“Down Into The Land of Shadow.” Tolkien’s Ending of The Fellowship of the Ring.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp.397-398

Those who came to know The Lord of the Rings through the films that were made some twenty years ago by Peter Jackson will have been surprised when they first read Tolkien’s own ending to the first volume of his trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring. Tolkien gives us no battles, no brave self-sacrifice from Merry and Pippin offering themselves to the orcs so that Frodo can escape, no farewell by Aragorn to Frodo, and no heroic death of Boromir. That last will take place off stage at the beginning of The Two Towers. Instead he gives us this…

“So Frodo and Sam set off on the last stage of the Quest together. Frodo paddled away from the shore and the River bore them swiftly away, down the western arm, and past the frowning cliffs of Tol Brandir”

Frodo and Sam struggle to get past the current of the river that seeks to drag them over the mighty falls and so at last make their way to the east bank, and then…

“At length they came to land again upon the southern slopes of Amon Lhaw. There they found a shelving shore, and they drew the boat out high above the water, and hid it as well as they could behind a great boulder. Then shouldering their burdens, they set off, seeking a path that would bring them over the grey hills of the Emyn Muil, and down into the Land of Shadow.”

We can understand why Peter Jackson decided to end his first film differently and I, alongside the packed theatre audience who witnessed the film, was glad to stand and applaud it. It was a masterpiece in its own right and I could not wait for the release of The Two Towers which is what Jackson had intended.

But Tolkien had his reasons for ending this first part of his great story in this way and if I were to try to create the scene as I think Tolkien intended us to see it I would slowly draw the camera back from Frodo and Sam as they set off on their journey until all we could see was two small figures set against a vast and empty wasteland.

There is an old and deeply poignant prayer of the Breton people of France whose ancient language is related to Welsh, a tongue that Tolkien loved. It simply states that “O God, thy sea is so great and my boat is so small.” I have known it for some time through a collection of prayers from the Celtic tradition of which the Breton tongue is a part but discovered while preparing this blog post that an American admiral gave a small plaque to President John Kennedy, a fellow sailor, with this prayer inscribed upon it. The point of the prayer, as President Kennedy received it, was to remind us of our smallness against the vastness of the universe in which we are set. Kennedy kept the plaque on his desk in the Oval Office throughout his term of office to teach him humility. Presidents need such reminders in a way that Breton fisher folk do not. For them, and for all the “little” people of the earth, it is enough that they must set out each day into a world that is so much bigger than they are, and Tolkien intends us to see Frodo and Sam among such people. Their journey is not heroic in the sense that it is a conquest of the world although Elrond was right to compare Frodo to the great heroic figures of the First Age like Hurin and Beren, it is heroic in the sense that ordinary life is heroic. Ordinary folk shoulder their burdens and set out, seeking a path through a life that is so much bigger than they are. Frodo and Sam know that what they seek to do is far too big a task for people like them but they do it anyway because it is a task that they have been given to do.

Surely Tolkien drew here upon his memories of the ordinary soldiers on the Western Front in the First World War who did their job against overwhelming odds and did not see their lives as wasted because doing their job was what life was all about. It reminds me of a conversation I once had with a woman whose husband had worked all his life in a job that he hated in order to feed his family and did it with pride so that the high point of his week was to cook breakfast on a Sunday morning and to share it with them all. That is the kind of heroism that Frodo and Sam represent.

Tolkien wanted to teach us the heroism of the “little” people of the world.

“It’s No Good Trying to Escape You.” Frodo and Sam Set Off For Mordor Together.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 395-398

Even though all the Fellowship recognise the wisdom of Sam’s words when he spoke of how Frodo was determined to go alone to Mordor, and that the time that he was taking was not to make up his mind about the right course of action but to find the courage to begin, the debate is not at an end. Merry and Pippin, at least, are still certain that they all should all go to Minas Tirith. It is only when Boromir arrives that the story is able to move on.

‘”Where have you been, Boromir?” asked Aragorn. “Have you seen Frodo?”‘

Boromir is not ready yet to tell his story, to admit his failure, but he says enough to throw the rest of the Company into panic and despite Aragorn’s efforts to prevent them Merry and Pippin run off in one direction, Legolas and Gimli in another and Sam in another yet.

“Boromir! I do not know what part you have played in this mischief, but help now! Go after those two young hobbits, and guard them at the least, even if you cannot find Frodo.”

And so Aragorn runs after Sam while Boromir makes his final journey in search of redemption. For he will fall in battle while doing as Aragorn had commanded, willingly laying down his life for the hobbits, willingly paying with his life for his attempt to seize the Ring from Frodo by force.

Once again it is Sam, who is closest to the mind and heart of Frodo, who works out what is really going on. After Aragorn catches and passes him, making his way up to Amon Hen, Sam realises that Frodo is making his way to the boats using the invisibility that the Ring gives him, and that it is Frodo’s intention to escape them all. Desperately, Sam makes his way towards the place to where the boats are moored, caring nothing now for anything, not even for his own life, as long as he can find Frodo. Even his fear of water will not stop him until the moment comes when he fears that he will drown.

Even his fear of water will not keep Sam from Frodo.

“Save me, Mr. Frodo!” gasped Sam. “I’m drownded. I can’t see your hand.”

At last Frodo gets them all safe back to shore but he is furious, convinced that Sam has come to do what he feared the most, to prevent him from going to Mordor. It is only when he realises that Sam wants to help him do what he planned that he relaxes at last and is actually pleased that Sam has caught him.

“So all my plan is spoilt!” said Frodo. “It’s no good trying to escape you. But I’m glad, Sam. I cannot tell you how glad. Come along! It is plain that we were meant to go together. We will go, and may the others find a safe road! Strider will look after them. I don’t suppose we shall see them again.”

So it is Boromir who sends each member of the Fellowship towards the place that they must go. Merry and Pippin will be carried by the Uruk-hai of Isengard just in time to meet Treebeard who has made a rare visit to a hill on the eastern border of Fangorn Forest. Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas, while in the process of a vain pursuit of the young hobbits, will arrive in Fangorn just in time to meet Gandalf and so rouse Rohan and their king from deadly slumber to great deeds. And Frodo and Sam will go step by step towards Mordor and the destruction of the Ring.

Frodo is sure that he is going to his death but he is at peace with his choice. All that he has to do is to do his duty. But Sam is not so sure that they are going to die. Nothing will keep him from staying with Frodo right to the very end but he has not forgotten the Shire and his heart lies there. Will he see the others again?

“We may, Mr. Frodo. We may. ”

Sam still looks beyond the Cracks of Doom to the future.

“If He Screws Himself Up to Go, He’ll Want to Go Alone.” Sam Gamgee Tells The Fellowship What Frodo Will Decide.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 393-394

While Frodo is making up his mind about what he is to do and after Boromir has tried to take the Ring from him the rest of the Fellowship continue to debate about which way all of them should go and about what choice Frodo ought to make. It is clear that the majority consider that the sensible option is to go to Minas Tirith but then Sam speaks up.

“I don’t think you understand my master at all. He isn’t hesitating about which way to go… He knows that he has to find the Cracks of Doom if he can. But he’s afraid.”

Frodo will seek to go to Mordor alone.

Sam, of all of the Fellowship, is not thinking about what he should, or wishes, to do. He made his choice in Lothlórien when he looked into Galadriel’s Mirror and saw the danger that was to threaten the Shire. He decided then that whatever was happening behind him he must go with Frodo to Mordor. And he knows that Frodo will go there because it is the task that he has been given and that when he makes up his mind to go, to “screw himself up”, as Sam puts it, he will want to go alone. And so Sam is not worried about which way to go. He is simply afraid that Frodo will want to go alone without him.

Aragorn knows that Sam is right. There are some courses of action that require the simple giving of orders but Aragorn knows that this is not one of those. This is why he has gathered them together in a circle and also why it did not concern him that Boromir had not been a part of the circle. He knew that Boromir had already made his decision and so did not need to be a part of the discussion. This wisdom is expressed in the Benedictine tradition of Christian monasticism in the Chapter House. This house was designed in the shape of a circle so that the abbot could gather with the whole community to make those decisions that required a common mind. While in the circle every voice was to be heard, even the voice of the most junior member of the community, and Aragorn will not make a decision until every voice has been heard. There is even a moment when he thinks that the decision has been made and that it is time to give orders. He will go with Frodo and with Sam and Gimli to Mordor while Legolas and Boromir will go with Merry and Pippin to Minas Tirith but there is enough uncertainty in his mind to for him to realise that even at this point the debate is not at an end which is why he is still ready to listen to Sam.

The Chapter House in Wells Cathedral

It is when Sam speaks that Aragorn realises that the key point within the debate has been made. Sam has spoken the truth for which he has been seeking and even though Pippin still tries to argue against what Sam has said and what Frodo will seek to do Aragorn realises that the decision has been made whether he, or any other, agrees with it or not.

And Aragorn has been listening to another voice throughout the debate, one that is not physically present but one that will speak the truth for which he has been seeking. When Pippin argues that Frodo must be prevented from going to Mordor alone Aragorn replies:

“He is the Bearer, and the fate of the Burden is on him. I do not think it is our part to drive him one way or the other. Nor do I think that we should succeed if we tried. There are other powers at work far stronger.”

When Aragorn speaks of “powers at work” he is not talking about Frodo’s strength of character, considerable though that is. He is talking about a power that guides and moves the course of things. Some people will look for a flow with which they seek to align their own actions while others will give that power a name. But however we see reality, if we are wise, we will seek to learn how to discern this power. Galadriel spoke of the how the paths of each member of the Company were already laid before their feet and that therefore they should not be overly concerned about which course of action they should take. At this moment none of the Fellowship know what is about to befall them but Aragorn knows what way Frodo will go and that it is not his part to oppose it.

“There are other powers at work”. The Song of the Ainur by Anna Kulisz

“Take Off the Ring!” Frodo’s Inner Struggle Upon Amon Hen.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 391-392

It all begins because Frodo has to flee from Boromir wearing the Ring in order to do so. Frodo climbs up the slopes of Amon Hen and finally reaches its top.

“He saw as through a mist a wide flat circle, paved with mighty flags, and surrounded with a crumbling battlement: and in the middle, set upon four carven pillars, was a high seat, reached by a stair of many steps.”

A beautiful depiction of Amon Hen by Woodhouse

The high seat upon Amon Hen has always been a place set apart for reflection, an expression of the belief that if only we can get high enough, if only we can somehow rise above all the chaos that surrounds us, we will achieve a kind of clarity and will know what we must do. But in all the long years since first the seat was placed upon this hill top by the men of Númenor there has never been a moment like this. No-one has been able to see as Frodo does because no-one has sat upon the chair while wearing the Ring.

And what Frodo sees is war. “The Misty Mountains were crawling like anthills; orcs were issuing out of a thousand holes. Under the boughs of Mirkwood there was deadly strife of Elves and Men and fell beasts. The land of the Beornings was aflame; a cloud was over Moria; smoke rose on the borders of Lórien.”

And last of all, and perhaps inevitably, Frodo’s gaze is drawn towards the place in which the Ring was forged and the tower in which its master dwells: “wall upon wall, battlement upon battlement, black, immeasurably strong, mountain of iron, gate of steel, tower of adamant, he saw it: Barad-dûr, Fortress of Sauron. All hope left him.”

A fascinating, almost surreal, depiction of the struggle upon Amon Hen by Joel Marriner.

It is at this moment that Frodo becomes aware that someone is searching eagerly, voraciously, for him, for the Ring that he is now wearing; and that this creature, whose very being has become an embodiment of desire, so entire, that if the thing that he longs for were to cease to exist there would be nothing left of him but a memory of what he once was, will find him. And it is at this moment too that he becomes strangely aware of a familiar voice telling him to take off the Ring.

“Take it off! Take it off! Fool, take it off! Take off the Ring!

The struggle lasts only for a moment but during that time the whole fate of Middle-earth lies, literally, in the balance. Frodo is held, “perfectly balanced” between the Voice and the Eye. If Sauron is able to find him, to identify exactly where he is, then he will regain the Ring at last and darkness will fall.

Crucially, this moment is resolved when Frodo becomes “aware of himself again” as one who is free to choose and he takes off the Ring. “Then all the sky was clean and blue and birds sang in every tree.”

Frodo is not only able to think for himself again but he is able to achieve a clarity of purpose that all his seeing could never give him. Not that the vision that he has been given upon Amon Hen has been of no value for it has enabled him to see that he cannot put his trust in any power outside of himself because every power is as nothing compared to the power that resides within Barad-dûr. All that he has is the Self who is able to make this choice, the choice to go alone to Mordor.

The problem with hope is, as T.S Eliot puts it in his Four Quartets, is that “hope would be hope for the wrong thing.” There is no hope for Frodo in Minas Tirith because, for all its courageous beauty, it cannot stand at the last before the power that is rising against it. All that he has is himself and the choice that he made at the Council of Elrond to take the Ring to the Fire though he did not know the way. As Eliot puts it, following his teacher, St John of the Cross, we come to the point in which all hope has been stripped away and there we find, as Frodo does, that “the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing”.

Wait without hope, for hope would be hope for the wrong thing”. A depiction of Minas Tirith.

“Give It To Me!” Boromir Tries to Take The Ring From Frodo.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 387-390

We have heard this before. The long speech full of self-justification and fine sounding words. But when we heard this speech before it came from the mouth of Saruman when he gave it to Gandalf in Isengard, calling upon Gandalf to co-operate with him and with Sauron. Do the greatest crimes always require such grandiosity? Are such justifications always couched in terms of a particular action being an exception to moral law?

After Aragorn announced to the Fellowship that the day of choice had come, the day on which they would have to decide whether to make a journey directly towards Mordor on the east bank of the Anduin or to remain on the west bank and go to Minas Tirith, Frodo was given permission to spend an hour in thought alone. And it was during this time that Boromir finds him and begins to declare his mind.

Anke Eissmann depicts the moment when Boromir finds Frodo

The speech begins with kindliness as it must. If the speaker intends to justify a crime then they must first establish their intention to do good.

“Are you sure that you do not suffer needlessly?” Boromir says. “I wish to help you. You need counsel in your hard choice. Will you not take mine?”

Ted Nasmith imagines Boromir as he gives “counsel”

So the speech begins with sweet reason but soon it begins to display the same kind of exceptionalism that we saw in Saruman. He spoke to Gandalf about the failing of the Elves and of “dying Númenor”, and of “weak or idle friends”, and all this is with the intention of justify his own desire to rule and his need to obtain the One Ring in order to do so. Boromir also speaks dismissively of “elves and half-elves and wizards”, of their claim to be wise which he considers to be merely a cloak for timidity. And for Boromir it is “failing Númenor” that is the exception, “true-hearted Men” who “will not be corrupted”. It is the same speech albeit with a different cast of characters and a different exception. And in both speeches what begins with a we ends inexorably with an I.

“The Ring would give me power of Command. How I would drive the hosts of Mordor, and all men would flock to my banner!”

Compare these speeches to the words that Gandalf and Galadriel speak when Frodo offers the Ring to them. They both acknowledge what they might do if they were to possess the Ring and both are tempted to take it so that they might do good through its possession. But both know that the achievement of personal power always ends with a contempt for the lives of others. Others exist merely for the sake of the one who rules. Saruman and Boromir dismiss this refusal of personal power as timidity. Gandalf and Galadriel have both achieved this rejection of power for the sake of personal gain through long inner struggle and it is that struggle that proves vital in the ultimate destruction of the Ring and the overthrow of Sauron.

There is a wonderful moment in The Lord of the Rings in which Tolkien exposes the true reality of the speeches that Saruman and Boromir make and that comes when Gollum makes the same speech to himself, to his Sméagol self, during the journey that he makes with Frodo and Sam through the desolation before Mordor.

“See, my precious: if we has it, then we can escape, even from Him, eh? Perhaps we grows very strong, stronger than Wraiths. Lord Sméagol? Gollum the Great? The Gollum! Eat fish every day, fresh from the sea. Most Precious Gollum! Must have it! We wants it, we wants it, we wants it!”

Gollum the Great

It may be that Gollum’s ambition goes no further than a desire to eat fresh fish three times a day but once you realise that it is the same speech as Saruman and Boromir both make then you realise also that all desire for power for the sake of self-aggrandisement is ultimately as pathetic as is Gollum’s. It is not that Gandalf, Galadriel and Elrond reject the use of power, but that power must be wielded for the Common Good and with as much restraint as possible. They also recognise that their part in the story of Middle-earth is soon to reach its conclusion, that they have played their part in it, and they recognise that power must pass to the ordained authority, which is the kingship that Aragorn will bear.

“Give it to me!”

“We wants it, we wants it, we wants it!”

The same speech. The same tragic desire.

“May It Be a Light to You in Dark Places, When All Other Lights Go Out.” Galadriel Gives a Phial of Light to Frodo.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp.365-367

After Galadriel has given a gift of three of her golden hairs to Gimli there remains one last gift to be given, to Frodo, the Ring-bearer who is not last in her thoughts. She gives to him “a small crystal phial” that glitters as she moves it and “rays of white light” spring from her hand.

Anke Eismann imagines the giving of the Phial to Frodo.

“In this phial,” she said, “is caught the light of Eärendil’s star, set amid the waters of my fountain. It will shine still brighter when night is about you. May it be a light to you in dark places, when all other lights go out.”

Galadriel captures the light of the star of Eärendil in her phial. I have not been able to find an artist’s name for this. If anyone knows the who created this I would be delighted to add an ascription.

Frodo remembers the verses that Bilbo chanted about Eärendil in the Hall of Fire in Rivendell, the verses that seemed to Frodo “to fit somehow” into something about which he was dreaming, about “an endless river of swelling gold and silver” flowing over him. This is Frodo’s immersion into the history of light of which he is a vital part and of which Galadriel’s phial is now a living symbol.

A ship then new they built for him 
of mithril and of elven-glass
with shining prow; no shaven oar
nor sail she bore on silver mast:
the Silmaril as lantern light
and banner bright with living flame
to gleam thereon by Elbereth
herself was set, who thither came
and wings immortal made for him,
and laid on him immortal doom,
to sail the shoreless skies and come
behind the Sun and light of Moon.

Galadriel herself has been intimately involved in this history from the beginning. It is the story of how Fëanor made three exquisite jewels in which was captured the light of the two trees in Valinor, of Telperion and of Laurelin. Eventually the trees are destroyed by Morgoth with the aid of Ungoliant, the terrible spider-like monster and ancestor of Shelob, who Frodo and Sam will encounter in the tunnels of Cirith Ungol and who Sam will vanquish with the aid of Galadriel’s phial after Frodo is poisoned. After the theft of the Silmarils Fëanor will pursue Morgoth, defying the Valar who forbid him to leave Valinor. Along with his people, the Noldor, he steals ships from the Teleri, slaying them when they try to resist him, and so begins the tragic history of Middle-earth that reaches a climax in The Lord of the Rings.

A light when all other lights have gone out.

There is a sense in which the whole of this history is contained in Galadriel’s phial, both in its beauty and its sorrow. The light of the Silmaril that is captured in the phial is a sign of hope to which all the peoples of Middle-earth can look each morning and evening in the star that shines brightly above them. Eärendil brought hope to Middle-earth when it lay prostrate before the power of Morgoth and his star continues to do so today. In the terrible lair of Shelob, in a place where all other lights have gone out, Frodo cries out, “Aiya Eärendil elenion ancalima!” “Hail Eärendil, brightest of stars!” And at this moment when all hope is gone the light of the Silmaril blazes forth and the memory of the fall of Morgoth is rekindled.

But I mentioned sorrow too. For the story of the Silmarils is a story of trust betrayed. I mentioned the kinslaying of Alqulondë when the Noldor stole the ships of the Teleri but I could mention many other sorrows too. In fact one of the great themes of the story of the First Age as recounted in The Silmarillion is the telling of the sorrows of Middle-earth to the Valar. After the death of Beren Lúthien follows him to the underworld and sings to Mandos the most beautiful song in the world, a weaving together of the griefs of the Two Kindreds of Elves and Humankind that reduces the Lord of Death to tears of pity. Indeed we could add to this story that of Eärendil himself whose journey to Valinor is itself a plea to the Valar to take pity upon these kindreds.

Galadriel has been a part of both the sorrow and the beauty. She was a part of the rebellion of Fëanor and the Noldor, albeit reluctantly, but in her rejection of the Ring when it was offered to her by Frodo she displays her adamantine character and so wins a victory over evil that is vital for the success of the task of the Ring-bearer. Her gift to him is a symbol of that victory.

“Maybe The Paths That You Shall Tread Are Already Laid Before Your Feet Though You Do Not Know Them.” The Fellowship Prepare to Leave Lothlórien.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp.358-360

Galadriel and Celeborn gather the Fellowship together and Celeborn addresses them.

“Now is the time… when those who wish to continue the Quest must harden their hearts to leave this land”

Which way will the Fellowship take?

All the Company are resolved to go forward but which way shall they go? The journey will take them down the valley of the Silverlode to the Anduin, the great river of Middle-earth, but which bank of the river will they follow after that? The west bank of the river will take them to Minas Tirith and Gondor. The east bank will take them to Mordor. It is “the straight road of the Quest”, the “darker shore”, but which way will they choose?

For Boromir the choice is clear. He will return to Gondor and to the defence of Minas Tirith. Most of the rest of the Company would prefer to go with him. Such a choice would at least delay the terrible moment when the path of the Quest must take them eastward and to the land of shadow.

Aragorn says nothing. In Rivendell the promise that he made was to go to the war in Gondor to fight alongside Boromir bearing Andúril, the Sword that was Broken reforged, but when Gandalf fell in Moria he became the leader of the Company and which way would Gandalf had chosen were he still with them?

Which way will Aragorn go?

Frodo, too, says nothing. He will not make his choice until the breaking of the Fellowship at Amon Hen and the Falls of Rauros. There the choice will be forced upon him and it will be to go on alone to Mordor, but it is a terrible choice, it is almost certainly a choice to die, and until that moment he remains in silence for he does not wish to die.

Celeborn offers the gift of boats to the Company and they are grateful for this, Sam excepted. On the one hand it eases their journey. They do not have to walk down the Anduin with packs upon their backs. On the other it postpones the moment when the choice will have to be made.

It is Galadriel who offers her wisdom to them regarding the choice. “Do not trouble your hearts overmuch with thought of the road tonight. Maybe the paths that each of you will tread are already laid before your feet, though you do not know them.” And so it will prove. When the time comes the path will be clear for each one of them. Merry and Pippin will be forced to take the road to Isengard when they are captured by orcs. Aragorn will choose to follow the captives and Legolas and Gimli will choose to go with him. Frodo will seek some kind of sign to help him find the way ahead and in the end the sign will be that Boromir will try to take the Ring from him and this will lead him to resolve to go alone to Mordor. Thankfully he will not succeed in going alone because Sam made his choice at the Mirror of Galadriel. Wherever Frodo goes he will follow. He no longer has any uncertainty in his heart about the path that lies before him.

I am sure that Galadriel knows that her words of counsel will not keep the Fellowship from anxious thoughts. The choice that must be made is so great, so terrible, that it is impossible that it can be made without being turned over and over in their minds. At least this is true for Aragorn who must lead them and Frodo upon whom the burden of the Ring has been laid, partly by his own choice at the Council of Elrond, partly by the command of that Council. Perhaps we will always agonise over the great choices of our lives and yet when we look back we see a certain simplicity in the pathway that we have followed. The paths that we have trodden have seemed laid before our feet only we were not able to see those paths until the moment came and we had to follow them. The wisdom of Robert Frost’s wonderful poem, The Road Not Taken, only seems clear as Frost puts it, “somewhere ages and ages hence”. Perhaps when paths must be chosen there has to be agony. We are rarely given freedom from that, at least with the big choices.

Frodo and Sam will go alone but together.

“What Do You Think of Elves Now, Sam?” Frodo and Sam Think About The Magic of Lothlórien.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 351-352

What healing can be done after the fall of Gandalf is now complete. Frodo and Sam feel a growing restlessness, knowing that the task of taking the Ring to Mordor still awaits and, according to the wisdom of Sam’s gaffer “it’s the job that’s never started as takes longest to finish”. Wisdom does not need to come from the mouths of the great in order to ring true and, with sadness, Frodo agrees with Sam.

But despite their growing restlessness, they still have time to think about what they have seen and learnt and Frodo has a question for Sam.

“What do you think of Elves now, Sam?”

What do you think of Elves now, Sam? Frodo and Haldir at Cerin Amroth by FÄeriel

Frodo asked the same question of Sam after the second night of their journey while still within the Shire when they had been given hospitality in the woods on the hills above Woodhall and Sam had answered that Elves were “a bit above my likes and dislikes, so to speak”. At that point in the journey Sam was still the loyal retainer, the one who had been given the job of “looking after Mr Frodo”. Now someone might use language like, to have an opinion about Elves is something that is above my pay grade. The language may appear more sophisticated but it still comes from an older world of masters and servants.

Alan Lee imagines the stay with Gildor Inglorien above Woodhall

But much has happened since that time, described by Frodo as seeming “a very long while ago”, and slowly Frodo and Sam are becoming friends. I have written before about how, even after all they had experienced together, Frodo would have to depart the scene in order for Sam to become Mayor of the Shire and a councillor to the King in his northern kingdom of Arnor, but here in Lothlórien we see Sam slowly becoming this person.

“I reckon there’s Elves and Elves. They’re all elvish enough, but they’re not all the same. Now these folk aren’t wanderers or homeless, and seem a bit nearer to the likes of us:they seem to belong here, more than even hobbits do in the Shire. Whether they’ve made the land, or the land’s made them, it’s hard to say, if you take my meaning.”

Sam cannot know that in just a few years these people who “seem to belong” in Lothlórien, more even than hobbits do in the Shire, will have deserted it to go into the West. If he were to have known that it would have given him the sense of the impermanence of all things; that permanence is always illusory, as anyone who has ever emptied the house of a much loved elder after their death in order to prepare it for sale will know. But Sam does have a deep insight into the relationship between people and the land. As Tom Bombadil, who also knows something of the relationship between people and land, says of Farmer Maggot, “There’s earth under his old feet, and clay on his fingers; wisdom in his bones, and both his eyes are open.”

Bombadil could have described Sam in much the same way and one can only hope that they got to know each other better in later years, but he could have used similar language to describe the Elves of Lothlórien. A deep harmony has been created between them and their land. As the great Irish farmer poet, Patrick Kavanagh, put it, “to know fully even one field or one land is a lifetime’s experience”. Sam, Tom Bombadil, Farmer Maggot, and Haldir too, would all have understood Kavanagh in a way in which the homeless wanderers, among whom I would count myself, can never do.

Sam recognises, rightly, that there is magic in this relationship. He can feel it working all around him and he wants to see the Elves perform it. What he does not know, at least not yet, is that the same magic is at work in the Shire also. For Hobbits the magic is almost entirely implicit and deeply hidden within the ordinary. For them, magic belongs to entertainment such as their enjoyment of Gandalf’s fireworks, and they regard anything beyond that as uncanny and to be feared. For the Elves the very same magic is explicit, intentional and also completely ordinary. If Sam but knew, he is much closer to the Elves than he has ever imagined.

The Magic of the Shire. Farmer and Mrs Maggot as imagined by Henning Jansen.

“When Evening in The Shire Was Grey”. Frodo and Sam Sing Songs of Gandalf in Lothlórien.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 349-351

Galadriel and Celeborn wisely leave the Fellowship to themselves after the encounter in Caras Galadhon and Galadriel’s silent interrogation of their hearts and minds. What the Fellowship needs now is rest and healing of weary bodies. Even though at its borders Lothlórien is alert to possible threat at its heart it remains at rest and so it seems that the Company does “little but eat and drink and rest, and walk among the trees”; and it is enough.

At first, as Aragorn put it, there is a desire simply to rest and to forget grief, grief at the loss of Gandalf at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm, but inevitably after a while their thoughts turn to their loss and their grief becomes keen.

It is Frodo and Sam who choose poetry in which to try to put that grief into some kind of form. Perhaps it is as they hear songs of Mithrandir, the Grey Pilgrim, in the Sindarin tongue of their Elven hosts, that they begin to find their own thoughts move in the same direction. Perhaps it is, as Sam has already put it, that in Lothlórien they feel themselves to be “inside a song” that enables them to create their own.

When evening in the Shire was grey
his footsteps on the Hill were heard;
before the dawn he went away 
on journey long without a word. 

John Howe wonderfully captures Gandalf’s energy and vulnerability.

The words are beautiful and full of longing for what has been lost. The aching realisation that Frodo will never hear the sound of those footsteps coming along the path to his door again, a sound that always meant that something deep and rich, old and wise, was about to enter his life once again. But Tolkien is quick to introduce a disclaimer here. These words “feel faded as a handful of withered leaves”. Tolkien uses this sad image to describe Frodo’s feelings of inadequacy as he tries to put the person of Gandalf into words but we cannot help but feel that it is Tolkien’s own feelings of inadequacy as a poet that are on show here. Gandalf is far too great a figure to reduce to a few lines upon a page, or committed to memory in Frodo’s mind.

But a good poem is not a reduction of anything. Each line in Frodo’s evocation of Gandalf points us towards his greatness but also his simplicity. They speak of his mighty journeys; of his skill in languages; of his “deadly sword”, his “healing hand”.

Gandalf, a lord of wisdom

“A lord of wisdom throned he sat, swift in anger, quick to laugh, an old man in a battered hat who leaned upon a thorny staff.”

All through the poem Frodo gives us on the one hand, his greatness, and on the other, his vulnerability and all the time he is doing something that from their earliest encounters with one another, C.S Lewis admired in Tolkien’s work. It was after an evening reading The Lay of Leithian Tolkien’s verse telling of the story of Beren and Lúthien that Lewis wrote of myth making that it is the essence of a myth “that it should have no taint of allegory to the maker and yet should suggest incipient allegories to the reader”. And surely here in Frodo’s lament for Gandalf the incipient allegory that is suggested to us is the connection between Gandalf, the mighty maiar clothed in the form of “a weary pilgrim on the road”, and what first Tolkien and then Lewis described as the true myth of the incarnation in which, in Christ, God is clothed in our humanity, not in its semblance but in all its reality. There is no incarnation in any part of Tolkien’s legendarium. He deliberately chose to set his story in a world that knows nothing of it but again and again, in the story of Gandalf, in the story of the true king hidden within the weather stained Ranger of the North who goes by the name of Strider, and in other characters, the true myth is suggested to us in many ways. Might this be why our hearts are drawn towards them?

He stood upon the bridge alone. Alan Lee imagines the dreadful moment.

“Arwen Vanimelda, Namarië!” What does Aragorn say to Arwen at Cerin Amroth?

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (HarperCollins 1991) pp.341-343

In last week’s post we entered Frodo’s inner world of longing, of his heart’s desire, but he is not the only one who, upon this sacred hill of Cerin Amroth, goes deep within his own soul and there for a brief moment becomes that longing, his own sehnsucht. As Frodo descends the hill he finds Aragorn there, “standing still and silent as a tree”. In his hand Aragorn is holding a flower of elanor and he is “wrapped in some fair memory”.

So intensely does Aragorn enter his memory that, for a moment, he becomes the man that he was in this place, so many years before. Frodo, whose own inner sight is now so keen, sees the “grim years” removed from Aragorn’s face and once again he seems “clothed in white, a young lord, tall and fair”. Those who have read the story of Aragorn and Arwen that is told in an appendix at the end of The Return of the King will remember that this is exactly how Aragorn appeared when he and Arwen stood on this very spot and pledged their love to each other.

“Clothed in white, a young lord tall and fair”. Matthew Stewart depicts the betrothal of Aragorn and Arwen.

Aragorn is the young lord, tall and fair, standing before Arwen in that moment, but he is also entirely present in this moment within a story whose ending he cannot see. And it is in this moment, as well as that, that he speaks aloud.

“Arwen vanimelda, namarië!”

Tolkien chooses here not to translate the words, spoken in Quenya, the language of the High Elves of the West. Those who really know languages, as he did, know that translation is a dangerous affair. Albert Schweitzer, the great German scholar of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, used to speak to English speaking audiences from time to time but although he could speak English perfectly well he always chose to speak in German and with an English translator because he felt that he needed his first language in order to speak most truly and meaningfully. Aragorn is a true son of Númenor, the heir of Elendil, the elf friend, and lord of the Dunedain, the men of the west who have remained true to this story. He speaks now aloud from the deepest place within his heart to the one who holds that heart forever.

Tolkien does not translate these words here but he does translate one of the words a little later in the story.

Namarië.

His translation there is of Galadriel’s song that the Fellowship hear just before they part from her. We will think about that song on another occasion but here it is enough to say that Tolkien translates the word as farewell. So is Aragorn bidding farewell to his beloved, the fairest beloved that he addresses in the word, vanimelda? Is this a goodbye, an adieu, a last ‘God be with you’? In one sense it is but I want to think about this farewell in a certain way, a way that I think emerges from a reading of Aragorn’s story from the failure to cross the Misty Mountains in the pass below Caradhras and Gandalf’s decision to go through Moria.

At this point there is a sense in which Aragorn loses hope. By this I do not mean that he gives in to despair, that he gives up, but that whatever sense that he had, that Frodo would succeed in his mission and that his deepest longing, his longing for Arwen, would be fulfilled has gone. In the pages ahead we will read of Aragorn and hope on a number of occasions and each time it will be in the sense that he must do without it. He must carry on until the end of his road wherever that leads simply because he must, because he has promised to do so. The German mystic of the middle ages, Meister Eckhart, coined a word (German is a wonderful language for doing such a thing!) that probably translates best as farewelling. For him this meant the purest form of detachment in which the soul chooses to refuse attachment to anything less than God. Aragorn does not have such faith in God, not in Eckhart’s Christian sense anyway, but this most heart rending of passages in all of Tolkien’s works ends by leaving open such a possibility.

“Here my heart dwells ever, unless there be a light beyond the dark roads that we must still tread, you and I.”

Unless there be a light.

I have not found any artwork about the scene from The Fellowship of the Ring at Cerin Amroth that really satisfies me. This still from the scene in the camp below Weathertop is a beautiful expression of Aragorn’s longing.

Postscript

I have written before about the love story of Aragorn and Arwen and if you wish to read these posts please click on the tags, Aragorn and Arwen, and The Love of Aragorn and Arwen, below this week’s post. And if there are any scholars of Tolkien’s languages reading this please leave a comment below. I would love to learn from you, and others who have been touched by what I have written about this week.

A final thought. My own feeling is that the best translation into English of Aragorn’s words is “Arwen, O fairest beloved, farewell.” Do others agree or would you put it differently?