Théoden Leads His Army into Battle.

The Riders of Rohan reach the Pelennor Fields at last and look down upon the horror below them. “The king sat upon Snowmane, motionless, gazing upon the agony of Minas Tirith, as if stricken suddenly by anguish or by dread. He seemed to shrink down, cowed by age.” Until this moment it has been possible to push the impossibility of what they must do to the back of their minds by attending to all of the essential tasks that a soldier must do. That possibility exists no longer. Théoden stares at his own annihilation, something that he shrank from through the years of Wormtongue’s whisperings, and for a moment he is the shrivelled old man in the darkness of his hall and of his mind. And then…

“Arise, arise, Riders of Théoden!  Fell deeds awake: fire and slaughter! spear shall be shaken, shield be splintered, a sword day, a red day, ere the sun rises! Ride now, ride now! Ride to Gondor!”

And the old man is transformed and rides into battle like a god, “even as Oromë the Great in the battle of the Valar when the world was young”. And like Oromë the hunter he takes a horn and blows such a mighty blast upon it “that it burst asunder”. Théoden the godlike king rides with such might that he outruns even the swiftest of his army and as he rides the grass about Snowmane’s feet flames into green, the wind turns and blows fresh from the sea “and darkness was removed and the hosts of Mordor wailed, and terror took them, and they fled, and died, and the hoofs of wrath rode over them.”

Tolkien takes the language of myth and of Old English song that had captured his heart when he was a young man in order to describe this scene in the story. Skilled story teller as he is he could have taken us into battle with the frightened Merry or the death-seeking Éowyn or the standard-bearer Guthláf trying desperately to keep up with his lord but he chooses the godlike king before whose face all creation is transformed, transfigured.

And what do we do as readers? Is it encumbered upon us as those who are disillusioned and disenchanted modernists to demystify or demythologise Tolkien’s language and to insist that we describe war as what it is, as foul and filthy, as a thing of horror? We could do so if we choose and what is more Tolkien could do so better than most of us for he saw war at first hand in the killing fields of Flanders in the First World War. But Tolkien chooses not to do this but to take us to a wholly different level of human experience. It is not that he has a nostalgic longing for medieval warfare which was just as foul and bloody as anything that we can invent today nor does he seek to promulgate what Wilfred Owen called, “the old lie”, that to die for one’s country is a sweet and proper thing. No, what Tolkien does is to take the human experience of the horror of war and to transform it. Note, please, that I have not said take the horror of war and transform it but to take the human experience of war and transform it. And in doing so he chooses not to reduce human beings in war to dumb animals in the slaughter house but to elevate them to gods. And he does it for just this paragraph only as the Rohirrim ride into battle giving us the briefest of glimpses into what we truly are. When we look across the page we return to the description of events, to one action after another. Both kinds of narrative are true and both are true together.

And we will end this week’s reflection with a final thought. When the hopelessly outnumbered Riders of Rohan ride into battle in defence of Minas Tirith they do so in the likelihood that they will die in the attempt. And yet they still ride on. Their plunge into the heart of darkness is godlike and one that was recognised in one of the oldest of English poems, The Dream of the Rood, a poem that likens the death of Christ upon the cross to the triumph of a mighty warrior in battle and so transformed the experience of the warrior forever.
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Merry Feels Useless as He Prepares for Battle

We are on the road with the Rohirrim passing through the Druadan forest and it is held against us by our enemies. We could engage them in battle and doubtless would prevail but there is no time for delay, not even a victorious one, because the hosts of Mordor are at the gates of Minas Tirith.

Théoden and his commanders are busy about the business of war and are in conference with the people of the Druadan wood, seeking a way to bring the riders past those who would prevent their passage but one among their number is lonely and unhappy.

We have seen Merry like this before, on more than one occasion. He carries a great burden with him, one that he does not seem to know how to cast away, and that is his sense of insignificance.

Elfhelm, the commander of the éored to which Dernhelm/Éowyn is attached, trips over Merry, hidden as he is by the elven cloak that he wears, and roundly curses the tree-roots.

“I am not a tree root, Sir,” Merry said, “nor a bag, but a bruised hobbit.”

Poor Merry! It was his desire to be of some use that brought him here but it is his sense of uselessness that afflicts him now that he is close to battle. He wishes “he was a tall rider like Éomer and could blow a horn or something and go galloping to his rescue.”

Ah, the blowing of horns and the business of galloping about. How many people are relieved to spend their time going from meeting to meeting, not because of the value of what each meeting can bring to the enterprise that they are meant to serve but because each meeting can fill the void that otherwise they would gaze over as each day’s work begins. When they take their place around the meeting table at least they do not have to justify their reason for being there.

Merry is there in disobedience to the king’s express command. What can we say to comfort him? Elfhelm does not try and Dernhelm keeps silent. And if they did speak there would be nothing that they could say. Soon as they look down upon the Pelennor Fields and the hosts of Mordor massed against them they will all feel afraid and they will all have to master their fear. Even Théoden will “sit upon Snowmane, motionless, gazing upon the agony of Minas Tirith, as if stricken suddenly by anguish, or by dread.”

And at that moment all that there will be for any to do will be to rush into the heart of battle. Only a few battle hardened veterans will know what it is that they must do when they meet the enemy, the rest will have to learn quickly or perish as they do so. And Merry will find himself confronting a foe so terrible that even if he had been a veteran of many battles and had won many victories, not one of them would be of any use to him. But we will have to wait until another time to think about that story.

So there is no comfort that we can give him now and if we were to tell him what he will face in the battle we might terrify him so much as to unman him completely. It is best not to think too much about what lies ahead. John Henry Newman puts it well in his beloved hymn, “Lead Kindly Light” and we will end this week’s reflection on The Lord of the Rings with his words. Newman was a priest at the Birmingham Oratory whose clergy raised Tolkien after his mother’s death and so I would imagine that he knew this hymn very well.

“Lead, kindly light, amid the encircling gloom; lead thou me on! The night is long and I am far from home; lead thou me on! Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see the distant scene- one step enough for me.”

Anyone who has walked in real darkness will know one step is all that you can take at any point. Faith tells you that it is all you need. It is enough.

A Cock Crow Announces the Fall of Mordor

The Lord of the Nazgûl chooses to enter the gates of Minas Tirith on horseback. He has waited long years for this moment and it must be done in the appropriate manner. All the defenders of the city flee before him except one. Gandalf remains upon Shadowfax who does not desert him. Gandalf is steadfast but even he cannot stand alone before his enemies.

And then something happens that surely no one notices and yet Tolkien, as narrator, knows is of the most profound significance.

“Gandalf did not move. And in that very moment, away behind in some courtyard of the City, a cock crowed. Shrill and clear he crowed, recking nothing of wizardry or war, welcoming only the morning that in the sky far above the shadows of death was coming with the dawn.”

It is a glorious moment and one easily missed because of the event that follows immediately after. And Tolkien gives space to the moment because there is a theme that has run throughout The Lord of the Rings and that is the resistance of the natural world against all that the powers of darkness can hurl against it.

Contrast the massive effort that turns the mûmakil of the Harad, the “oliphaunts” that Sam so delighted to see in Ithilien into engines of war to the simplicity of the cockcrow. Think of how after all the effort to train them the Lord of the Nazgûl casually wastes their lives, for “their purpose was only to test the strength of the defence and to keep the men of Gondor busy in many places”. Contrast too the one horse upon which the Lord of the Ringwraiths rides, a once free and proud beast, savagely broken so that it might become the instrument of its master’s will, to the free  choice of Shadowfax who does not flee when  all others do, whether man or beast. Cavalry is the one thing that the forces of Mordor do not possess. The bond between horse and rider that Gandalf and Shadowfax display or which brings the Rohirrim to the battlefield can only be created by the armies of Mordor with the most brutal force and it is easier to put the energy that is required to break the horses to a different, though equally savage, use.

The cock crows in the city because it is a cock. As Gerard Manley Hopkins wonderfully declares in his great poem, As Kingfishers Catch Fire, 

“Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; Selves- goes itself; myself it speaks and spells; crying What I do is me: for that I came.”

 Note please that Hopkins does not say “What I do is for me”. The Lord of the Nazgûl says that endlessly even in his service of Sauron. What Hopkins declares is far more profound because unlike the slave King of Angmar Hopkins is free, as is the kingfisher, as is the cock in the city courtyard, as is Shadowfax, as is Gandalf. And so he can say “What I do is me”!

The day has dawned in the sky above the war in Minas Tirith despite all the mighty efforts of the Dark Lord. Far away Ghân-buri-Ghân sniffed the air on the previous day and a light came into his eyes as he said, “Wind is changing!” Sauron is not the lord of the weather despite all the outpouring of his might and for that brief and glorious moment as the cock crows in complete indifference of all the powers of darkness, “recking nothing of wizardry or war” he is not even lord of a simple creature who is being itself.

We will encounter many who claim to be “lords” and sometimes we will feel quite powerless before them. If we are to stand against them in total freedom as Gandalf does then we need to learn how to commune with all that is free, with the free creation that Selves. We need to learn how to delight in all around us in its freedom and its beauty. To allow it to be itself even as we learn to become our true selves.

 

 

Pippin Follows His Captain

When I wrote last week’s blog post on Denethor’s cry of despair that “the West has failed” I came across something that took me by surprise. That moment came when I read Pippin’s speech to Denethor after he is released from the Steward’s service. It is a speech of some nobility and it shows how far Pippin has come since he looked into the Stone of Orthanc just a few days before. He is becoming the “very valiant man” that Gandalf declared him to be when they passed through the outer defences of the Pelennor Fields. He is making the kind of journey that someone with good foundations will make when those foundations are challenged. He will grow up into mature adulthood and become a source of strength to others.

“I will take your leave, sir,” he said; “for I want to see Gandalf very much indeed. But he is no fool; and I will not think of dying until he despairs of life. But from my word and your service I do not wish to be released while you live. And if they come at last to the Citadel, I hope to be here and stand beside you and earn perhaps the arms that you have given me.”

In saying this Pippin displays a kind of courage that was very dear to Tolkien and one that he saw in the heroic tales of northern lands. It is a courage that is not dependant on a happy outcome. It is a courage that is most truly displayed when hope is lost. We see it in the cheerfulness of spirit that Merry and Pippin display when they are prisoners of the orcs and when the Ents march upon Isengard. And we see its absence in Denethor’s despair. The Tolkien scholar, Tom Shippey, puts it this way. “Its great statement was that defeat is no refutation. The right side remains right even if it has no ultimate hope at all.”

This is courage indeed and it requires great inner strength to maintain it. And in Pippin’s speech we get an idea of where he finds that strength. “I will not think of dying until he [Gandalf] despairs of life.” All through the story the young hobbits have been aware of being of no great significance to the final outcome of the quest. For Merry this realisation has been a burden. He feels himself to be an item of baggage in someone else’s story and it hurts him to feel in this way. Pippin is not burdened in the same way. He is happy to leave the big decisions, even the big beliefs, in more competent hands. If Gandalf has not given in, well, then neither will Peregrin Took.

Let us not judge the value of Pippin’s courageous choice and find it wanting because it seems to require the greater courage and faith of someone else. Pippin does make brave choices and when he urges Beregond to stop great harm coming to Faramir he inspires a brave choice in another. But he is content, not to be a leader, but a follower. What matters is that he has a worthy cause to give his “gentle loyalty” to and a captain worth following.

If we think about this with some care we will come to this conclusion. We are all followers in certain aspects of life and if our leaders are of the right quality then it will be easier for us to keep going even in challenging times. Equally if our captains let us down our own capacity to keep on going gets a little harder. And we will also realise that other people depend upon us to keep going and that we must not let them down. We are all part of a community that needs each other and sometimes we can be surprised how widely that community extends and that people look to us that we rarely think about. Faramir will survive his father’s despair because Beregond gains strength from Pippin.

Denethor Declares that The West has Failed!

The battle still rages at the walls of Minas Tirith as the Lord of the Nazgûl prepares his final assault, great siege towers built in Osgiliath rolling forward to overwhelm what remains of the city’s defences. But in the Chamber of the Steward in the White Tower the Lord Denethor fights no more. When messengers come seeking orders and telling him that men flee the defences leaving the walls unmanned, his only response is:

“Why? Why do the fools fly? Better to burn sooner than late, for burn we must. Go back to your bonfire! And I? I will go now to my pyre. To my pyre! No tomb for Denethor and Faramir. No tomb! No long slow sleep of death embalmed. We will burn like heathen kings before ever a ship sailed hither from the West. The West has failed. Go back and burn!”

The West has failed.

And all the great vision of the Valar, and of the Free Peoples of the Earth, of Elves and of Humankind, of Valinor and of Númenor, of Gondolin and of Nargothrond, of Rivendell and of Lothlórien, of Arnor and of Gondor, is at an end before the inevitable triumph of the Dark.

The West has failed.

This is not a conclusion that Denethor has drawn based upon what he can see from his windows. This is a belief that he has long held but against which he has fought bravely for as long as he could. Whereas Saruman, with whom he shares the belief, has sought to become an ally to darkness, to reach some accommodation with it, Denethor has refused such a path and has resisted the dark with all his might. He is no traitor. But at the end he bows down before the power of darkness and declares the great story of the West, of which he has been a steward, to be no more than a preparation for a funeral.

The West has failed!

So must all hope fail? Whether we rage, rage against the dying of the light or sit down before its inevitable arrival and quietly despair, going gentle into the night, must darkness fall?

Pippin is a simpler soul than his lord. When Denethor releases him from his service and bids him go to die his response is straightforwardly hobbit-like. “I will take your leave, sir… for I want to see Gandalf very much indeed. But he is no fool; and I will not think of dying under he despairs of life.”

Pippin has no great philosophy of life. For him it is enough that those who to whom he has chosen to give his trust, and at this point of the story this means Gandalf, have not given way to despair. And Gandalf has not given way to despair because long ago he said a great, Yes! to life and to light and to love. He said his, Yes! without dissembling or ambiguity. It was this, Yes! that Cirdan recognised when first Gandalf came to Middle-earth and so gave him Narya, one of the three rings of the Elves, that had power to inspire others to resist tyranny and despair. It was this, Yes! that enabled Gandalf to stand before the Balrog at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm, to declare, “You shall not pass!” and to give himself up to death itself in battle against him. And it is this, Yes! that will enable him to stand alone before the Lord of the Nazgûl when all others have fled.

The early Fathers of the Church taught that repentance, a word that we tend to understand as merely saying sorry for our wrongdoing, was something much more fundamental, much greater than that. It means the renunciation of despair. It means the great, Yes! It does not mean that we hope things are going to turn out for the best. It means a great, Yes! to the Light that shines in the darkness and the darkness can never put it out. And once we have made the great renunciation of despair and through our daily spiritual practice root it deep at the heart of our lives then we will find strength even in the darkest night.