The Road Goes Ever On and On. Bilbo Sings for the Ending of an Age.

At last the great company arrive in Rivendell and the hobbits are reunited with Bilbo.

“Hullo, hullo!” he said. “So you’ve come back? And tomorrow’s my birthday, too. How clever of you!”

And the hobbits have that special and rare delight of telling their story to one who listens with pleasure and interest, although Bilbo is now old and drifts off to sleep from time to time. But after two short weeks, and with the first signs of Autumn, Frodo and Sam both feel the call to go home. And they have a sense that they must not delay any longer.

Bilbo sends them off with sadness and also some ceremony and then he starts to chant.

The Road goes ever on and on, Out from the door where it began. Now far ahead the Road has gone, Let others follow it who can! Let them a journey now begin, But I at last with weary feet, Will turn towards the lighted inn, My evening-rest and sleep to meet.” 

There are three variants of this poem in The Lord of the Rings. The first comes at the decisive and remarkable moment of liberation when Bilbo freely gives up the Ring (with a little encouragement from Gandalf!) and sets off on his travels once again. At that moment Bilbo speaks of Pursuing it with eager feet and speaks of happiness and being swept off his feet. The Road, the One Road that is “like a great river; it’s springs… at every doorstep, and every path… its tributary” is at that moment all opportunity, all possibility.

Later on in the story we hear Frodo speak the same lines at the very start of his great journey and still in the Shire but this time the feet are not eager but weary. Frodo is contemplating the leaving of his home and his friends and a journey into danger.

And now Bilbo speaks of an end to the journey. The Road continues and others will follow it if they can. But he will do so no more. It is time to find a friendly inn by the roadside to enjoy a good meal and a long rest.

I am reminded of a prayer by John Henry Newman, founder of the Birmingham Oratory, whose priests undertook the responsibility of guardianship to Tolkien after the death of his mother. “Support us all the day long of this troublous life until the shades lengthen and the evening comes, the busy world is hushed, the fever of life is over and our work is done. Then, Lord, in your mercy grant us safe lodging, a holy rest and peace at the last.” I do not think it too fanciful to think that this prayer was in Tolkien’s mind when he wrote this final version of Bilbo’s poem. I first heard it when I was a choir boy in an English parish church near Oxford. The vicar always ended Evensong with this prayer and it had quite an effect on me even though I was just 11 years old. But the image of homecoming has always had this power for me.

Bilbo speaks the poem for himself but also for the ending of an age. For Elrond, Galadriel and Gandalf it is also time to leave the Road to others. The Road goes ever on and on and Aragorn has the responsibility of founding a new age. “There is a real king now,” says Frodo to Bilbo,”and he will soon put the roads in order.” And Arwen has chosen to stay with him and not to leave the Road with her father. No-one knows where this road will lead. We walk the same road today pursuing our own errands that we have been given even as Bilbo did. The way as it was for him is often troublous but also wonderful. Each day unfolds both to us as it did to him. And the ending is a homecoming when the work is done.

Frodo is sent off with a blessing and a sense that he has a burden to shoulder once more. He senses that he is reaching the end of the Road but it is not quite just yet.

 

The Enigma of Arrival. Frodo makes Preparation to Go Home.

In the last few weeks on this blog we have been thinking about the love story of Aragorn and Arwen “both the sweet and the bitter” as Arwen herself calls it. Now we return to the moment in which the sweetness is at its most intense. It is the first days of the marriage of Aragorn and Arwen after their long separation and for Aragorn all is healed. When Frodo comes to see the king and queen to ask permission to go home he is kingly in all that he offers. “If there were any gifts that I could give that could match with your deeds you should have them; but whatever you desire you shall take with you, and you shall ride in honour and arrayed as princes of the land.”

This is seemly and befits a king in his triumph and bliss but Arwen sees more keenly, even in her happiness. She speaks of her father departing for the Havens and that because she has made the choice of Lúthien she will not go with him. Then she speaks to Frodo showing that she understands the extent of the price that he has paid and the hurt that he has taken, wounded by the Nazgûl knife, the sting of Shelob and the tooth of Gollum and perhaps most of all by the Ring that he bore to its destruction and yet did not choose to destroy it at the end needing the crazed passion of Gollum to enable him to accomplish his task. Others, like Aragorn, rightly honour him for all that he has done, but he gives no honour to himself.

“In my stead you shall go, Ring-bearer, when the time comes, and if you then desire it. If your hurts grieve you still and the memory of your burden is heavy, then you may pass into the West until all your wounds and weariness are healed.”

We will return at a later time to think more about Frodo’s need for healing and a little of the means by which he will be healed but it is worth noting here that he is freely offered, by the grace of the Valar and the loving choice of Arwen, that which long before Ar-Pharazôn sought to seize by force. He is granted free passage to the Undying Lands. But note that he is not granted the immortality of the Elves but the gift of healing. When he is healed, when his soul learns again its true road to heaven and he is wholly free of the burden of the Ring at last and he has lived out his days then he will die. The tragedy of Ar-Pharazôn is that he sought to gain something that was never his and so lost the gift that was his for ever and could not be lost unless it was cast away.

In 1912 the artist Giorgio de Chirico painted The Enigma of Arrival and the Afternoon. In the painting two figures are seen walking through a classical landscape as the ship that has perhaps brought them there is seen already in full sail and leaving on its way to somewhere else. In 1987 the great Trinidadian novelist V.S Naipaul made this the title of one of his finest works. In it he tells of a man who is constantly in search of a home but finds that as soon as he reaches a place it begins inexorably to move away from him. His arrival coincides with its departure. It is a beautiful and poignant description of the endless flow of things. There are moments within this exquisite work in which, in a Proustian manner, Naipaul makes time almost stop still for a moment, but I had to use the word, almost. Time does not stand still. This tragic insight is displayed in a comic courtesy soon after the scene that we have considered in The Lord of the Rings when the quarrel between Éomer and Gimli over the question as to whether the Lady Galadriel is the most beautiful of all ladies is at last resolved. Éomer begs Gimli’s forgiveness. He cannot call Galadriel the most beautiful for now he has seen the Queen Arwen. Gimli forgives him but with great sadness. “You have chosen the Evening; but my love is given to be Morning. And my heart forbodes that soon it will pass away for ever.”

This week’s artwork is a digital reproduction of the The Enigma of Arrival and the Afternoon by Giorgio de Chirico downloaded from Pinterest.

The Marriage of Aragorn and Arwen

Minas Tirith is invaded and conquered but in a manner that no one could have foreseen although one or two great souls, such as Faramir, might have dreamt of the possibility. But you would have had to have been a very great soul indeed to have foreseen this and a person of exceptional imagination too, for this is an invasion of beauty and few of us anticipate such a possibility breaking into the ordinariness of our lives although we might try to manufacture such a possibility through a vacation of some kind.

I try to imagine how the people of the city reacted to this invasion. Have they begun to forget the threat of the Shadow that lay over them for so many years? Is the freedom that they now enjoy becoming the new normal? Or are they a thankful people who will not forget the mortal danger that once hung over them? The order of the King means that they must make preparation for the coming of the Fair Folk but, with the exception of Legolas, they cannot have ever seen any.

And even those who have been close to Legolas cannot have had any experience that would fully prepare them for what they see at Midsummer in this blessed year. Even Frodo is overwhelmed by what he sees as Arwen enters the city.

“And Frodo when he saw her come glimmering in the evening, with stars on her brow and a sweet fragrance about her, was moved with great wonder, and he said to Gandalf: ‘At last I understand why we have waited! This is the ending. Now not day only shall be beloved, but night too shall be beautiful and blessed and all its fear pass away!'”

Every marriage is a triumph; an overcoming of obstacles and a uniting of difference. And every marriage is a sign of a longed for future in which all that is divided will be made whole and all life burst into a springtime of possibility and fruitfulness that will never die and every marriage is a sign of the uniting of the earthly and the heavenly. In every culture we have found ways, rites and ceremonies with which to celebrate this sign. We unite the personal and private happiness and hopefulness of two people and the public celebration of a whole community. Promises are made, rings may be exchanged, the couple may be garlanded with flowers and crowns placed upon heads. Even in poor communities this is a day when all dress as finely as they can. All eyes turn towards the bride as she enters, delighting in her beauty and wishing her happiness. And the bridegroom waits as he must, as he has made to do, in choosing to make this woman and this woman alone his happiness, and waiting for her to say yes to him too.

This is true for every marriage. No marriage is a matter of insignificance or inconsequence. It carries far too much meaning for that. But this marriage between the heir of Isildur, Elendil, Eärendil and Beren and the daughter of Elrond of Rivendell and the descendant of Lúthien Tinúviel is a consummation and an opening of hope that makes it a symbol for all peoples. Even as the long sojourn in Middle-earth of the Eldar begins to draw to its close so with the uniting of the Hope for Humankind and the Evenstar of the Elves life is rekindled for all.

For a while I have been thinking about the way in which I wanted to reflect on the story of Aragorn and Arwen. I thought that I would turn to the story as Tolkien tells it in the appendices to The Return of the King and that I would do it after the moment when Sam says to Rosie, “Well I’m back.” But the telling of their story seems to belong to this moment in the story as “Aragorn the King Elessar wedded Arwen Undómiel in the City of the Kings upon the day of Midsummer, and the tale of their long waiting and labours was come to fulfilment.” And so I intend to leave the main text of The Lord of the Rings for a little while to speak of their love and their labours.

This week’s artwork is by Hildebrant and comes from councilofelrond.com

Frodo and Sam Rest For a While in The Woods of Ithilien

Frodo and Sam have been here before because the Field of Cormallen lies close to the refuge of Henneth Annûn. These are the woods that they came to on their journey, guided by Gollum, from the desolation that lay before the Black Gate of Mordor to the Crossroads, the Morgul Vale and then the great climb up to the Pass of Cirith Ungol. These are the woods in Ithilien, the desolate garden of Gondor that “kept still a dishevelled dryad loveliness” even as they were ravaged by orcs and other foes of Gondor.

It is only a few short weeks since Frodo and Sam were last in these woods in the first days of March. Even then Spring was beginning and the life of the Earth was already breaking through the destructive grip of Mordor after the cold of Winter. “Fronds pierced moss and mould, larches were green fingered, small flowers were opening in the turf, birds were singing.” Now the Spring is advanced and in its full riotous glory of smells, sights and sounds. Even amidst the fearfulness of their last visit to Ithilien Frodo and Sam were refreshed by the gentle beauty of this place, now they linger there without fear “visiting again the places that they had passed before.” This time they know that there are no dangers hiding in a shadow or behind a rock or tree. The song of a bird can be heard clearly without the possibility of an iron clad footfall of an orc being listened for amidst its beauty. The “groves and thickets… of tamarisk and pungent terebinth, of olive and of bay” can be gazed upon and their aromas drank in without fear that they may conceal an enemy who might do them hurt.

The last time that they were here Frodo and Sam were pressing forward, always aware that every moment’s delay in their journey to the mountain might lead to disaster for their friends and all that they loved. The curtain of water cascading down the rocks that concealed the refuge of Faramir and his Rangers might be gazed upon for a moment as the setting sun lit it with light and colour but always there was the sense as they paused in their journey that there was another step to be taken, another danger to be faced.

Tolkien’s story is filled with pauses in which the characters encounter beauty in a manner that takes hold of them, making them stop to take it in. The hidden valley of Rivendell, the woods of Lothlórien, the glittering caves of Aglarond and the refuge of Henneth Annûn in the woods of Ithilien are all such places. Each one calls them to turn aside for a moment from their task but they are not thereby distractions. A distraction is a pulling or dragging away of the mind from the needful thing. In The Lord of the Rings the encounter with beauty is not a distraction but a recollection. The essential is that which is good, true and beautiful and it is the essential that is threatened by the Dark Lord and yet so woven into the very fabric of reality that the Dark Lord cannot touch and destroy it. We recall Frodo’s cry of “They cannot conquer for ever!” at the flower-crowned head of the statue of the King of Gondor cast down by orcs and Sam’s vision of the star beyond the mirks of Mordor that is inaccessible to the reach of Sauron.

Already Frodo and Sam have known that there is “the dearest freshness deep down things” and so they can wander through Ithilien without fear and contemplate it in a way far beyond that which those who have not known the dark as they have done can do. This is the dawn that awaits those who watch through the dark of the night, the Springtime prepared for those who have endured through Winter.

Frodo Gets Ready for The Feast at the Field of Cormallen

The Day of Praisegiving at the Field of Cormallen comes to an end with a great feast and the reuniting of friends as Frodo and Sam, and Merry and Pippin, and Legolas and Gimli greet one another and delight in the joy of being alive after great tribulation.

It is in preparation for the feast that Gandalf adopts the role of squire to the knights of the West who are Frodo and Sam.

“Gandalf, as if he were their esquire, knelt and girt the sword-belts about them, and then arising he set circlets of silver upon their heads. And when they were arrayed they went to the great feast; and they sat at the king’s table”

At first, when Gandalf presents a sword to Frodo, Frodo refuses to wear it. “I do not wish for any sword,” he says. For Frodo the days of battle are at an end. He fought with all the strength that he could muster and he was bested at the last by a power too great for him. If it had not been for his enemy he would have failed at the last and all the struggle would have been in vain. It was Gollum who took the Ring to the Fire, albeit by accident as it were, and not the one appointed to bear the Ring.

In part Frodo’s refusal to carry a sword is a recognition of his own sense of failure. In another it is a desire on his part to have no more to do with war. Frodo has seen at first hand the horror of war, the malice and hatred that Sauron sought to unleash upon the earth, and he hates it.

But Gandalf knows that the feast is not for Frodo alone nor is the magnificent raiment with which he is arrayed. When a great gift is received with grace it is not just the one who receives who is honoured but the one who gives as well. The circlet of silver with which Frodo is crowned, the sword with which he is girt, the mithril coat and the Elven cloak in which he is arrayed, are all an act of doing honour to those who gather at the feast. Some are great knights of Gondor, or of the Dunedain, or of the guard of the King of Rohan. Others are simple farming folk in valleys of Gondor far from Minas Tirith or in the fields of the Westfold of Rohan and when Frodo is arrayed as a fellow warrior and sits to eat with them he does them honour. He declares that their deeds in the war, their hopeless march to the Black Gate, perhaps achieved by overcoming great fear, are all worthy of honour. He names them brothers by sitting among them. And it is not just the warriors who are gathered at the feast who are honoured thus but every village, every family from which they have come.

The Ring was not destroyed by warfare, indeed the war was not won by strength of arms. If the War of the Ring had been a matter of besting the enemy by arms and superior power then it would have been necessary to use the Ring. That would have been as great a catastrophe as Sauron’s victory would have been. But the battles at Helm’s Deep, at Pelargir, at the Pelennor Fields and finally before the Black Gate, were not thereby of no account in comparison to the deeds of the Ringbearer. Without their courage, without their willingness to lay down their lives there would have been no journey through Mordor to the Mountain. And so it is not to seek the praise of others that Frodo must wear a sword at the feast but to honour all who fought. As Shakespeare puts in the mouth of King Henry V before the Battle of Agincourt:

“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; for he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother.”

A Day of Praisegiving upon The Field of Cormallen

After Sam and Frodo have woken in a soft bed for the first time in many days, delighting in the sheer wonder of being alive, they are made ready to play the central part in a day of Praisegiving.

“‘What shall we wear?’ said Sam; for all he could see was the old tattered clothes that they had journeyed in, lying folded on the ground beside their beds.

‘The clothes that you wore on your way to Mordor,’ said Gandalf. ‘Even the orc clothes that you wore in the black land, Frodo, shall be preserved. No silks and linens, nor any armour or heraldry could be more honourable.'”

And so Frodo and Sam are brought before the host of the West and the Praisegiving begins. There are mighty shouts, “Long live the Halflings! Praise them with great praise!” The King leads his people in doing honour to the heroes by bowing the knee and leading Frodo and Sam to thrones set up beside his own. And a minstrel sings praise before the host and the heroes telling them of “Frodo of the Nine Fingers and the Ring of Doom”, so making Sam’s joy complete. So great is the skill of the minstrel that the hearts of all who listen are “wounded with sweet words” and they overflow with a joy “like swords” until they pass “in thought out to regions where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness.”

This Day of Giving Praise is one that enables all who are gathered together on The Field of Cormallen to create a sacred space within their hearts to hold all that has happened to them as a treasure that in days to come they will be able to take out and gaze upon to make some sense of all that will happen to them in their lives. For they will know many more days of sorrow and of joy and will share those days with others too. But they have been to the very edge of darkness and have seen it gather about them, ready to devour them, and then the light has broken through to carry them to blessedness and they hardly know how they have got there or what the place is that they have reached.

Stories must be told and doubtless a story of the deeds of Frodo and Sam has been told to the army before they appear before them. Of course they know nothing of the journey through Mordor or the final events upon the Mountain. All that they know is that the Halflings who stand before them, clothed in orc rags, are their deliverers. Even the minstrel who tells the story with such skill does not know what we would call the facts. What he knows is a truth that is so real that even the hobbits, who lived the facts, recognise it as their own lived experience and recognise it too as something that transcends that experience. Both the praise that the host gives and the song of the minstrel rely upon formulae, of recognised forms of speech, but the overflow of their hearts is in no way diminished by this. Rather it is contained as a river channel contains a mighty flood enabling the water’s force to empower rather than destroy.

Once again we are taken back to Frodo’s experience in the halls of Elrond when Bilbo’s singing of the Tale of Eärendil and Frodo’s experience of the mighty river of the Music of the Ainur all became one thing for a moment.

It is this experience that all who gather upon the Field of Cormallen will be able to draw upon in years to come. The giving of praise, a king who kneels before hobbits of the Shire clothed in orc rags, and a tale sung by the greatest of minstrels that transported them briefly to a place of blessedness and then brought them back to the ground upon which they must stand and then leave to the feast and then to their duties.

And if they should choose each duty will be transfigured from this day on by the treasure that they carry within their hearts and even those who allow the treasure to be choked and buried by the cares of their lives may, in a moment of illumination, find the light that they once experienced upon The Field of Cormallen breaking through once more.

The image in this week’s blog post is by Tolman Cotton.

Sam Wakes Up in Bed at The Field of Cormallen

I have many favourite moments in The Lord of the Rings and two of the very best are when Frodo wakes up in bed in Rivendell after the flight to the Fords of Bruinen and this scene at The Field of Cormallen.

“When Sam awoke, he found that he was lying on some soft bed, but over him gently swayed wide beechen boughs, and through their young leaves sunlight glimmered, green and gold. All the air was full of a sweet mingled scent.”

Tolkien mixes some beautiful images, springtime after winter, light after darkness, rich verdant plenty after a wasteland and my own particular favourite, waking up in a comfortable bed after a hard journey.

As a young man I spent six years as a teacher in a secondary school (high school) in Africa. I loved to travel and soon learned that every journey was in itself an adventure to a degree that in the West we have tried to eliminate. We have “more important” things to do with our time such as being on time for meetings and other apparently essential things than we have for adventure. Adventure, after all, is always an interruption to our plans. It is exciting to watch the adventures of others but, on the whole, most of us are hobbits and we find adventures to be “nasty, disturbing, uncomfortable things” that “make you late for dinner”.

My African experience was that dinner and a bed for the night when travelling was always a triumph and usually depended upon an act of kind hospitality on the part of someone else. What this certainly taught me was to value the gift of a comfortable bed. It was certainly better than the hard ground although I learned to sleep on that too.

But I think that my love for the scene of Sam waking up in bed links to an earlier and deeper experience and that is of the profound feeling of being safe, and everything being alright, that I felt from time to time in childhood. Childhood has many insecurities even in the happiest ones. Dark corners hide possible dangers while the fear of an encounter with a bigger boy with whom you have some unresolved matter can occupy the imagination for a long time. Waking up in bed feeling safe with the sun streaming through the curtains and the prospect of a day of delight ahead is a simple pleasure that is rarely surpassed through life and the likelihood is that the day of delight belongs to the holidays and those who know their C.S Lewis know what a joy the holiday is. He links it closely to the joy of heaven.

As always, Tolkien is a little more reticent about making such links openly than is Lewis. But surely heaven is, at least in part, that sense of waking up and knowing, knowing at the depths of one’s being, that everything is alright. As a serious grown-up I usually awake with the knowledge that there is work to do. But I remember the childhood experience and it has a ring of truth to it that makes all my adult awakenings seem pallid by comparison. I may catch glimpses of joy but that was the real thing.

This is Sam’s experience. It is one of “bewilderment and great joy”, of being “glad to wake”, and his great cry of joy, of praise, “is everything sad going to come untrue?”

This is truly one of those glimpses of “the world made new”. Gandalf’s response to Sam’s cry of praise is not to point out that there will be struggles ahead. We all know that there will be. Gandalf joins Sam’s hymn of praise to “the dearest freshness deep down things” by laughing and his laughter is a “sound like music, or like water in a parched land.”

Like Sam we sometimes catch glimpses of this reality although for for few, if for any, are they so hard won. My enjoyment of the triumph of finding a good meal and a bed for the night in my journeys in Africa point me to the deeper authenticity of Sam’s experience on the Field of Cormallen but for both of us the fulfilment of that joy lies ahead at the fulfilment of all things, the great conclusion of the Music of the Ainur.