Gimli Teaches Us The Importance of Seeing

After the victorious ending of the Battle of Helm’s Deep Gandalf takes Théoden and a small company with him to go to Isengard and for the first time since the sundering of the Fellowship at the Falls of Rauros the pace of the story is able to slacken somewhat. The pursuit of the orc company who seized Merry and Pippin, the rush to Edoras and the battle that followed all lie behind and many and great dangers lie ahead, but for a brief time Legolas and Gimli have time to look about them and to wonder.

Both of them are drawn to those things that delight them most. For Legolas this means all that grows in the earth and he wonders at the Ents and the trees that they tend; and for Gimli this means the earth itself and the wondrous caves of Aglarond that he has just encountered.

Legolas is drawn to the ancient wonder that dwells within the Forest of Fangorn that we thought about when Merry and Pippin escaped from their captors and met Treebeard in Fangorn. Immediately he wants to know, to understand and to communicate: “They are the strangest trees that ever I saw…and I have seen many an oak grow from acorn to ruinous age. I wish that there were leisure now to walk among them: they have voices, and in time I might come to understand their thought.”

And in this we remember that Treebeard told the hobbits that it was Elves who first taught speech to the Ents. It is Elves who long to commune with all living things and to draw them into their own beatitude, their own state of blessing, that all creation might find its own voice and thus speak with the One.

But if Legolas is moved by his delight in the living forest he is outmatched in this by his good friend Gimli. The three pages in The Lord of the Rings in which Gimli describes the Glittering Caves of Aglarond are among the most beautiful in the whole work and Tolkien gives this beauty to a dwarf! Even Legolas declares, “I have never heard you speak like this before.” I wish I had space to quote them in full but I will just have to encourage you to read them for yourself. Just one section must be quoted and that is Gimli’s response to Legolas’ concern that Dwarves might mar the natural beauty of the caves in their greed for gain.

“No, you do not understand,” said Gimli. “No dwarf could be unmoved by such loveliness. None of Durin’s race would mine these caves for stones or ore, not if diamonds and gold could be got there. Do you cut down groves of blossoming trees in the springtime for firewood? We would tend these glades of flowering stone, not quarry them. With cautious skill, tap by tap- a small chip of rock and no more, perhaps, in a whole anxious day- so we could work…”

As we read these words they call to mind Leonardo da Vinci working in this way on his great fresco of The Last Supper at the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. It is said that he would spend whole days just looking at his work as it unfolded and doing nothing. Imagine describing such a way of working in an appraisal interview!

What we see described here at this brief moment of rest in the story is the fruit of intense seeing and then the using of the language of seeing. Tolkien gives to these two friends the roles of artist and poet. And why do so at this moment in the story? Is it perhaps to make the contrast with Saruman, the man whose mind is full “of metal and wheels”, who we are about to meet face to face, even greater? Or is it to show that these heroes are more than just warriors and are only warriors at all at greatest need? Surely at the least he shows us that his warriors are first of all great lovers and that it is because of this that their prowess in battle can bring forth good. Tolkien will return to this later in the story in his reflection on the contrast between the brothers, Boromir and Faramir, but we will leave this part of the story, perhaps, contemplating our own need to train our ability both to see and to learn to describe what we can see.

Legolas and Gimli teach us about the Mystery of a Person

“No common recipe for children’s stories will give you creatures so rooted in their own soul and history as those of Professor Tolkien- who obviously knows much more about them than he needs for this tale.” So wrote C.S Lewis in his anonymous review of The Hobbit in a 1937 edition of The Times Literary Supplement. Lewis himself knew perfectly well that Tolkien knew far more about his creations than was required for The Hobbit for he was privy to his friend’s labours in the creation of a world that had already taken the best part of a quarter of a century.

What this means is that every character in Tolkien’s work has a depth that is almost unique in literature. For not only do we have the development of a character within each of his books but also the way in which each character has been shaped by a particular history, not just their own but that of their people, and not just of their people but the way in which their people’s history has interacted with a greater one.

So it is that Legolas and Gimli bring to each of their actions within The Lord of The Rings the kind of depth that any person brings when they walk into our lives. However, they may bring that depth but we may not ever perceive it because we choose not to make the effort to do so. Equally it is possible to read the stories of Legolas and Gimli within The Lord of the Rings as just being there to make up the numbers in the Fellowship or to set in some kind of relief the bigger figures in the story, such as Aragorn. Of course it is one of the features of all of our lives to set each other’s stories in relief. It is a humble and humbling feature of our lives that in relation to the story of an Other we may only be comic relief for example, but this kind of shallow reflection of one another is all too common. Tolkien does not make that mistake and in his description of the Battle of Helm’s Deep in which Legolas and Gimli’s participation does have comedic elements we know that both bring with them a long history with orcs and with one another that makes some sense of their counting game.

Gimli will not have forgotten that his father, Gloin was once the prisoner of Legolas’ father, Thranduil of Mirkwood. Dwarves keep long scores of wrongs done to them and their forebears. And Elves who have the longest memories of all would remember betrayals by Dwarves that went back to The First Age of Middle Earth and the wars with Morgoth of Angband. So it is that when Legolas and Gimli stand and fight together we know that a profound act of healing and reconciliation has taken place that that belongs not only to the pages of The Lord of the Rings but also other stories too.

We do not have the time to tell these stories now. I hope there may be other occasions when we are able to return to them. What we can see now is that all our stories are a mysterious weaving of personal and greater histories, of character and of archetype, of word and of flesh. We do wrong to ourselves and to one another when we reduce ourselves and one another to merely the personal or merely the greater. Gimli is not just a Dwarf nor Legolas just an Elf. I am not just English. Actually I know I am not just English because through my great grandparents on my mother’s side I am part Irish and through my great grandparents on my father’s side I am part Italian. But I cannot be reduced even to that bigger story, there are so many other layers too. I am a mystery even to myself and always will be. And if I am to do due honour to others then I am not permitted to reduce them to some small part of my own tale. They are far too big, far too mysterious for that. I must seek to give them the worthship to which they are due.

I Will Wait in Silence

“The trumpets sounded. The horses reared and neighed. Spear clashed on shield. Then the king raised his hand, and with a rush like the sudden onset of a great wind the last host of Rohan rode thundering into the West.

Far over the plain Eowyn saw the glitter of their spears, as she stood still, alone before the doors of the silent house.”

And so the host of Rohan rides to do battle with the forces of Isengard. Gandalf has roused Théoden, King of Rohan from his slow decline and with Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas, he rides with them upon Shadowfax, mightiest of all horses in Middle Earth. Brave words have been spoken; courage has been roused in the hearts of the Riders; but Tolkien does not end this chapter with the sound of horses’ hooves or the sound of the wind in the ears of the riders but with silence before the doors of Meduseld as we stand with Eowyn as she gazes after them.

The silence that ends the chapter is intentional. We are meant to stay in a space that is almost empty. The action is taking place somewhere else and we wait alone. Not for us the comforting sound of the thunderous gallop of horses to keep our courage up. We must be brave in a silence that is an absence of sound and an emptiness that is an absence of the people that we love. And there is a fear also that the silence will end with the harsh cries of orcs as they advance upon us.

It is this kind of waiting that has been the lot of women in time of war throughout the ages. I remember speaking once with an elderly woman in the cottage in which she had been born and had lived in throughout her life as she described to me the day when her father had walked down the garden path to go to war in France in the autumn of 1914. For her that memory was as vivid and fresh as if she had just lived it and I could feel the warm autumn sun and see the closing of the gate as he walked down the village lane as she told her story. What I cannot remember is whether he ever came home again.

Tolkien was himself one of the young men who left for war in that same conflict. He did come home but lived the rest of his life with the memory. He never made his writings a vehicle for his memories but his experience of war shapes each page of The Lord of the Rings as they must have shaped the life that he lived after that experience.

Tolkien was never a propagandist but a story teller. In propaganda it is the message that is of prime importance. All experience must be reduced to the message. Each story must be flattened and simplified. Propaganda cannot allow complexity because to allow this is a betrayal of the purity of the message. Robert Runcie was Archbishop of Canterbury between 1980 and 1991 and had served as a tank commander during the Second World War, winning the Military Cross for bravery in action. Later in life he described how his tank had destroyed a German tank and how he and his men had gone to check for survivors in it. There were none and he told how as he looked at the faces of the dead men he suddenly saw them as sons, husbands, boyfriends; that there were people waiting for them who would never see them again. Such a story cannot be used by a propagandist and Runcie was no friend to propagandists during his time in office as Archbishop. Story will always leave the reader or hearer to choose how to respond, shaping lives that grow in sympathy and compassion and not reducing them to cartoon automata. Propaganda only wants automata who will do the bidding of the propagandist.

Choice and Serenity: A Lesson from Aragorn

It is some weeks since this blog reflected upon the adventures of Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas, and their pursuit of the captors of Merry and Pippin across the wide plains of Rohan. It has been longer still since we thought about Aragorn’s inner turmoils after the fall of Gandalf; how he was torn between his longing to go to Minas Tirith with Boromir to aid its people in the wars against Mordor and his sense of responsibility to Frodo, the Ringbearer. I wrote about the day when Aragorn ran uselessly here and there as Boromir first tried to sieze the Ring from Frodo and then fell alone in battle trying to protect Merry and Pippin from the orcs of Isengard.

I wrote about the moment when he crashed through the trees into the glade, wielding the mighty sword of his glorious ancestors that had cut the Ring from the hand of Sauron, crying “Elendil”  he did so and finding that the battle was already at an end. At that moment Aragorn was in despair. http://www.stephenwinter.net/page6.htm#140191

“This is a bitter end. Now the Company is all in ruin. It is I that have failed. Vain was Gandalf’s trust in me. What shall I do now?”

The choice that he makes at that moment is one that takes him away, both from the Quest of the Ring and from his longing to fulfill the promise to Boromir to go to Minas Tirith. He chooses to follow Merry and Pippin, the two members of the Company, who, until that point in the story, have contributed least to their task. Any utilitarian assessment of the greatest good at the moment when he makes his choice would tell him that regretably he must abandon Merry and Pippin to their fate and that at least their deaths might be worthwhile if the Ring can be destroyed and Minas Tirith be delivered. But Aragorn is no utilitarian and neither is he a soft-hearted or, might we say, soft-headed sentimentalist. He chooses to trust Frodo’s choice to go on alone knowing that the Council have entrusted him with the task of destroying the Ring. And he cannot go to Minas Tirith having abandoned his comrades. He will follow them even if the pursuit is in vain.

In one sense the pursuit, though heroic, is indeed in vain. It is not through his efforts that Merry and Pippin are freed. It is not Aragorn who rouses the Ents to march upon Isengard. At one point Legolas remarks that they have made this great journey to little purpose and as they journey further into Fangorn Forest Gimli is even more blunt.

“If we do not find them soon, we shall be of no use to them, except to sit down beside them, and show our friendship but starving together.”

Yet Aragorn is serene through all this. “If that is indeed all we can do,” he says, “then we must do that. Let us go on.”

Aragorn has made his choice and once made he will waste no time upon regret. He has done all that needs to be done. We might say that there is some providential link, a synchronicity, between his choice and all the great events that will follow. We might say that if we choose rightly then good things will follow even if we cannot prove a direct link between our choice and the subsequent good. But we cannot prove such a link and Aragorn would not wish to attempt such a proof. He would regard this as an attempt at self-justification and a craven act to which he would never stoop. That is his greatness and the reason why Legolas and Gimli will go with him. And if we would know the peace that Aragorn knows then we too will seek only to make the right choice and then to act upon without regret.