The Two Towers by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991, 2007) pp. 639, 640
A few years ago I was taking the road through the Savernake Forest on a regular basis as I drove down to Salisbury in the county of Wiltshire in England to see my mother in the last days of her life. In England, when you see the name, Forest, attached to a particular place it will often mean an area of land set apart for hunting by the Norman conquerors of this land nearly a thousand years ago and so, for example, the New Forest in the south of England was new when the Normans first came in the 11th century but it is old now. Savernake Forest is of a similar age and standing by the side of the road is a an ancient oak tree that first took root around the time that William the Conqueror first established his realm here.
As Legolas enters the Forest of Fangorn with his companions, Aragorn and Gimli, in search of Merry and Pippin, it is the oldness of the forest that he feels.
‘”It is old, very old,” said the Elf. “So old that I almost feel young again, as I have not felt since I journeyed with you children. It is old and full of memory. I could have been happy here, if I had come in days of peace.”‘
It is this quality of oldness that can cause us to reassess our place in the scheme of things. I have sometimes seen this in the relationship between an old man and a young boy, a grandfather and grandson, noting the particular quality of attentiveness that they give to one another. Perhaps my favourite literary relationships are between old men and young boys, Dumbledore and Harry Potter, Merlin and the young Arthur, Gandalf and Frodo, teachers and eager pupils. And it is possible to make a relationship with a particular tree as well. I remember once taking shelter in woodland on a stormy day and finding great comfort in the presence of an ancient tree that stood so confidently as its branches swayed in the wind. I still go to seek out that tree from time to time just to feel its strength and feel the need to do so, once again, even as I write this.
And then there are certain places that have the capacity, somehow, to hold you because of their age. Old churches can have such a capacity. A memory that still holds me is of walking with my father through spring woodland on our way to church when I was a small boy. It is the memory of the presence of my father, a rare treat, the bluebell covered woodland floor, and the particular beauty of the church, at least as I saw it then, that has this quality of holding. I picked bluebells to give to my mother on my way home. No one had ever told me not to pick wild flowers and so I did so in complete innocence. The day was perfect.
Early memories of old churches also mean singing Evensong according to the 1662 Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England. I will join a congregation in an ancient country parish church this Sunday evening for the same service and anticipate happily the same quality of inner quiet that I found back then as a small boy with my treble voice. My personal copy of the Prayerbook was given me by my grandmother, who was born in reign of Queen Victoria, and who held my elder daughter on her lap in the last year of her life. If my daughter lives to a similar age that will mean almost two centuries of the life of our family connected in that moment by just two lives. That thought too has the capability of holding me if I pay attention to it
It is this quality of being held, of being young again in the presence of great age, of the feeling of safety, of rootedness in something much greater than oneself that Legolas feels as he enters the Forest of Fangorn even amid the seeming impossibility of finding Merry and Pippin and so Gimli is comforted too.