“Speak Friend and Enter”. Gandalf Tries to Enter Moria by the Western Gate but is Thwarted By His Own Cleverness.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 290-300

All who know The Lord of the Rings will remember that our title this week is a mistranslation by Gandalf of these words that turns a simple instruction into an impossible riddle. What, in happier times, had been knowledge available to all, had in these times of treachery and betrayal become something arcane, known only to initiates. I fear that we live in such times and so we have to surround information that is important to us with passwords and firewalls. Like Gandalf, if we cannot remember them then, like Gandalf, we might try different possibilities with growing frustration, or as I usually do, click on the link that invites me to change the password.

The Doors of Durin. One of the rare illustrations done by Tolkien himself in The Lord of the Rings.

The latter is not an option available to Gandalf and so he must find the words that will unlock the doors that Narvi made to allow free transport between the Elven Kingdom of Hollin and Durín’s Kingdom of Moria. He speaks of his knowledge of many such words and then tries one after another as each one fails in its purpose. His patience quickly deserts him but, of course, this has never been one of Gandalf’s best qualities. At one point Pippin comes close to having his head used to beat down the door but then at last, even as the Wargs of Mordor begin to howl once more, the answer finally comes to him.

Gandalf tries to solve a riddle that is only a simple instruction. Bohemian Weasel imagines the scene.

The words on Narvi’s door read pedo mellon a minno. Gandalf had translated pedo as speak and so never actually used the word that he was intended to say. His assumption was that something needed to be spoken and so he tried to find the correct word. It is only when he realises that pedo should be translated say that it all becomes clear.

Mellon is all he needed to say. Friend.

Imagine a world in which Friend is the only password that you will ever require in order to gain entrance to any place. Such a world is one that is filled with friends and not with enemies. Such a world is one in which the hounds of Mordor do not pursue you with the intention of taking your life and a lifeless lake, one that contains a terrible secret, does not bar your passage to your destination. Such a world is one in which doors rarely need to be locked or even closed, a world in which weary travellers can expect a friendly welcome. Indeed it is a world in which the word, friend, is no mere euphemism but one that conveys precisely what it is meant to mean. Only friends were intended or expected to approach the doors of Moria.

Now, once again, a group of friends stand before these gates that are closed. Four are hobbits, two are men, one is a dwarf, one an elf and one a wizard. I call them friends and they will become friends but the bonds that tie them all together are still fragile. We all know the fierce loyalty that binds the hobbits. “We are your friends, Frodo,” were the passionate words spoken in Crickhollow by Merry that declared the intention that he, Pippin and Sam would go with their friend to follow him “like hounds”. But the other bonds are less certain. Aragorn and Boromir are still wary of each other, watching one another from a careful distance and even at the gates of Moria the ancient enmity between Elves and Dwarves is displayed. When Gandalf speaks of the unusual friendship between Moria and Hollin Gimli immediately responds by saying:

“It was not the fault of the Dwarves that the friendship waned”. To which Legolas replies, “I have not heard that it was the fault of the Elves”.

And Gandalf puts an end to the quarrel by saying, “I have heard both, and I will not give judgement now. But I beg you two, Legolas and Gimli, at least to be friends, and to help me. I need you both.”

At this time in the story it is Gandalf who holds them all together and who will take them all into the dark.

“I beg you two, Legolas and Gimli, at least to be friends.” Nathalie Kranich depicts the close friendship that develops.

“The Road That I Speak of Leads to The Mines of Moria”. Gandalf Counsels the Fellowship to Take a Dark and Secret Way Under the Mountains.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 287-290

The road over the mountains has failed and the weary travellers are forced to consider another way. Until this point neither Gandalf nor Aragorn have consulted the rest of the company about what way they should take but now it is necessary that they should do so. Merry and Pippin would give up if they could but Gandalf makes it clear that there can be no turning back for if they do this there will soon be nowhere to go. To his credit Boromir has said nothing up until now but now he counsels that they retrace the steps that he took in his journey from Minas Tirith to Rivendell, passing through the Gap of Rohan. Gandalf makes it clear that this is no longer a possibility, the treachery of Saruman has seen to that.

And then Gandalf tells them of the way that he thinks best. He will take them through the Mines of Moria.

Alan Lee depicts the Dark and Secret Way Through Moria

“Since our open attempt on the mountain-pass our plight has become more desperate, I fear. I see now little hope, if we do not vanish from sight for a while, and cover our trail. Therefore I advise that we should go neither over the mountains, nor round them, but under them. That is a road at any rate that the Enemy will least expect us to take.”

Gandalf’s proposal is greeted with little enthusiasm except from Gimli the dwarf for whom the name of Moria calls to mind the greatest of his people’s achievements and the name of Durin, the greatest of their kings. Boromir simply dismisses the idea while Aragorn warns Gandalf that if he enters Moria he may never get out again. Frodo trusts the counsel of Gandalf, little though he likes the sound of this “dark and secret way” as Gandalf puts it. At the last it is not strength of argument that wins the day but a sudden attack by Wargs, the wolves of Mordor. Suddenly the way through Moria is the only option.

The Attack by Wargs Simplifies the Decision

And so begins the first of the dark ways through which Tolkien takes the Fellowship. There are three such ways and each one of them is associated with death as well as darkness. Gandalf will fall into the abyss in Moria after the attack of the Balrog at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm; Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli, will take the Paths of the Dead into Gondor; while Frodo and Sam will pass through Shelob’s Lair but only, in Frodo’s case, as one who has taken a deadly bite.

The Heir of Isildur Commands The Dead

For each of the Company who must go these ways there is a sense in which they tread the kind of path that Dante takes in his Divine Comedy. Each must go their own personal way through hell, each tasting something of death, and in Gandalf’s case, literally so, before they can emerge through it to what lies beyond. But for none of them is there some simple journey into Paradise. For Gandalf what lies beyond his dark road is his greatest challenge as he pits himself against the might of Mordor as well as against the leader of his own order. For Aragorn and his companions the journey through the Paths of the Dead will bring them to the battle at the gates of Minas Tirith. While for Frodo and Sam the path through Shelob’s Lair merely takes them into Mordor and all that lies ahead. While it may be too simple a thing to call this a Purgatory and so take my allusion to Dante a little further there is no doubt that for each of Tolkien’s characters who pass through their own dark ways further tests lie ahead that are no less challenging than what they have already faced.

For each of them there is a sense in which they are strengthened by the tests that they have already faced. Gandalf becomes the White after facing death itself, while Aragorn takes upon himself his true identity as the Heir of Isildur, the one who has the authority to command the obedience of the King of the Dead. And if Frodo enters Mordor as if a dead man stumbling step by step to Mount Doom, Sam enters it as a mighty hero, able to take his master to the conclusion of their journey.

And Paradise, what of this for each of Tolkien’s heroes? Tolkien leaves the answer to this question in the hands of Ilúvatar. As Aragorn was to put it, “In sorrow we must go, but not in despair. Behold! we are not bound forever to the circles of the world, and beyond them there is more than memory.”

“There Are Fell Voices on The Air”. Caradhras Defeats The Fellowship of the Ring and Makes Them Seek Another Path.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 279-286

Somehow the Company must find a way to cross The Misty Mountains in order to continue their journey towards Mordor. Aragorn knows the way the way over the mountains by the Redhorn Gate that will drop down to the Dimrill Dale and then on to the secret land of Lothlórien and he is anxious that they do not cross the mountains through Moria, a way that Gandalf describes as “dark and secret”.

Alan Lee’s imagining of the Redhorn Gate

I have only had limited experience of walking a trail through high mountains but two things stand out in my memory. One is that I was a small and insignificant thing and that the mountains were completely indifferent to me. They could not care whether I lived or died. I confess that I found this to be most unsettling. Most of my experience had been in the gentle, cradling landscape of southern England which, like the Shire is a land of “woods and fields and little rivers”. To be in mountains where snow is deadly was something new to me. Like Sam I always welcomed snow as a little boy as something that I could play in. “A pleasant event and a chance for fun.” When I awoke in the mountain hut in which I was staying to see snow on the ground round about me I did not think much of it but my German companions who had much more experience of snow in the mountains made an immediate decision to head down the mountain to the village in the valley below. Our expedition was at an end.I awoke in the shelter of a mountain hut but the Company had to make do with a cliff-wall. Sam doubtless expresses the feelings of his fellow hobbits when he declares, “If this is shelter, then one wall and no roof make a house.” He and his companions have to face an icy wind, driving snow and falling rocks but they sense that that there is something else. In the wind they hear “shrill cries, and wild howls of laughter” and the rocks that they can hear crashing down from above seem to have a malevolent purpose. It is Boromir who speaks this sense aloud.

“Let those call it the wind who will; there are fell voices on the air; and these stones are aimed at us.”

“There are fell voices on the air”. Ivan Cavini’s dramatic depiction of Caradhras.

Those who have grown up in a disenchanted clockwork world will dismiss Boromir as a superstitious man and to a certain extent they will be right. Boromir does regard the unfamiliar as being uncanny and dangerous, and he will show this most in his reaction to Lothlórien. But Aragorn, who as we will see, loves Lothlórien, also lives in an enchanted world.

“”I do call it the wind,” he says. “But that does not make what you say untrue. There are many evil and unfriendly things in the world that have little love for those that go on two legs, and yet are not in league with Sauron, but have purposes of their own. Some have been in this world longer than he.”

Passages like these in The Lord of the Rings briefly carry us back to a high romantic world in which the heroes are children of the gods as well as of human mothers. But as Tom Shippey notes in his The Road to Middle-earth Aragorn is not such a hero and Frodo is most certainly not either. Neither has a divine father as did Achilles or the Volsungs. The brief return to the high romantic world seemingly cannot be sustained. Aragorn’s, “I do call it the wind”, and Sam Gamgee’s unhappy complaint both bring us back to mere weather but Aragorn reminds us of an older world in speaking of things in the world that “have purposes of their own” among which is Cruel Caradhras.

The Lord of the Rings is at least in part an elegiac work that mourns the passing of an enchanted world. Can we hope for a re-enchantment? How many of us would welcome the return of mountains that do not love us or weather that wants to kill us? Like the Company we might choose a different way in which to cross the Misty Mountains.

“I’m Beginning to Think It’s Time We Got a Sight of That Fiery Mountain”. Sam Gamgee is Way Out of His Depth but It Does Not Matter.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 276-279

When we were first introduced to Sam Gamgee it was not an impressive affair. Gandalf had become aware that someone was listening to the discussion that he and Frodo had been having about the Ring and so he grabbed hold of Sam by his ear and hauled him up to the open window. But Sam’s story will end with honour. As the Mayor of the Shire, re-elected many times, he is held in high esteem by his fellows and he will be a member of the king’s council for the governing of his northern kingdom of Arnor. And like his king, who he will both love and serve through many years, at the ending of his life after the death of Rosie, his wife, he will quietly and contentedly lay everything down, but unlike Aragorn, not quite yet to die. He will make one last journey to the Grey Havens and take ship into the West in order to be reunited with Frodo and his life will end in peace and joy in Valinor.

Sam Gamgee has earth underneath his feet

To say the least Sam Gamgee goes on quite a journey and in its early stages it is one about which he has little understanding. “I’m beginning to think it’s time we got a sight of that Fiery Mountain, and saw the end of the Road, so to speak.” The Company have been on the road for about two weeks at this point and if we remember that the journey between Bree and Rivendell was only a little more than this and that no journey in the Shire was ever more than a couple of days at the most then Sam is already at the limits of his experience. As Tolkien puts it, “all distances in these strange lands seemed so vast that he was quite out of his reckoning.”

Such a thing ought to matter. Surely for a mission of such magnitude Elrond should have chosen an elite team. And yet the only person chosen at the immediate conclusion of the Council, apart from Frodo as Ringbearer, is Sam. So why was Sam chosen?

It is a theme that runs quietly through The Lord of the Rings that depth is as important a quality as breadth and perhaps even more important. Such an insight runs counter to everything that modern education values. In order to call a person educated and therefore competent to deal with the challenges of the modern world we require that they achieve a considerable breadth of knowledge. The whole notion of a curriculum, the body of knowledge that shapes every place of education, presupposes that this is self-evident. And we might ask how much attention is given to helping young people achieve depth.

Tom Bombadil expresses this quality well in his description of Farmer Maggot. “There’s earth under his old feet, and clay on his fingers; wisdom in his bones, and both his eyes are open.” What Tom Bombadil describes in Maggot is one who lives in his body and is rooted in the earth. John O’Donohue, the Irish poet and teacher of wisdom, would describe such a person as one who lives in rhythm with their own clay, and O’Donohue was one who was able to distill the wisdom of the Irish farming stock from which he was raised. At a deep level John O’Donohue, Farmer Maggot, Tom Bombadil and Sam Gamgee would all understand each other.

And Farmer Maggot has earth beneath his feet as well

Of course, Sam will learn much upon his journey. His imagination will expand to encompass all that he will see and experience. He will take in Moria and Lothlórien and eventually Mordor itself. He will return to his homeland and free it from Saruman’s malicious control. The breadth of knowledge and experience that he will gain will help the Shire thrive in a new world and he will offer this breadth to the governing of Arnor.

But it will be Sam’s depth that Aragorn will value most even as it will be that depth that will sustain Frodo in his journey all the way to Orodruin, the Fiery Mountain that still lies far off at this point of the story. Sam Gamgee knows the good, the true and the beautiful, not in order to take possession of them but to love them for their own sake. And he knows them, not as abstractions, but as Frodo Baggins, as Merry, Pippin, Gandalf and Strider, he knows them as the Shire and he knows them as Hobbiton, the Party Field, and his “bit of garden” at Bag End. If only we could give the same kind of energy to teaching such depth but in order to do so we need to have it ourselves.

Sam Carries Frodo to The Fiery Mountain

“Dark is The Water of Kheled-zâram and Cold Are The Springs of Kibil-nâla. My Heart Trembles at the Thought That I May See Them Soon.” Gimli Draws Near To The Halls of His Ancestors.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 274-276

The mood of the pages that follow the departure of the Fellowship from Rivendell is in keeping with the season in which they travel. An icy wind blows from the East down from The Misty Mountains and the land is empty. But its emptiness is not of a place where no-one has ever lived. Once this land was full of life for the company are passing through an ancient kingdom of the Elves. This was Eregion or Hollin and it was ruled by Celebrimbor of the Noldor. We have thought about him before and how he, the grandson of Feänor, was the greatest of craftsmen among his people after his mighty ancestor.

It was Celebrimbor who was seduced by Sauron in his guise as Annatar into sharing his knowledge of the making of Rings of Power, a knowledge that was to enable Sauron to make the One Ring but also the Three Elven Rings that were to enable the Elves to resist Sauron and to do works of healing in Middle-earth. At the last Sauron made war upon Celebrimbor and slew him, destroying his kingdom and so it is an empty land through which the Fellowship passes.

Annatar and Celebrimbor

But it is not just a kingdom of the Elves that once flourished here. Close neighbour to Eregion and Celebrimbor its lord, was Khazad-dûm, Moria, greatest of all the kingdoms of the Dwarves. Celebrimbor and Durin, Lord of Moria, were close allies through many years and their shared love of the making of things meant that they gave much and learned much to and from one another. This alliance was one of the greatest fruits of the peace that followed the fall of Morgoth at the ending of The First Age before the rise to power of Sauron and its fall along with that of the kingdoms that comprised it was one of greatest unhappinesses of the Second Age.

Legolas mourns the passing of Eregion and acknowledges the greatness of its people in comparison to his own woodland folk and then Gimli expresses his longing for a sight of the Mirrormere, a lake in a mountain valley east of the Misty Mountains that is so shrouded by the shadows of the mighty peaks that surround it that it is said that one who looks into it will see only the stars of the night sky. It was this sight that led Durin to build his kingdom beneath the same mountains and it is one of the holiest places in the hearts of all Dwarves.

“Dark is the water of Kheled-zâram,” said Gimli, “and cold are the springs of Kibil-nâla. My heart trembles at the thought that I may see them soon.”

Ted Nasmith’s imagining of Mirrormere

The Dwarves and the Elves look back to a greatness that is now lost. It is one of the triumphs of Peter Jackson’s films that they succeeded in conveying this. The moment when Gandalf’s staff is lit and so reveals Durin’s halls in all their glory is one of the finest in The Fellowship of the Ring and Howard Shore’s music conveys the beauty of this sight to great effect. Moria is still magnificent but it is a glory of the past and not of the present and Gimli and all his people feel this deeply. It was this sense of loss that led Balin, one of the companions of Thorin Oakenshield and the Dwarf who was closest to Bilbo, to lead an expedition to Moria with the intention of making it a Dwarf kingdom once again. One of the reasons why Gimli has joined the company is to make contact with Balin and his companions if it is possible.

Alan Lee depicts the Halls of Durin in Moria

This elegiac mood, this winter mood, this setting of the great quest of the Ring in a winter journey, is an essential part of the way in which Tolkien tells his story. If there is to be a springtime, a renewing of life after Sauron, it will not be for all the peoples of Middle-earth. Perhaps one of the reasons why there is no singing or laughter at the departure of the Fellowship from Rivendell is because that departure is a signal that the beauty that the Elves have brought to Middle-earth is passing away. It is not just Eregion in which only a memory of the Elves is left.

“There Was No Laughter, and No Song or Music”. The Fellowship of the Ring Leaves Rivendell.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 269-274

In the appendices that conclude the final part of The Lord of the Rings Tolkien outlines the key events in his great tale in strict chronological order, a valuable tool for those who want to know what each member of the Company was doing on each day, especially after the breaking of the Fellowship that takes place at the end of the first volume. And there, on page 1066 in my Harper Collins edition, in a brief sentence of heartbreaking terseness, we read these words:

December 25 The Company of the Ring leaves Rivendell at dusk.

Leaving Rivendell at dusk

The preceding pages have been autumnal in mood as preparation is made for last farewells. Gradually the days have shortened and leaves have fallen and it is Bilbo’s poem on old age that sets the tone best. But it is not in autumn that the Fellowship finally departs into the wild but at the very dead of winter. On December 25th in fact. And, as in all Tolkien’s writing, this is no mere accident, even as the dating of the Feast of the Nativity of Christ is no mere accident. I will leave it to scholars to write about this but everyone in northern climes, who has participated in the feast that we call Christmas, arriving at church in the hour before midnight to welcome the birth of the Saviour, will know that it falls upon the day on which the sun first begins its long journey northward and the day is just a few seconds longer than it is at the winter solstice.

Not that it feels any longer. If we are brave enough to avoid the temptation to surround ourselves with artificialilty, with warmth and bright light then, like Aragorn at the beginning of the great journey, we might sit with our head bowed to our knees. But Aragorn knows that the great crisis of his life is about to begin, the days that all his adventures have been preparing him for. Only he, and Elrond too, know that it is only as King of Gondor and of Arnor that he can ever wed Arwen. It is one thing to live in a hope whose possible fulfillment seems to lie in the future; it is another matter entirely when that hope comes within your grasp and yet still feels like an impossibility.

Tolkien, like all his generation in England, would have remembered the bands and cheering crowds that sent the young men of every community in the land across the sea to France in the Great War of 1914-18. Is he deliberately contrasting the departure of the Company with those memories of festivity? “No laughter, and no song or music”. There is only one member of the Company who wishes to have his departure marked by music and that is Boromir who carries his great war horn by his side.

‘”Loud and clear it sounds in the valleys of the hills,” he said, “and then let all the foes of Gondor flee!” Putting it to his lips he blew a blast, and the echoes leapt from rock to rock, and all that heard that voice in Rivendell sprang to their feet.”

Perhaps it is Boromir who reminded Tolkien of the young men among his contemporaries who marched forth to battle with smiles upon their faces and brave music sounding in their ears and then died in their thousands and tens of thousands in the mud of Flanders.

Laughter and Song and Music

Gimli the dwarf, as befits his people, is not given to displays of courage as is Boromir, but he is deadly serious about the taking of oaths. Elrond wisely counsels him against doing this. He cannot know what lies ahead and if he had sworn an oath binding him to Frodo then he could not have gone with Aragorn and Legolas in their pursuit of the orcs who were to take Merry and Pippin and all that was to come of that choice. But Elrond’s words to him contain a hidden prophecy of Gimli’s own moment of crisis, of judgement.

“Let him not vow to walk in the dark, who has not seen the nightfall.”

Did Gimli recall these words when he feared to follow his companions upon the Paths of the Dead at Dunharrow?

On Pilgrimage in Northumberland With Frodo Baggins and Friends.

With the assistance of The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991)

“Looking in a mirror he was startled to see a much thinner reflection of himself than he remembered: it looked remarkably like the young nephew of Bilbo who used to go tramping with his uncle in the Shire; but the eyes looked out at him thoughtfully.”

That’s Me On The Trail!

I feel confident that you will recognise those words from the beautiful chapter entitled Many Meetings from The Fellowship of the Ring as Frodo prepares to leave the room in Rivendell in which he has lain close to death, or worse, for many days. I read them again with a rueful smile as I look back over eight days in which I have been walking the St Oswald’s Way with my wife, Laura, in Northumberland, England, a journey of 100 miles from St Oswald’s church at Heavenfield by Hadrian’s Wall to Holy Island in the north of the county. I say, rueful, because I have lost no weight at all in these last days. It is one thing to walk in the wild, pursued by Black Riders, making supplies last in the knowledge that they cannot replenished until journey’s end. My experience, by contrast, was as if I had stayed every night in The Prancing Pony in Bree with Barliman Butterbur refilling my plate or glass whenever I requested it, or as in one memorable place, as if I had stumbled across the house of Tom Bombadil, or as in this case, of the wonderful Anne Armitage, who might easily have bade us welcome with the words:

Hey! Come derry doll! Hop along, my hearties!
Hobbits! Ponies all! We are fond of parties.
Now let the fun begin! Let us sing together. 

Our way headed north from the ancient Roman wall, the northern most border of their empire, to Anne’s lovely house along a quiet country lane. This we had prearranged using the modern means of booking apps. We had tried to find accommodation each night that would be as close as possible to our route and Anne’s house was just a few hundred yards off the path. Our second night’s stay with her was unexpected. The small hotel that we had booked had closed. No wonder they did not return any of our attempts to communicate with them. We could find no alternatives locally and Anne rescued us, coming to pick us up and cooking us a lavish dinner that she served with delight.

St Oswald’s Church, Heavenfield at the start of the St Oswald’s Way
St Mary’s church on Holy Island at its ending

“‘I can carry enough for two,’ said Sam defiantly.”

Sam Gamgee Carries His Pack

We had decided that proper pilgrims ought to carry their own packs and not to use the services of one of those firms who will transfer your luggage between your pre-booked stopping places. I don’t know if this is necessarily the best idea and, doubtless, as I grow older I will either have to make use of services such as these or to take shorter walks. One thing is determined over necessity when you carry your own pack and that is that you can only take what you can carry yourself. I have no doubt that Sam Gamgee is capable of carrying enough for two, at least for a short time, but even what we thought had been careful packing proved to be indisciplined. Wash bags that contained too much will require more attention. After all, every hotel and bed and breakfast establishment will offer you shampoo and body wash. What is absolutely clear is that the reduction of weight is an absolute principle for long distance walking, whether it is the weight of your pack or your body. Next time I go a wandering I intend to carry less in both respects!

“Strider sat silent for a while, looking at the hobbits, as if he was weighing up their strength and courage.”

I wonder what he would see in me. I rather fear that he would find me lacking in both respects. But I hope that he would decide that I had taken Tom Bombadil’s advice to “keep up your merry hearts”. I do feel that complaint robs you of the energy that you need for other things. Things like enjoyment of the beautiful English countryside. How mean spirited it would have been to walked among such loveliness and to have complained of tired limbs instead of taking delight in it. And if I could lay the beer at The Sun Hotel in Warkworth “under an enchantment of surpassing excellence for seven years” then I would gladly do so although I rather think that they do not require my help in that regard!

Over moorland at the high point of the St Oswald’s Way

And now on this first day home again I will take a day’s rest, my first since the start of the trail, looking back with gratitude to the places of hospitality that I enjoyed and the beauty that I walked through each day. But not before I give you a link to Anne Armitage and her Hadrian’s Therapy Spa. And if you ever stay there please give her my warmest greetings. And many thanks, Anne, for the wonderful barbecue that you cooked us when we returned to pick up our car from you at the end of the walk.

https://www.hadriantherapyspa.co.uk/

The Imagining of Valinor. Film Makers and Artists Try to Depict The Undying Lands.

Valinor Imagined in the New Amazon Series

Like people all around the world I was captivated by the publicity image of Valinor that announced the new Amazon TV series of The Lord of the Rings. It is, of course, the quality of the light that entrances. I am not one of the fortunate reviewers who are permitted to watch the series and so I can only guess that what we can see on the horizon is Laurelin, the golden tree that brought the light of day to the Undying Lands. And what is portrayed in this image is a kind of eternal sunrise, the light always coming from the horizon. It was only after the trees were destroyed by Ungoliant that the light that we know came into existence, the light of the sun and moon.

And so what we have is a remarkable act of the imagination on Tolkien’s part and one that has been represented to us by one of the great artists of Tolkien’s world, John Howe, who is one of the chief conceptual designers on the films. We all know the feeling that we have at sunrise and sunset and that we perceive the world differently at those times than at any other part of the day. Now we are invited to perceive a world in which that light and possibly that feeling is always present at least in daylight.

John Howe’s visual imagination invites us into a world that is close enough to our experienced reality for us to recognise and yet is an intensification of that experience so that this new world that we perceive is a “more than” all that we know.

It is not just the light in this image that is captivating, it is the world that we perceive through the eternal sunrise towards which we look and possibly move. Note the contrast between the mountains that frame both sides of the picture and the city (is it Tirion of the Noldor?) and the parkland like foreground over the lone figure of an elf is moving. Wildness and cultivation seem to lie together easily. There is no strain in the image. It is not like the hall of a king of the northern world, a fragile oasis of light and warmth in the midst of a dark and dangerous wild like Hrothgar’s hall in Beowulf.

Alan Lee imagines Alqualondë, the Haven of Valinor

My own early visual experiences of the sublime were twofold in nature. Among those that I recall were the moment when I stepped inside the doors of Westminster Abbey for the first time and a journey southwards from Keswick down through The Lake District of England on a coach. In Westminster Abbey what I recall is a sudden broadening of my horizons contained within a building and a sense, equally sudden that I was a very small figure in this beautiful space. My memory of the journey through The Lake District is of the mountains rearing up above me with the same suddenness that I experienced in Westminster Abbey and that same perception of self as very small but not insignificant. The self that experienced both had entered two worlds that had both grown much greater than I had previously known but the feeling was not one of fear but of excitement. I wanted more of what both seemed to be inviting me to explore.

In my weekly blog posts in which I am reflecting upon The Lord of the Rings I am just about to begin the southward journey of the newly formed Fellowship of the Ring into the dangerous wilds of Middle-earth. It is a very different world from the imagining of Valinor with which I began this post. In the Middle-earth journey every aspect of the landscape strains against each other and perhaps the most powerful example of this is in the attempted crossing of the Redhorn Gate below Caradhras that we will come to soon. It is a terrible journey but am I alone in my feeling that it is more glorious than the everlasting serenity that we perceive in the picture, beautiful as it is, of Valinor at the head of this piece? Does my own desired experience of the sublime require wild moments too?

Alan Lee’s Awe Inspiring Depiction of Caradhras Seen From The Redhorn Gate

“The Sword-that-was-Broken Shall Be Reforged”. The Heir of Isildur Prepares For War.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 269-272

It was almost certainly Bilbo who composed the rhyme that begins with the words “All that is gold does not glitter”, words that Gandalf quoted in the ill fated letter that he left at The Prancing Pony to be taken to Frodo and which Barliman Butterbur forgot. And it is this poem that contains the line, “Renewed shall be blade that was broken: The crownless again shall be king”. Bilbo dismisses his own verse as “not very good” but what he is able to do is to make things memorable and so Gandalf uses it to introduce Aragorn to Frodo and his companions.

Bilbo is not a prophet but he is a great collector and reteller of stories and so he gathers together all the ancient stories of how the king would return. It is something that Bilbo longs for because he has befriended Aragorn. The verse that Gandalf uses contains more than a little of Bilbo’s desire but is accurate nonetheless. It is in Rivendell that the ancient memories of the King are kept alive and the belief that one day he would be restored to his throne; and central to that belief is that The Sword-that-was-Broken would be reforged before the restoration came.

The forging of Andúril, Flame of the West

The Sword-that-was-Broken is Narsil, the great sword of Elendil that was broken beneath his body when he was struck down by Sauron at the great battle that concluded the Second Age. And it was the broken blade that Isildur seized when he was attacked in his turn by the Dark Lord and with which he cut the Ring from Sauron’s finger.

Isildur resists the Dark Lord with the broken blade of his father.

Narsil remained a broken blade throughout the Third Age until it was “forged anew by Elvish smiths”. Tolkien tells of how a “device of seven stars was set between the crescent Moon and the rayed Sun, and about them was written many runes; for Aragorn son of Arathorn was going to war upon the marches of Mordor”. This is one of the occasions in which Tolkien abandons a modern narrative style of writing and adopts the style of an Old English storyteller.

“Very bright was that sword when it was made whole again; the light of the sun shone redly on it, and the light of the moon shone cold, and its edge was hard and keen. And Aragorn gave it a new name and called it Andúril, Flame of the West.” There is a particular reason why Tolkien adopts this style and it is because he is moving away from the telling of a history to the telling of myth. Tolkien deliberately moves between the historical and the mythological in The Lord of the Rings thus inviting his readers to view all history as mythology. Some, for example, have noted that the events of 1940 have become a new founding myth of England, the year in which England (and please note that I deliberately say England and not Great Britain!) “stood alone” against the might of Nazi Germany. One approach to such myth-making is to demythologise but I rather think that this misses the point. Surely the right question is to ask what story do the myth makers seek to tell and why has it become so important at this point in history?

Some readers of The Lord of the Rings might try to apply a modern form of historicism to the reforging of Narsil. How has Aragorn survived all these years in the wild carrying a useless blade? Why had the same Elvish smiths who reforged Narsil in Rivendell not done so at some other moment in the Third Age? To try to answer these questions we must try to get away from trying to read Tolkien as literal history that just happens to take place in a fantasy world. Tolkien is writing mythology just as Homer did or the tellers of the Volsunga saga. He just did it in the world of the modernist novel.

I do not know if Tolkien drew upon the scene at the end of the first act of Richard Wagner’s Siegfried when the hero takes his father’s broken sword to reforge it. He names the sword, Notung. It is the sword that he needs. The dwarf Mime, who has fostered Siegfried for his own selfish purposes has tried over and over again to reforge the blade but has always failed but now when the hero needs it the task is simple. Aragorn son of Arathorn is going to war upon the marches of Mordor and he needs the sword of his mighty ancestor. It is at this moment of necessity that the deed can be done.

Notung, Neidlisches Schwert from Wagner’s Siegfried.
Wagner, Richard Komponist 1813–1883. Werke: Siegfried (1871). “Siegfried schmiedet das Schwert Notung”. Gemälde von Ferdinand Leeke (1859–1923).

“A Foresight is On Me”. How Gandalf Chooses.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 267-269

I have learned over the years in which I have written this blog that I have readers who know their Tolkien very well, often much better than I do, and so I am sure that there will be readers who will instantly know that the quotation that heads this week’s post is not from The Lord of the Rings. It is in fact from Tolkien’s Unfinished Tales. It comes from a chapter in which Frodo describes a conversation with Gandalf that takes place in Minas Tirith after the Ring has gone to the fire and Sauron has fallen. In that conversation Gandalf speaks of how he came to be convinced that Bilbo should be a part of the company that would make the journey to Erebor, the Lonely Mountain, under the leadership of Thorin Oakenshield.

JEF Murray imagines Gandalf’s first encounter with Bilbo the child, seeing him high in the branches of a tree.

I write about it here because we are thinking about the choosing of Frodo’s companions in the Quest of the Ring. We have already seen that the company is chosen, as much for its symbolic quality as for its effectiveness. Nine walkers will oppose nine riders. Nine of the free peoples of the earth will oppose the slaves of the Dark Lord. And as we journey through the unfolding of the story we find that it is the hobbits who will play central roles in it. The journey of Frodo and Sam to Mordor and the Mountain and the journey of Merry and Pippin, carried as prisoners of the orcs, to the borders of Fangorn Forest and the meeting with Treebeard are these central actions and none of the rest of the company go with them on these journeys. They will have other parts to play.

Gandalf’s support for Pippin is described as “unexpected”. When Pippin announced his intention to go with Frodo because there needed to “be someone with intelligence in the party”, Gandalf’s response was that Pippin would certainly not be chosen on that basis. But Gandalf is greatly drawn towards Pippin. Indeed I rather think that Gandalf liked Pippin to be nearby and found his simple honesty and friendliness to be a comfort. Was it because he needed such comfort that Gandalf liked to go to the Shire? In his account of how he came to choose Bilbo to go with the Dwarves to Erebor he speaks of how he had been going to the Shire “for a short rest” after a twenty year absence. “I thought that if I put [my dark thoughts] out of my mind for a while I might perhaps find some way of dealing with these troubles”.

And Gandalf meets Merry and Pippin while at play at Bilbo’s party.

Gandalf’s “dark thoughts” were about the reappearing of Sauron in Dol Guldur, about the ever present danger to the north of Middle-earth that was posed by Smaug the dragon in his occupation of the Lonely Mountain, about the fragility of the free peoples and about the opposition of Saruman to any direct action against Sauron. Gandalf’s thoughts are like a hammer striking against a hard surface with the intention of making it give way before the force of its blows. He knows that his thinking will not bring about a solution by itself. It will only keep bringing him back to that which is insoluble and so he heads for the Shire and a rest from his anxiety. The Shire folk have taught him how to play. It is there that he makes fireworks and it is there that he enjoys wholesome food, good beer and pipeweed. And it is on his way there, just outside Bree, that he encounters Thorin Oakenshield who is also beset with his own dark thoughts.

Alan Lee’s beautiful imagining of the “chance” meeting of Gandalf and Thorin Oakenshield

Is it because he is in search of rest that Gandalf is open to something entirely unexpected? Is it his proximity to the Shire and to hobbits that makes the participation of Bilbo a possibility for the expedition to Erebor? In Carl Jung’s idea of synchronicity it is the empty space between the spokes of a wheel that give the wheel its usefulness just as much as do the spokes themselves. So it is the empty space that the Shire is for Gandalf in his endless labours that gives him the idea of Bilbo. And when the idea comes it does so with such force that he describes it as a foresight. Not that he knows what is to come but he knows that he has to listen to his inner voice and that Thorin has to listen to it too when he declares it aloud. Perhaps it is in knowing the power of Gandalf’s inner voice that Elrond too gives way to him about Merry and Pippin despite his own misgivings.