Gandalf Shows Aragorn a Sapling of the White Tree of Gondor

Recently I have been thinking a lot about a line from a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things…” When I say, think, I mean to say that it often comes to mind and then I repeat it as a prayer. The line comes from his poem, “God’s Grandeur” which laments the destructive behaviour of humankind upon the earth but affirms something deeper, the grandeur and glory of God.

Victory has been achieved over the Dark Lord and Aragorn has been crowned King of Gondor. But he fears for the future. He has no heir and as Gandalf says, “Though much has been saved, much must now pass away; and the power of the Three Rings also is ended”. These Rings represented what remained of the power of the Elder Days and the Elves in Middle-earth and although not controlled by the One Ring were, nonetheless, linked to its forging. These Rings were held by Gandalf, Elrond and Galadriel and it was these three who energised resistance to Sauron throughout the last centuries of the Third Age  as he began to build his forces for a renewed assault upon the West.

With the passing of the Three Rings so too must their bearers depart but that leaves Aragorn alone to govern the Western Lands. “I shall grow old,” he says to Gandalf. “And who then shall govern Gondor and those who look to this city as to their queen, if my desire be not granted? The Tree in the Court of the Fountain is still withered and barren. When shall I see a sign that it will ever be otherwise?”

Gandalf’s response is not just a reply to Aragorn’s question but is a spiritual principle based upon wisdom learned from years of long struggle.

“Turn your face from the green world, and look where all seems barren and cold!”

Gandalf reminds Aragorn that the hope of the West long lay hidden in the wastelands of the North. So unlikely did it seem that any hope could lie there that Denethor described the House of Isildur that Aragorn represented as “a ragged house long bereft of lordship and dignity”. We should learn that an answer that is cultivated in prosperous times and places leaves our pride and independence intact. Denethor desired such an answer, one that would come ideally from his own house. The danger with answers of this kind is that pride intact simply continues to grow until at the end it overreaches itself and ends in catastrophe just as it did with the Fall of Númenor. But an answer that is found in the barren place, the unexpected place, must be received as a gift. Aragorn has come from the ragged house of Isildur and the White Tree is found in the waste of the mountains high above Minas Tirith.

It is a sapling no more than three feet high, grown from a fruit planted long before by the kings of Gondor. This planting was a secret that not even the Stewards knew so that when the White Tree in the Court of the Fountain died in 2852, some 150 years before this time they had no knowledge of the fruit’s existence.

Aragorn describes the sapling as being no more than seven years old. At the time when it first began to grow Gandalf and Aragorn were fruitlessly searching for Gollum in the wild while the Ring lay hidden in the Shire, its true identity suspected but still unknown. Sauron’s power continued to grow as he put his energy into regaining the Ring. In the world outside darkness seemed to grow unchecked but the White Tree lived according to a different rhythm at its own pace and in its own time growing neither faster nor slower as events unfolded in the world around.

Hopkins reminds us of this deeper rhythm in his poem.

“And though the last lights off the black West went Oh, morning, at the brown brink Eastward springs- because the Holy Ghost over the bent world broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings!”

I think it is because I see so much that is being trodden down about me that I seek the wisdom of the deeper rhythm that I learn in Hopkins and in Tolkien. Like Gandalf and Aragorn I may have to pay close attention to the events that happen about me but if I contemplate “the dearest freshness deep down things” then I will be held by that freshness and not defeated.

This week’s artwork is by Darrell K. Sweet



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 Gets Ready for The Feast at the Field of Cormallen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frodo Comes to the End of All Things on Mount Doom but Sam is Not So Sure.

“I am glad that you are here with me,” said Frodo. “Here at the end of all things, Sam.”

The Ring has gone to the Fire; the mighty tower of Barad-dûr has fallen into the dust; and the Dark Lord has passed forever into the shadow never to rise again. Amidst all of the ruin Frodo is content that his labours are at an end, his burden has gone and the night is falling. He has no wish to make some kind of escape. There is no future that he can see in which he might play some part. He has been wounded in the shoulder by the terrible knife of the Lord of the Nazgûl in the attack upon the camp below Weathertop; he has received a sting in the neck from Shelob in her lair; and his finger has been bitten clean off by Gollum in his desperate and final attempt to regain the Ring. Besides this he has been wearied beyond any strength that he might possess by the Ring that he has borne, mile after mile all the way from Bag End to the Cracks of Doom themselves.

And there is one thing further. At the very end of his journey he failed. He came to Orodruin with the purpose of casting the Ring into the Fire but when he came there he could not do the deed and claimed the Ring for himself. If it had not been for Gollum’s final attack Sauron would have regained it and all would have been lost. Frodo may be free from the Ring’s hold upon him, the Quest may be achieved, he may even be at peace in a certain way having forgiven Gollum but it is a peace that almost welcomes death. Death means that nothing further need be explained or even resolved.

Three times Frodo tells Sam that they have come to the end but Sam is not so sure.

“Yes I am with you, Master,” said Sam, laying Frodo’s wounded hand gently to his breast. “And you’re with me. And the journey’s finished. But after coming all that way I don’t want to give up yet. It’s not like me somehow, if you understand.”

Sam has much to live for. His love for Frodo means that he will always do what he can for him, always seek, to the best of his understanding, his best good. And Sam has other longings too. He longs for life itself. You will recall that as they approached the mountain and their water had finally run out that Sam remembered “every brook or stream or fount that he had ever seen, under green willow-shades or twinkling in the sun… He felt the cool mud about his toes as he paddled in the Pool at Bywater with Jolly Cotton and Tom and Nibs, and their sister Rosie.” There is much that Sam would like to go home to, the gentle beauty of the Shire, good friends and Rosie Cotton. Sam would like to be married, to build a home and raise a family. Simple and good desires.

The twentieth century philosopher and theologian, Paul Tillich, spoke about the need, in our age of anxiety about meaninglessness, to find a courage to be. In many ways Frodo is a modern man in search of meaning. His restlessness is growing even before he leaves the Shire and when the Ring goes to the Fire he sees no more purpose to his existence. Sam is, by contrast, a pre-modern man, rooted in a sense of place and a stable society and unafflicted by Frodo’s anxiety. Ultimately, and much to his disappointment, Sam will not be able to heal Frodo, but now amidst the ruin of Mordor, he will do what he can.

And so he gently but firmly leads Frodo away from the Cracks of Doom and down the road that they had taken in their ascent of the mountain until they reach a low ashen hill at the mountain’s foot that, for a brief moment, has become an island in the sea of ruin round about them. He cannot give up and it is his indomitable spirit as well as his love for Frodo that keeps them alive just long enough for Gandalf and Gwaihir to rescue them, performing a kindness for which all Tolkien’s readers have been grateful ever since he first brought us this wonderful story.

Trusting to Luck on the Roads of Mordor

Life sometimes takes you to places that you would rather not go to. Tolkien found himself in the trenches of the Western Front on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916 when nearly 20,000 British soldiers were killed in a single attack on the German lines and a further 40,000 were wounded. He gained a great respect for ordinary British soldiers and largely based the character of Sam Gamgee upon those who he got to know. Sam, like those men, would rather not be in the trenches. He does not pretend to some kind of heroism. As far as he is concerned behaviour like that would be entirely inappropriate, like pretending to be Aragorn, or Faramir, or Boromir, or… Frodo for that matter. Sam just gets on with whatever needs to be done. Things like dealing with “Gollum’s treacherous attack, the horror of Shelob, and his own adventures with the orcs.”

Sam has no sense of entitlement. He does not believe that he has an inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. He hopes and even expects that Frodo will treat him fairly and with due respect but that expectation lies within certain bounds. He does not think of himself as Frodo’s equal.

And Sam believes in luck. Not that he thinks that he has a right to it but that he wants to give it a chance if possible. In his fine study, The Road to Middle-earth, Tom Shippey reflects on the place of luck in Tolkien at some length. Shippey tells us that the poet of Beowulf “often ascribes events to wyrd, and treats it in a way as a supernatural force.” But Shippey notes that luck or wyrd is not the same thing as fate. There is an implacability about fate, there is nothing that you can do about it; but you can change your luck. As Shippey puts it, “while persistence offers no guarantees, it does give ‘luck’ a chance to operate.”

And so Sam decides to go in search for water and, as he does so, he says to the sleeping Frodo, “I’ll have to leave you for a bit and trust to luck.”

Sam does find water but he also nearly runs into Gollum and his response to these events is to say, “Well, luck did not let me down… but that was a near thing.” In other words, it is wise not to push luck too far.

Later, when they are forced to take the road, Frodo and Sam are overtaken by a company of orcs on the way to reinforce the garrison at the Black Gate as the armies of the West approach. They know that they cannot escape and Frodo despairs. “We trusted to luck, and it has failed us. We are trapped.” Sam, however, is not so quick to give up. “Seems so,” he says. “Well, we can but wait and see.” They are not able to escape the orcs’ attention but later, in a moment of confusion, they are able to escape and so continue their journey to the mountain. Their persistence has given luck a chance to operate.

In recent weeks in this blog we have thought about the role of Providence in the hobbits’ journey through Mordor. We have seen the part played by the gifts of the Valar in the light of the Silmarils captured in the star glass of Galadriel and in the retreat of the smokes of Orodruin before the West Wind. Shippey reflects on the relationship between Providence and Luck in King Alfred the Great’s translation into Old English of The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius, a text that was one of the most influential in the shaping of the medieval mind. He comments that “What we call God’s fore-thought and his Providence is while it is there in his mind, before it gets done; but once it gets done, then we call it wyrd. This way anyone can tell that there are two things and two names, forethought and wyrd.” Sam is content to live in the experience of luck or wyrd and leave the discernment of Providence to kings or scholars. The result is that he lives life cheerfully and thankfully and he never gives up.