“It is I That Have Failed. Vain Was Gandalf’s Trust in Me.” Aragorn’s Despair at The Breaking of the Fellowship.

The Two Towers by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991, 2007) pp. 537-540

“Alas!” said Aragorn. “Thus passes the heir of Denethor, Lord of the Tower of the Guard! 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? Boromir has laid it on me to go to Minas Tirith, and my heart desires it; but where are the Ring and the Bearer? How shall I find them and save the Quest from disaster?”

The Death of Boromir by Anke Eissmann

Boromir is dead, having fallen in the attempt to protect Merry and Pippin from the Uruk-hai of Isengard, and Aragorn kneels in despair beside his body. At the moment when he makes this speech he knows nothing of the whereabouts of any other member of the Fellowship. Boromir died before he could tell Aragorn whether Frodo and Sam were captured along with the young hobbits and he does not even know where Legolas and Gimli are. For all intents and purposes it seems that the Quest has failed and that all hope has died.

Aragorn does not know it yet, but this, for him, is the lowest and the darkest point of the story. From the moment when the Company was defeated in its attempt to cross the Misty Mountains beneath Caradhras and the decision was taken to attempt the journey through Moria Aragorn has been an inner pathway downwards to this place. It seems clear that he had some kind of foresight of Gandalf’s fall in Moria even before the battle at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm. Apart from the speech that he makes to the Fellowship in the dark of the Mines in order to raise their faltering morale he remains silent and a little distant. The next speech that he makes is to a grief stricken Company who have come through Moria but are themselves in despair at the loss of their guide. “We must do without hope, ” he says to them, and there is little doubt then that he has lost his own.

When, at last, the Fellowship reach the refuge of Lothlórien, Frodo descends from the hill of Cerin Amroth to find Aragorn “standing still and silent as a tree”, and hears him say, “Arwen vanimelda, namarië!” These are words of longing and of farewell as Aragorn bids his own farewell to any hope that he might achieve happiness in this life.

At the last parting from Lothlórien Galadriel reminds Aragorn of his mighty lineage and gives to him “the Elessar”, the green stone that Idril, the daughter of Turgon of Gondolin gave to Eärendil, her son, with the words, “there are grievous hurts to Middle-earth which maybe thou shalt heal”. Galadriel reminds Aragorn that he holds this story of healing as heir of Gondolin and of Eärendil, as rightful King of Gondor and of Arnor, and sends him upon his journey down the Anduin with this declaration ringing in his ears. When the boats of the Fellowship pass through the Argonath Aragorn greets his mighty ancestors as one who has come to claim the inheritance that is his but soon after comes the sundering and now he is alone amidst the wreckage of all his hope, both for personal happiness and for the world.

The Hildebrandt brothers depict the moment when Galadriel gives the Elessar to Aragorn.

Boromir dies with the horn of Gondor and his sword in his hand. Despite his own sense of failure Boromir dies a hero’s death in a way that both he and his warrior people understand. Such a death for them is a good death, offered in despite of despair. But at the very moment in which Boromir was fighting his last battle Aragorn was running first up, and then, down Amon Hen first in vain search for Frodo and then in vain attempt to come to Boromir’s aid. All is vain and Aragorn carries this sense in his unhappy heart even as he kneels beside Boromir. As those who know the ending of the story we know that this is Aragorn’s lowest point but he does not know this. For him it seems that a door is opening that bears the words that Dante reads above the gate of Hell. “Abandon all hope you that enter here.” There is no comfort that can be offered to Aragorn. Not yet. We must simply wait with him in silence.

Abandon all hope. Inger Edelfelt depicts Aragorn’s despair.

“I Only Said I Think I Shall Come.” Life With and Without Gandalf.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) p.266

I have long been drawn to the figures of old men in literature and have wanted to spend time in their company. As a small boy I read and re-read T.H White’s The Once and Future King and the scene that gave me the greatest pleasure was that in which the Wart (the young King Arthur) comes across Merlin in a clearing in the Forest Sauvage for the very first time and you just know that life is never going to be the same again and it is going to be good. Then a few years later I settled down with Frodo by the open window of his study to smoke a pipe with Gandalf and was content. Years later I read the Harry Potter stories to my daughters and found that the attraction had not gone. I was never happier than in the scenes with Albus Dumbledore and when there seemed to be some distance between Harry and Dumbledore I felt an old familiar ache and longing inside. And perhaps one of the most significant and vivid dreams in my life ended, almost uniquely, in perfect resolution when I knelt before an old man who I identified as the Pope in order to receive his blessing. I could even smell the fragrance in the air at that moment of perfect peace and harmony.

Alan Lee’s sublime imagining of Merlin and the Young Arthur together in Merlin’s study. Can anything be more perfect?

I am not sure that I ever quite met the elder that I was looking for and at the age that I have now reached the opportunity to do so is receding but the longing has not gone. It’s just that I begin to realise that I am going to have to find this father within myself and not in a figure that I am likely to meet. Maybe that is the meaning of my dream. A dream that I think was given for my whole life and not just for a moment within it.

During these weeks of the summer I have been writing about some bigger themes in The Lord of the Rings before turning to The Two Towers in the autumn and I have begun to think about both the presence and the absence of Gandalf in the story. My readers may remember that I wrote a piece entitled “We Must Do Without Hope” back on December 11th 2021 https://stephencwinter.com/2021/12/11/we-must-do-without-hope-the-company-go-on-after-the-fall-of-gandalf/ as Aragorn takes command of the Company after the catastrophe of the fall of Gandalf in Moria. These words are almost a title for the early chapters of The Two Towers as Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli pursue Merry and Pippin and their orc captors across the plains of Rohan towards the Forest of Fangorn. Again and again Aragorn reflects both upon hope and its absence. Surely he knows that to free the young hobbits is a hopeless task against so numerous a foe, as Éomer tries to convince him, but he continues with grim resolution until at last in the forest he meets Gandalf once more. From that moment onwards he is a man transformed.

Meeting Gandalf in Fangorn Forest

And we see the same reaction from Frodo when Gandalf announces to the hobbits, “I think I shall come with you.” Indeed, Tolkien writes, “So great was Frodo’s delight at this announcement that Gandalf left the windowsill, where he had been sitting, and took off his hat and bowed. ‘I only said I think I shall come. Do not count on anything yet.'”

Gandalf’s presence is so important that it gives huge confidence, energy and hope to all around him. When the Company are attacked by wargs near the western gate of Moria Sam is given hope as he says, “Whatever may be in store for old Gandalf, I’ll wager it isn’t a wolf’s belly.”

And then comes the moment when Gandalf falls at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm and for a time at least all hope is gone. Eventually Gandalf is restored to the Fellowship, for all at least except two. For Frodo and Sam have to go on alone step by step to the Cracks of Doom bearing the burden of the Ring and without even the sustaining thought that Gandalf is out there somewhere fighting on their behalf. It is worth pondering the fact that they, alone among their fellows, achieve their quest entirely without this source of strength and of hope. They know the loneliness of being a grown up and what strength they are able to find must be found within.

Frodo and Sam alone in Mordor

“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.

“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?

“We Must Do Without Hope”. The Company Go On After The Fall of Gandalf.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 321-324

How do we carry on after the catastrophe has happened? The journey of the Fellowship through Moria has taken them at last to the terrible climax at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm. Gandalf has broken the bridge upon which both he and the Balrog confronted one another and then,

“With a terrible cry the Balrog fell forward, and its shadow plunged down and vanished. But even as it fell it swung its whip, and the thongs lashed and curled about the wizard’s knees, dragging him to the brink. He staggered and fell, grasping vainly at the stone, and slid into the abyss. ‘Fly, you fools!’ he cried, and was gone.”

“Fly you Fools!”

All in the briefest of moments the Company experience the terrible juxtaposition of relief at the fall of their deadly foe and then sheer horror as they witness in total helplessness the fall of Gandalf into the dark. At that moment it is Aragorn who is able to lead them all away from what remains a deadly danger out from Moria into the bright sun beyond its doors where grief overcomes them all.

The Fellowship Are Overcome By Grief

And so they stand in the strange unreality of a sunlit day after the dark, and the yet stranger unreality of being alive after they have lost one whom they have all loved, who presence has seemed to them to have been one of the few certainties in a world that is in constant flux; one whose very existence has enabled them to give shape to that world. It is Aragorn again who finds words to express this.

“‘We must do without hope,’ he said. ‘At least we may yet be avenged. Let us gird ourselves and weep no more! Come! We have a long road, and much to do.'”

This begins a thread that runs through the narrative of the next part of the story and is associated most with Aragorn. It is the theme of hope, the loss of hope and how to continue after hope has gone. Ever since the debate between Gandalf and Aragorn took place about which way the Company should cross the Misty Mountains Aragorn has been gripped by an inner sense that if they were to go through Moria something terrible would happen to Gandalf. All through the journey in the dark he has remained separate from the others, breaking his silence only at a moment when it seemed that doubt would take hold of them all. Might it be said that this inner sense, this foresight, has in some way prepared him for this moment? Might it be said that that all through Moria he has begun to live without Gandalf, who has been guide, even father to him?

“Did I not say to you: if you pass the doors of Moria, beware? Alas that I spoke true! What hope have we without you?”

The Fellowship must continue their journey, not because they have hope that they will succeed but simply because they have a task to fulfil. The Ring must go to the Fire. What part each one of them will play in this is not yet clear. Only upon Frodo has the obligation to complete the task been laid by the Council and Sam will go with him because that is who Sam is. The point will come in the journey when each member of the Company will have to make their own choice about what they must do and as this point is reached for most of them the choice will become harder to make. Only Boromir will be certain about what direction the Fellowship must take and at the last it will be his certainty that will enable, even force, Frodo to make his choice and the attack by the Uruk-hai will force the choice of the others. But what they will all have to do will have to be done without the hope that Gandalf gave them, that sense that whatever happened there would be someone to sort everything out. It has been wisely said that we know for certain that we are grown ups when we know that our parents are not going to come to rescue us from whatever predicament we have got ourselves into. That realisation can be catastrophic in nature and for some it comes too soon in life. Only time will tell whether it has come too soon for the Fellowship of the Ring.

Many Partings. An Elegy for a World that is Passing.

“The world is changing: I feel it in the water, I feel it in the earth, and I smell it in the air.”

Many readers will recognise these words as coming from the introductory sequence to Peter Jackson’s films of The Lord of the Rings. In the film these words are given to Galadriel and they set the scene for the story that is to be told. Tolkien gives the words to Treebeard and they come near the end of the story when Treebeard meets Galadriel and Celeborn at Isengard. It forms part of a narrative of farewells. The bitter parting of Elrond and Arwen; the parting between Merry and Éowyn and Éomer and now the parting between Treebeard, Celeborn and Galadriel. If Merry’s farewell to Rohan and, in particular, to Éowyn with whom he shared so much and achieved so much, belongs to the poignant but normal shape of human lives, the partings of Elrond and Arwen and of Treebeard, Celeborn and Galadriel belong to the passing away of an age, indeed in Tolkien’s legendarium, a passing away of three ages. The mythological world that Tolkien spent a lifetime in creating is drawing to its close and the historical world that is our normal experience is beginning.

Of course there is no clean break between the two. Aragorn, who is the founding king of this new world, belongs to both. He understands his descent from Eärendil who was father to Elrond of Rivendell and he grew up himself in Elrond’s house. Arwen of Rivendell is his wife and queen and the elves of Thranduil’s realm in the green wood aid Faramir and Éowyn in the resoration of Ithilien while the dwarves of Erebor aid Aragorn and Arwen in the restoration of Minas Tirith and Treebeard and the Ents help to restore the forest around the land that Saruman spoilt, but each of these peoples are passing away until all that is left of Faerie is that sense that one is sometimes given in a woodland glade or a by a stream in a mountain glen of a memory of a presence from long ago, of a memory that is not your own, and a longing for something that you seem to recognise and yet is not a part of your story at least as far as you can tell.

There are moments when I long to try to do as Lucy does in C.S Lewis’s Prince Caspian and to try to reawaken the trees but I am aware that I do not live in Narnia but in the world of That Hideous Strength in which Merlin is forbidden from doing as Lucy was commanded to do in Narnia by Aslan. Just like the community of St Anne’s, of Logres in Britain, my task is to live faithfully in my own time and to await the age that is to come, seeking to keep alive the hope to which Ransom and his companions bear witness.

What is clear in Tolkien’s tale is that his faithful witnesses do not know what lies ahead. Elrond’s parting from Arwen is bittern for it “it should endure beyond the ends of the world”. When Treebeard says “I do not think we shall meet again”, Celeborn replies: “I do not know, Eldest” but Galadriel says: “Not in Middle-earth, nor until the lands that lie under the wave are lifted up again. Then in the willow-meads of Tasarinan we may meet in the Spring.”

Galadriel, of all the major figures of the mythological world, has hope of a restoration at the end of all things that is also a springtime of all things. Beleriand and maybe Númenor also, lands that lie under the floods that ended the First and the Second Ages will rise again. It is Galadriel who perhaps most clearly recognises that her world is passing away and who knows that if a memory of that world, the mythology of England that Tolkien sought to create, is to remain, then it is Aragorn, the King Elessar, who will keep the memory alive. As we have seen it is Galadriel who encourages the growing love between Aragorn and Arwen,  something that breaks Elrond’s heart, and Galadriel who gives Aragorn the Elessar stone to remind him of the hope that he is. She, like Arwen, says her yes in faith and hope and love to the world that is to be.

 

We Are Not Bound For Ever to the Circles of the World, and Beyond Them There is More Than Memory. The Death of Aragorn and Arwen.

When Arwen made her choice it was with the greatest of men standing before her in his glory. It was Aragorn that she chose even as she bade the twilight farewell. But Elrond knew that the day would come at the ending when her choice would seem hard.

The years of Aragorn’s life were long beyond that of his people. He was a Númenorean in whom the blood of kings ran true “yet at last he felt the approach of old age and knew that the span of his life-days was drawing to an end, long though it had been.”

This was the point in his existence at which Ar-Pharazôn, the last king of Númenor, sought to grasp hold of immortality for himself by launching an invasion of the Undying Lands. He believed that the Valar withheld the gift of immortality from Men and gave it to Elves maliciously. Indeed he believed that his own mortality and death was a kind of punishment. And although the followers of Elendil rejected Ar-Pharazôn’s rebellion, in the years of Gondor’s decline they too did all that they could to extend their lives. It was Pippin who gazed in wonder at the great stone city of Minas Tirith even as it was falling into decay with empty houses in every street. “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.”

So Aragorn reaches the moment in life in which a choice must be made. He could choose the sullen resentment of Gondor in its long decline and do all that lay within his considerable power to extend his existence for as long as possible. Or he might even choose the way of rebellion as did Ar-Pharazôn or the Witch King of Angmar. But he chooses to embrace his mortality and not to rail against it.

When Arwen realises that she is about to lose Aragorn she suddenly understands the bitterness of Ar-Pharazôn and pities him. “If this is indeed, as the Eldar say, the gift of the One to Men, it is bitter to receive.”

Aragorn recognises that this is the greatest of tests but he bids her not to be overthrown at it who renounced both the Shadow and the Ring long before. “In sorrow we must go, but not in despair. Behold! we are not bound for ever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory.”

In the early years of the church the Fathers taught that the life of faith begins with the renunciation of despair. This is the great renunciation that opens the way for the daily embrace of goodness, beauty and truth. It is a way that looks the reality of our mortality full in the face and chooses not to be afraid. It is a dying before we die but it is a choice to live. It is the choice not to hold onto life until it becomes stretched out thin. Théoden made this choice when he stepped out of his chair in which he had been withering away and embraced life after the manner of his glorious ancestors. Gollum, on the other hand,  chose the misery of endless existence. Denethor expressed his despair through suicide trying to take Faramir with him. Aragorn turns his face courageously to his mortality and trusts the One who calls him. He does not know what lies ahead. He does not know his own destiny but trusts that love and goodness have the last word.

Arwen is heartbroken at her loss and she is not so sure. Yet she too embraces the mortality that was her choice laying herself to rest on the hill of Cerin Amroth where she chose Aragorn long ago. In a comment on last week’s blog post Tom Hillman suggested that Arwen’s choice might open the door for her people to a destiny that lies beyond the circles of the world. It is a beautiful thought that seems to me to be in keeping with a divine consummation that will unite all things earthly and heavenly. Faery will enrich Humanity and Humankind will open the way to Faery. Of course Tolkien was looking forward to the Incarnation in his great legendarium. The tale of Aragorn and Arwen points to this more than any of his tales. It is a tale of sorrow but not despair and it draws us into its hope even as Arwen’s last words to Aragorn are the calling of the name of his youth, “Estel, Estel!”

Hope! Hope!

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.