The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 349-351
Galadriel and Celeborn wisely leave the Fellowship to themselves after the encounter in Caras Galadhon and Galadriel’s silent interrogation of their hearts and minds. What the Fellowship needs now is rest and healing of weary bodies. Even though at its borders Lothlórien is alert to possible threat at its heart it remains at rest and so it seems that the Company does “little but eat and drink and rest, and walk among the trees”; and it is enough.
At first, as Aragorn put it, there is a desire simply to rest and to forget grief, grief at the loss of Gandalf at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm, but inevitably after a while their thoughts turn to their loss and their grief becomes keen.
It is Frodo and Sam who choose poetry in which to try to put that grief into some kind of form. Perhaps it is as they hear songs of Mithrandir, the Grey Pilgrim, in the Sindarin tongue of their Elven hosts, that they begin to find their own thoughts move in the same direction. Perhaps it is, as Sam has already put it, that in Lothlórien they feel themselves to be “inside a song” that enables them to create their own.
When evening in the Shire was grey his footsteps on the Hill were heard; before the dawn he went away on journey long without a word.
The words are beautiful and full of longing for what has been lost. The aching realisation that Frodo will never hear the sound of those footsteps coming along the path to his door again, a sound that always meant that something deep and rich, old and wise, was about to enter his life once again. But Tolkien is quick to introduce a disclaimer here. These words “feel faded as a handful of withered leaves”. Tolkien uses this sad image to describe Frodo’s feelings of inadequacy as he tries to put the person of Gandalf into words but we cannot help but feel that it is Tolkien’s own feelings of inadequacy as a poet that are on show here. Gandalf is far too great a figure to reduce to a few lines upon a page, or committed to memory in Frodo’s mind.
But a good poem is not a reduction of anything. Each line in Frodo’s evocation of Gandalf points us towards his greatness but also his simplicity. They speak of his mighty journeys; of his skill in languages; of his “deadly sword”, his “healing hand”.
“A lord of wisdom throned he sat, swift in anger, quick to laugh, an old man in a battered hat who leaned upon a thorny staff.”
All through the poem Frodo gives us on the one hand, his greatness, and on the other, his vulnerability and all the time he is doing something that from their earliest encounters with one another, C.S Lewis admired in Tolkien’s work. It was after an evening reading The Lay of Leithian Tolkien’s verse telling of the story of Beren and Lúthien that Lewis wrote of myth making that it is the essence of a myth “that it should have no taint of allegory to the maker and yet should suggest incipient allegories to the reader”. And surely here in Frodo’s lament for Gandalf the incipient allegory that is suggested to us is the connection between Gandalf, the mighty maiar clothed in the form of “a weary pilgrim on the road”, and what first Tolkien and then Lewis described as the true myth of the incarnation in which, in Christ, God is clothed in our humanity, not in its semblance but in all its reality. There is no incarnation in any part of Tolkien’s legendarium. He deliberately chose to set his story in a world that knows nothing of it but again and again, in the story of Gandalf, in the story of the true king hidden within the weather stained Ranger of the North who goes by the name of Strider, and in other characters, the true myth is suggested to us in many ways. Might this be why our hearts are drawn towards them?