On Hearing The Music of the Ainur

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.

Songs that Come to Us out of Strange Places

It is through the intervention of the Ents of Fangorn that victory is won at Helm’s Deep but this frightens the Riders of Rohan more perhaps than did the enemies they faced in the battle. For a kind of disenchantment has been at work among them for a very long time. You may remember that when Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli first encountered Eomer and his war band upon the plains of Rohan they met with mistrust and some fear. When Eomer heard that the friends had met Galadriel in Lothlorien he reacted with both wonder but also fearful hostility.

“Then there is a Lady in the Golden Wood, as old tales tell!” he said. “Few escape her nets, they say. These are strange days! But if you have her favour, then you also are net-weavers and sorcerers, maybe.”

Théoden’s reaction to his first encounter with Ents is less hostile, perhaps, after all he has just benefitted from their timely intervention, but it is hardly less ignorant! He declares that he knows nothing of them so Gandalf takes the opportunity to teach him a few home truths and he shows Théoden that they are indeed truths he once learned in his own home.

“They are the shepherds of the trees…Is it so long since you listened to tales by the fireside? There are children in your land who, out of the twisted threads of story, could pick the answer to your question. You have seen Ents, Ents out of Fangorn Forest, which in your tongue you call the Entwood. Did you think that the name was given only in idle fancy?”

Théoden’s response shows that he may be ignorant as are his people but that he does ponder things deeply.

“Out of the shadows of legend I begin to understand the marvel of the trees, I think…Songs we have that tell of these things, but we are forgetting them, teaching them only to children, as a careless custom. And now the songs have come down among us out of strange places, and walk visible under the Sun.”

Théoden’s musings tell the tale of our own times too. What we know call Fairy Tales are stories thought to be fit only for children and so the very word, Fairy, is considered childish and the culture in which these tales arose, the culture of our medieval ancestors, is thought to have been immature and in need of enlightenment. Indeed from the time of the Enlightenment onward such tales became, as Théoden put it, taught only to children “as a careless custom”.

Recently it has been noted by many critics that much of the best writing of our time has been written ostensibly for children though sadly one leading author in the UK commented that he was disturbed by the sight of adults on trains reading Harry Potter. In the packed church in which I watched a school nativity play this morning there was an atmosphere of delight as parents and grandparents gazed upon their young dressed as characters from the gospel stories. There is a general acceptance that faith is a good thing for children especially when linked to a moral education but one, sadly perhaps, that must be left behind on leaving childhood. And yet the word adult when used as an adjective to describe books, films, pictures etc. is used to denote a deeply immature sexuality that has perhaps a place in an occasional time of carnival as ancient societies knew but is deeply destructive of mature sexual relationships and mature societies when it becomes the norm.

Thankfully Tolkien himself created a mythology that speaks to both adults and children in our own time. His work has transformed the lives of many and sowed seeds of enchantment among many more that will bear fruit. I pray that we too may find songs coming down to us “out of strange places” that may “walk visible under the Sun.”

Gimli Teaches Us The Importance of Seeing

After the victorious ending of the Battle of Helm’s Deep Gandalf takes Théoden and a small company with him to go to Isengard and for the first time since the sundering of the Fellowship at the Falls of Rauros the pace of the story is able to slacken somewhat. The pursuit of the orc company who seized Merry and Pippin, the rush to Edoras and the battle that followed all lie behind and many and great dangers lie ahead, but for a brief time Legolas and Gimli have time to look about them and to wonder.

Both of them are drawn to those things that delight them most. For Legolas this means all that grows in the earth and he wonders at the Ents and the trees that they tend; and for Gimli this means the earth itself and the wondrous caves of Aglarond that he has just encountered.

Legolas is drawn to the ancient wonder that dwells within the Forest of Fangorn that we thought about when Merry and Pippin escaped from their captors and met Treebeard in Fangorn. Immediately he wants to know, to understand and to communicate: “They are the strangest trees that ever I saw…and I have seen many an oak grow from acorn to ruinous age. I wish that there were leisure now to walk among them: they have voices, and in time I might come to understand their thought.”

And in this we remember that Treebeard told the hobbits that it was Elves who first taught speech to the Ents. It is Elves who long to commune with all living things and to draw them into their own beatitude, their own state of blessing, that all creation might find its own voice and thus speak with the One.

But if Legolas is moved by his delight in the living forest he is outmatched in this by his good friend Gimli. The three pages in The Lord of the Rings in which Gimli describes the Glittering Caves of Aglarond are among the most beautiful in the whole work and Tolkien gives this beauty to a dwarf! Even Legolas declares, “I have never heard you speak like this before.” I wish I had space to quote them in full but I will just have to encourage you to read them for yourself. Just one section must be quoted and that is Gimli’s response to Legolas’ concern that Dwarves might mar the natural beauty of the caves in their greed for gain.

“No, you do not understand,” said Gimli. “No dwarf could be unmoved by such loveliness. None of Durin’s race would mine these caves for stones or ore, not if diamonds and gold could be got there. Do you cut down groves of blossoming trees in the springtime for firewood? We would tend these glades of flowering stone, not quarry them. With cautious skill, tap by tap- a small chip of rock and no more, perhaps, in a whole anxious day- so we could work…”

As we read these words they call to mind Leonardo da Vinci working in this way on his great fresco of The Last Supper at the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. It is said that he would spend whole days just looking at his work as it unfolded and doing nothing. Imagine describing such a way of working in an appraisal interview!

What we see described here at this brief moment of rest in the story is the fruit of intense seeing and then the using of the language of seeing. Tolkien gives to these two friends the roles of artist and poet. And why do so at this moment in the story? Is it perhaps to make the contrast with Saruman, the man whose mind is full “of metal and wheels”, who we are about to meet face to face, even greater? Or is it to show that these heroes are more than just warriors and are only warriors at all at greatest need? Surely at the least he shows us that his warriors are first of all great lovers and that it is because of this that their prowess in battle can bring forth good. Tolkien will return to this later in the story in his reflection on the contrast between the brothers, Boromir and Faramir, but we will leave this part of the story, perhaps, contemplating our own need to train our ability both to see and to learn to describe what we can see.

Ready to Risk Everything

Treebeard has lived for ages beyond the reckoning of almost every living creature, except perhaps Tom Bombadil. He has seen the rise and fall of many kingdoms, the glory of Gondolin and Nargothrond and the terrible might of Angband and its master, Morgoth. And he has weathered all this like a mighty oak delighting in the summer sun and standing fast against the storms of winter. To live through all that he has seen has required above all the ability to survive, to harvest whatever is given, to store when necessary, and to endure, always to endure. “I do not like worrying about the future,” he tells Merry and Pippin. For him it is enough to live each day as best he can, fulfilling the task given to him to be the shepherd of the trees.

But now he is prepared to risk all upon an attack on Saruman’s stronghold of Isengard, an attack that may well see the end of the Ents and their age long vigil. “It is likely enough that we are going to our doom,” he says, “the last march of the Ents.”

When the human enterprise is reduced, either to a desire to dominate others for the sake of our own aggrandisement, or in a bid to build fortresses about ourselves when domination no longer seems to be a possibility in order to preserve whatever we can hang onto then this enterprise has been given over to the mean and diminished spirit of Saruman. There is a right and proper desire to conserve what is good, true and beautiful, but as Gandalf says to Treebeard, “You have not plotted to cover the world with your trees and choke all other living things” as Saruman has done, choosing at the moment of the wreck of his ambition to hang onto the shreds of his desire rather than submit and so become a servant once more.

Perhaps, like Treebeard, we will rightly give much of our lives to the building and preservation of some goodness in the world, a home where children can be raised and guests welcomed. Such a life is a good life and worthy of respect. It is when our homes become mean places set in competition against the need of others, with doors and windows permanently barred and shuttered, that they diminish and we with them. And the same is so when we become incapable of risking what we have for the sake of a greater good. Patrick Kavanagh expresses this in his wonderful poem, “The Self Slaved” when he declares:

Me I will throw away.
Me sufficient for the day
The sticky self that clings
Adhesions on the wings
To love and adventure,
To go on the grand tour
A man must be free
From self-necessity

Kavanagh discovered this freedom after being successfully treated for cancer and sensing that he had been given his life back again.

In the poem he discerns a meanness of spirit from which he has been liberated. Now he can truly live life. He goes on to say:

I will have love, have love
From anything made of
And a life with a shapely form
With gaiety and charm
And capable of receiving
With grace the grace of living
And wild moments too
Self when freed from you.

Treebeard knows this spirit and in marching on Isengard he gives himself up to such a wild moment with joy. Happy the one who knows how to do this, whose life does not shrivel up in meanness and diminishment.

Whose Side is Treebeard on?

Whose side is Treebeard on in the War of the Ring? That is another way of asking the question, whose side is nature on? Treebeard himself is undecided. “I am not altogether on anyone’s side because nobody is altogether on … Continue reading