Aragorn’s Banner is Revealed at the Stone of Erech

One of the great joys of reading a great book again and again is that every time I do I discover new things. I don’t think that I have ever really paused at the Stone of Erech before. I think that I was about 14 when I read The Return of the King for the first time. I borrowed the book from my school library and after I had eaten my evening meal I began to read and did not stop until the book was finished. Reading at that speed was a thrilling experience but I missed a lot of detail. Now, nearly fifty years later, after many readings, I am here again.

And what a strange place it is to stay. The Stone of Erech stands upon a hill top and it is black, “round as a great globe, the height of a man, though its half was buried in the ground.” It was brought there by Isildur from the wreck of Númenor and it was said that in times of fear the oath breakers would gather round it, whispering. Surely they were asking whether this might be the time of their release?

And now that time has finally come.

Aragorn speaks to them. “The hour is come at last. Now I go to Pelargir upon Anduin, and ye shall come after me. And when all this land is clean of the servants of Sauron, I will hold the oath fulfilled, and ye shall have peace and depart for ever. For I am Elessar, Isildur’s heir of Gondor.”

And as he speaks he bids Halbarad to unfurl the banner that he carries, “and behold! it was black, and if there was any device upon it, it was hidden in the darkness.”

It was Arwen who created the banner in Rivendell. It was “wrought in secret, and long was the making.” Arwen is a contemplative and her work is secret. I do not want to waste time in arguing whether contemplation or action are superior to each other. Nor do I want to say that one who contemplates is superior to one who acts. Éowyn is a woman who longs to act, to do the great deed, and her desire will be fulfilled. Arwen is a woman who withdraws into the secret and the dark in order to do her work. Neither is superior to the other and both need each other. When Aragorn declares that he is king at the Stone of Erech he draws upon a strength that has been forged, not only through the longest years of his waiting, but also in the secret years of Arwen’s thought. Arwen draws her mind into her heart. By this we do not mean that she turns from thinking to feeling. She turns from all that is mere surface to the very ground of her being and from that ground flows a work of making that when revealed in the darkness at the Stone of Erech is black and calls the Dead to fulfil their oath and when revealed in a bright day at the Pelennor Fields carries a device not seen in Gondor for long years and all the hosts of Mordor are driven before it.

There is a wonderful weaving here of the mystery of contemplation in the secret place and the majesty of the deed that is done in the open and the union of Aragorn and Arwen expresses that weaving perfectly. If the work that we do is to have meaning then we must find that weaving ourselves. To some degree we must find both within ourselves and the people that we meet who are most complete will have done this work. However, most of us will tend either to the active or to the contemplative. We need each other. And when we work best it will be in a flow that comes, from an inner connectedness from a connection to one another and from the connection to the truest Ground of our Being.

 

Meriadoc Brandybuck and the King of Gondor

It is Arwen of Rivendell who declares Aragorn, king; doing so in the giving of the standard that Halbarad bears and from the moment it is given Aragorn is transformed. Readers who may have seen Peter Jackson’s films will remember that this transformation comes with the arrival of Elrond and the giving of the sword. They will remember too that it comes with the words, “Be who you were meant to be!” The words may be absent from Tolkien’s telling of the tale but when the standard comes the effect is the same. The standard may remain unfurled but Aragorn knows what it is. It is the standard of the king of Gondor and when Aragorn goes into battle he will do so, not as chieftain of the Rangers of the North, but as the king.

And as the king Aragorn challenges Sauron and wrests control of the Palantir from him. As the king he chooses to take his  own pathway to the battle before the walls of Minas Tirith. Until the moment the Grey Company overtook him he was content to be a part of Théoden’s company and to follow him into the battle and he does not fret about how he is to claim the crown. This is not Aragorn’s way. There is always only one question that he must answer and that is “What must I do now?” He knows the destiny to which he is called. He knows that he can never be united to Arwen unless as king of Gondor and of Arnor but he never plots or schemes to achieve this destiny. He never calculates the question of who is for him or against him. He never tries to make his destiny or his desire a possession to be defended. If he is to accomplish it then he must either receive it as a gift or to lay it down. How important a distinction this is. Once his choice has been made nothing and no one will dissuade him from his course of action. His willingness to wait so that when the time comes he receives his destiny as a gift is not a sign of weakness or indecisiveness. Indeed it is a sign of faith. It is the weak and fearful who fear that unless they make their desire happen it may never come to them. Saruman is one such, constantly calculating how he may achieve the power he desires. He knows that by seeking power for himself he betrays the mission given to him by the Valar and yet he wonders if the rebellion of Sauron might mean that the Valar will no longer intervene as they did at the end of the First Age and in the destruction of Númenor. Aragorn never stoops to such calculation. He is a true Númenorian and descendent of Elendil the Elf Friend, the faithful one.

And as with Théoden, perhaps less glorious in his lineage, but no less glorious in his faithfulness, Aragorn gives his concern to the lowly as well as to the great. When he declares his decision to Théoden Aragorn also bids farewell, for the time being, to Merry. He cannot  give him any comfort. Merry “could find no more to say. He felt very small, and he was puzzled and depressed by all these gloomy words.” He goes with Théoden and misses Pippin very much.

Aragorn may not be able to comfort Merry but his heart goes out to him. “There go three that I love, and the smallest not the least… He knows not to what end he rides; yet if he knew, he would still go on.” And such kindness and compassion is a true mark of a true king. For the most part we have to deal with those whose ambition for personal glory drives them on. But we can choose to be different. We can choose to give our love to all people from the greatest to the lowliest and like Aragorn and the true Númenorians we can trust that written deep into the fabric of reality is a law that is firm. We might call it the law of God.

“Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the Lord and who meditates on his law day and night. That person is like a stream planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither- whatever they do prospers.” (Psalm 1)

Aragorn the Lover

Halbarad, the Ranger of the North, bears a gift for Aragorn. It is a thing of mystery, “close furled in a black cloth bound about with many thongs”. And there is a message with it from Arwen, Lady of Rivendell, to Aragorn.

“The days now are short. Either our hope cometh, or all hopes end. Therefore I send thee what I have made for thee. Fare well, Elfstone!”

The final greeting of her message is one of deep uncertainty. Her “Fare Well”, if joined together, becomes a last word, a final blessing, spoken to one that Arwen does not expect to see again. When the words are separated, as they are here, they remain a word of hope. But which are they to be?

Aragorn feels their power.

“Now I know what you bear. Bear it still for me a while!” And he turned and looked away to the North under the great stars, and then he fell silent and spoke no more while the night’s journey lasted.”

So it is that we see Aragorn the lover and find that in him the lover is woven close to the warrior who has great battles to fight and the king who must unfurl the royal standard that Arwen has made for him. The man who rides in silence through the night, his mind filled with thoughts of the woman he loves, knows that his longing for her cannot be fulfilled unless Sauron be overthrown and the Ring of Power cast into the fires at the Cracks of Doom. He cannot separate these things even if he would.

All great love stories are triumphs over adversity. I have a particular love for the story of Rapunzel and the prince who first climbs the tower to reach his imprisoned beloved and then must wander the world, separated from her, his eyes made sightless by the thorns that surround the tower and the malice of the witch who wants to keep Rapunzel for herself. And I love the story of how, for love of her prince, Rapunzel climbs down those same thorn trees that have imprisoned her so long and then searches the world for him until she finds him and heals him with her tears.

In both the old German tale and in Tolkien’s story true love can only be won through great trial. And it is also the source of strength that enables the lover to triumph over all adversity. Although Eros is a word that is absent from the New Testament, replaced there by agape, a word that was a wonderful gift to the world, denoting a love that is an unbreakable commitment to the blessedness of another and a delight that they too are in the world, it was not long before the Fathers of the Church found that they could not ignore it. They discovered that Eros (in the Greek) or Amor (in the Latin) was the divine energy that will bring about the union and communion of all things. At one time there was no division between the passionate, even erotic, language of the mystics and the technical language of the theologians. The two were one and the same. They spoke of drawing the mind into the heart. Sadly we seem to live in a time when mind and heart have become separated. How we need to find a way to unite them once more!

In Aragorn the great archetypes of the King, the Warrior, the Magician and the Lover are wonderfully united. He has been the warrior lover over many years but now we see him growing into his kingship. See how Arwen, his beloved, declares him king, through the banner that she has made, even before her father does! In doing so she spurs him on to the great deeds that he will do. But he has needed the wisdom of the magicians in his life, Elrond and Gandalf, to know what task he must achieve. Eventually he will lose them and then he will have to find the magician wisdom within himself but not quite yet.

Aragorn has received a message from Elrond but it is Arwen’s words that bring about his silence. Eventually he will respond to both messages together as he must and in doing so he will be propelled onwards to the great crisis of his life and towards the union with his beloved for which he longs with all his heart.