The “Hopeless Journey” of the Armies of the West.

A few days after the great battle the armies of the West gather once more upon the Pelennor Fields in order to march towards the Morannon, the same Black Gate that Frodo and Sam saw upon their journey to Mordor and realised was impossible to enter. Tolkien describes the march as a “hopeless journey”, one that must end in inevitable defeat and death, and this begins to weigh upon the hearts of the young soldiers.

For those who have lived their lives in the far provinces of Gondor and of Rohan, Mordor has been but a name only, albeit a dark and fearful one, now it is a living nightmare that is beyond their comprehension. Aragorn treats them with mercy, allowing them to withdraw and to fulfil a mission that they can comprehend. They are to recapture the island of Cair Andros that lies within the waters of the Anduin.

The rest of the army continue and so reach the impregnable defences of the Dark Land. There they encounter the Lieutenant of the Tower of Barad-dûr who plays a game of negotiation while torturing them by presenting to them items taken from Frodo when the guard of Cirith Ungol found him by the road leading from Shelob’s Lair. A coat, a cloak and a sword.

A hopeless journey ends in a hopeless battle as the full might of Mordor and its allies breaks upon the small brave army arranged upon two hills before the gate. Peregrin Took, now truly the “valiant man” that Gandalf presented to the defenders of Minas Tirith just a few short days before, falls beneath the vast body of a Troll that he has just slain in defence of Beregond, his friend. Even though the last words that he hears before he slips out of consciousness are that “The Eagles are coming!” Pippin is sure that his story is come to an end and so too is the story of all that he cares about.

How do we keep going without hope? Tolkien often returns to this question in The Lord of the Rings. It was a major theme in the story of the pursuit of the orcs who had captured Merry and Pippin at the Falls of Rauros when the Fellowship was broken. Aragorn knows that he is likely to fail in his attempt and so all that he has hoped for through his life will fail too. The hope that he has nourished that he will restore the honour and the fortunes of his people, the Dunedain of the West, a hope that is enshrined in the very name his mother gave to him, Estel, as she lay dying; the hope that he will restore the kingdom of Gondor; and the hope that he will win the hand of Arwen in marriage, all this is lain down in a task that is impossible.

At all points within the story hope is understood as something greater than simply that what a particular character is trying to achieve will be successful. Success, of course, is desired, but it is not the thing that is most important. Even the destruction of the Ring itself is not the thing that matters most. When we return to the story of Frodo and Sam’s journey through Mordor we will come to a moment when Sam glimpses a star, perhaps the Silmaril in the heavens that is beyond the grasp of Sauron. And as he sees it he understands that “in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.”

This is the difference, Sam understands, between hope and defiance. Defiance is brave and we saw it when we thought about Éomer preparing for a good death in battle before Minas Tirith. Hope goes far deeper and knows that there is a reality that is far greater than my part in the story and yet, somehow, will include us too in a way far beyond our comprehension but not beyond our love.

The journey is hopeless in so far as there is no expectation of a successful end to it. But true hope goes deeper than expectation. It is grounded in love for that which is highest and that enables us to keep going until the end.


Gandalf Speaks of a Time to Risk Everything

I never thought that I would ever quote Lenin in this blog but there is no doubt that he was a man who knew how to recognise and then to seize opportunity when it came. These words are ascribed to him.

“There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks when decades happen.”

Lenin recognised one of those weeks a hundred years ago and was ready to seize power in the November 1917 coup that brought the Bolsheviks to power in Russia. He knew that there are moments in life when everything must be risked for the biggest prize of all. Lenin might not thank me for this but Jesus makes the same point in the gospels in the story he tells, of the man who sells everything in order to buy the pearl of great price. First we must assess the value of the thing that we wish to gain. Then we must decide what we are prepared to gamble in order to gain it.

Gandalf first came to Middle-earth about two thousand years before the events that are recorded in The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien tells us that the arrival of the Istari, the order of wizards, came when a shadow fell upon Greenwood and it first began to take the name of Mirkwood. A thousand years after Sauron fell at the hands of Isildur and the Ring was taken from him he was beginning to regain the strength that he lost in the great battle that ended the Second Age. For two thousand years Gandalf watched and gave encouragement to the free peoples of Middle-earth. He built friendships with the Wise and to the surprise of many and the contempt of Saruman he learned to play in the Shire delighting folk there with his fireworks and developing a taste for simple food, good ale and pipeweed. Perhaps even he did not know how important the Shire would become and how, one day, hobbits would take everyone by surprise. Perhaps it was necessary that he should not know. The greatest things that happen to us in our lives are not the result of our plans and calculations but come to us as a surprise. There is an old word for this surprise. It is called grace. Sauron is the great planner. He is prepared to spend two thousand years putting everything in place for the moment in which he will try to achieve the domination of Middle-earth and so grace becomes an impossibility for him. Gandalf is the entire opposite. He has done all that he can but recognises after the great battle of the Pelennor Fields that only grace, and a complete surrender to grace, can save them.

The great opportunity, or as Denethor put it, the “fool’s hope” has come to them in the form of the Ring of Power. In Aragorn’s challenge to Sauron in the Palantir a seed of doubt has been sown in Sauron’s mind. Does the heir of Isildur wield the Ring? Is this why the Battle of the Pelennor Fields was lost? Is this why the Lord of the Nazgûl fell? Gandalf counsels the captains of the West to encourage this doubt and so to give Frodo, the Ring bearer, a chance to take the Ring to the fires of Orodruin and so destroy it and the power of its master, for ever.

“We must push Sauron to his last throw. We must call out his hidden strength, so that he shall empty his land. We must march out to meet him at once. We must make ourselves the bait, though his jaws should close on us.”

It is Aragorn who speaks for all the captains in reply.

“We come now to the very brink, where hope and despair are akin. To waver is to fall. Let none now reject the counsels of Gandalf, whose long labours against Sauron come at last to their test.”

So everything is to be risked on one last effort. A small force will challenge the might of Mordor. If it were not for the possibility that a captain of this force might possess the Ring Sauron would laugh at it. But they do not possess the Ring and so victory by force of arms is impossible. All the hope of the West rests now upon two exhausted hobbits and upon grace.

Gandalf Thinks About the Weather

We can forgive Gandalf for mixing not just two but three metaphors because of who he is. Perhaps he mixes them deliberately in order to leave his hearers in no doubt about the point that he is making. The hearers are the lords of the allies gathered at the gates of Minas Tirith. Denethor and Théoden are dead and Faramir is recovering from his wounds in the Houses of Healing so it is Aragorn, Imrahil of Dol Amroth, Éomer and Elladan and Elrohir, the sons of Elrond who listen to what Gandalf is saying.

“Other evils there are that may come; for Sauron is himself but a servant or emissary. Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world,  but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.”

Weather is one of those elements of life over which we have no immediate control although climate is something that we have always had the capacity to influence. Climate usually changes gradually while weather can change from day to day. Those who live on the Atlantic coast of Europe know this very well as the prevailing wind blows from that ocean more often than not. In order to live successfully in such a changeable climate it is necessary to be prepared for it. And those who wish to be happy will learn to enjoy the changes.

Two of my favourite characters in C. S Lewis’s That Hideous Strength are Frank and Camilla Denniston. I know that if I ever met them I would like them. And one of the things that I like about them is their attitude to Weather.

“That’s why Camilla and I got married… We both like Weather. Not this or that kind of weather, but Weather. It’s a useful taste if one lives in England.”

And the Dennistons explain to Jane Studdock that we tend to grow up by learning to mistrust attitudes to life that once came quite naturally. Mistrust seems to be something that too many people regard as a necessary life skill. Eventually as they proceed upon this unhappy pathway they come to regard life itself as something to be guarded against. They may fear death but come to exist, and only exist, in a kind of half life. This is the existence that Théoden endured under the tutelage of Wormtongue until Gandalf delivered him and it is no accident that one of the first things that Gandalf did after setting Théoden free was to take him out into the weather, into the rain that was falling.

It has been my habit for a few years now to take my dog out for a walk in the Worcestershire countryside at about 6 in the morning. I do this in every season and whatever the weather. For part of the year I take the walk in the dark, for part of it in the light, and part too in the days when the earth moves from dark to light at that time of the day. No two days are ever quite the same and slowly this walk is teaching me a wisdom for living that is not about mustering sufficient resources to overcome the world about me but about learning to live with the world as my friend.

Next week we will think about Gandalf’s counsel to those gathered in the tents of Aragorn but this week it is this central element within his wisdom that we highlight. We cannot chose the challenges that we will have to face in our lives. We can only choose the manner in which we deal with them.

Next week we will think about how the lords of the West choose to deal with the impossible challenge that faces them.


Legolas and Gimli Speak of The Greatness of Aragorn, The Heir of Isildur.

So it is that Legolas and Gimli meet and speak with Merry and Pippin in the gardens of the Houses of Healing. And there the Elf and the Dwarf tell of the mighty ride of the Dunedain and the hosts of the Dead through the valleys of Gondor through Lebennin to the mouth of the Great River at Pelargir. And they tell of how the Corsairs of Umbar and the Haradrim were overthrown by the terror of the Dead so that it was an army of Gondor that came to the landings of Harlond at the key moment in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields and not her enemies.

And the friends speak of the greatness of Aragorn, a greatness that through the mighty ride through Gondor and in the battles after was a terrible thing to behold. And Legolas says,

“In that hour I looked on Aragorn and thought how great and terrible a Lord he might have become in the strength of his own will, had he taken the Ring to himself. Not for naught does Mordor fear him.”

In the Houses of Healing we saw Aragorn as a healer passing his hand gently through Merry’s hair and kissing Éowyn gently upon her brow, restoring both to life. Is it possible that one man should contain such apparent opposites within himself? We might remember that the Warden of the Houses of Healing presumed that a captain of war could not also be a man of learning. His assumption is that a man will be either one or the other but not both.

So is Aragorn a divided man? I would argue not. And that is why he does not take the Ring for himself. His might in battle is not the seizing of power by a ruthless man but a self offering for the sake of the peoples of Middle-earth. He will die for his people if need be and his offering is a terrible thing in its ferocity. But he will not win at any price and he values the freedom of the peoples of Middle-earth above victory.

Compare this to Denethor when debating with Gandalf before the battle. Denethor makes it clear that he values Gondor above all other nations and also that he values his own lordship even above the welfare of his people. Aragorn is entirely different. He has spent his life in the service of all Free Folk and that is why Elf, Dwarf and Hobbits love him. And like Faramir his desire for Gondor is that it should  be “full of light, high and fair, beautiful as a queen among other queens… Not feared, save as men may fear the dignity of a man, old and wise.”

Moore and Gillette would argue that what Aragorn does is to access the energy of the great masculine archetypes, King, Magician, Warrior and Lover and is able to do so at will but that he never identifies his Self with any of them. This is such an important distinction to be able to make if we are to understand true maturity. If we overly identify our Self with one of the archetypes then that Self will be a slave to the archetype and almost certainly to a false or immature version of it. Sauron is a terrible example of this. His desire for domination has led him to identify entirely with the energy of the King archetype. He is enslaved by his desire for power and has no freedom over this. By contrast Aragorn’s Self is greater than any of the archetypal energies. Legolas puts it this way, “But nobler is his spirit than the understanding of Sauron; for is he not of the children of Lúthien?”

To become our True Self we must learn how to draw upon archetypal energy but we must learn too that our True Self is greater than any archetype. Aragorn is able to call upon the energy of the Warrior archetype to a terrible degree in battle and then to lay it aside afterwards. He is master of himself for a purpose higher than himself.

Legolas and Gimli in Minas Tirith

On the morning after the great battle Legolas and Gimli are eager to find Merry and Pippin.

“It is good to learn that they are still alive,” said Gimli; “for they cost us great pains in our march over Rohan, and I would not have such pains all wasted.”

And so they make their way up through the city towards the Houses of Healing and as they do so they ponder this greatest of cities and see all that it lacks. Gimli sees the city through the eyes of a worker of stone, admiring the best of what he sees but also how he might improve it with the aid of the stonewrights of Erebor. And Legolas sees through the eyes of a gardener and by this he does not mean a suburban garden with its neatly tended rows; he will bring his forest home to Minas Tirith with “birds that sing and trees that do not die.”

So begins a reflection on the nature and works of humankind and they fail to reach a conclusion. When they meet the Prince Imrahil Legolas is moved to say that “If Gondor has such men still in these days of fading, great must have been its glory in the days of its rising.”

It is this tension between fading and rising that occupies them most of all. The history of Dwarves and of Elves has been a long and slow fading. The timescale over which this has been played out is so long that sometimes to the observer it feels as if it is no fading at all. Rivendell and Lothlórien seem ever fresh in their beauty and nothing surely can possibly bring them to an end. Yet an end will come and the Elves know it. Even so the Dwarves have a memory of Moria, of Khazad-dûm, that Tolkien shows us in Gimli’s sad journey through its darkened ruins. It is a memory that casts into relief even the best of what they can achieve in Erebor. It is within their power to restore the kingdom under the Mountain but they cannot restore Moria. That lies forever beyond their grasp.

But if Legolas and Gimli know the ending of their own peoples then, try as they might to perceive it, they do not know the destiny of humankind. Gimli speaks of their fading.

“Doubtless the good stonework is the older and was wrought in the first building… It is ever so with the things that Men begin: there is a frost in Spring, or a blight in Summer, and they fail of their promise.”

But Legolas speaks of renewal.

“Yet seldom do they fail of their seed… And that will lie in the dust and rot to spring up again in times and places unlooked for. The deeds of Men will outlast us, Gimli.”

This is the mystery of humankind. Tolkien himself in his legendarium tells of both the glory and the horror of Númenor and he tells of human renewing in the founding of the kingdoms of Gondor and of Arnor by Elendil the Elf Friend. Legolas and Gimli are in no doubt that if Aragorn emerges triumphant over his foes he will bring about a renewal after the nature of the one achieved by Elendil but whether it will last that they do not know. As Legolas says, “To that the Elves know not the answer.”

I am struck that Tolkien leaves his question open and unanswered. If Lewis is sure that history must end in a final destruction before a final renewal can take place at he demonstrates in The Last Battle Tolkien seems prepared to allow for uncertainty. My own conviction is that Legolas is speaking for Tolkien here. As for myself I would like to end my reflection with some thoughts by the Russian 20th century philosopher, Nikolai Berdyaev. Perhaps they will begin some debate among my readers alongside Tolkien’s reflections on human destiny.

“It must be recognised that man in his limited and relative earthly life is capable of bringing about the beautiful and the valuable only when he believes in another life, unlimited, absolute, eternal. That is a law of his being. A contact with this mortal life exclusive of any other ends in the wearing-away of effective energy and a self satisfaction that makes one useless and superficial. Only the spiritual man, striking his roots deep in infinite and eternal life, can be a true creator.”