“Do We Walk in Legends or On The Green Earth in Daylight?” The Riders of Rohan Encounter Dreams of Legend Springing Out of the Grass.

The Two Towers by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991/2007) pp.558-565

As Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli continue their weary and hopeless march across the plains of Rohan in pursuit of the orc host that have taken Merry and Pippin captive they become aware that a band of horsemen is moving swiftly towards them back down the very trail that they are following. The horsemen are Rohirrim, riders of Rohan. Aragorn describes them to his companions.

“They are proud and wilful, but they are true-hearted, generous in thought and deed; bold but not cruel; wise but unlearned; writing no books but singing many songs, after the manner of the children of Men before the Dark Years.”

The Riders of Rohan at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields

The companions decide to wait for the riders to come to them and Aragorn greets them as they ride by. Wrapped about in their cloaks of Lothlórien it seems to the riders that they have sprung from the grass itself and what follows is a tense encounter that almost ends in disaster. For Tolkien in this scene brings us into the heroic world of the North in which honour has more meaning than even life itself and most certainly of a life, or existence, in which honour has been lost. So Gimli is ready, almost eager, to die for the sake of the honour of Galadriel, the lady of Lothlórien, when he feels that it has been slighted by Éomer, who leads the company of riders.

The Rohirrim surround the three companions

Aragorn is able to avert the disaster but then, in the manner in which he announces himself, brings us all back into the very stuff of legend.

“I am Aragorn son of Arathorn, and am called Elessar, the Elfstone, Dúnadan, the heir of Isildur Elendil’s son of Gondor. Here is the Sword that was Broken and is forged again! Will you aid me or thwart me? Choose swiftly!”

Anke Eissmann imagines the first meeting between Aragorn and Eomer

So Tolkien deliberately mingles the stuff of legend with the stuff of ordinary life and invites his readers to make the same kind of choice that Aragorn demands of the Rohirrim. For Tolkien not only makes the Rohirrim the people who would have heard tales like that of Beowulf which would have been told in the halls of their lords in the early middle ages, but he also makes them a very modern people for whom a story like Beowulf that might be one that stirred them when they were young but which would have been consigned to the pleasant, but private, world of fantasy when they grew up. For real life with its duties can, for the modern person, only be lived with stuff that can be touched, smelt, heard, seen or tasted. The life of the imagination might give a moment of pleasure amidst the grim reality of ordinary life but it can never be regarded as real.

This division between that which is heroic and that which is ordinary is one that Aragorn suggests is false. When the rider who stands beside Eomer scoffs at Aragorn’s mention of halflings Aragorn’s response is not to the rider but to his Lord. The Rider dismisses the mention of halflings as “old songs and children’s tales out of the North”. And then he asks, “Do we walk in legends or on the green earth in the daylight?”

“A man may do both,” said Aragorn. “For not we but those who come after will make the legends of our time. The green earth, say you? That is a mighty matter of legend, though you tread it under the light of day!”

I say that Aragorn addresses Eomer because, as far as the Rider is concerned, Aragorn is simply speaking nonsense that does not deserve attention. He, and his fellows, are the spiritual kin of Cervantes’ Sancho Panza, the sensible though devoted servant of Don Quixote. While Don Quixote tilts at windmills Sancho Panza does all that he can to keep his master out of trouble. Modern readers side with the servant yet wish, secretly, that they could live in the lost enchanted world of the master. Aragorn argues that it is possible to do both as he presents himself as a representative of the world of legend amidst the world of the sensible.

As far as the Riders are concerned the strange creatures who have sprung from the grass are merely “wild men”, but Eomer heard the rhyme that Boromir spoke when he came to Edoras, the rhyme that spoke of halflings as well as the blade that was broken. Eomer knows that he needs to pay closer attention to Aragorn’s words even if he does not understand them. Perhaps there is more to what Aragorn is saying than mere tilting at windmills.

An End to Hope, Maybe, But Not to Toil. Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli Pursue the Orcs of Isengard Across the Plains of Rohan.

The Two Towers by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991, 2007) pp. 547-558)

Three times the sun rises upon the chase of Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli, the three hunters, as they pursue the orcs of Isengard first through the foothills of the Emyn Muil and then across the plains of Rohan. The hunters have run many miles and yet have come no closer to their enemies and their goal, their longing to find and then rescue Merry and Pippin from their captors. Among Men, Dwarves and Elves they have done a deed that will rightly be accounted mighty but the orcs have hardly rested by day or by night.

Hope, what little hope that they had, is fading.

“For many hours they had marched without rest. They were going slowly now, and Gimli’s back was bent. Stone-hard are the Dwarves in labour or journey, but this endless chase began to tell on him, as all hope failed in his heart.”

The “hopeless” journey of the three companions across Rohan. Alan Lee depicts the pursuit and those who are pursued.

There have been moments when faint glimmers of hope have been rekindled in their hearts. The green smell, as Legolas puts it, of the wide grasslands, lifts their spirits for a time. And there is the discovery of hobbit footprints and the broach of an elven-cloak. “Not idly do the leaves of Lórien fall,”says Aragorn. It is a sign that at least one hobbit was still alive when the orc company passed that way. Aragorn thinks it was Pippin. But as the hunters begin to realise that they are coming no closer to their quarry so hope fails.

“Not idly do the leaves of Lórien fall”, as depicted by Dante 2060.

Aragorn never had much hope. He does not even think that what they seek to do has much significance within the great story in which he is a part. At one point he looks southwards across Rohan to the White Mountains that are the northern border of Gondor and in song he yearns to be there.

O Gondor, Gondor! Shall Men behold the Silver Tree,
Or West Wind blow again between the Mountains and the Sea?

And then there is a moment in which Gimli longs for a light such as Frodo bears to guide them in the dark.

“It will be more needed where it is bestowed,” said Aragorn. ‘With him lies the true Quest. Ours is but a small matter in the great deeds of this time. A vain pursuit from its beginning, maybe, which no choice of mine can mar or mend. Well, I have chosen. So let us use this time as best we may.”

So continues Aragorn’s long reflection upon the question of hope that began with the fall of Gandalf in Moria. I say that it began there but perhaps it is more true to say that his whole adult life has been a reflection, a meditation upon this theme. Even the very name, Estel, that was given to him by his mother means Hope. And not hope as in the sense of crossing one’s fingers and trusting to luck but in something that goes much deeper. The Elven king, Finrod Felagund, sought to explain this deeper sense when he says that estel “is not defeated by the ways of the world, for it does not come from experience, but from our nature and first being. If we are indeed the Eruchin, the Children of the One, then He will not suffer Himself to be deprived of His own, not by any Enemy, not even by ourselves.”

Aragorn has sought to embody estel within himself in his long years of service in Gondor, in Rohan, and as the leader of the Rangers of the North. Always he has held before him his longing for personal happiness in his desire to marry Arwen. And he has sought to be the expression of hope for his people, for the fading remnant of Númenor in the North and for the brave but beleaguered defenders of freedom in Gondor. But now he feels that he has been seperated from this hope. The fall of Gandalf has affected him deeply but, so too, has Frodo’s decision to leave the Company and to make the journey to Mordor without them. Aragorn realises that he no longer has any part to play in that journey. He may be determined to rescue the young hobbits or die in the attempt. He may be certain that what he has chosen is right. But he is bitterly aware that he has been pushed, as it would seem, to the margins of the story. For him the loss of hope is not just about whether they will be able to rescue Merry and Pippin but about the sense of destiny that has given him meaning throughout his life. We might say, to use the language of Finrod Felagund, that his sense of hope, of estel, has been founded, not upon a belief that Illuvatar will not leave himself bereft of his children within the world, but upon something much more personal, that he, Aragorn, will be the bearer of that hope. Now, as he begins his pursuit on the third morning after the breaking of the Fellowship that hope is gone and all that remains is toil.

Aragorn at the Argonath. Can he fulfil the hope of his people?

“Now May I Make a Right Choice, and Change The Evil Fate of This Unhappy Day.” Aragorn Chooses to Follow the Orcs of Isengard.

The Two Towers by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991, 2007) pp. 544-546

Boromir has passed over Rauros in the elven boat in which Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli have laid him, and by virtue of the skill learned by Elves over thousands of years in which craft and nature have become seamlessly woven together the boat is not dashed to pieces by the force of water and of rock nor have its contents been spilled into the river. The three companions have done their duty to their comrade and now they may turn their attention to their duty to the hobbits.

Already they know that Merry and Pippin have been taken by the Uruk-hai, the orcs of Isengard, back towards their fortress across the plains of Rohan and soon it becomes clear what has become of Frodo and Sam.

“So much at least is now clear,” said Legolas: “Frodo is no longer on this side of the River: only he can have taken the boat. And Sam is with him; only he can have taken his pack.”

The companions have a choice. Either they can follow Frodo, as Sam has done, and guide him to Mordor, or they can follow Merry and Pippin and their orc captors towards Isengard. Neither path holds out much hope for them. In doing their duty to Boromir they have lost many hours.

At last Aragorn makes his choice.

“Let me think!” said Aragorn. “And now may I make a right choice, and change the evil fate of this unhappy day!” He stood silent for a moment. “I will follow the Orcs,” he said at last. “I would have guided Frodo to Mordor and gone with him to the end; but if I seek him now in the wilderness, I must abandon the captives to torment and death. My heart speaks clearly at last: the fate of the Bearer is in my hands no longer. The Company has played its part. Yet we that remain cannot abandon our companions while we have strength left.”

Alan Lee depicts the hopeless chase of the three hunters.

Aragorn speaks of the fate of the day. He is seeking after the biggest story that he can find and tell about all that has befallen the Fellowship since it began. The day began with a belief among them all that they would make a decision together and follow it together. Only Boromir had made it clear from the beginning that he would travel on to Minas Tirith whatever choice was made by the others. Frodo is becoming ever more certain that he must make the journey alone to Mordor but he is afraid to tell the others, afraid too of the journey itself. But now the possibility that the Fellowship might make a decision together has been made impossible. In trying to take the Ring from Frodo Boromir has set in motion a chain of events that means that the Fellowship can never take one course of action together again. Frodo and Sam have crossed the Anduin together. Boromir has died defending Merry and Pippin from the Uruk-hai of Isengard and the young hobbits have been taken prisoner.

Frodo has made a free choice and Sam has gone with him. Merry and Pippin are prisoners. And so Aragorn must honour both Frodo’s freedom and the young hobbits’ captivity. He will not guide Frodo to Mordor. That necessary task will be undertaken by the most unlikely of people, by one who seeks to kill him and to regain the Ring. The young hobbits will regain their freedom in the confusion of battle. The three hunters will not find them again until they meet amidst the ruin of Isengard. No choice that Aragorn will take this day will lead to either course of events and yet he must still choose.

The Three Hunters look out over the plains of Rohan.

I spoke of the fate of the day, of the task of seeking the biggest story that can be found. The story that Aragorn chooses is that of freeing the captives or dying in the attempt. He knows that it is the dying that is most likely and that, like Boromir, he will probably fall in hopeless defence of two hobbits who probably should not have come with them in the first place but that in choosing this story he opens the possibility that something greater, more wonderful, might happen. And at the very least he will do something worthy of a song.

Yonatan Ayala gives a marvellous sense of the tremendous energy of the chase that will be accounted a marvel among the three kindreds of Elves, Dwarves and Men.

“They Will Look for Him From The White Tower… But He Will Not Return.” Boromir is Laid to Rest in an Elven Boat.

The Two Towers by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991,2007) pp. 538-544

Legolas and Gimli find Aragorn kneeling beside the body of Boromir and, at first, they fear that he is mortally wounded too. But soon they are reassured and learn of all that has taken place, of the slaying of Boromir by many orcs as he sought to defend the hobbits.

Now there are questions to answer. Are the hobbits still alive or have they been taken by the orcs? And if they have been taken which way have they gone? They know that Boromir had gone to defend Merry and Pippin but were Frodo and Sam among them? What should they do now? Should they follow the orcs to aid Merry and Pippin or should they find Frodo’s tracks and follow him for the sake of the quest? It is an evil choice that lies before them.

“First we must tend the fallen,” Legolas says. “We cannot leave him lying like carrion among these foul orcs.”

Aragorn stands over the body of Boromir in this poignant depiction by Anke Eissmann.

They do not have time to bury Boromir or raise a cairn of stones above him and so they determine to lay him to rest in one of the elven boats. We are reminded here of the ship burials of the Norse or Germanic peoples of Europe. The most famous of these burials here in England is the Sutton Hoo burial from the early 7th century of an Anglo-Saxon king laid to rest in a a ship that was nearly 90 feet long and when discovered in a famous excavation in 1939 was found to contain the most spectacular treasures from as far afield as Byzantium and Sri Lanka.

The Sutton Hoo ship burial and the famous warrior’s mask now kept in the British Museum.

Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli lay what treasures they can around the fallen hero, son of Denethor, Lord of Gondor. “The grey hood and elven-cloak they folded and placed beneath his head. They combed his long dark hair and arrayed it about his shoulders. The golden belt of Lórien gleamed about his waist. His helm they set beside him, and across his lap they laid the cloven horn and the hilt and shards of his sword; beneath his feet they put the swords of his enemies.”

And so the Anduin, the mighty river of Gondor, takes Boromir over the Rauros falls and down through Osgiliath “out into the Great Sea at night under the stars”.

It is a deeply poignant moment within the story. A brief pause amidst all the frantic action that has taken place that day and all that lies ahead of the three companions. As Tolkien was writing this scene he must have thought of the many fallen soldiers at the Battle of the Somme in which he fought and, most of all, of Robert Gilson and Geoffrey Bache Smith of the Tea Club, Barrovian Society, the T.C.B.S of King Edward’s School in Birmingham, both of whom fell in 1916.

For so many of the dead in that war there could be no pause amidst the fighting and the carnage amidst the trenches of the western front. Many bodies could not even be identified and it was not until after the war ended that the people of Great Britain began the long and patient task of creating memorials to their war dead. From the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey, over which Queen Elizabeth’s coffin was carried at her funeral, to the memorial at the Menin Gate in Ypres in Belgium where those whose bodies were never identified are remembered, to the war cemeteries in Belgium and in France where thousands upon thousands lie, among whom are two of my mother’s uncles, and then the memorials raised in communities up and down the land for those who they had lost, the people of Britain did all that they could to honour their fallen. And we still do on each Sunday nearest to the 11th of November every year at those same memorials in all but a small number of villages across the land where everyone came home from the war. No such villages exist in my county of Worcestershire.

There is much debate among Tolkien scholars about the extent to which The Lord of the Rings is as much a memorial to the fallen of the Great War as it is the creation of a myth that reaches back into a distant past. The recent biopic about Tolkien’s early life certainly suggests this and I, for one, am persuaded. Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli do all that they can to give meaning to the fall of Boromir and Tolkien makes heroes of the thousands who fell on the western front by creating a myth big enough to contain their stories.

One of the many war cemeteries in Belgium and Northern France from the Great War of 1914-18.

“It is I That Have Failed. Vain Was Gandalf’s Trust in Me.” Aragorn’s Despair at The Breaking of the Fellowship.

The Two Towers by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991, 2007) pp. 537-540

“Alas!” said Aragorn. “Thus passes the heir of Denethor, Lord of the Tower of the Guard! This is a bitter end. Now the Company is all in ruin. It is I that have failed. Vain was Gandalf’s trust in me. What shall I do now? Boromir has laid it on me to go to Minas Tirith, and my heart desires it; but where are the Ring and the Bearer? How shall I find them and save the Quest from disaster?”

The Death of Boromir by Anke Eissmann

Boromir is dead, having fallen in the attempt to protect Merry and Pippin from the Uruk-hai of Isengard, and Aragorn kneels in despair beside his body. At the moment when he makes this speech he knows nothing of the whereabouts of any other member of the Fellowship. Boromir died before he could tell Aragorn whether Frodo and Sam were captured along with the young hobbits and he does not even know where Legolas and Gimli are. For all intents and purposes it seems that the Quest has failed and that all hope has died.

Aragorn does not know it yet, but this, for him, is the lowest and the darkest point of the story. From the moment when the Company was defeated in its attempt to cross the Misty Mountains beneath Caradhras and the decision was taken to attempt the journey through Moria Aragorn has been an inner pathway downwards to this place. It seems clear that he had some kind of foresight of Gandalf’s fall in Moria even before the battle at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm. Apart from the speech that he makes to the Fellowship in the dark of the Mines in order to raise their faltering morale he remains silent and a little distant. The next speech that he makes is to a grief stricken Company who have come through Moria but are themselves in despair at the loss of their guide. “We must do without hope, ” he says to them, and there is little doubt then that he has lost his own.

When, at last, the Fellowship reach the refuge of Lothlórien, Frodo descends from the hill of Cerin Amroth to find Aragorn “standing still and silent as a tree”, and hears him say, “Arwen vanimelda, namarië!” These are words of longing and of farewell as Aragorn bids his own farewell to any hope that he might achieve happiness in this life.

At the last parting from Lothlórien Galadriel reminds Aragorn of his mighty lineage and gives to him “the Elessar”, the green stone that Idril, the daughter of Turgon of Gondolin gave to Eärendil, her son, with the words, “there are grievous hurts to Middle-earth which maybe thou shalt heal”. Galadriel reminds Aragorn that he holds this story of healing as heir of Gondolin and of Eärendil, as rightful King of Gondor and of Arnor, and sends him upon his journey down the Anduin with this declaration ringing in his ears. When the boats of the Fellowship pass through the Argonath Aragorn greets his mighty ancestors as one who has come to claim the inheritance that is his but soon after comes the sundering and now he is alone amidst the wreckage of all his hope, both for personal happiness and for the world.

The Hildebrandt brothers depict the moment when Galadriel gives the Elessar to Aragorn.

Boromir dies with the horn of Gondor and his sword in his hand. Despite his own sense of failure Boromir dies a hero’s death in a way that both he and his warrior people understand. Such a death for them is a good death, offered in despite of despair. But at the very moment in which Boromir was fighting his last battle Aragorn was running first up, and then, down Amon Hen first in vain search for Frodo and then in vain attempt to come to Boromir’s aid. All is vain and Aragorn carries this sense in his unhappy heart even as he kneels beside Boromir. As those who know the ending of the story we know that this is Aragorn’s lowest point but he does not know this. For him it seems that a door is opening that bears the words that Dante reads above the gate of Hell. “Abandon all hope you that enter here.” There is no comfort that can be offered to Aragorn. Not yet. We must simply wait with him in silence.

Abandon all hope. Inger Edelfelt depicts Aragorn’s despair.