Gandalf Shows Aragorn a Sapling of the White Tree of Gondor

Recently I have been thinking a lot about a line from a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things…” When I say, think, I mean to say that it often comes to mind and then I repeat it as a prayer. The line comes from his poem, “God’s Grandeur” which laments the destructive behaviour of humankind upon the earth but affirms something deeper, the grandeur and glory of God.

Victory has been achieved over the Dark Lord and Aragorn has been crowned King of Gondor. But he fears for the future. He has no heir and as Gandalf says, “Though much has been saved, much must now pass away; and the power of the Three Rings also is ended”. These Rings represented what remained of the power of the Elder Days and the Elves in Middle-earth and although not controlled by the One Ring were, nonetheless, linked to its forging. These Rings were held by Gandalf, Elrond and Galadriel and it was these three who energised resistance to Sauron throughout the last centuries of the Third Age  as he began to build his forces for a renewed assault upon the West.

With the passing of the Three Rings so too must their bearers depart but that leaves Aragorn alone to govern the Western Lands. “I shall grow old,” he says to Gandalf. “And who then shall govern Gondor and those who look to this city as to their queen, if my desire be not granted? The Tree in the Court of the Fountain is still withered and barren. When shall I see a sign that it will ever be otherwise?”

Gandalf’s response is not just a reply to Aragorn’s question but is a spiritual principle based upon wisdom learned from years of long struggle.

“Turn your face from the green world, and look where all seems barren and cold!”

Gandalf reminds Aragorn that the hope of the West long lay hidden in the wastelands of the North. So unlikely did it seem that any hope could lie there that Denethor described the House of Isildur that Aragorn represented as “a ragged house long bereft of lordship and dignity”. We should learn that an answer that is cultivated in prosperous times and places leaves our pride and independence intact. Denethor desired such an answer, one that would come ideally from his own house. The danger with answers of this kind is that pride intact simply continues to grow until at the end it overreaches itself and ends in catastrophe just as it did with the Fall of Númenor. But an answer that is found in the barren place, the unexpected place, must be received as a gift. Aragorn has come from the ragged house of Isildur and the White Tree is found in the waste of the mountains high above Minas Tirith.

It is a sapling no more than three feet high, grown from a fruit planted long before by the kings of Gondor. This planting was a secret that not even the Stewards knew so that when the White Tree in the Court of the Fountain died in 2852, some 150 years before this time they had no knowledge of the fruit’s existence.

Aragorn describes the sapling as being no more than seven years old. At the time when it first began to grow Gandalf and Aragorn were fruitlessly searching for Gollum in the wild while the Ring lay hidden in the Shire, its true identity suspected but still unknown. Sauron’s power continued to grow as he put his energy into regaining the Ring. In the world outside darkness seemed to grow unchecked but the White Tree lived according to a different rhythm at its own pace and in its own time growing neither faster nor slower as events unfolded in the world around.

Hopkins reminds us of this deeper rhythm in his poem.

“And though the last lights off the black West went Oh, morning, at the brown brink Eastward springs- because the Holy Ghost over the bent world broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings!”

I think it is because I see so much that is being trodden down about me that I seek the wisdom of the deeper rhythm that I learn in Hopkins and in Tolkien. Like Gandalf and Aragorn I may have to pay close attention to the events that happen about me but if I contemplate “the dearest freshness deep down things” then I will be held by that freshness and not defeated.

This week’s artwork is by Darrell K. Sweet



A Cock Crow Announces the Fall of Mordor

The Lord of the Nazgûl chooses to enter the gates of Minas Tirith on horseback. He has waited long years for this moment and it must be done in the appropriate manner. All the defenders of the city flee before him except one. Gandalf remains upon Shadowfax who does not desert him. Gandalf is steadfast but even he cannot stand alone before his enemies.

And then something happens that surely no one notices and yet Tolkien, as narrator, knows is of the most profound significance.

“Gandalf did not move. And in that very moment, away behind in some courtyard of the City, a cock crowed. Shrill and clear he crowed, recking nothing of wizardry or war, welcoming only the morning that in the sky far above the shadows of death was coming with the dawn.”

It is a glorious moment and one easily missed because of the event that follows immediately after. And Tolkien gives space to the moment because there is a theme that has run throughout The Lord of the Rings and that is the resistance of the natural world against all that the powers of darkness can hurl against it.

Contrast the massive effort that turns the mûmakil of the Harad, the “oliphaunts” that Sam so delighted to see in Ithilien into engines of war to the simplicity of the cockcrow. Think of how after all the effort to train them the Lord of the Nazgûl casually wastes their lives, for “their purpose was only to test the strength of the defence and to keep the men of Gondor busy in many places”. Contrast too the one horse upon which the Lord of the Ringwraiths rides, a once free and proud beast, savagely broken so that it might become the instrument of its master’s will, to the free  choice of Shadowfax who does not flee when  all others do, whether man or beast. Cavalry is the one thing that the forces of Mordor do not possess. The bond between horse and rider that Gandalf and Shadowfax display or which brings the Rohirrim to the battlefield can only be created by the armies of Mordor with the most brutal force and it is easier to put the energy that is required to break the horses to a different, though equally savage, use.

The cock crows in the city because it is a cock. As Gerard Manley Hopkins wonderfully declares in his great poem, As Kingfishers Catch Fire, 

“Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; Selves- goes itself; myself it speaks and spells; crying What I do is me: for that I came.”

 Note please that Hopkins does not say “What I do is for me”. The Lord of the Nazgûl says that endlessly even in his service of Sauron. What Hopkins declares is far more profound because unlike the slave King of Angmar Hopkins is free, as is the kingfisher, as is the cock in the city courtyard, as is Shadowfax, as is Gandalf. And so he can say “What I do is me”!

The day has dawned in the sky above the war in Minas Tirith despite all the mighty efforts of the Dark Lord. Far away Ghân-buri-Ghân sniffed the air on the previous day and a light came into his eyes as he said, “Wind is changing!” Sauron is not the lord of the weather despite all the outpouring of his might and for that brief and glorious moment as the cock crows in complete indifference of all the powers of darkness, “recking nothing of wizardry or war” he is not even lord of a simple creature who is being itself.

We will encounter many who claim to be “lords” and sometimes we will feel quite powerless before them. If we are to stand against them in total freedom as Gandalf does then we need to learn how to commune with all that is free, with the free creation that Selves. We need to learn how to delight in all around us in its freedom and its beauty. To allow it to be itself even as we learn to become our true selves.



Gandalf Laughs!

It has been one of the joys of writing this blog over the last three and a half years that many new discoveries have been made in a work that I thought I knew well. And one of those discoveries has been of the role of laughter in The Lord of the Rings. Readers of my blog may remember a piece that I wrote about Frodo’s laughter at the Black Gate of Mordor that enabled him to make the decision to seek to enter Mordor by Gollum’s “secret way”. They will remember too the wonderful moment that comes, just before Frodo and Sam enter the darkness of Shelob’s Lair, when Frodo laughs and the very rocks of the Ephel Dúath seem to strain forward to hear a sound that has never come before to that unhappy place.

And now, after the encounter with Denethor in his joyless hall, Pippin is walking along with Gandalf and Gandalf laughs!

“Pippin glanced in some wonder at the face now close beside his own, for the sound of that laugh had been gay and merry. Yet in the wizard’s face he saw at first only lines of care and sorrow; though as he looked more intently he perceived that under all there was a great joy: a fountain of mirth enough to set a kingdom laughing, were it to gush forth.”

Pippin is learning to see deeper than surfaces as we have noted in the last few weeks and he encourages us to do the same. And here he sees the joy that lies deep within Gandalf’s soul. This is not a joy that is an alternative to care and sorrow but which lies deeper than the sorrow. As the poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, put it in his poem, God’s Grandeur, “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” Hopkins, a Jesuit priest, sharing the same faith as Tolkien himself, reflects on the way human activity has trodden down nature “so that the soil is bare now, nor can the foot feel, being shod.” And he, like Tolkien, discerns that the deepest reality is not the spoiling activity of grasping humanity but the “dearest freshness”.

This is no sentimental gush. Hopkins finds these words that come from a deeper place than the depression with which he struggled throughout his life. In his description of Gandalf’s laughter Tolkien finds something that lies deeper than Gandalf’s care and sorrow and deeper even than the terrible danger that threatens all that is beautiful, true and good in the world. Frodo saw it for just a brief moment at the Crossroads when he saw the garland of flowers about the fallen head of the king’s statue and declared, “They cannot conquer for ever!”

To see this deeper reality, as Pippin does as he gazes into Gandalf’s face, does not come by accident. We have already noted that Pippin is growing and later, after the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, we will listen to a conversation that he will have with Merry that will show what has been happening to him. I do not know how the miracle of grace comes to each of us and I know that the stories of the saints lay the greatest emphasis upon the undeserved nature of this inbreaking of joy that we have been considering. But for myself I recognise that I need to practice a daily discipline of delight if I am to connect more deeply to the joy that Pippin sees in Gandalf. The great 20th century American saint, Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Workers Movement used to speak of this discipline often. She was arrested often, standing with workers against over mighty bosses, the last time when at a great age during a strike of agricultural workers in California, but she never became cynical or bitter, always remembering the joy of bearing a child that  first drew her to her faith. In Gandalf and in Tolkien the delight had as much to do with fireworks at parties or good ale, a good pipe and good company as it did with so called higher things. But for them, and for such as Hopkins or Dorothy Day, it also meant a daily contemplation of what is eternally true so learning to see with Mother Julian that, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”