Frodo and Sam have been here before because the Field of Cormallen lies close to the refuge of Henneth Annûn. These are the woods that they came to on their journey, guided by Gollum, from the desolation that lay before the Black Gate of Mordor to the Crossroads, the Morgul Vale and then the great climb up to the Pass of Cirith Ungol. These are the woods in Ithilien, the desolate garden of Gondor that “kept still a dishevelled dryad loveliness” even as they were ravaged by orcs and other foes of Gondor.
It is only a few short weeks since Frodo and Sam were last in these woods in the first days of March. Even then Spring was beginning and the life of the Earth was already breaking through the destructive grip of Mordor after the cold of Winter. “Fronds pierced moss and mould, larches were green fingered, small flowers were opening in the turf, birds were singing.” Now the Spring is advanced and in its full riotous glory of smells, sights and sounds. Even amidst the fearfulness of their last visit to Ithilien Frodo and Sam were refreshed by the gentle beauty of this place, now they linger there without fear “visiting again the places that they had passed before.” This time they know that there are no dangers hiding in a shadow or behind a rock or tree. The song of a bird can be heard clearly without the possibility of an iron clad footfall of an orc being listened for amidst its beauty. The “groves and thickets… of tamarisk and pungent terebinth, of olive and of bay” can be gazed upon and their aromas drank in without fear that they may conceal an enemy who might do them hurt.
The last time that they were here Frodo and Sam were pressing forward, always aware that every moment’s delay in their journey to the mountain might lead to disaster for their friends and all that they loved. The curtain of water cascading down the rocks that concealed the refuge of Faramir and his Rangers might be gazed upon for a moment as the setting sun lit it with light and colour but always there was the sense as they paused in their journey that there was another step to be taken, another danger to be faced.
Tolkien’s story is filled with pauses in which the characters encounter beauty in a manner that takes hold of them, making them stop to take it in. The hidden valley of Rivendell, the woods of Lothlórien, the glittering caves of Aglarond and the refuge of Henneth Annûn in the woods of Ithilien are all such places. Each one calls them to turn aside for a moment from their task but they are not thereby distractions. A distraction is a pulling or dragging away of the mind from the needful thing. In The Lord of the Rings the encounter with beauty is not a distraction but a recollection. The essential is that which is good, true and beautiful and it is the essential that is threatened by the Dark Lord and yet so woven into the very fabric of reality that the Dark Lord cannot touch and destroy it. We recall Frodo’s cry of “They cannot conquer for ever!” at the flower-crowned head of the statue of the King of Gondor cast down by orcs and Sam’s vision of the star beyond the mirks of Mordor that is inaccessible to the reach of Sauron.
Already Frodo and Sam have known that there is “the dearest freshness deep down things” and so they can wander through Ithilien without fear and contemplate it in a way far beyond that which those who have not known the dark as they have done can do. This is the dawn that awaits those who watch through the dark of the night, the Springtime prepared for those who have endured through Winter.