“There Was No Laughter, and No Song or Music”. The Fellowship of the Ring Leaves Rivendell.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 269-274

In the appendices that conclude the final part of The Lord of the Rings Tolkien outlines the key events in his great tale in strict chronological order, a valuable tool for those who want to know what each member of the Company was doing on each day, especially after the breaking of the Fellowship that takes place at the end of the first volume. And there, on page 1066 in my Harper Collins edition, in a brief sentence of heartbreaking terseness, we read these words:

December 25 The Company of the Ring leaves Rivendell at dusk.

Leaving Rivendell at dusk

The preceding pages have been autumnal in mood as preparation is made for last farewells. Gradually the days have shortened and leaves have fallen and it is Bilbo’s poem on old age that sets the tone best. But it is not in autumn that the Fellowship finally departs into the wild but at the very dead of winter. On December 25th in fact. And, as in all Tolkien’s writing, this is no mere accident, even as the dating of the Feast of the Nativity of Christ is no mere accident. I will leave it to scholars to write about this but everyone in northern climes, who has participated in the feast that we call Christmas, arriving at church in the hour before midnight to welcome the birth of the Saviour, will know that it falls upon the day on which the sun first begins its long journey northward and the day is just a few seconds longer than it is at the winter solstice.

Not that it feels any longer. If we are brave enough to avoid the temptation to surround ourselves with artificialilty, with warmth and bright light then, like Aragorn at the beginning of the great journey, we might sit with our head bowed to our knees. But Aragorn knows that the great crisis of his life is about to begin, the days that all his adventures have been preparing him for. Only he, and Elrond too, know that it is only as King of Gondor and of Arnor that he can ever wed Arwen. It is one thing to live in a hope whose possible fulfillment seems to lie in the future; it is another matter entirely when that hope comes within your grasp and yet still feels like an impossibility.

Tolkien, like all his generation in England, would have remembered the bands and cheering crowds that sent the young men of every community in the land across the sea to France in the Great War of 1914-18. Is he deliberately contrasting the departure of the Company with those memories of festivity? “No laughter, and no song or music”. There is only one member of the Company who wishes to have his departure marked by music and that is Boromir who carries his great war horn by his side.

‘”Loud and clear it sounds in the valleys of the hills,” he said, “and then let all the foes of Gondor flee!” Putting it to his lips he blew a blast, and the echoes leapt from rock to rock, and all that heard that voice in Rivendell sprang to their feet.”

Perhaps it is Boromir who reminded Tolkien of the young men among his contemporaries who marched forth to battle with smiles upon their faces and brave music sounding in their ears and then died in their thousands and tens of thousands in the mud of Flanders.

Laughter and Song and Music

Gimli the dwarf, as befits his people, is not given to displays of courage as is Boromir, but he is deadly serious about the taking of oaths. Elrond wisely counsels him against doing this. He cannot know what lies ahead and if he had sworn an oath binding him to Frodo then he could not have gone with Aragorn and Legolas in their pursuit of the orcs who were to take Merry and Pippin and all that was to come of that choice. But Elrond’s words to him contain a hidden prophecy of Gimli’s own moment of crisis, of judgement.

“Let him not vow to walk in the dark, who has not seen the nightfall.”

Did Gimli recall these words when he feared to follow his companions upon the Paths of the Dead at Dunharrow?

“What of The Three Rings of The Elves?” Can They Be Used Against Sauron?

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 260-263

When Celebrimbor and Sauron (in his guise of Annatar) studied and then created the Rings of Power during the Second Age of Arda there were three rings made by Celebrimbor alone over which Sauron had no influence. Seven rings were made for the dwarves and nine for humankind. The dwarves proved to be of stubborn stuff and so even when Sauron was wielding the One Ring “to rule them all” these rings and their bearers did not fall under his sway. So began the long unhappy history of Sauron’s search for the rings of the dwarves which ended in Dol Guldur when Sauron took the last of them from Thráin.

The Three Rings of the Elves

The rings given to human lords brought them swiftly under the domination of the Dark Lord. The dwarves were always true to their essential nature, loving the things that they made, implacable both in friendship and enmity, but humankind was always constrained by their mortality in a very particular way. The very brevity of a human life meant that a choice had to be made. It still does. Some would look beyond the confines of their mortality and so live in hope accepting their fate while entrusting themselves to that which lay beyond them. So Aragorn said to Arwen at the end of his life, “We are not bound for ever to the circles of this world, and beyond them there is more than memory”. Or, as in the heroic world of the Rohirrim, they would laugh in the face of despair even as they confronted their own deaths, as did Éomer when it seemed certain to him that he would die in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. Or, as with the Dunlendings, there was a dull, grim and embittered spirit, a nation of “Gollums”, ever resentful of perceived slights at the hands of others. Or, as with the people of Bree, the spirit and wisdom of Ecclesiastes, “Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your life which you have been given under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun”. The hobbits were perhaps closest in spirit to them.

But for the Númenorians and their descendants, the ones who had come closest to Valinor and the immortality of the Elves, there was for many a growing sense that mortality was a curse that had been imposed upon them and one that they should strive to overcome. It was nine lords from among such as these who seized the opportunity given to them in Sauron’s gift of rings and who learned that immortality as a mere extension of existence is an intolerable burden, a curse rather than a blessing.

The Nazgûl. Wraiths and Wrath

The Rings of the Elves were not made by Sauron but by Celebrimbor alone although these rings could not have been made without the craft that they had learned together. Perhaps Celebrimbor had some secret suspicion of Sauron or, more likely, the desire like Fëanor before him to make something that was his and his alone, but they were not made for “strength or domination or hoarded wealth, but understanding, making and healing, to preserve all things unstained”. As with the Elves themselves, but as an intensification of who the Elves were, they were bound to the earth itself in joy and in sorrow. In the healing of the hurts of the earth and in the preserving of its beauty they brought great joy. If only we could find the earthly paradises of Rivendell or Lothlórien in our world today or even the Shire as Sam Gamgee was to remake it using Galadriel’s gift; or perhaps such places would best be kept hidden from us as we would probably spoil them by turning them into tourist destinations. Could you imagine some kind of “Lothlórien-world”?

Tim Catherall’s Imagining of Lothlórien

There is a sense in which the three rings of the Elves were used against Sauron. Elrond’s healing power, Galadriel’s adamantine resistance and, above all, Gandalf’s unresting work in warming hearts in a world ever growing cold, all of these fruits of the Elven Rings meant that Sauron had been kept at bay for long years but now as Sauron bent all of his might and malice in the task of the conquest of Middle-earth the rings of the Elves could no longer resist him nor could the combined strength of its free peoples. At the last there could only be one choice that could be made and that was as Elrond counselled the destruction of the Ring.

All That is Gold Does Not Glitter. Aragorn’s Journey Towards His Crown.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp.240-243

My feelings about Peter Jackson’s film retelling of The Lord of the Rings have always been mixed but I have never denied that he had the right to make such an attempt. Tolkien always felt that the task that he had been given was to create a mythology for England, one that he felt was lost after the Norman Conquest of 1066. And just as the Arthurian legends have been told and retold by many voices (Chrétien de Troyes, Wolfram Von Eschenbach and Thomas Malory come to mind, as well as T.H White and others in the modern era) so we must surely permit voices other than Tolkien to do the same to his legendarium. This will include film and fanfiction in our era, some of which will stand the test of time as being a true retelling of the myth while others will rapidly disappear into the dark. Of one thing that we can say of Peter Jackson’s films is that they have already lasted 20 years since the first of the three was released and although they have their flaws on the whole they show no sign of ageing.

As I have been thinking about Aragorn and Boromir and the war dance that they do around each other so the way in which Jackson treats the two characters has also come to mind; and if I felt that Jackson’s portrayal of Boromir through Sean Bean’s fine performance is of a character too fully formed, then I think that Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn is much closer to Tolkien’s original conception.

It is really important that when we first meet Aragorn we do not receive him as the fully formed King of Gondor and of Arnor, the heir of Valandil, of Isildur and of Elendil. When we first meet him in The Prancing Pony in Bree, his well formed Strider persona is more than a name given to him by Barliman Butterbur. Although he bears a certain resentment about the name it belongs to the Ranger doing his work in secret and thanklessly. Readers of my blog may remember a piece that I wrote a few months ago about Frodo’s exclamation, “I thought he was only a Ranger.” Even though Frodo always feels that Aragorn is more than he seems even so he fails to perceive the light of Númenor in his companion. Aragorn has grown into his disguise. He is a Ranger.

Strider the Ranger

So it is that in Jackson’s The Return of the King Elrond arrives at Dunharrow just before Aragorn and his companions make the journey through the Paths of the Dead. He brings the sword that was broken with him, reforged and renamed. It is no longer Narsil but Andúril, the flame of the west and Elrond presents it to him with the words, “Become who you were born to be”. Aragorn takes the sword and as he raises it Howard Shore’s magnificent music underlines the significance of the moment. What is significant in Jackson’s retelling is that all this takes place within one short scene. We miss the slow transformation that Tolkien offers to us but whether the transformation takes place in a moment or over many years what is true for Aragorn is that it must take place or he will shrink into diminishment.

Become Who You Were Meant to Be

Each one of us takes a journey that leads to the same end that Aragorn reaches. While we will not receive the crown of the heir of Elendil each one of us should enter into our archetypal kingliness as a king or queen and it is one of life’s greatest sadnesses that so many achieve only a diminished version of what they could be. The same discipline that Aragorn accepts after Elrond tells him that his daughter will not be “the bride of any Man less than the King of both Gondor or Arnor”, the discipline that takes him through years of struggle, must be undertaken by all us if we are to enter into the royalty that is our birthright. Aragorn’s path will be a lonely one for both his personal happiness as well as his royal destiny are intimately linked. Ultimately he will achieve both together but might he have chosen to shrink into one who was “only a Ranger”? Might he have withered even as Bilbo’s verse speaks about? Might he have withdrawn into the shadows of his own greatness? The answer to that question has to be yes, just as it is for all the characters in the story. As Sam Gamgee says of all heroes as he and Frodo prepare to enter Mordor, “I expect that they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t”.

Alfred the Great when all that is left of England is an island in the marshes. I chose this image to give a historical example of the long hard journey into the kingly archetype.

The Tale of Beren and Lúthien Tinúviel. Aragorn Brings Aid at a Moment of Deadly Peril from the Unseen World.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 184-191

Aragorn’s telling of the Tale of Tinúviel is a thing of beauty and draws us in so near that we want to lose ourselves in it as, for a brief moment, are its teller and its four hearers.

“As Strider was speaking they watched his strange eager face, dimly lit in the red glow of the wood fire. His eyes shone and his voice was rich and deep. Above him was a black starry sky.”

Aragorn tells the Tale of Tinúviel

The travellers are sheltering in a dell below Weathertop and, as well as the shining of Aragorn’s eyes and the sky, aflame with starlight, the moon rises above the hilltop. Three shinings on a night of ever present danger. For close at hand, five of the Nazgûl, led by their lord, are stealthily approaching the camp. Soon they will attack and a Morgul blade will pierce Frodo’s shoulder yet, as we readers of the tale listen to Aragorn, even if we have read it many times, we are as glad to be lost in it for a moment.

In Verlyn Flieger’s wonderful study, The Splintered Light, she begins by reflecting upon two apparently contradictory elements within Tolkien’s mind and in his work. One is the eucatastrophe of the fairy tale. The entirely unexpected and yet longed for happy ending that transforms all the suffering that has gone before. The other is the dyscatastrophe, the final defeat suffered by even the greatest hero. In his wonderful lecture, The Monsters and the Critics, Tolkien expresses this with heartbreaking poignancy.

“The great earth, ringed with… the shoreless sea, beneath the sky’s inaccessible roof, whereon, as a little circle of light about their halls, men with courage as their stay went forward to that battle with the hostile world and the offspring of the dark which ends for all, even the kings and champions, in defeat.”

Champions With Courage as Their Stay. Beren and Lúthien by Alan Lee.

“A little circle of light.” Was Tolkien alluding to this when he drew our attention to the shinings in that most fragile of “halls” in the dell below Weathertop? Perhaps, and so we might ask if the ending of the chapter that is so menacingly entitled, A Knife in the Dark, is the dyscatastrophe, the inevitable defeat suffered by all heroes. Frodo himself cries out in despair when he first learns that the Ring itself draws the Nazgûl towards him, “Is there no escape then?… If I move I shall be seen and hunted! If I shall stay, I shall draw them to me!”

But the tale itself is an inbreaking of light, so bright, into the darkness, that shining eyes, stars and moon are at most a pale reflection of it. For it is the tale of Beren and Lùthien, the greatest of all Tolkien’s love stories, one so precious to him that he wanted those names to be inscribed beneath his and his wife’s names upon their gravestone. Aragorn, whose eyes shine with strange eagerness in the telling of it, perceives his own story as a kind of retelling of the tale.

Edith and John Tolkien. Lúthien and Beren.

“Beren was a mortal man, but Lúthien was the daughter of Thingol, a King of Elves upon Middle-earth when the world was young; and she was the fairest maiden that has ever been among all the children of this world. As the stars above the mists of the Northern lands was her loveliness and in her face was a shining light.”

The Betrothal of Lúthien and Beren by Rasmus

A theme that recurs throughout the tale is one of the power of word and music. Lúthien is enchanted by hearing the sound of her own name upon the lips of Beren while, first Sauron and then Morgoth himself, of whom Sauron was but a servant, are overcome by Lúthien’s song. Does the chanting of the Lay that tells their tale invoke them at a moment in which “the offspring of the dark” make their attack or, perhaps more importantly even than this, invoke the same powers that aided them in their hopeless struggle with the dark? As Aragorn says to Sam after the attack, “More deadly to him [the Witch-king] was the name of Elbereth.”

The finest minds are those that are able to live with the greatest paradox. Surely at this pivotal moment in The Lord of the Rings the invasion of the desperately fragile “circle of light” and the telling of the tale that invokes a hope that is not broken even by the greatest evil is the coming together of Tolkien’s antitheses of eucatastrophe and dyscatastrophe, of heavenly light and the darkness of hell.

The Attack below Weathertop by Rafael Diaz

Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost. Gandalf’s Letter Commends Aragorn to the Hobbits.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 160-168

It is Gandalf’s letter that he had left with Barliman Butterbur that eventually convinced the hobbits to trust the strange man who goes by the name of Strider. Of course, when I say, trust, it must be said that Sam Gamgee did not really trust him. Sam has grown up in a small world,”in a little circle of light,” as Tolkien put it in his essay on Beowulf, The Monsters and The Critics, from which “men with courage as their stay went forward to that battle with the hostile world and the offspring of the dark which ends for all, even the kings and champions, in defeat.”

Not that Sam expects his journey to end in defeat. Sam Gamgee is a happy ever after kind of a man who expects things, even the darkest things, to end well. Much will ride upon this quality in the events that lie ahead. But Sam has grown up in a little circle of light and regards the world outside as dark and hostile. He does not know how to distinguish between the offspring of the dark and the kings and champions; not yet at any rate. But the strange man who now stands before the hobbits knows this world very well indeed. Speaking of the Black Riders who are pursuing the hobbits he says:

“They will come upon you in the wild, in some dark place where there is no help.”

They will come upon you in the wild

This man knows about about the offspring of the dark. “They are terrible!” He has wandered the wild and dark places of the earth for many years having been sent out from the circle of light that is Rivendell by Elrond, its lord, who has been as a father to him. I have written about him and his story in greater detail in other places in this blog over the years and if you click on the tag, Aragorn, at the end of this post, you will be able to read these if you so wish but as this is the first time in The Lord of the Rings in which we meet this king and champion it would be good to say a few things about him.

This is Aragorn, son of Arathorn, chieftain of the Rangers of the North, the last of the line of Isildur, son of Elendil, the hero who cut the Ring from the finger of Sauron with the shards of Narsil his father’s sword. Aragorn still carries those shards, “the blade that was broken”, the symbol of his diminished house. And Elrond sent him out from the circle of light to “that battle with the hostile world and the offspring of the dark” when he was a young man in order that he might undergo an apprenticeship that will lead to this crownless one becoming king.

Sustained by Love

In this apprenticeship he serves in the armies of Ecthelion, Steward of Gondor, and of Thengel, King of Rohan and he befriends Gandalf, aiding him in his long struggle against the dark. Through all these long years he is sustained by hope, hope that his wandering will not end in defeat but in the renewing , not just of the blade that was broken but of his people. And he is sustained by love, for he loves Arwen Undómiel, daughter of Elrond, who returned his love, but he cannot win her hand in marriage except as king of both Gondor and of Arnor, the first to sit upon both thrones since the great founder of his house, Elendil and he cannot achieve his longings unless the Dark Lord, Sauron, is finally and utterly defeated. So it is that he meets a hobbit who does “want looking after and no mistake”, who might be “on a holiday” and not at the heart of the greatest events of his age and he has to base all his longing upon this encounter and because of his friendship with Gandalf he chooses to do so. “If by life or death I can save you, I will.”

I began these thoughts with a quotation from Tolkien’s essay on Beowulf. In it Tolkien describes an heroic but ultimately hopeless world. Despite their courage the heroes, “even the kings and champions” are finally defeated in their struggle against the dark. Aragorn has no idea whether or not his story will end in defeat. He has to place his trust, all the longings of his life in this slenderest of threads. Is this a story of hope fulfilled or of defeat and darkness? Will Aragorn’s wanderings end in a homecoming or will he be lost in the wilderness?

We Are Not Bound For Ever to the Circles of the World, and Beyond Them There is More Than Memory. The Death of Aragorn and Arwen.

When Arwen made her choice it was with the greatest of men standing before her in his glory. It was Aragorn that she chose even as she bade the twilight farewell. But Elrond knew that the day would come at the ending when her choice would seem hard.

The years of Aragorn’s life were long beyond that of his people. He was a Númenorean in whom the blood of kings ran true “yet at last he felt the approach of old age and knew that the span of his life-days was drawing to an end, long though it had been.”

This was the point in his existence at which Ar-Pharazôn, the last king of Númenor, sought to grasp hold of immortality for himself by launching an invasion of the Undying Lands. He believed that the Valar withheld the gift of immortality from Men and gave it to Elves maliciously. Indeed he believed that his own mortality and death was a kind of punishment. And although the followers of Elendil rejected Ar-Pharazôn’s rebellion, in the years of Gondor’s decline they too did all that they could to extend their lives. It was Pippin who gazed in wonder at the great stone city of Minas Tirith even as it was falling into decay with empty houses in every street. “They were silent, and no footsteps rang on their wide pavements, nor voice was heard in their halls, nor any face looked out from door or empty window.”

So Aragorn reaches the moment in life in which a choice must be made. He could choose the sullen resentment of Gondor in its long decline and do all that lay within his considerable power to extend his existence for as long as possible. Or he might even choose the way of rebellion as did Ar-Pharazôn or the Witch King of Angmar. But he chooses to embrace his mortality and not to rail against it.

When Arwen realises that she is about to lose Aragorn she suddenly understands the bitterness of Ar-Pharazôn and pities him. “If this is indeed, as the Eldar say, the gift of the One to Men, it is bitter to receive.”

Aragorn recognises that this is the greatest of tests but he bids her not to be overthrown at it who renounced both the Shadow and the Ring long before. “In sorrow we must go, but not in despair. Behold! we are not bound for ever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory.”

In the early years of the church the Fathers taught that the life of faith begins with the renunciation of despair. This is the great renunciation that opens the way for the daily embrace of goodness, beauty and truth. It is a way that looks the reality of our mortality full in the face and chooses not to be afraid. It is a dying before we die but it is a choice to live. It is the choice not to hold onto life until it becomes stretched out thin. Théoden made this choice when he stepped out of his chair in which he had been withering away and embraced life after the manner of his glorious ancestors. Gollum, on the other hand,  chose the misery of endless existence. Denethor expressed his despair through suicide trying to take Faramir with him. Aragorn turns his face courageously to his mortality and trusts the One who calls him. He does not know what lies ahead. He does not know his own destiny but trusts that love and goodness have the last word.

Arwen is heartbroken at her loss and she is not so sure. Yet she too embraces the mortality that was her choice laying herself to rest on the hill of Cerin Amroth where she chose Aragorn long ago. In a comment on last week’s blog post Tom Hillman suggested that Arwen’s choice might open the door for her people to a destiny that lies beyond the circles of the world. It is a beautiful thought that seems to me to be in keeping with a divine consummation that will unite all things earthly and heavenly. Faery will enrich Humanity and Humankind will open the way to Faery. Of course Tolkien was looking forward to the Incarnation in his great legendarium. The tale of Aragorn and Arwen points to this more than any of his tales. It is a tale of sorrow but not despair and it draws us into its hope even as Arwen’s last words to Aragorn are the calling of the name of his youth, “Estel, Estel!”

Hope! Hope!

Aragorn and the Lonely Years

When Aragorn first met Arwen Undómiel in the hidden valley of Rivendell he could have no idea what journey was to lie ahead of him. It was loveliness that first called out to Aragorn just as it is with every young man who falls in love but just as it is with every young man falling in love this can never be just a private affair. And if this is so for every young man how much more it is with the heir of Isildur in the very year in which Sauron openly declares himself in the land of Mordor after his long exile and secret returning.

On the day in which Aragorn and Arwen marry in the City of Minas Tirith Tolkien tells us that “the tale of their long waiting and labours was come to fulfilment.” This tale lasted for sixty-eight years.

At first Aragorn has to deal with his mother’s anxiety. For Gilraen the long slow years of the decline of her people have left her fearful about the future. It is not greatness that she sees when she looks upon her son but dependence upon the protection of Elrond. And Elrond himself knows that the long years of his sojourn in Middle-earth draw now to a close and that Arwen will go with him into the West unless something calls her to remain.

“There will be no choice before Arwen, my beloved, unless you, Aragorn Arathorn’s son, come between us and bring one of us, you or me, to a bitter parting beyond the end of the world.”

And so begins the years of labour and of separation. Aragorn becomes Thorongil, the Star Eagle, and serves Thengel King of Rohan and Ecthelion, Steward of Gondor doing great deeds among them and encouraging them to prepare for the crisis that will come. In Gondor he leads a fleet to the Havens of Umbar, destroying the fleet of the Corsairs and overthrowing their captain but at the height of his fame he leaves Gondor and begins his lonely journeys into the South and the East “exploring the hearts of Men, both evil and good, and uncovering the plots and devices of the servants of Sauron.”

And so Aragorn leaves behind the young man exulting in his glory, heir of great kings, captivated by the beauty of an Elven princess, the greatest among her people, even as was Beren long before, the mightiest of his forefathers. The long years of labour and separation leave their mark. He becomes “somewhat grim to look upon” unless he smiles but he becomes the hardiest of living men, skilled in craft and lore and “elven-wise”, the hero of his age who gives no thought to his own greatness but only to his task and to his longing.

“His face was sad and stern because of the doom that was laid on him, and yet hope dwelt ever in the depths of his heart, from which mirth would arise at times like a spring from the rock.”

This is a beautiful picture of a man who has been shaped first by joy and then by the adversity that has to follow joy in order to refine it into something of lasting greatness. Aragorn’s majesty will be something that will not be for his benefit alone but will bring life and prosperity to all people. His is a journey from a princeling to a king. Readers will call to mind the moment in the story when he turns aside from his journey to Minas Tirith in order to undertake the pursuit of the orcs who have taken Merry and Pippin. To all extent this is a hopeless task and takes him from what seems far more important. He could try to follow Frodo and the Ring or go to Minas Tirith in its hour of need. His decision to follow the “unimportant” young hobbits proves crucial but he could not have known in what way. He makes the choice not upon a whim but because of the years in which his character has been forged. He trusts in the story of which he is a part sure that Frodo does not need him and that he will come to Minas Tirith at the right time and he risks all the years of hope for a single act of loving kindness whose reward is hidden from him. This is the true king!