“Behold the Argonath, the Pillars of the Kings.” The Heir of Isildur Comes To His Kingdom.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 375-385

After the encounter with Gollum upon the eyot, the small island in the river, the danger of the journey begins to grow. Orcs upon the eastern side of the river fire at the Fellowship and, for the very first time, they meet a Nazgûl, mounted upon his foul winged steed. Legolas uses the bow given to him by the Elves of Lothlórien and brings the creature down from the sky. One cannot help but feel that a company of archers from Lothlórien, armed thus, would have been very useful at the siege of Minas Tirith.

It is not only the threat of enemies that grows as the party travels southwards but the river itself becomes more dangerous. More suddenly than Aragorn had anticipated the boats arrive at the rapids of Sarn Gebir and the Company are forced to carry both them and their baggage on an old portage-way on the western bank of the river until that danger is passed.

Every mile southwards is bringing them all closer to the moment when a choice will have to be made. Either, as Boromir is beginning to urge, they will make their way down to Minas Tirith or they will begin the journey to Mordor. Aragorn has little wish to make this choice and searches for any kind of sign to aid him in the task. His immediate aim is to reach the lake of Nen Hithoel that lies above the Falls of Rauros and which is fenced upon the left by Amon Lhaw, the Hill of Hearing, and upon the right by Amon Hen, the Hill of Sight. It is there that the choice must be made.

The Fellowship Cross Nen Hithoel

And before they reach this point the river cuts a narrow channel between the Pillars of the Argonath.

“As Frodo was borne towards them the great pillars rose like towers to meet him. Giants they seemed to him, vast grey figures silent but threatening. Then he saw that they were indeed shaped and fashioned: the craft and power of old had wrought upon them and, and still they preserved through the suns and rains of forgotten years the mighty likenesses in which they had been hewn.”

John Howe’s magnificent imagining of The Argonath

The likenesses are of Isildur and Anárion, the sons of Elendil, and first kings of Arnor and of Gondor, and they stand with hands raised and palms stretched outwards “in gesture of warning.” It is a terrible and an awesome place and poor Sam is overcome by terror. Indeed all the company are very afraid, all that is except Aragorn. In the film he is depicted standing proudly in the boat and it is a very impressive scene. Tolkien, more sensibly, has him seated, but his description of Aragorn is equally impressive. He is Strider “and yet not Strider”. He is proud and erect, “his hood was cast back, and his dark hair was blowing in the wind, a light was in his eyes: a king returning from exile to his own land.”

“Fear not!” he said. “Long have I desired to look upon the likenesses of Isildur and Anárion, my sires of old. Under their shadow Elessar, the Elfstone son of Arathorn of the House of Valandil Isildur’s son, heir of Elendil, has nought to dread!”

Nought to dread maybe from these mighty symbols both of Aragorn’s ancestry and his destiny but Aragorn does fear the choice that he must make. He longs to go to Gondor. His heart “yearns for Minas Anor”, the ancient name of the city that is now Minas Tirith, the Tower of the Guard, but he also knows that the task that the Council gave to Frodo was to take the Ring to the Fire and now that Gandalf is gone how can he abandon Frodo?

Eventually, as Galadriel foretold in Lothlórien, his path is already laid before his feet. The path that he will take will lead neither to Minas Tirith nor to Mordor, not yet at least. It will be a series of events that are now entirely unforeseeable that will make the choice clear to him in a way that is impossible as he passes the Argonath or when he climbs Amon Hen. It is clear as he navigates the passage that his heart’s yearning must eventually lead him to his city but it is rare in our lives that the path between our current position and the place for which our heart yearns is a clear one, even for those of us for whom that place is known. Aragorn’s path to his city and to his kingdom will wind and twist through many unexpected places.

Aragorn at the Argonath

There are Many Strange Men On The Roads. Is this the Real Strider?

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp160-68

It was only after posting last week’s blog that I really began to ponder Tolkien’s description of the man in the corner of Barliman Butterbur’s common room. Let me take you back there again.

“Suddenly Frodo noticed that a strange-looking weather-beaten man, sitting in the shadows near the wall, was also listening intently to the hobbit-talk. He had a tall tankard in front of him, and was smoking a long-stemmed pipe curiously carved. His legs were stretched out before him, showing high boots of supple leather that fitted him well, but had seen much wear and were now caked with mud.”

Strider in The Prancing Pony by Anthony Foti

Apart from a sudden desire to know in what way his pipe was “curiously carved” it was those words, “strange-looking”, that caught my attention. In what way, strange? Those who come to know Tolkien’s work quite well know that he is never a lazy writer. There will be a reason why he will have chosen this description. To describe the man sitting in the shadows as weather-beaten is obvious enough. He is a man who has walked many miles in those boots and in all weathers. Not for the men of his time the artificial protection of the ton of metal about him that keeps us and the weather separate from each other. Now if we meet someone who is truly weather-beaten it is something that is worthy of note, even strange, but not in those days. The faces of even quite young men would be wind-darkened and their hands tough and leathery. No, this is not what makes this man strange.

Nor is it the fact that he is not a regular fixture of the common room of The Prancing Pony that makes this man strange. There are many strangers in the only place of comfort on the long journey between Rivendell and the Shire or on the Greenway that runs northwards from Dunland and Rohan. Some of these are strange enough to be a cause of concern to the Breelanders. One of these southerners, “a squint-eyed ill-favoured fellow, was foretelling that more and more people would be coming north in the near future”.

No, this is not what makes the man in the shadows strange, and, in any case, Butterbur tells Frodo that he is a fairly regular visitor to Bree. No, what makes him strange is that he is not one of the usual kind of people who visit The Prancing Pony. He is neither a local farmer or artisan nor the usual kind of wanderer upon the road. The quality of his pipe and his boots should be a clue to an identity that is different from others. Everything about him speaks of mystery.

The Rangers of the North

But Frodo who, after the highly disturbing incident with the Ring after his comic song on the table top, is starting to see everyone as a potential threat, and soon begins to think that this man is a rascal, a rogue. And when the hobbits meet the stranger in their room after the events in the common room Frodo is not much comforted by his words.

“You must take me along with you, until I wish to leave you.”

Eventually it is Gandalf’s letter left in the hands of Butterbur that convinces Frodo and his companions to put their trust, albeit with some reluctance, in this man. And such is the way with decisions that have to be made in unfamiliar situations. When we are at home, surrounded by the familiar, our choices are more often than not a weighing up of possibilities about which we have some knowledge. But ever since Gandalf revealed to Frodo that the ring that Bilbo had left behind on the day of the Long-expected Party was in fact the One Ring made by the Dark Lord to rule all things, Frodo has lived in a world that is unfamiliar and in which he has to make choices with little to go upon that he fully understands. This Strider, this strange man who is sitting in his room as if he owned it, may be a rogue. Frodo is risking his life in the decision that he makes. Is Strider the man that Gandalf’s letter speaks of or is he one of the “many strange men on the roads”? A strange man he most certainly is. His looks are against him. What decision will Frodo make?

My looks are against me