The Road Goes Ever On and On. Bilbo Sings for the Ending of an Age.

At last the great company arrive in Rivendell and the hobbits are reunited with Bilbo.

“Hullo, hullo!” he said. “So you’ve come back? And tomorrow’s my birthday, too. How clever of you!”

And the hobbits have that special and rare delight of telling their story to one who listens with pleasure and interest, although Bilbo is now old and drifts off to sleep from time to time. But after two short weeks, and with the first signs of Autumn, Frodo and Sam both feel the call to go home. And they have a sense that they must not delay any longer.

Bilbo sends them off with sadness and also some ceremony and then he starts to chant.

The Road goes ever on and on, Out from the door where it began. Now far ahead the Road has gone, Let others follow it who can! Let them a journey now begin, But I at last with weary feet, Will turn towards the lighted inn, My evening-rest and sleep to meet.” 

There are three variants of this poem in The Lord of the Rings. The first comes at the decisive and remarkable moment of liberation when Bilbo freely gives up the Ring (with a little encouragement from Gandalf!) and sets off on his travels once again. At that moment Bilbo speaks of Pursuing it with eager feet and speaks of happiness and being swept off his feet. The Road, the One Road that is “like a great river; it’s springs… at every doorstep, and every path… its tributary” is at that moment all opportunity, all possibility.

Later on in the story we hear Frodo speak the same lines at the very start of his great journey and still in the Shire but this time the feet are not eager but weary. Frodo is contemplating the leaving of his home and his friends and a journey into danger.

And now Bilbo speaks of an end to the journey. The Road continues and others will follow it if they can. But he will do so no more. It is time to find a friendly inn by the roadside to enjoy a good meal and a long rest.

I am reminded of a prayer by John Henry Newman, founder of the Birmingham Oratory, whose priests undertook the responsibility of guardianship to Tolkien after the death of his mother. “Support us all the day long of this troublous life until the shades lengthen and the evening comes, the busy world is hushed, the fever of life is over and our work is done. Then, Lord, in your mercy grant us safe lodging, a holy rest and peace at the last.” I do not think it too fanciful to think that this prayer was in Tolkien’s mind when he wrote this final version of Bilbo’s poem. I first heard it when I was a choir boy in an English parish church near Oxford. The vicar always ended Evensong with this prayer and it had quite an effect on me even though I was just 11 years old. But the image of homecoming has always had this power for me.

Bilbo speaks the poem for himself but also for the ending of an age. For Elrond, Galadriel and Gandalf it is also time to leave the Road to others. The Road goes ever on and on and Aragorn has the responsibility of founding a new age. “There is a real king now,” says Frodo to Bilbo,”and he will soon put the roads in order.” And Arwen has chosen to stay with him and not to leave the Road with her father. No-one knows where this road will lead. We walk the same road today pursuing our own errands that we have been given even as Bilbo did. The way as it was for him is often troublous but also wonderful. Each day unfolds both to us as it did to him. And the ending is a homecoming when the work is done.

Frodo is sent off with a blessing and a sense that he has a burden to shoulder once more. He senses that he is reaching the end of the Road but it is not quite just yet.

 

Aragorn and the Lonely Years

When Aragorn first met Arwen Undómiel in the hidden valley of Rivendell he could have no idea what journey was to lie ahead of him. It was loveliness that first called out to Aragorn just as it is with every young man who falls in love but just as it is with every young man falling in love this can never be just a private affair. And if this is so for every young man how much more it is with the heir of Isildur in the very year in which Sauron openly declares himself in the land of Mordor after his long exile and secret returning.

On the day in which Aragorn and Arwen marry in the City of Minas Tirith Tolkien tells us that “the tale of their long waiting and labours was come to fulfilment.” This tale lasted for sixty-eight years.

At first Aragorn has to deal with his mother’s anxiety. For Gilraen the long slow years of the decline of her people have left her fearful about the future. It is not greatness that she sees when she looks upon her son but dependence upon the protection of Elrond. And Elrond himself knows that the long years of his sojourn in Middle-earth draw now to a close and that Arwen will go with him into the West unless something calls her to remain.

“There will be no choice before Arwen, my beloved, unless you, Aragorn Arathorn’s son, come between us and bring one of us, you or me, to a bitter parting beyond the end of the world.”

And so begins the years of labour and of separation. Aragorn becomes Thorongil, the Star Eagle, and serves Thengel King of Rohan and Ecthelion, Steward of Gondor doing great deeds among them and encouraging them to prepare for the crisis that will come. In Gondor he leads a fleet to the Havens of Umbar, destroying the fleet of the Corsairs and overthrowing their captain but at the height of his fame he leaves Gondor and begins his lonely journeys into the South and the East “exploring the hearts of Men, both evil and good, and uncovering the plots and devices of the servants of Sauron.”

And so Aragorn leaves behind the young man exulting in his glory, heir of great kings, captivated by the beauty of an Elven princess, the greatest among her people, even as was Beren long before, the mightiest of his forefathers. The long years of labour and separation leave their mark. He becomes “somewhat grim to look upon” unless he smiles but he becomes the hardiest of living men, skilled in craft and lore and “elven-wise”, the hero of his age who gives no thought to his own greatness but only to his task and to his longing.

“His face was sad and stern because of the doom that was laid on him, and yet hope dwelt ever in the depths of his heart, from which mirth would arise at times like a spring from the rock.”

This is a beautiful picture of a man who has been shaped first by joy and then by the adversity that has to follow joy in order to refine it into something of lasting greatness. Aragorn’s majesty will be something that will not be for his benefit alone but will bring life and prosperity to all people. His is a journey from a princeling to a king. Readers will call to mind the moment in the story when he turns aside from his journey to Minas Tirith in order to undertake the pursuit of the orcs who have taken Merry and Pippin. To all extent this is a hopeless task and takes him from what seems far more important. He could try to follow Frodo and the Ring or go to Minas Tirith in its hour of need. His decision to follow the “unimportant” young hobbits proves crucial but he could not have known in what way. He makes the choice not upon a whim but because of the years in which his character has been forged. He trusts in the story of which he is a part sure that Frodo does not need him and that he will come to Minas Tirith at the right time and he risks all the years of hope for a single act of loving kindness whose reward is hidden from him. This is the true king!

Éowyn and Faramir Declare Their Love as Éowyn Understands her Heart at Last

Éowyn receives her brother’s invitation to join the triumph at the Field of Cormallen after the fall of Sauron but she does not go. Once more the Warden of the Houses of Healing becomes anxious about her unhappiness and bids Faramir take time from his duties as Steward of Gondor to speak with her.

Faramir is a man of wise insight and he has learned much from the day he spent with Merry and so he says to her plainly:

“You do not go because only your brother called for you, and to look on the Lord Aragorn, Elendil’s heir, in his triumph would now bring you no joy. Or because I do not go, and you desire still to be near me. And maybe for both these reasons, and you yourself cannot choose between them. Éowyn, do you not love me, or will you not?”

In March 1941 Tolkien wrote a remarkable letter to his son, Michael, on the subject of marriage and relations between men and women. It is remarkable partly because it displays a closeness between father and son that is sadly very rare. Also because of its depth of insight. I think that most men on reading this letter would would wish they had enjoyed this closeness with their own father or that they could achieve it with their sons. Richard Rohr describes the general poverty of relations between fathers and sons as “The Father Wound”. Faramir has known this wound deeply but Tolkien, who never knew his own father shows that it need not be passed on to the next generation .

In the letter Tolkien writes about the Western romantic idea of courtly love in which a great lady would enjoy the devotion and admiration of young men, often expressed through poetry or deeds that would prove their love. A physical expression of the love was considered unacceptable although the two great Arthurian love stories of Guinevere and Lancelot and of Tristan and Isolde show that such relationships could move disastrously from the idealised form to the physical form. In his letter Tolkien also notes that to idealise a woman, to grant her some kind of divinity, does her no good at all. Tolkien describes this as “false and at best make believe. The woman is another fallen human being with a soul in peril.”

I refer to this, partly because I believe it to be Éowyn’s temptation. She desired the adoration of the greatest knight of his age and, with it, the adoration of all men and women. I also wonder if Faramir was tempted to idealise Éowyn. “Were you the blissful Queen of Gondor, still I would love you.” Perhaps not, perhaps Faramir simply feels that he has to declare his love with as much passion as he can to make Éowyn see it. Thankfully for his own sake he never has to know what it would be like to love the Queen of Gondor without hope! Éowyn sees reality at last or, as Tolkien puts it so beautifully, “the heart of Éowyn changed, or else at last she understood it”.

It is only possible to love flesh and blood although such love always points us beyond itself towards divine love which we glimpse in the temptation to idealise. Tolkien puts this powerfully in his letter. Every marriage, in a certain sense he writes, is a mistake. We could all find “more suitable mates”. It is possible to spend a whole lifetime either looking for the perfect mate or saying, “if only”. And we will never know. Even the best of marriages requires self-denial, perseverance and forgiveness. They require the decision to say the greatest, Yes, to reality, to the real person in front of us. I know that it has become popular to create our own wedding vows, as if by doing so we give the wedding ceremony more authenticity, but I become more deeply impressed by the vows of the old English Sarum Rite which is over five hundred years old and in which each person promises to “love and to cherish” for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death us do part”. Both Éowyn and Faramir have to renounce some kind of idealised form of romantic love and commit themselves to the real person in front of them.

The Eagles of Manwë Praise the Faithfulness of the People of Minas Tirith.

Last week I promised to continue the love story of Faramir and Éowyn but I ask you to permit me to make you wait one week more before we return to it. Last week we thought about the great wave that seemed to threaten the end of all things and yet brought a joy that was both entirely unlooked for and which brought tears to those who were pierced by it. Now all the people in the city learn what has brought such joy for,

“Before the Sun had fallen far from the noon out of the East there came a great Eagle flying, and he brought tidings beyond hope from the Lords of the West, crying:

Sing now, ye people of the Tower of Anor, for the Realm of Sauron is ended for ever, and the Dark Tower is thrown down.”

I hope that discerning readers will have noticed that Tolkien is careful about the use of capital letters for nouns in his work. In an earlier post on this blog we saw it in his use of the word, Pity, and so here Tolkien uses it to draw our attention to the importance of the noun that is capitalised. In the sentence that I quoted above there are four nouns that receive a capital letter, a sign that this is a sentence of particular importance, but the one that I want to focus on is the word, Eagle.

This is no ordinary Eagle. For one thing the Eagle sings in human speech and comes to Minas Tirith as the herald of the free peoples of Middle-earth. For another this Eagle was one of those who came to the climactic battle before the Black Gate. This Eagle is a descendant of those that Manwë, the lord of the Valar, sent to Middle-earth in the First Age to be his messengers. Their task was to keep watch on Morgoth, who was Sauron’s lord, and to do this they built their eyries on the peak of Thangorodrim itself, the very mountain beneath which Morgoth built his fortress of Angband.

They have kept their watch faithfully through long ages and from time to time, at crucial moments, they have intervened directly in the affairs of the free peoples. They carried Beren and Lúthien from Angband, the party of Thorin’s dwarves from the trees in which they were trapped by orcs and wargs, Gandalf from the Tower of Orthanc when he was held captive by Saruman and later carried him from the mountain top after the great battle with the Balrog and finally they attacked the Nazgûl at the Battle of the Black Gate.

It is thus no coincidence that it is an Eagle of Manwë that is the herald of the fall of Sauron. The faithfulness of the Eagles speaks to the faithfulness of Minas Tirith.

Sing and rejoice, ye people of the Tower of Guard, for your watch hath not been in vain.”

Just as the armies of the West were drawn into the story of Frodo and Sam at the Field of Cormallen so that it became their story too so all who have remained in the city as the host went to battle are brought into the story of the faithful vigil of the ages. The boys who play with Bergil, son of Beregond of the Guard of the Tower, the women who Ioreth of the Houses of Healing tells of the first coming of the king to his city, all become part of the story of the faithful watch.

The 16th century English theologian, Richard Hooker, once wrote, “How are the people to know they are faithful unless their captains tell them?” Faithfulness will lie at the very heart of the civilisation that is born with the downfall of Sauron and the return of the King and the story of faithfulness with which the new age begins will dignify every man, woman and child to whom the captains tell it. It is this act of giving dignity to the people that is one of the central tasks of the captain whether a parent, teacher, chief executive, president or king. Any who fail in this task are not true captains.

  

The Meeting of Éowyn and Faramir. Defences Begin to Come Down.

Why would we want to be unhappy, to choose thoughts of darkness, even to seek out death? Why would we choose to build defences against the light, using all our strength to try to keep it out? There are some, like Sauron, who have chosen the dark, believing that the light is some small, temporary and fragile thing that must ultimately fail against the overwhelming power that is darkness. Sauron has made his choice and it is fixed for ever. Happily this is not the path that Éowyn has taken. She has not said the great “Yes!” of her life to the dark.

But her soul is in danger. The years of hopeless misery in the halls of Théoden as he became a shrivelled figure dominated by the whispering of Wormtongue have left their mark upon her. At least in part she regards herself as a woman from “a thatched barn where brigands drink in the reek, and their brats roll on the floor among their dogs”. Briefly a door opened into her inner darkness and the glorious light that is Aragorn shone into her heart. She allowed herself to believe that he would take her away from her unhappiness to a place of glory. She would become a queen, adored by the world and untouched by her past.

And then her fragile dream was snatched away. Aragorn chose the Paths of the Dead as he was destined to do and he rejected her love, even refusing to take her with him as the shieldmaiden that she believed herself to be. Since that moment she has sought death in battle believing that this is the only escape for her from dishonour and misery. She will not risk to hope for herself again. The pain of rejection feels too great. She cannot ride with the host to battle with Mordor as she did before and so she is condemned to wait, longing for the safe return of her brother whom she loves but refusing to hope for herself again. The danger for her soul is that the darkness that she believes to be her fate might yet become a choice. She might become embittered, vengeful and cruel or she might take the road of despair just as Denethor did.

And then she meets Faramir in The Houses of Healing and everything begins to be transformed within her. Her first words are proud but “her heart faltered, and for the first time she doubted herself. She guessed that this tall man, both stern and gentle, might think her merely wayward, like a child that has not the firmness of mind to go on with a dull task to the end.”

This sternness and gentleness so wonderfully combined in one man she has met before in Aragorn and as with Aragorn she knows that Faramir is a mighty warrior, tested in battle. Of course she does not wish to appear like a little girl before him but her defences remain firm against hope. Then Faramir does something that Aragorn could never do.

“Éowyn of Rohan, I say to you that you are beautiful. In the valleys of our hills there are flowers fair and bright, and maidens fairer still; but neither flower nor lady have I seen till now have I seen in Gondor so lovely, and so sorrowful.”

Éowyn still resists, speaking of herself as a shieldmaiden and ungentle, but her defences are a little weaker. She is not yet ready to take the risk that any who fall in love must take; the risk of hurt and rejection. And she does not yet want to take the risk that lies beyond that fear, that to fall in love means to give yourself away into the hands of another, not just when all seems fair but in times of sorrow and anger too. The old English marriage service speaks of having and holding “for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish”. Éowyn is still far from being ready to make that choice but at the very least she has ceased to walk away from its possibility. Faramir has called her back towards the light.

Image by Anke Eissmann anke.edoras-art.de

 

Éowyn of Rohan Is In Great Unrest in The Houses of Healing

The times in our lives of not knowing are a great trial and Éowyn, the Princess of Rohan who rode to the Battle of the Pelennor Fields in deep despair close to Théoden who had been as a father to her and there did battle with the Lord of the Nazgûl and slew him, is “in great unrest”. I will not try to compare her suffering with that of Frodo and Sam in their last journey through Mordor or that of the Host of the West as they march without hope towards inevitable annihilation at the Black Gate. This is not a desire to diminish her suffering. She must carry her own load as best they may and do, as we all must, to support others in theirs. But Éowyn’s burden is hard in part because there seems to be no meaning to it. When she rode to battle with her people she looked for death in battle because the man that she had hoped would bring the meaning and the dignity that she desired had rejected her and now this same man had brought her back from the edge of death. But for what?

The Warden of the Houses of Healing is in no doubt as to what her purpose is and that is to get better and he is distressed to see that she has left her bed. “You should not have risen from your bed for seven days yet, or so I was bidden. I beg you to go back.”

Éowyn, on the other hand, knows that this is not her purpose. Simply to be healed in body is not enough for her. She does not even desire it. Gandalf spoke of her true dis-ease when she was first brought to the Houses of Healing from the battle.

“She, born in the body of a maid, had a spirit and courage at least the match of yours. Yet she was doomed to wait upon an old man, whom she loved as a father, and watch him falling into a mean dishonoured dotage; and her own part seemed to her more ignoble than that of the staff he leaned on.”

For Tolkien there is nothing unusual about a woman with the spirit that Éowyn has. His greatest love story is the tale of Beren and Lúthien, names that are written upon the stones beneath which he and his wife, Edith, are buried in an Oxford churchyard. In that story Lúthien goes into battle alongside the man she loves with a passion and ferocity that overcomes both Morgoth and Sauron too, the greatest foes of all. That Tolkien gave the name of Lúthien to his wife means that he recognised this spirit in her. Aragorn was inspired by this greatest of love stories in his love for Arwen of Rivendell and Éowyn is a woman who longs for a hero of Beren’s quality.

She also wants to be a queen. Gandalf spoke of this too to her brother, Éomer as he remembered Saruman’s contemptuous words at the doors of Orthanc.

“What is the house of Eorl but a thatched barn where brigands drink in the reek, and their brats roll on the floor among their dogs?”

So Éowyn is “in great unrest”. Death in battle has been denied her, for a time at least, and she is permitted no other occupation. What can she do?

I think that she reaches inside herself and begins to find her own answer. She is a woman of truth. She may not yet know her own heart but she does not lie to it or seek to deceive it either. This is essential to the healing that she will find in this place.

“Who commands in this City?”

“I do not rightly know,” the  Warden answers. “Such things are not my care. There is a marshal over the Riders of Rohan; and the Lord Húrin, I am told, commands the men of Gondor. But the Lord Faramir is by right the Steward of the City”

I am so glad that it was not the marshal of Rohan or the Lord Húrin that Éowyn asks to see, but I am not surprised either. Éowyn rightly knows her own greatness and that only an equal can meet her need.

 

 

Frodo Gets Ready for The Feast at the Field of Cormallen

The Day of Praisegiving at the Field of Cormallen comes to an end with a great feast and the reuniting of friends as Frodo and Sam, and Merry and Pippin, and Legolas and Gimli greet one another and delight in the joy of being alive after great tribulation.

It is in preparation for the feast that Gandalf adopts the role of squire to the knights of the West who are Frodo and Sam.

“Gandalf, as if he were their esquire, knelt and girt the sword-belts about them, and then arising he set circlets of silver upon their heads. And when they were arrayed they went to the great feast; and they sat at the king’s table”

At first, when Gandalf presents a sword to Frodo, Frodo refuses to wear it. “I do not wish for any sword,” he says. For Frodo the days of battle are at an end. He fought with all the strength that he could muster and he was bested at the last by a power too great for him. If it had not been for his enemy he would have failed at the last and all the struggle would have been in vain. It was Gollum who took the Ring to the Fire, albeit by accident as it were, and not the one appointed to bear the Ring.

In part Frodo’s refusal to carry a sword is a recognition of his own sense of failure. In another it is a desire on his part to have no more to do with war. Frodo has seen at first hand the horror of war, the malice and hatred that Sauron sought to unleash upon the earth, and he hates it.

But Gandalf knows that the feast is not for Frodo alone nor is the magnificent raiment with which he is arrayed. When a great gift is received with grace it is not just the one who receives who is honoured but the one who gives as well. The circlet of silver with which Frodo is crowned, the sword with which he is girt, the mithril coat and the Elven cloak in which he is arrayed, are all an act of doing honour to those who gather at the feast. Some are great knights of Gondor, or of the Dunedain, or of the guard of the King of Rohan. Others are simple farming folk in valleys of Gondor far from Minas Tirith or in the fields of the Westfold of Rohan and when Frodo is arrayed as a fellow warrior and sits to eat with them he does them honour. He declares that their deeds in the war, their hopeless march to the Black Gate, perhaps achieved by overcoming great fear, are all worthy of honour. He names them brothers by sitting among them. And it is not just the warriors who are gathered at the feast who are honoured thus but every village, every family from which they have come.

The Ring was not destroyed by warfare, indeed the war was not won by strength of arms. If the War of the Ring had been a matter of besting the enemy by arms and superior power then it would have been necessary to use the Ring. That would have been as great a catastrophe as Sauron’s victory would have been. But the battles at Helm’s Deep, at Pelargir, at the Pelennor Fields and finally before the Black Gate, were not thereby of no account in comparison to the deeds of the Ringbearer. Without their courage, without their willingness to lay down their lives there would have been no journey through Mordor to the Mountain. And so it is not to seek the praise of others that Frodo must wear a sword at the feast but to honour all who fought. As Shakespeare puts in the mouth of King Henry V before the Battle of Agincourt:

“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; for he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother.”