The Fall and Rise of Meriadoc Brandybuck and the Battle of Bywater

If you click on the tag, Merry, at the foot of this post you will find a series of reflections on his progress through The Lord of the Rings at least since I began to publish them on WordPress in October 2013. At that point I had just begun to read The Two Towers and so my first encounter with Merry was as a prisoner of the Uruk Hai of Isengard. I intend to return to The Fellowship of the Ring later in the year and hope to do it better justice than I did when I wrote my early reflections on another website. But even though the reflections on Merry’s early story are missing from this blog I hope that you will see that they do form a true “pilgrim’s progress” as do all of the stories of the major major characters in Tolkien’s great tale.

Merry’s story is of a soul formed through a fall and a rise and if you have already noted that this is the opposite direction to the journey that Lotho Pimple takes and that we thought about last week then you are right. The tragedy of Lotho’s story is not so much that he fell but that he did not live to face the truth about himself and so to rise again. I wrote last week about gaining the world and so losing the soul. Lotho never saw the grace of losing the world before Wormtongue murdered him.

Merry begins The Lord of the Rings as a competent organiser just as he is at the Battle of Bywater when he takes command of troops who have no experience of battle but plenty of spirit and leads them to victory over Saruman’s brigands. Merry slays the leader of the outlaws who, if he had known that the hobbit that he faced had done battle with the deadliest warrior of the Age and lived to tell the tale would never have dared to confront him.

At our first meeting with Merry he is the “leader” of the conspiracy that seems to know more about Frodo’s business than he does. He has food, hot baths and ponies organised at Crickhollow and a secret escape route from the Black Riders through the Old Forest about which he also has local knowledge. But as soon as he is in the forest he is out of his depth, he has to be rescued from Old Man Willow by Tom Bombadil and he remains more or less out of his depth for the rest of the story.

Which of us is ever at our ease in being out of our depth? I mean, truly out of our depth, beyond our competence and in an unfamiliar element? For much of the story Merry sees himself as no more than unwanted extra baggage in someone else’s story and yet without realising it he is becoming at ease with unfamiliarity, at ease with the sense that each experience is beyond his capacity to cope with. And so, without being aware that this is what he is doing, he wins the trust of the mistrusting Treebeard and so brings about the fall of Isengard and it is in “being overlooked” at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields that he aids Éowyn in bringing about the fall of the Witch King of Angmar, the Lord of the Nazgûl. And he achieves all this because he is one who lives for love. Love for the Shire, love for his friends and love for those, like Théoden and Éowyn, who give their love to him.

And now, back on familiar territory, battle hardened but not heart hardened, he deploys his troops swiftly and effectively and so brings to a speedy end the occupation of the Shire. Does he know how he has made this journey and why he has become such an effective leader? I suspect not. But neither does he mind. It is enough that the work is done and that the Shire can begin to be healed once more but we can enjoy the growth of his soul and love him just as do all who know him well.

“Wish Me Joy, My Liege-Lord and Healer!” A Happy Ending to the Story of Éowyn and Aragorn.

After Théoden is laid to rest with the highest honour ever given to a king of Rohan Éomer is proclaimed as the new king. He stands before his people and all his guests as lord of his hall and speaks of joy.

“Faramir, Steward of Gondor, and Prince of Ithilien, asks that Éowyn Lady of Rohan should be his wife, and she grants it full willing. Therefore they shall be trothplighted before you all.”

And then, at last, Éowyn is able to look Aragorn in the eyes without shame or fear and she speaks to him: “Wish me joy, my liege-lord and healer!”

And so the story that began when Aragorn aided Gandalf in the freeing of Théoden from bondage comes to the happiest of endings. Of course this shared story ended when Éowyn gave her heart to Faramir in the gardens of the Houses of Healing and when Aragorn and Arwen were wed on Midsummer Day but at this moment in Meduseld where the story began it ends in joy with the words that they speak freely to each other. For when Éowyn asks for Aragorn’s blessing he is able, freely, to give it.

“I have wished thee joy ever since first I saw thee. It heals my heart to see thee now in bliss.”

It was not only Théoden who was in bondage in the dark halls of Meduseld but all his people too. His shame was theirs. His sense of impending doom lay heavy upon them also and none more so than the one who most truly loved him for Éowyn loved him as a daughter. It was not just her own unhappiness and shame that she felt as Wormtongue’s grip grew stronger. It was her misery to have to watch a good, kind and brave man who had always loved her shrink into a lizard like creature under the sway of his enemies and to feel helpless as she watched it. But when she saw Théoden freed from bondage and able to fulfil his destiny as king this was denied to her. She was required to fulfil the ancient female role of waiting for men to return either in victory or defeat and she was denied the love of a man who might have given her glory and happiness. Tolkien has been accused of writing stories in which this traditional gender expectation is played out but this is not the story of Éowyn or Tolkien’s greatest female character, Lúthien of Doriath, who fights alongside Beren, her man, as a warrior who is at the very least his equal. Like Lúthien Éowyn refuses to accept the imprisonment that those who think they act in her best interests impose upon her. She follows her heart taking the way of a warrior into battle and following the man who she loves best of all standing by him at the very end defending him against the Lord of the Nazgûl on the Pelennor Fields as his body lays broken beneath his horse.

This is why Aragorn is able to call her back as she lies in the Houses of Healing. Her True Self has never given way to despair. When he anoints her with athelas “an air wholly fresh and clean and young, as if it had not before been breathed by any living thing… came new-made from snowy mountains high beneath a dome of stars, or from shores of silver far away washed by seas of foam”. Éowyn has remained entirely true to herself. Aragorn may have been a dream but it was for Théoden that she was ready to lay down her life. And then when she meets Faramir she realises that she is free to say yes to life and to happiness.

Éowyn is a woman of truth who has never compromised her True Self and although brought to the very edge of despair did not give way to this at the end. It is her love that has guider  her most truly and so she can look Aragorn in the eye. There is nothing for her to be ashamed of. She has given her love freely as her brother declared before the company and Aragorn too can bless her without shame. Both are true lovers indeed.

Éowyn and Faramir Declare Their Love as Éowyn Understands her Heart at Last

Éowyn receives her brother’s invitation to join the triumph at the Field of Cormallen after the fall of Sauron but she does not go. Once more the Warden of the Houses of Healing becomes anxious about her unhappiness and bids Faramir take time from his duties as Steward of Gondor to speak with her.

Faramir is a man of wise insight and he has learned much from the day he spent with Merry and so he says to her plainly:

“You do not go because only your brother called for you, and to look on the Lord Aragorn, Elendil’s heir, in his triumph would now bring you no joy. Or because I do not go, and you desire still to be near me. And maybe for both these reasons, and you yourself cannot choose between them. Éowyn, do you not love me, or will you not?”

In March 1941 Tolkien wrote a remarkable letter to his son, Michael, on the subject of marriage and relations between men and women. It is remarkable partly because it displays a closeness between father and son that is sadly very rare. Also because of its depth of insight. I think that most men on reading this letter would would wish they had enjoyed this closeness with their own father or that they could achieve it with their sons. Richard Rohr describes the general poverty of relations between fathers and sons as “The Father Wound”. Faramir has known this wound deeply but Tolkien, who never knew his own father shows that it need not be passed on to the next generation .

In the letter Tolkien writes about the Western romantic idea of courtly love in which a great lady would enjoy the devotion and admiration of young men, often expressed through poetry or deeds that would prove their love. A physical expression of the love was considered unacceptable although the two great Arthurian love stories of Guinevere and Lancelot and of Tristan and Isolde show that such relationships could move disastrously from the idealised form to the physical form. In his letter Tolkien also notes that to idealise a woman, to grant her some kind of divinity, does her no good at all. Tolkien describes this as “false and at best make believe. The woman is another fallen human being with a soul in peril.”

I refer to this, partly because I believe it to be Éowyn’s temptation. She desired the adoration of the greatest knight of his age and, with it, the adoration of all men and women. I also wonder if Faramir was tempted to idealise Éowyn. “Were you the blissful Queen of Gondor, still I would love you.” Perhaps not, perhaps Faramir simply feels that he has to declare his love with as much passion as he can to make Éowyn see it. Thankfully for his own sake he never has to know what it would be like to love the Queen of Gondor without hope! Éowyn sees reality at last or, as Tolkien puts it so beautifully, “the heart of Éowyn changed, or else at last she understood it”.

It is only possible to love flesh and blood although such love always points us beyond itself towards divine love which we glimpse in the temptation to idealise. Tolkien puts this powerfully in his letter. Every marriage, in a certain sense he writes, is a mistake. We could all find “more suitable mates”. It is possible to spend a whole lifetime either looking for the perfect mate or saying, “if only”. And we will never know. Even the best of marriages requires self-denial, perseverance and forgiveness. They require the decision to say the greatest, Yes, to reality, to the real person in front of us. I know that it has become popular to create our own wedding vows, as if by doing so we give the wedding ceremony more authenticity, but I become more deeply impressed by the vows of the old English Sarum Rite which is over five hundred years old and in which each person promises to “love and to cherish” for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death us do part”. Both Éowyn and Faramir have to renounce some kind of idealised form of romantic love and commit themselves to the real person in front of them.

Faramir Gazes at the Overwhelming Wave and Thinks of Númenor as He Takes Éowyn in his Arms.

The moment when the Ring goes to the Fire and the reign of Sauron is ended is told in three separate places in The Lord of the Rings and from three different perspectives. The first is at Orodruin itself as Sam carries Frodo from the Cracks of Doom and sees a brief vision of Sauron’s overwhelming power before “all passed… Towers fell and mountains slid; walls crumbled and melted, crashing down; vast spires of smoke and spouting steams went billowing up, up, until they toppled like an overwhelming wave, and its wild crest curled and came foaming down the land”. The second telling is at the Black Gate of Mordor as the embattled host of the West stand at bay against their enemies and Gandalf cries out, “‘The realm of Sauron is ended!.. The Ring-bearer has fulfilled his Quest.’ And as the Captains gazed south to the Land of Mordor, it seemed to them that, black against the pall of cloud, there rose a huge shape of shadow, impenetrable, lightning crowned, filling all the sky. Enormous it reared above the world, and stretched out towards them a vast threatening hand, terrible but impotent: for even as it leaned over them, a great wind took it, and it was all blown away, and passed; and then a hush fell.”

The third and last telling takes place in the gardens of the Houses Houses of Healing as a young man and a woman stand, hand in hand (although they do not know it) as they gaze northward towards the Morannon as all the earth holds its breath and “Time halted”.

“Then presently it seemed to them that above the ridges of the distant mountains another vast mountain of darkness rose, towering up like a wave that should engulf the world, and about it lightnings flickered; and then a tremor ran through the earth, and they felt the walls of the City quiver. A sound like a sigh went up from all the lands about them; and their hearts beat suúddenly again.”

At last Faramir speaks.

“It reminds me of Númenor,” he says, and he tells Éowyn of his dream of the great wave that rises above the fields and the hills to drown it and a “darkness unescapable”. Éowyn draws closer to him. Is the Darkness Unescapable coming? But no, Faramir’s limbs are light and he feels a hope and a joy that no reason can deny. And then he kisses Éowyn upon the brow.

Tolkien too had a recurring dream of an overwhelming wave that he associated with the fall of Atlantis and of Númenor. In his legendarium Tolkien tells of the great hubris of the king of Númenor, Ar-Pharazôn, who was seduced by Sauron to defy the Valar and make an assault upon the Undying Lands. Because of this attempt to break the  bounds of human mortality Eru, the One, intervenes and destroys Númenor with a great wave, saving only Elendil, the Elf-friend, his family and followers.

Tolkien and his wonderful creation, Faramir, both dream about the catastrophe and Faramir carries the sorrow of the failure of his great ancestors and the gradual decline of Gondor in his heart. He longs for the restoration of his people and yet fears their destruction. The sudden and terrifying appearance of the great wave above him tells him that the end has come and yet his heart says, no! His heart is pierced with hope and joy!

This is the eucatastrophe, a word coined by Tolkien himself and one that runs counter both to the hubris of our own times and to our own fear of catastrophe. Tolkien said that eucatastrophe is “the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears”. He said that this was the highest function of a fairy-story, something that he declared The Lord of the Rings to be and which was in no sense meant to be a disparagement of his work. The happy turn for Tolkien was never meant to reduce his readers to the kind of children who cannot bear unhappiness and must forever remain in an enchanted world in which no harm can come. Just as with Julian of Norwich’s great declaration that “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well” the eucatastrophe, the sudden and entirely unexpected surprise of joy can only come to those who have stared the darkness straight in the face.

No wonder Faramir kisses Éowyn at this moment; and no wonder Éowyn allows him to do so. But more on that next week.

The Meeting of Éowyn and Faramir. Defences Begin to Come Down.

Why would we want to be unhappy, to choose thoughts of darkness, even to seek out death? Why would we choose to build defences against the light, using all our strength to try to keep it out? There are some, like Sauron, who have chosen the dark, believing that the light is some small, temporary and fragile thing that must ultimately fail against the overwhelming power that is darkness. Sauron has made his choice and it is fixed for ever. Happily this is not the path that Éowyn has taken. She has not said the great “Yes!” of her life to the dark.

But her soul is in danger. The years of hopeless misery in the halls of Théoden as he became a shrivelled figure dominated by the whispering of Wormtongue have left their mark upon her. At least in part she regards herself as a woman from “a thatched barn where brigands drink in the reek, and their brats roll on the floor among their dogs”. Briefly a door opened into her inner darkness and the glorious light that is Aragorn shone into her heart. She allowed herself to believe that he would take her away from her unhappiness to a place of glory. She would become a queen, adored by the world and untouched by her past.

And then her fragile dream was snatched away. Aragorn chose the Paths of the Dead as he was destined to do and he rejected her love, even refusing to take her with him as the shieldmaiden that she believed herself to be. Since that moment she has sought death in battle believing that this is the only escape for her from dishonour and misery. She will not risk to hope for herself again. The pain of rejection feels too great. She cannot ride with the host to battle with Mordor as she did before and so she is condemned to wait, longing for the safe return of her brother whom she loves but refusing to hope for herself again. The danger for her soul is that the darkness that she believes to be her fate might yet become a choice. She might become embittered, vengeful and cruel or she might take the road of despair just as Denethor did.

And then she meets Faramir in The Houses of Healing and everything begins to be transformed within her. Her first words are proud but “her heart faltered, and for the first time she doubted herself. She guessed that this tall man, both stern and gentle, might think her merely wayward, like a child that has not the firmness of mind to go on with a dull task to the end.”

This sternness and gentleness so wonderfully combined in one man she has met before in Aragorn and as with Aragorn she knows that Faramir is a mighty warrior, tested in battle. Of course she does not wish to appear like a little girl before him but her defences remain firm against hope. Then Faramir does something that Aragorn could never do.

“Éowyn of Rohan, I say to you that you are beautiful. In the valleys of our hills there are flowers fair and bright, and maidens fairer still; but neither flower nor lady have I seen till now have I seen in Gondor so lovely, and so sorrowful.”

Éowyn still resists, speaking of herself as a shieldmaiden and ungentle, but her defences are a little weaker. She is not yet ready to take the risk that any who fall in love must take; the risk of hurt and rejection. And she does not yet want to take the risk that lies beyond that fear, that to fall in love means to give yourself away into the hands of another, not just when all seems fair but in times of sorrow and anger too. The old English marriage service speaks of having and holding “for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish”. Éowyn is still far from being ready to make that choice but at the very least she has ceased to walk away from its possibility. Faramir has called her back towards the light.

Image by Anke Eissmann anke.edoras-art.de

 

Éowyn of Rohan Is In Great Unrest in The Houses of Healing

The times in our lives of not knowing are a great trial and Éowyn, the Princess of Rohan who rode to the Battle of the Pelennor Fields in deep despair close to Théoden who had been as a father to her and there did battle with the Lord of the Nazgûl and slew him, is “in great unrest”. I will not try to compare her suffering with that of Frodo and Sam in their last journey through Mordor or that of the Host of the West as they march without hope towards inevitable annihilation at the Black Gate. This is not a desire to diminish her suffering. She must carry her own load as best they may and do, as we all must, to support others in theirs. But Éowyn’s burden is hard in part because there seems to be no meaning to it. When she rode to battle with her people she looked for death in battle because the man that she had hoped would bring the meaning and the dignity that she desired had rejected her and now this same man had brought her back from the edge of death. But for what?

The Warden of the Houses of Healing is in no doubt as to what her purpose is and that is to get better and he is distressed to see that she has left her bed. “You should not have risen from your bed for seven days yet, or so I was bidden. I beg you to go back.”

Éowyn, on the other hand, knows that this is not her purpose. Simply to be healed in body is not enough for her. She does not even desire it. Gandalf spoke of her true dis-ease when she was first brought to the Houses of Healing from the battle.

“She, born in the body of a maid, had a spirit and courage at least the match of yours. Yet she was doomed to wait upon an old man, whom she loved as a father, and watch him falling into a mean dishonoured dotage; and her own part seemed to her more ignoble than that of the staff he leaned on.”

For Tolkien there is nothing unusual about a woman with the spirit that Éowyn has. His greatest love story is the tale of Beren and Lúthien, names that are written upon the stones beneath which he and his wife, Edith, are buried in an Oxford churchyard. In that story Lúthien goes into battle alongside the man she loves with a passion and ferocity that overcomes both Morgoth and Sauron too, the greatest foes of all. That Tolkien gave the name of Lúthien to his wife means that he recognised this spirit in her. Aragorn was inspired by this greatest of love stories in his love for Arwen of Rivendell and Éowyn is a woman who longs for a hero of Beren’s quality.

She also wants to be a queen. Gandalf spoke of this too to her brother, Éomer as he remembered Saruman’s contemptuous words at the doors of Orthanc.

“What is the house of Eorl but a thatched barn where brigands drink in the reek, and their brats roll on the floor among their dogs?”

So Éowyn is “in great unrest”. Death in battle has been denied her, for a time at least, and she is permitted no other occupation. What can she do?

I think that she reaches inside herself and begins to find her own answer. She is a woman of truth. She may not yet know her own heart but she does not lie to it or seek to deceive it either. This is essential to the healing that she will find in this place.

“Who commands in this City?”

“I do not rightly know,” the  Warden answers. “Such things are not my care. There is a marshal over the Riders of Rohan; and the Lord Húrin, I am told, commands the men of Gondor. But the Lord Faramir is by right the Steward of the City”

I am so glad that it was not the marshal of Rohan or the Lord Húrin that Éowyn asks to see, but I am not surprised either. Éowyn rightly knows her own greatness and that only an equal can meet her need.

 

 

The King and The Healing of Éowyn

Aragorn moves from Faramir’s bedside to Éowyn’s and there he hesitates a moment.

“Few other griefs amid the ill chances of this world have more bitterness and shame for a man’s heart than to behold the love of a lady so fair and brave that cannot be returned. Sorrow and pity have followed me ever since I left her desperate in Dunharrow and rode to the Paths of the Dead; and no fear upon that way was so present as the fear for what might befall her.”

And now in that uncertainty he crushes the leaves of athelas into the bowl of steaming water not knowing whether he can call Éowyn back from the darkness that seeks to claim her or if he can to what she will return.

Last week we saw how when Aragorn anointed Faramir with the water and the healing herb how the fragrance that filled the room evoked the deepest longing of Faramir’s heart. Now as Aragorn “laves her brow” with the water and her right arm “lying cold and nerveless on the coverlet” a new fragrance fills the air about them.

“It seemed to those who stood by that a keen wind blew through the window, and it bore no scent, but was an air wholly fresh and and clean and young, as it had not before been breathed by any living thing and came new-made from snowy mountains high beneath a dome of stars, or from shores of silver far away washed by seas of foam.”

If in Faramir’s case the fragrance evokes his longing, I believe, for “that which is beyond Elvenhome and will ever be”, in Éowyn’s case it is surely something in relation to her desire for her people that is sensed here. Gandalf has reminded Éomer of the words that Saruman spoke to Théoden, words and insinuations that Wormtongue spoke more subtly but no less destructively.

“What is the house of Eorl but a thatched barn where brigands drink in the reek, and their brats roll on the floor among their dogs?”

What would Éowyn long for more than something entirely opposite to the “reek” that fills her nostrils? Something that would take away her sense of shame, the shame that for a moment she dreamed that the mighty warrior who enters her prison would save her from. I picture Éowyn gazing at the same tapestry of Eorl in his youthful glory, the tapestry that so crushed the spirit of Théoden, and as she did so I believe that it took her to the place of utter purity that the fragrance evokes. Of course the historical ride of Eorl out of the North would have been with real horses whose sweat would have mingled with that of their riders but not so the myth that is seen in and through the tapestry. That is an evocation of something eternally new and clean and unsullied.

Tolkien had a deep love for what he termed Northernness which in the form that has come to us through the mythology of the North is ultimately bleak and without meaning. But he discerned something that lay beyond that, something that he could see in the myth of the death of Baldur and in the longing of those who wept for him. When Tolkien spoke of true Northernness it is the clean cold air from snowy mountains of which he speaks that blows away the stain of our failure and shame. This is the truth that lies deep within Éowyn’s soul and that is called forth as Aragorn calls her from her dark valley. Aragorn is right when he says to Éomer that Éowyn “loves you more truly than me”. Éomer belongs more truly to that which Éowyn most truly desires. But Éowyn’s story does not end here. We shall see when we return to her at a later point in her stay in the Houses of Healing that her desire can lead her to something new and entirely unexpected and yet remain true to her original vision.