The Paths of the Dead. A Journey from Despair to Life .

At the end of the Second Age the King of the Mountains swore allegiance to Isildur at the Stone of Erech. But when war against the Dark Lord came the king proved faithless for he had worshipped Sauron in the Dark Years and still believed the dark to be greater than the light. And so Isildur said to him:

“Thou shalt be the last king. And if the west prove mightier than thy Black Master, this curse I lay upon thee and thy folk: to rest never until your oath is fulfilled. For this war will last through years uncounted, and you shall be summoned once again ere the end.”

The miserable story of the King of the Mountains acts as a kind of parable within The Lord of the Rings concerning the fate that awaits all who give way to the Dark believing either that their advantage lies that way, or that they have no choice, or some combination of the two. The story of Saruman is another expression of this reality and, if Sauron had triumphed, no doubt the story of the king and people of Harad and the other allies of Mordor would have been another. Isildur’s curse is not an act of arbitrary power. He simply declares what all worshippers of the Dark most truly desire; to exist in the darkness.

When Aragorn declares that he is the true king, the heir of Isildur, he calls the Dead to fulfil their oath. They must now serve him. Unlike the hapless Baldor, son of Brego the second king of Rohan, who sought to tread the Paths of the Dead in his own pride and without authority, Aragorn comes as one to whom authority has been given and so the dead must obey him. Baldor died because the way was shut “until the time comes”. The time has now come. The king has spoken and the dead must hear.

In one of his Advent reflections that you can find in his collection, entitled Waiting on the Word, Malcolm Guite calls Jesus “the king who walks alongside us disguised in rags, the true Strider.” https://malcolmguite.wordpress.com/2015/12/22/o-rex-gentium-a-sixth-advent-reflection/ This reference to Aragorn belongs to a poem inspired by the Advent antiphon,  O Rex Gentium, O King of the Nations and their desire. The Lord of the Rings is an Advent work proclaiming light in the darkness as we saw a few months ago when we heard Frodo cry out “Aiya Eärendil Elenion Ancalima!”, Hail Eärendil O Brightest of Stars! when he was lost in the utter darkness of Shelob’s Lair. https://stephencwinter.com/2016/01/12/the-dayspring-from-on-high-comes-to-the-aid-of-the-hobbits/ Advent is also the time when we long for the true king to come and heal the lands. We long for “the true Strider”. The Lord of the Rings shows us those, like Faramir, who have kept the faith, waiting for the true king and perhaps for the restoration of Númenor and maybe even the deepest reality of all, that to which Númenor, even at its most true, could only point to. It also shows us those, like Denethor, who lose faith, or those like Saruman or the King of Harad who come to believe in a perversion of the Advent hope believing the lie that declares that it is the dark that is the true reality.

Aragorn’s journey through The Paths of the Dead calling the dead to obedience and so to an end to their misery also recalls the ancient story of how Jesus went down to the dead after his death on the cross and so harrowed hell leading the dead from despair to life.

This is the journey that Aragorn now takes with the companions who follow him and he points us to the true Strider who calls us, too, to follow him through darkness into light.

 

Some Reflections on The King of Gondor

To become a man, truly and healthily drawing upon the King archetype, it is necessary to serve an apprenticeship, serving a master and learning all that can be learned from him. Aragorn has been such an apprentice. The great fathers of his life have been Elrond of Rivendell and Gandalf the Grey but he also contested against the forces of Mordor under Ecthelion, the father of Denethor, the Steward of Gondor, and under Thengel, father of Théoden, the King of Rohan. There is a passage in a letter from St Paul that speaks of such apprenticeships and their outcome.

“I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.”

We live in a world in which we desire wealth and success as soon as possible.  In the words of Simba, the lion cub, “I just can’t wait to be king!” I confess that when as a young man I found myself, for a time, working on factory production lines when I thought I was destined for great things I used to fantasise about marching into a great corporate building surrounded by an entourage who hung upon my every word. I had no idea then that in working in factories alongside other workers that I was serving the kind of apprenticeship that St Paul speaks of and that it had just as much significance for my life as did my university studies.

In 1943 the pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrote a paper for fellow members of the conspiracy to overthrow Adolf Hitler. It was a reflection on what had been learned through 10 years of living under the tyranny of the Third Reich and asked questions about the way ahead. At its heart Bonhoeffer wrote these words:

” The ultimate responsible question is not how I am to extricate myself heroically from the affair, but how the next generation is to live.”

For Bonhoeffer the idea of responsibility was the same as the biblical idea of righteousness and it perfectly describes what Aragorn is in Tolkien’s story. Last week we drew the contrast between him and Saruman in terms of ambition. Saruman really wants to be king! Now we also see in what way Aragorn is different from Boromir. Boromir desperately wanted to be the hero of the story. He wanted to raise a banner that the whole world would flock to and march under. Aragorn wants to make room for the next generation to live. Not just to exist but to live. When the moment comes to raises his banner and to declare himself king he will do so but not in order to be the hero but in order to serve the people and the people know it.

Next week we will think about the terrible journey that Aragorn must take in order to reach the battle in time. He must tread the Paths of the Dead. And when he does so he will be followed by the Rangers of the North because they love him; he will be followed by Legolas of the Greenwood Realm and Gimli of the Lonely Mountain because they love him; and Merry would have followed him if he could, as would Eowyn of Rohan, but he would not permit them to come with him. All are willing to lay down their lives with and for him because they know that he would lay down his life for them.

It is important to know that the kind of apprenticeship, spoken of by St Paul, does not refer to a particular period of our lives. It does not mean that at some point I must serve an apprenticeship in order that I can become a master and direct the labours of others. To be an apprentice is a way of life. I choose to learn all that I can each day from what each experience can teach me. And each day I am ready to act boldly  and responsibly when called upon to do so. Aragorn is about to tread the Paths of the Dead. I have duties to perform. I can do all things through him who gives me strength.

Eowyn of Rohan: a Call for Guestblogs

During the life of this Blog that is a slow and careful reading of J.R.R  Tolkien’s  The Lord of the Rings and my own reflections upon the story, the characters and the great themes of the book, one character has inspired many comments from readers and that is Eowyn of Rohan.

Over the years many have criticised Tolkien for what they have perceived as his “male centred” story. One might argue that Eowyn, herself, demands the attention of the men in her world. We don’t know about the women as I cannot call to mind a single interaction between Eowyn and any other woman in the story. Perhaps that is something a reader might like to reflect upon.

For a number of years now I have been wrestling with what constitutes an authentic male spiritual journey to true maturity. The Lord of the Rings has helped me greatly with this task. Now I want to reflect on the journey of one of the most significant women in Tolkien’s story and I would like to ask the help of my readers. Please offer your reflections upon Eowyn of Rohan. Certain themes come to mind as I think about her:

  • Eowyn the captive in the wasteland created by the lies of Wormtongue and the decline of Théoden.
  • Eowyn and her hopeless love for Aragorn.
  • Eowyn and her despair and her joining the Ride of the Rohirrim with Merry.
  • Eowyn, the death of Théoden and the battle with the Lord of the Nazgûl.
  • Eowyn in the Houses of Healing.
  • Eowyn and Faramir of Gondor.

If there are other themes that come to mind then please feel free to write about them. Do not feel restricted by my suggestions. They are merely guidelines. I will do some simple editing of grammar, spelling and punctuation but not of the substance of the material you write. I want to read your ideas and to learn from them. I might also include art work, photos etc.

Please send me your material in a Word document as an attachment to an email sent to mail@stephenwinter.net. My usual posts are about 600-800 words in length but please feel free to make your contribution longer or shorter. You may use a reflective style similar to my own but if you normally use another style, for example an imaginative style such as poetry or fan fiction, feel free to use that. Please include your name and any other details about yourself that you care to include. These might include website details, blogs, Facebook pages etc. I promise to include them when I post your material. I promise to acknowledge every contribution and give you some idea when it will be used. For example, if you write about Eowyn and Faramir in the land of Ithilien I may not use it for another couple of years or so.

If possible I would like to post for the first time on Eowyn in the week beginning July 25th so please endeavour to get your material to me by Friday July 22nd.

And could you please publicise my blog in your own web publishing space? I would appreciate that very much.

I am married to a remarkable woman and have two wonderful daughters emerging into adult life. I have been enriched beyond measure by each one of them. I have also enjoyed many friendships with women ever since I emerged from my adolescent shyness and still do today. I grow constantly more convinced that men and women will only achieve wholeness and maturity in good adult relationships to each other and yet this seems quite rare. Maybe together we achieve something towards this goal as we think about Eowyn. I do hope so.

With grateful anticipation,

Stephen Winter

 

Meriadoc Brandybuck and the King of Gondor

It is Arwen of Rivendell who declares Aragorn, king; doing so in the giving of the standard that Halbarad bears and from the moment it is given Aragorn is transformed. Readers who may have seen Peter Jackson’s films will remember that this transformation comes with the arrival of Elrond and the giving of the sword. They will remember too that it comes with the words, “Be who you were meant to be!” The words may be absent from Tolkien’s telling of the tale but when the standard comes the effect is the same. The standard may remain unfurled but Aragorn knows what it is. It is the standard of the king of Gondor and when Aragorn goes into battle he will do so, not as chieftain of the Rangers of the North, but as the king.

And as the king Aragorn challenges Sauron and wrests control of the Palantir from him. As the king he chooses to take his  own pathway to the battle before the walls of Minas Tirith. Until the moment the Grey Company overtook him he was content to be a part of Théoden’s company and to follow him into the battle and he does not fret about how he is to claim the crown. This is not Aragorn’s way. There is always only one question that he must answer and that is “What must I do now?” He knows the destiny to which he is called. He knows that he can never be united to Arwen unless as king of Gondor and of Arnor but he never plots or schemes to achieve this destiny. He never calculates the question of who is for him or against him. He never tries to make his destiny or his desire a possession to be defended. If he is to accomplish it then he must either receive it as a gift or to lay it down. How important a distinction this is. Once his choice has been made nothing and no one will dissuade him from his course of action. His willingness to wait so that when the time comes he receives his destiny as a gift is not a sign of weakness or indecisiveness. Indeed it is a sign of faith. It is the weak and fearful who fear that unless they make their desire happen it may never come to them. Saruman is one such, constantly calculating how he may achieve the power he desires. He knows that by seeking power for himself he betrays the mission given to him by the Valar and yet he wonders if the rebellion of Sauron might mean that the Valar will no longer intervene as they did at the end of the First Age and in the destruction of Númenor. Aragorn never stoops to such calculation. He is a true Númenorian and descendent of Elendil the Elf Friend, the faithful one.

And as with Théoden, perhaps less glorious in his lineage, but no less glorious in his faithfulness, Aragorn gives his concern to the lowly as well as to the great. When he declares his decision to Théoden Aragorn also bids farewell, for the time being, to Merry. He cannot  give him any comfort. Merry “could find no more to say. He felt very small, and he was puzzled and depressed by all these gloomy words.” He goes with Théoden and misses Pippin very much.

Aragorn may not be able to comfort Merry but his heart goes out to him. “There go three that I love, and the smallest not the least… He knows not to what end he rides; yet if he knew, he would still go on.” And such kindness and compassion is a true mark of a true king. For the most part we have to deal with those whose ambition for personal glory drives them on. But we can choose to be different. We can choose to give our love to all people from the greatest to the lowliest and like Aragorn and the true Númenorians we can trust that written deep into the fabric of reality is a law that is firm. We might call it the law of God.

“Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the Lord and who meditates on his law day and night. That person is like a stream planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither- whatever they do prospers.” (Psalm 1)

Aragorn or Sauron, Who is Lord of the Palantir?

The day after the Grey Company overtake Théoden and his escort and deliver their messages to Aragorn, he emerges from a chamber in the Hornburg with Halbarad, the sons of Elrond, and Legolas and Gimli. Merry gazes at him in shock. It is “as if in one night many years had fallen on his head. Grim was his face, grey-hued and weary.”

Later Aragorn tells them that he has looked into the Stone of Orthanc and that there he has confronted Sauron himself. Gimli is horrified, remembering what had happened to Pippin when he looked into it and perhaps thinking, too, of Saruman and how he had been corrupted by Sauron and turned traitor.

“‘You have looked in that accursed stone of wizardry!’ exclaimed Gimli with fear and astonishment in his face. ‘Did you say aught to – him? Even Gandalf feared that encounter.'”

The implication in what Gimli says is that Aragorn has no more business looking into this tool of the Dark Lord’s than Pippin. Aragorn’s response is almost frightening.

“You forget to whom you speak… What do you fear that I should say to him? Did I not openly proclaim my title before the doors of Edoras?”

But Gimli has forgotten. The travel stained warrior with whom he has gone through so much is the heir of Isildur and Elendil. He rightfully bears Andúril, Narsil, the sword that cut the Ring from Sauron’s hand, reforged. He is the heir of Eärendil, the Morning Star, who brought aid to the defeated peoples of Middle-earth when it seemed that Morgoth and his lieutenant, Sauron, had triumphed. And he is heir to Beren and to Lúthien who took a Silmaril from the iron crown of Morgoth. He is  “the lawful master of the Stone and has “both the right and the strength to use it.”

It is essential here to understand that Aragorn is not trying to present himself as one who has gained some kind of extra special bragging rights. There is no, “Look at me, everyone!” going on here. This is what it means to respond to a calling. George, Duke of York, was gripped by fear as he approached a coronation that he never expected before his brother, Edward VIII, abdicated. The fear was connected to the terrible stammer from which he suffered, a story told in the film, The King’s Speech.  Later he was to describe how, when the Archbishop of Canterbury anointed him, a strength came into him and he left Westminster Abbey a different man. He was King George VI. He continued to struggle with many fears and there is a particularly poignant story of a day when he was to meet British troops in North Africa and had almost to be dragged from his tent because once again the fear had overcome him. When I first heard this story my love and admiration for him deepened, knowing the inner fears that he had to overcome, almost daily, in order to fulfil his duty to his people. The struggle ultimately brought him to an early death when in his 50s. Strength is given to fulfil a calling but a price has to be paid as well. This is rarely understood by those who seek power.

That is why Aragorn overcomes Sauron in the struggle for ownership of the Stone of Orthanc, just. He is its true lord and yet he recognises that he is the servant of a destiny that is far greater than he is. Thomas Merton put this tension wonderfully in his book, No Man is an Island. 

“Our Christian destiny is, in fact, a great one: but we cannot achieve greatness unless we lose all interest in being great. For our own idea of greatness is illusory, and if we pay too much attention to it we will be lured out of the peace and stability of the being God gave us, and we will seek to live in a myth we have created for ourselves. And when we are truly ourselves we lose most the futile self-consciousness that keeps us constantly comparing ourselves with others to see how big we are.”

It is not Aragorn but Sauron who lives in a self-created myth and that is why he loses this struggle but, as Gimli puts it, “he wields great dominion, nonetheless.” Aragorn’s challenge will bring forth a terrible response.

 

Aragorn the Lover

Halbarad, the Ranger of the North, bears a gift for Aragorn. It is a thing of mystery, “close furled in a black cloth bound about with many thongs”. And there is a message with it from Arwen, Lady of Rivendell, to Aragorn.

“The days now are short. Either our hope cometh, or all hopes end. Therefore I send thee what I have made for thee. Fare well, Elfstone!”

The final greeting of her message is one of deep uncertainty. Her “Fare Well”, if joined together, becomes a last word, a final blessing, spoken to one that Arwen does not expect to see again. When the words are separated, as they are here, they remain a word of hope. But which are they to be?

Aragorn feels their power.

“Now I know what you bear. Bear it still for me a while!” And he turned and looked away to the North under the great stars, and then he fell silent and spoke no more while the night’s journey lasted.”

So it is that we see Aragorn the lover and find that in him the lover is woven close to the warrior who has great battles to fight and the king who must unfurl the royal standard that Arwen has made for him. The man who rides in silence through the night, his mind filled with thoughts of the woman he loves, knows that his longing for her cannot be fulfilled unless Sauron be overthrown and the Ring of Power cast into the fires at the Cracks of Doom. He cannot separate these things even if he would.

All great love stories are triumphs over adversity. I have a particular love for the story of Rapunzel and the prince who first climbs the tower to reach his imprisoned beloved and then must wander the world, separated from her, his eyes made sightless by the thorns that surround the tower and the malice of the witch who wants to keep Rapunzel for herself. And I love the story of how, for love of her prince, Rapunzel climbs down those same thorn trees that have imprisoned her so long and then searches the world for him until she finds him and heals him with her tears.

In both the old German tale and in Tolkien’s story true love can only be won through great trial. And it is also the source of strength that enables the lover to triumph over all adversity. Although Eros is a word that is absent from the New Testament, replaced there by agape, a word that was a wonderful gift to the world, denoting a love that is an unbreakable commitment to the blessedness of another and a delight that they too are in the world, it was not long before the Fathers of the Church found that they could not ignore it. They discovered that Eros (in the Greek) or Amor (in the Latin) was the divine energy that will bring about the union and communion of all things. At one time there was no division between the passionate, even erotic, language of the mystics and the technical language of the theologians. The two were one and the same. They spoke of drawing the mind into the heart. Sadly we seem to live in a time when mind and heart have become separated. How we need to find a way to unite them once more!

In Aragorn the great archetypes of the King, the Warrior, the Magician and the Lover are wonderfully united. He has been the warrior lover over many years but now we see him growing into his kingship. See how Arwen, his beloved, declares him king, through the banner that she has made, even before her father does! In doing so she spurs him on to the great deeds that he will do. But he has needed the wisdom of the magicians in his life, Elrond and Gandalf, to know what task he must achieve. Eventually he will lose them and then he will have to find the magician wisdom within himself but not quite yet.

Aragorn has received a message from Elrond but it is Arwen’s words that bring about his silence. Eventually he will respond to both messages together as he must and in doing so he will be propelled onwards to the great crisis of his life and towards the union with his beloved for which he longs with all his heart.

Meriadoc Brandybuck Feels Like Baggage in Someone Else’s Story

When Aragorn makes the speech that we thought about in last week’s reflection Gimli and Legolas hear it as a call to arms. They have no doubt about what they must do. It is a thrilling thing to hear such words from a great captain. In a young man the warrior within is awakened and he feels himself grow taller and stronger and more truly himself. How important it is that the captain who makes the call is worthy  of such devotion. There are too many who call it forth for unworthy causes to the great hurt of all who follow them.

But there is one who hears Aragorn’s words who feels but a spectator to a great event in which he can play but a little part. When Aragorn declares that “an hour long prepared approaches”, Merry cries out:

“Don’t leave me behind! I have not been of much use yet, but I don’t want to be laid aside, like baggage to be called for when all is over. I don’t think the Riders will want to be bothered with me now. Though, of course, the king did say that I was to sit by him when he came to his house and tell him all about the Shire.”

If readers who know the story well think back to the first time that we meet Merry properly it is on the lane between the Bucklebury Ferry and Farmer Maggot’s farm when he meets Frodo, Sam and Pippin hiding in the back of Maggot’s cart for fear of the Black Riders. Merry is both confident and competent. He is on home territory and he knows what to do. There is food and there are hot baths awaiting the anxious travellers in the cottage at Crickhollow. He even leads the other hobbits in revealing what they know of the true purpose of Frodo’s journey and he makes sensible proposals regarding what they should do next.

But at this moment in the story all that must feel both a long time ago and a long way away as if it all belonged to someone else and not to him. Now Merry feels like unnecessary baggage and when, a little while later, Théoden’s party is overtaken by a mounted company and it is possible that there might be a fight that feeling deepens miserably.

Has he forgotten that it was he and Pippin who roused Treebeard and the Ents and so brought about the downfall of Saruman and the destruction of his fortress at Isengard and his army? Saruman may not forget and he does not forget but Merry does. For even there he was carried by the mighty leader of the Ents just as he had been carried by the Orcs as a captive. It has been a very long time since Merry has felt that he is a necessary part of this great enterprise and he desperately wants to feel as if he matters.

In this blog we have often gone back to this theme of being carried. In particular we have thought about it in relation to Frodo,  who, the closer he comes to the conclusion of his journey the less he is able to act on his own behalf. Indeed the last time we saw him he was being carried into Mordor by Shagrat and Gorbag and their orc companies.

We are so anxious to feel that we matter, that we can act on our own behalf and that we can make a difference. It is a thing that the young and the old share in common that their ability to act independently is small. The young long to emerge from the control of their elders. The old fear that they will become increasingly dependent upon others. And yet we know that Merry, simply by being where he is and offering himself as he is in all his weakness and fearfulness and yet with all his love and devotion too, shapes Tolkien’s great story in a way that few others do.

And that is an encouragement to all of us to do the same.

For Aragorn “An Hour Long Prepared Approaches”

At this point of the story Tolkien leaves Pippin and Gandalf in Minas Tirith as the dawnless day begins that heralds the beginning of the assault of the forces of Minas Morgul upon the city. We return to Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli and Merry just after Gandalf leaves with Pippin as they prepare to ride with Théoden to Edoras and Aragorn speaks to his companions.

He tells them that Théoden will go to “the muster that he commanded at Edoras, four nights from now. And there, I think, he will hear tidings of war, and the Riders of Rohan will go down to Minas Tirith. But for myself, and any that will go with me… it is dark before me. I must go down to Minas Tirith, but I do not see the road. An hour long prepared approaches.”

Aragorn knows that this is his moment of destiny. He has lived upon the earth for nearly 90 years and each one of them has been a step towards it. He was born to a noble but dwindling people in the north who carried little more than a memory of the greatness of the past. His father, Arathorn, was killed by orcs when he was just two years old, and so he became the heir of Isildur and chieftain of his people. He was named, Estel, meaning hope, and went to live in Rivendell and Elrond became as a father to him.

One day Elrond called him by his true name and gave him the heirlooms of his house. “Here is the ring of Barahir,” he said, “the token of our kinship from afar; and here also are the shards of Narsil. With these you may yet do great deeds; for I foretell that the span of your life shall be greater than the measure of Men, unless evil befalls you or you fail at the test. But the test will be long and hard. The sceptre of Annúminas I withhold, for you have yet to earn it.”

What words to speak to a young man of twenty years of age! What gifts to give to him! In Peter Jackson’s films this moment is recalled just before Aragorn takes the Paths of the Dead when Elrond gives Andúril,  Narsil reforged, to him with the words, “Be who you were meant to be.” It is a fine moment in Jackson’s telling of the tale but in his telling Elrond gives Aragorn the sword as a beaten man with a dying daughter and his people leaving for the ships. In Tolkien’s telling of the story Elrond addresses Aragorn as one of the great lords of Middle-earth at the height of of his powers. When such a father speaks, his very words convey power upon his son. How we need more fathers like him!

The ring of Barahir speaks of Aragorn’s mighty lineage. It was the ring that Beren carried when he and his beloved Lúthien won a Silmaril from the iron crown of Morgoth in his impenetrable fortress of Thangorodrim. The shards of Narsil speak of his mighty ancestor, Elendil, on the day that he stood against Sauron before the gates of Barad-dûr and fell in the battle. It tells of how Isildur took the shards of the broken sword and cut the Ring from the finger of the Dark Lord and so defeated him winning long years of peace for the world. The sceptre of Annúminas speaks of a throne that Aragorn must still win through his deeds.

It is this lineage to which Aragorn must aspire and that he thinks of as he speaks to his friends. He also recalls that Elrond told him that only the king of both Arnor and of Gondor would be worthy of the hand of his daughter, Arwen. This is his destiny. This is the moment through which he has been through so many hard tests in order to face. Will he achieve his destiny or will he fail at this last and greatest test?

So few young men ever get to hear words like this from their fathers or those who stand in the place of fathers to them. One generation of beaten and embittered men sends the next generation disabled into their adult lives so that they are boys in men’s bodies. In the sacrament of Baptism our children are anointed with the same oil that is used at the coronations of our kings and queens. This is intended to proclaim to them that they are sons and daughters of the living God. When will we teach our children who they really are and what their destiny is?

 

Peregrin Took Teaches Us the Value of Cheerfulness in Dark Times

It is Pippin’s cheerfulness that gives courage to Beregond, the soldier of Gondor. It was the kind of cheerfulness that Tolkien met among the soldiers from the villages of England in the trenches of the First World War. On July 1st of this year we will remember the first day of the Battle of the Somme on which 20,000 British soldiers were killed and about 40,000 wounded. Tolkien was present at the battle and survived. My great uncle, Tommy Young, was also present and did not survive. I shall think of him especially on that day.

Tolkien received what was known, amongst the soldiers, as a blighty wound during the battle. This was a wound not serious enough to cause lasting damage but serious enough to mean that the soldier who received it would be withdrawn from the front line for a lengthy period of recuperation. To receive such a wound was generally regarded as good luck among the soldiers. Tolkien though had to live with the fact that among his closest friends he was the only survivor of the war.

It is with this memory that Tolkien begins to describe the preparations for the great battle of The Lord of the Rings at the Pelennor Fields. It may not have been this battle that was to be the decisive action of the story. That was the journey of Frodo and Sam to Mount Doom and the events in the Sammath Naur. But if Minas Tirith had fallen to the armies of Minas Morgul there would have been nowhere to return to for Frodo and Sam.

Pippin’s cheerfulness before the overwhelming might of Mordor reminds us of Sam Gamgee’s reflection at the Black Gate when  it appeared that the journey was at an end. Tolkien tells us that Sam “never had any real hope in the affair from the beginning; but being a cheerful hobbit he had not needed hope, as long as despair could be postponed.”

It is this spirit that enables Sam to bring Frodo and the Ring to Mount Doom; that brings Merry and Eowyn to the place in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields where they are able to slay the Lord of the Nazgûl; and which enables Pippin to save the life of Faramir in the face of Denethor’s despair and the passivity of his guard. It is not quite the same thing as the great joy that Pippin sees in Gandalf after the encounter with Denethor. Gandalf’s joy is a heavenly thing that Pippin, as yet, can only catch glimpses of; it is the inbreaking of another world into the world that Pippin knows and one that declares that even in the darkest of times the last word belongs to love and to joy and not to darkness. The cheerfulness of the hobbits is of a different order and belongs to the earth. It is a peasant quality that determines to make the best of whatever life brings, enjoying the good without too much expectation that it will last for long and bearing up under times of difficulty. It takes a quiet pride in maintaining the right kind of face. This is not a kind of dissembling, a deliberate attempt to deceive, unless it is to deceive an enemy, but it is a kind of virtue, most closely akin to fortitude. Perhaps the last time it was seen in British life to a great degree was during the heavy bombing of British cities during the Second World War by the German Luftwaffe, an action that was intended to demoralise the civilian population but which failed to do so. Perhaps it should be noted here that the bombing of German cities proved to be just as ineffective in this regard.

Pippin’s cheerfulness will be needed much in the days that lie ahead for the “darkness has begun”. But it will be no mere whistling in the wind. It will be a source of strength that will enable him to do brave deeds and will prevent the doing of great harm. We will do well to honour this quality and to develop it ourselves.

 

Master Peregrin, Do you see any hope that we shall stand?

Pippin sits with the brave and kind, Beregond, at an embrasure in the walls of the citadel while they break their fast together. Pippin speaks a little of his journeys  but more than this he wishes to hear of the story of Minas Tirith. And so he learns of the brief moment of hope when the young Denethor retook the ancient city of Osgiliath, but how the Nazgûl came and robbed them of whatever hope they might have had.

So Beregond turns to Pippin and asks him, “And, Master Peregrin, do you see any hope that we shall stand? ”

Where does hope come from? Pippin looks about him at the walls of the city and the citadel, “The towers and brave banners, and the sun in the high sky.” The towers and banners are symbols of the proud history of Gondor standing ever in the vanguard against the darkness, reminding all who stand beneath them of the day when the armies of Elendil and Isildur and the last great alliance overthrew Sauron before his gates. And the sun in the sky is a reminder of that which lasts beyond the lives of even the longest lived in Middle-earth. But nearer still is the shadow that creeps towards them. Pippin looks “at the gathering gloom in the East,” and thinks of the “the orcs in the woods and the mountains, the treason of Isengard, the birds of evil eye, and the Black Riders even in the lanes of the Shire- and of the winged terror, the Nazgûl.” All of these he has experienced personally and no shutting of the eyes or of any gate, however mighty, can make that experience go away or make it less real. The powers of darkness are real and Pippin knows that only too well. Denethor knows that too and here we receive a hint of how he has sought to  confront them. Beregond tells Pippin of Denethor’s sitting alone in his high chamber bending “his thought this way and that” searching “even the mind of the Enemy, wrestling with him.”

Later we will learn that Denethor has learned to use one of the Palantir, the seeing stones of Númenor, even as Saruman did. Unlike Saruman the vision of the growing darkness does not lead him to treachery but it did lead him to despair.

And here we see the contrast to Gandalf as we thought about last week. It is not the long intense gaze into the dark that leads to treachery or despair. Gandalf too has wrestled with the dark and so too has Galadriel. They have no illusions about its might. But along with the gaze into the dark has come also a deep and long contemplation of the good, the beautiful and the true. On their journey to Minas Tirith Gandalf told Pippin of how he longed to gaze into the mind of the greatest of artists, Fëanor the maker of the Silmarils, but unlike Fëanor he does not desire their possession. To possess adds nothing to who he is. He wishes to commune only with the beauty of Fëanor’s creation and with the maker himself. Such contemplation and such communion lead to an enlivening and as we saw when we thought of Gandalf’s laughter last week, to an abiding joy.

In the New Testament it is the writer to the Hebrews who puts this best of all. He speaks to his fearful readers first of the great heroes of their faith as a source of courage and then speaks of Jesus, “who for the joy that was set before him endured the  cross, despising the shame”. It is the contemplation of the joy that sustained Jesus and the writer to the Hebrews calls upon his readers to learn to look through Jesus’ eyes. Pippin may not yet be able to see the same joy that Gandalf can but he can see Gandalf and for now that is enough. We must do whatever we can to make the same connection. We might start with inspiring people around us and learn what sustains them.