“The Road That I Speak of Leads to The Mines of Moria”. Gandalf Counsels the Fellowship to Take a Dark and Secret Way Under the Mountains.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 287-290

The road over the mountains has failed and the weary travellers are forced to consider another way. Until this point neither Gandalf nor Aragorn have consulted the rest of the company about what way they should take but now it is necessary that they should do so. Merry and Pippin would give up if they could but Gandalf makes it clear that there can be no turning back for if they do this there will soon be nowhere to go. To his credit Boromir has said nothing up until now but now he counsels that they retrace the steps that he took in his journey from Minas Tirith to Rivendell, passing through the Gap of Rohan. Gandalf makes it clear that this is no longer a possibility, the treachery of Saruman has seen to that.

And then Gandalf tells them of the way that he thinks best. He will take them through the Mines of Moria.

Alan Lee depicts the Dark and Secret Way Through Moria

“Since our open attempt on the mountain-pass our plight has become more desperate, I fear. I see now little hope, if we do not vanish from sight for a while, and cover our trail. Therefore I advise that we should go neither over the mountains, nor round them, but under them. That is a road at any rate that the Enemy will least expect us to take.”

Gandalf’s proposal is greeted with little enthusiasm except from Gimli the dwarf for whom the name of Moria calls to mind the greatest of his people’s achievements and the name of Durin, the greatest of their kings. Boromir simply dismisses the idea while Aragorn warns Gandalf that if he enters Moria he may never get out again. Frodo trusts the counsel of Gandalf, little though he likes the sound of this “dark and secret way” as Gandalf puts it. At the last it is not strength of argument that wins the day but a sudden attack by Wargs, the wolves of Mordor. Suddenly the way through Moria is the only option.

The Attack by Wargs Simplifies the Decision

And so begins the first of the dark ways through which Tolkien takes the Fellowship. There are three such ways and each one of them is associated with death as well as darkness. Gandalf will fall into the abyss in Moria after the attack of the Balrog at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm; Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli, will take the Paths of the Dead into Gondor; while Frodo and Sam will pass through Shelob’s Lair but only, in Frodo’s case, as one who has taken a deadly bite.

The Heir of Isildur Commands The Dead

For each of the Company who must go these ways there is a sense in which they tread the kind of path that Dante takes in his Divine Comedy. Each must go their own personal way through hell, each tasting something of death, and in Gandalf’s case, literally so, before they can emerge through it to what lies beyond. But for none of them is there some simple journey into Paradise. For Gandalf what lies beyond his dark road is his greatest challenge as he pits himself against the might of Mordor as well as against the leader of his own order. For Aragorn and his companions the journey through the Paths of the Dead will bring them to the battle at the gates of Minas Tirith. While for Frodo and Sam the path through Shelob’s Lair merely takes them into Mordor and all that lies ahead. While it may be too simple a thing to call this a Purgatory and so take my allusion to Dante a little further there is no doubt that for each of Tolkien’s characters who pass through their own dark ways further tests lie ahead that are no less challenging than what they have already faced.

For each of them there is a sense in which they are strengthened by the tests that they have already faced. Gandalf becomes the White after facing death itself, while Aragorn takes upon himself his true identity as the Heir of Isildur, the one who has the authority to command the obedience of the King of the Dead. And if Frodo enters Mordor as if a dead man stumbling step by step to Mount Doom, Sam enters it as a mighty hero, able to take his master to the conclusion of their journey.

And Paradise, what of this for each of Tolkien’s heroes? Tolkien leaves the answer to this question in the hands of Ilúvatar. As Aragorn was to put it, “In sorrow we must go, but not in despair. Behold! we are not bound forever to the circles of the world, and beyond them there is more than memory.”

“There Are Fell Voices on The Air”. Caradhras Defeats The Fellowship of the Ring and Makes Them Seek Another Path.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 279-286

Somehow the Company must find a way to cross The Misty Mountains in order to continue their journey towards Mordor. Aragorn knows the way the way over the mountains by the Redhorn Gate that will drop down to the Dimrill Dale and then on to the secret land of Lothlórien and he is anxious that they do not cross the mountains through Moria, a way that Gandalf describes as “dark and secret”.

Alan Lee’s imagining of the Redhorn Gate

I have only had limited experience of walking a trail through high mountains but two things stand out in my memory. One is that I was a small and insignificant thing and that the mountains were completely indifferent to me. They could not care whether I lived or died. I confess that I found this to be most unsettling. Most of my experience had been in the gentle, cradling landscape of southern England which, like the Shire is a land of “woods and fields and little rivers”. To be in mountains where snow is deadly was something new to me. Like Sam I always welcomed snow as a little boy as something that I could play in. “A pleasant event and a chance for fun.” When I awoke in the mountain hut in which I was staying to see snow on the ground round about me I did not think much of it but my German companions who had much more experience of snow in the mountains made an immediate decision to head down the mountain to the village in the valley below. Our expedition was at an end.I awoke in the shelter of a mountain hut but the Company had to make do with a cliff-wall. Sam doubtless expresses the feelings of his fellow hobbits when he declares, “If this is shelter, then one wall and no roof make a house.” He and his companions have to face an icy wind, driving snow and falling rocks but they sense that that there is something else. In the wind they hear “shrill cries, and wild howls of laughter” and the rocks that they can hear crashing down from above seem to have a malevolent purpose. It is Boromir who speaks this sense aloud.

“Let those call it the wind who will; there are fell voices on the air; and these stones are aimed at us.”

“There are fell voices on the air”. Ivan Cavini’s dramatic depiction of Caradhras.

Those who have grown up in a disenchanted clockwork world will dismiss Boromir as a superstitious man and to a certain extent they will be right. Boromir does regard the unfamiliar as being uncanny and dangerous, and he will show this most in his reaction to Lothlórien. But Aragorn, who as we will see, loves Lothlórien, also lives in an enchanted world.

“”I do call it the wind,” he says. “But that does not make what you say untrue. There are many evil and unfriendly things in the world that have little love for those that go on two legs, and yet are not in league with Sauron, but have purposes of their own. Some have been in this world longer than he.”

Passages like these in The Lord of the Rings briefly carry us back to a high romantic world in which the heroes are children of the gods as well as of human mothers. But as Tom Shippey notes in his The Road to Middle-earth Aragorn is not such a hero and Frodo is most certainly not either. Neither has a divine father as did Achilles or the Volsungs. The brief return to the high romantic world seemingly cannot be sustained. Aragorn’s, “I do call it the wind”, and Sam Gamgee’s unhappy complaint both bring us back to mere weather but Aragorn reminds us of an older world in speaking of things in the world that “have purposes of their own” among which is Cruel Caradhras.

The Lord of the Rings is at least in part an elegiac work that mourns the passing of an enchanted world. Can we hope for a re-enchantment? How many of us would welcome the return of mountains that do not love us or weather that wants to kill us? Like the Company we might choose a different way in which to cross the Misty Mountains.

“I’m Beginning to Think It’s Time We Got a Sight of That Fiery Mountain”. Sam Gamgee is Way Out of His Depth but It Does Not Matter.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 276-279

When we were first introduced to Sam Gamgee it was not an impressive affair. Gandalf had become aware that someone was listening to the discussion that he and Frodo had been having about the Ring and so he grabbed hold of Sam by his ear and hauled him up to the open window. But Sam’s story will end with honour. As the Mayor of the Shire, re-elected many times, he is held in high esteem by his fellows and he will be a member of the king’s council for the governing of his northern kingdom of Arnor. And like his king, who he will both love and serve through many years, at the ending of his life after the death of Rosie, his wife, he will quietly and contentedly lay everything down, but unlike Aragorn, not quite yet to die. He will make one last journey to the Grey Havens and take ship into the West in order to be reunited with Frodo and his life will end in peace and joy in Valinor.

Sam Gamgee has earth underneath his feet

To say the least Sam Gamgee goes on quite a journey and in its early stages it is one about which he has little understanding. “I’m beginning to think it’s time we got a sight of that Fiery Mountain, and saw the end of the Road, so to speak.” The Company have been on the road for about two weeks at this point and if we remember that the journey between Bree and Rivendell was only a little more than this and that no journey in the Shire was ever more than a couple of days at the most then Sam is already at the limits of his experience. As Tolkien puts it, “all distances in these strange lands seemed so vast that he was quite out of his reckoning.”

Such a thing ought to matter. Surely for a mission of such magnitude Elrond should have chosen an elite team. And yet the only person chosen at the immediate conclusion of the Council, apart from Frodo as Ringbearer, is Sam. So why was Sam chosen?

It is a theme that runs quietly through The Lord of the Rings that depth is as important a quality as breadth and perhaps even more important. Such an insight runs counter to everything that modern education values. In order to call a person educated and therefore competent to deal with the challenges of the modern world we require that they achieve a considerable breadth of knowledge. The whole notion of a curriculum, the body of knowledge that shapes every place of education, presupposes that this is self-evident. And we might ask how much attention is given to helping young people achieve depth.

Tom Bombadil expresses this quality well in his description of Farmer Maggot. “There’s earth under his old feet, and clay on his fingers; wisdom in his bones, and both his eyes are open.” What Tom Bombadil describes in Maggot is one who lives in his body and is rooted in the earth. John O’Donohue, the Irish poet and teacher of wisdom, would describe such a person as one who lives in rhythm with their own clay, and O’Donohue was one who was able to distill the wisdom of the Irish farming stock from which he was raised. At a deep level John O’Donohue, Farmer Maggot, Tom Bombadil and Sam Gamgee would all understand each other.

And Farmer Maggot has earth beneath his feet as well

Of course, Sam will learn much upon his journey. His imagination will expand to encompass all that he will see and experience. He will take in Moria and Lothlórien and eventually Mordor itself. He will return to his homeland and free it from Saruman’s malicious control. The breadth of knowledge and experience that he will gain will help the Shire thrive in a new world and he will offer this breadth to the governing of Arnor.

But it will be Sam’s depth that Aragorn will value most even as it will be that depth that will sustain Frodo in his journey all the way to Orodruin, the Fiery Mountain that still lies far off at this point of the story. Sam Gamgee knows the good, the true and the beautiful, not in order to take possession of them but to love them for their own sake. And he knows them, not as abstractions, but as Frodo Baggins, as Merry, Pippin, Gandalf and Strider, he knows them as the Shire and he knows them as Hobbiton, the Party Field, and his “bit of garden” at Bag End. If only we could give the same kind of energy to teaching such depth but in order to do so we need to have it ourselves.

Sam Carries Frodo to The Fiery Mountain

The Imagining of Valinor. Film Makers and Artists Try to Depict The Undying Lands.

Valinor Imagined in the New Amazon Series

Like people all around the world I was captivated by the publicity image of Valinor that announced the new Amazon TV series of The Lord of the Rings. It is, of course, the quality of the light that entrances. I am not one of the fortunate reviewers who are permitted to watch the series and so I can only guess that what we can see on the horizon is Laurelin, the golden tree that brought the light of day to the Undying Lands. And what is portrayed in this image is a kind of eternal sunrise, the light always coming from the horizon. It was only after the trees were destroyed by Ungoliant that the light that we know came into existence, the light of the sun and moon.

And so what we have is a remarkable act of the imagination on Tolkien’s part and one that has been represented to us by one of the great artists of Tolkien’s world, John Howe, who is one of the chief conceptual designers on the films. We all know the feeling that we have at sunrise and sunset and that we perceive the world differently at those times than at any other part of the day. Now we are invited to perceive a world in which that light and possibly that feeling is always present at least in daylight.

John Howe’s visual imagination invites us into a world that is close enough to our experienced reality for us to recognise and yet is an intensification of that experience so that this new world that we perceive is a “more than” all that we know.

It is not just the light in this image that is captivating, it is the world that we perceive through the eternal sunrise towards which we look and possibly move. Note the contrast between the mountains that frame both sides of the picture and the city (is it Tirion of the Noldor?) and the parkland like foreground over the lone figure of an elf is moving. Wildness and cultivation seem to lie together easily. There is no strain in the image. It is not like the hall of a king of the northern world, a fragile oasis of light and warmth in the midst of a dark and dangerous wild like Hrothgar’s hall in Beowulf.

Alan Lee imagines Alqualondë, the Haven of Valinor

My own early visual experiences of the sublime were twofold in nature. Among those that I recall were the moment when I stepped inside the doors of Westminster Abbey for the first time and a journey southwards from Keswick down through The Lake District of England on a coach. In Westminster Abbey what I recall is a sudden broadening of my horizons contained within a building and a sense, equally sudden that I was a very small figure in this beautiful space. My memory of the journey through The Lake District is of the mountains rearing up above me with the same suddenness that I experienced in Westminster Abbey and that same perception of self as very small but not insignificant. The self that experienced both had entered two worlds that had both grown much greater than I had previously known but the feeling was not one of fear but of excitement. I wanted more of what both seemed to be inviting me to explore.

In my weekly blog posts in which I am reflecting upon The Lord of the Rings I am just about to begin the southward journey of the newly formed Fellowship of the Ring into the dangerous wilds of Middle-earth. It is a very different world from the imagining of Valinor with which I began this post. In the Middle-earth journey every aspect of the landscape strains against each other and perhaps the most powerful example of this is in the attempted crossing of the Redhorn Gate below Caradhras that we will come to soon. It is a terrible journey but am I alone in my feeling that it is more glorious than the everlasting serenity that we perceive in the picture, beautiful as it is, of Valinor at the head of this piece? Does my own desired experience of the sublime require wild moments too?

Alan Lee’s Awe Inspiring Depiction of Caradhras Seen From The Redhorn Gate

The Keepers of The Elven Rings Bid Farewell to Middle-earth

 

There are three others who set sail into the West from the Grey Havens. Actually I should not have described them as the “others”. This ship was originally meant for them and not for the Ring-bearers. At the ending of their work in Middle-earth, Gandalf, Galadriel and Elrond, the keepers of the Three Elven Rings, were to depart into the West. Arwen was meant to go with them but when she made her choice for Aragorn and for mortality it seems that she was the first to suggest that her place in the ship could go to Frodo. In his letters Tolkien said that Arwen was not able to make such a decision because it was not hers to make but that Gandalf, the true representative of the Valar in Middle-earth, could. It was he who offered the place that was to be Arwen’s to Frodo and realising that the wound of the Ring could not be healed in Middle-earth he also invited Bilbo to make the journey.

Saruman knew that the Three Elven Rings would lose their power when the One went to the Fire but he seems to have thought that their keepers would then diminish with them as unhappy exiles in Middle-earth and that his own unhappiness would be something that he would share with those that he had sought to betray and had learned to hate. His own rejection of grace and his embrace of despair and bitterness had led him to believe that this would be the destiny of his enemies also. The speedy healing of the Shire was a thing far beyond his miserable imagination. And he seems not to have any conception of the grace of the ship that would pass into the West either. Perhaps this was because he knew that to return to the West would also mean to stand before the Valar for judgement and, just like Sauron at the end of the First Age, this was something that he could not countenance. That this grace would be extended to others seems to have been beyond his imagination also.

I think of the journey into the West as being different in nature for each of the Three Keepers.

For Gandalf it was to be rest after his long labours. Although he was tempted to take the Ring and to use it to gain victory over its Maker this was a temptation that he was able to overcome. He was also able to overcome his fear. Tolkien tells us that he was at first unwilling to undertake the mission of the Istari, of the Wizards, to stand against Sauron. He felt himself to be inadequate and was afraid. That he was able to overcome his fear and to offer himself just as he was to the task was a great victory. The victory over the Dark Lord was never accomplished by superior power but by faithfulness and self-sacrifice. Gandalf laid down his life for his friends in the great battle against the Balrog of Moria. He was given his life back and so continued to victory but not a victory that he achieved through his own or any other’s might but one that was achieved through the journey of Frodo and Sam to Mount Doom and the strange grace of Gollum’s taking of the Ring to the Fire.

For Galadriel the return into the West was something that for long years she believed to be impossible and perhaps for a time did not even desire. When she, like Gandalf, was tempted to take the Ring, it was her dream of becoming a Queen over all Middle-earth that she laid down. “I will diminish and go into the West and remain Galadriel,” she said to Frodo. This is what she now accepts as the ship finally departs.

And Elrond? I think that for him there is a particular sadness that is bound up with his separation from Arwen. Of course there is the sadness of the separation itself. But there is something more. Elrond is half-elven but not just by birth but also by choice. At the end of the First Age his brother, Elros, made the strange choice of mortality. Elrond rejected this and now at the end of the Third Age, Arwen, too, makes the choice of Elros and rejects the choice of her father. As he steps onto the ship and confirms his own choice he steps away from mortality and from his daughter. He too must embrace his own destiny for good and ill. He must overcome his bitterness and be healed.

The last pages of The Lord of the Rings are as incomplete as any in literature. Tolkien believed in the “Happy Ever After” of the fairy-story and yet he does not grant this to his characters at the end of this story. Full of uncertainty each one of them in stepping aboard the ship must embrace their own destiny. What that destiny is, lies, not in their own hands, but in the hands of the One to whom they now entrust themselves. As we read these last pages we too are invited into our own leap into faith as we let go our own control of our destiny.

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.

Sam Gamgee Finds Strength to Finish the Job.

It was in trusting to luck on the roads of Mordor that Frodo and Sam were driven northward by the orcs in a forced march almost to the same Black Gate that they had seen from the other side just two weeks before. In those short days they have encountered Faramir and his Rangers of Ithilien; journeyed through the Morgul Vale; made the long climb to the pass of Cirith Ungol and there Frodo has been assailed by Shelob and carried by orcs into Mordor and the tower that guards the pass while Sam has defeated Shelob, briefly taken the Ring and rescued Frodo. 

Now as Frodo lies, exhausted by the torment of the march, Sam begins to ponder the journey that still lies before them to Mount Doom. 

“‘It looks every step of fifty miles,’ he muttered gloomily, staring at the threatening mountain, ‘and that’ll take a week, if it takes a day, with Mr Frodo as he is.’ He shook his head, and as be worked things out, slowly a new dark thought grew in his mind. Never for long had hope died in his staunch heart, and always until now he had taken some thought for their return. But the bitter truth came home to him at last: at best their provision would take them to their goal; and when the task was done, there they would come to an end, alone, houseless, foodless in the midst of a terrible desert. There could be no return.”

As we shall see as they make this last journey Sam is never quite able to despair. There is always an action that can be taken to get them a little nearer to their goal and, even at the very end, a place that is a little safer than the utter destruction that lies within the Cracks of Doom. Sam cannot quite abandon the optimism that has played such a part in bringing them so far upon the impossible journey. Trusting to luck, to wyrd, on the roads of Mordor that we thought about two weeks ago, was not just the consequence of dire necessity but a part of Sam’s character formed long before. And even when all hope has gone he must give luck every opportunity that he can.

Sam longs for a happy ending to his story and to Frodo’s and it is Rosie Cotton that he first recalls. His longings are for home and family and a woman to share them with and now, for the first time, it seems to him that he is never to enjoy these things. He would have the right to be angry, with Gandalf or Elrond who sent him on such a hopeless task, or with whatever sense of higher power that Sam has but at this moment he discovers something quite new, and even exciting. “He felt through all his limbs a thrill, as if he was turning into some creature of stone or steel that neither despair nor weariness nor endless barren miles could subdue.”

It is only possible to make such discoveries at moments when they become necessary. Life must be entirely wagered on a venture whose outcome is, at best, doubtful, and most likely impossible, before such strength is given. Sam has laid his bets already, choosing to leave the comfortable world from which he came in order to go with Frodo. It is the kind of wager that we all consider at some point of our lives when the really big choices are laid before us. For only the big choices have the kind of degree of uncertainty about them that make us truly afraid. Now Sam sees, for the first time, the possible consequences of his wager and with it his will hardens and mighty strength is given. He is ready to carry himself, and Frodo if necessary, to the mountain and to the end of their journey. And that readiness to see the wager through to the end is what makes Sam great.  

    

Éowyn and Merry Go to War

Where will wants not, a way opens, so we say.”

So speaks Dernhelm to the unhappy Merry as the host of Rohan prepare to make the great ride to the battle before the walls of Minas Tirith. Merry is unhappy because he is to be left behind. His pony could not follow the war steeds of the Rohirrim and, as Théoden says, “In such a battle as we think to make on the fields of Gondor what would you do, Master Meriadoc, swordthain though you be, and greater of heart than of stature?”

Merry has faced the same question ever since Elrond pondered in Rivendell about who should accompany the Ringbearer upon his journey. There it was not his stature that counted against him, for Frodo and Sam were chosen straightaway, there it was his youth, but ever since the Fellowship left Rivendell Merry has felt like baggage in someone else’s journey to be taken or left behind at the will of another but never at his own.

Now, once again, it is the choice of another to take him to battle. Briefly in the story we know the rider who bears Merry as Dernhelm. Merry had noted the rider on the morning of that day glancing keenly at him. “A young man, Merry thought as he returned the glance, less in height and girth than most. He caught the glint of clear grey eyes; and then he shivered, for it came suddenly to him that it was the face of one without hope who goes in search of death.”

Théoden will learn that Merry disobeyed him and rode to battle and at the end he will smile at the knowledge of the hobbit’s disobedience honouring his valiant heart and his courage. But he will never learn the true identity of Dernhelm and so will not die in grief but in comfort, for Dernhelm is Éowyn and the words that she speaks to Merry that began this blog post she speaks also regarding herself. She too, like Merry, did not lack in will. She desires to go to war and so end her life upon the battlefield, a life that she believes has no meaning without the love of Aragorn. But like Merry also, she lacks a way, at least a way that is permitted to her. Théoden will have her rule in Edoras in his absence just as she did while the host was at Helm’s Deep but this time she will not obey him although her disobedience is secret.

So once again Tolkien shows us the greatness of Éowyn. It is not in her despair that we see her greatness nor in her disobedience but in her decision to take Merry with her. This is not some kind of suicide pact of which Merry is ignorant nor is it the choice of a proud man that others should share his despair and die with him like the pilot who deliberately crashed the passenger plane into a mountainside. What Éowyn does is to recognise one who is a fellow sufferer and her heart goes out to him. This tells me that despair has not won its final victory in her heart for if it had her heart could not have seen anything beyond its own pain. Julian of Norwich put this beautifully when she said, as did Meister Eckhart, that there is a part of the human heart that has never said, Yes, to sin. This is what Tolkien shows us when her heart goes out to Merry. Is this what keeps her alive after the battle with the Lord of the Nazgûl and will not let her die even when she thinks that she wants to while lying in the Houses of Healing? In my imagination I see Julian and Eckhart reading her story and agreeing that this is exactly why she survives and then is gloriously restored to life through the patient and strong love of Faramir. It is her love for one who is almost a stranger to her that will hold her in her darkest days.

How Do We Know if the Time has Come Unless We Try the Door?

One night of rest remains before the host of Rohan begin the great ride to the plains before Minas Tirith. Théoden sits at table with Éomer and Eówyn upon his right and Merry upon his left. At first there is little talk as tends to be the way of it before a great event. What is there left to be said? But at last it is Merry who breaks the silence.

“Twice now, lord, I have heard of the Paths of the Dead,” he said. “What are they? And where has Strider, I mean the Lord Aragorn, where has he gone?”

Théoden does not reply but just sighs and so it is Éomer who tells Merry of the road into the mountains that Aragorn has just taken and the sad story of Baldor, son of Brego, who once dared to pass the door and who was never seen again.

Then it is Théoden who adds something to the telling of the story in order to bring some comfort and hope. He tells of how when Brego and Baldor first climbed the road in search of places of refuge in times of need they met a man of great age sitting before the door.

“The way is shut… It was made by those who are Dead, and the Dead keep it, until the time comes. The way is shut.”

Until the time comes.

This begs the question that Éomer now asks.

“But how shall a man discover whether that time be come or no, save by daring the door?”

Éomer’s question is answered in the asking of it and we know that Aragorn has already received the answer by daring the door with his companions and has passed through safely, commanding the dead to follow him.

There are moments of crisis in our lives when a choice must be made. It is at such times that the original meaning of crisis is revealed. A crisis is a time of judgment when the reality of who we are is brought into the light and revealed for what it truly is. The unhappy Baldor swore an oath in the pride of his youth, emboldened by the strong drink in the horn that he bore and so the way remained closed to him. Aragorn passed the door as the heir of Isildur at the great moment of the Age commanding the Dead to follow him and so fulfil their oath. Aragorn knew the authority that had been given to him and knew his greatness. To know this is not pride in the sense that it was for Baldor. In Baldor’s case the swearing of the oath was an aspiration, an attempt to declare himself a man of substance, of greatness, who could command the loyalty of his men. In Aragorn’s case the greatness was not something that he sought to grasp; indeed we saw him lay it down with all his personal hope of happiness in order to follow the orcs and try to free Merry and Pippin. Aragorn’s destiny is not an aspiration but is bound with the hope of the West and so he cannot refuse the attempt to pass the door.

And what of us?

Few of us will be called to a deed in which our lives will be put at risk as Aragorn was. But most of us, at some point in our lives, will be called to take a risk, to take a lead, at great cost to ourselves. At such times it will be necessary to examine ourselves to see if what we really desire is a reputation, a name that will gain the respect of others. If we can face ourselves and say that what we desire above everything is some expression of the Common Good then we should take the risk. It may be that in doing so we will achieve a reputation but that will not be our primary purpose. And we will not know, can never  know for sure, as Éomer asked, whether the time has come or not, until the risk is taken.

 

 

The Care of the Elderly: What Théoden has to Teach Us.

On the morning of March 2nd in the year, 3019 of the Third Age Théoden of Rohan was an old man sitting in his chair in Meduseld. On March 15th, just thirteen days later, he was dead. When we read these facts, presented in this manner, there is little to surprise us. An old man fades away and dies. We have seen it before and when we think of the old men that we have said farewell to, we sorrow over the fading and think back, as I think of my father, to a time when they were full of vigour.

But this is not the story of Théoden. He dies on the battlefield before the gates of Minas Tirith, the second great battle that he has fought in those few days, after a mighty ride at the head of his men, and after a charge into the heart of the forces of Mordor that raises the siege of the city and turns the battle.

Is the story of the last two weeks of his life simply the fruit of the imagination of the author? Or is there something to learn here about how life can be lived in our final years?

It is after the intense drama of the passage of the Paths of the Dead, and the display of Aragorn’s banner at the Stone of Erech, that Théoden arrives in Harrowdale after a wearying three days ride from Helms Deep. Éomer looks at him with concern and speaks to him in a low voice. “If you would take my counsel, you would return hither [to Edoras], until the war is over, lost or won.”

Théoden’s response is to smile and say, “speak not the soft words of Wormtongue in my old ears! Long years in the space of days it seems since I rode west; but never will I lean on a staff again. If the war is lost, what good will be my hiding in the hills? And if it is won, what grief will it be, even if I fall, spending my last strength?”

The key phrase here, I think, is “long years”. All who reach a certain age become aware of the speedy passing of the years. It is something that steadily creeps up upon us. At one time the prospect of waiting a few years meant to wait for ever. There comes a time when to look back over five or even ten years seems all too brief. As the psalm read at a burial puts it, “Our days are like the grass. We flourish like the flower of the field. When the wind goes over it, it is gone and its place will know it no more.”

No change of perspective can change this reality but for as long as it is possible we can choose to live each day fully. It was in Wormtongue’s interest to turn Théoden into an invalid, a man whose life had shrunk to the size of his darkened hall, but Éomer is no traitor or intriguer, he is just concerned for his uncle. It is the old man who reminds him that his gentle concern will have the same effect as Wormtongue’s intrigues. And Théoden resists his kindness. He will give himself up to life until his final breath.

Actually this is what the gospels mean when they speak of dying to self. We tend to think of this phrase in terms of some act of self-denial. What it really means is what happens when Théoden gets out of his chair with the fierce encouragement of Gandalf. It is his small self that Théoden casts aside with his stick and a big self that he grasps with his sword, a true self. And he grasps a big truth when he realises that two weeks of true life is worth far more than years of shrunken existence. It is like “long years”, and glorious years.