Aragorn and the Lonely Years

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The First Meeting of Aragorn and Arwen. Or is it Beren and Lúthien?

Last week’s post ended with the words:

“And so Aragorn the King Elessar wedded Arwen Undómiel in the City of the Kings upon the day of Midsummer, and tale of their long waiting and labours was come to fulfilment.”

And for the next few weeks I wish to leave the main text of The Lord of the Rings, just for a little while, and turn to the story of their labours as Tolkien recounts it in the appendices to The Return of the King. In my copy published by Collins Modern Classics in 2001 it is entitled Here Follows a Part of the Tale of Aragorn and Arwen and can be found on page 1032.

The tale tells how Aragorn’s father, Arathorn, and grandfather, Arador, were both slain in conflict with orcs and with trolls in the wilds of Eriador and how Aragorn was taken with his mother, Gilraen, when still a small child, to be raised in Rivendell. It tells how Elrond took the place of his father and named him Estel, meaning Hope. Soon he was riding as a young brave warrior with Elladan and Elrohir, the sons of Elrond and he “was fair and noble”.

Then came a day that would change his life for ever. Elrond called him to tell him who he really was. He gave him his true name and told him that he was the heir of Isildur and Elendil and he gave him the ring of Barahir and the shards of Narsil. Already Aragorn knew the stories of these heirlooms. He knew that Barahir had been given the ring by Finrod Felagund of the House of Finarfin of the Noldor as a symbol of eternal friendship, and how, after Barahir had been slain by orcs his son, Beren had recovered his father’s body, slaying his killer, and after laying his father to rest had kept the ring. And he knew that Narsil had been shattered in battle between Elendil and Sauron and how Isildur had seized the broken shards and with them cut the Ring from Sauron’s hand.

One heirloom only did Elrond withhold and that was the sceptre of Annúminas. Only the king of Arnor could hold this and Aragorn was but a chieftain of the Dúnedain and no king.

Elrond in his wisdom did two things in this giving and withholding of gifts. He gave a mighty father’s blessing to the young man. He bestowed the first fruits of glory upon him. The Gospels show this essential principle in the story of the baptism of Jesus who hears the Father’s voice declaring that he is the true and beloved son of the Father and that the Father loves him. Every young man needs to know his glory as he begins his journey to mature manhood. If a father, or one who takes the father’s place, withholds his blessing, or there is no-one able or willing to give the blessing, then the young man feels himself still to be a boy and not a man who can stand alongside his father. But Elrond does another thing. By withholding the sceptre he gives Aragorn his task in life. Only by becoming the king can he receive this gift. He knows what he must do.

It is with the joy of tasting his own glory and knowing his vocation that Aragorn leaves Elrond. Tolkien says that “his heart was high within him” and that is how it should be with a young man. He is singing a part of The Lay of Lúthien the song of the love of his glorious ancestor, Beren, and of Lúthien Tinúviel, a song that he now feels to be one of which he is a part, sharing its glory, and when he sees Arwen Undómiel for the first time it is as if the very story that he has been singing comes to life before him and he calls her, Tinúviel! He learns who she is and why he has never seen her before. She has been with Galadriel in Lothlórien. Immediately his heart is lost to her and I rather think that she likes his comparing of her to her foremother, Lúthien, the most beautiful and most celebrated of all the women of the Eldar.

And so their tale begins. And if it starts with glory and delight then it will be tested to the limit and beyond the limit of their endurance. All love must be tested thus as in a fire so that what is left is what is true. Now begins the labour. Now begins the waiting.

Last week’s artwork came from the Hildebrant brothers and stimulated some conversation on social media. Think week’s is by Cathy Chan and I found it on Pinterest. I think it delightfully captures Aragorn and Arwen in their youth before their labours. I hope that you enjoy it.

 

Frodo Gets Ready for The Feast at the Field of Cormallen

The Day of Praisegiving at the Field of Cormallen comes to an end with a great feast and the reuniting of friends as Frodo and Sam, and Merry and Pippin, and Legolas and Gimli greet one another and delight in the joy of being alive after great tribulation.

It is in preparation for the feast that Gandalf adopts the role of squire to the knights of the West who are Frodo and Sam.

“Gandalf, as if he were their esquire, knelt and girt the sword-belts about them, and then arising he set circlets of silver upon their heads. And when they were arrayed they went to the great feast; and they sat at the king’s table”

At first, when Gandalf presents a sword to Frodo, Frodo refuses to wear it. “I do not wish for any sword,” he says. For Frodo the days of battle are at an end. He fought with all the strength that he could muster and he was bested at the last by a power too great for him. If it had not been for his enemy he would have failed at the last and all the struggle would have been in vain. It was Gollum who took the Ring to the Fire, albeit by accident as it were, and not the one appointed to bear the Ring.

In part Frodo’s refusal to carry a sword is a recognition of his own sense of failure. In another it is a desire on his part to have no more to do with war. Frodo has seen at first hand the horror of war, the malice and hatred that Sauron sought to unleash upon the earth, and he hates it.

But Gandalf knows that the feast is not for Frodo alone nor is the magnificent raiment with which he is arrayed. When a great gift is received with grace it is not just the one who receives who is honoured but the one who gives as well. The circlet of silver with which Frodo is crowned, the sword with which he is girt, the mithril coat and the Elven cloak in which he is arrayed, are all an act of doing honour to those who gather at the feast. Some are great knights of Gondor, or of the Dunedain, or of the guard of the King of Rohan. Others are simple farming folk in valleys of Gondor far from Minas Tirith or in the fields of the Westfold of Rohan and when Frodo is arrayed as a fellow warrior and sits to eat with them he does them honour. He declares that their deeds in the war, their hopeless march to the Black Gate, perhaps achieved by overcoming great fear, are all worthy of honour. He names them brothers by sitting among them. And it is not just the warriors who are gathered at the feast who are honoured thus but every village, every family from which they have come.

The Ring was not destroyed by warfare, indeed the war was not won by strength of arms. If the War of the Ring had been a matter of besting the enemy by arms and superior power then it would have been necessary to use the Ring. That would have been as great a catastrophe as Sauron’s victory would have been. But the battles at Helm’s Deep, at Pelargir, at the Pelennor Fields and finally before the Black Gate, were not thereby of no account in comparison to the deeds of the Ringbearer. Without their courage, without their willingness to lay down their lives there would have been no journey through Mordor to the Mountain. And so it is not to seek the praise of others that Frodo must wear a sword at the feast but to honour all who fought. As Shakespeare puts in the mouth of King Henry V before the Battle of Agincourt:

“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; for he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother.”

Sam asks “Don’t the Great Tales Never End?”

Ever since I first encountered it I have loved and been enriched by the work of John O’Donohue, Irish poet, philosopher and some time priest who died in 2008. When I began to think about this week’s blog posting I was drawn back to other pieces that I have written and to a poem entitled, Fluent, that O’Donohue wrote and published in his 2000 collection entitled Connemara Blues.

“I would love to live / like a river flows,/ Carried by the surprise/ Of its own unfolding.”

In just a few words O’Donohue describes a way of life that is characterised by surprise. O’Donohue loved to laugh and the unexpectedness of the present moment would be the cause in him of delighted merriment. I have just returned from driving my daughter to the local railway station for a day’s classes in college and as I drove back I listened to a mathematician say that when he finds beauty in a mathematical equation it is because of a fundamental human desire for order and predictability. Oh how O’Donohue would have chuckled with amusement if he had heard that! Of course the woodland stream by which I pray each morning is capable of  being reduced to a mathematical description but once we begin to speak of beauty then it is not predictability that delights us but the endless surprise of the play of light upon the water, the way the way the stream dances about ever shifting obstacles in its path or in one heart stopping moment by the flight of a kingfisher along its length. Something much greater than mathematics has entered our hearts.

So it is that when Sam thinks of great tales he remembers the story of Beren and Lúthien taking the Silmaril from the Iron Crown of Morgoth in the terrible fortress of Thangorodrim. “That was a worse place and a blacker danger than ours,” he says, and then goes on to remember the bringing of the Silmaril to Eärendil and in surprise and wonder he cries out, “And why, sir, I never thought of that before! We’ve got- you’ve got some of the light of it in that star-glass that the Lady gave you! Why, to think of it, we’re in the same tale still! It’s going on. Don’t the great tales never end?”

A year ago I wrote a piece in this blog entitled On Hearing The Music of the Ainur https://stephencwinter.com/2014/12/31/on-hearing-the-music-of-the-ainur/ where I reflected on Frodo’s “dream of music that turned into running water, and then suddenly into a voice” and the voice is that of Bilbo telling, chanting the story of  Eärendil in the halls of Elrond in Rivendell. In his dream an “endless river of swelling gold and silver” flows over him. Later in the evening he tells Bilbo that Bilbo’s song seemed “to fit somehow” with his dream. Frodo has for a moment been given an insight into the nature of the story of which he is now a part and it is dream and flowing river and it is music and verses chanted. Sam now glimpses what Frodo experienced that night. Like Frodo he is in the same story. (Do read it and if you have time please read the Comments that followed it. They are deeply moving and enriching.)

It was G.K Chesterton, a writer who exercised great influence over Tolkien, who said that the reason we need to be told of rivers of gold and silver or trees with golden leaves and fruit is that we have forgotten the wonder of the rivers that we know or the astonishing moment when we first knew that a leaf was green! Sam touches upon the wonder that transforms the tale of which he is now a part. He speaks in the shadow of the Ephel Dúath the outer fence of Mordor, wearied by the climb up the Great Stair from the dead vale of Minas Morgul. He is hungry and the sweat of his effort has been chilled upon his body as he rests. So a parent may wearily change a nappy or feed a hungry baby in the long dark hours of the night and forget for a moment the wonder of which she is a part and then be caught up in delight once again. Perhaps she may catch a glimpse of the story of which she is a part.