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.

“Give Me Leave, Master Elrond… to Say More of Gondor.” Boromir Speaks of His Homeland and Himself.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 239-40

Let me begin by speaking well of this young man. It is necessary that I should do so because it will not take long for Bilbo of the Shire to lose patience with him. Boromir has listened in polite silence to Elrond for a considerable amount of time and during that time he has interrupted only once. He has even listened in silence while Elrond has rehearsed the history of Gondor speaking of its slow but inexorable decline. So let us praise this proud young man for remaining silent whilst his elders speak. But now he can remain silent no longer.

Boromir Listens Patiently at the Council

“Give me leave, Master Elrond…first to say more of Gondor.”

And so he speaks, but when he does so everything that he says is well known to the company that are gathered there and much of it displays his ignorance of the world outside the borders of his land. For Boromir knows nothing of the mighty deeds done by others that have also kept the enemy at bay. He does not know of Gandalf’s ceaseless toil and the great battle of the Five Armies on the slopes of Erebor without which it would be a mighty dragon and vast orc armies that would have controlled the vales of Anduin behind the borders of Gondor and at which Gloín fought and Bilbo was present. Nor does he know anything of the mighty deeds of Aragorn who has trod the Morgul Vale alone, a place where no man of Gondor has been in ages long since their last king rode to hopeless battle with the Morgul Lord. Nor does Boromir know that all present know of whom he speaks when he tells them of the power present at the taking of the bridges of Osgiliath who caused fear to fall on the boldest of Gondor and he does not know that Aragorn and Glorfindel have just faced this same foe at the Fords of Bruinen. Indeed Aragorn has done so twice, the other occasion being the fight in the dell below Weathertop. And indeed we might add that there was a hobbit there on both occasions who did not flee but sought to withstand “the great black horseman”, namely Frodo.

Aragorn and Glorfindel at the Fords of Bruinen

But we forgive him because we know that space must be given to the pride of young men to express itself and that such pride must be guided and not crushed. We know that life itself will teach wisdom to young men through failure and humiliation and that it does not require those of us who are elders to bring about such failure through our cruelty or even our malice. Boromir will fail in the most terrible manner and will live only just long enough to to achieve redemption and to learn wisdom and humility from his fall. Those few moments that he is granted after his fall in which to find redemption are some of the most poignant in Tolkien’s story. Not everyone who falls will find such peace as he does. Sauron, Saruman and the Morgul Lord will all fall into nothingness. That is truly tragic.

An ancient prayer begs for that we might be delivered from sudden death because such an event will rob us of the opportunity for repentance, for the changing of our minds. As we shall see Boromir was granted that grace and yet, as far as we know Isildur was not, and yet Isildur was a far greater hero than Boromir ever was. Boromir does not say to us that he could not face the Morgul Lord but it seems to be implied. Isildur faced the Dark Lord himself and armed only with a broken blade prevailed against him and yet Isildur’s fall, which would have taken him on the same and terrible spiritual journey that led Sauron to become the Dark Lord could only be prevented by sudden death in battle. It was the possibility of this journey that both Gandalf and Galadriel had to face when Frodo offered them the Ring. At this point in his career Boromir has no idea that such a fall is even possible, believing as he does in his own nobility and the nobility of his people and his country where the “blood of Númenor” is not spent, “nor all its pride and dignity forgotten”.

The gathering of nobility, wisdom and greatness in the house of Elrond that day listens patiently to this young man speaking of his pride. They know because everyone of them have made the same journey that life will teach Boromir wisdom through failure. Now it is guidance that he requires.

The Fall and the Redemption of Boromir

“Only a Ranger!” Gandalf Puts Frodo Right About Strider.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 213-219

The Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, told a story of a prince who, in order to win the love of a peasant girl, decided to live among her people as a fellow peasant and to hide his true identity. Eventually he marries her and we await the moment when he will reveal himself to her. But then, Kierkegaard asks us, does he have to do this? Why can’t he remain a peasant for the rest of his life out of the same love that him to disguise himself in the first place?

As you ponder the philosopher’s question your thoughts may turn towards Strider, or Aragorn. The poet, priest and scholar, Malcolm Guite, has published a series of poems on the great O Antiphons of the Middle Ages that have a prominent place in the liturgy of the Advent season. In a note on his poem on O Rex Gentium, O King of the Nations, Guite comments that the antiphon speaks of Christ as both king and also as a dusty potter working with the clay of our humanity, and then he says, “he is the king who walks alongside us disguised in rags, the true Strider!”

The One Who Walks Alongside Us

Aragorn, or Strider as he is known to the people of Bree, has walked alongside Frodo and his companions all the way from Bree to Rivendell, clad in boots that have seen much wear and are “caked in mud” with a “travel-stained cloak of heavy dark-green cloth” wrapped around him. As Frodo thinks back over the journey he begins by telling Gandalf that at first he had been afraid of Strider, then that he had become fond of him.

“Well, fond is not the right word. I mean he is dear to me; though he is strange and grim at times. In fact he reminds me often of you.”

Finally, Frodo says, after making a few general and rather dismissive comments about “the Big People”, that he thought that Strider “was only a Ranger”. And so we return in our thoughts to the king who walks alongside us in rags. Those who learn wisdom come to understand that no-one, absolutely no-one, can be dismissed with the word, only. All people are more than they seem and if we take the time to be with them we begin to discover in what ways they are more than they seem. But Gandalf is anxious to let Frodo know that to say, “only” in relation to a Ranger, is an even greater insult.

“My dear Frodo, that is just what the Rangers are: the last remnant in the North of the great people, the Men of the West.”

The Great Story into Which Frodo is Drawn

It was Strider’s ancestors who first entered Beleriand in the last centuries of the First Age where they were befriended by the Elves and gave them aid in their wars against Morgoth. That this was the people of Númenor who lived within sight of the Undying Lands. At this point of the story Frodo still has no idea that when Strider had sung the Tale of Beren and Lúthien in the camp below Weathertop he had been singing of his forefathers and foremothers. He does not know how great is the story into which he has been drawn and in which he is to play so great a part. There is one point at which his perception is entirely accurate and that is when he says of Strider “that he reminds me often of you”. But he has not learned to trust his perception. He does not yet know that he, the Elf-friend, is growing in greatness. Perhaps it is just as well, for it necessary that as we grow in greatness we must also grow in humility, to learn that everything is not gained as an achievement but given as a gift. This is the last time that we will refer to Aragorn as Strider but as Aragorn will say at a later stage of the story, Strider “has never been away”.

Strider has Never Been Away

And so we return to Kierkegaard’s story and to his question. Does his prince need to reveal his true identity to his beloved? Might not they live perfectly happily together as peasants for the rest of their lives? Perhaps they might, but equally, they might live together in happiness as a prince and princess. As Frodo is drawn into the great story so too he is becoming great, as Gildor Inglorien first recognised when he named Frodo, Elf-friend, and as Goldberry saw too in the house of Tom Bombadil. Just as with Kierkegaard’s prince, and just as with Strider, he will learn either to assume that greatness or to lay it aside as he chooses or as is necessary. Why cannot Kierkegaard’s peasant girl learn to do the same?

Frodo is Lucky to Be in Rivendell “After All the Absurd Things” He Has Done Since Leaving Home.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 213-19

As I wrote last week it is altogether too pleasant to think of getting out of bed after nearly three weeks in the wild since leaving Bree. Even Gandalf’s chastisements feel like pleasantries compared to the terror of the attack below Weathertop, the agony of the long miles from that moment and the flight across the Fords of Bruinen with the Black Riders in close pursuit.

Frodo recalls all that has happened to him. “The disastrous ‘short cut’ through the Old Forest; the ‘accident’ at The Prancing Pony; and his madness in putting on the Ring in the dell under Weathertop.” But he is still too tired to be able to judge himself and besides Gandalf continues after a long pause:

“Though I said ‘absurd’ just now, I did not mean it. I think well of you-and of the others. It is no small feat to have come so far, and through such dangers, still bearing the Ring.”

“I think well of you”

It is a major part of Tolkien’s skill as a storyteller that we have become so used to seeing the story through the eyes of the hobbits as, apparently, they stumble from one near disaster to another from the moment they set out from Bag End that we do not realise what an achievement their safe arrival in Rivendell is. Months later, in the pavilions at the Field of Cormallen, a bard will sing of these things as the deeds of mighty heroes and the armies of Gondor and Rohan will acclaim Frodo and Sam as such. For their part, the hobbits do not believe their own press. Perhaps it is as well that they don’t. To regard oneself as a hero is unwise. In a few weeks time we will be introduced to a character who longs to be seen by others as a mighty hero and have them come flocking to his banner. Things will go badly for him before his final redemption.

We could have looked at the journey of the hobbits from a number of other perspectives than their own. For poor old Fatty Bolger even the choice to go through the Old Forest is madness and that is before he encounters the Black Riders for himself. Aragorn does not think very highly of them, certainly at first when he meets them in Bree. After the raid on The Prancing Pony by the Black Riders and the loss of the pack ponies he gazes long at the hobbits “as if he was weighing up their strength and courage”. We get the impression that, at this stage of the story, he does not have much expectation of their ability to make the journey to Rivendell.

“weighing up their strength and courage”

He is nearly right, of course. And so is Gandalf. Frodo and his companions are lucky to have reached Rivendell. But then so too is Aragorn. And, as we shall learn later, so too is Gandalf. Perhaps it is Tom Bombadil who sees things with the most clarity. Tom makes no judgements about the hobbits knowing, as he does, the dangers of the world. Through his experience over many years he has learned the measure of these dangers, both those against which he can pit himself and those against which he cannot. As he says before his final farewell to the hobbits, “Tom is not master of Riders from the Black Land far beyond his country”.

And yet, despite their own frailties, despite their inexperience, even despite the power of the Nazgûl, Frodo and his companions arrive safely in Rivendell. Perhaps, as Frodo says, it was Strider who saved them. Perhaps, as Gandalf puts it, “fortune or fate” helped them, as well as courage. Perhaps, as we weigh up the challenges of life that we must face it is wise if we do not do too much ‘weighing up’. Either we will put too much confidence in our own ability or we will be so terrified that, like Fatty Bolger, we will never try the journey at all. Bombadil’s final advice to the hobbits remains the best. He tells the hobbits simply to be themselves. “Be bold, but wary! Keep up your merry hearts, and ride to meet your fortune!” And this is just what Frodo and his companions have done. And we might say also, this is what fortune has done too.

“Keep up your merry hearts and ride to meet your fortune”

“Where Am I, and What is the Time?” Frodo Awakes in the House of Elrond.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp.213-219

I think that I shall be spending the next few weeks with Frodo and Gandalf in the flat ceilinged room with “dark beams richly carved” in the House of Elrond. This is partly because there are few feelings more pleasant than to awaken safely in a comfortable bed after a time of trial. Frodo is so well rested that he has no desire to do anything other than to continue in that state. At first he is so content just to be that he has little or no curiosity about his whereabouts but at last he speaks aloud and says,

“Where am I, and what is the time?” he said aloud to the ceiling.

“In the House of Elrond, and it is ten o’clock in the morning,” said a voice. “It is the morning of October the twenty-fourth, if you want to know.”

Where am I and what is the time?

And that is another pleasure for me. Few people tell the time, ‘o’clock’, anymore and it is a pleasure to hear that word. But it is a greater pleasure to hear the voice in my head and imagination of the one who speaks in reply to Frodo’s question, for it is Gandalf, and just like Frodo I am always delighted when Gandalf turns up. All my life I have sought the company of men like Gandalf. I have liked many older men but I have met few elders, few truly wise old men. O truly fortunate Aragorn, to have been fathered by two such men, by Elrond and by Gandalf, but then Aragorn was being prepared to become a king, to be the father of his people.

Frodo too has been prepared for a great task and both Bilbo and then Gandalf have been fathers to him. And please note that none of the men mentioned here were biologically fathers to either Aragorn or Frodo. That is a relatively simple task, accomplished in a few moments. To be a father like Gandalf is the work of long years and requires much wisdom. Fascinatingly, in the baptism service of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer of 1662, the priest addresses only the godparents and not the birth parents. If only we had more godparents like Gandalf or Elrond or Bilbo today, men or women who are teachers of wisdom.

Frodo and Gandalf Speak Together

In a relatively brief conversation Frodo and Gandalf will say much to each other and their speech will be of great importance. That is another reason why I will gladly spend a few weeks thinking about what they say. They will speak of Frodo’s journey, of Aragorn and the Rangers of the North, of Frodo’s close shaves with death, or with something worse even than death, and with his healing by the skill of Elrond, and they will speak of the danger that lies ahead for all the free peoples of Middle-earth. There will be much for us to think about. But here I will end with a thoughtful speculation on Gandalf’s part as he looks upon the hobbit who appears to be healed.

“Gandalf moved his chair to the bedside, and took a good look at Frodo. The colour had come back to his face, and his eyes were clear, and fully awake and aware. He was smiling, and there seemed to be little wrong with him. But to the wizard’s eye there was a faint change, just a hint as it were of transparency, about him, and especially about the left hand lay outside upon the coverlet.”

What can the wizard see that is hidden from those who cannot see as he can? Does this hint of transparency denote Frodo’s journey towards becoming a wraith as was the intention of the one who left the splinter of the Morgul blade within his body? Gandalf ponders this and other possibilities.

“To what he will come in the end not even Elrond can foretell. Not to evil, I think. He may become like a glass filled with a clear light for eyes to see that can.”

Two kinds of transparency are considered here. One is that shared by the ringwraiths who have rejected their bodies in return for a miserable form of immortality. The other about which Gandalf ponders must surely remind Tolkien’s readers of the glass that Galadriel will give to Frodo in Lothlorien that contains the light of the Silmaril borne by Eärendil in the heavens a light in dark places “when all other lights go out”.

A Light When All Other Lights Go Out

On Deadly Wounds and Their Healing. Aragorn Tries to Offer Frodo Some Relief After the Nazgûl Attack.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 190-94)

There are times in a reading of The Lord of the Rings in which it is necessary to know that we are reading is not the kind of history that is a listing of events but a mythology. Doubtless it would do all students of history good to recognise the quasi-mythological nature of every historical narrative but Tolkien was not attempting a historical narrative that we must then seek to demythologise. He consciously sought to create a mythology, a sub-creation that honoured God. And so it is here in this description of the attack upon the camp below Weathertop by the Nazgûl. Could they have seized the Ring, even slaying the hobbits and Aragorn too? We must assume that they could. That they expected that Frodo would gradually fall under the malign influence of the Morgul-blade, a fragment of which was left in his shoulder, is without doubt, but the very nature of Frodo’s resistance to their attack shows that what happened that night was a spiritual battle as much as a clash between two forces of warriors. If it had merely been the latter I fear that the brave adventure of the hobbits would have ended that night and the Ring taken to be restored to its maker.

I know that the Morgul-king’s sword bears no resemblance to the description of the knife in The Lord of the Rings but this painting is a fine expression of the overwhelming power of the Nazgûl

As we saw last week Aragorn’s singing of The Lay of Leithian, the Tale of Beren and Lúthien, took the company into the spiritual milieu of the Elder Days and the songs of Lúthien that overcame Sauron and even Morgoth long ago. Aragorn invokes the same powers as did his ancestors and so the fragile circle of light that the Nazgûl invade is a different place to the simple camp that the travellers had earlier created.

So it is that even though, to his shame, Frodo is unable to resist the command of his foes to put on the Ring, he is able, even while wearing it, to invoke the name of Elbereth, the Queen of the Valar, the angelic beings charged by God to watch over the earth.

This was the name invoked by the company of Gildor Inglorien that drove away the Black Rider on that first encounter in the woods of the Shire .

“Snow-white! Snow-white! O Lady dear! O Queen beyond the Western Seas! O light to us who wander here amid the world of woven trees!”

Elves in the Woody End, by Ted Nasmith

Gildor named Frodo, elf-friend, that night, and such names are not a trivial thing in Tolkien’s world but convey a reality. “More deadly to him was the name of Elbereth,” says Aragorn, speaking of Frodo’s resistance to the Morgul-king’s attack. And just as there is all the difference in the world between the casual naming of Jesus in everyday chatter and a cry to him in desperate need so too the naming of Elbereth by an elf-friend in need has great power, far more power than that of Frodo’s will to resist.

And so the Nazgûl withdraw for a season, ringless for the present but confident that soon Frodo will be a wraith like them and powerless to resist them any longer. But there is another power at work. Aragorn goes off in search of athelas. He knows this land and where he might find what he seeks. “It is a healing plant that the Men of the West brought to Middle-earth… It has great virtues, but over such a wound as this its healing powers may be small.”

Later in the story Aragorn will be revealed to his people through the acts of healing that he will accomplish through the use of this herb but for now he has not yet come into his own, his kingdom, and he can do little more than stay the effects of the Morgul-blade. But perhaps all that he can do as a healer is to assist the healing that another desires. Later Éowyn will be healed, not by Aragorn’s power, but by her willingness to embrace the future and to let the past be at rest. For his part Frodo will be healed by the “Gentle Purgatory” (as Tolkien put it in a letter on the subject) that he will eventually accept and undergo in the Undying Lands. For now Frodo must endure his wound while his foes wait for the opportunity to seize the Ring and so to triumph.

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

A Journey into the Wild Pursued by Enemies. The Hobbits and Strider Set Out From Bree to Rivendell.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp.169-80

Up until this point of the journey the hobbits have been more or less “looked after”. Even though almost from the beginning their steps have been dogged by the pursuit of the deadliest of enemies in the shape of the Nazgûl of Mordor they have been able to find protection from such mighty allies as the company of High Elves led by Gildor Inglorien or Tom Bombadil in the Old Forest and the Barrow Downs. And as well as the hospitality they enjoyed in the house of Tom Bombadil and Goldberry they have been well fed and watered in the farmhouse of the Maggots and the Prancing Pony in Bree.

But now the nature of the journey makes a sudden change with the attack upon the Prancing Pony in the night. The hobbits lose their ponies and set off with a poor half-starved creature belonging to Bill Ferny, the biggest villain in the Breeland, who is certainly in league with the Black Riders and who makes as much money as he can from their misfortune.

When I say, misfortune, I mean the fact that, from their perspective, that what they thought was going to be a road journey by sturdy pony from Bree to Rivendell, has become a hard march, a yomp as soldiers call it, across hard terrain, carrying heavy loads, with no shelter. Their only pony has to carry as much food as it can take for a fortnight’s journey and the hobbits have to take the rest upon their backs. Only Strider is not much discomfited by this. For him a yomp from place to place is normal life and he has but one extra burden to carry and that is the care of four companions about whose capacity to deal with hardship he has many doubts. Butterbur has already voiced these aloud through his remark that the hobbits are acting as if they are on holiday but even with these doubts in mind Strider has already made up his mind.

Strider Leads the Hobbits through the Wild

“I am Aragorn son of Arathorn; and if by life or death I can save you, I will.”

The journey really begins with the crossing of the Midgewater Marshes. Tolkien never liked boggy country. I was about to say that nobody does but at one time a whole way of life was developed by people living in the fenland of eastern England or the Somerset Levels. Those who know their English history will treasure the year 877 when all that remained of free England was the Isle of Athelney hidden deep in the Somerset Levels when Alfred the Great hid there from Danish invaders. Some call this place the birthplace of England, a place so remote that the Danes could not reach it with sufficient forces to capture the king. Others will remember the last defence of Hereward the Wake against the all conquering armies of William of Normandy on the isle of Ely in the Cambridgeshire fens two centuries later when he too used the natural defence of the bog against his enemies. But a bog makes good defence because it is hard to cross by foot. I remember once having to cross one late in the day. I was grateful for the sturdy stick that I had with me. Every step that I took required a careful use of the stick to find ground firm enough to take my weight and I would often use it to swing across from tussock to tussock hoping that I would not miss my footing and find my boots and then my legs disappearing into the ooze. Recently I learned that in the trenches of the First World War British soldiers feared the mud more even than shells exploding about them and that many of them drowned in that mud.

The Isle of Athelney in 877

Tolkien knew the mud of the Western Front at first hand and hated it. Is it a coincidence that two of the great journeys of The Lord of the Rings begin with a journey across marshland, the journey from Bree to Rivendell and later the journey of Frodo and Sam from the Emyn Muil to Mordor. For Tolkien nothing would better express the hardships that lay ahead. For the hobbits even the companionship of the greatest traveller of his age cannot protect them from the hardships that they must now endure.

The Midgewater Marshes looking towards Weathertop by Anna Kulisz

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?

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