The Fall and Rise of Meriadoc Brandybuck and the Battle of Bywater

If you click on the tag, Merry, at the foot of this post you will find a series of reflections on his progress through The Lord of the Rings at least since I began to publish them on WordPress in October 2013. At that point I had just begun to read The Two Towers and so my first encounter with Merry was as a prisoner of the Uruk Hai of Isengard. I intend to return to The Fellowship of the Ring later in the year and hope to do it better justice than I did when I wrote my early reflections on another website. But even though the reflections on Merry’s early story are missing from this blog I hope that you will see that they do form a true “pilgrim’s progress” as do all of the stories of the major major characters in Tolkien’s great tale.

Merry’s story is of a soul formed through a fall and a rise and if you have already noted that this is the opposite direction to the journey that Lotho Pimple takes and that we thought about last week then you are right. The tragedy of Lotho’s story is not so much that he fell but that he did not live to face the truth about himself and so to rise again. I wrote last week about gaining the world and so losing the soul. Lotho never saw the grace of losing the world before Wormtongue murdered him.

Merry begins The Lord of the Rings as a competent organiser just as he is at the Battle of Bywater when he takes command of troops who have no experience of battle but plenty of spirit and leads them to victory over Saruman’s brigands. Merry slays the leader of the outlaws who, if he had known that the hobbit that he faced had done battle with the deadliest warrior of the Age and lived to tell the tale would never have dared to confront him.

At our first meeting with Merry he is the “leader” of the conspiracy that seems to know more about Frodo’s business than he does. He has food, hot baths and ponies organised at Crickhollow and a secret escape route from the Black Riders through the Old Forest about which he also has local knowledge. But as soon as he is in the forest he is out of his depth, he has to be rescued from Old Man Willow by Tom Bombadil and he remains more or less out of his depth for the rest of the story.

Which of us is ever at our ease in being out of our depth? I mean, truly out of our depth, beyond our competence and in an unfamiliar element? For much of the story Merry sees himself as no more than unwanted extra baggage in someone else’s story and yet without realising it he is becoming at ease with unfamiliarity, at ease with the sense that each experience is beyond his capacity to cope with. And so, without being aware that this is what he is doing, he wins the trust of the mistrusting Treebeard and so brings about the fall of Isengard and it is in “being overlooked” at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields that he aids Éowyn in bringing about the fall of the Witch King of Angmar, the Lord of the Nazgûl. And he achieves all this because he is one who lives for love. Love for the Shire, love for his friends and love for those, like Théoden and Éowyn, who give their love to him.

And now, back on familiar territory, battle hardened but not heart hardened, he deploys his troops swiftly and effectively and so brings to a speedy end the occupation of the Shire. Does he know how he has made this journey and why he has become such an effective leader? I suspect not. But neither does he mind. It is enough that the work is done and that the Shire can begin to be healed once more but we can enjoy the growth of his soul and love him just as do all who know him well.

Merry Wakes From a Dream as He Reaches The Shire But Frodo is Falling Asleep.

Last week I wrote about the hobbits as they prepare to return to the Shire after their adventures. In a comment  on the post Brenton Dickieson who writes the truly wonderful blog, A Pilgrim in Narnia,   https://apilgriminnarnia.com told me that his son Nicolas noted that in returning to the Shire the hobbits re-entered history once more.

When I read this it was one of those revelatory moments that causes you to see a text in an entirely new way. The idea was not entirely new and for that I am grateful to Joe Hoffman who writes as The Idiosopher http://www.idiosophy.com. Joe wrote a fascinating piece in which he noted that different places within Middle-earth exist in different periods of history and that the Shire belongs to the 18th century while Gondor, for example,  belongs to the high Middle Ages. My first reaction to this was to concede that Joe had made an excellent point but also to admit a certain disappointment to myself. I had always admired the care with which Tolkien had created his legendarium and it seemed that Joe had discovered a major flaw in Tolkien’s work. Far from being a remarkably consistent creation Middle-earth was full of historical inconsistency. Now in reading Nicolas Dickieson’s comment I realised that far from being inconsistent Tolkien had created a remarkable whole that I had never before fully realised or understood.

It is as Gandalf races away upon Shadowfax towards the Barrow Downs and beyond to his meeting with Tom Bombadil that Merry says, “Well here we are, just the four of us that started out together… We have left all the rest behind, one after another. It seems almost like a dream that has slowly faded.”

To which Frodo replies,  “Not to me… To me it feels more like falling asleep again.”

In just a few brief lines Tolkien has drawn a profound contrast between Faerie and History and yet tells us that the hobbits live in both.

The Inklings, the fellowship of like-minded academics and writers of which Tolkien was a central figure, had long explored this relationship. Perhaps it was most explicitly stated in That Hideous Strength by C.S Lewis in which the history of a research institute is gloriously invaded by mythology, by Faerie, in the figure of Merlin. Later a character by the name of Dimble reflects on this.

“There was a moment in the Sixth Century when something that is always trying to break through into this country nearly succeded. Logres was our name for it- it will do as well as another. And then we began to see all English history in a new way. We discovered the haunting.”

The haunting is the inbreaking of Faerie, of Myth, and beyond that, the True Myth of the Incarnation to which all other myth points, into History. In Lewis’s story this is íÓby means of Merlin and in Tolkien’s by means of the whole mythical story of the Ring entering the history of the Shire. Frodo and his companions embody the tension between the two. For Merry and Pippin the mythical has a dreamlike quality from which they are awaking. For Frodo it is the myth that is the real. Sam is “torn in two”.

In thinking about this I was drawn to the story of Oisín (pronounce Osheen) and Niamh (pronounce Neeve) and the mythical land of Tír na nÓg, the land of Faerie that feels so much in character like Tolkien’s Beleriand or perhaps Lothlórien. Oisín falls in love with Niamh, the Fairy princess and dwells with her in bliss for three hundred years. Eventually he wishes to visit his home in Ireland but finds that it is now Christian and effectively ruled by St Patrick. In some versions there is a debate between Patrick and Oisín http://www.ricorso.net. I have to say that in the version I read, translated from the Irish by Lady Augusta Gregory in 1904, Patrick comes across as a particularly unattractive character and my natural sympathies were with Oisín. I would like to say that in his breastplate Patrick feels much closer to Oisín’s world than in the debate that I read.

But whatever the nature of that debate I believe that in The Lord of the Rings Tolkien achieves a unity between Faerie and History and the relationship between the two. In coming weeks as we read The Scouring of the Shire and The Grey Havens I hope to explore this more closely and to consider Tolkien’s version of the Haunting and to relate it to our own experience. But now we must leave the hobbits at the shut gates of their homeland either awakening or falling asleep.

The artwork this week imagines the encounter between Oisín and St Patrick.

Barliman Butterbur Speaks of his Troubles and Receives Some Comfort.

When the travellers arrive at Bree they find the gate locked against them and their welcome at first is anxious and even suspicious. But Barliman Butterbur is pleased to see them and after politely listening to the story of their adventures he gets down to the things that really matter, the news of events in Bree.

“There was trouble right here in Bree, bad trouble. Why, we had a real set-to, and there were some folk killed, killed dead! If you’ll believe me.”

And the travellers do believe him because all trouble is real to the one who has to undergo it. It may be that the listeners have done battle with a troll before the Black Gate, with the Witch King of Angmar before Minas Tirith, with the Balrog of Moria, with Shelob in her lair and with the Ring of Doom step by impossible step across the plains of Mordor to the very place in which it was made by the Dark Lord. All this may be true but each violent death is a crime against nature itself and five of the people of Bree died in the struggle against ruffians from the south.

It is the travellers who have seen so much and who have been through so much who have to be the listeners and that is the way of things. Each experience has deepened their understanding and broadened their sympathy and their imagination. Not so Barliman whose knowledge of the world has come only from the stories that he has heard told by travellers staying at his inn. His personal experience has come only from his life within the borders of the Breeland and within them he is a man of some wisdom and courage. We can admire his rushing to the doors of The Prancing Pony armed only with a club ready to defend it against desperate bandits but beyond these narrow limits he could not help much as Aragorn reminded him once when Bree was threatened by the Nazgûl of Mordor.

The travellers have begun to learn a new and a sad lesson and that is that they will find few interested listeners when they return home. Even their wives will be unable to make the kind of sympathetic leap of imagination that is required from a good listener. What I hope the wives will possess will be the quality of listening that comes of a loving heart. They may not fully comprehend what their husbands have experienced but they will care that each thing will have happened to someone that they love. But perhaps in the midst of worries about young children or problems in the household they will not  be able to spare much time for listening.

At one time as a parish priest in Birmingham, England I found that I often had to take the funerals of men for whom a major part of their life experience had been service in the military during the Second World War. Two things began to impress me deeply about these men. One was just how young they had been when they were torn away from ordinary life and all that they had seen and done. The other was of a different kind of courage. The courage to return to ordinary life as husbands, fathers and useful members of their communities. As I began to hear these stories I began to develop as much respect for the second kind of courage as for the first.

Now the hobbits will have to learn how to find peace within themselves and not seek it from others. Frodo will pass into the West and find healing there. Merry and Pippin will draw upon the optimism that has been such a source of strength to them and they will draw too upon their friendship with each other. Sam will develop a deep connection to his daughter, Elanor the Fair, to whom he will give the Red Book, the record of the deeds of the Great Years, before he too passes into the West after the death of Rosie Cotton to whom he will remain faithful through the long years.

And Butterbur will find comfort in the turning of the affairs of Bree for the better and after he has learned that the bandits will soon go and peace restored he will go to his bed more comforted than he has been for a long time.

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.