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!

The First Meeting of Aragorn and Arwen. Or is it Beren and Lúthien?

Last week’s post ended with the words:

“And so Aragorn the King Elessar wedded Arwen Undómiel in the City of the Kings upon the day of Midsummer, and tale of their long waiting and labours was come to fulfilment.”

And for the next few weeks I wish to leave the main text of The Lord of the Rings, just for a little while, and turn to the story of their labours as Tolkien recounts it in the appendices to The Return of the King. In my copy published by Collins Modern Classics in 2001 it is entitled Here Follows a Part of the Tale of Aragorn and Arwen and can be found on page 1032.

The tale tells how Aragorn’s father, Arathorn, and grandfather, Arador, were both slain in conflict with orcs and with trolls in the wilds of Eriador and how Aragorn was taken with his mother, Gilraen, when still a small child, to be raised in Rivendell. It tells how Elrond took the place of his father and named him Estel, meaning Hope. Soon he was riding as a young brave warrior with Elladan and Elrohir, the sons of Elrond and he “was fair and noble”.

Then came a day that would change his life for ever. Elrond called him to tell him who he really was. He gave him his true name and told him that he was the heir of Isildur and Elendil and he gave him the ring of Barahir and the shards of Narsil. Already Aragorn knew the stories of these heirlooms. He knew that Barahir had been given the ring by Finrod Felagund of the House of Finarfin of the Noldor as a symbol of eternal friendship, and how, after Barahir had been slain by orcs his son, Beren had recovered his father’s body, slaying his killer, and after laying his father to rest had kept the ring. And he knew that Narsil had been shattered in battle between Elendil and Sauron and how Isildur had seized the broken shards and with them cut the Ring from Sauron’s hand.

One heirloom only did Elrond withhold and that was the sceptre of Annúminas. Only the king of Arnor could hold this and Aragorn was but a chieftain of the Dúnedain and no king.

Elrond in his wisdom did two things in this giving and withholding of gifts. He gave a mighty father’s blessing to the young man. He bestowed the first fruits of glory upon him. The Gospels show this essential principle in the story of the baptism of Jesus who hears the Father’s voice declaring that he is the true and beloved son of the Father and that the Father loves him. Every young man needs to know his glory as he begins his journey to mature manhood. If a father, or one who takes the father’s place, withholds his blessing, or there is no-one able or willing to give the blessing, then the young man feels himself still to be a boy and not a man who can stand alongside his father. But Elrond does another thing. By withholding the sceptre he gives Aragorn his task in life. Only by becoming the king can he receive this gift. He knows what he must do.

It is with the joy of tasting his own glory and knowing his vocation that Aragorn leaves Elrond. Tolkien says that “his heart was high within him” and that is how it should be with a young man. He is singing a part of The Lay of Lúthien the song of the love of his glorious ancestor, Beren, and of Lúthien Tinúviel, a song that he now feels to be one of which he is a part, sharing its glory, and when he sees Arwen Undómiel for the first time it is as if the very story that he has been singing comes to life before him and he calls her, Tinúviel! He learns who she is and why he has never seen her before. She has been with Galadriel in Lothlórien. Immediately his heart is lost to her and I rather think that she likes his comparing of her to her foremother, Lúthien, the most beautiful and most celebrated of all the women of the Eldar.

And so their tale begins. And if it starts with glory and delight then it will be tested to the limit and beyond the limit of their endurance. All love must be tested thus as in a fire so that what is left is what is true. Now begins the labour. Now begins the waiting.

Last week’s artwork came from the Hildebrant brothers and stimulated some conversation on social media. Think week’s is by Cathy Chan and I found it on Pinterest. I think it delightfully captures Aragorn and Arwen in their youth before their labours. I hope that you enjoy it.


Faramir Gazes at the Overwhelming Wave and Thinks of Númenor as He Takes Éowyn in his Arms.

The moment when the Ring goes to the Fire and the reign of Sauron is ended is told in three separate places in The Lord of the Rings and from three different perspectives. The first is at Orodruin itself as Sam carries Frodo from the Cracks of Doom and sees a brief vision of Sauron’s overwhelming power before “all passed… Towers fell and mountains slid; walls crumbled and melted, crashing down; vast spires of smoke and spouting steams went billowing up, up, until they toppled like an overwhelming wave, and its wild crest curled and came foaming down the land”. The second telling is at the Black Gate of Mordor as the embattled host of the West stand at bay against their enemies and Gandalf cries out, “‘The realm of Sauron is ended!.. The Ring-bearer has fulfilled his Quest.’ And as the Captains gazed south to the Land of Mordor, it seemed to them that, black against the pall of cloud, there rose a huge shape of shadow, impenetrable, lightning crowned, filling all the sky. Enormous it reared above the world, and stretched out towards them a vast threatening hand, terrible but impotent: for even as it leaned over them, a great wind took it, and it was all blown away, and passed; and then a hush fell.”

The third and last telling takes place in the gardens of the Houses Houses of Healing as a young man and a woman stand, hand in hand (although they do not know it) as they gaze northward towards the Morannon as all the earth holds its breath and “Time halted”.

“Then presently it seemed to them that above the ridges of the distant mountains another vast mountain of darkness rose, towering up like a wave that should engulf the world, and about it lightnings flickered; and then a tremor ran through the earth, and they felt the walls of the City quiver. A sound like a sigh went up from all the lands about them; and their hearts beat suúddenly again.”

At last Faramir speaks.

“It reminds me of Númenor,” he says, and he tells Éowyn of his dream of the great wave that rises above the fields and the hills to drown it and a “darkness unescapable”. Éowyn draws closer to him. Is the Darkness Unescapable coming? But no, Faramir’s limbs are light and he feels a hope and a joy that no reason can deny. And then he kisses Éowyn upon the brow.

Tolkien too had a recurring dream of an overwhelming wave that he associated with the fall of Atlantis and of Númenor. In his legendarium Tolkien tells of the great hubris of the king of Númenor, Ar-Pharazôn, who was seduced by Sauron to defy the Valar and make an assault upon the Undying Lands. Because of this attempt to break the  bounds of human mortality Eru, the One, intervenes and destroys Númenor with a great wave, saving only Elendil, the Elf-friend, his family and followers.

Tolkien and his wonderful creation, Faramir, both dream about the catastrophe and Faramir carries the sorrow of the failure of his great ancestors and the gradual decline of Gondor in his heart. He longs for the restoration of his people and yet fears their destruction. The sudden and terrifying appearance of the great wave above him tells him that the end has come and yet his heart says, no! His heart is pierced with hope and joy!

This is the eucatastrophe, a word coined by Tolkien himself and one that runs counter both to the hubris of our own times and to our own fear of catastrophe. Tolkien said that eucatastrophe is “the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears”. He said that this was the highest function of a fairy-story, something that he declared The Lord of the Rings to be and which was in no sense meant to be a disparagement of his work. The happy turn for Tolkien was never meant to reduce his readers to the kind of children who cannot bear unhappiness and must forever remain in an enchanted world in which no harm can come. Just as with Julian of Norwich’s great declaration that “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well” the eucatastrophe, the sudden and entirely unexpected surprise of joy can only come to those who have stared the darkness straight in the face.

No wonder Faramir kisses Éowyn at this moment; and no wonder Éowyn allows him to do so. But more on that next week.

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


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 and Sam Rest For a While in The Woods of Ithilien

Frodo and Sam have been here before because the Field of Cormallen lies close to the refuge of Henneth Annûn. These are the woods that they came to on their journey, guided by Gollum, from the desolation that lay before the Black Gate of Mordor to the Crossroads, the Morgul Vale and then the great climb up to the Pass of Cirith Ungol. These are the woods in Ithilien, the desolate garden of Gondor that “kept still a dishevelled dryad loveliness” even as they were ravaged by orcs and other foes of Gondor.

It is only a few short weeks since Frodo and Sam were last in these woods in the first days of March. Even then Spring was beginning and the life of the Earth was already breaking through the destructive grip of Mordor after the cold of Winter. “Fronds pierced moss and mould, larches were green fingered, small flowers were opening in the turf, birds were singing.” Now the Spring is advanced and in its full riotous glory of smells, sights and sounds. Even amidst the fearfulness of their last visit to Ithilien Frodo and Sam were refreshed by the gentle beauty of this place, now they linger there without fear “visiting again the places that they had passed before.” This time they know that there are no dangers hiding in a shadow or behind a rock or tree. The song of a bird can be heard clearly without the possibility of an iron clad footfall of an orc being listened for amidst its beauty. The “groves and thickets… of tamarisk and pungent terebinth, of olive and of bay” can be gazed upon and their aromas drank in without fear that they may conceal an enemy who might do them hurt.

The last time that they were here Frodo and Sam were pressing forward, always aware that every moment’s delay in their journey to the mountain might lead to disaster for their friends and all that they loved. The curtain of water cascading down the rocks that concealed the refuge of Faramir and his Rangers might be gazed upon for a moment as the setting sun lit it with light and colour but always there was the sense as they paused in their journey that there was another step to be taken, another danger to be faced.

Tolkien’s story is filled with pauses in which the characters encounter beauty in a manner that takes hold of them, making them stop to take it in. The hidden valley of Rivendell, the woods of Lothlórien, the glittering caves of Aglarond and the refuge of Henneth Annûn in the woods of Ithilien are all such places. Each one calls them to turn aside for a moment from their task but they are not thereby distractions. A distraction is a pulling or dragging away of the mind from the needful thing. In The Lord of the Rings the encounter with beauty is not a distraction but a recollection. The essential is that which is good, true and beautiful and it is the essential that is threatened by the Dark Lord and yet so woven into the very fabric of reality that the Dark Lord cannot touch and destroy it. We recall Frodo’s cry of “They cannot conquer for ever!” at the flower-crowned head of the statue of the King of Gondor cast down by orcs and Sam’s vision of the star beyond the mirks of Mordor that is inaccessible to the reach of Sauron.

Already Frodo and Sam have known that there is “the dearest freshness deep down things” and so they can wander through Ithilien without fear and contemplate it in a way far beyond that which those who have not known the dark as they have done can do. This is the dawn that awaits those who watch through the dark of the night, the Springtime prepared for those who have endured through Winter.

Sam Wakes Up in Bed at The Field of Cormallen

I have many favourite moments in The Lord of the Rings and two of the very best are when Frodo wakes up in bed in Rivendell after the flight to the Fords of Bruinen and this scene at The Field of Cormallen.

“When Sam awoke, he found that he was lying on some soft bed, but over him gently swayed wide beechen boughs, and through their young leaves sunlight glimmered, green and gold. All the air was full of a sweet mingled scent.”

Tolkien mixes some beautiful images, springtime after winter, light after darkness, rich verdant plenty after a wasteland and my own particular favourite, waking up in a comfortable bed after a hard journey.

As a young man I spent six years as a teacher in a secondary school (high school) in Africa. I loved to travel and soon learned that every journey was in itself an adventure to a degree that in the West we have tried to eliminate. We have “more important” things to do with our time such as being on time for meetings and other apparently essential things than we have for adventure. Adventure, after all, is always an interruption to our plans. It is exciting to watch the adventures of others but, on the whole, most of us are hobbits and we find adventures to be “nasty, disturbing, uncomfortable things” that “make you late for dinner”.

My African experience was that dinner and a bed for the night when travelling was always a triumph and usually depended upon an act of kind hospitality on the part of someone else. What this certainly taught me was to value the gift of a comfortable bed. It was certainly better than the hard ground although I learned to sleep on that too.

But I think that my love for the scene of Sam waking up in bed links to an earlier and deeper experience and that is of the profound feeling of being safe, and everything being alright, that I felt from time to time in childhood. Childhood has many insecurities even in the happiest ones. Dark corners hide possible dangers while the fear of an encounter with a bigger boy with whom you have some unresolved matter can occupy the imagination for a long time. Waking up in bed feeling safe with the sun streaming through the curtains and the prospect of a day of delight ahead is a simple pleasure that is rarely surpassed through life and the likelihood is that the day of delight belongs to the holidays and those who know their C.S Lewis know what a joy the holiday is. He links it closely to the joy of heaven.

As always, Tolkien is a little more reticent about making such links openly than is Lewis. But surely heaven is, at least in part, that sense of waking up and knowing, knowing at the depths of one’s being, that everything is alright. As a serious grown-up I usually awake with the knowledge that there is work to do. But I remember the childhood experience and it has a ring of truth to it that makes all my adult awakenings seem pallid by comparison. I may catch glimpses of joy but that was the real thing.

This is Sam’s experience. It is one of “bewilderment and great joy”, of being “glad to wake”, and his great cry of joy, of praise, “is everything sad going to come untrue?”

This is truly one of those glimpses of “the world made new”. Gandalf’s response to Sam’s cry of praise is not to point out that there will be struggles ahead. We all know that there will be. Gandalf joins Sam’s hymn of praise to “the dearest freshness deep down things” by laughing and his laughter is a “sound like music, or like water in a parched land.”

Like Sam we sometimes catch glimpses of this reality although for for few, if for any, are they so hard won. My enjoyment of the triumph of finding a good meal and a bed for the night in my journeys in Africa point me to the deeper authenticity of Sam’s experience on the Field of Cormallen but for both of us the fulfilment of that joy lies ahead at the fulfilment of all things, the great conclusion of the Music of the Ainur.