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.”