The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 194-98
In The Tale of Years as recounted in the appendices to the final volume of Tolkien’s tale, the time fourteen days during which the hobbits and Strider journey through the wasteland of Eriador, hiding from the Ringwraiths, is a part of the time known as The Great Years, and indeed these years are great. They are the years of The Lord of the Rings whose readers go back to its pages again and again. But the reality for those who live in such times is that they do not know that the times are in any sense, great. Not even Strider, the one who bears the hope of his people, even as he bears the Ring of Barahir, a gift to the father of Beren by Finrod Felagund of Nargothrond in the First Age of Arda, not even he is able to step away from the suffering and, from the vantage point of his greatness, see the days of that miserable trek as merely a brief period before he finally enters into his kingdom.
This, of course, is how we all have to live, none of us knowing the significance of otherwise of any particular event. It may be that we are living in “great years” but as we live them we are not able to discern what kind of years they are and in our living of these years our experience may be that of the weary travellers.
“Frodo’s heart was grieved as he watched them walking beside him with their heads down, and their backs bowed under their burdens. Even Strider seemed tired and heavy-hearted.”
Frodo, as we see here, has some perspective but it gives him no comfort because he is wounded and carried by Bill the Pony while his friends have to carry on their weary backs all their supplies for the journeys. He does not even know if he will live to see Rivendell and neither do his friends.
All the way through the story Tolkien takes us through a mythological landscape in which the lands that we journey through alongside the protagonists of the story tell us something of the history that they have witnessed and so it is in the wastes of Eriador. The October weather is cold and wet and the land through which they pass is barren and lifeless.
“Here and there upon heights and ridges they caught glimpses of ancient walls of stone, and the ruins of towers: they had an ominous look.”
They are in Rhudaur, once a glorious part of the northern kingdom of Arnor, a land of the Dúnedain, a people descended from the Edain, the ancient allies of the Elves in the wars of the First Age of the world against Morgoth. As a reward for their faithfulness they were granted permission to live upon the great Isle of Númenor in the mighty ocean and in sight of the Undying Lands. Strider bears the Ring of Barahir in token of the memory of that faithfulness because Barahir saved Finrod Felagund’s life in the battle of Dagor Bragollach. That is a noble memory but the presence of the ominous towers and walls tells a different story. They tell of the corruption of the people of Rhudaur, first mingling with a people who had no memory of Barahir or Beren, of Númenor, or of Elendil and Isildur, and then falling under the influence of Angmar and its Witch-king, the lord of the ringwraiths who has wounded Frodo and who, even now, seeks him and seeks the Ring in this barren land.
These are the words that describe both the corrupted kingdom through which the travellers pass and the travellers themselves. Weariness, barreness, suffering, fear. Only after these days are ended will anyone speak of them as great. Frodo will be assailed by memories of his wound and the long miles in which the poisoned fragment of the Morgul blade worked slowly but inexorably towards his heart. It will take both the realisation that without these days the liberation of Middle-earth could never have taken place and Frodo’s slow long years of healing to give to these days a new name, to know them as truly a part of The Great Years.