The “Hopeless Journey” of the Armies of the West.

A few days after the great battle the armies of the West gather once more upon the Pelennor Fields in order to march towards the Morannon, the same Black Gate that Frodo and Sam saw upon their journey to Mordor and realised was impossible to enter. Tolkien describes the march as a “hopeless journey”, one that must end in inevitable defeat and death, and this begins to weigh upon the hearts of the young soldiers.

For those who have lived their lives in the far provinces of Gondor and of Rohan, Mordor has been but a name only, albeit a dark and fearful one, now it is a living nightmare that is beyond their comprehension. Aragorn treats them with mercy, allowing them to withdraw and to fulfil a mission that they can comprehend. They are to recapture the island of Cair Andros that lies within the waters of the Anduin.

The rest of the army continue and so reach the impregnable defences of the Dark Land. There they encounter the Lieutenant of the Tower of Barad-dûr who plays a game of negotiation while torturing them by presenting to them items taken from Frodo when the guard of Cirith Ungol found him by the road leading from Shelob’s Lair. A coat, a cloak and a sword.

A hopeless journey ends in a hopeless battle as the full might of Mordor and its allies breaks upon the small brave army arranged upon two hills before the gate. Peregrin Took, now truly the “valiant man” that Gandalf presented to the defenders of Minas Tirith just a few short days before, falls beneath the vast body of a Troll that he has just slain in defence of Beregond, his friend. Even though the last words that he hears before he slips out of consciousness are that “The Eagles are coming!” Pippin is sure that his story is come to an end and so too is the story of all that he cares about.

How do we keep going without hope? Tolkien often returns to this question in The Lord of the Rings. It was a major theme in the story of the pursuit of the orcs who had captured Merry and Pippin at the Falls of Rauros when the Fellowship was broken. Aragorn knows that he is likely to fail in his attempt and so all that he has hoped for through his life will fail too. The hope that he has nourished that he will restore the honour and the fortunes of his people, the Dunedain of the West, a hope that is enshrined in the very name his mother gave to him, Estel, as she lay dying; the hope that he will restore the kingdom of Gondor; and the hope that he will win the hand of Arwen in marriage, all this is lain down in a task that is impossible.

At all points within the story hope is understood as something greater than simply that what a particular character is trying to achieve will be successful. Success, of course, is desired, but it is not the thing that is most important. Even the destruction of the Ring itself is not the thing that matters most. When we return to the story of Frodo and Sam’s journey through Mordor we will come to a moment when Sam glimpses a star, perhaps the Silmaril in the heavens that is beyond the grasp of Sauron. And as he sees it he understands that “in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.”

This is the difference, Sam understands, between hope and defiance. Defiance is brave and we saw it when we thought about Éomer preparing for a good death in battle before Minas Tirith. Hope goes far deeper and knows that there is a reality that is far greater than my part in the story and yet, somehow, will include us too in a way far beyond our comprehension but not beyond our love.

The journey is hopeless in so far as there is no expectation of a successful end to it. But true hope goes deeper than expectation. It is grounded in love for that which is highest and that enables us to keep going until the end.

 

The King and The Healing of Éowyn

Aragorn moves from Faramir’s bedside to Éowyn’s and there he hesitates a moment.

“Few other griefs amid the ill chances of this world have more bitterness and shame for a man’s heart than to behold the love of a lady so fair and brave that cannot be returned. Sorrow and pity have followed me ever since I left her desperate in Dunharrow and rode to the Paths of the Dead; and no fear upon that way was so present as the fear for what might befall her.”

And now in that uncertainty he crushes the leaves of athelas into the bowl of steaming water not knowing whether he can call Éowyn back from the darkness that seeks to claim her or if he can to what she will return.

Last week we saw how when Aragorn anointed Faramir with the water and the healing herb how the fragrance that filled the room evoked the deepest longing of Faramir’s heart. Now as Aragorn “laves her brow” with the water and her right arm “lying cold and nerveless on the coverlet” a new fragrance fills the air about them.

“It seemed to those who stood by that a keen wind blew through the window, and it bore no scent, but was an air wholly fresh and and clean and young, as it had not before been breathed by any living thing and came new-made from snowy mountains high beneath a dome of stars, or from shores of silver far away washed by seas of foam.”

If in Faramir’s case the fragrance evokes his longing, I believe, for “that which is beyond Elvenhome and will ever be”, in Éowyn’s case it is surely something in relation to her desire for her people that is sensed here. Gandalf has reminded Éomer of the words that Saruman spoke to Théoden, words and insinuations that Wormtongue spoke more subtly but no less destructively.

“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?”

What would Éowyn long for more than something entirely opposite to the “reek” that fills her nostrils? Something that would take away her sense of shame, the shame that for a moment she dreamed that the mighty warrior who enters her prison would save her from. I picture Éowyn gazing at the same tapestry of Eorl in his youthful glory, the tapestry that so crushed the spirit of Théoden, and as she did so I believe that it took her to the place of utter purity that the fragrance evokes. Of course the historical ride of Eorl out of the North would have been with real horses whose sweat would have mingled with that of their riders but not so the myth that is seen in and through the tapestry. That is an evocation of something eternally new and clean and unsullied.

Tolkien had a deep love for what he termed Northernness which in the form that has come to us through the mythology of the North is ultimately bleak and without meaning. But he discerned something that lay beyond that, something that he could see in the myth of the death of Baldur and in the longing of those who wept for him. When Tolkien spoke of true Northernness it is the clean cold air from snowy mountains of which he speaks that blows away the stain of our failure and shame. This is the truth that lies deep within Éowyn’s soul and that is called forth as Aragorn calls her from her dark valley. Aragorn is right when he says to Éomer that Éowyn “loves you more truly than me”. Éomer belongs more truly to that which Éowyn most truly desires. But Éowyn’s story does not end here. We shall see when we return to her at a later point in her stay in the Houses of Healing that her desire can lead her to something new and entirely unexpected and yet remain true to her original vision.

“Come Athelas! Come Athelas! Life to the Dying in the King’s Hand Lying!”

As Aragorn crushes two leaves of athelas in his hands after breathing upon them “straightway a living freshness filled the room, as if the air itself awoke and tingled, sparkling with joy”. And so begins Aragorn’s healing journey from Faramir to Éowyn and then to Merry.

I said last week that I have been looking forward to writing about this chapter in The Lord of the Rings for some time now and so I don’t intend to rush through it. I also intend at some point to include a guest blog from a young writer whose work has impressed me so do look out for that. But this week I want to begin with something a little more personal, a memory that was jogged as I read the chapter again last week. And it was the description of the fragrance of athelas that I refer to here.

Readers will remember that when Frodo was wounded in the attack of the Nazgûl upon the camp beneath Weathertop Aragorn had Sam look for kingsfoil and they will remember how its fragrance lifted their hearts and its virtue stayed the evil influence of the poison in Frodo’s wound long enough for them to reach Rivendell. Now as Aragorn is revealed as king the fragrance is immeasurably greater and so too is the healing virtue. It “came to each like a memory of dewy mornings of unshadowed sun in some land of which the fair world in Spring is itself but a fleeting memory.” And what follows for each is a fragrance that speaks of the particular way in which each is healed, made whole.

What this recalled for me was a dream that I had about fifteen years ago. In my dream I find myself in a hotel bedroom with a woman lying beside me and water pouring through a crack in the ceiling over my head. I climb out of bed telling the woman (who I never identify) that I will go and get the problem sorted out and find myself immediately in a field with a fence to my right and a long queue of people in front of me. I ask someone what the queue is about and they tell me that the Pope is in a shed in the field just up ahead and that they are waiting to see him. I decide to wait too and soon find myself in the darkened shed. The Pope is John Paul II and he is in the last stage of his life, a frail old man. Behind him a priest with shadowed face waits in attendance. No one speaks. I simply know that I must kneel before the Pope and wait for his blessing. He lays his hands upon my head and as he does so the room is filled with the most wonderful fragrance. I stand up knowing that everything is alright and that I do not need to return to the hotel room.

Of course it is my memory of the fragrance in the dream that was recalled when I read this chapter once again and it is the fragrance in relation to the revelation of Aragorn as king that I want to briefly ponder here as I think about my dream. In his book on male initiation, Adam’s Return, Richard Rohr thinks about the power of the king archetype that is so rarely revealed in most men except in its dark form in the bully or in the weak form endlessly complaining that no one is paying sufficient attention to him. Rohr describes the true king as “the master of all power, so much so that he can risk looking powerless… The kingly part of a man connects heaven and earth, spiritual and material, divine and human, inner and outer. When you meet a man who seems a bit larger than life, you know he has some king energy. He is a healer of souls.”

The king that I met within myself in my dream was old, not fearing to risk looking powerless. The power came in the blessing which is the true revelation of the king energy just as it is in Aragorn. My disordered state was healed in turning to the king energy within me. I can say quite candidly that it is still being healed to this very day but I am learning in my contemplative practice where to turn and I think there is hope for me yet.

Merry Thinks About “Being Overlooked” Just One More Time

When Meriadoc Brandybuck enters the City he is just one more weary soldier among many others at the end of battle. All attention is given to the King of Rohan whose body is covered in a great cloth of gold and received with state and reverence. And with the king is Éowyn who is borne upon a litter and whose beauty calls forth tender sorrow from all who look upon her.

At the last it is Pippin who finds him as he wanders aimlessly along a narrow lane and as the friends meet again at last Merry sits down upon a step and weeps.

“I wish I could carry you,” Pippin anxiously declares. “You aren’t fit to walk any further. They shouldn’t have let you walk at all; but you must forgive them. So many dreadful things have happened in the City, Merry, that one poor hobbit coming in from the battle is easily overlooked.”

Now those who know Tolkien’s story well will know that Merry has carried a certain resentment about “being overlooked” throughout it. When we first meet him near the Bucklebury Ferry early in the journey of the Ring from the Shire he exudes competence and confidence in everything he does. He is the one who has prepared the cottage at Crickhollow for the frightened travellers, who have encountered the Nazgûl for the first time, with hot baths and a good meal. He is the one who reveals the conspiracy to Frodo and announces that wherever Frodo goes he and Pippin and Sam will go too. He has ponies and provisions ready for the journey and is able to offer local knowledge about the way into The Old Forest and even a little about the forest itself.

And then as soon as he steps outside the world he knows it all starts to unravel. The encounters with Old Man Willow, the Barrow Wight and the later the Nazgûl in Bree, the last of which leads Barliman Butterbur to wonder if he might actually be on his holidays rather than a dangerous adventure, all cause him to lose the confidence with which he began. He is way out of his depth in a story so great and often so terrifying that it is always beyond his conceiving.

And yet he goes on.  It is Gandalf who says to Elrond of Merry and Pippin, “It is true that if these hobbits understood the danger, they would not dare to go. But they would still wish to go, or wish that they had dared, and be shamed and unhappy.” And it is Merry’s refusal to be overlooked that leads him to go to the battle with Éowyn. At no time does he ever feel competent as he did at the outset of the journey but he never gives in and even his resentment, his feeling that he is no more than a piece of luggage to the great ones around him ultimately plays its part. It leads him to the moment when The Lord of the Nazgûl stands over the wounded Éowyn and is about to kill her. So intent is the deadly king upon his prey that he neither sees nor fears what lies behind him. And so it is Merry, “Master Bag”, who thrusts his sword into the tendons behind the knee of one who, until this moment, has believed himself invulnerable. Only Merry the hobbit and Éowyn the woman could have brought down this deadliest of foes and in the strangest of ways it is rejection and “being overlooked” that brings them both together to this vital moment.

Never again will Merry feel resentment about “being overlooked” or, if he does, it will be his memory of this moment that will transform that feeling.

“It’s not always a misfortune being overlooked,” he says to Pippin. “I was overlooked just now by…”

Merry is now both sadder and wiser. His journey to adulthood, as it is for all who really get there, has been one that has been through fear and failure and sorrow. He has given his heart away and seen it broken and now he sits and weeps. But he does not give up. Step by step he keeps on going both to adulthood and a greatness of which he is entirely unaware.

Théoden Leads His Army into Battle.

The Riders of Rohan reach the Pelennor Fields at last and look down upon the horror below them. “The king sat upon Snowmane, motionless, gazing upon the agony of Minas Tirith, as if stricken suddenly by anguish or by dread. He seemed to shrink down, cowed by age.” Until this moment it has been possible to push the impossibility of what they must do to the back of their minds by attending to all of the essential tasks that a soldier must do. That possibility exists no longer. Théoden stares at his own annihilation, something that he shrank from through the years of Wormtongue’s whisperings, and for a moment he is the shrivelled old man in the darkness of his hall and of his mind. And then…

“Arise, arise, Riders of Théoden!  Fell deeds awake: fire and slaughter! spear shall be shaken, shield be splintered, a sword day, a red day, ere the sun rises! Ride now, ride now! Ride to Gondor!”

And the old man is transformed and rides into battle like a god, “even as Oromë the Great in the battle of the Valar when the world was young”. And like Oromë the hunter he takes a horn and blows such a mighty blast upon it “that it burst asunder”. Théoden the godlike king rides with such might that he outruns even the swiftest of his army and as he rides the grass about Snowmane’s feet flames into green, the wind turns and blows fresh from the sea “and darkness was removed and the hosts of Mordor wailed, and terror took them, and they fled, and died, and the hoofs of wrath rode over them.”

Tolkien takes the language of myth and of Old English song that had captured his heart when he was a young man in order to describe this scene in the story. Skilled story teller as he is he could have taken us into battle with the frightened Merry or the death-seeking Éowyn or the standard-bearer Guthláf trying desperately to keep up with his lord but he chooses the godlike king before whose face all creation is transformed, transfigured.

And what do we do as readers? Is it encumbered upon us as those who are disillusioned and disenchanted modernists to demystify or demythologise Tolkien’s language and to insist that we describe war as what it is, as foul and filthy, as a thing of horror? We could do so if we choose and what is more Tolkien could do so better than most of us for he saw war at first hand in the killing fields of Flanders in the First World War. But Tolkien chooses not to do this but to take us to a wholly different level of human experience. It is not that he has a nostalgic longing for medieval warfare which was just as foul and bloody as anything that we can invent today nor does he seek to promulgate what Wilfred Owen called, “the old lie”, that to die for one’s country is a sweet and proper thing. No, what Tolkien does is to take the human experience of the horror of war and to transform it. Note, please, that I have not said take the horror of war and transform it but to take the human experience of war and transform it. And in doing so he chooses not to reduce human beings in war to dumb animals in the slaughter house but to elevate them to gods. And he does it for just this paragraph only as the Rohirrim ride into battle giving us the briefest of glimpses into what we truly are. When we look across the page we return to the description of events, to one action after another. Both kinds of narrative are true and both are true together.

And we will end this week’s reflection with a final thought. When the hopelessly outnumbered Riders of Rohan ride into battle in defence of Minas Tirith they do so in the likelihood that they will die in the attempt. And yet they still ride on. Their plunge into the heart of darkness is godlike and one that was recognised in one of the oldest of English poems, The Dream of the Rood, a poem that likens the death of Christ upon the cross to the triumph of a mighty warrior in battle and so transformed the experience of the warrior forever.
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Merry Feels Useless as He Prepares for Battle

We are on the road with the Rohirrim passing through the Druadan forest and it is held against us by our enemies. We could engage them in battle and doubtless would prevail but there is no time for delay, not even a victorious one, because the hosts of Mordor are at the gates of Minas Tirith.

Théoden and his commanders are busy about the business of war and are in conference with the people of the Druadan wood, seeking a way to bring the riders past those who would prevent their passage but one among their number is lonely and unhappy.

We have seen Merry like this before, on more than one occasion. He carries a great burden with him, one that he does not seem to know how to cast away, and that is his sense of insignificance.

Elfhelm, the commander of the éored to which Dernhelm/Éowyn is attached, trips over Merry, hidden as he is by the elven cloak that he wears, and roundly curses the tree-roots.

“I am not a tree root, Sir,” Merry said, “nor a bag, but a bruised hobbit.”

Poor Merry! It was his desire to be of some use that brought him here but it is his sense of uselessness that afflicts him now that he is close to battle. He wishes “he was a tall rider like Éomer and could blow a horn or something and go galloping to his rescue.”

Ah, the blowing of horns and the business of galloping about. How many people are relieved to spend their time going from meeting to meeting, not because of the value of what each meeting can bring to the enterprise that they are meant to serve but because each meeting can fill the void that otherwise they would gaze over as each day’s work begins. When they take their place around the meeting table at least they do not have to justify their reason for being there.

Merry is there in disobedience to the king’s express command. What can we say to comfort him? Elfhelm does not try and Dernhelm keeps silent. And if they did speak there would be nothing that they could say. Soon as they look down upon the Pelennor Fields and the hosts of Mordor massed against them they will all feel afraid and they will all have to master their fear. Even Théoden will “sit upon Snowmane, motionless, gazing upon the agony of Minas Tirith, as if stricken suddenly by anguish, or by dread.”

And at that moment all that there will be for any to do will be to rush into the heart of battle. Only a few battle hardened veterans will know what it is that they must do when they meet the enemy, the rest will have to learn quickly or perish as they do so. And Merry will find himself confronting a foe so terrible that even if he had been a veteran of many battles and had won many victories, not one of them would be of any use to him. But we will have to wait until another time to think about that story.

So there is no comfort that we can give him now and if we were to tell him what he will face in the battle we might terrify him so much as to unman him completely. It is best not to think too much about what lies ahead. John Henry Newman puts it well in his beloved hymn, “Lead Kindly Light” and we will end this week’s reflection on The Lord of the Rings with his words. Newman was a priest at the Birmingham Oratory whose clergy raised Tolkien after his mother’s death and so I would imagine that he knew this hymn very well.

“Lead, kindly light, amid the encircling gloom; lead thou me on! The night is long and I am far from home; lead thou me on! Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see the distant scene- one step enough for me.”

Anyone who has walked in real darkness will know one step is all that you can take at any point. Faith tells you that it is all you need. It is enough.

Denethor Declares that The West has Failed!

The battle still rages at the walls of Minas Tirith as the Lord of the Nazgûl prepares his final assault, great siege towers built in Osgiliath rolling forward to overwhelm what remains of the city’s defences. But in the Chamber of the Steward in the White Tower the Lord Denethor fights no more. When messengers come seeking orders and telling him that men flee the defences leaving the walls unmanned, his only response is:

“Why? Why do the fools fly? Better to burn sooner than late, for burn we must. Go back to your bonfire! And I? I will go now to my pyre. To my pyre! No tomb for Denethor and Faramir. No tomb! No long slow sleep of death embalmed. We will burn like heathen kings before ever a ship sailed hither from the West. The West has failed. Go back and burn!”

The West has failed.

And all the great vision of the Valar, and of the Free Peoples of the Earth, of Elves and of Humankind, of Valinor and of Númenor, of Gondolin and of Nargothrond, of Rivendell and of Lothlórien, of Arnor and of Gondor, is at an end before the inevitable triumph of the Dark.

The West has failed.

This is not a conclusion that Denethor has drawn based upon what he can see from his windows. This is a belief that he has long held but against which he has fought bravely for as long as he could. Whereas Saruman, with whom he shares the belief, has sought to become an ally to darkness, to reach some accommodation with it, Denethor has refused such a path and has resisted the dark with all his might. He is no traitor. But at the end he bows down before the power of darkness and declares the great story of the West, of which he has been a steward, to be no more than a preparation for a funeral.

The West has failed!

So must all hope fail? Whether we rage, rage against the dying of the light or sit down before its inevitable arrival and quietly despair, going gentle into the night, must darkness fall?

Pippin is a simpler soul than his lord. When Denethor releases him from his service and bids him go to die his response is straightforwardly hobbit-like. “I will take your leave, sir… for I want to see Gandalf very much indeed. But he is no fool; and I will not think of dying under he despairs of life.”

Pippin has no great philosophy of life. For him it is enough that those who to whom he has chosen to give his trust, and at this point of the story this means Gandalf, have not given way to despair. And Gandalf has not given way to despair because long ago he said a great, Yes! to life and to light and to love. He said his, Yes! without dissembling or ambiguity. It was this, Yes! that Cirdan recognised when first Gandalf came to Middle-earth and so gave him Narya, one of the three rings of the Elves, that had power to inspire others to resist tyranny and despair. It was this, Yes! that enabled Gandalf to stand before the Balrog at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm, to declare, “You shall not pass!” and to give himself up to death itself in battle against him. And it is this, Yes! that will enable him to stand alone before the Lord of the Nazgûl when all others have fled.

The early Fathers of the Church taught that repentance, a word that we tend to understand as merely saying sorry for our wrongdoing, was something much more fundamental, much greater than that. It means the renunciation of despair. It means the great, Yes! It does not mean that we hope things are going to turn out for the best. It means a great, Yes! to the Light that shines in the darkness and the darkness can never put it out. And once we have made the great renunciation of despair and through our daily spiritual practice root it deep at the heart of our lives then we will find strength even in the darkest night.