Eomer Prepares for a Good Death in Battle.

After the fall of the Lord of the Nazgûl and the death of Théoden the battle upon the Pelennor Fields flows one way and then another. It is Prince Imrahil of Dol Amroth who leads a charge from the city to come to the aid of the Rohirrim, led now by Éomer, but even with their forces combined upon the field and with their great skill in battle upon horseback the sheer number of their foes is ultimately too great and Éomer prepares to make a final stand. For this he has been long prepared since first hearing the songs of his people in the halls of Théoden. His spiritual formation has been made there and he knows that what is expected of him is to make a good death with his face turned towards his foes and with his men about him. He plants his banner upon a hillock and laughs as he cries out,

Out of doubt, out of dark to the day’s rising I came singing in the sun, sword unsheathing. To hope’s end I rode and to heart’s breaking: Now for wrath, now for ruin and a red nightfall.”

And the song-makers will take the deeds of the day, the hewing of Forlong the Fat with axes as he fights on alone and unhorsed, and the trampling to death of Duilin of Morthond and his brother beneath the terrible feet of the mûmakil, and they will make them beautiful. Tears will flow as the great songs are sung once more and pride rekindled in the hearts of the people. The Rohirrim will know that they are a great people and boys will know, as they grow to manhood, that the worst thing that they could possibly do is to bring shame upon the memory of their ancestors. And so we recall once again the satisfaction that Théoden feels, even as life ebbs from his body, that he can face his forefathers without shame, that what has happened upon this terrible day can be spoken of with pride alongside the great deeds of the past.

It is a bad thing to rob someone of their pride. It is something that might be done by a mighty person who does not fear the power of their enemies, who seeks to display their own greatness by means of humiliation, but resentment will always lead to deeds of revenge and memories forged by bitterness are long. I like to think that the victors at the Pelennor Fields gave as much attention to enabling their foes to retain their pride as they did to winning the battle. It is a wise lord who knows how to make peace even as they must, in time of need, know how to make war.

There are some who in describing the times in which we live have named them an age of anger. They show how resentment, born of felt humiliation, is felt by growing numbers in a world in which a small number seek to gather as much power and wealth for themselves as possible at the expense of the rest of humankind. The powerful may for the time being be able to contain the angry by means of the security apparatus but we see that even the highest walls cannot keep all anger at bay. Our leaders and we whom they lead need to consider how we can allow those who regard themselves as our enemies to withdraw from conflict with pride. If we do not do this then we and our children may have to pay a great price for our pride and their humiliation.

Merry Feels Useless as He Prepares for Battle

We are on the road with the Rohirrim passing through the Druadan forest and it is held against us by our enemies. We could engage them in battle and doubtless would prevail but there is no time for delay, not even a victorious one, because the hosts of Mordor are at the gates of Minas Tirith.

Théoden and his commanders are busy about the business of war and are in conference with the people of the Druadan wood, seeking a way to bring the riders past those who would prevent their passage but one among their number is lonely and unhappy.

We have seen Merry like this before, on more than one occasion. He carries a great burden with him, one that he does not seem to know how to cast away, and that is his sense of insignificance.

Elfhelm, the commander of the éored to which Dernhelm/Éowyn is attached, trips over Merry, hidden as he is by the elven cloak that he wears, and roundly curses the tree-roots.

“I am not a tree root, Sir,” Merry said, “nor a bag, but a bruised hobbit.”

Poor Merry! It was his desire to be of some use that brought him here but it is his sense of uselessness that afflicts him now that he is close to battle. He wishes “he was a tall rider like Éomer and could blow a horn or something and go galloping to his rescue.”

Ah, the blowing of horns and the business of galloping about. How many people are relieved to spend their time going from meeting to meeting, not because of the value of what each meeting can bring to the enterprise that they are meant to serve but because each meeting can fill the void that otherwise they would gaze over as each day’s work begins. When they take their place around the meeting table at least they do not have to justify their reason for being there.

Merry is there in disobedience to the king’s express command. What can we say to comfort him? Elfhelm does not try and Dernhelm keeps silent. And if they did speak there would be nothing that they could say. Soon as they look down upon the Pelennor Fields and the hosts of Mordor massed against them they will all feel afraid and they will all have to master their fear. Even Théoden will “sit upon Snowmane, motionless, gazing upon the agony of Minas Tirith, as if stricken suddenly by anguish, or by dread.”

And at that moment all that there will be for any to do will be to rush into the heart of battle. Only a few battle hardened veterans will know what it is that they must do when they meet the enemy, the rest will have to learn quickly or perish as they do so. And Merry will find himself confronting a foe so terrible that even if he had been a veteran of many battles and had won many victories, not one of them would be of any use to him. But we will have to wait until another time to think about that story.

So there is no comfort that we can give him now and if we were to tell him what he will face in the battle we might terrify him so much as to unman him completely. It is best not to think too much about what lies ahead. John Henry Newman puts it well in his beloved hymn, “Lead Kindly Light” and we will end this week’s reflection on The Lord of the Rings with his words. Newman was a priest at the Birmingham Oratory whose clergy raised Tolkien after his mother’s death and so I would imagine that he knew this hymn very well.

“Lead, kindly light, amid the encircling gloom; lead thou me on! The night is long and I am far from home; lead thou me on! Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see the distant scene- one step enough for me.”

Anyone who has walked in real darkness will know one step is all that you can take at any point. Faith tells you that it is all you need. It is enough.

How Do We Know if the Time has Come Unless We Try the Door?

One night of rest remains before the host of Rohan begin the great ride to the plains before Minas Tirith. Théoden sits at table with Éomer and Eówyn upon his right and Merry upon his left. At first there is little talk as tends to be the way of it before a great event. What is there left to be said? But at last it is Merry who breaks the silence.

“Twice now, lord, I have heard of the Paths of the Dead,” he said. “What are they? And where has Strider, I mean the Lord Aragorn, where has he gone?”

Théoden does not reply but just sighs and so it is Éomer who tells Merry of the road into the mountains that Aragorn has just taken and the sad story of Baldor, son of Brego, who once dared to pass the door and who was never seen again.

Then it is Théoden who adds something to the telling of the story in order to bring some comfort and hope. He tells of how when Brego and Baldor first climbed the road in search of places of refuge in times of need they met a man of great age sitting before the door.

“The way is shut… It was made by those who are Dead, and the Dead keep it, until the time comes. The way is shut.”

Until the time comes.

This begs the question that Éomer now asks.

“But how shall a man discover whether that time be come or no, save by daring the door?”

Éomer’s question is answered in the asking of it and we know that Aragorn has already received the answer by daring the door with his companions and has passed through safely, commanding the dead to follow him.

There are moments of crisis in our lives when a choice must be made. It is at such times that the original meaning of crisis is revealed. A crisis is a time of judgment when the reality of who we are is brought into the light and revealed for what it truly is. The unhappy Baldor swore an oath in the pride of his youth, emboldened by the strong drink in the horn that he bore and so the way remained closed to him. Aragorn passed the door as the heir of Isildur at the great moment of the Age commanding the Dead to follow him and so fulfil their oath. Aragorn knew the authority that had been given to him and knew his greatness. To know this is not pride in the sense that it was for Baldor. In Baldor’s case the swearing of the oath was an aspiration, an attempt to declare himself a man of substance, of greatness, who could command the loyalty of his men. In Aragorn’s case the greatness was not something that he sought to grasp; indeed we saw him lay it down with all his personal hope of happiness in order to follow the orcs and try to free Merry and Pippin. Aragorn’s destiny is not an aspiration but is bound with the hope of the West and so he cannot refuse the attempt to pass the door.

And what of us?

Few of us will be called to a deed in which our lives will be put at risk as Aragorn was. But most of us, at some point in our lives, will be called to take a risk, to take a lead, at great cost to ourselves. At such times it will be necessary to examine ourselves to see if what we really desire is a reputation, a name that will gain the respect of others. If we can face ourselves and say that what we desire above everything is some expression of the Common Good then we should take the risk. It may be that in doing so we will achieve a reputation but that will not be our primary purpose. And we will not know, can never  know for sure, as Éomer asked, whether the time has come or not, until the risk is taken.

 

 

The Care of the Elderly: What Théoden has to Teach Us.

On the morning of March 2nd in the year, 3019 of the Third Age Théoden of Rohan was an old man sitting in his chair in Meduseld. On March 15th, just thirteen days later, he was dead. When we read these facts, presented in this manner, there is little to surprise us. An old man fades away and dies. We have seen it before and when we think of the old men that we have said farewell to, we sorrow over the fading and think back, as I think of my father, to a time when they were full of vigour.

But this is not the story of Théoden. He dies on the battlefield before the gates of Minas Tirith, the second great battle that he has fought in those few days, after a mighty ride at the head of his men, and after a charge into the heart of the forces of Mordor that raises the siege of the city and turns the battle.

Is the story of the last two weeks of his life simply the fruit of the imagination of the author? Or is there something to learn here about how life can be lived in our final years?

It is after the intense drama of the passage of the Paths of the Dead, and the display of Aragorn’s banner at the Stone of Erech, that Théoden arrives in Harrowdale after a wearying three days ride from Helms Deep. Éomer looks at him with concern and speaks to him in a low voice. “If you would take my counsel, you would return hither [to Edoras], until the war is over, lost or won.”

Théoden’s response is to smile and say, “speak not the soft words of Wormtongue in my old ears! Long years in the space of days it seems since I rode west; but never will I lean on a staff again. If the war is lost, what good will be my hiding in the hills? And if it is won, what grief will it be, even if I fall, spending my last strength?”

The key phrase here, I think, is “long years”. All who reach a certain age become aware of the speedy passing of the years. It is something that steadily creeps up upon us. At one time the prospect of waiting a few years meant to wait for ever. There comes a time when to look back over five or even ten years seems all too brief. As the psalm read at a burial puts it, “Our days are like the grass. We flourish like the flower of the field. When the wind goes over it, it is gone and its place will know it no more.”

No change of perspective can change this reality but for as long as it is possible we can choose to live each day fully. It was in Wormtongue’s interest to turn Théoden into an invalid, a man whose life had shrunk to the size of his darkened hall, but Éomer is no traitor or intriguer, he is just concerned for his uncle. It is the old man who reminds him that his gentle concern will have the same effect as Wormtongue’s intrigues. And Théoden resists his kindness. He will give himself up to life until his final breath.

Actually this is what the gospels mean when they speak of dying to self. We tend to think of this phrase in terms of some act of self-denial. What it really means is what happens when Théoden gets out of his chair with the fierce encouragement of Gandalf. It is his small self that Théoden casts aside with his stick and a big self that he grasps with his sword, a true self. And he grasps a big truth when he realises that two weeks of true life is worth far more than years of shrunken existence. It is like “long years”, and glorious years.

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.”