As Aragorn crushes two leaves of athelas in his hands after breathing upon them “straightway a living freshness filled the room, as if the air itself awoke and tingled, sparkling with joy”. And so begins Aragorn’s healing journey from Faramir to Éowyn and then to Merry.
I said last week that I have been looking forward to writing about this chapter in The Lord of the Rings for some time now and so I don’t intend to rush through it. I also intend at some point to include a guest blog from a young writer whose work has impressed me so do look out for that. But this week I want to begin with something a little more personal, a memory that was jogged as I read the chapter again last week. And it was the description of the fragrance of athelas that I refer to here.
Readers will remember that when Frodo was wounded in the attack of the Nazgûl upon the camp beneath Weathertop Aragorn had Sam look for kingsfoil and they will remember how its fragrance lifted their hearts and its virtue stayed the evil influence of the poison in Frodo’s wound long enough for them to reach Rivendell. Now as Aragorn is revealed as king the fragrance is immeasurably greater and so too is the healing virtue. It “came to each 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.” And what follows for each is a fragrance that speaks of the particular way in which each is healed, made whole.
What this recalled for me was a dream that I had about fifteen years ago. In my dream I find myself in a hotel bedroom with a woman lying beside me and water pouring through a crack in the ceiling over my head. I climb out of bed telling the woman (who I never identify) that I will go and get the problem sorted out and find myself immediately in a field with a fence to my right and a long queue of people in front of me. I ask someone what the queue is about and they tell me that the Pope is in a shed in the field just up ahead and that they are waiting to see him. I decide to wait too and soon find myself in the darkened shed. The Pope is John Paul II and he is in the last stage of his life, a frail old man. Behind him a priest with shadowed face waits in attendance. No one speaks. I simply know that I must kneel before the Pope and wait for his blessing. He lays his hands upon my head and as he does so the room is filled with the most wonderful fragrance. I stand up knowing that everything is alright and that I do not need to return to the hotel room.
Of course it is my memory of the fragrance in the dream that was recalled when I read this chapter once again and it is the fragrance in relation to the revelation of Aragorn as king that I want to briefly ponder here as I think about my dream. In his book on male initiation, Adam’s Return, Richard Rohr thinks about the power of the king archetype that is so rarely revealed in most men except in its dark form in the bully or in the weak form endlessly complaining that no one is paying sufficient attention to him. Rohr describes the true king as “the master of all power, so much so that he can risk looking powerless… The kingly part of a man connects heaven and earth, spiritual and material, divine and human, inner and outer. When you meet a man who seems a bit larger than life, you know he has some king energy. He is a healer of souls.”
The king that I met within myself in my dream was old, not fearing to risk looking powerless. The power came in the blessing which is the true revelation of the king energy just as it is in Aragorn. My disordered state was healed in turning to the king energy within me. I can say quite candidly that it is still being healed to this very day but I am learning in my contemplative practice where to turn and I think there is hope for me yet.
“We look towards Númenor that was, and beyond to Elvenhome that is, and to that which is beyond Elvenhome and will ever be.”
So we come to the last of these three reflections on Faramir’s explanation of the silence that he and his men observe in his refuge of Henneth Annûn before they eat, a silence that is woven into the life of Gondor and most particularly into Faramir’s own heart. In the first we thought about the tragic fall of Númenor as recounted by Tolkien in The Akallabêth a chapter near the end of The Silmarillion. In the second we thought about the two mysteries of the Children of God, the immortality of the Elves and the mortality of Humankind, which neither Elves nor Humankind can penetrate. And in this last we will think about that which “will ever be”.
It was Sauron who, when a prisoner of Númenor, denied the reality of any reality beyond that which his captors could perceive save only that which they already knew which was the darkness. For all the Númenorians could perceive in respect of their mortality was the experience of death and decay and an unknown that lay beyond their perishing. So Sauron spoke to them of what he named “the Ancient Darkness”. And of this, he told them “the world was made. For Darkness alone is worshipful, and the Lord thereof may yet make other worlds to be gifts to those that serve him, so that the increase of their power shall find no end.”
And Ar-Pharazôn, mighty king of Númenor, facing his own mortality as an implacable limit upon all his ambitions and perceiving the Valar, the angelic rulers of the earth, as the greatest enemy of those ambitions, listened to all that Sauron had to say to him and so became a worshipper of the Dark and of its Lord first secretly and then openly desiring the worlds of which Sauron had spoken and a power that would “find no end”.
It was part of the lie that Sauron told that he should deny any other reality than the Dark, even to claim that any other reality was the malicious invention of the Valar in their desire to deny immortality to Humankind, “seeking to enchain Men in servitude to themselves.” Now, in the likelihood of the victory of the Dark and of its messenger, Sauron, Faramir rejects the Dark. He will face it courageously even in defeat. He will be a true follower of Elendil and the Elf-friends of old until the end. He will accept the limitation that his own mortality imposes upon him not as a punishment but as a gift looking towards a home that “is not here, neither in the land of Aman nor anywhere within the Circles of the World.”
Augustine, writing in the fifth century, spoke of humankind as those eager to “achieve unity by themselves, to be their own masters and to depend only on themselves”. In The Lord of the Rings it is Faramir who is given the part of articulating the rejection of such desire, a renunciation of the despair that leads to the worship of the Dark. Faramir affirms the hope that the last word of all belongs, not to the Dark, but to the Light. It is in this renunciation that his greatness lies but what will he do when he learns that the Ring of Power, the very symbol of the greatness that the Dark can confer upon its master, lies within his grasp?
Those who have been reading my Blog that seeks to distil wisdom from The Lord of the Rings will know that I have been reading the text carefully and then reflecting upon what I find there. I happen to think that Tolkien was a man of profound insight. I also think that he was an explorer and that what he discovered in his creation often surprised him. So it is that what we find when we read his work is not a carefully worked out philosophy imposed upon a narrative structure although Tolkien’s Christian faith is a springboard that is absolutely necessary for his explorations. Tolkien genuinely did not know in advance what his characters would do as the story developed. I think that is the reason why it took him so long to write his work. And perhaps one of the reasons why The Lord of the Rings speaks so powerfully to the modern mind is that none of its characters is capable of, or presumes to speak, authoritatively of God or the ultimate mystery of being and of life. You get the impression that Gandalf may know more than most but he does not tell. All that we learn from him is that there is a mystery that gives meaning to all that each character in the story chooses to do.
It was back in January 2013 that I wrote about Frodo in the halls of Elrond of Rivendell. At that time I wrote the Blog on my website http://stephenwinter.net/page6.htm#131194 and in that posting wrote about Frodo’s “dream of music that turned into running water, and then suddenly into a voice”. Music is Tolkien’s metaphor for the unfolding of history, one that he unfolds most fully in the first chapter of The Silmarillion, The Music of the Ainur. The Ainur are the angelic beings whose task it is to work with God (Ilúvatar) in the governing of his creation. I do not think therefore that Frodo’s “dream of music” is an accidental detail in the story. He connects for a moment with the Great Music and also with the Great Story for the voice that he hears as he emerges from the dream is Bilbo’s as he chants his own telling of the tale of The Voyage of Eärendil that is chapter 24 of The Silmarillion. Later when he takes the Ring at The Council of Elrond Frodo declares his own Yes to the Music and the Story. He cannot himself control the story to which he says Yes although because he bears the Ring of Power he is tempted to believe that he has the capacity to do this but he is carried by the story and by the music from the moment of choosing until the fulfilment of the choice at the Cracks of Mt Doom.
At the ending of one year and the opening of another I wanted to return to this story in Rivendell from my reflections at the ruined gates of Isengard. For we cannot drift aimlessly through life as if there were nothing to be discovered, no commitments to be made. When I started writing this Blog I intended to reflect on composers and writers who I believe to have made a connection to the Great Music and the Great Story and if my readers are interested then I will try to do so next week before returning to Isengard and to Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli as they are reunited with Merry and Pippin. Here I will just say that if 2015 is to be fruitful then it will be because of the commitments we make to the Music and the Story. If we are true to the wisdom of The Lord of the Rings then we will not seek to make authoritative statements about the Mystery but in our own commitments we will seek it out. It is because of his search that Frodo hears the music and the story in the halls of Elrond, that Merry and Pippin meet the Ents in the forest of Fangorn, that Gimli finds understanding in the words of Galadriel and heart breaking beauty in the caves of Aglarond. If we remain true to our own search then we too will find such wonders. You may remind me that I should not forget Frodo and Sam in Shelob’s lair or Merry and Pippin as prisoners of the orcs for if we are true to our Yes then our journey will take us to such places as well but what it will not be is some aimless and meaningless drifting. It will be a true adventure of Joy and Sorrow. We will be men and women who are fully alive.
If Sauron were leader of the Fellowship, setting out from Rivendell in possession of the Ring, what would he do? Gandalf knows that it is a question that Sauron has asked himself. Sauron knows that the Fellowship left Rivendell and that they possessed the Ring. He knows something of each member of the Fellowship and that there are hobbits among them. And Gandalf knows that he fears that the Fellowship will go to Minas Tirith and there one of them will wield the Ring, assail Mordor with war, cast him down and take his place. Boromir counselled that they should go to Minas Tirith but not that one of them should wield the Ring. He hid this desire even from himself. And Gandalf and Galadriel were tempted to wield the Ring as well. Remember the occasions when Frodo offered the Ring to them, first to Gandalf at Bag End in the Shire and later to Galadriel in Lothlorien. Remember that both were tempted to the very limits of their strength to take it and seek to use it to cast Sauron down. Sauron knows that both have the capacity to do this and so he is afraid. He will unleash war against Minas Tirith as swiftly as he can before his enemies are strong enough to use the Ring to destroy him.
What if Sauron is wrong? What if, as Gandalf says, “we should wish to cast him down and have no one in his place?” This not is a thought that “occurs to his mind”. And Gandalf continues: “that we should try to destroy the Ring itself has not entered into his darkest dream.” Indeed Sauron is incapable of dreaming such things. Our dreams, whether waking or sleeping, are the fruit of our spiritual practice. By this I do not mean our religious practices although they can be of help to us in the shaping of our spiritual practice. What I mean is how we cultivate our desire. For Gandalf and Galadriel desire is a deeply complex thing. On the one hand they long to heal the world, to right wrongs and set things right. On the other hand the thought that the power to do this might fall into their hands and that they might be the heroic saviours of the world with all flocking to their banner is deeply attractive. You will note that Boromir desired the same thing. But Sauron does not suffer this agony. He has a different agony because for him only one thing has meaning and that is power over others for it is only power that can free him from the fear that haunts him, his agony that never leaves him, the fear that one day someone will have the power to destroy him and take his place.
Happy are those who know spiritual struggle. Happy are those who wrestle against their own weakness and who begin to learn their own limitations. Happy are those who learn to laugh at themselves, who know that they are not the centre of everything and that it is just as well for everyone that this should be so. Happy are those who know that they have a contribution to make and who make it with a proper self respect but who know that others have a contribution to make too and it may be that the others will receive more praise than they will. And happy are those who just sometimes wish that they could be praised too and allow a wry smile as they recognise the lingering potency of that desire!
Unhappy is Sauron and all like him who do not know this struggle, whose spiritual lives are simple, having been reduced to the pursuit of one desire. Kierkegaard once said that simplicity is to will one thing and he is right. Perhaps it is possible to achieve such simplicity in pursuit of the good. There are signs in The Lord of the Rings that Gandalf and Galadriel have achieved such simplicity. Jesus finally achieves it at the moment when he says, “Father into your hands I commend my spirit.” But if it is achieved then it is a victory won as the fruit of a renunciation that is a profound struggle that tests them and everyone who pursue such simplicity to their limit and beyond.
The Temptation of St Anthony
This has to be a word of hope to all of us who struggle. Our struggle should not be a cause of pity in others. Rather others should pity us only if we give up fighting. But more of that next week.