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.

Sam asks “Don’t the Great Tales Never End?”

Ever since I first encountered it I have loved and been enriched by the work of John O’Donohue, Irish poet, philosopher and some time priest who died in 2008. When I began to think about this week’s blog posting I was drawn back to other pieces that I have written and to a poem entitled, Fluent, that O’Donohue wrote and published in his 2000 collection entitled Connemara Blues.

“I would love to live / like a river flows,/ Carried by the surprise/ Of its own unfolding.”

In just a few words O’Donohue describes a way of life that is characterised by surprise. O’Donohue loved to laugh and the unexpectedness of the present moment would be the cause in him of delighted merriment. I have just returned from driving my daughter to the local railway station for a day’s classes in college and as I drove back I listened to a mathematician say that when he finds beauty in a mathematical equation it is because of a fundamental human desire for order and predictability. Oh how O’Donohue would have chuckled with amusement if he had heard that! Of course the woodland stream by which I pray each morning is capable of  being reduced to a mathematical description but once we begin to speak of beauty then it is not predictability that delights us but the endless surprise of the play of light upon the water, the way the way the stream dances about ever shifting obstacles in its path or in one heart stopping moment by the flight of a kingfisher along its length. Something much greater than mathematics has entered our hearts.

So it is that when Sam thinks of great tales he remembers the story of Beren and Lúthien taking the Silmaril from the Iron Crown of Morgoth in the terrible fortress of Thangorodrim. “That was a worse place and a blacker danger than ours,” he says, and then goes on to remember the bringing of the Silmaril to Eärendil and in surprise and wonder he cries out, “And why, sir, I never thought of that before! We’ve got- you’ve got some of the light of it in that star-glass that the Lady gave you! Why, to think of it, we’re in the same tale still! It’s going on. Don’t the great tales never end?”

A year ago I wrote a piece in this blog entitled On Hearing The Music of the Ainur https://stephencwinter.com/2014/12/31/on-hearing-the-music-of-the-ainur/ where I reflected on Frodo’s “dream of music that turned into running water, and then suddenly into a voice” and the voice is that of Bilbo telling, chanting the story of  Eärendil in the halls of Elrond in Rivendell. In his dream an “endless river of swelling gold and silver” flows over him. Later in the evening he tells Bilbo that Bilbo’s song seemed “to fit somehow” with his dream. Frodo has for a moment been given an insight into the nature of the story of which he is now a part and it is dream and flowing river and it is music and verses chanted. Sam now glimpses what Frodo experienced that night. Like Frodo he is in the same story. (Do read it and if you have time please read the Comments that followed it. They are deeply moving and enriching.)

It was G.K Chesterton, a writer who exercised great influence over Tolkien, who said that the reason we need to be told of rivers of gold and silver or trees with golden leaves and fruit is that we have forgotten the wonder of the rivers that we know or the astonishing moment when we first knew that a leaf was green! Sam touches upon the wonder that transforms the tale of which he is now a part. He speaks in the shadow of the Ephel Dúath the outer fence of Mordor, wearied by the climb up the Great Stair from the dead vale of Minas Morgul. He is hungry and the sweat of his effort has been chilled upon his body as he rests. So a parent may wearily change a nappy or feed a hungry baby in the long dark hours of the night and forget for a moment the wonder of which she is a part and then be caught up in delight once again. Perhaps she may catch a glimpse of the story of which she is a part.

Théoden Unbound!

Perhaps one of the most tragic elements of the prisons that we build for ourselves is that they seem to be eternal and that there is no way out of them. Théoden’s very body seems to conspire with him to ensure that he remains locked inside it. You may remember that I described him as being very old and yet he is younger than Aragorn. In part this is because of Aragorn’s lineage. He is of the house of Elendil the Numenorean, a people granted long life because of their faithfulness in the long struggle against the powers of darkness, but even among his own people Aragorn is regarded as exceptional. Théoden’s decrepitude is due in part to the whisperings of Wormtongue but also it is his own work. He has chosen to become the shrunken creature that Gandalf and his companions first encounter in the darkened halls of Meduseld.

Théoden’s own personal prison is one of shame. He feels the condemnation of his mighty ancestor whose image he looks upon each day. Eorl the Young rides into battle and glory while he sits helplessly by as his kingdom disintegrates about him. The agony of his shame is slowly killing him and yet he chooses this over the way of Eorl, who risked all upon one charge against overwhelming odds. He may be in misery but at least he is alive. We may question whether it is a life worth holding onto but habit is a powerful thing and Théoden fears the unknown more than the dark he has become accustomed to.

The seemingly eternal nature of our prisons is one of the most tragic elements of them but because they are in large part self-built our hope lies in the fact that in a moment we can be free of them. The most human of the three books that make up Dante’s great work, The Divine Comedy, is the second, entitled Purgatory. It is the most human because it is closest to our own condition, that is neither eternal bliss nor eternal misery. Those who dwell in purgatory are in chains and yet carry the hope of liberation even if that hope feels like the last flickering ember of a fire that once burnt brightly. It is also most human because those in purgatory can be free in a moment. They can learn that the burdens they carry are not an eternal punishment but can be cast away. Bunyan’s pilgrim finds the same thing at the foot of the cross when his burden falls from his back. Théoden journeys from shrunken old man to leader in battle in a few short steps and with his liberation comes the liberation of his people too.

John O’Donohue describes both the building of prisons and our liberation from them in his wonderful book, Eternal Echoes. In it he speaks of the kind of prisons we choose to build for ourselves, the fixed images that we assign to ourselves, images that inevitably begin to atrophy just as soon as we create them. He writes: “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 living 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.”

“When you manage to be generous in your passion and vulnerability life always comes to bless you.” What wonderful words of hope! Dante’s prisoners of purgatory, Bunyan’s pilgrim at the cross and Théoden stepping out from his darkened hall into the light all find this blessing and all find it as they take the first steps of vulnerability. And so can we if we do the same.