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.