“Take The Name That Was Given to You. Elessar, the Elfstone of the House of Elendil.” The Gift of Galadriel to Aragorn.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 364-367

At last the feast on the green lawn near the meeting of the Silverlode and the Anduin draws to a close and it is time for partings. Galadriel speaks to the Fellowship.

“We have drunk the cup of parting,” she said, “and the shadows fall between us. But before you go, I have brought in my ship gifts which the Lord and Lady of the Galadhrim now offer you in memory of Lothlórien.”

As we shall see in the next few weeks these gifts differ greatly in significance depending upon the role that each member of the Fellowship will play in the story that is about to unfold and, in the case of Gimli, the gift will be one that he will choose himself, a token of a relationship that has been sundered for so long that its future is still uncertain. But the first gift is given to Aragorn and expresses a relationship that goes far back into history.

The Giving of the Elfstone to Aragorn by Greg and Tim Hildebrandt

Readers of The Lord of the Rings will remember that when Bilbo chanted his Song of Eärendil in the House of Elrond that he remarked that Aragorn “insisted on my putting in a green stone”, and Bilbo does, though never knowing the reason why. Bilbo simply puts an emerald onto the breastplate of Eärendil and leaves it at that but here in this scene in Lothlórien we finally learn of its true importance.

“‘Maybe this will lighten your heart,” said Galadriel;”for it was left in my care to be given to you, should you pass through this land.’ Then she lifted from her lap a great stone of a clear green, set in a silver brooch that was wrought in the likeness of an eagle with outspread wings; and as she held it up the gem flashed like the sun shining through the leaves of spring. ‘This stone I gave to Celebrian, my daughter, and she to hers; and now it comes to you as a token of hope. In this hour take the name that was foretold for you, Elessar, the Elfstone of the house of Elendil!”

John Howe depicts the Elfstone, Elessar

The story of the green stone in Tolkien’s legendarium took many forms over the years but in every source it was given first to Idril, daughter of Turgon, the founder and king of Gondolin, the hidden city and one of the great Noldor kingdoms in Beleriand in the First Age of Arda. Idril fell in love with Tuor, son of Huor, lord of one of the great houses of the Edain, the mortals who made alliance with the Elves in their great struggle against Morgoth. Turgon allowed Idril and Tuor to marry and Idril gave birth to Eärendil, the mighty hero who prevailed upon the Valar to come to the aid of Middle-earth as it lay prostrate before the might of the Dark Lord. Eärendil was the father of Elros and Elrond, and Elrond the father of Arwen Evenstar.

Their eyes met”. Jenny Dolfen depicts the first meeting of Idril and Tuor in Gondolin.

Idril and Tuor survived the fall of Gondolin and were able to rally the exiles of that city in the Havens of Sirion but when Tuor reached old age he took ship into the West with Idril and she gave the Elfstone to Eärendil with the words, “The Elessar I leave with thee, for there are grievous hurts to Middle-earth which maybe thou shalt heal.”

It is this power to heal that lies at the heart of the significance of Galadriel’s gift to Aragorn and this power is revealed in the prophetic words that she speaks to him in the giving of the gift. A prophecy, in its deepest meaning, is the revelation of a truth, one that lies hidden until the word is spoken. So just as the Elfstone of Idril and of Eärendil has lain secret in the care of the women who Aragorn names in his thanks to Galadriel for her gift and her words so too has the secret of the healing of Middle-earth through the heir of Eärendil, Elendil and Isildur, the one who is named Elessar, the embodiment of the true nature of the stone, who even as the stone is pinned to his breast is revealed in his kingly glory.

“Maybe The Paths That You Shall Tread Are Already Laid Before Your Feet Though You Do Not Know Them.” The Fellowship Prepare to Leave Lothlórien.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp.358-360

Galadriel and Celeborn gather the Fellowship together and Celeborn addresses them.

“Now is the time… when those who wish to continue the Quest must harden their hearts to leave this land”

Which way will the Fellowship take?

All the Company are resolved to go forward but which way shall they go? The journey will take them down the valley of the Silverlode to the Anduin, the great river of Middle-earth, but which bank of the river will they follow after that? The west bank of the river will take them to Minas Tirith and Gondor. The east bank will take them to Mordor. It is “the straight road of the Quest”, the “darker shore”, but which way will they choose?

For Boromir the choice is clear. He will return to Gondor and to the defence of Minas Tirith. Most of the rest of the Company would prefer to go with him. Such a choice would at least delay the terrible moment when the path of the Quest must take them eastward and to the land of shadow.

Aragorn says nothing. In Rivendell the promise that he made was to go to the war in Gondor to fight alongside Boromir bearing Andúril, the Sword that was Broken reforged, but when Gandalf fell in Moria he became the leader of the Company and which way would Gandalf had chosen were he still with them?

Which way will Aragorn go?

Frodo, too, says nothing. He will not make his choice until the breaking of the Fellowship at Amon Hen and the Falls of Rauros. There the choice will be forced upon him and it will be to go on alone to Mordor, but it is a terrible choice, it is almost certainly a choice to die, and until that moment he remains in silence for he does not wish to die.

Celeborn offers the gift of boats to the Company and they are grateful for this, Sam excepted. On the one hand it eases their journey. They do not have to walk down the Anduin with packs upon their backs. On the other it postpones the moment when the choice will have to be made.

It is Galadriel who offers her wisdom to them regarding the choice. “Do not trouble your hearts overmuch with thought of the road tonight. Maybe the paths that each of you will tread are already laid before your feet, though you do not know them.” And so it will prove. When the time comes the path will be clear for each one of them. Merry and Pippin will be forced to take the road to Isengard when they are captured by orcs. Aragorn will choose to follow the captives and Legolas and Gimli will choose to go with him. Frodo will seek some kind of sign to help him find the way ahead and in the end the sign will be that Boromir will try to take the Ring from him and this will lead him to resolve to go alone to Mordor. Thankfully he will not succeed in going alone because Sam made his choice at the Mirror of Galadriel. Wherever Frodo goes he will follow. He no longer has any uncertainty in his heart about the path that lies before him.

I am sure that Galadriel knows that her words of counsel will not keep the Fellowship from anxious thoughts. The choice that must be made is so great, so terrible, that it is impossible that it can be made without being turned over and over in their minds. At least this is true for Aragorn who must lead them and Frodo upon whom the burden of the Ring has been laid, partly by his own choice at the Council of Elrond, partly by the command of that Council. Perhaps we will always agonise over the great choices of our lives and yet when we look back we see a certain simplicity in the pathway that we have followed. The paths that we have trodden have seemed laid before our feet only we were not able to see those paths until the moment came and we had to follow them. The wisdom of Robert Frost’s wonderful poem, The Road Not Taken, only seems clear as Frost puts it, “somewhere ages and ages hence”. Perhaps when paths must be chosen there has to be agony. We are rarely given freedom from that, at least with the big choices.

Frodo and Sam will go alone but together.

“Arwen Vanimelda, Namarië!” What does Aragorn say to Arwen at Cerin Amroth?

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (HarperCollins 1991) pp.341-343

In last week’s post we entered Frodo’s inner world of longing, of his heart’s desire, but he is not the only one who, upon this sacred hill of Cerin Amroth, goes deep within his own soul and there for a brief moment becomes that longing, his own sehnsucht. As Frodo descends the hill he finds Aragorn there, “standing still and silent as a tree”. In his hand Aragorn is holding a flower of elanor and he is “wrapped in some fair memory”.

So intensely does Aragorn enter his memory that, for a moment, he becomes the man that he was in this place, so many years before. Frodo, whose own inner sight is now so keen, sees the “grim years” removed from Aragorn’s face and once again he seems “clothed in white, a young lord, tall and fair”. Those who have read the story of Aragorn and Arwen that is told in an appendix at the end of The Return of the King will remember that this is exactly how Aragorn appeared when he and Arwen stood on this very spot and pledged their love to each other.

“Clothed in white, a young lord tall and fair”. Matthew Stewart depicts the betrothal of Aragorn and Arwen.

Aragorn is the young lord, tall and fair, standing before Arwen in that moment, but he is also entirely present in this moment within a story whose ending he cannot see. And it is in this moment, as well as that, that he speaks aloud.

“Arwen vanimelda, namarië!”

Tolkien chooses here not to translate the words, spoken in Quenya, the language of the High Elves of the West. Those who really know languages, as he did, know that translation is a dangerous affair. Albert Schweitzer, the great German scholar of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, used to speak to English speaking audiences from time to time but although he could speak English perfectly well he always chose to speak in German and with an English translator because he felt that he needed his first language in order to speak most truly and meaningfully. Aragorn is a true son of Númenor, the heir of Elendil, the elf friend, and lord of the Dunedain, the men of the west who have remained true to this story. He speaks now aloud from the deepest place within his heart to the one who holds that heart forever.

Tolkien does not translate these words here but he does translate one of the words a little later in the story.

Namarië.

His translation there is of Galadriel’s song that the Fellowship hear just before they part from her. We will think about that song on another occasion but here it is enough to say that Tolkien translates the word as farewell. So is Aragorn bidding farewell to his beloved, the fairest beloved that he addresses in the word, vanimelda? Is this a goodbye, an adieu, a last ‘God be with you’? In one sense it is but I want to think about this farewell in a certain way, a way that I think emerges from a reading of Aragorn’s story from the failure to cross the Misty Mountains in the pass below Caradhras and Gandalf’s decision to go through Moria.

At this point there is a sense in which Aragorn loses hope. By this I do not mean that he gives in to despair, that he gives up, but that whatever sense that he had, that Frodo would succeed in his mission and that his deepest longing, his longing for Arwen, would be fulfilled has gone. In the pages ahead we will read of Aragorn and hope on a number of occasions and each time it will be in the sense that he must do without it. He must carry on until the end of his road wherever that leads simply because he must, because he has promised to do so. The German mystic of the middle ages, Meister Eckhart, coined a word (German is a wonderful language for doing such a thing!) that probably translates best as farewelling. For him this meant the purest form of detachment in which the soul chooses to refuse attachment to anything less than God. Aragorn does not have such faith in God, not in Eckhart’s Christian sense anyway, but this most heart rending of passages in all of Tolkien’s works ends by leaving open such a possibility.

“Here my heart dwells ever, unless there be a light beyond the dark roads that we must still tread, you and I.”

Unless there be a light.

I have not found any artwork about the scene from The Fellowship of the Ring at Cerin Amroth that really satisfies me. This still from the scene in the camp below Weathertop is a beautiful expression of Aragorn’s longing.

Postscript

I have written before about the love story of Aragorn and Arwen and if you wish to read these posts please click on the tags, Aragorn and Arwen, and The Love of Aragorn and Arwen, below this week’s post. And if there are any scholars of Tolkien’s languages reading this please leave a comment below. I would love to learn from you, and others who have been touched by what I have written about this week.

A final thought. My own feeling is that the best translation into English of Aragorn’s words is “Arwen, O fairest beloved, farewell.” Do others agree or would you put it differently?

“I Would Not Have You Go Without Seeing Kheled-zâram.” Gimli Takes Frodo to The Mirrormere.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp.324-325

Gandalf has only just fallen into the abyss beneath the Bridge of Khazad-dûm and Aragorn is anxious that the Company should put as much distance as it possibly can between itself and the Gates of Moria. He knows that as soon as night falls orcs will commence their pursuit and all the lives of the remaining members of the Fellowship will be in great danger.

But despite both grief and danger there is one member who cannot leave this place without looking and that person is Gimli the dwarf. Even though, ever since Gandalf read aloud from the Book of Mazarbul in the chamber that held it and which contained the tomb of Balin, Gimli has known that Balin himself was slain by orcs at this spot he must still pause upon his journey and look.

Ted Nasmith’s depiction of Mirrormere. It feels like a devotion before a sacrament.

Gimli goes to look into the Mirrormere, the waters of Kheled-zâram about which we thought some weeks ago. It is the most sacred place in all the world of the dwarves, the place where Durin at his awakening looked, and saw his own reflection crowned by stars.

"He stooped and looked in Mirrormere, 
And saw a crown of stars appear,
As gems upon a silver thread,
Above the shadow of his head."

Gimli must look at this also and when he does so he looks upon the sacred mystery of his own people, star-crowned amidst the endless depths of space, a reflection in a flawless mirror, but only an image and not a reality. That reality, as the dwarves believe, lies ahead in some future time. And the language that they use to speak of this time is the awakening of Durin from sleep. Perhaps Balin went to look in the waters hoping to see his own reflection held by the crown of stars, wondering whether he might be Durin reawakened. The death that he suffered by an orc arrow there brutally put an end to such dreams if such dreams he had.

Alan Lee has us look at Mirrormere from a distance.
"But still the sunken stars appear 
In dark and windless Mirrormere;
There lies his crown in water deep, 
Till Durin wakes again from sleep."

Later Galadriel will understand why Gimli had to look upon the “ancient home” of his people and in expressing her understanding she will awaken love and devotion in his heart. Surely a love and devotion that he is feeling after, seeking for in his heart, as he goes to look in the waters but does not find until he sees it in the smile of one that he had thought an enemy.

But why did Gimli choose Frodo to be his companion in his search? We note that Gimli is not alone in making this choice. On the hill of Cerin Amroth, “the heart of Elvendom on earth” where Aragorn’s “heart dwells ever” he takes Frodo’s hand in his as he walks away from his own sacred place in order to continue the journey. It is as if both Gimli and then Aragorn wish to draw the Ringbearer into their stories, their sacred stories, thus linking the story that he must live and breathe with their own. Neither Gimli nor Aragorn seek to forge a friendship with Frodo. For Gimli that bond belongs to his friendship with Legolas while for Aragorn it belongs to some degree to Legolas and Gimli as they journey across the plains of Rohan in search of Merry and Pippin and then through many trials until the great battle before the gates of Minas Tirith, but is kept most truly for Arwen and for her alone. No, it is not friendship that they seek but an almost unconscious entwining of their stories, their deepest longings, with Frodo and the burden that has been laid upon him.

There is a sense in which Frodo is a figure who is becoming almost other worldly. A certain kind of holiness, of separateness, is being ascribed to him. Is it, for example, entirely a random choice on Tolkien’s part to have Pippin ask Sam what he saw in Mirrormere and not his old friend from rambles in the Shire? Perhaps there is a sense that what Frodo sees in this holy place belongs to him alone. It is Sam who must tell the others but Sam too has been rendered silent by the vision, by the mystery of this place.

Kimberley80 draws us closer in to what Durin saw.

“We Must Do Without Hope”. The Company Go On After The Fall of Gandalf.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 321-324

How do we carry on after the catastrophe has happened? The journey of the Fellowship through Moria has taken them at last to the terrible climax at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm. Gandalf has broken the bridge upon which both he and the Balrog confronted one another and then,

“With a terrible cry the Balrog fell forward, and its shadow plunged down and vanished. But even as it fell it swung its whip, and the thongs lashed and curled about the wizard’s knees, dragging him to the brink. He staggered and fell, grasping vainly at the stone, and slid into the abyss. ‘Fly, you fools!’ he cried, and was gone.”

“Fly you Fools!”

All in the briefest of moments the Company experience the terrible juxtaposition of relief at the fall of their deadly foe and then sheer horror as they witness in total helplessness the fall of Gandalf into the dark. At that moment it is Aragorn who is able to lead them all away from what remains a deadly danger out from Moria into the bright sun beyond its doors where grief overcomes them all.

The Fellowship Are Overcome By Grief

And so they stand in the strange unreality of a sunlit day after the dark, and the yet stranger unreality of being alive after they have lost one whom they have all loved, who presence has seemed to them to have been one of the few certainties in a world that is in constant flux; one whose very existence has enabled them to give shape to that world. It is Aragorn again who finds words to express this.

“‘We must do without hope,’ he said. ‘At least we may yet be avenged. Let us gird ourselves and weep no more! Come! We have a long road, and much to do.'”

This begins a thread that runs through the narrative of the next part of the story and is associated most with Aragorn. It is the theme of hope, the loss of hope and how to continue after hope has gone. Ever since the debate between Gandalf and Aragorn took place about which way the Company should cross the Misty Mountains Aragorn has been gripped by an inner sense that if they were to go through Moria something terrible would happen to Gandalf. All through the journey in the dark he has remained separate from the others, breaking his silence only at a moment when it seemed that doubt would take hold of them all. Might it be said that this inner sense, this foresight, has in some way prepared him for this moment? Might it be said that that all through Moria he has begun to live without Gandalf, who has been guide, even father to him?

“Did I not say to you: if you pass the doors of Moria, beware? Alas that I spoke true! What hope have we without you?”

The Fellowship must continue their journey, not because they have hope that they will succeed but simply because they have a task to fulfil. The Ring must go to the Fire. What part each one of them will play in this is not yet clear. Only upon Frodo has the obligation to complete the task been laid by the Council and Sam will go with him because that is who Sam is. The point will come in the journey when each member of the Company will have to make their own choice about what they must do and as this point is reached for most of them the choice will become harder to make. Only Boromir will be certain about what direction the Fellowship must take and at the last it will be his certainty that will enable, even force, Frodo to make his choice and the attack by the Uruk-hai will force the choice of the others. But what they will all have to do will have to be done without the hope that Gandalf gave them, that sense that whatever happened there would be someone to sort everything out. It has been wisely said that we know for certain that we are grown ups when we know that our parents are not going to come to rescue us from whatever predicament we have got ourselves into. That realisation can be catastrophic in nature and for some it comes too soon in life. Only time will tell whether it has come too soon for the Fellowship of the Ring.

“Do Not Be Afraid! He Will Not Go Astray.” Gandalf Leads The Company Through the Deep Places of The World.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 301-305

After the attack by the horror at the gate Gandalf begins to lead the Company through Moria. It is a journey that no-one wishes to make but inexorably, after Caradhras denied them passage over the mountains, after the attack by wargs and then by the watcher in the waters, they have to go through utter darkness.

“Who will lead us now in this deadly dark?” Boromir asks unhappily and Gandalf replies, “I will…and Gimli shall walk with me. Follow my staff!”

The journey through Moria will take three or four marches over forty miles and although Gandalf may sound confident his memory of a journey made long ago has largely faded and oftentimes the way is unclear and many dangers have to be overcome.

The Journey through the Dark by J.C Barquet

At one point the pause that Gandalf takes is longer than usual. He speaks with Gimli but Moria is beyond the imagination of this dwarf and Gandalf’s consultation is little more than an opportunity for him to think aloud. The anxiety of the Fellowship begins to grow and then Aragorn speaks.

“Do not be afraid! I have been with him on many a journey, if never on one so dark; and there are tales of Rivendell of greater deeds of his than any that I have seen. He will not go astray- if there is any path to find. He has led us in here against our fears, but he will lead us out again, at whatever cost to himself. He is surer of finding the way home in a blind night than the cats of Queen Berúthiel.”

I will allow others to comment upon the cats of Queen Berúthiel. It will suffice here to note that Aragorn’s knowledge of this story is a fruit of the years that he spent in Gondor in the service of Ecthelion, father of Denethor and grandfather of Boromir. This service was done by him secretly as Thorongil . He never revealed his true identity although it is likely that Denethor guessed who he was and was jealous of the high regard in which Thorongil was held by the people.

Donato Giancola imagines the search for a way in Moria

What is important here is that Aragorn breaks his silence at a moment when fear is growing among the Company. Tolkien tells us that Aragorn’s silence has been “grim”. The decision to go through Moria had been taken against his advice and whereas Boromir’s unhappiness is voiced aloud Aragorn chooses to take the position at the rear of the line and to say nothing. And when he does speak the only reference that he makes concerning his fear is to say, “he will lead us out again, at whatever cost to himself.” For Aragorn’s fear is for Gandalf. He has a premonition that something terrible is going to happen to his friend.

This is the moment upon the journey of the Fellowship in which Aragorn first reveals his kingliness. While Gandalf gives his attention entirely to the task before him, to finding a way through the dark of Moria, Aragorn commands the courage of his companions. They are afraid and with some reason. They are effectively lost in this dark place. But as with the teacher who had charge of the group of school boys lost in caves in Thailand the one essential task at this moment is to maintain hope. Boromir is, of course, right to say it’s not my fault. As with Aragorn, the Company are there against his advice, but at this moment being right about decisions taken up to this point is of no value. There may be a time and place for reviewing past decisions although because the journey through Moria will never be repeated it is hard to think of when this will be but such a review has no value whatsoever now. All that matters is to keep what courage they still have and to follow their guide to whatever fate. Aragorn knows this and this is why he speaks. Thus we see that Aragorn is a king while Boromir is only a warrior.

Aragorn the Ranger and Aragorn the King

“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.

On Pilgrimage in Northumberland With Frodo Baggins and Friends.

With the assistance of The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991)

“Looking in a mirror he was startled to see a much thinner reflection of himself than he remembered: it looked remarkably like the young nephew of Bilbo who used to go tramping with his uncle in the Shire; but the eyes looked out at him thoughtfully.”

That’s Me On The Trail!

I feel confident that you will recognise those words from the beautiful chapter entitled Many Meetings from The Fellowship of the Ring as Frodo prepares to leave the room in Rivendell in which he has lain close to death, or worse, for many days. I read them again with a rueful smile as I look back over eight days in which I have been walking the St Oswald’s Way with my wife, Laura, in Northumberland, England, a journey of 100 miles from St Oswald’s church at Heavenfield by Hadrian’s Wall to Holy Island in the north of the county. I say, rueful, because I have lost no weight at all in these last days. It is one thing to walk in the wild, pursued by Black Riders, making supplies last in the knowledge that they cannot replenished until journey’s end. My experience, by contrast, was as if I had stayed every night in The Prancing Pony in Bree with Barliman Butterbur refilling my plate or glass whenever I requested it, or as in one memorable place, as if I had stumbled across the house of Tom Bombadil, or as in this case, of the wonderful Anne Armitage, who might easily have bade us welcome with the words:

Hey! Come derry doll! Hop along, my hearties!
Hobbits! Ponies all! We are fond of parties.
Now let the fun begin! Let us sing together. 

Our way headed north from the ancient Roman wall, the northern most border of their empire, to Anne’s lovely house along a quiet country lane. This we had prearranged using the modern means of booking apps. We had tried to find accommodation each night that would be as close as possible to our route and Anne’s house was just a few hundred yards off the path. Our second night’s stay with her was unexpected. The small hotel that we had booked had closed. No wonder they did not return any of our attempts to communicate with them. We could find no alternatives locally and Anne rescued us, coming to pick us up and cooking us a lavish dinner that she served with delight.

St Oswald’s Church, Heavenfield at the start of the St Oswald’s Way
St Mary’s church on Holy Island at its ending

“‘I can carry enough for two,’ said Sam defiantly.”

Sam Gamgee Carries His Pack

We had decided that proper pilgrims ought to carry their own packs and not to use the services of one of those firms who will transfer your luggage between your pre-booked stopping places. I don’t know if this is necessarily the best idea and, doubtless, as I grow older I will either have to make use of services such as these or to take shorter walks. One thing is determined over necessity when you carry your own pack and that is that you can only take what you can carry yourself. I have no doubt that Sam Gamgee is capable of carrying enough for two, at least for a short time, but even what we thought had been careful packing proved to be indisciplined. Wash bags that contained too much will require more attention. After all, every hotel and bed and breakfast establishment will offer you shampoo and body wash. What is absolutely clear is that the reduction of weight is an absolute principle for long distance walking, whether it is the weight of your pack or your body. Next time I go a wandering I intend to carry less in both respects!

“Strider sat silent for a while, looking at the hobbits, as if he was weighing up their strength and courage.”

I wonder what he would see in me. I rather fear that he would find me lacking in both respects. But I hope that he would decide that I had taken Tom Bombadil’s advice to “keep up your merry hearts”. I do feel that complaint robs you of the energy that you need for other things. Things like enjoyment of the beautiful English countryside. How mean spirited it would have been to walked among such loveliness and to have complained of tired limbs instead of taking delight in it. And if I could lay the beer at The Sun Hotel in Warkworth “under an enchantment of surpassing excellence for seven years” then I would gladly do so although I rather think that they do not require my help in that regard!

Over moorland at the high point of the St Oswald’s Way

And now on this first day home again I will take a day’s rest, my first since the start of the trail, looking back with gratitude to the places of hospitality that I enjoyed and the beauty that I walked through each day. But not before I give you a link to Anne Armitage and her Hadrian’s Therapy Spa. And if you ever stay there please give her my warmest greetings. And many thanks, Anne, for the wonderful barbecue that you cooked us when we returned to pick up our car from you at the end of the walk.

https://www.hadriantherapyspa.co.uk/

“The Sword-that-was-Broken Shall Be Reforged”. The Heir of Isildur Prepares For War.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 269-272

It was almost certainly Bilbo who composed the rhyme that begins with the words “All that is gold does not glitter”, words that Gandalf quoted in the ill fated letter that he left at The Prancing Pony to be taken to Frodo and which Barliman Butterbur forgot. And it is this poem that contains the line, “Renewed shall be blade that was broken: The crownless again shall be king”. Bilbo dismisses his own verse as “not very good” but what he is able to do is to make things memorable and so Gandalf uses it to introduce Aragorn to Frodo and his companions.

Bilbo is not a prophet but he is a great collector and reteller of stories and so he gathers together all the ancient stories of how the king would return. It is something that Bilbo longs for because he has befriended Aragorn. The verse that Gandalf uses contains more than a little of Bilbo’s desire but is accurate nonetheless. It is in Rivendell that the ancient memories of the King are kept alive and the belief that one day he would be restored to his throne; and central to that belief is that The Sword-that-was-Broken would be reforged before the restoration came.

The forging of Andúril, Flame of the West

The Sword-that-was-Broken is Narsil, the great sword of Elendil that was broken beneath his body when he was struck down by Sauron at the great battle that concluded the Second Age. And it was the broken blade that Isildur seized when he was attacked in his turn by the Dark Lord and with which he cut the Ring from Sauron’s finger.

Isildur resists the Dark Lord with the broken blade of his father.

Narsil remained a broken blade throughout the Third Age until it was “forged anew by Elvish smiths”. Tolkien tells of how a “device of seven stars was set between the crescent Moon and the rayed Sun, and about them was written many runes; for Aragorn son of Arathorn was going to war upon the marches of Mordor”. This is one of the occasions in which Tolkien abandons a modern narrative style of writing and adopts the style of an Old English storyteller.

“Very bright was that sword when it was made whole again; the light of the sun shone redly on it, and the light of the moon shone cold, and its edge was hard and keen. And Aragorn gave it a new name and called it Andúril, Flame of the West.” There is a particular reason why Tolkien adopts this style and it is because he is moving away from the telling of a history to the telling of myth. Tolkien deliberately moves between the historical and the mythological in The Lord of the Rings thus inviting his readers to view all history as mythology. Some, for example, have noted that the events of 1940 have become a new founding myth of England, the year in which England (and please note that I deliberately say England and not Great Britain!) “stood alone” against the might of Nazi Germany. One approach to such myth-making is to demythologise but I rather think that this misses the point. Surely the right question is to ask what story do the myth makers seek to tell and why has it become so important at this point in history?

Some readers of The Lord of the Rings might try to apply a modern form of historicism to the reforging of Narsil. How has Aragorn survived all these years in the wild carrying a useless blade? Why had the same Elvish smiths who reforged Narsil in Rivendell not done so at some other moment in the Third Age? To try to answer these questions we must try to get away from trying to read Tolkien as literal history that just happens to take place in a fantasy world. Tolkien is writing mythology just as Homer did or the tellers of the Volsunga saga. He just did it in the world of the modernist novel.

I do not know if Tolkien drew upon the scene at the end of the first act of Richard Wagner’s Siegfried when the hero takes his father’s broken sword to reforge it. He names the sword, Notung. It is the sword that he needs. The dwarf Mime, who has fostered Siegfried for his own selfish purposes has tried over and over again to reforge the blade but has always failed but now when the hero needs it the task is simple. Aragorn son of Arathorn is going to war upon the marches of Mordor and he needs the sword of his mighty ancestor. It is at this moment of necessity that the deed can be done.

Notung, Neidlisches Schwert from Wagner’s Siegfried.
Wagner, Richard Komponist 1813–1883. Werke: Siegfried (1871). “Siegfried schmiedet das Schwert Notung”. Gemälde von Ferdinand Leeke (1859–1923).