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.