“Do We Walk in Legends or On The Green Earth in Daylight?” The Riders of Rohan Encounter Dreams of Legend Springing Out of the Grass.

The Two Towers by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991/2007) pp.558-565

As Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli continue their weary and hopeless march across the plains of Rohan in pursuit of the orc host that have taken Merry and Pippin captive they become aware that a band of horsemen is moving swiftly towards them back down the very trail that they are following. The horsemen are Rohirrim, riders of Rohan. Aragorn describes them to his companions.

“They are proud and wilful, but they are true-hearted, generous in thought and deed; bold but not cruel; wise but unlearned; writing no books but singing many songs, after the manner of the children of Men before the Dark Years.”

The Riders of Rohan at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields

The companions decide to wait for the riders to come to them and Aragorn greets them as they ride by. Wrapped about in their cloaks of Lothlórien it seems to the riders that they have sprung from the grass itself and what follows is a tense encounter that almost ends in disaster. For Tolkien in this scene brings us into the heroic world of the North in which honour has more meaning than even life itself and most certainly of a life, or existence, in which honour has been lost. So Gimli is ready, almost eager, to die for the sake of the honour of Galadriel, the lady of Lothlórien, when he feels that it has been slighted by Éomer, who leads the company of riders.

The Rohirrim surround the three companions

Aragorn is able to avert the disaster but then, in the manner in which he announces himself, brings us all back into the very stuff of legend.

“I am Aragorn son of Arathorn, and am called Elessar, the Elfstone, Dúnadan, the heir of Isildur Elendil’s son of Gondor. Here is the Sword that was Broken and is forged again! Will you aid me or thwart me? Choose swiftly!”

Anke Eissmann imagines the first meeting between Aragorn and Eomer

So Tolkien deliberately mingles the stuff of legend with the stuff of ordinary life and invites his readers to make the same kind of choice that Aragorn demands of the Rohirrim. For Tolkien not only makes the Rohirrim the people who would have heard tales like that of Beowulf which would have been told in the halls of their lords in the early middle ages, but he also makes them a very modern people for whom a story like Beowulf that might be one that stirred them when they were young but which would have been consigned to the pleasant, but private, world of fantasy when they grew up. For real life with its duties can, for the modern person, only be lived with stuff that can be touched, smelt, heard, seen or tasted. The life of the imagination might give a moment of pleasure amidst the grim reality of ordinary life but it can never be regarded as real.

This division between that which is heroic and that which is ordinary is one that Aragorn suggests is false. When the rider who stands beside Eomer scoffs at Aragorn’s mention of halflings Aragorn’s response is not to the rider but to his Lord. The Rider dismisses the mention of halflings as “old songs and children’s tales out of the North”. And then he asks, “Do we walk in legends or on the green earth in the daylight?”

“A man may do both,” said Aragorn. “For not we but those who come after will make the legends of our time. The green earth, say you? That is a mighty matter of legend, though you tread it under the light of day!”

I say that Aragorn addresses Eomer because, as far as the Rider is concerned, Aragorn is simply speaking nonsense that does not deserve attention. He, and his fellows, are the spiritual kin of Cervantes’ Sancho Panza, the sensible though devoted servant of Don Quixote. While Don Quixote tilts at windmills Sancho Panza does all that he can to keep his master out of trouble. Modern readers side with the servant yet wish, secretly, that they could live in the lost enchanted world of the master. Aragorn argues that it is possible to do both as he presents himself as a representative of the world of legend amidst the world of the sensible.

As far as the Riders are concerned the strange creatures who have sprung from the grass are merely “wild men”, but Eomer heard the rhyme that Boromir spoke when he came to Edoras, the rhyme that spoke of halflings as well as the blade that was broken. Eomer knows that he needs to pay closer attention to Aragorn’s words even if he does not understand them. Perhaps there is more to what Aragorn is saying than mere tilting at windmills.

“They Will Look for Him From The White Tower… But He Will Not Return.” Boromir is Laid to Rest in an Elven Boat.

The Two Towers by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991,2007) pp. 538-544

Legolas and Gimli find Aragorn kneeling beside the body of Boromir and, at first, they fear that he is mortally wounded too. But soon they are reassured and learn of all that has taken place, of the slaying of Boromir by many orcs as he sought to defend the hobbits.

Now there are questions to answer. Are the hobbits still alive or have they been taken by the orcs? And if they have been taken which way have they gone? They know that Boromir had gone to defend Merry and Pippin but were Frodo and Sam among them? What should they do now? Should they follow the orcs to aid Merry and Pippin or should they find Frodo’s tracks and follow him for the sake of the quest? It is an evil choice that lies before them.

“First we must tend the fallen,” Legolas says. “We cannot leave him lying like carrion among these foul orcs.”

Aragorn stands over the body of Boromir in this poignant depiction by Anke Eissmann.

They do not have time to bury Boromir or raise a cairn of stones above him and so they determine to lay him to rest in one of the elven boats. We are reminded here of the ship burials of the Norse or Germanic peoples of Europe. The most famous of these burials here in England is the Sutton Hoo burial from the early 7th century of an Anglo-Saxon king laid to rest in a a ship that was nearly 90 feet long and when discovered in a famous excavation in 1939 was found to contain the most spectacular treasures from as far afield as Byzantium and Sri Lanka.

The Sutton Hoo ship burial and the famous warrior’s mask now kept in the British Museum.

Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli lay what treasures they can around the fallen hero, son of Denethor, Lord of Gondor. “The grey hood and elven-cloak they folded and placed beneath his head. They combed his long dark hair and arrayed it about his shoulders. The golden belt of Lórien gleamed about his waist. His helm they set beside him, and across his lap they laid the cloven horn and the hilt and shards of his sword; beneath his feet they put the swords of his enemies.”

And so the Anduin, the mighty river of Gondor, takes Boromir over the Rauros falls and down through Osgiliath “out into the Great Sea at night under the stars”.

It is a deeply poignant moment within the story. A brief pause amidst all the frantic action that has taken place that day and all that lies ahead of the three companions. As Tolkien was writing this scene he must have thought of the many fallen soldiers at the Battle of the Somme in which he fought and, most of all, of Robert Gilson and Geoffrey Bache Smith of the Tea Club, Barrovian Society, the T.C.B.S of King Edward’s School in Birmingham, both of whom fell in 1916.

For so many of the dead in that war there could be no pause amidst the fighting and the carnage amidst the trenches of the western front. Many bodies could not even be identified and it was not until after the war ended that the people of Great Britain began the long and patient task of creating memorials to their war dead. From the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey, over which Queen Elizabeth’s coffin was carried at her funeral, to the memorial at the Menin Gate in Ypres in Belgium where those whose bodies were never identified are remembered, to the war cemeteries in Belgium and in France where thousands upon thousands lie, among whom are two of my mother’s uncles, and then the memorials raised in communities up and down the land for those who they had lost, the people of Britain did all that they could to honour their fallen. And we still do on each Sunday nearest to the 11th of November every year at those same memorials in all but a small number of villages across the land where everyone came home from the war. No such villages exist in my county of Worcestershire.

There is much debate among Tolkien scholars about the extent to which The Lord of the Rings is as much a memorial to the fallen of the Great War as it is the creation of a myth that reaches back into a distant past. The recent biopic about Tolkien’s early life certainly suggests this and I, for one, am persuaded. Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli do all that they can to give meaning to the fall of Boromir and Tolkien makes heroes of the thousands who fell on the western front by creating a myth big enough to contain their stories.

One of the many war cemeteries in Belgium and Northern France from the Great War of 1914-18.

A Life as Brief as a Sparrow’s Flight

As Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli approach Edoras, the dwelling place of Théoden, King of Rohan and the Rohirrim they ponder the story of that people. Five hundred years the Rohirrim have dwelt in that land since first Eorl the Young led them to the field of Celebrant to aid the people of Gondor in battle. To them that day is so long ago that they have no memory of what came before but to Legolas, ageless wood elf of the Greenwood, those five hundred fallings of the leaves seem “but a little while.” And so Tolkien calls to mind another of the great themes of his stories, the great difference between elves and humankind. The sorrow of being human is to know the brevity of life; the sorrow of being an elf is not themselves to know death and yet to know the decay and loss of all else that lies about them.

Aragorn, who served Théoden’s father, Thengel, at one time in his youth, sings one of the songs of the Rohirrim in their own tongue. Legolas, not knowing the tongue, speaks of it as “laden with the sadness of Mortal Men.”

Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing? Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?…Who shall gather the smoke of the dead wood burning, Or behold the flowing years from the Sea returning?”

It is the image of the vain attempt to gather up the smoke of the fire that is most poignant in the song reminding us that we, who are mortal, can no more hold onto life than to perform this impossible task.

Tolkien was one of the greatest scholars of early English of his time and surely here he recalls the famous speech recounted by the Venerable Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People in which the pagan priest, Coifi, addresses Edwin, mighty king of the Northumbrians. Paulinus has just declared the Christian message to the king and Coifi speaks.

“It seems to me that the life of a man on earth is like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the hall, where you, O King, sit at table on a winter’s day with your captains and counsellors. In the midst of the hall there is a comforting fire to warm it. Outside the storms of winter rain and snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one window of that hall and out through another. While he is inside, the bird is safe from the winter storms, but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. So man appears upon earth for a little while- but of what went before this life, or what follows, we know nothing.”

I first heard this story as a young boy and this image seared itself into my consciousness. I could see the hall of the king, the fire burning brightly, the winter storm blowing outside. I could see the bird flying swiftly from one window to another. And at some level, perhaps beyond understanding, I knew that life was short, so heartbreakingly short.

When Gandalf and his companions arrive at Meduseld, the hall of the king, they find the Rohirrim, bowed down under the weight of this consciousness and unmanned by the whisperings of Grima Wormtongue, secret servant of Saruman. But soon the people of Rohan will be woken to new hope and to brave deeds. They will find such meaning in their brief life that they will be able to stand against all the powers of darkness that now oppress them.

But that is for another week…