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.

Aragorn Abandons Himself to Providence

The attack on Helm’s Deep and its fastness, The Hornburg, is relentless and eventually Saruman’s forces stand on the verge of victory and at the darkest hour Aragorn finds Théoden fretting in the prison of his fortress.

“Had I known that the strength of Isengard was grown so great, maybe I should not so rashly have ridden forth to meet it, for all the arts of Gandalf. His counsel seems not now so good as it did under the morning sun.”

But Théoden is not about to shrink into the shrivelled creature that Gandalf had found in Meduseld just a few short days before. The work that Gandalf did in liberating him from Wormtongue’s grip has been too thorough and Théoden resolves to make a final charge upon his enemies and calls upon Aragorn to join him.

“Maybe we shall cleave a road, or make such an end as will be worth a song- if any be left to sing of us hereafter.”

And Aragorn resolves to ride with him.

Ever since Gandalf returned to Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli in the Forest of Fangorn, Aragorn the man of doubt has become the man of resolve. For in that moment Aragorn chose to follow Gandalf, the man who has passed even through death itself, without reserve. https://stephencwinter.wordpress.com/2014/02/12/you-are-our-captain/

This was not always the case. In the early stages of their journey Aragorn and Gandalf debated about the wisest road for the company to take. Gandalf wished to take them through Moria and eventually they went that way though against the counsel of Aragorn. And when Gandalf fell in battle against the Balrog it seemed that Aragorn was right. But being right did not give him confidence and thereafter he was wracked by doubt at every step. His decision after the death of Boromir and the capture of Merry and Pippin at The Falls of Rauros to follow the young hobbits was one taken without hope. Aragorn was sure that he and his friends were likely to die in the forest and he abandoned his dream of claiming the throne of Gondor and Arnor and with that the hand of Arwen. But when Gandalf returns Aragorn no longer fears anything, not even death itself. He is sure even in the darkest moment at Helm’s Deep that Gandalf will keep his promise to return to them but that certainty does not prompt him to hide in The Hornburg. He will honour Théoden’s courage in choosing to attack his foes.

In essence from the moment of reunion in Fangorn Aragorn abandons himself to Providence. Such an abandonment is not to some blind unfeeling fate. To be abandoned to Providence is a commitment to the Supremacy of the Good and is wonderfully liberating and energising.

The Thirteenth Century German mystic, Meister Eckhart, wrote: “When you have emptied yourself of your own self and all things and of every sort of selfishness, and have transferred, united and abandoned yourself to God in perfect faith and complete amity then everything that is born in you, external or internal, joyful or sorrowful, sour or sweet, is no longer your own at all, but is altogether your God’s to whom you have abandoned yourself.”

So it was that Eckhart could say, “I never ask God to give himself to me: I beg him to purify, to empty me. If I am empty, God of his very nature is obliged to give himself to me.” Aragorn never asked to be emptied but this is what has happened to him and even though Tolkien never names God explicitly in The Lord of the Rings Aragorn receives a glory in the moment of his final abandonment that will sustain him through all the days that lie ahead.

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.