardener as Prince of Ithilien, the Garden of Gondor. The journey to manhood must pass through hardship, peril and battle. Such a journey will make a boy a warrior and perhaps a lover and a wise teacher too; and if the journey is continued until its ending it will make the man kingly.

Pippin began the journey as a boy. His ambition on its second full day, even after the first encounters with the Ringwraiths, was limited to spending as much time as possible in The Golden Perch at Stock in the East Farthing of the Shire and enjoying its excellent beer. That day lies just a few short months ago in the past and Pippin will never lose the boyishness that will always make him so attractive but since that day he has passed through the attack upon the camp below Weathertop, the fall of Gandalf at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm, the time he spent as a prisoner of the orcs of Isengard and then the time with Treebeard and the storming of Isengard. And last and as significant as all of these there is the humiliation that he suffered before the ravenous gaze of Sauron when he looked into the Seeing Stone of Orthanc.

All of these things have transformed Pippin, not by some kind of magical action that happens simply when a person passes through hardship and failure but by the wisdom that is learnt through such experience. Pippin is a little sadder and much wiser through what he has learnt so he declares:

“I am a hobbit and no more valiant than I am a man, save perhaps now and again by necessity.”

Ingold immediately recognises that these are words spoken by a true warrior one who has truly learnt the lessons of hardship. A boy would try to convince others of his courage by boastfulness. Pippin is no longer a boy.

The words that Gandalf spoke were not just intended for Ingold and his men but for Pippin also. Gandalf knows that whatever lies ahead Pippin will need great courage. In calling Pippin a man he calls him to manly deeds and bearing. Pippin may make light of all that he has been through. He is more aware of what he owes to the courage of Boromir and his humiliation with the Palantir than he is of any deed he may have performed but his back is a little straighter and he stands a little taller because of Gandalf’s words. Perhaps we should say especially because they are Gandalf’s words. Pippin will remember Gandalf’s angry rebukes.  A boy usually needs the blessing, the approval of a wise father in order to become a true man. “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Pippin has received a father’s blessing. He is Peregrin, a very valiant man.

On, Shadowfax! We must Hasten. Time is Short.

Pippin awakes from a “swift moving dream in which he had been wrapped so long since the great ride began”. Shadowfax, the mightiest of horses,  is rushing through Anórien, the most northerly region of the land of Gondor, bearing Gandalf and Pippin towards Minas Tirith and towards war. It is the third night since Pippin looked into the Stone of Orthanc and so was forced to endure the gaze of Sauron. Now the Dark Lord believes that a hobbit is at Isengard. He gloats ravenously at him. Is this the one who has the Ring?

Sauron is so overcome by his own anticipation that he does not wait to ask further questions. He has servants who can reach Isengard swiftly and bring the prize to him. When he has the Ring there will be no further need for questions and ample time to punish the creature who has kept it from him.

And so by a lack of curiosity Sauron gives his foes just a little time for action. Gandalf siezes the time, removing Pippin from the palantir and from the place that the Dark Lord believes him to be, and rushing as fast as possible towards the place of crisis where the battle must be fought. So too do Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli; they must find their way to Minas Tirith as quickly as they can. And so too must the hosts of Rohan and messages are sent far and wide by Théoden, their king,  calling them to gather at Dunharrow. All must reach Minas Tirith in time for if the city of Gondor falls then even if Frodo is able to succeed in his mission and the Ring is unmade in the fires of Mount Doom there will be nothing to save and Frodo can go no faster than his feet can carry him and his burden will permit him. On the night on which Pippin gazes at the moon setting in the west Frodo watches it from the refuge of Henneth Anûn. He has far yet to go.

Wisdom trains us, through life and hard experience, that there are times when we can do nothing but wait; times when we must labour patiently, perhaps hoping against hope; times when we must get up again after failure and defeat; and then there times when we must grasp the slimmest of chances as swiftly as we can when they are presented to us. Gandalf has known all of these. He has laboured over two thousand years,  bearing Narya, the Ring of Fire, to keep hope alive in the hearts of the free peoples of Middle-earth and in all that time he has been forced to wait as Sauron has grown in power. He has been the captive of Saruman in Orthanc, watching helplessly as the Nazgûl seek for the Ring. He has been a beggar at the gates of Théoden, forced to endure the humiliations of Wormtongue. He has even journeyed through death after the battle with the Balrog of Moria. Now there is a moment, just the briefest of moments, when he can act and even now it may be too late.

We must live our lives with our eyes open,  watching for moments of opportunity. It may be given to a few to know that these are of great significance in the history of an age. They are like Simeon and Anna in the temple in Jerusalem looking for the coming of the Messiah. But all of us are called to be people of hope like them and while we wait for the dawning of the day we are called to do the acts of mercy in the knowledge that each one of them brings that dawn nearer. And we must do them most of all when it seems that the night is darkest.