Éowyn After Aragorn: What Becomes of the Broken-hearted?

We all know the clichés that attend a broken heart.

Hell hath no fury like a woman spurned! 

We know the stories of revenge and bitterness. They have been told again and again. But what of Éowyn? We know her shame as she watched the dishonouring of her people and of their king. We know that she was always aware that she was being watched by Wormtongue. She was to be one of the prizes that he would gain amidst the ruin of Rohan, a trinket to be carried off and enjoyed by the victor in the fight. We know too that although she was a warrior her role was always confined to be dry nurse to the broken man who was Théoden.

Then Aragorn comes into her life and with him comes the awakening of hope and the possibility of happiness. She knows that he is a captain that men will follow. The arrival of the Dúnedain in Edoras, a mighty company following their lord and hero, merely confirms to her what she can already see for herself.

And then he leaves her and he will not take her with him even though she pleads with him. All the hope that has begun to awaken in her heart is dashed; both hope for her people and hope for herself. And perhaps, too, in the lonely watches of the night, she has pictured herself as a mighty queen adored by her people. Can we blame her? We may remember the moment when Frodo offered the Ring to Galadriel.

“You will give me the Ring freely! In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair!”

Such words do not come from nowhere as if in an unthinking manner. Galadriel, too, had allowed herself dreams of greatness. So too had Boromir. So too had Saruman. So too had Lotho Sackville-Baggins. So too had Gollum “the Great”. Dreams of greatness are common both to the mighty among us and also to the weak. It is not our dreams that distinguish us from one another but the actions that we take in consequence of our dreams. Among the list of dreamers that we have just named Boromir tries to take the Ring from Frodo although he triumphs gloriously over his temptation in giving his life for Merry and Pippin; Saruman betrays the peoples of Middle-earth and the Valar who gave him his mission; Lotho becomes an ally of Saruman and betrays the Shire into his hands; and we know the long and tragic tale of Gollum.

And Galadriel?

“I pass the test,” she said. “I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel.”

Éowyn, too, will “pass the test” eventually, but even in her darkest moments she will not betray her people and become an agent of darkness. In her deepest despair and desire for death she will remain true to the love that she has for Théoden who has been as a father to her. When, in the battle, Théoden falls under the attack of the Lord of the Nazgûl and all his household knights are slain or, through the terror of their horses, desert him, Éowyn does not desert him. And, as Anne Marie Gazzolo recently commented on this blog, she is there to be the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy.

Ultimately it is not her dreams that will determine her destiny but her long practice of faithfulness to the drudgery of her life in Meduseld and the practice, too, of her love for Théoden. It is our practice that will determine our destiny although eventually we will have to surrender to a grace that is greater even than our practice, even as Éowyn will in order to fulfil that destiny. And it is that practice that will sustain us through our darkest nights as it did for Eówyn “when all her life seemed shrinking, and the walls of her bower closing in about her, a hutch to trammel some wild thing in.”

The Paths of the Dead. A Journey from Despair to Life .

At the end of the Second Age the King of the Mountains swore allegiance to Isildur at the Stone of Erech. But when war against the Dark Lord came the king proved faithless for he had worshipped Sauron in the Dark Years and still believed the dark to be greater than the light. And so Isildur said to him:

“Thou shalt be the last king. And if the west prove mightier than thy Black Master, this curse I lay upon thee and thy folk: to rest never until your oath is fulfilled. For this war will last through years uncounted, and you shall be summoned once again ere the end.”

The miserable story of the King of the Mountains acts as a kind of parable within The Lord of the Rings concerning the fate that awaits all who give way to the Dark believing either that their advantage lies that way, or that they have no choice, or some combination of the two. The story of Saruman is another expression of this reality and, if Sauron had triumphed, no doubt the story of the king and people of Harad and the other allies of Mordor would have been another. Isildur’s curse is not an act of arbitrary power. He simply declares what all worshippers of the Dark most truly desire; to exist in the darkness.

When Aragorn declares that he is the true king, the heir of Isildur, he calls the Dead to fulfil their oath. They must now serve him. Unlike the hapless Baldor, son of Brego the second king of Rohan, who sought to tread the Paths of the Dead in his own pride and without authority, Aragorn comes as one to whom authority has been given and so the dead must obey him. Baldor died because the way was shut “until the time comes”. The time has now come. The king has spoken and the dead must hear.

In one of his Advent reflections that you can find in his collection, entitled Waiting on the Word, Malcolm Guite calls Jesus “the king who walks alongside us disguised in rags, the true Strider.” https://malcolmguite.wordpress.com/2015/12/22/o-rex-gentium-a-sixth-advent-reflection/ This reference to Aragorn belongs to a poem inspired by the Advent antiphon,  O Rex Gentium, O King of the Nations and their desire. The Lord of the Rings is an Advent work proclaiming light in the darkness as we saw a few months ago when we heard Frodo cry out “Aiya Eärendil Elenion Ancalima!”, Hail Eärendil O Brightest of Stars! when he was lost in the utter darkness of Shelob’s Lair. https://stephencwinter.com/2016/01/12/the-dayspring-from-on-high-comes-to-the-aid-of-the-hobbits/ Advent is also the time when we long for the true king to come and heal the lands. We long for “the true Strider”. The Lord of the Rings shows us those, like Faramir, who have kept the faith, waiting for the true king and perhaps for the restoration of Númenor and maybe even the deepest reality of all, that to which Númenor, even at its most true, could only point to. It also shows us those, like Denethor, who lose faith, or those like Saruman or the King of Harad who come to believe in a perversion of the Advent hope believing the lie that declares that it is the dark that is the true reality.

Aragorn’s journey through The Paths of the Dead calling the dead to obedience and so to an end to their misery also recalls the ancient story of how Jesus went down to the dead after his death on the cross and so harrowed hell leading the dead from despair to life.

This is the journey that Aragorn now takes with the companions who follow him and he points us to the true Strider who calls us, too, to follow him through darkness into light.

 

The Grey Company Come to Aragorn

As Théoden and his escort ride toward Edoras they are overtaken by a company of horsemen riding hard. After initial fears that it is an attack they learn that the riders are Rangers of the North who have come to give aid to Aragorn, their kinsman and that with them have come also Elladan and Elrohir, the sons of Elrond of Rivendell. Aragorn is delighted. Only thirty have come but, as Théoden declares, “If these kinsmen be in any way like to yourself, my lord Aragorn, thirty such knights will be a strength that cannot be counted by heads.”

And Théoden is right. This is a mighty company of knights hardened in battle and loyal to their lord. The peaceful communities of Bree and the Shire have long been their care and little peace would they have known without it. So careful have they been to hide what they do that they have received little honour from the peoples that they have protected. Aragorn’s name of Strider by which he first introduced himself to Frodo and his companions at The Prancing Pony in Bree, is no affectionate pet name but a dismissal of one who is little regarded.

And yet the Rangers of the North are Dunedain, sons and daughters of Númenor and the once proud kingdom of Arnor. Over the long years since the wars against the witch kingdom of Angmar they have dwindled and their lord can no longer call himself, king, but only their chieftain, yet they have not shrunken into themselves as Saruman does after the fall of Isengard, who, even when he becomes lord of the Shire, is found to be living in miserable squalor. Their numbers may be few but they are a people who know their own greatness.

And this is because of Aragorn, their lord. Some years ago I came across some words of the 16th century Anglican theologian, Richard Hooker, that made a deep impression upon me then and still do today. “How are the people to know that they are faithful unless their captains tell them?”

To know myself as faithful is to know that my life has a purpose, a meaning and a value because it has been given to something greater than itself and it has been given well. The reason why the Rangers do not need the praise of the Shire and of Bree is because they have the praise of one that they honour far beyond them. Aragorn, their lord, named Estel, or Hope, by Gilraen his mother, raised by Elrond of Rivendell, befriended by Gandalf the Grey, loved by Arwen Undomiel, who fought with Rohan and Gondor as a young man is one whose praise is to be sought above any that they know. Think of Aragorn’s first words when he greets them.

“Halbarad!” he said. “Of all joys this is the least expected!”

Then think how you would feel if someone that you greatly respect spoke words like that to you. This is a people who know that they are faithful because their captain has told them and in knowing it they grow into the knights that Théoden speaks of. They are not simply a band of horsemen but a company of knights errant who have come to follow their lord wherever he goes even if it is unto death.

How much we need leaders like that today. Leaders who are praiseworthy in themselves because we know that they are willing to make great personal sacrifice for the sake of those who follow them and who make their followers as much a part of the enterprise that they share together as they are themselves. Too often it seems that the true purpose of an enterprise is to enrich a small number of people while many within it make great personal sacrifice simply to earn enough to get by. When things go wrong it is the loyal followers who must pay the price while the leaders walk away enriched by what others have given to them.

Aragorn is not such a leader. There are some that I have met who have something of his quality but not many. And it is a challenge to me to give thought to how I can be such a leader to others. My sphere of influence may not be great but I can make a difference within it.

 

Sam Rejects the Possibility of Turning Back

For the last two weeks we have been resting with Frodo and Sam after the great climb up to the pass of Cirith Ungol. Soon they will attempt to enter Mordor. Sam takes the opportunity to think about all that they have been through together. He does not speak his thoughts often but when he does they are worth listening to. Some people cannot stop talking and so you might just miss the wisdom they have to offer because you have got out of the habit of listening to them very carefully. Sam thinks much and speaks little so that by the time he does speak his thoughts they have been carefully crafted. You really must listen when he speaks because he will give you something worth holding onto. Tolkien was like this as well, believing that words have power in themselves both in their meaning and in their sound and so must not be wasted.

Sam has been thinking of the “tales that matter” and how we do not so much choose to be part of such tales but are chosen to be in them. “Folk seem to have been landed in them, usually- their paths were laid that way.” So it has been for Frodo and so it has been for Sam who was landed in this story by overhearing what Gandalf’s words to Frodo while he was tending the garden outside Frodo’s drawing room window. At least in one sense we can say that Sam was landed in it in this way but more truly he was landed in the story of the Ring because of the love he had for Frodo.

Sam goes onto talk about the possibility of “turning back”. “I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back,” he says,”only they didn’t. And if they had we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten.” Frodo offered Sam this opportunity the morning after they had enjoyed the hospitality of Gildor Inglorion and a company of High Elves even before they had left the Shire. Sam had longed to “see Elves” and his desire had already been granted. Frodo asked whether he still wanted to go on and Sam replied that he knew that he must because there was something that he must see through to the end. He must stay faithful to Frodo. Of that he is sure all the way through the story. Eventually he also knows that he must play whatever part he can in the attempt they must make together to destroy the Ring. He is part of that bigger story too.

Whoever takes the risk of loving another is drawn inevitably into their story. For most of us this comes when we “fall in love” with another and decide to stay together and to journey onward together throughout our lives. All that the beloved has done for good or for ill becomes our story too. So too does all that has been done to the beloved. And we can turn back at any point in the story because we come to believe that the price of carrying on has become too great for us to pay. It might be our life partner about whom we have come to believe this or it might be our children or a member of our family or any community or any friendship of which we have become a part. We can choose not to be a part of their story any longer, to turn back.

I am aware that we are in a place of great sensitivity here. Women and children have been told to stay in abusive relationships and this telling can become part of the abuse itself. We cannot make a law of staying, of going on; all that we can say is that those who have blessed the rest of us who are tempted to give up are the ones who have gone on just as Sam did. We use the language of invitation. Those who carry on have taught us what there is to gain if we do not turn back. We are inspired and strengthened by their story.

 

Faramir Remembers “Númenor that was”

“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.

Faramir shows us a Man who is his True Self

When I first began to think about writing about The Lord of the Rings a particular scene from the story came to mind before any other. Frodo and Sam are in the refuge behind the Falls of Henneth Annûn and are about to eat with Faramir and his men.

“Before they ate, Faramir and all his men turned and faced west in a moment of silence. Faramir signed to Frodo and Sam that they should do likewise.

‘So we always do,’ he said as they sat down: ‘we look towards Numenor that was, and beyond to Elvenhome that is, and to that which is beyond Elvenhome and will ever be.'”

Even now as I write these words I am deeply moved by them. In a brief moment of formal gesture we learn of all that inspires the best in the people of Gondor. It is an action that takes but a moment to learn but whose meaning requires a lifetime of faithfulness in order to understand. It is not enough simply to know the history and the faith that lies behind the action although the next time I write this blog I will write about this history and this faith a little more. What is required for true understanding is to live this history and this faith. All present at this meal are faithful in the deed. Perhaps only Faramir is faithful in all that the deed signifies.

I first read The Lord of the Rings as a young teenager. I will be forever grateful to my classmate, Jon Flint for introducing it to me. Jon was the son of a senior officer in the Royal Air Force and in many ways a Faramir like figure or one I can imagine Faramir being as a boy. At first we mistook his love of poetry and art for a kind of weakness, even effeminacy, and we began to torment him. One straight left punch into the nose of a tormentor was enough to teach us our mistake! I can imagine Faramir teaching similar lessons. In a moment I learnt that manliness and a love of beauty could exist in one person. Thank you, Jon.

Tolkien was a man of profound spiritual insight and I feel that in the creation of Faramir he displays that insight quite wonderfully. Recently I began to re-read Thomas Merton’s great spiritual classic of the late twentieth century, The New Man, and as I did so I could not help but feel that Faramir was an example of the kind of person that Merton was describing.

“In those who are most alive and therefore most themselves, the life of the body is subordinated to a higher life that is within them. It quietly surrenders to the far more abundant vitality of a spirit living on levels that defy measurement and observation. The mark of true life in man is therefore not turbulence but control, not effervescence but lucidity and direction, not passion but the sobriety that sublimates all passion and elevates it to the clear inebriation of mysticism. The control we mean here is not arbitrary and tyrannical control by an interior principle which can be called variously, a ‘super-ego’ or a pharisaical conscience: it is the harmonious coordination of man’s powers into one perfect actuality which is his true self, that is to say his spiritual self.

Man, then, can only fully be said to be alive when he becomes plainly conscious of the real meaning of his own existence, that is to say when he experiences something of the fullness of intelligence, freedom and spirituality that are actualised within himself.”

Frodo felt “strangely rustic and untutored” in the presence of Faramir at the moment of silent recollection even as I do before Merton’s words here. Perhaps the best I can do is to offer my desire to learn and so to grow into my true self which is my spiritual self.

Sam Gamgee: Warrior and Gardener

Sam Gamgee never intended to be a warrior. To be the best gardener that he could be, working in the garden of Frodo Baggins at Bag End, was an ambition sufficient for him. And he did not resent his lot because he loved Frodo. If he cherished a secret desire then it was to see the world that he had begun to learn about through the stories of Bilbo; but his secret desire had never turned into a root of bitterness within him.

So it is that when he first encounters a battle “of Men against Men” Tolkien tells us that “he did not like it much”. Faramir, Captain of Gondor, has left him with Frodo in the keeping of Mablung and Damrod, two Rangers of Ithilien, for a battle has to be fought. A force from the south is marching toward the Black Gate in order to join the forces of Mordor and Faramir is determined to stop them from getting there. He leads a guerrilla force whose aim is to make Ithilien as unsafe as possible for the enemies of Gondor. Soon Faramir’s men have the southerners on the run and Sam’s first encounter with one of his enemies is with a young warrior who falls dead at his feet.

It was the victorious Duke of Wellington, writing after his victory over Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo, who said: ” “Believe me, nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won.” Sam’s immediate response is to agree. As he gazes at the dead young warrior at his feet his heart goes out towards him. He “was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man’s name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace- all in a flash of thought.” Tolkien is probably remembering his own experience of war here. As an infantryman on the Western Front during The Great War of 1914-18 he was present on the terrible first day of The Battle of the Somme in 1916 in which some 30,000 British troops died in a fruitless assault upon the German lines. The response that he expresses through Sam’s thoughts is typical of a volunteer soldier. The natural empathy between one human being and another has to be trained out of the soldier in order that killing should become “natural”.

By the end of The Lord of the Rings Sam will be a battle hardened warrior but he will never be a killer. The journey that he makes from the garden in Bag End and back again is not one that he he makes because he loves battle and adventure. He makes it because he loves Frodo and because Gandalf told him to do the job. Even his desire to see the wonders of the world is quickly satisfied though he never becomes cynical about them. He delights in seeing the Oliphaunt of Harad but it is not as important to him as finishing the job he has been given to do. At the end of the story he will be a gardener again, taking up his old task with the old love but with a new wisdom.

And as we get to know Faramir, the mighty Captain of Gondor, a little better, we shall learn that he shares much more in common with Sam Gamgee than we might ever have expected when we first met him.