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.”

12 thoughts on “Legolas and Gimli in Minas Tirith

  1. This is a keen-sighted reflection (if I can use an odd metaphor). My tendency is to see that we are in a fading, but the fading includes times of creativity and renewal. I don’t think we are in apocalypse, with due respect to the great problems that exist politically right now. Those problems are the visceral reaction of a culture (the disparate West) that is drowning and scrambling around for anything it might grab on to. As a drowning man threatens to pull his saviour beneath the waves in his panic, so too our culture.
    That is not to deny the beauty, ingenuity, and genuine progress in some areas. There is renewal in the fading. And things might be disrupted. Catastrophe could do it (war, famine, pestilence, etc.). The diversification of cultures from south and east may slowly interrupt our cultural moment and transform into something different. Still, it feels like things are slowly coming to a point.

    • Thank you so much for leaving a comment, Brenton. And just in case you feel like carrying on the conversation, I wonder what you think of the distinction that I drew between Lewis and Tolkien here. You speak of apocalypse in your comment and I certainly read Lewis as one who anticipates an apocalyptic ending. I feel that the ending of The Lord of the Rings gets more enigmatic to me the more I think about it and I look forward to exploring the ending on my blog over the next couple of years. The relationship/tension between gain and loss in the final chapters is both joyous and heartrending.
      I don’t know about you but I have found that all reflections on the future of our own western civilisation are thrown into relief by the experience of being a father. I can be as speculative as I like about the future of the West but I long for a future in which my daughters will be able to thrive. I happen to believe that this means that other people need to thrive as well and other species both animal and vegetable.
      On the question of fading and rising it seems to me that both are always taking place. In order to become an adult I must leave home. That is both a moment full of promise and also full of sadness. If I have a picture of heaven then it is walking home from school through the woods on a frosty winter’s evening knowing that my mother has a pot of soup on the stove waiting for me in the farmhouse kitchen. Even writing that sentence now causes a profound effect upon me and I know that I can never go back there again. I had to leave that safe place in order to become a man and when I had the chance I took it with all the energy that I could muster.
      So in reflection on my own life I have both loss and gain to ponder. Is there any distinction between an individual life and that of a culture? I must devote what remains of my life to whatever is rising in our culture. I happen to think that the work of the Inklings, a mythmaking that has caught the imagination of our times, will play a major part in the shaping of this century. The modernists may have dismissed them as reactionary but they have drawn the pre-modern into our times and made it contemporary. How the dialogue that they have begun will play out in social and cultural circumstances that they themselves could not foresee I do not know but I believe that it will be transformative. I still have hope that there will yet be renaissance.

    • It’s not easy for a North American to feel that way. We kind of have to strain for it, Had we grown up in a place that had Roman ruins, I think stories of slow fading would have more resonance. As it is, my surroundings incline me towards the spectacular flame-out. Diversification of cultures is pretty much the only thing that gives me hope — hybrids are better at surviving catastrophes.

      • I wonder what Brenton will say in response to your fine observation. England is very much a rural country in its essence. Apart from London it has no ancient cities of any size. All of the older settlements outside the capital developed around castles and monasteries. The larger cities all grew up as a consequence of the Industrial Revolution not least Birmingham, where Tolkien grew up and near which I live. How different it is in Italy where populations like to live in the centre of cities that have been there for far longer. I remember the Bishop of Birmingham welcoming the Cardinal Archbishop of Milan who had come to address us commenting that Milan was a centre of civilisation when we English were all living in huts. Tolkien’s Middle-earth has communities like Rivendell that feel like a kind of monastic outpost in the wilderness or Lothlórien that is the perfect rural settlement. He is a countryman at heart. Minas Tirith is his only city, apart from from the horror of Minas Morgul and perhaps the Dwarves in Erebor.
        How interesting that the Europeans who left home for the Americas so quickly forgot the long slow histories of their homelands and failed, too, to appreciate the long slow history of the indigenous peoples of the continent in which they had settled. You can tell, I suspect, that I am not a child of revolution nor myself a revolutionary in spirit. But I am a reformer. I want to participate in the sowing of seeds that will bear fruit in generations to come.

  2. Like that last sentence. The Elves have seen so much tragedy and beauty throughout their long lives. They have built havens against the darkness, lights in the black night, and they are willing to let those lights go out, sacrifice their entire way of life in Middle-earth to vanquish the one who would extinguish their brightness in a much worse way if he regained the Ring. I thought of these things while reading this. I have read Tom Shippey thinks possibly Legolas and Gimli were speaking (all unknowingly) of the Incarnation 4000 years in the future when the Elf speaks of Men.

    Namarie, God bless, Anne Marie 🙂

    • Those are beautiful thoughts, Anne Marie. I love the way that Tolkien tells the story of the Elves. What wisdom they learn through their long sojourn in Middle-earth. Perhaps we should not be overly harsh upon ourselves. Even the longest of our lives is so brief by comparison with the Elves. The best studies on Tolkien, Tom Shippey’s among them, Alison Milbank’s is another, speak about this anticipation of the Incarnation. What a wonderful thought, that the Incarnation is both a fulfilment of the best of human endeavour and a healing of all of our wounds.
      God bless you, Anne Marie 😊

  3. Thank you, Stephen, for bringing this scene to our attention and, to those who have read Tolkien’s work, reflection. It is a scene that occasionally comes to my mind, the difference between Dwarves and their love for stone and the Elves for their love of things that live and breathe, particularly when i visit cities that strive to find a balance between the two. As far as the limits of the lifespan of an individual man or woman, a theme that runs throughout Tolkien’s works, that is our nature. Someone may erect a bridge or monument, but in time it will crumble. Someone may plant a tree, but it may wither and rot, be cut down or stuck by lightning. The ancients knew, and I think we moderns sometimes forget, that the way a man or woman persists through time is through our offspring, passing the DNA we received from our parents to the next generation, and so on. We are all survivors. We are here because our ancestors lived to reproduce.

    • Thank you for this thought that you have kindly left here. I agree with you entirely about the balance between green spaces and buildings in the best of our cities. Here in England we like to surround our buildings with green spaces and when it works it is lovely as in the royal parks of London. When I stayed with friends in the centre of Milan a few years ago I noted that the Italians like to hide their gardens away as private spaces. Both have their beauty.
      I also like your thought on our connectedness to our ancestors. We would gain so much if we were to grasp this. Our contribution is always a standing on the shoulders of those who came before us and a passing on of the things that we do to the next generation.

    • I love this conversation too. And, as Anne Marie Gazzolo reminded me, these words may hang there, waiting, for a very long time! This is a timely reminder to learn patience, a quality that Elves and Dwarves have in greater degree than we humans.

  4. I also love the ‘us’ in Legolas’ comment that “The deeds of Men will outlast us, Gimli.” Not only is he speaking of the inevitable rise of Men, but there’s a recognition of kinship between these two mythical races doomed not to last. We don’t often think much about the fading of Dwarves, but as creatures of Arda’s mythical past they will; and perhaps therefore have more in common with Elves than either race ever stopped to consider. It underscores the uniqueness of Mankind.

  5. And only those who, like yourself, really know Tolkien’s legendarium will know just how remarkable that “us” really is. Even the recent history of Legolas and Gimli’s families make it most unlikely and the legion of grievances on both sides make it even more remarkable. It reminds me of a conversation I had with a girl from Ulster some years ago who, inevitably, had been raised in that
    land’s unhappy sectarian divide. “It’s only when you spend time with the English, ” she said, “that you realise who the foreigners really are!”
    And even as I write this I realise that if I pursue this any further then “the English” in my story, the foreigners, the outsiders, are Men in Tolkien’s legendarium as you contrasted them to Elves and Dwarves. In defence of my analogy I would say that there is a vast gulf between Denethor and Aragorn. Denethor reminds me of the kind of establishment figure one still sometimes meets who cannot get over the fact that Britain once ruled over a global empire. Aragorn grew up among a people who have lost everything except memory and dignity.
    Mmm… I must pursue this further!

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