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.

 

“Wish Me Joy, My Liege-Lord and Healer!” A Happy Ending to the Story of Éowyn and Aragorn.

After Théoden is laid to rest with the highest honour ever given to a king of Rohan Éomer is proclaimed as the new king. He stands before his people and all his guests as lord of his hall and speaks of joy.

“Faramir, Steward of Gondor, and Prince of Ithilien, asks that Éowyn Lady of Rohan should be his wife, and she grants it full willing. Therefore they shall be trothplighted before you all.”

And then, at last, Éowyn is able to look Aragorn in the eyes without shame or fear and she speaks to him: “Wish me joy, my liege-lord and healer!”

And so the story that began when Aragorn aided Gandalf in the freeing of Théoden from bondage comes to the happiest of endings. Of course this shared story ended when Éowyn gave her heart to Faramir in the gardens of the Houses of Healing and when Aragorn and Arwen were wed on Midsummer Day but at this moment in Meduseld where the story began it ends in joy with the words that they speak freely to each other. For when Éowyn asks for Aragorn’s blessing he is able, freely, to give it.

“I have wished thee joy ever since first I saw thee. It heals my heart to see thee now in bliss.”

It was not only Théoden who was in bondage in the dark halls of Meduseld but all his people too. His shame was theirs. His sense of impending doom lay heavy upon them also and none more so than the one who most truly loved him for Éowyn loved him as a daughter. It was not just her own unhappiness and shame that she felt as Wormtongue’s grip grew stronger. It was her misery to have to watch a good, kind and brave man who had always loved her shrink into a lizard like creature under the sway of his enemies and to feel helpless as she watched it. But when she saw Théoden freed from bondage and able to fulfil his destiny as king this was denied to her. She was required to fulfil the ancient female role of waiting for men to return either in victory or defeat and she was denied the love of a man who might have given her glory and happiness. Tolkien has been accused of writing stories in which this traditional gender expectation is played out but this is not the story of Éowyn or Tolkien’s greatest female character, Lúthien of Doriath, who fights alongside Beren, her man, as a warrior who is at the very least his equal. Like Lúthien Éowyn refuses to accept the imprisonment that those who think they act in her best interests impose upon her. She follows her heart taking the way of a warrior into battle and following the man who she loves best of all standing by him at the very end defending him against the Lord of the Nazgûl on the Pelennor Fields as his body lays broken beneath his horse.

This is why Aragorn is able to call her back as she lies in the Houses of Healing. Her True Self has never given way to despair. When he anoints her with athelas “an air wholly fresh and clean and young, as if it had not before been breathed by any living thing… came new-made from snowy mountains high beneath a dome of stars, or from shores of silver far away washed by seas of foam”. Éowyn has remained entirely true to herself. Aragorn may have been a dream but it was for Théoden that she was ready to lay down her life. And then when she meets Faramir she realises that she is free to say yes to life and to happiness.

Éowyn is a woman of truth who has never compromised her True Self and although brought to the very edge of despair did not give way to this at the end. It is her love that has guider  her most truly and so she can look Aragorn in the eye. There is nothing for her to be ashamed of. She has given her love freely as her brother declared before the company and Aragorn too can bless her without shame. Both are true lovers indeed.

The Funeral of Théoden

It was 4 years ago when I first wrote about Théoden, a man bound to his chair by the leachcraft of Grima Wormtongue staring miserably at the image of his glorious ancestor, Eorl the Young, the founder of the Kingdom of Rohan. I quoted the Irish poet and priest, John O’Donohue from his wonderful book, Eternal Echoes, in which he writes about the different types of inner prison that we build for ourselves. He could have been writing about Théoden.

“Fear and negativity are immense forces which constantly tussle with us. They long to turn the mansions of the soul into haunted rooms. These are the conditions for which fear and negativity long and in which they thrive. We were sent here to live life to the full. When you manage to be generous in your passion and vulnerability, life always comes to bless you.”

O’Donohue creates a rich contrast between the soul’s true nature described as a spacious and elegant mansion and the haunted room created by fear and negativity. Tolkien gives us the contrast between the richly tapestried walls of Meduseld with the memory of the young hero and the shrivelled and wizened creature imprisoned in his chair. Théoden is shamed by the ancestral hero upon whose image he is forced to gaze each day and his people live in a wasteland. Such is the fate of a people whose king is no longer a source of fruitfulness. It is the fate of the people of the Fisher King in the Parsifal legend. It is the fate of the people of Rohan.

And then Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli come and with their burning ardour overthrow the prisons of Wormtongue and his master, Saruman. The armies of Rohan are no more powerful than before and the threat from their enemies is undiminished but Théoden steps out from his prison and feels the good rain upon his face and the hilt of a sword in the grasp of his hand. Once more this good man is generous in his “passion and vulnerability” and life comes to bless him. He arouses a people who have longed for the opportunity to give their best and their utmost. He restores their pride. In a few short days they defeat the armies of Saruman at Helms Deep and at the very limits of endurance they break the siege of Minas Tirith at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. Théoden is overthrown at the last by the Lord of the Nazgûl but dies at peace and without shame as he prepares to meet his ancestors.

And now he makes his return to Edoras in glory as a true king should, honoured by all free peoples. He is laid upon a golden bier and carried on a great wain from Minas Tirith to his home. Merry, the faithful squire who stood bravely at the side of his lord in his final battle rides upon the wain and keeps his arms. Then Tolkien names each member of the Fellowship in their turn.

“Frodo and Samwise rode at Aragorn’s side, and Gandalf rode upon Shadowfax, and Pippin rode with the knights of Gondor; and Legolas and Gimli as ever rode together upon Arod.”

And in Théoden’s funeral procession the Queen Arwen, Celeborn and Galadriel and their people, Elrond and his sons and the princes of Dol Amroth and Ithilien with the knights of Gondor ride to do him honour. “Never had any king of the Mark such company upon the road as went with Théoden, Thengel’s son to the land of his home.”

And Gléowine, the king’s minstrel makes his last song for his lord.

Out of doubt, out of dark, to the day’s rising he rode singing in the sun, sword unsheathing. Hope he rekindled, and in hope ended; over death, over dread, over doom lifted, out of loss out of life, unto long glory”

All of this is a celebration of a few short days after years of darkness and they are right to make this praise. Théoden is so gloriously generous in his passion and vulnerability in those few days that a people is restored and the world is saved. His story is one of the finest that Tolkien tells and it is right that he should end it with such glorious solemnity.

We Are Not Bound For Ever to the Circles of the World, and Beyond Them There is More Than Memory. The Death of Aragorn and Arwen.

When Arwen made her choice it was with the greatest of men standing before her in his glory. It was Aragorn that she chose even as she bade the twilight farewell. But Elrond knew that the day would come at the ending when her choice would seem hard.

The years of Aragorn’s life were long beyond that of his people. He was a Númenorean in whom the blood of kings ran true “yet at last he felt the approach of old age and knew that the span of his life-days was drawing to an end, long though it had been.”

This was the point in his existence at which Ar-Pharazôn, the last king of Númenor, sought to grasp hold of immortality for himself by launching an invasion of the Undying Lands. He believed that the Valar withheld the gift of immortality from Men and gave it to Elves maliciously. Indeed he believed that his own mortality and death was a kind of punishment. And although the followers of Elendil rejected Ar-Pharazôn’s rebellion, in the years of Gondor’s decline they too did all that they could to extend their lives. It was Pippin who gazed in wonder at the great stone city of Minas Tirith even as it was falling into decay with empty houses in every street. “They were silent, and no footsteps rang on their wide pavements, nor voice was heard in their halls, nor any face looked out from door or empty window.”

So Aragorn reaches the moment in life in which a choice must be made. He could choose the sullen resentment of Gondor in its long decline and do all that lay within his considerable power to extend his existence for as long as possible. Or he might even choose the way of rebellion as did Ar-Pharazôn or the Witch King of Angmar. But he chooses to embrace his mortality and not to rail against it.

When Arwen realises that she is about to lose Aragorn she suddenly understands the bitterness of Ar-Pharazôn and pities him. “If this is indeed, as the Eldar say, the gift of the One to Men, it is bitter to receive.”

Aragorn recognises that this is the greatest of tests but he bids her not to be overthrown at it who renounced both the Shadow and the Ring long before. “In sorrow we must go, but not in despair. Behold! we are not bound for ever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory.”

In the early years of the church the Fathers taught that the life of faith begins with the renunciation of despair. This is the great renunciation that opens the way for the daily embrace of goodness, beauty and truth. It is a way that looks the reality of our mortality full in the face and chooses not to be afraid. It is a dying before we die but it is a choice to live. It is the choice not to hold onto life until it becomes stretched out thin. Théoden made this choice when he stepped out of his chair in which he had been withering away and embraced life after the manner of his glorious ancestors. Gollum, on the other hand,  chose the misery of endless existence. Denethor expressed his despair through suicide trying to take Faramir with him. Aragorn turns his face courageously to his mortality and trusts the One who calls him. He does not know what lies ahead. He does not know his own destiny but trusts that love and goodness have the last word.

Arwen is heartbroken at her loss and she is not so sure. Yet she too embraces the mortality that was her choice laying herself to rest on the hill of Cerin Amroth where she chose Aragorn long ago. In a comment on last week’s blog post Tom Hillman suggested that Arwen’s choice might open the door for her people to a destiny that lies beyond the circles of the world. It is a beautiful thought that seems to me to be in keeping with a divine consummation that will unite all things earthly and heavenly. Faery will enrich Humanity and Humankind will open the way to Faery. Of course Tolkien was looking forward to the Incarnation in his great legendarium. The tale of Aragorn and Arwen points to this more than any of his tales. It is a tale of sorrow but not despair and it draws us into its hope even as Arwen’s last words to Aragorn are the calling of the name of his youth, “Estel, Estel!”

Hope! Hope!

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.

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.