What Happens When Hobbits Fall Prey to Greed and Self-importance. (The Scouring of the Shire)

The Scouring of the Shire is one of the saddest chapters in The Lord of the Rings. We expected Mordor to be as desolate as it turned out to be and, step by step, we followed Frodo and Sam to the Cracks of Doom longing to be free of it. But then the impossible happened and the Ring went to the Fire. Sauron fell into nothingness and his realm crumbled, Frodo and Sam awoke in a soft bed in the woodlands of Ithilien and Sam cried out, “Is everything sad going to come untrue? What’s happened to the world?”

But the spirit of Mordor was never something forced upon the world by one evil being. Sauron fed upon the selfishness, the meanness and the fearfulness of others to become the mighty lord of darkness. And he had many imitators not least Saruman of Isengard and Lotho Sackville-Baggins of the Shire. For those critics who have accused Tolkien of moral banality, of writing a simplistic “good guys versus bad guys” story, one need only read this chapter of the story to know that this criticism is arrant nonsense.

The Shire was never an earthly paradise with no knowledge of good and evil. It was never a realm of pure innocence. It was always a land inhabited by a people subject to the same passions and the same temptations as we are. But Tolkien gave us a land in which a people live securely because of the protection of the Rangers of the North and in which no one lives either in poverty or great wealth. There are two great families in the Shire, the Tooks and the Brandybucks, but although both enjoy great comfort it is a comfort shared with the community at large. Brandybuck Hall and the Great Smials of Tuckborough are more like communal villages than private residences.

But once there are those who regard the acquiring of private wealth well beyond that of their neighbours as a goal worth pursuing, a seed of meanness is sown in the Shire that will not be easily dug out. So it is with Lotho Sackville-Baggins as we will consider next week in more detail. Suffice to say at this point that it is this seed that infects the Shire and its fruits that the four companions encounter when they return from their adventures.

Some readers might wish to remind me of the avariciousness of the dwarves and their love for gold or that of Thranduil of the woodland realm or the Master of Esgaroth. To which I would answer that they are right! If it had not been for the lust for revenge of the goblins of the Misty Mountains all Gandalf’s efforts to unite the free peoples of the North against the growing threat in Dol Guldur might have ended in disaster. Tolkien’s characters are morally complex and are all subject to spiritual conflict, even the greatest of them. Perhaps especially the greatest. Only those such as the orcs who have long ago given up the inner struggle are morally simple.

The Hobbits of the Shire are far from morally  simple and when enough are encouraged to feed upon their sense of self-importance such as the Shirrifs or upon their fearfulness of the big world outside as with the easily cowed general populace then it becomes possible for a few people to take control of the whole country. I have often thought that it is only because Britain was never invaded during the Second World War that it is possible to make simplistic generalisations about “British Values”. If the Nazis had taken control there would have been plenty of British people in sympathy with their philosophy, plenty who would have collaborated simply out of self-interest and many who would have done so out of fear. Much of that which we would like to proclaim as innate goodness or decency is more the product of historical good fortune.

We should, all of us, especially those of us who live in some comfort, be grateful for our good fortune. But I do not want to be overly pessimistic about ourselves even as I wish to avoid over optimism. As we shall see there is a goodness and a courage lying deep down within the hobbits that is only waiting to be reawoken. And it dwells in us too.

 

 

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.

 

Many Partings. An Elegy for a World that is Passing.

“The world is changing: I feel it in the water, I feel it in the earth, and I smell it in the air.”

Many readers will recognise these words as coming from the introductory sequence to Peter Jackson’s films of The Lord of the Rings. In the film these words are given to Galadriel and they set the scene for the story that is to be told. Tolkien gives the words to Treebeard and they come near the end of the story when Treebeard meets Galadriel and Celeborn at Isengard. It forms part of a narrative of farewells. The bitter parting of Elrond and Arwen; the parting between Merry and Éowyn and Éomer and now the parting between Treebeard, Celeborn and Galadriel. If Merry’s farewell to Rohan and, in particular, to Éowyn with whom he shared so much and achieved so much, belongs to the poignant but normal shape of human lives, the partings of Elrond and Arwen and of Treebeard, Celeborn and Galadriel belong to the passing away of an age, indeed in Tolkien’s legendarium, a passing away of three ages. The mythological world that Tolkien spent a lifetime in creating is drawing to its close and the historical world that is our normal experience is beginning.

Of course there is no clean break between the two. Aragorn, who is the founding king of this new world, belongs to both. He understands his descent from Eärendil who was father to Elrond of Rivendell and he grew up himself in Elrond’s house. Arwen of Rivendell is his wife and queen and the elves of Thranduil’s realm in the green wood aid Faramir and Éowyn in the resoration of Ithilien while the dwarves of Erebor aid Aragorn and Arwen in the restoration of Minas Tirith and Treebeard and the Ents help to restore the forest around the land that Saruman spoilt, but each of these peoples are passing away until all that is left of Faerie is that sense that one is sometimes given in a woodland glade or a by a stream in a mountain glen of a memory of a presence from long ago, of a memory that is not your own, and a longing for something that you seem to recognise and yet is not a part of your story at least as far as you can tell.

There are moments when I long to try to do as Lucy does in C.S Lewis’s Prince Caspian and to try to reawaken the trees but I am aware that I do not live in Narnia but in the world of That Hideous Strength in which Merlin is forbidden from doing as Lucy was commanded to do in Narnia by Aslan. Just like the community of St Anne’s, of Logres in Britain, my task is to live faithfully in my own time and to await the age that is to come, seeking to keep alive the hope to which Ransom and his companions bear witness.

What is clear in Tolkien’s tale is that his faithful witnesses do not know what lies ahead. Elrond’s parting from Arwen is bittern for it “it should endure beyond the ends of the world”. When Treebeard says “I do not think we shall meet again”, Celeborn replies: “I do not know, Eldest” but Galadriel says: “Not in Middle-earth, nor until the lands that lie under the wave are lifted up again. Then in the willow-meads of Tasarinan we may meet in the Spring.”

Galadriel, of all the major figures of the mythological world, has hope of a restoration at the end of all things that is also a springtime of all things. Beleriand and maybe Númenor also, lands that lie under the floods that ended the First and the Second Ages will rise again. It is Galadriel who perhaps most clearly recognises that her world is passing away and who knows that if a memory of that world, the mythology of England that Tolkien sought to create, is to remain, then it is Aragorn, the King Elessar, who will keep the memory alive. As we have seen it is Galadriel who encourages the growing love between Aragorn and Arwen,  something that breaks Elrond’s heart, and Galadriel who gives Aragorn the Elessar stone to remind him of the hope that he is. She, like Arwen, says her yes in faith and hope and love to the world that is to be.

 

The Enigma of Arrival. Frodo makes Preparation to Go Home.

In the last few weeks on this blog we have been thinking about the love story of Aragorn and Arwen “both the sweet and the bitter” as Arwen herself calls it. Now we return to the moment in which the sweetness is at its most intense. It is the first days of the marriage of Aragorn and Arwen after their long separation and for Aragorn all is healed. When Frodo comes to see the king and queen to ask permission to go home he is kingly in all that he offers. “If there were any gifts that I could give that could match with your deeds you should have them; but whatever you desire you shall take with you, and you shall ride in honour and arrayed as princes of the land.”

This is seemly and befits a king in his triumph and bliss but Arwen sees more keenly, even in her happiness. She speaks of her father departing for the Havens and that because she has made the choice of Lúthien she will not go with him. Then she speaks to Frodo showing that she understands the extent of the price that he has paid and the hurt that he has taken, wounded by the Nazgûl knife, the sting of Shelob and the tooth of Gollum and perhaps most of all by the Ring that he bore to its destruction and yet did not choose to destroy it at the end needing the crazed passion of Gollum to enable him to accomplish his task. Others, like Aragorn, rightly honour him for all that he has done, but he gives no honour to himself.

“In my stead you shall go, Ring-bearer, when the time comes, and if you then desire it. If your hurts grieve you still and the memory of your burden is heavy, then you may pass into the West until all your wounds and weariness are healed.”

We will return at a later time to think more about Frodo’s need for healing and a little of the means by which he will be healed but it is worth noting here that he is freely offered, by the grace of the Valar and the loving choice of Arwen, that which long before Ar-Pharazôn sought to seize by force. He is granted free passage to the Undying Lands. But note that he is not granted the immortality of the Elves but the gift of healing. When he is healed, when his soul learns again its true road to heaven and he is wholly free of the burden of the Ring at last and he has lived out his days then he will die. The tragedy of Ar-Pharazôn is that he sought to gain something that was never his and so lost the gift that was his for ever and could not be lost unless it was cast away.

In 1912 the artist Giorgio de Chirico painted The Enigma of Arrival and the Afternoon. In the painting two figures are seen walking through a classical landscape as the ship that has perhaps brought them there is seen already in full sail and leaving on its way to somewhere else. In 1987 the great Trinidadian novelist V.S Naipaul made this the title of one of his finest works. In it he tells of a man who is constantly in search of a home but finds that as soon as he reaches a place it begins inexorably to move away from him. His arrival coincides with its departure. It is a beautiful and poignant description of the endless flow of things. There are moments within this exquisite work in which, in a Proustian manner, Naipaul makes time almost stop still for a moment, but I had to use the word, almost. Time does not stand still. This tragic insight is displayed in a comic courtesy soon after the scene that we have considered in The Lord of the Rings when the quarrel between Éomer and Gimli over the question as to whether the Lady Galadriel is the most beautiful of all ladies is at last resolved. Éomer begs Gimli’s forgiveness. He cannot call Galadriel the most beautiful for now he has seen the Queen Arwen. Gimli forgives him but with great sadness. “You have chosen the Evening; but my love is given to be Morning. And my heart forbodes that soon it will pass away for ever.”

This week’s artwork is a digital reproduction of the The Enigma of Arrival and the Afternoon by Giorgio de Chirico downloaded from Pinterest.

Aragorn and Arwen Plight Their Troth in Lothlórien.

Did Galadriel know the effect that she was creating when she bade Aragorn cast aside his travel worn garments and arrayed him “in silver and white, with a cloak of elven-grey and bright gem on his brow”? I think that she did. Like Elrond she knows that the crisis to which their long lives has always pointed is upon them but unlike him she has been able to say her yes to it. One last great test awaits her when the Ring comes to Lothlórien but she will pass the test, remain Galadriel, diminish, and pass into the West. Elrond is not tempted to take the Ring. His temptation is to hold onto his daughter and take her with him into the West.

So, whether he has been arrayed as an Elf-lord from the Isles of the West by design or otherwise Arwen meets Aragorn once again after long years of parting and “her choice was made”. She gives her heart to him and upon the fair hill of Cerin Amroth in the heart of Lothlórien they plight their troth.

Tolkien tells us that they “were glad” when they did so and yet even at the moment of gladness they glimpse the reality of the choice that they are making. To the East there lies the Shadow and the choice that Sauron has made. For him the end of all things is darkness and before that the desire for power over everything. Aragorn declares that “the Shadow I utterly reject” and Arwen makes the rejection with him. They will never submit to the Dark Lord.

But they say no to something else too and that is the Twilight. It is the Twilight, the memory of light, and especially of the light of the setting sun. The aching beauty of Twilight carries with it a remembering of that which is already being lost. We gaze westward to the setting sun as its light transforms all upon which it falls and even as it catches at our hearts we know that soon it will be dark. On the eve of Midsummer, the time when Aragorn and Arwen pledged themselves to one another, and the day upon which they married, the twilight in the north will last almost throughout the night hours and yet even in its gentle beauty it is not the day. Arwen makes her choice and it is the man who stands before her that is her choice and in so doing she chooses the glory of the sun standing high in the sky dispelling the darkness of the night forever.

It is a glorious choice. “I will cleave to you, Dúnadan” she tells him and yet she must make her farewell also. She turns from the Twilight. And she turns from her people and, hardest of all, she turns from her father. And “she loved her father dearly.”

Elrond knows that one day she will taste the full bitterness of her choice even as he does. So why does she choose her man of the noonday sun, the King of Gondor and of Arnor, healer of the wastelands, the Lord Elessar? Of course she is captured by the wonder of him and yet she also says her yes to his hope that more lies beyond the circles of the world than memory.

Arwen’s faith is the man that she has chosen, and his rejection of the Shadow. It is also her decision not to choose the Twilight. Like most of us it is not the subtlety of a philosophical system that grasps her but a relationship, a choosing of one way, one road, and in her case, of one man.

Next week we will end these reflections upon the love of Aragorn and Arwen with the bitterness that she must taste at the end. We cannot escape that, even as Elrond foretold, but, just as Arwen chose, we say our yes to gladness and the hope that our gladness and happiness are not in vain. It will be a good meditation for Easter.

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!

Legolas and the Sea. A Longing for a Land Where Nothing Fades Away.

Legolas has long dwelt content in the green land of his people in the north of Mirkwood in rhythm with the trees of the wood as they breathe in and out in winter and summer, winter and summer, year upon year, year upon year as the ages pass.

It was Galadriel who first warned him of the call of the sea, words that came to him through Gandalf when they met in the depths of Fangorn Forest. “Legolas Greenleaf long under tree in joy thou hast lived. Beware of the Sea! If thou hearest the cry of the gull on the shore, thy heart shall then rest in the forest no more.”

It was in the great ride with the Grey Company to the assault of the ships of the Corsairs of Umbar at Pelargir that Legolas first heard the sound of the sea. Gimli paid no heed to it but Legolas was stricken in his heart and as the companions of the Fellowship speak together of their adventures Legolas sings of a heart that is no longer at rest.

“To the Sea, to the Sea! The white gulls are crying, the wind is blowing, and the white foam is flying. West, west away, the round sun is falling. Grey ship, grey ship, do you hear them calling, the voices of my people that have gone before me? I will leave, I will leave the woods that bore me; for our days are ending and our years falling.”

The deepest longing of the Elves is for a world in which nothing fades away. They themselves are immortal, age cannot touch them, but the world in which they live is always changing and in this lies their sadness. The lands in which they have lived in Middle-earth have been islands of relative changelessness. Rivendell, Lothlórien, the Grey Havens and the Woodland Realm in the north of Mirkwood, all have been places in which the memory of ancient beauty has been preserved but at the end of the Third Age with the passing of the Ring the change that they have long resisted has come at last.

It is one of the most profound ideas within The Lord of the Rings that so much that has been beautiful must pass away with the destruction of a thing that was entirely evil. The forging of the three elven rings, Nenya, Varya and Vilya accomplished so much that was good in the Second and Third Ages but none of this could have been achieved without the ringlore of Sauron in his disguise of Annatar in the court of Celebrimbor the lord of Eregion. Sauron played no part in the forging of the Elven Rings and yet their making was still linked to the forging of the Rings of Power and to the One Ring itself. The great temptation of the Elves lay in their very desire to preserve and it is this that Sauron exploited.

The one who chooses to be an enemy learns how to  perceive weakness in others and then exploits it. Indeed it seems to be this quality that marks out an enemy above all others. But when we choose to lay down that which we desire then the enemy has nothing more to exploit. It is the decision to destroy the Ring that enables Sauron’s foes to defeat him even as it was the decision to preserve beauty and to forge the Rings that linked the destiny of the Elves to that of their greatest enemy.

All things pass away and the one who learns this and who does not try to hold on to them can enjoy them without becoming prey to a melancholy that robs us of all joy. “He who binds to himself a joy does the winged life destroy. He who kisses the life as it flies lives in eternity’s sunrise.” Kissing the life as it inevitably and inexorably flies is one of the greatest wisdoms that we can learn. At this moment in the story Legolas is overcome with the sadness of loss. Let us hope that when the time comes for him to leave Middle-earth he will do so with thanksgiving and with joyful hope.

Artwork this week by Lorraine Brevig http://www.lorrainebrevig.com