Gandalf Speaks of a Time to Risk Everything

I never thought that I would ever quote Lenin in this blog but there is no doubt that he was a man who knew how to recognise and then to seize opportunity when it came. These words are ascribed to him.

“There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks when decades happen.”

Lenin recognised one of those weeks a hundred years ago and was ready to seize power in the November 1917 coup that brought the Bolsheviks to power in Russia. He knew that there are moments in life when everything must be risked for the biggest prize of all. Lenin might not thank me for this but Jesus makes the same point in the gospels in the story he tells, of the man who sells everything in order to buy the pearl of great price. First we must assess the value of the thing that we wish to gain. Then we must decide what we are prepared to gamble in order to gain it.

Gandalf first came to Middle-earth about two thousand years before the events that are recorded in The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien tells us that the arrival of the Istari, the order of wizards, came when a shadow fell upon Greenwood and it first began to take the name of Mirkwood. A thousand years after Sauron fell at the hands of Isildur and the Ring was taken from him he was beginning to regain the strength that he lost in the great battle that ended the Second Age. For two thousand years Gandalf watched and gave encouragement to the free peoples of Middle-earth. He built friendships with the Wise and to the surprise of many and the contempt of Saruman he learned to play in the Shire delighting folk there with his fireworks and developing a taste for simple food, good ale and pipeweed. Perhaps even he did not know how important the Shire would become and how, one day, hobbits would take everyone by surprise. Perhaps it was necessary that he should not know. The greatest things that happen to us in our lives are not the result of our plans and calculations but come to us as a surprise. There is an old word for this surprise. It is called grace. Sauron is the great planner. He is prepared to spend two thousand years putting everything in place for the moment in which he will try to achieve the domination of Middle-earth and so grace becomes an impossibility for him. Gandalf is the entire opposite. He has done all that he can but recognises after the great battle of the Pelennor Fields that only grace, and a complete surrender to grace, can save them.

The great opportunity, or as Denethor put it, the “fool’s hope” has come to them in the form of the Ring of Power. In Aragorn’s challenge to Sauron in the Palantir a seed of doubt has been sown in Sauron’s mind. Does the heir of Isildur wield the Ring? Is this why the Battle of the Pelennor Fields was lost? Is this why the Lord of the Nazgûl fell? Gandalf counsels the captains of the West to encourage this doubt and so to give Frodo, the Ring bearer, a chance to take the Ring to the fires of Orodruin and so destroy it and the power of its master, for ever.

“We must push Sauron to his last throw. We must call out his hidden strength, so that he shall empty his land. We must march out to meet him at once. We must make ourselves the bait, though his jaws should close on us.”

It is Aragorn who speaks for all the captains in reply.

“We come now to the very brink, where hope and despair are akin. To waver is to fall. Let none now reject the counsels of Gandalf, whose long labours against Sauron come at last to their test.”

So everything is to be risked on one last effort. A small force will challenge the might of Mordor. If it were not for the possibility that a captain of this force might possess the Ring Sauron would laugh at it. But they do not possess the Ring and so victory by force of arms is impossible. All the hope of the West rests now upon two exhausted hobbits and upon grace.

Gandalf Thinks About the Weather

We can forgive Gandalf for mixing not just two but three metaphors because of who he is. Perhaps he mixes them deliberately in order to leave his hearers in no doubt about the point that he is making. The hearers are the lords of the allies gathered at the gates of Minas Tirith. Denethor and Théoden are dead and Faramir is recovering from his wounds in the Houses of Healing so it is Aragorn, Imrahil of Dol Amroth, Éomer and Elladan and Elrohir, the sons of Elrond who listen to what Gandalf is saying.

“Other evils there are that may come; for Sauron is himself but a servant or emissary. Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world,  but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.”

Weather is one of those elements of life over which we have no immediate control although climate is something that we have always had the capacity to influence. Climate usually changes gradually while weather can change from day to day. Those who live on the Atlantic coast of Europe know this very well as the prevailing wind blows from that ocean more often than not. In order to live successfully in such a changeable climate it is necessary to be prepared for it. And those who wish to be happy will learn to enjoy the changes.

Two of my favourite characters in C. S Lewis’s That Hideous Strength are Frank and Camilla Denniston. I know that if I ever met them I would like them. And one of the things that I like about them is their attitude to Weather.

“That’s why Camilla and I got married… We both like Weather. Not this or that kind of weather, but Weather. It’s a useful taste if one lives in England.”

And the Dennistons explain to Jane Studdock that we tend to grow up by learning to mistrust attitudes to life that once came quite naturally. Mistrust seems to be something that too many people regard as a necessary life skill. Eventually as they proceed upon this unhappy pathway they come to regard life itself as something to be guarded against. They may fear death but come to exist, and only exist, in a kind of half life. This is the existence that Théoden endured under the tutelage of Wormtongue until Gandalf delivered him and it is no accident that one of the first things that Gandalf did after setting Théoden free was to take him out into the weather, into the rain that was falling.

It has been my habit for a few years now to take my dog out for a walk in the Worcestershire countryside at about 6 in the morning. I do this in every season and whatever the weather. For part of the year I take the walk in the dark, for part of it in the light, and part too in the days when the earth moves from dark to light at that time of the day. No two days are ever quite the same and slowly this walk is teaching me a wisdom for living that is not about mustering sufficient resources to overcome the world about me but about learning to live with the world as my friend.

Next week we will think about Gandalf’s counsel to those gathered in the tents of Aragorn but this week it is this central element within his wisdom that we highlight. We cannot chose the challenges that we will have to face in our lives. We can only choose the manner in which we deal with them.

Next week we will think about how the lords of the West choose to deal with the impossible challenge that faces them.

 

Legolas and Gimli Speak of The Greatness of Aragorn, The Heir of Isildur.

So it is that Legolas and Gimli meet and speak with Merry and Pippin in the gardens of the Houses of Healing. And there the Elf and the Dwarf tell of the mighty ride of the Dunedain and the hosts of the Dead through the valleys of Gondor through Lebennin to the mouth of the Great River at Pelargir. And they tell of how the Corsairs of Umbar and the Haradrim were overthrown by the terror of the Dead so that it was an army of Gondor that came to the landings of Harlond at the key moment in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields and not her enemies.

And the friends speak of the greatness of Aragorn, a greatness that through the mighty ride through Gondor and in the battles after was a terrible thing to behold. And Legolas says,

“In that hour I looked on Aragorn and thought how great and terrible a Lord he might have become in the strength of his own will, had he taken the Ring to himself. Not for naught does Mordor fear him.”

In the Houses of Healing we saw Aragorn as a healer passing his hand gently through Merry’s hair and kissing Éowyn gently upon her brow, restoring both to life. Is it possible that one man should contain such apparent opposites within himself? We might remember that the Warden of the Houses of Healing presumed that a captain of war could not also be a man of learning. His assumption is that a man will be either one or the other but not both.

So is Aragorn a divided man? I would argue not. And that is why he does not take the Ring for himself. His might in battle is not the seizing of power by a ruthless man but a self offering for the sake of the peoples of Middle-earth. He will die for his people if need be and his offering is a terrible thing in its ferocity. But he will not win at any price and he values the freedom of the peoples of Middle-earth above victory.

Compare this to Denethor when debating with Gandalf before the battle. Denethor makes it clear that he values Gondor above all other nations and also that he values his own lordship even above the welfare of his people. Aragorn is entirely different. He has spent his life in the service of all Free Folk and that is why Elf, Dwarf and Hobbits love him. And like Faramir his desire for Gondor is that it should  be “full of light, high and fair, beautiful as a queen among other queens… Not feared, save as men may fear the dignity of a man, old and wise.”

Moore and Gillette would argue that what Aragorn does is to access the energy of the great masculine archetypes, King, Magician, Warrior and Lover and is able to do so at will but that he never identifies his Self with any of them. This is such an important distinction to be able to make if we are to understand true maturity. If we overly identify our Self with one of the archetypes then that Self will be a slave to the archetype and almost certainly to a false or immature version of it. Sauron is a terrible example of this. His desire for domination has led him to identify entirely with the energy of the King archetype. He is enslaved by his desire for power and has no freedom over this. By contrast Aragorn’s Self is greater than any of the archetypal energies. Legolas puts it this way, “But nobler is his spirit than the understanding of Sauron; for is he not of the children of Lúthien?”

To become our True Self we must learn how to draw upon archetypal energy but we must learn too that our True Self is greater than any archetype. Aragorn is able to call upon the energy of the Warrior archetype to a terrible degree in battle and then to lay it aside afterwards. He is master of himself for a purpose higher than himself.

The King’s Leaf. A Guest Blog by Olga Polomoshnova.

I have been enjoying Olga’s work in recent months and so I invited her to contribute a Guest Blog based upon the chapter in The Lord of the Rings entitled The Houses of Healing. I am delighted that she agreed to do so and so I publish her piece today prefaced by a short introduction about herself. I do hope that you will enjoy this and other work that she has written.

Olga is a teacher of English with a passion for languages, British music, the works of J.R.R Tolkien, mythology and fantasy literature. You can find her reflections on the world of Middle-earth here https://middleearthreflections.com

A lot of folklore tales might sound unbelievable to those living years away from when these stories were first composed, but most of folklore has a grain of truth in it and is deeply rooted in the past. Speaking of the traditions or culture of the days gone by, such tales can be passed from generation to generation, but their factual value may diminish as ancient lore becomes forgotten and substituted by more contemporary ideas. However, at a certain point these beliefs of old can return and come to life before the unbelieving eyes of modern onlookers.

This is exactly what several characters experience throughout The Lord of the Rings. Tales which have long been dismissed as mere fiction or pure nonsense, come alive, as if bringing the magic and the fascination of old into the increasingly practical world. When we enter the Houses of Healing in The Return of the King and watch Aragorn tending the sick, we see a beautiful legend return from the oblivion of a mere myth.

When Aragorn asks Ioreth the old wife for athelas, his request is met with mild surprise. At first she does not even understand what herb Aragorn means until he uses its other name – kingsfoil:

No, we have none of it, I am sure. Why, I have never heard that it had any great virtue; and indeed I have often said to my sisters when we came upon it growing in the woods: ‘‘kingsfoil’’, I said, ‘‘’tis a strange name, and I wonder why ’tis called so; for if I were a king, I would have plants more bright in my garden’’
(Return of the King, p. 159)

Ioreth’s reaction plainly shows that a lot has been forgotten in Gondor, where the plant is not known to possess any healing virtues. Athelas is valued mostly for its refreshing scent and ability to cure headaches. In truth, Ioreth fails to understand the real meaning and implication of the name kingsfoil, thinking that having a name like that the herb should somehow look bright enough to fit kings’ gardens: she simply judges the book by its cover, looks on the outside but not inside.

When summoned, the herb-master is equally puzzled by Aragorn’s asking for athelas. He echoes Ioreth’s words in his ignorance of any virtuous qualities of this plant. However, he does remember the old verse:
When the black breath blows
and death’s shadow grows
and all lights pass,
come athelas! come athelas!
Life to the dying
In the king’s hand lying!
(Return of the King, p. 160)
The herb-master dismisses the verse as a mere doggerel «garbled in the memory of old wives» which they repeat «without understanding» and shows a somewhat scornful attitude to the rhyme, disbelief in athelas’s healing qualities. For him, just like for Ioreth, athelas and the verse about it are nothing more than a pack of meaningless nonsense. But both – the plant’s name and the verse bear a lot of significance and point to the old myth than will soon become reality for Gondor.

The word kingsfoil consists of the element king and the Old French element foil, which means «leaf»: the name of the herb in English literally means «king’s leaf». Both – its Sindarin name athelas and Quenya name asëa aranion, presumably bear the meaning «beneficial of kings». So, the herb’s name in any language does not imply, as Ioreth mistakenly thinks, that this humble-looking plant is supposed to grow in kings’ gardens for decoration, but that in the hands of the true king these leaves can work wonders.

By the time of the War of the Ring Gondor had been kingless for a long time. Under the rule of Stewards the people of those lands forgot a lot of lore which used to be common in the time of kings. So it is no wonder that the virtuous qualities of athelas are no longer remembered there: there was no king to use it in healing. Brought to Middle-earth by Númenóreans (who, in their turn, might have received it from the Elves of Tol Eressëa), athelas grew very sparsely and mostly near the places of their former dwellings. In the Third Age only those who wandered in the wild retained the knowledge of athelas’s healing properties.

When Ioreth weeps for the gravely wounded Faramir, little does she know that her wish is soon to be granted:

Alas! if he should die. Would that there were kings in Gondor, as there were once upon a time, they say! For it is said in old lore: The hands of the king are the hands of a healer. And so the rightful king could ever be known.’
(Return of the King, p. 154)
Especially powerful in the royal hands, athelas points to Aragorn as to the rightful king of Gondor – the heir of Isildur. With the war in progress, Gondor is going through very hard times. Amid the chaos of the destroyed Minas Tirith Aragorn’s mysterious arrival brings not only cure to the sick, but also hope to the people of Gondor: the true King has finally returned.

Works consulted:
1. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.
2. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.

The King and The Healing of Merry

And so last but not least Aragorn comes to the bed in which Merry lies. Pippin sits anxiously beside his friend, fearing that he might die but Aragorn speaks words of reassurance.

“Do not be afraid… I came in time, and I have called him back. He is weary now, and grieved, and he has taken a hurt like the Lady Éowyn, daring to smite that deadly thing. But these evils can be amended, so strong and gay a spirit is in him. His grief he will not forget; but it will not darken his heart, it will teach him wisdom.”

And so Aragorn reaches past all the anxiety, self-doubt and fear that has beset Merry on a journey that has been almost too much for his conscious self and he reaches within to what Merry truly is, one that is both strong and gay. We saw both with Faramir and Éowyn that when Aragorn crushes the leaves of athelas and sprinkles them onto the bowl of steaming water that the fragrance that rises to fill the room speaks of the true self and calls it forth from the dark tomb created by the Black Breath; and so it is with Merry.

“When the fragrance of athelas stole through the room, like the scent of orchards, and of heather in the sunshine full of bees, suddenly Merry awoke, and he said:

‘I am hungry. What is the time?'”

If Faramir’s true self lies in the realm of his deepest yearning, a realm beyond the borders of Middle-earth, and even beyond Valinor, and if Éowyn’s lies in the pure Northernness that is evoked in the tapestry of her ancestor, Eorl the Young, and in the memory of the origins of her people, then for Merry it is a self that is entirely at one with his land and his people.

A few minutes later, when the great ones have gone to attend to other matters, Merry and Pippin sit down to attend to the ritual of preparing a pipe for smoking. And as they do so they briefly ponder what they have experienced and the great ones that they have met along the way. Aragorn had said that Merry would learn wisdom from what he had experienced and now Merry displays this wisdom as he reflects a moment.

“It is best to love first what you are fitted to love, I suppose: you must start somewhere and have some roots, and the soil of the Shire is deep. Still there are things deeper and higher; and not a gaffer could tend his garden in what he calls peace but for them, whether he knows about them or not. I am glad that I know about them, a little.”

If only this wisdom were more widely understood, practiced and taught. To learn how to love, to truly love and to cherish that which we know does not close the door to what Merry calls the things that are “deeper and higher”. In fact it opens the way to them. The great Irish peasant poet, Patrick Kavanagh, wrote:

“To know fully even one field or one land is a lifetime’s experience. In the world of poetic experience it is depth that counts, not width. A gap in a hedge, a smooth rock surfacing a narrow lane, a view of a woody meadow, the stream at the junction of four small fields- these are as much as a man can fully experience.”

Perhaps Merry is not yet able to say these words but one day, perhaps when his youthful energy is somewhat abated and he begins to sit a little longer beside the junction of streams in a woody meadow and looks at them and then looks at them some more, then he will be able to speak these words for himself. He may even be able to link them to “poetic experience” to “the dearest freshness deep down things” as Hopkins puts it. He has already begun to do so now pondering the greatness of Aragorn and Gandalf and in the days of uncertainty that lie ahead in his enforced rest in the Houses of Healing the deepening of his wisdom will continue.

The King and The Healing of Éowyn

Aragorn moves from Faramir’s bedside to Éowyn’s and there he hesitates a moment.

“Few other griefs amid the ill chances of this world have more bitterness and shame for a man’s heart than to behold the love of a lady so fair and brave that cannot be returned. Sorrow and pity have followed me ever since I left her desperate in Dunharrow and rode to the Paths of the Dead; and no fear upon that way was so present as the fear for what might befall her.”

And now in that uncertainty he crushes the leaves of athelas into the bowl of steaming water not knowing whether he can call Éowyn back from the darkness that seeks to claim her or if he can to what she will return.

Last week we saw how when Aragorn anointed Faramir with the water and the healing herb how the fragrance that filled the room evoked the deepest longing of Faramir’s heart. Now as Aragorn “laves her brow” with the water and her right arm “lying cold and nerveless on the coverlet” a new fragrance fills the air about them.

“It seemed to those who stood by that a keen wind blew through the window, and it bore no scent, but was an air wholly fresh and and clean and young, as it had not before been breathed by any living thing and came new-made from snowy mountains high beneath a dome of stars, or from shores of silver far away washed by seas of foam.”

If in Faramir’s case the fragrance evokes his longing, I believe, for “that which is beyond Elvenhome and will ever be”, in Éowyn’s case it is surely something in relation to her desire for her people that is sensed here. Gandalf has reminded Éomer of the words that Saruman spoke to Théoden, words and insinuations that Wormtongue spoke more subtly but no less destructively.

“What is the house of Eorl but a thatched barn where brigands drink in the reek, and their brats roll on the floor among their dogs?”

What would Éowyn long for more than something entirely opposite to the “reek” that fills her nostrils? Something that would take away her sense of shame, the shame that for a moment she dreamed that the mighty warrior who enters her prison would save her from. I picture Éowyn gazing at the same tapestry of Eorl in his youthful glory, the tapestry that so crushed the spirit of Théoden, and as she did so I believe that it took her to the place of utter purity that the fragrance evokes. Of course the historical ride of Eorl out of the North would have been with real horses whose sweat would have mingled with that of their riders but not so the myth that is seen in and through the tapestry. That is an evocation of something eternally new and clean and unsullied.

Tolkien had a deep love for what he termed Northernness which in the form that has come to us through the mythology of the North is ultimately bleak and without meaning. But he discerned something that lay beyond that, something that he could see in the myth of the death of Baldur and in the longing of those who wept for him. When Tolkien spoke of true Northernness it is the clean cold air from snowy mountains of which he speaks that blows away the stain of our failure and shame. This is the truth that lies deep within Éowyn’s soul and that is called forth as Aragorn calls her from her dark valley. Aragorn is right when he says to Éomer that Éowyn “loves you more truly than me”. Éomer belongs more truly to that which Éowyn most truly desires. But Éowyn’s story does not end here. We shall see when we return to her at a later point in her stay in the Houses of Healing that her desire can lead her to something new and entirely unexpected and yet remain true to her original vision.

The King and The Healing of Faramir

It is not so much the wound that Faramir received in battle that brings him close to death. Aragorn reaches the heart of the matter when he says to Imrahil, “Weariness, grief for his father’s mood, a wound, and over all the Black Breath”. All these things have finally overcome the valiant Faramir. All his life he has resisted the creeping shadow both in the rise of Mordor beyond the borders of Gondor and within the hearts of his own people and now, at last, his hope is gone.

It is not by Athelas alone that Aragorn heals Faramir. Tolkien does not enter into any explanation of the process but simply describes what Aragorn does.

“Now Aragorn knelt beside Faramir, and held a hand upon his brow. And those who watched him felt that some great struggle was going on. For Aragorn’s face grew grey with weariness; and ever and anon he called the name of Faramir, but each time more faintly to their hearing, as if Aragorn himself was removed from them, and walked in some dark vale, calling for one who is lost.”

What Tolkien describes here is some form of the coinherence about which the Inklings used to speak and an idea which was introduced to them by Charles Williams. Williams believed that Christians could voluntarily bear the suffering or burden of another and so aid their healing. Aragorn’s apparent journey away from himself and his profound weariness as he makes this journey seems to suggest that this is what is happening. For those who would like to explore this idea further I would warmly recommend the work of Sørina Higgins on Charles Williams which you can explore by going to https://theoddestinkling.wordpress.com and clicking on coinherence in the tags on the right hand side of the page.

It may be that Aragorn is able to call Faramir back from his journey towards death by this means but the healing is made complete when Bergil arrives with athelas. Aragorn crushes two leaves and casts them into a bowl of water and life is restored to both the healer and the one who is near to death.

“The fragrance that came to each was like a memory of dewy mornings of unshadowed sun in some land of which the fair world in Spring is itself but a fleeting memory.”

As you read the account of the healings in this beautiful chapter you will note that the fragrance of athelas is somehow different for each person that is healed. It is a beautiful expression of the unique relationship between the one who is hurt, the means of their healing and the healer. Surely in Faramir’s case we catch a glimpse, just for a moment, of his deepest yearning. When Faramir explained to Frodo the meaning of the ceremony that he and his men observed before eating in Henneth Anûn he spoke of his longing for the restoring of Gondor and also for something deeper even than that longing. He spoke of “that which is beyond Elvenhome and will ever be”.   https://stephencwinter.com/2015/09/08/faramir-remembers-that-which-is-beyond-elvenhome-and-will-ever-be/

Faramir has long pondered that which Númenor and even Valinor can only point to. He is one who cannot stay at the surface of things and so passes through his experience as son of the Steward of Gondor through the history of his people and unto their origins in Númenor. And on arriving there and pondering both its glory and its fall under the shadow he goes deeper yet until he comes to Valinor which is forever closed to them. He will know that it is at the surface of Valinor the deathless land that the corrupted kings of Númenor stayed and so desired to possess it and the gift of immortality and so he passes deeper yet to what lies beyond Elvenhome. This is what he and all in the Houses of Healing glimpse just for a moment. It is a glimpse into the most secret place within his soul, into his most true self, even into the deepest reality of all and so he is called back from the shadows into light and life and into service of the king for whose return he has long waited.