“Do You Hear the Voice of Nimrodel?” The Fellowship Enter an Enchanted Land.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 328-332

A reading of The Lord of the Rings is a journey that runs between enchantment and disenchantment. It begins with Gaffer Gamgee discoursing on how cabbages and potatoes are better for his son than Elves and Dragons and how Sam would be wise to keep out of the affairs of his betters in case he lands in trouble too big for him. These are prophetic words indeed although the Gaffer will never see all that his son will see precisely by getting into trouble. And the Gaffer, for all his homespun wisdom and hobbit good sense, has no notion that one day he and his kind will be as much regarded as a kind of fairy folk as the Elves are in his own time.

Like the Gaffer, Boromir is easily disturbed by anything that is redolent of the uncanny. Although he names Lothlórien, the Golden Wood, his knowledge of it is more closely formed by the name that the Rohirrim have for the land the Company are about to enter, Dwimordene, or the Land of Phantoms. So it is already true that many who live in Tolkien’s world are disenchanted themselves and already fear anything that might exist outside an experience of cabbages, potatoes and things of that are of an easily accessible nature.

Anna Kulisz is enchanted by light shining through trees in Lothlórien

Understandably Aragorn is disappointed with Boromir because for him Lothlórien is the place of ultimate enchantment, for it was here that he first met Arwen. Even in our times the experience of falling in love transforms everything. Oscar Hammerstein may not have been making an intentionally philosophical point when he wrote the lyrics of “Some Enchanted Evening” but anyone who has truly fallen in love knows what he means. But Aragorn’s disappointment goes further. “Lore wanes in Gondor, Boromir, if in the city of those who once were wise they now speak evil of Lothlórien.” The heirs of Númenor really ought to know better.

It is Frodo, one whose name, Elf-friend, means much more than a simple disposition to like Elves, who first becomes aware of the nature of the land that the Company have come to. First, in the crossing of Nimrodel, he feels “the stain of travel and all weariness” wash from his limbs. Did all his companions have the same experience? Tolkien does not answer the question but if Boromir had then surely his inclination to fear Lothlórien might have altered even just a little. And I doubt whether the orcs who followed some time later had any experience of healing in crossing the stream.

Stephen Graham Walsh evokes the healing power of Nimrodel

Legolas speaks to his companions about Nimrodel and as he does so they hear “the music of the waterfall running sweetly in the shadows”. But it is Frodo who hears “a voice singing, mingled with the sound of the water”.

“Do you hear the voice of Nimrodel?” asks Legolas and he tells them the story of the Silvan princess who once dwelt here long ago and whose memory lingers still in the land that was her home. As with so many songs of the Elves it is a tale of sadness about that which has been lost but it is beautiful yet. And as he sings his hearers are drawn further into Faerie just as Frodo, Sam and Pippin were when they were guests of Gildor Inglorien at the very beginning of their journey in their own familiar land.

Liga Klavina imagines Nimrodel whose memory enchants the stream that bears her name..

And that, of course, is what Tolkien is trying to convey to his readers. That it is possible, even in a place that we think we know so well that nothing about it could ever surprise us, to be suddenly drawn into an enchanted land. We have already spoken of how falling in love can do this. We might add moments like the birth of a child or when a ray of the sun suddenly bursts through the clouds illuminating all that lies around us. We might quickly get a hold of ourselves and reduce all experience to the atomic particles that make it up or we might follow the path of wonder and delight and see where it leads us. Frodo and Boromir will experience Lothlórien in very different ways because of the way in which they have nourished their inner lives.

“My Heart Would be Glad if I Were Beneath the Eaves of That Wood, and it Were Springtime.” The Fellowship Draw Near to Lothlórien.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp.324-326

As Tolkien takes us from the dark of Moria and the terrible events at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm so the language that he uses grows ever richer and more verdant. It is Legolas, the Wood-elf from the green of Mirkwood who first speaks of the land that they approach.

“‘There lie the woods of Lothlórien!’ said Legolas. ‘That is the fairest of all the dwellings of my people. There are no trees like the trees of that land.'”

Ted Nasmith’s imagining of Lothlórien

The history of Lothlórien goes back to the earliest days of the First Age and a settlement there of Silvan, or woodland elves, kindred to Legolas’s own people. When the Valar called the Elves to come to Valinor for fear of Morgoth the Silvan elves had refused the call, choosing to stay east of the Misty Mountains in the vale of Anduin. It was these who were found by Galadriel and Celeborn, fleeing eastward from the war that destroyed the kingdom of Eregion in the Second Age and they became lords of the people who dwelt there. So it was that the two great strongholds of the Elves in Middle-earth were created after the destruction wrought by Sauron, Imladris or Rivendell founded by Elrond and Lothlórien founded by Galadriel and Celeborn.

The Sindarin elves who came with Galadriel named the woodland realm that they settled in Laurelindórenan, or the Valley of Singing Gold, so-called because of the mallorn trees, gifts of Gil-galad, that they had brought with them. It is of these that Legolas speaks in language that becomes ever more poetic.

“For in the autumn their leaves fall not, but turn to gold. Not till the spring comes, and the new green opens do they fall, and then the boughs are laden with yellow flowers; and the floor of the wood is golden, and golden is the roof, and its pillars are of silver, for the bark of the trees is smooth and grey.”

(I have not been able to find the name of the artist who has done this beautiful painting. Can anyone help me? )

You can almost feel Legolas savouring his own words like fine wine, especially the adjectives, golden, golden, and silver. Tolkien himself enjoyed a visceral relationship to language so that he could experience a word both in his senses and in his inner life and in passages like this, even though they are written in the Common Tongue, both for the sake of the Company and for his readers like myself, they are still able to convey a sense of this relationship. We too long to travel to this earthly paradise and to hear and taste the music of the singing gold.

But its name is no longer Laurelindórenan but Lothlórien. It has become the Dreamflower or even just Lórien, or Dream Land. Later Treebeard will speak of this to Merry and Pippin.

“Now they make the name shorter: Lothlórien they call it. Perhaps they are right; maybe it is fading, not growing. Land of the Valley of Singing Gold, that was it, once upon a time. Now it is the Dreamflower.”

The dream that the Fellowship will enter will still be potent, still intoxicating, and perhaps just a little frightening, very frightening for those who bring their peril with them as Sam will later put it to Faramir in Henneth Annûn. But it is a land that is falling asleep, “fading, not growing”. Tolkien skilfully shows a world that is still saturated with the myth of Eden. Like Legolas we cry with yearning, “My heart would be glad if I were beneath the eaves of that wood, and it were springtime!” or with Aragorn, “My heart will be glad, even in the winter”, but as we read The Lord of the Rings we come to realise that there is no return to Eden, that if there is to be a place for us, somewhere, then it lies before and beyond us. As Aragorn will say to Arwen Undómiel at his own ending, “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 there is more than memory.”

Anna Kulisz imagines the Fellowship in Lothlórien

“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.

Legolas and the Sea. A Longing for a Land Where Nothing Fades Away.

Legolas has long dwelt content in the green land of his people in the north of Mirkwood in rhythm with the trees of the wood as they breathe in and out in winter and summer, winter and summer, year upon year, year upon year as the ages pass.

It was Galadriel who first warned him of the call of the sea, words that came to him through Gandalf when they met in the depths of Fangorn Forest. “Legolas Greenleaf long under tree in joy thou hast lived. Beware of the Sea! If thou hearest the cry of the gull on the shore, thy heart shall then rest in the forest no more.”

It was in the great ride with the Grey Company to the assault of the ships of the Corsairs of Umbar at Pelargir that Legolas first heard the sound of the sea. Gimli paid no heed to it but Legolas was stricken in his heart and as the companions of the Fellowship speak together of their adventures Legolas sings of a heart that is no longer at rest.

“To the Sea, to the Sea! The white gulls are crying, the wind is blowing, and the white foam is flying. West, west away, the round sun is falling. Grey ship, grey ship, do you hear them calling, the voices of my people that have gone before me? I will leave, I will leave the woods that bore me; for our days are ending and our years falling.”

The deepest longing of the Elves is for a world in which nothing fades away. They themselves are immortal, age cannot touch them, but the world in which they live is always changing and in this lies their sadness. The lands in which they have lived in Middle-earth have been islands of relative changelessness. Rivendell, Lothlórien, the Grey Havens and the Woodland Realm in the north of Mirkwood, all have been places in which the memory of ancient beauty has been preserved but at the end of the Third Age with the passing of the Ring the change that they have long resisted has come at last.

It is one of the most profound ideas within The Lord of the Rings that so much that has been beautiful must pass away with the destruction of a thing that was entirely evil. The forging of the three elven rings, Nenya, Varya and Vilya accomplished so much that was good in the Second and Third Ages but none of this could have been achieved without the ringlore of Sauron in his disguise of Annatar in the court of Celebrimbor the lord of Eregion. Sauron played no part in the forging of the Elven Rings and yet their making was still linked to the forging of the Rings of Power and to the One Ring itself. The great temptation of the Elves lay in their very desire to preserve and it is this that Sauron exploited.

The one who chooses to be an enemy learns how to  perceive weakness in others and then exploits it. Indeed it seems to be this quality that marks out an enemy above all others. But when we choose to lay down that which we desire then the enemy has nothing more to exploit. It is the decision to destroy the Ring that enables Sauron’s foes to defeat him even as it was the decision to preserve beauty and to forge the Rings that linked the destiny of the Elves to that of their greatest enemy.

All things pass away and the one who learns this and who does not try to hold on to them can enjoy them without becoming prey to a melancholy that robs us of all joy. “He who binds to himself a joy does the winged life destroy. He who kisses the life as it flies lives in eternity’s sunrise.” Kissing the life as it inevitably and inexorably flies is one of the greatest wisdoms that we can learn. At this moment in the story Legolas is overcome with the sadness of loss. Let us hope that when the time comes for him to leave Middle-earth he will do so with thanksgiving and with joyful hope.

Artwork this week by Lorraine Brevig http://www.lorrainebrevig.com

 

Legolas and Gimli Speak of The Greatness of Aragorn, The Heir of Isildur.

So it is that Legolas and Gimli meet and speak with Merry and Pippin in the gardens of the Houses of Healing. And there the Elf and the Dwarf tell of the mighty ride of the Dunedain and the hosts of the Dead through the valleys of Gondor through Lebennin to the mouth of the Great River at Pelargir. And they tell of how the Corsairs of Umbar and the Haradrim were overthrown by the terror of the Dead so that it was an army of Gondor that came to the landings of Harlond at the key moment in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields and not her enemies.

And the friends speak of the greatness of Aragorn, a greatness that through the mighty ride through Gondor and in the battles after was a terrible thing to behold. And Legolas says,

“In that hour I looked on Aragorn and thought how great and terrible a Lord he might have become in the strength of his own will, had he taken the Ring to himself. Not for naught does Mordor fear him.”

In the Houses of Healing we saw Aragorn as a healer passing his hand gently through Merry’s hair and kissing Éowyn gently upon her brow, restoring both to life. Is it possible that one man should contain such apparent opposites within himself? We might remember that the Warden of the Houses of Healing presumed that a captain of war could not also be a man of learning. His assumption is that a man will be either one or the other but not both.

So is Aragorn a divided man? I would argue not. And that is why he does not take the Ring for himself. His might in battle is not the seizing of power by a ruthless man but a self offering for the sake of the peoples of Middle-earth. He will die for his people if need be and his offering is a terrible thing in its ferocity. But he will not win at any price and he values the freedom of the peoples of Middle-earth above victory.

Compare this to Denethor when debating with Gandalf before the battle. Denethor makes it clear that he values Gondor above all other nations and also that he values his own lordship even above the welfare of his people. Aragorn is entirely different. He has spent his life in the service of all Free Folk and that is why Elf, Dwarf and Hobbits love him. And like Faramir his desire for Gondor is that it should  be “full of light, high and fair, beautiful as a queen among other queens… Not feared, save as men may fear the dignity of a man, old and wise.”

Moore and Gillette would argue that what Aragorn does is to access the energy of the great masculine archetypes, King, Magician, Warrior and Lover and is able to do so at will but that he never identifies his Self with any of them. This is such an important distinction to be able to make if we are to understand true maturity. If we overly identify our Self with one of the archetypes then that Self will be a slave to the archetype and almost certainly to a false or immature version of it. Sauron is a terrible example of this. His desire for domination has led him to identify entirely with the energy of the King archetype. He is enslaved by his desire for power and has no freedom over this. By contrast Aragorn’s Self is greater than any of the archetypal energies. Legolas puts it this way, “But nobler is his spirit than the understanding of Sauron; for is he not of the children of Lúthien?”

To become our True Self we must learn how to draw upon archetypal energy but we must learn too that our True Self is greater than any archetype. Aragorn is able to call upon the energy of the Warrior archetype to a terrible degree in battle and then to lay it aside afterwards. He is master of himself for a purpose higher than himself.

Legolas and Gimli in Minas Tirith

On the morning after the great battle Legolas and Gimli are eager to find Merry and Pippin.

“It is good to learn that they are still alive,” said Gimli; “for they cost us great pains in our march over Rohan, and I would not have such pains all wasted.”

And so they make their way up through the city towards the Houses of Healing and as they do so they ponder this greatest of cities and see all that it lacks. Gimli sees the city through the eyes of a worker of stone, admiring the best of what he sees but also how he might improve it with the aid of the stonewrights of Erebor. And Legolas sees through the eyes of a gardener and by this he does not mean a suburban garden with its neatly tended rows; he will bring his forest home to Minas Tirith with “birds that sing and trees that do not die.”

So begins a reflection on the nature and works of humankind and they fail to reach a conclusion. When they meet the Prince Imrahil Legolas is moved to say that “If Gondor has such men still in these days of fading, great must have been its glory in the days of its rising.”

It is this tension between fading and rising that occupies them most of all. The history of Dwarves and of Elves has been a long and slow fading. The timescale over which this has been played out is so long that sometimes to the observer it feels as if it is no fading at all. Rivendell and Lothlórien seem ever fresh in their beauty and nothing surely can possibly bring them to an end. Yet an end will come and the Elves know it. Even so the Dwarves have a memory of Moria, of Khazad-dûm, that Tolkien shows us in Gimli’s sad journey through its darkened ruins. It is a memory that casts into relief even the best of what they can achieve in Erebor. It is within their power to restore the kingdom under the Mountain but they cannot restore Moria. That lies forever beyond their grasp.

But if Legolas and Gimli know the ending of their own peoples then, try as they might to perceive it, they do not know the destiny of humankind. Gimli speaks of their fading.

“Doubtless the good stonework is the older and was wrought in the first building… It is ever so with the things that Men begin: there is a frost in Spring, or a blight in Summer, and they fail of their promise.”

But Legolas speaks of renewal.

“Yet seldom do they fail of their seed… And that will lie in the dust and rot to spring up again in times and places unlooked for. The deeds of Men will outlast us, Gimli.”

This is the mystery of humankind. Tolkien himself in his legendarium tells of both the glory and the horror of Númenor and he tells of human renewing in the founding of the kingdoms of Gondor and of Arnor by Elendil the Elf Friend. Legolas and Gimli are in no doubt that if Aragorn emerges triumphant over his foes he will bring about a renewal after the nature of the one achieved by Elendil but whether it will last that they do not know. As Legolas says, “To that the Elves know not the answer.”

I am struck that Tolkien leaves his question open and unanswered. If Lewis is sure that history must end in a final destruction before a final renewal can take place at he demonstrates in The Last Battle Tolkien seems prepared to allow for uncertainty. My own conviction is that Legolas is speaking for Tolkien here. As for myself I would like to end my reflection with some thoughts by the Russian 20th century philosopher, Nikolai Berdyaev. Perhaps they will begin some debate among my readers alongside Tolkien’s reflections on human destiny.

“It must be recognised that man in his limited and relative earthly life is capable of bringing about the beautiful and the valuable only when he believes in another life, unlimited, absolute, eternal. That is a law of his being. A contact with this mortal life exclusive of any other ends in the wearing-away of effective energy and a self satisfaction that makes one useless and superficial. Only the spiritual man, striking his roots deep in infinite and eternal life, can be a true creator.”

The Fellowship Carry Frodo and Sam to Mordor

So now we have seen that Sam carries Frodo to Mordor and, at the end of the journey, he will do so literally. Frodo carries Sam to Mordor, helping him to grow into the kind of person capable of making such a journey. Without the widening of Sam’s imagination he could never have begun the journey, let alone finished it. But even with all the support that Frodo and Sam give to each other they could never have got to Mordor alone. Next week we will meet their guide in the journey, one they never expected to meet in that role. This week we will see how they are carried by their friends and in so doing think about our relationships to one another and how we touch one another’s lives, often without realising how we do it.

When the Fellowship of the Ring is broken by the events at Parth Galen Merry and Pippin are carried like baggage toward to Isengard by orcs that Saruman has sent to waylay the company. But even as the captors hurry westward bearing their prize messages are sent to Barad-dur by orcs loyal to Sauron bearing news of what has been taken. In their gentle loyalty to their friends and then, following their escape from the orcs in their rousing of the Ents, Merry and Pippin play a key role in Saruman’s downfall. But it is not only in the downfall of Saruman that they play a part. When Sauron receive news that hobbits have been taken to Isengard much of his attention is given to the doings of an ally Sauron knows to be unreliable.

Once they know of the capture of the young hobbits Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli choose not to follow Frodo and Sam but to seek to rescue Merry and Pippin. From the start there is little chance of success but they know they cannot simply abandon the young hobbits to torture and to death. If they had been crude utilitarians Aragorn and his companions would have sacrificed Merry and Pippin to some abstract concept of “the greater good” believing they might achieve that good by helping Frodo and Sam take the Ring to the fire. They reject such calculated morality and in following the orc band they meet Eomer and his warriors and then, later, Gandalf in the Forest of Fangorn. After this they travel with Gandalf to Edoras to free Théoden from bondage before aiding him in the victory over the forces of Isengard at Helms Deep thus making Rohan an active participant in the war who had been reduced almost to miserable inactivity. When Sauron learns of this his attention is given even more to events away from his border.

At first the Fellowship are not aware of what they are giving to Frodo and Sam by their faithfulness in doing what they can. Later, after they receive news from Faramir, they will know that by openly challenging Sauron’s might they can prevent him from fortifying his borders preventing any from getting in or out of Mordor. Their deeds are heroic and without them all that Frodo and Sam could do would have been worth very little. If victory had not been gained at Helms Deep or the Pelennor Fields Frodo and Sam would have had very little to return to but equally without the success of Frodo and Sam’s mission those victories would have meant nothing. Sauron would have triumphed and all would have been vain.

In his letter to the Galatians in the New Testament, Paul tells us to “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ.” What we see from the relationship of the members of the Fellowship to each other that it is not just, or even primarily, in being physically present to one another that we can do this. The Fellowship carry Frodo and Sam simply by being faithful to their tasks. Meister Eckhart wrote that “Wisdom consists in doing the next thing you have to do, doing it with your whole heart and finding delight in doing it.” He might have added, “And in so doing you will bear one another’s burdens and so fulfil the law of Christ.”

Gimli Teaches Us The Importance of Seeing

After the victorious ending of the Battle of Helm’s Deep Gandalf takes Théoden and a small company with him to go to Isengard and for the first time since the sundering of the Fellowship at the Falls of Rauros the pace of the story is able to slacken somewhat. The pursuit of the orc company who seized Merry and Pippin, the rush to Edoras and the battle that followed all lie behind and many and great dangers lie ahead, but for a brief time Legolas and Gimli have time to look about them and to wonder.

Both of them are drawn to those things that delight them most. For Legolas this means all that grows in the earth and he wonders at the Ents and the trees that they tend; and for Gimli this means the earth itself and the wondrous caves of Aglarond that he has just encountered.

Legolas is drawn to the ancient wonder that dwells within the Forest of Fangorn that we thought about when Merry and Pippin escaped from their captors and met Treebeard in Fangorn. Immediately he wants to know, to understand and to communicate: “They are the strangest trees that ever I saw…and I have seen many an oak grow from acorn to ruinous age. I wish that there were leisure now to walk among them: they have voices, and in time I might come to understand their thought.”

And in this we remember that Treebeard told the hobbits that it was Elves who first taught speech to the Ents. It is Elves who long to commune with all living things and to draw them into their own beatitude, their own state of blessing, that all creation might find its own voice and thus speak with the One.

But if Legolas is moved by his delight in the living forest he is outmatched in this by his good friend Gimli. The three pages in The Lord of the Rings in which Gimli describes the Glittering Caves of Aglarond are among the most beautiful in the whole work and Tolkien gives this beauty to a dwarf! Even Legolas declares, “I have never heard you speak like this before.” I wish I had space to quote them in full but I will just have to encourage you to read them for yourself. Just one section must be quoted and that is Gimli’s response to Legolas’ concern that Dwarves might mar the natural beauty of the caves in their greed for gain.

“No, you do not understand,” said Gimli. “No dwarf could be unmoved by such loveliness. None of Durin’s race would mine these caves for stones or ore, not if diamonds and gold could be got there. Do you cut down groves of blossoming trees in the springtime for firewood? We would tend these glades of flowering stone, not quarry them. With cautious skill, tap by tap- a small chip of rock and no more, perhaps, in a whole anxious day- so we could work…”

As we read these words they call to mind Leonardo da Vinci working in this way on his great fresco of The Last Supper at the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. It is said that he would spend whole days just looking at his work as it unfolded and doing nothing. Imagine describing such a way of working in an appraisal interview!

What we see described here at this brief moment of rest in the story is the fruit of intense seeing and then the using of the language of seeing. Tolkien gives to these two friends the roles of artist and poet. And why do so at this moment in the story? Is it perhaps to make the contrast with Saruman, the man whose mind is full “of metal and wheels”, who we are about to meet face to face, even greater? Or is it to show that these heroes are more than just warriors and are only warriors at all at greatest need? Surely at the least he shows us that his warriors are first of all great lovers and that it is because of this that their prowess in battle can bring forth good. Tolkien will return to this later in the story in his reflection on the contrast between the brothers, Boromir and Faramir, but we will leave this part of the story, perhaps, contemplating our own need to train our ability both to see and to learn to describe what we can see.

Legolas and Gimli teach us about the Mystery of a Person

“No common recipe for children’s stories will give you creatures so rooted in their own soul and history as those of Professor Tolkien- who obviously knows much more about them than he needs for this tale.” So wrote C.S Lewis in his anonymous review of The Hobbit in a 1937 edition of The Times Literary Supplement. Lewis himself knew perfectly well that Tolkien knew far more about his creations than was required for The Hobbit for he was privy to his friend’s labours in the creation of a world that had already taken the best part of a quarter of a century.

What this means is that every character in Tolkien’s work has a depth that is almost unique in literature. For not only do we have the development of a character within each of his books but also the way in which each character has been shaped by a particular history, not just their own but that of their people, and not just of their people but the way in which their people’s history has interacted with a greater one.

So it is that Legolas and Gimli bring to each of their actions within The Lord of The Rings the kind of depth that any person brings when they walk into our lives. However, they may bring that depth but we may not ever perceive it because we choose not to make the effort to do so. Equally it is possible to read the stories of Legolas and Gimli within The Lord of the Rings as just being there to make up the numbers in the Fellowship or to set in some kind of relief the bigger figures in the story, such as Aragorn. Of course it is one of the features of all of our lives to set each other’s stories in relief. It is a humble and humbling feature of our lives that in relation to the story of an Other we may only be comic relief for example, but this kind of shallow reflection of one another is all too common. Tolkien does not make that mistake and in his description of the Battle of Helm’s Deep in which Legolas and Gimli’s participation does have comedic elements we know that both bring with them a long history with orcs and with one another that makes some sense of their counting game.

Gimli will not have forgotten that his father, Gloin was once the prisoner of Legolas’ father, Thranduil of Mirkwood. Dwarves keep long scores of wrongs done to them and their forebears. And Elves who have the longest memories of all would remember betrayals by Dwarves that went back to The First Age of Middle Earth and the wars with Morgoth of Angband. So it is that when Legolas and Gimli stand and fight together we know that a profound act of healing and reconciliation has taken place that that belongs not only to the pages of The Lord of the Rings but also other stories too.

We do not have the time to tell these stories now. I hope there may be other occasions when we are able to return to them. What we can see now is that all our stories are a mysterious weaving of personal and greater histories, of character and of archetype, of word and of flesh. We do wrong to ourselves and to one another when we reduce ourselves and one another to merely the personal or merely the greater. Gimli is not just a Dwarf nor Legolas just an Elf. I am not just English. Actually I know I am not just English because through my great grandparents on my mother’s side I am part Irish and through my great grandparents on my father’s side I am part Italian. But I cannot be reduced even to that bigger story, there are so many other layers too. I am a mystery even to myself and always will be. And if I am to do due honour to others then I am not permitted to reduce them to some small part of my own tale. They are far too big, far too mysterious for that. I must seek to give them the worthship to which they are due.

I Will Wait in Silence

“The trumpets sounded. The horses reared and neighed. Spear clashed on shield. Then the king raised his hand, and with a rush like the sudden onset of a great wind the last host of Rohan rode thundering into the West.

Far over the plain Eowyn saw the glitter of their spears, as she stood still, alone before the doors of the silent house.”

And so the host of Rohan rides to do battle with the forces of Isengard. Gandalf has roused Théoden, King of Rohan from his slow decline and with Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas, he rides with them upon Shadowfax, mightiest of all horses in Middle Earth. Brave words have been spoken; courage has been roused in the hearts of the Riders; but Tolkien does not end this chapter with the sound of horses’ hooves or the sound of the wind in the ears of the riders but with silence before the doors of Meduseld as we stand with Eowyn as she gazes after them.

The silence that ends the chapter is intentional. We are meant to stay in a space that is almost empty. The action is taking place somewhere else and we wait alone. Not for us the comforting sound of the thunderous gallop of horses to keep our courage up. We must be brave in a silence that is an absence of sound and an emptiness that is an absence of the people that we love. And there is a fear also that the silence will end with the harsh cries of orcs as they advance upon us.

It is this kind of waiting that has been the lot of women in time of war throughout the ages. I remember speaking once with an elderly woman in the cottage in which she had been born and had lived in throughout her life as she described to me the day when her father had walked down the garden path to go to war in France in the autumn of 1914. For her that memory was as vivid and fresh as if she had just lived it and I could feel the warm autumn sun and see the closing of the gate as he walked down the village lane as she told her story. What I cannot remember is whether he ever came home again.

Tolkien was himself one of the young men who left for war in that same conflict. He did come home but lived the rest of his life with the memory. He never made his writings a vehicle for his memories but his experience of war shapes each page of The Lord of the Rings as they must have shaped the life that he lived after that experience.

Tolkien was never a propagandist but a story teller. In propaganda it is the message that is of prime importance. All experience must be reduced to the message. Each story must be flattened and simplified. Propaganda cannot allow complexity because to allow this is a betrayal of the purity of the message. Robert Runcie was Archbishop of Canterbury between 1980 and 1991 and had served as a tank commander during the Second World War, winning the Military Cross for bravery in action. Later in life he described how his tank had destroyed a German tank and how he and his men had gone to check for survivors in it. There were none and he told how as he looked at the faces of the dead men he suddenly saw them as sons, husbands, boyfriends; that there were people waiting for them who would never see them again. Such a story cannot be used by a propagandist and Runcie was no friend to propagandists during his time in office as Archbishop. Story will always leave the reader or hearer to choose how to respond, shaping lives that grow in sympathy and compassion and not reducing them to cartoon automata. Propaganda only wants automata who will do the bidding of the propagandist.