The Road Goes Ever On and On. Bilbo Sings for the Ending of an Age.

At last the great company arrive in Rivendell and the hobbits are reunited with Bilbo.

“Hullo, hullo!” he said. “So you’ve come back? And tomorrow’s my birthday, too. How clever of you!”

And the hobbits have that special and rare delight of telling their story to one who listens with pleasure and interest, although Bilbo is now old and drifts off to sleep from time to time. But after two short weeks, and with the first signs of Autumn, Frodo and Sam both feel the call to go home. And they have a sense that they must not delay any longer.

Bilbo sends them off with sadness and also some ceremony and then he starts to chant.

The Road goes ever on and on, Out from the door where it began. Now far ahead the Road has gone, Let others follow it who can! Let them a journey now begin, But I at last with weary feet, Will turn towards the lighted inn, My evening-rest and sleep to meet.” 

There are three variants of this poem in The Lord of the Rings. The first comes at the decisive and remarkable moment of liberation when Bilbo freely gives up the Ring (with a little encouragement from Gandalf!) and sets off on his travels once again. At that moment Bilbo speaks of Pursuing it with eager feet and speaks of happiness and being swept off his feet. The Road, the One Road that is “like a great river; it’s springs… at every doorstep, and every path… its tributary” is at that moment all opportunity, all possibility.

Later on in the story we hear Frodo speak the same lines at the very start of his great journey and still in the Shire but this time the feet are not eager but weary. Frodo is contemplating the leaving of his home and his friends and a journey into danger.

And now Bilbo speaks of an end to the journey. The Road continues and others will follow it if they can. But he will do so no more. It is time to find a friendly inn by the roadside to enjoy a good meal and a long rest.

I am reminded of a prayer by John Henry Newman, founder of the Birmingham Oratory, whose priests undertook the responsibility of guardianship to Tolkien after the death of his mother. “Support us all the day long of this troublous life until the shades lengthen and the evening comes, the busy world is hushed, the fever of life is over and our work is done. Then, Lord, in your mercy grant us safe lodging, a holy rest and peace at the last.” I do not think it too fanciful to think that this prayer was in Tolkien’s mind when he wrote this final version of Bilbo’s poem. I first heard it when I was a choir boy in an English parish church near Oxford. The vicar always ended Evensong with this prayer and it had quite an effect on me even though I was just 11 years old. But the image of homecoming has always had this power for me.

Bilbo speaks the poem for himself but also for the ending of an age. For Elrond, Galadriel and Gandalf it is also time to leave the Road to others. The Road goes ever on and on and Aragorn has the responsibility of founding a new age. “There is a real king now,” says Frodo to Bilbo,”and he will soon put the roads in order.” And Arwen has chosen to stay with him and not to leave the Road with her father. No-one knows where this road will lead. We walk the same road today pursuing our own errands that we have been given even as Bilbo did. The way as it was for him is often troublous but also wonderful. Each day unfolds both to us as it did to him. And the ending is a homecoming when the work is done.

Frodo is sent off with a blessing and a sense that he has a burden to shoulder once more. He senses that he is reaching the end of the Road but it is not quite just yet.

 

The Passing of the Three Elven Rings of Power.

At the point where the road northward from Isengard to Rivendell meets the way over the mountain pass to Lothlórien the company pauses on its journey for a whole week. This is the parting of the three keepers of the Elven Rings made by Celebrimbor of Eregion in the Second Age. Vilya, Nenya and Narya. Sauron had no part in their making and so they were not under the control power of the One Ring and yet their fate was inextricably linked to the Ruling Ring made by the same lore, the sharing of skill and of knowledge between Celebrimbor and Sauron when the Dark Lord’s intention was not yet known.

Or were there clues enough for the Wise to guess at what Sauron wished to do? Certainly Galadriel and Gil-galad refused his embassies but Celebrimbor received him. In Unfinished Tales Tolkien tells us that Celebrimbor “desired in his heart to rival the skill and fame of Fëanor”. The old Prayer Book of the Church of England counsels us against following “too much the devices and desires of our hearts”. This is wise advice and calls for rigorous self-examination. Celebrimbor was far too upright and honourable to betray his people and friends for the sake of his desire but his desire made him ready to do as Sauron wished and to give him aid in making the Rings of Power.

In this desire even Galadriel was not without blame. When it became clear at the moment when Sauron forged the One Ring in the Cracks of Doom at Orodruin in Mordor that he wished power only for himself she counselled Celebrimbor against destroying the lesser Rings; the Nine, the Seven and the Three. Already she possessed Nenya and by it she was able to create Lórinand that was to become Lothlórien, the most beautiful land in all Middle-earth. Her desire was for the beauty that she was creating and she did not wish to give up her Ring for destruction. As a consequence even though Sauron never found the Three Elven Rings he was able to capture the Nine in his war against Celebrimbor and to give them to mortal men so creating his most terrible servants, the Nazgûl. For a time the Seven, rings of power given to the Dwarf Lords, were free from his grasp, but eventually he held them too.

Celebrimbor’s desire, and Galadriel’s share in it, had led to the forging of the One Ring, to the creation of the Nazgûl and to the diminishing of the dwarves. Although the Elven Rings enabled Galadriel to create the beauty of Lothlórien, Elrond the beauty of the valley of Rivendell and Gandalf to stir up the hearts and wills of the free peoples of Middle-earth they were too much linked to the evil of the Ring of Power to survive its destruction.

Saruman spoke of this in his encounter with the Ring-bearers. “I did not spend long study on these matters for naught. You have doomed yourselves, and you know it. And it will afford me some comfort as I wander to think that you pulled down your own house when you destroyed mine.” As always Saruman’s knowledge was less complete than he believed and his wisdom almost entirely absent but one thing is true and that is that with the destruction of the Ring the power of the Three is at an end and with it much of the work that they achieved. Lothlórien and Rivendell must diminish. Much that is beautiful in the world must come to an end.

Would it have been better if the Ring had not gone to the Fire? The Wise had already been faced with this choice and rejected it. The Ruling Ring had such power to corrupt that it was impossible to keep safely and to use it would have been catastrophic. Never again would the path of withholding be followed. At last the Wise knew what they must do. The Ring must be destroyed and their life in Middle-earth must come to an end.

Saruman in his bitter envy thought of this as an accidental outcome of the destruction of the Ring. He could not imagine that his enemies were prepared to give up so much and to do it freely. And he most certainly did not anticipate the grace that will be shown to the Ring-bearers. After all it was a grace that he himself had long ago rejected.

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.

 

“Wish Me Joy, My Liege-Lord and Healer!” A Happy Ending to the Story of Éowyn and Aragorn.

After Théoden is laid to rest with the highest honour ever given to a king of Rohan Éomer is proclaimed as the new king. He stands before his people and all his guests as lord of his hall and speaks of joy.

“Faramir, Steward of Gondor, and Prince of Ithilien, asks that Éowyn Lady of Rohan should be his wife, and she grants it full willing. Therefore they shall be trothplighted before you all.”

And then, at last, Éowyn is able to look Aragorn in the eyes without shame or fear and she speaks to him: “Wish me joy, my liege-lord and healer!”

And so the story that began when Aragorn aided Gandalf in the freeing of Théoden from bondage comes to the happiest of endings. Of course this shared story ended when Éowyn gave her heart to Faramir in the gardens of the Houses of Healing and when Aragorn and Arwen were wed on Midsummer Day but at this moment in Meduseld where the story began it ends in joy with the words that they speak freely to each other. For when Éowyn asks for Aragorn’s blessing he is able, freely, to give it.

“I have wished thee joy ever since first I saw thee. It heals my heart to see thee now in bliss.”

It was not only Théoden who was in bondage in the dark halls of Meduseld but all his people too. His shame was theirs. His sense of impending doom lay heavy upon them also and none more so than the one who most truly loved him for Éowyn loved him as a daughter. It was not just her own unhappiness and shame that she felt as Wormtongue’s grip grew stronger. It was her misery to have to watch a good, kind and brave man who had always loved her shrink into a lizard like creature under the sway of his enemies and to feel helpless as she watched it. But when she saw Théoden freed from bondage and able to fulfil his destiny as king this was denied to her. She was required to fulfil the ancient female role of waiting for men to return either in victory or defeat and she was denied the love of a man who might have given her glory and happiness. Tolkien has been accused of writing stories in which this traditional gender expectation is played out but this is not the story of Éowyn or Tolkien’s greatest female character, Lúthien of Doriath, who fights alongside Beren, her man, as a warrior who is at the very least his equal. Like Lúthien Éowyn refuses to accept the imprisonment that those who think they act in her best interests impose upon her. She follows her heart taking the way of a warrior into battle and following the man who she loves best of all standing by him at the very end defending him against the Lord of the Nazgûl on the Pelennor Fields as his body lays broken beneath his horse.

This is why Aragorn is able to call her back as she lies in the Houses of Healing. Her True Self has never given way to despair. When he anoints her with athelas “an air wholly fresh and clean and young, as if it had not before been breathed by any living thing… came new-made from snowy mountains high beneath a dome of stars, or from shores of silver far away washed by seas of foam”. Éowyn has remained entirely true to herself. Aragorn may have been a dream but it was for Théoden that she was ready to lay down her life. And then when she meets Faramir she realises that she is free to say yes to life and to happiness.

Éowyn is a woman of truth who has never compromised her True Self and although brought to the very edge of despair did not give way to this at the end. It is her love that has guider  her most truly and so she can look Aragorn in the eye. There is nothing for her to be ashamed of. She has given her love freely as her brother declared before the company and Aragorn too can bless her without shame. Both are true lovers indeed.

The Funeral of Théoden

It was 4 years ago when I first wrote about Théoden, a man bound to his chair by the leachcraft of Grima Wormtongue staring miserably at the image of his glorious ancestor, Eorl the Young, the founder of the Kingdom of Rohan. I quoted the Irish poet and priest, John O’Donohue from his wonderful book, Eternal Echoes, in which he writes about the different types of inner prison that we build for ourselves. He could have been writing about Théoden.

“Fear and negativity are immense forces which constantly tussle with us. They long to turn the mansions of the soul into haunted rooms. These are the conditions for which fear and negativity long and in which they thrive. We were sent here to live life to the full. When you manage to be generous in your passion and vulnerability, life always comes to bless you.”

O’Donohue creates a rich contrast between the soul’s true nature described as a spacious and elegant mansion and the haunted room created by fear and negativity. Tolkien gives us the contrast between the richly tapestried walls of Meduseld with the memory of the young hero and the shrivelled and wizened creature imprisoned in his chair. Théoden is shamed by the ancestral hero upon whose image he is forced to gaze each day and his people live in a wasteland. Such is the fate of a people whose king is no longer a source of fruitfulness. It is the fate of the people of the Fisher King in the Parsifal legend. It is the fate of the people of Rohan.

And then Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli come and with their burning ardour overthrow the prisons of Wormtongue and his master, Saruman. The armies of Rohan are no more powerful than before and the threat from their enemies is undiminished but Théoden steps out from his prison and feels the good rain upon his face and the hilt of a sword in the grasp of his hand. Once more this good man is generous in his “passion and vulnerability” and life comes to bless him. He arouses a people who have longed for the opportunity to give their best and their utmost. He restores their pride. In a few short days they defeat the armies of Saruman at Helms Deep and at the very limits of endurance they break the siege of Minas Tirith at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. Théoden is overthrown at the last by the Lord of the Nazgûl but dies at peace and without shame as he prepares to meet his ancestors.

And now he makes his return to Edoras in glory as a true king should, honoured by all free peoples. He is laid upon a golden bier and carried on a great wain from Minas Tirith to his home. Merry, the faithful squire who stood bravely at the side of his lord in his final battle rides upon the wain and keeps his arms. Then Tolkien names each member of the Fellowship in their turn.

“Frodo and Samwise rode at Aragorn’s side, and Gandalf rode upon Shadowfax, and Pippin rode with the knights of Gondor; and Legolas and Gimli as ever rode together upon Arod.”

And in Théoden’s funeral procession the Queen Arwen, Celeborn and Galadriel and their people, Elrond and his sons and the princes of Dol Amroth and Ithilien with the knights of Gondor ride to do him honour. “Never had any king of the Mark such company upon the road as went with Théoden, Thengel’s son to the land of his home.”

And Gléowine, the king’s minstrel makes his last song for his lord.

Out of doubt, out of dark, to the day’s rising he rode singing in the sun, sword unsheathing. Hope he rekindled, and in hope ended; over death, over dread, over doom lifted, out of loss out of life, unto long glory”

All of this is a celebration of a few short days after years of darkness and they are right to make this praise. Théoden is so gloriously generous in his passion and vulnerability in those few days that a people is restored and the world is saved. His story is one of the finest that Tolkien tells and it is right that he should end it with such glorious solemnity.

The Enigma of Arrival. Frodo makes Preparation to Go Home.

In the last few weeks on this blog we have been thinking about the love story of Aragorn and Arwen “both the sweet and the bitter” as Arwen herself calls it. Now we return to the moment in which the sweetness is at its most intense. It is the first days of the marriage of Aragorn and Arwen after their long separation and for Aragorn all is healed. When Frodo comes to see the king and queen to ask permission to go home he is kingly in all that he offers. “If there were any gifts that I could give that could match with your deeds you should have them; but whatever you desire you shall take with you, and you shall ride in honour and arrayed as princes of the land.”

This is seemly and befits a king in his triumph and bliss but Arwen sees more keenly, even in her happiness. She speaks of her father departing for the Havens and that because she has made the choice of Lúthien she will not go with him. Then she speaks to Frodo showing that she understands the extent of the price that he has paid and the hurt that he has taken, wounded by the Nazgûl knife, the sting of Shelob and the tooth of Gollum and perhaps most of all by the Ring that he bore to its destruction and yet did not choose to destroy it at the end needing the crazed passion of Gollum to enable him to accomplish his task. Others, like Aragorn, rightly honour him for all that he has done, but he gives no honour to himself.

“In my stead you shall go, Ring-bearer, when the time comes, and if you then desire it. If your hurts grieve you still and the memory of your burden is heavy, then you may pass into the West until all your wounds and weariness are healed.”

We will return at a later time to think more about Frodo’s need for healing and a little of the means by which he will be healed but it is worth noting here that he is freely offered, by the grace of the Valar and the loving choice of Arwen, that which long before Ar-Pharazôn sought to seize by force. He is granted free passage to the Undying Lands. But note that he is not granted the immortality of the Elves but the gift of healing. When he is healed, when his soul learns again its true road to heaven and he is wholly free of the burden of the Ring at last and he has lived out his days then he will die. The tragedy of Ar-Pharazôn is that he sought to gain something that was never his and so lost the gift that was his for ever and could not be lost unless it was cast away.

In 1912 the artist Giorgio de Chirico painted The Enigma of Arrival and the Afternoon. In the painting two figures are seen walking through a classical landscape as the ship that has perhaps brought them there is seen already in full sail and leaving on its way to somewhere else. In 1987 the great Trinidadian novelist V.S Naipaul made this the title of one of his finest works. In it he tells of a man who is constantly in search of a home but finds that as soon as he reaches a place it begins inexorably to move away from him. His arrival coincides with its departure. It is a beautiful and poignant description of the endless flow of things. There are moments within this exquisite work in which, in a Proustian manner, Naipaul makes time almost stop still for a moment, but I had to use the word, almost. Time does not stand still. This tragic insight is displayed in a comic courtesy soon after the scene that we have considered in The Lord of the Rings when the quarrel between Éomer and Gimli over the question as to whether the Lady Galadriel is the most beautiful of all ladies is at last resolved. Éomer begs Gimli’s forgiveness. He cannot call Galadriel the most beautiful for now he has seen the Queen Arwen. Gimli forgives him but with great sadness. “You have chosen the Evening; but my love is given to be Morning. And my heart forbodes that soon it will pass away for ever.”

This week’s artwork is a digital reproduction of the The Enigma of Arrival and the Afternoon by Giorgio de Chirico downloaded from Pinterest.

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!