Sam and Frodo Bring the Valar to Mordor

After Sam has found Frodo in the highest part of the Tower of Cirith Ungol he finds orc gear for them both to wear, stripping the bodies of those who have fallen in the fight over Frodo’s mithril coat. And then they begin their impossible journey towards Orodruin, the mountain where Sauron once forged the One Ring and where, if possible, they must destroy it. But first they must pass two creatures that stand guard over the way from the tower into Mordor, the Watchers.

“At length they came to the door upon the outer court, and they halted. Even from where they stood they felt the malice of the Watchers beating on them, black silent shapes on either side of the gate through which the glare of Mordor dimly showed. As they threaded their way among the hideous bodies of the orcs each step became more difficult. Before they even reached the archway they were brought to a stand. To move an inch further was a pain and weariness to will and limb.”

Frodo and Sam do not merely face the peril of encountering enemies along the way but the spiritual power of one who hates all that is living and free. This power animates all its slaves to do its bidding, amongst whom are the Watchers. Their malice must be implacable to enable them to stand guard for their master day after day and year after year in this one place and it is too much for the exhausted hobbits.

At least it is too much for Frodo, weakened as he is by the Ring, but Sam has enough strength to draw out the elven-glass of Galadriel and that one simple act is enough. As the light of the Silmaril blazes forth words come to mind from the moment when Gildor Inglorion and his company sang them in the woods of the Shire and the Nazgûl that had sent by Sauron to hunt for the Ring fled from them.

Gilthoniel, a Elbereth!

And Frodo calls out behind him.

Aiya elenion ancalima!

Starkindler, O Elbereth! Hail, brightest of stars!

When I wrote about Sam’s encounter with the orc, Snaga, a few weeks ago https://stephencwinter.com/2017/06/26/snaga-knows-that-he-is-up-against-a-power-much-greater-than-he-is/ I spoke of how it was not only the menace of the Ring that Snaga could feel as Sam approached him but another power too. It is this same power that overcomes the malice of the Watchers and it is the power of the Valar that Sam and Frodo invoke and which comes to their aid as the star-glass is revealed.

Tolkien describes this movingly as Sam draws out the glass. “As if to do honour to his hardihood, and to grace with splendour his faithful brown hobbit-hand that had done such deeds, the phial blazed forth suddenly, so that all the shadowy court was lit with a dazzling radiance like lightning.”

What Tolkien does is to describe the beautiful relationship of the one who invokes a power and the power that is invoked. The mistake made by those who seek power over others is to believe that they must achieve mastery. For them, what is known as magic, is the gaining of mastery over the powers. Sauron, the Necromancer, is such a magician, and far too much that is known as science is not far removed from this. It is a human search for mastery. A mastery over nature that separates humankind from fellow creatures and a mastery that seperates the scientist from his fellow humans. In C.S Lewis’s science fiction trilogy the figure of Weston is such a scientist. His speech to Ransome in Out of the Silent Planet, Uncle Andrew’s speech to Digory and Polly in The Magician’s Nephew and Saruman’s speech to Gandalf in Isengard are all very much of the same kind. They are speeches in praise of mastery. Frodo and Sam seek nothing of the kind. They are willing servants of the Good, the Beautiful and the True and they have offered their lives for the sake of those that they love. This is what the Valar, the servants of the One, honour and delight in and so they come to the aid of the hobbits in this dark place.

Image of the Watchers by Howard Koslow from http://img-fan.theonering.net

“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.

Christmas! A Good Time to Start a Venture that will Save the World From Evil.

“Go now with good hearts! Farewell, and may the blessing of Elves and Men and all Free Folk go with you. May the stars shine on your faces!”

So says the Lord Elrond at dusk on the 25th December in the year 3018 in the Third Age of the Earth as the Fellowship of the Ring sets out upon the quest to take the Ring of Power to the fires in which it was created upon Orodruin, Mt Doom, in the land of Mordor.

Within the story the date upon which the Fellowship sets out is determined by events such as Frodo’s decision to leave Bag End upon his birthday, the 23rd of September. This means that it is in the dead of winter that the great quest will leave Rivendell. But for Tolkien there is another reason why the 25th of December is chosen and that, of course, is because of the place of that date within the church’s calendar. It is Christmas, the Feast of the Nativity, of the birth of the Saviour to Mary and Joseph in a stable in Bethlehem. It is the day upon which the great adventure begins, “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

In Tolkien’s legendarium, unlike C. S Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, there is no incarnation. There is no figure like Aslan, around whom the whole story turns, who will die and rise again for the world. But the whole story is a preparation for the Incarnation. All of Tolkien’s great work prepares us to hear the great words that are proclaimed in the Christmas gospel, that “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

The destruction of the Ring of Power and the Fall of Sauron is not the end of the story. Tolkien goes to great lengths to show that. It is the point of the heartrending chapter near the end of The Lord of the Rings that he entitles, The Scouring of the Shire. The Ring may have gone to the Fire but a small band of brigands under a malicious leader can still do serious harm. It is the point of the departure from Middle-earth of Galadriel, Elrond and Gandalf and the ending of the great works that they were able to do with the three Elven Rings whose power fades with the destruction of the One Ring to which they were inextricably linked. For with the end of Sauron comes also the fading of Lothlórien and of Rivendell.

Christmas is yet to come in Middle-earth. We sense that when it does come it will do so as Tolkien’s great eucatastrophe, “the sudden happy turn in a story that pierces you with a joy that brings tears.” The long slow defeat of Tolkien’s story and our own experience of the world will end, not with the going out of the light for ever, but with the dawning of endless day that grows ever brighter. To this Great Day the Fall of Sauron and the Coronation of Aragorn as the returning King of Gondor and of Arnor is but a signpost. The reality that the sign points to has not yet come.

But for now we get ahead of ourselves in the story. It is the 25th of December and a small company without much gear of war goes south with the Ringbearer.

“There was no laughter, and no song or music. At last they turned away and faded silently into the dusk.”

How Do We Know if the Time has Come Unless We Try the Door?

One night of rest remains before the host of Rohan begin the great ride to the plains before Minas Tirith. Théoden sits at table with Éomer and Eówyn upon his right and Merry upon his left. At first there is little talk as tends to be the way of it before a great event. What is there left to be said? But at last it is Merry who breaks the silence.

“Twice now, lord, I have heard of the Paths of the Dead,” he said. “What are they? And where has Strider, I mean the Lord Aragorn, where has he gone?”

Théoden does not reply but just sighs and so it is Éomer who tells Merry of the road into the mountains that Aragorn has just taken and the sad story of Baldor, son of Brego, who once dared to pass the door and who was never seen again.

Then it is Théoden who adds something to the telling of the story in order to bring some comfort and hope. He tells of how when Brego and Baldor first climbed the road in search of places of refuge in times of need they met a man of great age sitting before the door.

“The way is shut… It was made by those who are Dead, and the Dead keep it, until the time comes. The way is shut.”

Until the time comes.

This begs the question that Éomer now asks.

“But how shall a man discover whether that time be come or no, save by daring the door?”

Éomer’s question is answered in the asking of it and we know that Aragorn has already received the answer by daring the door with his companions and has passed through safely, commanding the dead to follow him.

There are moments of crisis in our lives when a choice must be made. It is at such times that the original meaning of crisis is revealed. A crisis is a time of judgment when the reality of who we are is brought into the light and revealed for what it truly is. The unhappy Baldor swore an oath in the pride of his youth, emboldened by the strong drink in the horn that he bore and so the way remained closed to him. Aragorn passed the door as the heir of Isildur at the great moment of the Age commanding the Dead to follow him and so fulfil their oath. Aragorn knew the authority that had been given to him and knew his greatness. To know this is not pride in the sense that it was for Baldor. In Baldor’s case the swearing of the oath was an aspiration, an attempt to declare himself a man of substance, of greatness, who could command the loyalty of his men. In Aragorn’s case the greatness was not something that he sought to grasp; indeed we saw him lay it down with all his personal hope of happiness in order to follow the orcs and try to free Merry and Pippin. Aragorn’s destiny is not an aspiration but is bound with the hope of the West and so he cannot refuse the attempt to pass the door.

And what of us?

Few of us will be called to a deed in which our lives will be put at risk as Aragorn was. But most of us, at some point in our lives, will be called to take a risk, to take a lead, at great cost to ourselves. At such times it will be necessary to examine ourselves to see if what we really desire is a reputation, a name that will gain the respect of others. If we can face ourselves and say that what we desire above everything is some expression of the Common Good then we should take the risk. It may be that in doing so we will achieve a reputation but that will not be our primary purpose. And we will not know, can never  know for sure, as Éomer asked, whether the time has come or not, until the risk is taken.

 

 

Éowyn After Aragorn: What Becomes of the Broken-hearted?

We all know the clichés that attend a broken heart.

Hell hath no fury like a woman spurned! 

We know the stories of revenge and bitterness. They have been told again and again. But what of Éowyn? We know her shame as she watched the dishonouring of her people and of their king. We know that she was always aware that she was being watched by Wormtongue. She was to be one of the prizes that he would gain amidst the ruin of Rohan, a trinket to be carried off and enjoyed by the victor in the fight. We know too that although she was a warrior her role was always confined to be dry nurse to the broken man who was Théoden.

Then Aragorn comes into her life and with him comes the awakening of hope and the possibility of happiness. She knows that he is a captain that men will follow. The arrival of the Dúnedain in Edoras, a mighty company following their lord and hero, merely confirms to her what she can already see for herself.

And then he leaves her and he will not take her with him even though she pleads with him. All the hope that has begun to awaken in her heart is dashed; both hope for her people and hope for herself. And perhaps, too, in the lonely watches of the night, she has pictured herself as a mighty queen adored by her people. Can we blame her? We may remember the moment when Frodo offered the Ring to Galadriel.

“You will give me the Ring freely! In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair!”

Such words do not come from nowhere as if in an unthinking manner. Galadriel, too, had allowed herself dreams of greatness. So too had Boromir. So too had Saruman. So too had Lotho Sackville-Baggins. So too had Gollum “the Great”. Dreams of greatness are common both to the mighty among us and also to the weak. It is not our dreams that distinguish us from one another but the actions that we take in consequence of our dreams. Among the list of dreamers that we have just named Boromir tries to take the Ring from Frodo although he triumphs gloriously over his temptation in giving his life for Merry and Pippin; Saruman betrays the peoples of Middle-earth and the Valar who gave him his mission; Lotho becomes an ally of Saruman and betrays the Shire into his hands; and we know the long and tragic tale of Gollum.

And Galadriel?

“I pass the test,” she said. “I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel.”

Éowyn, too, will “pass the test” eventually, but even in her darkest moments she will not betray her people and become an agent of darkness. In her deepest despair and desire for death she will remain true to the love that she has for Théoden who has been as a father to her. When, in the battle, Théoden falls under the attack of the Lord of the Nazgûl and all his household knights are slain or, through the terror of their horses, desert him, Éowyn does not desert him. And, as Anne Marie Gazzolo recently commented on this blog, she is there to be the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy.

Ultimately it is not her dreams that will determine her destiny but her long practice of faithfulness to the drudgery of her life in Meduseld and the practice, too, of her love for Théoden. It is our practice that will determine our destiny although eventually we will have to surrender to a grace that is greater even than our practice, even as Éowyn will in order to fulfil that destiny. And it is that practice that will sustain us through our darkest nights as it did for Eówyn “when all her life seemed shrinking, and the walls of her bower closing in about her, a hutch to trammel some wild thing in.”

Meriadoc Brandybuck and the King of Gondor

It is Arwen of Rivendell who declares Aragorn, king; doing so in the giving of the standard that Halbarad bears and from the moment it is given Aragorn is transformed. Readers who may have seen Peter Jackson’s films will remember that this transformation comes with the arrival of Elrond and the giving of the sword. They will remember too that it comes with the words, “Be who you were meant to be!” The words may be absent from Tolkien’s telling of the tale but when the standard comes the effect is the same. The standard may remain unfurled but Aragorn knows what it is. It is the standard of the king of Gondor and when Aragorn goes into battle he will do so, not as chieftain of the Rangers of the North, but as the king.

And as the king Aragorn challenges Sauron and wrests control of the Palantir from him. As the king he chooses to take his  own pathway to the battle before the walls of Minas Tirith. Until the moment the Grey Company overtook him he was content to be a part of Théoden’s company and to follow him into the battle and he does not fret about how he is to claim the crown. This is not Aragorn’s way. There is always only one question that he must answer and that is “What must I do now?” He knows the destiny to which he is called. He knows that he can never be united to Arwen unless as king of Gondor and of Arnor but he never plots or schemes to achieve this destiny. He never calculates the question of who is for him or against him. He never tries to make his destiny or his desire a possession to be defended. If he is to accomplish it then he must either receive it as a gift or to lay it down. How important a distinction this is. Once his choice has been made nothing and no one will dissuade him from his course of action. His willingness to wait so that when the time comes he receives his destiny as a gift is not a sign of weakness or indecisiveness. Indeed it is a sign of faith. It is the weak and fearful who fear that unless they make their desire happen it may never come to them. Saruman is one such, constantly calculating how he may achieve the power he desires. He knows that by seeking power for himself he betrays the mission given to him by the Valar and yet he wonders if the rebellion of Sauron might mean that the Valar will no longer intervene as they did at the end of the First Age and in the destruction of Númenor. Aragorn never stoops to such calculation. He is a true Númenorian and descendent of Elendil the Elf Friend, the faithful one.

And as with Théoden, perhaps less glorious in his lineage, but no less glorious in his faithfulness, Aragorn gives his concern to the lowly as well as to the great. When he declares his decision to Théoden Aragorn also bids farewell, for the time being, to Merry. He cannot  give him any comfort. Merry “could find no more to say. He felt very small, and he was puzzled and depressed by all these gloomy words.” He goes with Théoden and misses Pippin very much.

Aragorn may not be able to comfort Merry but his heart goes out to him. “There go three that I love, and the smallest not the least… He knows not to what end he rides; yet if he knew, he would still go on.” And such kindness and compassion is a true mark of a true king. For the most part we have to deal with those whose ambition for personal glory drives them on. But we can choose to be different. We can choose to give our love to all people from the greatest to the lowliest and like Aragorn and the true Númenorians we can trust that written deep into the fabric of reality is a law that is firm. We might call it the law of God.

“Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the Lord and who meditates on his law day and night. That person is like a stream planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither- whatever they do prospers.” (Psalm 1)

Hobbits and Other Peasants at Christmastide

If I were to keep to my usual practice and to reflect on a passage from The Lord of the Rings as I read through the story then I would have to end the year, and to keep Christmas, with Frodo and Sam in Shelob’s Lair. I could not do this. Tolkien himself used December 25th as a day of hope in his story, the day on which the Fellowship left Rivendell to begin their mission. The dereliction of Shelob’s Lair comes later when Sam believes Frodo to be dead and wrestles with the choice of whether to leave him and to carry on the mission alone. We will reach that point in 2016. I could not spend Christmas thinking about it.

As I thought about what to write I recalled a piece that I wrote in December 2012 when I first began to write my Lord of the Rings blog. At that point I had not yet discovered WordPress and so posted it on my website. If you want to read what I wrote then please read it at http://stephenwinter.net/page6.htm#128678. In it I spoke of a story told by the great Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard. In it he tells of a mighty prince who while riding through fields in his country sees a beautiful peasant girl and falls in love with her. So great is her beauty that the prince decides to dress in peasant’s clothing and to work in the fields alongside her and so win her hand in marriage. Kierkegaard tells us that we all want to know when the prince will reveal who he really is to the girl and so take her off to be his princess. Then he asks, why should he do this at all? Why, if he really loves her, should he not remain a peasant and to share her life? Do let me know what you think of this!

Back in 2012 I was thinking of Tolkien’s reply to his publishers when, after the success of The Hobbit, they asked for “more about hobbits”. Tolkien’s hero, Bilbo Baggins, had been unlike any other that he had ever created, making excellent use of plentiful good luck, living by his wits and his kind and generous nature and finally spending the Battle of the Five Armies, the great climax of the story, in a state of unconsciousness. Clearly he did not feel that there was much more that Bilbo or any other hobbit could offer and that was what he replied.

The seventeen years between the publications of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were a journey of discovery for Tolkien, a journey in which he learnt about hobbits. The words he gave to Gandalf in the crucial chapter that sets the scene for Frodo’s journey, The Shadow of the Past, are surely Tolkien’s own: “My dear Frodo! Hobbits really are amazing creatures as I have said before. You can learn all that there is to know about their ways in a month, and yet after a hundred years they can still surprise you in a pinch. I hardly expected to get such an answer, not even from you.” Tolkien is taken by surprise by hobbits but by the end of The Lord of the Rings it is clear that only hobbits could possibly have accomplished the destruction of the Ring and the saving of the world.

Gandalf could only have heard Frodo’s words because he did spend many years in the company of hobbits, years in which for the most part, he was known to them mainly for the quality of his fireworks and for little else. Saruman regarded Gandalf’s interest in hobbits either with ill concealed contempt or with suspicion. The only hobbits that he could do business with are those who saw reality as he did, such as Lotho Sackville-Baggins or Ted Sandyman. He could never have received Frodo’s surprise as Gandalf did.

So at this Christmastide I would like to offer you Gandalf’s long apparently pointless sojourn among hobbits and Kierkegaard’s story of the Prince and the Peasant Girl as a meditation upon the Incarnation (John 1.14). I think they are related to each other. I do not say that they explain or tell us what the Incarnation means. It is not the purpose of stories to “explain” things but they do cause us to think about things. Are we the peasants among whom the Prince comes to live or the hobbits who enjoy Gandalf’s fireworks? Will the Prince reveal his true identity to us or is there some other great surprise to be revealed? I look forward to any reflections you may have to offer and in this Christmastide I pray that God may rest you merry!