The “Hopeless Journey” of the Armies of the West.

A few days after the great battle the armies of the West gather once more upon the Pelennor Fields in order to march towards the Morannon, the same Black Gate that Frodo and Sam saw upon their journey to Mordor and realised was impossible to enter. Tolkien describes the march as a “hopeless journey”, one that must end in inevitable defeat and death, and this begins to weigh upon the hearts of the young soldiers.

For those who have lived their lives in the far provinces of Gondor and of Rohan, Mordor has been but a name only, albeit a dark and fearful one, now it is a living nightmare that is beyond their comprehension. Aragorn treats them with mercy, allowing them to withdraw and to fulfil a mission that they can comprehend. They are to recapture the island of Cair Andros that lies within the waters of the Anduin.

The rest of the army continue and so reach the impregnable defences of the Dark Land. There they encounter the Lieutenant of the Tower of Barad-dûr who plays a game of negotiation while torturing them by presenting to them items taken from Frodo when the guard of Cirith Ungol found him by the road leading from Shelob’s Lair. A coat, a cloak and a sword.

A hopeless journey ends in a hopeless battle as the full might of Mordor and its allies breaks upon the small brave army arranged upon two hills before the gate. Peregrin Took, now truly the “valiant man” that Gandalf presented to the defenders of Minas Tirith just a few short days before, falls beneath the vast body of a Troll that he has just slain in defence of Beregond, his friend. Even though the last words that he hears before he slips out of consciousness are that “The Eagles are coming!” Pippin is sure that his story is come to an end and so too is the story of all that he cares about.

How do we keep going without hope? Tolkien often returns to this question in The Lord of the Rings. It was a major theme in the story of the pursuit of the orcs who had captured Merry and Pippin at the Falls of Rauros when the Fellowship was broken. Aragorn knows that he is likely to fail in his attempt and so all that he has hoped for through his life will fail too. The hope that he has nourished that he will restore the honour and the fortunes of his people, the Dunedain of the West, a hope that is enshrined in the very name his mother gave to him, Estel, as she lay dying; the hope that he will restore the kingdom of Gondor; and the hope that he will win the hand of Arwen in marriage, all this is lain down in a task that is impossible.

At all points within the story hope is understood as something greater than simply that what a particular character is trying to achieve will be successful. Success, of course, is desired, but it is not the thing that is most important. Even the destruction of the Ring itself is not the thing that matters most. When we return to the story of Frodo and Sam’s journey through Mordor we will come to a moment when Sam glimpses a star, perhaps the Silmaril in the heavens that is beyond the grasp of Sauron. And as he sees it he understands that “in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.”

This is the difference, Sam understands, between hope and defiance. Defiance is brave and we saw it when we thought about Éomer preparing for a good death in battle before Minas Tirith. Hope goes far deeper and knows that there is a reality that is far greater than my part in the story and yet, somehow, will include us too in a way far beyond our comprehension but not beyond our love.

The journey is hopeless in so far as there is no expectation of a successful end to it. But true hope goes deeper than expectation. It is grounded in love for that which is highest and that enables us to keep going until the end.

 

The Hands of the King are The Hands of a Healer. Aragorn in The Houses of Healing.

I have been looking forward to this part of The Lord of the Rings for some time now. Regular readers of this blog will know that I have been carefully reading Tolkien’s wonderful story and that each week I write a reflection or meditation inspired by what I have just been reading. And so in recent weeks I have been reading Tolkien’s account of The Battle of the Pelennor Fields and the Death of Théoden and the Fall of the Witch King of Angmar at the hands of Éowyn of Rohan and Meriadoc Brandybuck of The Shire.

And now I want to turn to the beautiful account of the coming of the King to The Houses of Healing and in the weeks to come we will walk with him to the beds of Faramir, Éowyn and Merry and feel for ourselves the power of the king and perhaps, from afar, catch the fragrance of athelas. 

And just in case regular readers may have noticed that I have not made any reference to the timely arrival of Aragorn upon the battlefield that is because I want to reflect on that event through the telling of the story by Legolas and Gimli.

The battle that has been fought has been unlike any other in that a power is at work in the wounded that is named “the Black Shadow, for it came from the Nazgûl”. Tolkien tells us that “those who were stricken with it fell slowly into an ever deeper dream, and then passed to silence and a deadly cold, and so died”. Viktor Frankl describes something remarkably similar in his account of working as an inmate physician in the Nazi concentration camps with nothing more available to him than a few bottles of aspirin. He noted that if someone lost hope and a sense of meaning then they would almost certainly soon die. But if they were able to hold onto hope and meaning then there was a good chance that they might survive the many epidemics that swept through the camps even though they were half starved.

It is the coming of the king that brings hope and meaning to the stricken. In their seminal work, King, Warrior, Magician, Lover Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette describe the energy of the King Archetype as being one that brings order and a sense that everything is in its right place without anything needing to be forced and as one that brings blessing and fruitfulness. It is not just Aragorn who brings this archetype to bear. We saw the impact that Théoden’s arising from his chair to lead his people once again had upon them. It was literally transformative. This transformation shows why Saruman and his agent, Wormtongue, put so much effort into unmanning the king. And now in the account of the events in the Houses of  Healing Tolkien makes it clear that Gandalf is unable to heal those who have fallen under the Black Shadow. It is not that Aragorn has a magic that Gandalf does not have but that he can connect to the King Archetype in a way that Gandalf cannot. Aragorn is the king.

In English history the belief that the king or the queen was a healer persisted right into the 18th century and a liturgy for the royal touch was included in the Book of Common Prayer that was possessed by most literate people of the time. It was only with the growing influence of the Enlightenment that the monarch came just to make a gift of money instead of also laying hands upon the sick. The Queen still makes the gift in a service on Maundy Thursday each year. Shakespeare wonderfully describes the older practice in lines from Macbeth,

“Strangely visited people, all swol’n and ulcerous,  pitiful to the eye, the mere despair of surgery, he cures, hanging a golden stamp about their necks, put on with holy prayers.”

It is this ancient belief that Tolkien draws upon here in the stories of Aragorn’s healings, and ancient belief that I would argue was seen at work in Viktor Frankl’s experience in the Nazi concentration camps. Frankl showed implicitly in a way that Moore and Gillette do explicitly that access to the King Archetype is available to all of us and will order, heal and bless.

 

The Siege of Gondor: A Word to Those For Whom Hope Has Gone

“So now at last the City was besieged, enclosed in a ring of foes.” And in the next few pages Tolkien relentlessly builds a picture of hopelessness as the hosts of Mordor begin the assault upon Minas Tirith until he reaches the appalling climax of the winged ride of the Nazgûl.

“Ever they circled above the City, like vultures that expect their fill of doomed men’s flesh. Out of sight and shot they flew, and yet were ever present, and their deadly voices rent the air. More unbearable they became, not less, at each new cry. At length even the stout-hearted would fling themselves to the ground as the hidden menace passed over them, or they would stand, letting their weapons fall from nerveless hands while into their minds a blackness came, and they thought no more of war; but only of hiding and of crawling, and of death.”

And so Tolkien brings us to a dark place once again and, as with Frodo and Sam in Shelob’s Lair, a light will break in that will proclaim that there is no darkness so deep that it cannot be breached. And the words of the one hundred and thirty-ninth psalm come to mind declaring:

If I say surely the darkness shall cover me; even the night shall be light about me.

Yea, the darkness hideth not from thee; but the night shineth as the day: the darkness and the light  are both alike to thee.

This week’s posting on my blog is dedicated to all those who are in dark places; to all those who see no way to light and life beyond the darkness. It is dedicated to those for whom everything in which they have placed their trust has proved to be a broken reed. They are like the men of Gondor looking out across the Pelennor and seeing no possibility of relief; like the defenders of the city thinking “only of hiding and of crawling and of death”.

In a few days time on this blog I will tell the story of a man whose wife lies, an innocent prisoner in a foreign jail, a pawn in a game played by people of power; a man who cannot reach her or see her. Today I dedicate this piece to him and to his wife. And if you know something of the darkness that the defenders of Gondor know then this is for you as well.

Don’t give up.

 

 

You Have Come to the End of the Gondor that You Have Known

These are not the kind of words that we want to hear from our prophets. When times are hard we want to be comforted; we want to be encouraged. We do not want to hear of endings but of continuings. In my work as a priest I am not sure that I have ever heard someone at the end of life when their body is failing actually look forward to the adventure that lies ahead so that the laying down of life is something that is done in faith and with joy. Sometimes sheer weariness may be expressed; a longing for the struggle to come to an end but often the desire is to return to a normality to which they have become used even if there is little or no  pleasure to look forward to within it.

This is the kind of normality to which Gondor has become used. This is a once great kingdom founded by Elendil and by his sons, Anárion and Isildur, and which in alliance with Gil-galad, the last High King of the Noldor, was able to overthrow Sauron even when he carried the Ring. Minas Morgul, the city of the Ringwraiths, was once Minas Ithil, the tower of the moon. The Black Gate that was shut against Frodo and Sam was first built not to keep enemies out of Mordor but by Gondor in her pride to keep her enemies shut within it.

Pippin’s first impression of Minas Tirith is of this glory. He “gazed in growing wonder at the great stone city, vaster and more splendid than anything he had dreamed of; greater and stronger than Isengard, and far more beautiful.” But what he sees is not the great city in the glory of its  maturity but in the fading of its declining years. “It was in truth falling year by year into decay; and already it lacked half the men that could have dwelt at ease there.” Pippin and Gandalf make the thousand foot climb up to the Citadel of the Stewards at the summit of the city and as they do so in every street they pass “some great house or court over whose doors and arched gates were carved many fair letters of strange and ancient shapes: names, Pippin guessed of great men and kindreds that had once dwelt there; and yet now they were silent, and no footsteps rang on their wide pavements, nor voice was heard in their halls, nor any face looked out from door or empty window.”

This is one of the most poignant expressions of the slow defeat that has been a major theme of The Lord of the Rings and we have seen it in many places through our journey; in the once great halls of Khazad-dûm and in the bleak city of Edoras and the darkened hall of Théoden in Meduseld. In each place we have seen something that once was great after its fashion now falling into decay and ruin and even as we have seen this we have seen also the rise of the powers of darkness. Who can triumph over them? Surely at the end even the bravest resistance is ultimately futile. Saruman thought this and so chose to side with the dark seeing such an alliance as the only means to further his own ambition. Soon we will meet Denethor, Steward of Gondor who has no more hope than Saruman and who although he does not take the way of betrayal also believes resistance to be futile.

This is the defeated world to which Gandalf declares: “Whatever betide, you have come to the end of the Gondor that you have known.” It may be that Gondor will fall and Gandalf does not hide this possibility from them; but it is not despair that Gandalf brings to Minas Tirith but hope and in the weeks ahead we will think about this hope both in the time of the War of the Ring and in our own time for we too are come to the end of a world that we have known and we too need such hope as can be brought to us. Gandalf calls Gondor not to despair but to fight on and so must we.

They Cannot Conquer For Ever!

After parting from Faramir Frodo and Sam make their way southward once more as Gollum guides them toward the Morgul Valley and then to the Stairs of Cirith Ungol, the “secret way” by which they are to enter Mordor. As before Gollum prefers to travel by night and to rest by day seeking always to avoid the attention of unfriendly eyes and so it is that when Sam awakens in darkness he is sure that he has overslept and that they should be on the march once more. But it is not night. A darkness has crept across the skies from Mordor and robbed them of the day. Sauron’s armies are more at ease in a permanent half light and so he makes preparation for them by sending vapours across the sky.

I feel sure that Tolkien here remembers the slow creep of industrial Birmingham across the countryside to the village of Hall Green, now a suburb of the city, where he grew up. When I first came to the industrial West Midlands of England in the 1980s I asked an elderly man to show me an area west of Birmingham known as the Black Country, so named because of the deposits of coal and iron ore beneath the ground that had led to the creation of one of the world’s first great industrial areas. We spent the day going from one village to another up and down steep sided hills as he named each one for me, Gornal, Netherton, Tipton, Bilston, Oldbury, Lye and the larger towns of Walsall, Wolverhampton and Dudley. I call them villages because that is what they once were but there was little space between them as they had grown towards one another. But already the process of factory closure and de-industrialisation was well underway and as we stood on one hillside and looked across the great urban sprawl he turned and said to me, “If you had stood upon this place thirty years ago you could never have seen this view.” And he went on to explain that the smoke of the factories would have robbed us of the ability to see for any distance. Now the factories were going and the smoke gone and what was left was largely a post-industrial wasteland. I suspect that if Tolkien had been standing with us that day he would have spoken of it as a land through which the armies of Mordor had once passed, destroyed and then left in order to move onto some other land. I doubt if he would have been an enthusiastic visitor to The Black Country Museum a large open air heritage centre that now seeks to capture the way of life that grew amidst the factories.

Before they enter the Morgul Vale Frodo and Sam come across a statue of a king of Gondor now fallen and defiled. As they stand and look mournfully upon it suddenly the sun dips briefly beneath the smokes before descending below the horizon. It falls upon the head of the king and Frodo sees a garland of flowers encircling it, enlivened briefly by the sun’s light. “Look!” he cries, “The King has got a crown again!”

In the years since that day I have come to know the peoples of Birmingham and the Black Country and not just the traditional population that worked in the factories that created the smoke but also the many peoples who have come from around the world to settle there. I have never felt that they are an enslaved people with all humanity crushed from them. I have never seen them as the armies of Mordor. I would like to offer an application of Tolkien’s garlanded king that he might not approve. If I stand beside Frodo gazing at the beauty of the sunlit garland I see the places of worship, the schools, the friendly pubs and coffee houses, the places of culture such as theatres and concert halls and all other expressions of the building of human community in the English West Midlands. I see the desire of families to make a world for their children and grandchildren and to care as best they can for their elderly. And as I see it I cry with him, “They cannot conquer for ever!”

To Have Found Such Friendship Turns Evil to Great Good

It is with the greatest reluctance that I must leave Faramir today. Frodo and Sam only had the briefest of stays with him and for much of that time were uncertain about the true nature of the man they had just met. Over this summer I have had the pleasure of returning once again to their encounter and to spend some months both enjoying it and reflecting upon it.

Faramir now bids farewell to his guests, allowing the Ring to depart with them, not clinging to the last opportunity to achieve certain victory for Gondor, choosing rather to risk defeat, enslavement and darkness than a victory that would in reality be an even greater darkness than the triumph of Sauron. In this refusal to cling Faramir chooses to empty himself and as they part so Frodo speaks:

“Most gracious host… it was said to me by Elrond Halfelven that I should find friendship upon the way, secret and unlooked for. Certainly I looked for no such friendship as you have shown. To have found it turns evil to great good.”

Surely as Frodo speaks he is thinking of the evil of Boromir’s attempt to seize the Ring and to do what Faramir refused to do. At this moment of the story Frodo knows nothing of Boromir’s final triumph over the power of evil at work in his soul and can see only the uncontrolled lust disfiguring that once fair face. The memory of that face has stayed with him from that moment until now and it has darkened Frodo’s heart. Not only has he not looked for such friendship as Faramir has shown him but he has feared untruth, hidden intent and betrayal. Such fear has a way of gaining a creeping hold even upon the most noble of hearts and so in Frodo’s thanks he speak of the evil that such a creeping hold will bring about. It is his own heart that has been set free from that evil by Faramir’s friendship.

And what of the future? Neither Frodo nor Faramir can look ahead to see what the future might bring. Faramir has already said that he cannot speak to Frodo with “soft words”.

“I do not hope to see you again on any other day under this Sun.”

Neither Frodo nor Faramir expects to escape the evil of the final triumph of the Dark Lord any more any more than Saruman expects it and so becomes an ally of Sauron hoping either to share in his triumph or to gain the Ring for himself or to even to make one when his Ring lore is complete. Faramir and Frodo have no more expectation of victory than Saruman does and yet they refuse to follow his way, the way of despair.

Surely this is the insight that Dante had when he spoke of the words written over the gateway into Hell, “Abandon all hope all you that enter here!” at the beginning of his Divine Comedy? There is a profound difference between the loss of hope for one’s own personal survival and even the triumph of one’s cause and the loss of hope that leads to either a passive or active embracing of evil. The latter is surely the despair of Hell, the despair of Sauron or of Saruman. The former believes that in the rejection of despair even the greatest of evil will be turned to good in a manner that as yet is entirely unforeseen. In the friendship that Faramir offers to Frodo and that Frodo at last is able to receive they both say their “Yes” to this belief.

To have found such friendship must turn even the greatest evil to great good.

Frodo Teaches Us about Strength in Times of Darkness

If hope means to have some expectation that things will turn out well for the one who hopes then Frodo has little of it. He does not expect that he will survive his mission. When he awakens at dusk in the foul pit in which he, Sam and Gollum have been sheltering he prepares to go to the Black Gate of Mordor with no plan of how to get past it but only a clear sense of where his duty lies. He must do what the Council has asked of him. He must do all in his power to take the Ring to the fires of Mount Doom and there unmake it. If he has hope then it must mean that he believes that what he seeks to do has meaning even if he fails and perishes in the attempt and the Ring returns to the hand of its master and maker, the Dark Lord.

During his journey across the Dead Marshes the Ring has become a terrible burden to Frodo in his body, mind and spirit, and he has often lagged behind his companions, but when he awakens in the pit Tolkien tells us:

“Strangely enough, Frodo felt refreshed. He had been dreaming. The dark shadow had passed, and a fair vision had visited him in this land of disease. Nothing remained of it in his memory, yet because of it he felt glad and lighter of heart. His burden was less heavy on him.”

Others have spoken of such an experience; that when they have no strength left to endure a great burden they receive strength to carry on from a source they may not be aware of. In his reflection on his experience in the Nazi death camps, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl writes of the power that hope gave him to survive. “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’”, he says. The German pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, spent the last two years of his life as a prisoner of the Nazis as they sought to uncover his part in the Resistance. After time in the Tegel military prison in relatively tolerable conditions he was eventually sent to Gestapo headquarters in Prinz Albrecht Strasse where he was tortured. He was given permission to write a letter to his parents at Christmas 1944 and enclosed a poem that he wrote and which is still sung as a hymn in German churches.

“With every power for good to stay and guide me,/ comforted and inspired beyond all fear” the poem begins and it ends with the words, “While all the powers of good aid and attend us,/ boldly we’ll face the future come what may./ At even and at morn God will befriend us,/and oh most surely on each newborn day!”

Bonhoeffer describes his own experience of receiving strength to endure the unendurable here and reports from reliable witnesses tell us that he continued in that way right until his execution in Flossenburg concentration camp just a few days before the ending of the war. So we learn that if we too live in hope that our actions for good have meaning, even in the face of death, then we will receive strength to endure, perhaps most especially at the darkest times.