The Paths of the Dead. A Journey from Despair to Life .

At the end of the Second Age the King of the Mountains swore allegiance to Isildur at the Stone of Erech. But when war against the Dark Lord came the king proved faithless for he had worshipped Sauron in the Dark Years and still believed the dark to be greater than the light. And so Isildur said to him:

“Thou shalt be the last king. And if the west prove mightier than thy Black Master, this curse I lay upon thee and thy folk: to rest never until your oath is fulfilled. For this war will last through years uncounted, and you shall be summoned once again ere the end.”

The miserable story of the King of the Mountains acts as a kind of parable within The Lord of the Rings concerning the fate that awaits all who give way to the Dark believing either that their advantage lies that way, or that they have no choice, or some combination of the two. The story of Saruman is another expression of this reality and, if Sauron had triumphed, no doubt the story of the king and people of Harad and the other allies of Mordor would have been another. Isildur’s curse is not an act of arbitrary power. He simply declares what all worshippers of the Dark most truly desire; to exist in the darkness.

When Aragorn declares that he is the true king, the heir of Isildur, he calls the Dead to fulfil their oath. They must now serve him. Unlike the hapless Baldor, son of Brego the second king of Rohan, who sought to tread the Paths of the Dead in his own pride and without authority, Aragorn comes as one to whom authority has been given and so the dead must obey him. Baldor died because the way was shut “until the time comes”. The time has now come. The king has spoken and the dead must hear.

In one of his Advent reflections that you can find in his collection, entitled Waiting on the Word, Malcolm Guite calls Jesus “the king who walks alongside us disguised in rags, the true Strider.” This reference to Aragorn belongs to a poem inspired by the Advent antiphon,  O Rex Gentium, O King of the Nations and their desire. The Lord of the Rings is an Advent work proclaiming light in the darkness as we saw a few months ago when we heard Frodo cry out “Aiya Eärendil Elenion Ancalima!”, Hail Eärendil O Brightest of Stars! when he was lost in the utter darkness of Shelob’s Lair. Advent is also the time when we long for the true king to come and heal the lands. We long for “the true Strider”. The Lord of the Rings shows us those, like Faramir, who have kept the faith, waiting for the true king and perhaps for the restoration of Númenor and maybe even the deepest reality of all, that to which Númenor, even at its most true, could only point to. It also shows us those, like Denethor, who lose faith, or those like Saruman or the King of Harad who come to believe in a perversion of the Advent hope believing the lie that declares that it is the dark that is the true reality.

Aragorn’s journey through The Paths of the Dead calling the dead to obedience and so to an end to their misery also recalls the ancient story of how Jesus went down to the dead after his death on the cross and so harrowed hell leading the dead from despair to life.

This is the journey that Aragorn now takes with the companions who follow him and he points us to the true Strider who calls us, too, to follow him through darkness into light.


8 thoughts on “The Paths of the Dead. A Journey from Despair to Life .

  1. Scary thoughts about Isildur giving them what they thought at least they truly desired. I think of the Nazgul too and the lonely cry the hobbits heard in the Shire and the Witch-king’s detailed description of what the houses of lamentation were like. He could not describe it so vividly if he did not stay there himself. Hell is hell. I wonder if any of these cursed kings would have done what they did to get them to these sorry places if they had known how completely wretched they would be. The Oathbreakers finally had peace; the Nazgul never could.

    Namarie, God bless, Anne Marie 🙂

    • What a powerful contrast to make! Thank you so much! I had not reflected upon the contrast between the Nazgûl and the King of the Dead. Did I press my point too far when I spoke of the desire for death in relation to the King of the Mountains? Surely there must have been something within him and his people that had not bowed down to the dark and to death. The same could not be said for the Nazgûl. They have surely said a final, No! to the light. Do they know what kind of choice they have made? For myself, I think that they do. They have traded life for power just as Sauron has. What do you think?

  2. I hadn’t thought of it either until it struck me as I was leaving the comment and your remark about getting what you desire. Surely the King and his followers desired death long before they received it after they fulfilled their oath. I don’t know if they desired it before they broke their oath. I hope there was something that still resisted the dark within them. Not so the Nazgul.

    I don’t what choice the Nazgul would have made had they known their lives would be such a torment. The chilling translation of their marvelous theme music in the Fellowship movie makes it abundantly clear though they said no to the light –

    “We renounce our Maker.
    We cleave to the darkness.
    We take unto ourselves the power and glory.
    Behold! We are the Nine,
    The Lords of Unending Life.”

    Sadly there are lords of nothing, but the most enslaved of all slaves to Sauron, trapped between life and death, enjoying neither. What a terrible existence.

    • What a chilling phrase, “The Lords of Unending Life.” It exposes the current desire for endless existence among the super rich as what it truly is, a hatred of life and love and beauty. Tolkien’s long meditation on the grace of mortality in all his works needs our careful reflection. As you say, the Nazgul are the lords of nothing.
      Where does this quote come from? I do not know it. Thank you so much for sharing it with me.

      • It’s the English translation of the lyrics sung during the entrance of the Nazgul into Bree in the Fellowship movie. Love Howard Shore’s music. Indeed, mortality is a Gift and grace. I do not envy the Elves.

        Namarie, God bless, Anne Marie 🙂

      • I am with you about Howard Shore’s music. Some of the best film music of all time.
        I did not know that what you wrote came from the entry of the Nazgûl into Bree in the film version of The Fellowship of the Ring. Learning details like that are one of the joys of writing this blog. And if I have said that before I do not mind!
        If I understand Tolkien aright then the hope for both Elves and all other races, humankind included, lies beyond Arda. Elves also dwell in the Halls of Mandos. The last word belongs to Illuvatar. It often strikes me that one of the great wearinesses that afflict the old is change. There comes a point when they just want an end to it. The Elves can never be free of that weariness. That is a great sorrow but not a despair as it is for the Nazgûl.
        By the way, on the desire for immortality among the rich, I recently watched a lecture given on line by the chief of engineering for Google, Ray Kurzweil, that he gave to a conference in Moscow. In it he expressed his belief that by 2040 immortality will be achieved by humankind thanks to the digital revolution. It may be that he is right. I cannot claim any expertise here. What I do believe is that the immortality achieved would be the immortality of the Nazgûl and that those who accept it would become wraiths. Tolkien understood the human desire for immortality but as our own creation and not as a divine gift. The destruction of Númenor was an act of grace. The Nazgûl believe that they have beaten God but all they have achieved is eternal misery. What will happen to us in this century? I will be 85 in 2040 if I am still around. I will never possess “the” Ring but I am determined never to accept the “gift” of a 21st century version of one of the Nine that Sauron offered to the kings of Men.

  3. Indeed! Only the Godless who see no life beyond this one would long for immortality on this shattered orb. Only afterward would they understand they entered a hell of their own making because they refused to believe in heaven. The despair would cause a very high suicide rate among them in their desperation to escape, if they could not any other way. There are things that should not be meddled with. Such who believe this sort of immortality would be a gift, the ultimate worship of self, and not wish to receive the true gift need our pity and prayers.

    Namarie, God bless, Anne Marie 🙂

    P.S. If you want to know more about the lyrics for the films, go to: Doug Adams also wrote a whole book about the music. I love what is sung as Frodo dangles over the Cracks of Doom and Sam tries to reach him.

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