When Frodo raises the star glass and cries out, “Hail, Eärendil, O Brightest of Stars!” he invokes a history of which, with Sam, he is now a major part. Throughout the history of Arda (the earth) there has been a war against the Light that began with Morgoth and now continues with his lieutenant, Sauron. The light of the Silmarils captured in the star glass once blazed forth from Morgoth’s iron crown after he stole them from Fëanor, their maker. One now shines out in the heavens at morning and at evening in the ship, Vingilot, with “Eärendil the mariner sat at the helm, glistening with dust of elven-gems, and the Silmaril was bound upon his brow”. We see it still today and know it as Venus, the Morning Star and the Evening Star.
Eärendil carried the Silmaril back across the seas to the Undying Lands and brought too the prayer of the peoples of Middle-earth to the Valar for mercy. For Morgoth had reduced them to ruin and, perhaps worse even than this, the sons of Fëanor, bound by a terrible oath to their father not to allow the Silmarils to fall into the hands of anyone even a friend, attacked Eärendil’s people and destroyed their homes. Eärendil, even as he bore this sorrow in his heart, prayed too for the sons of Fëanor when he came before the Valar.
Why do I tell this story even as Frodo holds the Star Glass before Shelob? It is because of the place of mercy in the whole of Tolkien’s great story. Tolkien said of Morgoth that “to him that was pitiless the deeds of pity are ever strange and beyond reckoning”. All through Tolkien’s tale it is such deeds that undo the enemy. Why is Frodo’s cry effective? It is because of the pity of Eärendil. It is because of the pity of Bilbo. It is because of the pity of Galadriel who gave the glass to Frodo. We do not stand because of our own deeds but because of all who have come before us.
In his poem on the Advent antiphon, O Oriens, Malcolm Guite makes this point exactly. Oriens is the Morning Star, the Dayspring, the herald of grace and of hope. Guite quotes from Dante’s Paradiso at the heading of his poem when Dante tells us that he saw “light in the form of a river”. The story of light is a river in which we, by grace and mercy, now stand.
“Dante and Beatrice are bathing in it now, away upstream… so every trace of light begins a grace in me, a beckoning. ”
Once again we remember Frodo’s dream in the halls of Elrond in Rivendell; a dream that ended with the sound of Bilbo telling the story of Eärendil. And we begin to understand that we too receive so much from the mercy of others and that every act of mercy that we perform today is a gift to people yet unborn. We stand here because of the prayers of others before us. Others stand today and will stand in times to come because of our prayer and our acts of mercy.
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.
“We look towards Númenor that was, and beyond to Elvenhome that is, and to that which is beyond Elvenhome and will ever be.”
So says Faramir to Frodo and Sam motioning to them to stand with himself and his men facing westwards into the setting sun at the refuge of Henneth Annûn before they sit to eat. And in this simple action the people of Gondor recollect both their history and their identity day by day.
They remember the peril that Eärendil “ventured for love of the Two Kindreds” at the end of the First Age of the Earth. For when the forces of Morgoth had all but overthrown the kingdoms of the Elves and Men in Beleriand Eärendil had journeyed to Valinor to plea for the mercy of the Valar in their uttermost need, and mercy was granted to them. They remember how Morgoth was overthrown and in punishment was “thrust through the Door of Night beyond the Walls of the World into the Timeless Void”. They remember how Elros and Elrond, the sons of Eärendil, were granted a choice that none had ever been offered either before nor since. The Valar offered to them either to live as one of the deathless that was the destiny of the Elves upon the Earth or to choose mortality that was the destiny of Humankind. And they remember how Elrond chose the destiny of the Elvenkind and so came to live in Rivendell in Middle-earth and how Elros chose mortality and was granted as gift for himself and his people the great isle of Númenor in the Western Seas just within sight of Valinor.
They remember how at first their ancestors lived in contentment with the choice that Elros had made and the land that had been granted as gift; but how, even as their power grew, they grew envious of those that were deathless, coming to see their own mortality as a punishment laid upon them by the Valar who they now regarded as tyrants. This discontent and envy grew and festered over many years even as their might grew. Indeed, we might say, unease and power seemed to grow in equal measure. Eventually so great was that power that they were able to overthrow and make prisoner Sauron even after he had forged the One Ring and had made Barad-dûr in Mordor the heart of his dominions within Middle-earth. But their victory over Sauron was not achieved as a rejection of his darkness but in envy of his power and so, even as a prisoner, Sauron was able to make that envy grow directing it now against the Valar. Eventually with Sauron’s encouragement they assaulted Elvenhome itself believing that if they could conquer it they would achieve the immortality that they desired, that it was the land itself that somehow granted to its people their deathlessness. But a great wave arose that destroyed the fleets and even the Isle of Númenor and so it is that when Faramir and his men stand in silence they remember “Númenor that was”.
But even as the unfaithfulness of the kings of Númenor and those that followed them comes to mind every time the people of Gondor stand before they eat so too does the memory of those who were faithful at great cost to themselves. For among the people of Númenor there were those known as Elf-friends who still loved the Valar and were content with the choice of Elros. When the fleets of Númenor sailed in assault upon Valinor they refused to go with them and the great wave that destroyed Númenor carried Elendil, his sons, Isildur and Anárion and all their peoples, in nine great ships to the shores of Middle-earth where they founded the kingdoms of Gondor and Arnor.
All this is called to mind as the peoples of Gondor remember “Númenor that was”, and it is a memory of gift, of choice, of growing discontent and envy that led to unfaithfulness and also to the faithfulness of Elendil and his people, the Elf-friends. And each time they do this they know that they themselves are the fruit of this story and how they too must live.
In this week’s reflection we have remembered “Númenor that was” and perhaps it has caused us to think of our own discontents with our lives and what has been given to us and what it might mean for us to be faithful even as were the Elf-friends. Next week we shall think with Faramir and his men of “Elvenhome that is” and all that comes to mind as they gaze towards it.
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.