Songs that Come to Us out of Strange Places

It is through the intervention of the Ents of Fangorn that victory is won at Helm’s Deep but this frightens the Riders of Rohan more perhaps than did the enemies they faced in the battle. For a kind of disenchantment has been at work among them for a very long time. You may remember that when Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli first encountered Eomer and his war band upon the plains of Rohan they met with mistrust and some fear. When Eomer heard that the friends had met Galadriel in Lothlorien he reacted with both wonder but also fearful hostility.

“Then there is a Lady in the Golden Wood, as old tales tell!” he said. “Few escape her nets, they say. These are strange days! But if you have her favour, then you also are net-weavers and sorcerers, maybe.”

Théoden’s reaction to his first encounter with Ents is less hostile, perhaps, after all he has just benefitted from their timely intervention, but it is hardly less ignorant! He declares that he knows nothing of them so Gandalf takes the opportunity to teach him a few home truths and he shows Théoden that they are indeed truths he once learned in his own home.

“They are the shepherds of the trees…Is it so long since you listened to tales by the fireside? There are children in your land who, out of the twisted threads of story, could pick the answer to your question. You have seen Ents, Ents out of Fangorn Forest, which in your tongue you call the Entwood. Did you think that the name was given only in idle fancy?”

Théoden’s response shows that he may be ignorant as are his people but that he does ponder things deeply.

“Out of the shadows of legend I begin to understand the marvel of the trees, I think…Songs we have that tell of these things, but we are forgetting them, teaching them only to children, as a careless custom. And now the songs have come down among us out of strange places, and walk visible under the Sun.”

Théoden’s musings tell the tale of our own times too. What we know call Fairy Tales are stories thought to be fit only for children and so the very word, Fairy, is considered childish and the culture in which these tales arose, the culture of our medieval ancestors, is thought to have been immature and in need of enlightenment. Indeed from the time of the Enlightenment onward such tales became, as Théoden put it, taught only to children “as a careless custom”.

Recently it has been noted by many critics that much of the best writing of our time has been written ostensibly for children though sadly one leading author in the UK commented that he was disturbed by the sight of adults on trains reading Harry Potter. In the packed church in which I watched a school nativity play this morning there was an atmosphere of delight as parents and grandparents gazed upon their young dressed as characters from the gospel stories. There is a general acceptance that faith is a good thing for children especially when linked to a moral education but one, sadly perhaps, that must be left behind on leaving childhood. And yet the word adult when used as an adjective to describe books, films, pictures etc. is used to denote a deeply immature sexuality that has perhaps a place in an occasional time of carnival as ancient societies knew but is deeply destructive of mature sexual relationships and mature societies when it becomes the norm.

Thankfully Tolkien himself created a mythology that speaks to both adults and children in our own time. His work has transformed the lives of many and sowed seeds of enchantment among many more that will bear fruit. I pray that we too may find songs coming down to us “out of strange places” that may “walk visible under the Sun.”

Théoden Bound and Ashamed

Gandalf and his companions enter Théoden’s darkened hall whose majesty lies half hidden in shadows. Around them upon the walls hang many woven cloths and “over their wide spaces marched figures of ancient legend”. To one in particular their eyes are drawn even before they look upon the king himself because in the dark the light of the sun has fallen upon it through an opening high in the roof. “A young man upon a white horse… blowing a great horn… his yellow hair flowing in the wind.”

“Behold Eorl the Young!” said Aragorn. “Thus he rode out of the North to the Battle of the Field of Celebrant.”

That we should look upon Eorl before we see the king is no accident. Eorl is forever young and Théoden is old; very old indeed. He is a man “so bent with age that he seemed almost a dwarf.” Eorl is bathed in sunlight while Théoden is hidden in the shadows. Tolkien means us to gaze upon Eorl in his majesty because that is where Théoden himself looks and what he sees acts as a constant reproach to him. Eorl rides to battle, to victory and to glory while Théoden sits helplessly by as he hears daily of defeat, of the death of his only son in battle and of the impending doom of his house and of his people. Almost his last words just a few weeks later at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields will be, “I go to my fathers. And even in their mighty company I shall not now be ashamed.”

Théoden has been ashamed, literally crippled and shrunken by shame even as Wormtongue’s whisperings have steadily weakened his resolve. Faced by the dangers that surround him he has withdrawn behind the diminishing safety of his own walls yet even there the image of his mighty ancestor rebukes him. Age must come to us all if we live long enough to see it and many find that the world about them becomes a more fearful place. Tove Jansson, writer of the wonderful Moomintroll stories, summered for many years on an island some way off the coast of Finland. One day she stepped out of her hut on the island to gaze upon the sea and she was suddenly afraid, a feeling she had never known before in that place. When she left her island as the summer ended it was to be for the last time. She never returned there again.

Théoden is freed from the prison of his own walls by Gandalf. We will think more about that next week. He will then throw himself into life for a few brief and dangerous days before finally falling in battle before the walls of Minas Tirith. Those for whom the most important thing in life is to achieve security will find Gandalf’s behaviour reprehensible and Théoden’s foolish. What kind of care for the aged is it that counsels leaving safety and care and going into battle? Yet Gandalf’s counsel will enable Théoden to break free from fear and from shame and to die a free man. Who would deny him this? And which of us are in danger of denying freedom to ourselves and building darkened prisons for our own souls?

Gandalf’s Dark Journey

Already we have seen signs that Gandalf is not what he was before Moria. He is no longer Gandalf the Grey but the White and he describes himself as being what Saruman should have been. There is a potency in him that Aragorn and his companions have not seen before so that when Aragorn names him, Captain, it is a recognition of that potency. It is a recognition too of a turning of the tide. The brave but seemingly hopeless pursuit of the young hobbits and their captors is at an end and now there is a call to war.

And this moment of transformation comes for them all after a dark journey. For Aragorn it comes after doubt and then a commitment to a hopeless task. For Gandalf it comes after his mighty battle against the Balrog in Moria, a battle described in the language of myth, a struggle of super beings, of warfare in heaven where Michael the Archangel does battle with Satan and casts him out down to the earth. It is a battle that takes Gandalf to unimaginable depths and heights and eventually it costs him his life.

“Then darkness took me, and I strayed out of thought and time, and I wandered far on roads that I will not tell…Naked I was sent back- for a brief time, until my task is done.”

The great spiritual traditions all know the dark journey. The long sojourn of the children of Israel in the wilderness and the captivity in Babylon; Jesus in the wilderness, fasting forty days and nights, surrounded by wild beasts and tempted by the devil; St Anthony in the desert doing battle with the demons and the spiritual tradition of the monastary that was inspired by his example; the Dark Night of the Soul of St John of the Cross in which all consolation is taken away so that the soul learns at last to cleave to God without consolation. And if we listen to the wisdom that the great traditions have to teach us then our own journeys through the dark can be journeys not of loss but of transformation.

I suspect that it has never been easy for us to be able to embrace the dark journey. If it were easy then why is the journey so often described in the language of elemental struggle? It is striking that so much literature written for children lives with this language quite comfortably and that so much so called “adult” literature shies away from it. Even in the world of contemporary spiritual literature the really popular titles are of books that promise “success” and the overcoming of our inner demons. The language that we are most comfortable with is that of ascent. This is not surprising. Our fear is that when we descend into the abyss it may be without a bottom and there may be no way out of it. When William Shannon first wrote his excellent biography of the 20th century American monk, Thomas Merton, he entitled it, “Thomas Merton’s Dark Journey.” When I bought my copy a few years later the title had become “Thomas Merton’s Paradise Journey.” I did not mind too much. The content was the same and I knew that the Dark Journey and the Paradise Journey are one and the same thing for those prepared to travel on them but I suspect that the publishers may have felt that the second title may have been easier to sell than the first.

The Lord of the Rings is a dark journey and Tolkien employs the language of myth to take us on it. Wisely he does not try to preach to us but I suspect that much of its popularity is because as we read it we are taken on this journey at a level below our consciousness. This will have done more good than any can tell. Deeds done in the unseen world can never be measured. But it is possible to allow this great myth to teach us to embrace our own dark journeys and to find the courage to endure them and the hope that we will at last find transformation just as Gandalf and Aragorn do.

You Are Our Captain

How wonderful it is to be able to find clarity and purpose after long doubt and uncertainty. We have followed Aragorn through doubt until his choice to follow Merry and Pippin brought him serenity even when all seemed lost and it seemed that the best he could achieve was to find the young hobbits and then starve with them in the forest. He had found a peace but it was the peace of someone who had given all that they could but who must now lay down their struggle and their life. It was the peace that someone finds when all hope is gone but there remains the knowledge that the choice was right and that is now enough.

“Come Aragorn, son of Arathorn!” says Gandalf. “Do not regret your choice in the valley of the Emyn Muil, nor call it a vain pursuit. You chose amid doubts the path that seemed right: the choice was just and it has been rewarded. For so we have met in time who otherwise might have met too late.”

How wonderful it is to find clarity after long doubt and so it is for Aragorn as he meets Gandalf once more after long night. How wonderful it is to hear this well done from one he has long thought of as father. And at this moment, although he has laboured long and hard, he has energy for any task to which he might be called, indeed he longs to receive orders again.

“The quest of your companions is over. Your next journey is marked by your given word. You must go to Edoras and seek out Théoden in his hall. For you are needed.”

Saruman is now in open war against Rohan. He fears that Théoden might possess the Ring now that his messengers have been slain by Eomer’s war band? Aragorn must aid Théoden in this fight. All weariness falls from him.

“You are our captain and our banner,” he declares to Gandalf. “The Dark Lord has Nine. But we have One, mightier than they: the White Rider. He has passed through fire and the abyss, and they shall fear him. We will go where he leads.”

Most men unless they have passed over into despair will feel the thrill of these words for most of us long for a true captain to follow. Sadly many pass through life having never found that captain or, even more tragically, to have found one who seemed to be what we sought but who has proved faithless. The faithless captain is one who seeks their own gain above all else and who will sacrifice others to that end. Aragorn knows that Gandalf is not faithless and he will not rest until the struggle is ended being willing to sacrifice himself for the sake of those who follow him. Men love such leaders and will follow them through thick and thin if they can find them.

Ernest Shackleton, a Faithful Captain

It is a lonely moment when we realise that unless we are prepared to be the leader the task will not be done. It is a lonely moment when we realise that unless we make the sacrifice then there will be a company of people who cannot be free. To have a sense that what we do has meaning and truth sets us free. “How are the people to know that they are faithful” wrote Anglican theologian, Richard Hooker in the sixteenth century, “unless their captains tell them?” Gandalf has told Aragorn that he has proved faithful and now he has strength to fight. How much we need such captains. Perhaps we have been called to be such a captain to a company of people ourselves.

Happy are Those Who Struggle

If Sauron were leader of the Fellowship, setting out from Rivendell in possession of the Ring, what would he do? Gandalf knows that it is a question that Sauron has asked himself. Sauron knows that the Fellowship left Rivendell and that they possessed the Ring. He knows something of each member of the Fellowship and that there are hobbits among them. And Gandalf knows that he fears that the Fellowship will go to Minas Tirith and there one of them will wield the Ring, assail Mordor with war, cast him down and take his place. Boromir counselled  that they should go to Minas Tirith but not that one of them should wield the Ring. He hid this desire even from himself.  And Gandalf and Galadriel were tempted to wield the Ring as well. Remember the occasions when Frodo offered the Ring to them, first to Gandalf at Bag End in the Shire and later to Galadriel in Lothlorien. Remember that both were tempted to the very limits of their strength to take it and seek to use it to cast Sauron down. Sauron knows that both have the capacity to do this and so he is afraid. He will unleash war against Minas Tirith as swiftly as he can before his enemies are strong enough to use the Ring to destroy him.

But…

What if Sauron is wrong? What if, as Gandalf says, “we should wish to cast him down and have no one in his place?” This not is a thought that “occurs to his mind”. And Gandalf continues: “that we should try to destroy the Ring itself has not entered into his darkest dream.” Indeed Sauron is incapable of dreaming such things. Our dreams, whether waking or sleeping, are the fruit of our spiritual practice. By this I do not mean our religious practices although they can be of help to us in the shaping of our spiritual practice. What I mean is how we cultivate our desire. For Gandalf and Galadriel desire is a deeply complex thing. On the one hand they long to heal the world, to right wrongs and set things right. On the other hand the thought that the power to do this might fall into their hands and that they might be the heroic saviours of the world with all flocking to their banner is deeply attractive. You will note that Boromir desired the same thing. But Sauron does not suffer this agony. He has a different agony because for him only one thing has meaning and that is power over others for it is only power that can free him from the fear that haunts him, his agony that never leaves him, the fear that one day someone will have the power to destroy him and take his place.

Happy are those who know spiritual struggle. Happy are those who wrestle against their own weakness and who begin to learn their own limitations. Happy are those who learn to laugh at themselves, who know that they are not the centre of everything and that it is just as well for everyone that this should be so. Happy are those who know that they have a contribution to make and who make it with a proper self respect but who know that others have a contribution to make too and it may be that the others will receive more praise than they will. And happy are those who just sometimes wish that they could be praised too and allow a wry smile as they recognise the lingering potency of that desire!

Unhappy is Sauron and all like him who do not know this struggle, whose spiritual lives are simple, having been reduced to the pursuit of one desire. Kierkegaard once said that simplicity is to will one thing and he is right. Perhaps it is possible to achieve such simplicity in pursuit of the good. There are signs in The Lord of the Rings that Gandalf and Galadriel have achieved such simplicity. Jesus finally achieves it at the moment when he says, “Father into your hands I commend my spirit.” But if it is achieved then it is a victory won as the fruit of a renunciation that is a profound struggle that tests them and everyone who pursue such simplicity to their limit and beyond.

The Temptation of St Anthony

This has to be a word of hope to all of us who struggle. Our struggle should not be a cause of pity in others. Rather others should pity us only if we give up fighting. But more of that next week. 

On Learning to Receive Good News

It can almost be as hard to receive and believe unexpected good news as it is to receive and believe the opposite. Disappointment can become a habit of life and preparing for it so that we can bear it when it comes can become the main discipline of our inner lives. The expectation of disappointment and our preparation for its “inevitable” arrival has a way of creeping into every fibre of our being. We will see this negative expectation at work in two major characters of The Lord of the Rings in later postings on this blog. One is Théoden of Rohan and the other is Denethor of Gondor.

The return of Gandalf is one of the glorious moments of the whole story. We saw him fall with the Balrog into the abyss in Moria, crying, “Fly, you fools!” as he did so. We shared in the grief of his companions at his loss and in the sense that their task had become so much harder if not impossible. We have reflected more than once on how for Aragorn the unexpected burden of the leadership of the company threw him into doubt regarding his personal ambitions. And we could say that although it was the attack of the orcs that finally sundered the Fellowship of the Ring that it was from the fall of Gandalf that such a sundering became inevitable.

And now in the Forest of Fangorn as Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli bravely pursue what seems a hopeless cause, Gandalf returns to them.

“They all gazed at him. His hair was white as snow in the sunshine; and gleaming white was his robe; the eyes under his deep brows were bright, piercing as the rays of the sun; power was in his hand. Between wonder, joy and fear they stood and found no words to say.”

They are able to receive this good news with joy and then to continue their journey with renewed hope. Soon they will know that there is no point in continuing to search for Merry and Pippin. They will waste no time on comments like, “so why did we bother, then?” Only one thing will matter to them and that will be to do the next task, and then the next one and the next one. In this they differ from Théoden (at first at least) and from Denethor. Denethor, most of all, has become so set in his belief that good days are only pauses on the inevitable road to destruction that he considers all who continue to have hope as fools and so Gandalf is dismissively called the “grey fool”. In Théoden despair is mixed with guilt. He regards himself as a failed king. Aragorn is different from both. He has passed through his time of despair, not even regarding his own failure as something that disqualifies him from doing the next task with all the strength that he can bring to it.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German pastor, theologian and anti-Nazi resister, wrote powerfully about this not long before he was arrested and held in the Tegel prison in Berlin.

He reflected on ten years of resistance to the Third Reich within Germany, much of which had been ineffective, and upon all that he and his fellow resisters had learnt through those years. He wrote that he had learnt that it was of no importance whether anyone emerged as a hero from this experience. All that mattered was to keep on asking the question, day after day after day, “How is the next generation to live?” Aragorn has stopped worrying about whether he is a hero or whether others see him as one. All that matters is the task. Once that is clear to him he has no barrier within himself to weeping tears of sorrow or of joy and no barrier to living a faithful life.

Choice and Serenity: A Lesson from Aragorn

It is some weeks since this blog reflected upon the adventures of Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas, and their pursuit of the captors of Merry and Pippin across the wide plains of Rohan. It has been longer still since we thought about Aragorn’s inner turmoils after the fall of Gandalf; how he was torn between his longing to go to Minas Tirith with Boromir to aid its people in the wars against Mordor and his sense of responsibility to Frodo, the Ringbearer. I wrote about the day when Aragorn ran uselessly here and there as Boromir first tried to sieze the Ring from Frodo and then fell alone in battle trying to protect Merry and Pippin from the orcs of Isengard.

I wrote about the moment when he crashed through the trees into the glade, wielding the mighty sword of his glorious ancestors that had cut the Ring from the hand of Sauron, crying “Elendil”  he did so and finding that the battle was already at an end. At that moment Aragorn was in despair. http://www.stephenwinter.net/page6.htm#140191

“This is a bitter end. Now the Company is all in ruin. It is I that have failed. Vain was Gandalf’s trust in me. What shall I do now?”

The choice that he makes at that moment is one that takes him away, both from the Quest of the Ring and from his longing to fulfill the promise to Boromir to go to Minas Tirith. He chooses to follow Merry and Pippin, the two members of the Company, who, until that point in the story, have contributed least to their task. Any utilitarian assessment of the greatest good at the moment when he makes his choice would tell him that regretably he must abandon Merry and Pippin to their fate and that at least their deaths might be worthwhile if the Ring can be destroyed and Minas Tirith be delivered. But Aragorn is no utilitarian and neither is he a soft-hearted or, might we say, soft-headed sentimentalist. He chooses to trust Frodo’s choice to go on alone knowing that the Council have entrusted him with the task of destroying the Ring. And he cannot go to Minas Tirith having abandoned his comrades. He will follow them even if the pursuit is in vain.

In one sense the pursuit, though heroic, is indeed in vain. It is not through his efforts that Merry and Pippin are freed. It is not Aragorn who rouses the Ents to march upon Isengard. At one point Legolas remarks that they have made this great journey to little purpose and as they journey further into Fangorn Forest Gimli is even more blunt.

“If we do not find them soon, we shall be of no use to them, except to sit down beside them, and show our friendship but starving together.”

Yet Aragorn is serene through all this. “If that is indeed all we can do,” he says, “then we must do that. Let us go on.”

Aragorn has made his choice and once made he will waste no time upon regret. He has done all that needs to be done. We might say that there is some providential link, a synchronicity, between his choice and all the great events that will follow. We might say that if we choose rightly then good things will follow even if we cannot prove a direct link between our choice and the subsequent good. But we cannot prove such a link and Aragorn would not wish to attempt such a proof. He would regard this as an attempt at self-justification and a craven act to which he would never stoop. That is his greatness and the reason why Legolas and Gimli will go with him. And if we would know the peace that Aragorn knows then we too will seek only to make the right choice and then to act upon without regret.