The Fall and Rise of Meriadoc Brandybuck and the Battle of Bywater

If you click on the tag, Merry, at the foot of this post you will find a series of reflections on his progress through The Lord of the Rings at least since I began to publish them on WordPress in October 2013. At that point I had just begun to read The Two Towers and so my first encounter with Merry was as a prisoner of the Uruk Hai of Isengard. I intend to return to The Fellowship of the Ring later in the year and hope to do it better justice than I did when I wrote my early reflections on another website. But even though the reflections on Merry’s early story are missing from this blog I hope that you will see that they do form a true “pilgrim’s progress” as do all of the stories of the major major characters in Tolkien’s great tale.

Merry’s story is of a soul formed through a fall and a rise and if you have already noted that this is the opposite direction to the journey that Lotho Pimple takes and that we thought about last week then you are right. The tragedy of Lotho’s story is not so much that he fell but that he did not live to face the truth about himself and so to rise again. I wrote last week about gaining the world and so losing the soul. Lotho never saw the grace of losing the world before Wormtongue murdered him.

Merry begins The Lord of the Rings as a competent organiser just as he is at the Battle of Bywater when he takes command of troops who have no experience of battle but plenty of spirit and leads them to victory over Saruman’s brigands. Merry slays the leader of the outlaws who, if he had known that the hobbit that he faced had done battle with the deadliest warrior of the Age and lived to tell the tale would never have dared to confront him.

At our first meeting with Merry he is the “leader” of the conspiracy that seems to know more about Frodo’s business than he does. He has food, hot baths and ponies organised at Crickhollow and a secret escape route from the Black Riders through the Old Forest about which he also has local knowledge. But as soon as he is in the forest he is out of his depth, he has to be rescued from Old Man Willow by Tom Bombadil and he remains more or less out of his depth for the rest of the story.

Which of us is ever at our ease in being out of our depth? I mean, truly out of our depth, beyond our competence and in an unfamiliar element? For much of the story Merry sees himself as no more than unwanted extra baggage in someone else’s story and yet without realising it he is becoming at ease with unfamiliarity, at ease with the sense that each experience is beyond his capacity to cope with. And so, without being aware that this is what he is doing, he wins the trust of the mistrusting Treebeard and so brings about the fall of Isengard and it is in “being overlooked” at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields that he aids Éowyn in bringing about the fall of the Witch King of Angmar, the Lord of the Nazgûl. And he achieves all this because he is one who lives for love. Love for the Shire, love for his friends and love for those, like Théoden and Éowyn, who give their love to him.

And now, back on familiar territory, battle hardened but not heart hardened, he deploys his troops swiftly and effectively and so brings to a speedy end the occupation of the Shire. Does he know how he has made this journey and why he has become such an effective leader? I suspect not. But neither does he mind. It is enough that the work is done and that the Shire can begin to be healed once more but we can enjoy the growth of his soul and love him just as do all who know him well.

The Funeral of Théoden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The King and The Healing of Merry

And so last but not least Aragorn comes to the bed in which Merry lies. Pippin sits anxiously beside his friend, fearing that he might die but Aragorn speaks words of reassurance.

“Do not be afraid… I came in time, and I have called him back. He is weary now, and grieved, and he has taken a hurt like the Lady Éowyn, daring to smite that deadly thing. But these evils can be amended, so strong and gay a spirit is in him. His grief he will not forget; but it will not darken his heart, it will teach him wisdom.”

And so Aragorn reaches past all the anxiety, self-doubt and fear that has beset Merry on a journey that has been almost too much for his conscious self and he reaches within to what Merry truly is, one that is both strong and gay. We saw both with Faramir and Éowyn that when Aragorn crushes the leaves of athelas and sprinkles them onto the bowl of steaming water that the fragrance that rises to fill the room speaks of the true self and calls it forth from the dark tomb created by the Black Breath; and so it is with Merry.

“When the fragrance of athelas stole through the room, like the scent of orchards, and of heather in the sunshine full of bees, suddenly Merry awoke, and he said:

‘I am hungry. What is the time?'”

If Faramir’s true self lies in the realm of his deepest yearning, a realm beyond the borders of Middle-earth, and even beyond Valinor, and if Éowyn’s lies in the pure Northernness that is evoked in the tapestry of her ancestor, Eorl the Young, and in the memory of the origins of her people, then for Merry it is a self that is entirely at one with his land and his people.

A few minutes later, when the great ones have gone to attend to other matters, Merry and Pippin sit down to attend to the ritual of preparing a pipe for smoking. And as they do so they briefly ponder what they have experienced and the great ones that they have met along the way. Aragorn had said that Merry would learn wisdom from what he had experienced and now Merry displays this wisdom as he reflects a moment.

“It is best to love first what you are fitted to love, I suppose: you must start somewhere and have some roots, and the soil of the Shire is deep. Still there are things deeper and higher; and not a gaffer could tend his garden in what he calls peace but for them, whether he knows about them or not. I am glad that I know about them, a little.”

If only this wisdom were more widely understood, practiced and taught. To learn how to love, to truly love and to cherish that which we know does not close the door to what Merry calls the things that are “deeper and higher”. In fact it opens the way to them. The great Irish peasant poet, Patrick Kavanagh, wrote:

“To know fully even one field or one land is a lifetime’s experience. In the world of poetic experience it is depth that counts, not width. A gap in a hedge, a smooth rock surfacing a narrow lane, a view of a woody meadow, the stream at the junction of four small fields- these are as much as a man can fully experience.”

Perhaps Merry is not yet able to say these words but one day, perhaps when his youthful energy is somewhat abated and he begins to sit a little longer beside the junction of streams in a woody meadow and looks at them and then looks at them some more, then he will be able to speak these words for himself. He may even be able to link them to “poetic experience” to “the dearest freshness deep down things” as Hopkins puts it. He has already begun to do so now pondering the greatness of Aragorn and Gandalf and in the days of uncertainty that lie ahead in his enforced rest in the Houses of Healing the deepening of his wisdom will continue.

Merry Thinks About “Being Overlooked” Just One More Time

When Meriadoc Brandybuck enters the City he is just one more weary soldier among many others at the end of battle. All attention is given to the King of Rohan whose body is covered in a great cloth of gold and received with state and reverence. And with the king is Éowyn who is borne upon a litter and whose beauty calls forth tender sorrow from all who look upon her.

At the last it is Pippin who finds him as he wanders aimlessly along a narrow lane and as the friends meet again at last Merry sits down upon a step and weeps.

“I wish I could carry you,” Pippin anxiously declares. “You aren’t fit to walk any further. They shouldn’t have let you walk at all; but you must forgive them. So many dreadful things have happened in the City, Merry, that one poor hobbit coming in from the battle is easily overlooked.”

Now those who know Tolkien’s story well will know that Merry has carried a certain resentment about “being overlooked” throughout it. When we first meet him near the Bucklebury Ferry early in the journey of the Ring from the Shire he exudes competence and confidence in everything he does. He is the one who has prepared the cottage at Crickhollow for the frightened travellers, who have encountered the Nazgûl for the first time, with hot baths and a good meal. He is the one who reveals the conspiracy to Frodo and announces that wherever Frodo goes he and Pippin and Sam will go too. He has ponies and provisions ready for the journey and is able to offer local knowledge about the way into The Old Forest and even a little about the forest itself.

And then as soon as he steps outside the world he knows it all starts to unravel. The encounters with Old Man Willow, the Barrow Wight and the later the Nazgûl in Bree, the last of which leads Barliman Butterbur to wonder if he might actually be on his holidays rather than a dangerous adventure, all cause him to lose the confidence with which he began. He is way out of his depth in a story so great and often so terrifying that it is always beyond his conceiving.

And yet he goes on.  It is Gandalf who says to Elrond of Merry and Pippin, “It is true that if these hobbits understood the danger, they would not dare to go. But they would still wish to go, or wish that they had dared, and be shamed and unhappy.” And it is Merry’s refusal to be overlooked that leads him to go to the battle with Éowyn. At no time does he ever feel competent as he did at the outset of the journey but he never gives in and even his resentment, his feeling that he is no more than a piece of luggage to the great ones around him ultimately plays its part. It leads him to the moment when The Lord of the Nazgûl stands over the wounded Éowyn and is about to kill her. So intent is the deadly king upon his prey that he neither sees nor fears what lies behind him. And so it is Merry, “Master Bag”, who thrusts his sword into the tendons behind the knee of one who, until this moment, has believed himself invulnerable. Only Merry the hobbit and Éowyn the woman could have brought down this deadliest of foes and in the strangest of ways it is rejection and “being overlooked” that brings them both together to this vital moment.

Never again will Merry feel resentment about “being overlooked” or, if he does, it will be his memory of this moment that will transform that feeling.

“It’s not always a misfortune being overlooked,” he says to Pippin. “I was overlooked just now by…”

Merry is now both sadder and wiser. His journey to adulthood, as it is for all who really get there, has been one that has been through fear and failure and sorrow. He has given his heart away and seen it broken and now he sits and weeps. But he does not give up. Step by step he keeps on going both to adulthood and a greatness of which he is entirely unaware.

Éowyn, Merry and The Lord of the Nazgûl

As Théoden lies, his body broken beneath Snowmane, only two among his household knights remain beside him. One is the hobbit, Meriadoc Brandybuck, who began the great ride of the Rohirrim in some indignation feeling that his offer of service to the king had been disregarded but who at this moment of horror is at Théoden’s side only because he has been carried there. And the other is the one who carried Merry into battle and who followed the king wherever he went in the fight. This knight named himself, Dernhelm, but is now revealed as Éowyn, daughter of Éomund, and niece to Théoden.

Éowyn is there because of her love for Théoden who has been as a father to her, and she is there because she seeks death. Indeed we could describe her as being one who has already died and so feels no fear.

“Begone, foul dwimmerlaik, lord of carrion! Leave the dead in peace!” she cries. And the Lord of the Nazgûl who has journeyed deathless through long ages and through battles beyond numbering, advances upon her to destroy both her and Théoden.

But he is resisted. The fear that robs all who try to cross his path of the strength even to try and resist him has no power over her for she is beyond fear, and then something new and entirely unexpected is brought to the story. When Éowyn declares her intent to hinder him he cries out that, “No living man may hinder me!” and in so doing he grants to Éowyn a new strength and determination for, as she declares to him, “no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Éowyn I am, Éomund’s daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone, if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you if you touch him.”

Doubt enters the Ringwraith’s mind and amazement the mind of the terrified hobbit and, within moments, Éowyn and Merry have pierced the sinews of the Black Captain that he had thought invulnerable to all hurt “and a cry went up into the shuddering air, and faded to a shrill wailing, passing with the wind, a voice bodiless and thin that died”. So passes the Lord of the Nazgûl in utter despair.

This is a moment of great power in Tolkien’s story and it is one that neither Éowyn nor Merry have foreseen nor even dreamt of. Merry wanted simply to follow Théoden into the battle. Indeed, all he wanted was not to be left out. Éowyn wanted only a death in battle to obliterate the unendurable pain of rejection that she has had to bear since Aragorn’s departure. But a deeper feeling is awoken in both of them by the Lord of the Nazgûl. Deeper than Éowyn’s despair or Merry’s fear and sense of insignificance. In Éowyn it is her love for Théoden and in Merry a realisation that he cannot stand by and let Éowyn die alone. These deeper feelings rouse them to action but, by themselves, could do little more than bring them to a brave death that would have achieved nothing. It is the pronouncement of the prophecy by the Lord of the Nazgûl, the Witch King of Angmar of old, that brings about his own destruction, turning Éowyn and Merry into deadly foes and making vulnerable an undead body that has been untouchable through long ages.

Many who have achieved something of significance in their lives have spoken of an energy, a strength, that is given to them at a critical moment. At that moment and for that moment only it is as if no power can stand before them. The desire to do some good and the strength to do it come together irresistibly. It is as if some latent possibility is released that can, it seems, achieve anything. It can never be ordered and we can never know when it will come but when it does then we must act with all the courage that we can muster. And such power comes to those who desire some good for others and never for some selfish end. It is this divine power that comes to Merry and to Éowyn at this critical moment.

Théoden and The Lord of the Nazgûl

It is but thirteen days since Gandalf came to Edoras and restored a shrivelled old man to life and to vigour. Now his body lies broken upon the field of battle and life ebbs swiftly away. It is Merry who is near him at the end, who hears the words of a man at peace.

“Farewell, Master Holbytla!” he said. “My body is broken. I go to my fathers. And even in their mighty company I shall not now be ashamed. I felled the black serpent. A grim morn, and a black day, and a golden sunset!”

And we remember, that day after day, the wizened creature enslaved by the leechcraft of Grima Wormtongue had to look upon the image of his mighty forefather, Eorl the Young, as he rode to victory and glory long ago and so won the plains of Calenardhon for his people as a gift from the Steward of Gondor. Doubtless this torture was a part of Wormtongue’s purpose as the shame Théoden felt worked its way into his heart and so unmanned him. It was from this that Gandalf freed him so that he could lead his people into battle, casting down the chieftain of the Haradrim and his serpent banner and driving his forces from the field. And it was from this that Gandalf freed him so that he could lie broken before the wreck of the Lord of the Nazgûl and the foul monster that the Ringwraith had ridden through the air into the battle.

If Gandalf had failed to heal him or if he had chosen to leave him in his chair then doubtless Théoden would have held onto life a little longer. For many it is this clinging onto life that is regarded as the final work of old age and when the weakness and the pain of the last days of life is borne with courage as it was by Pope John Paul II who allowed the world to watch his final struggle and, as I remember it, by my own father who bore great pain with quiet dignity in his last days, then this is praiseworthy. But to hold onto life merely for the sake of extending our existence just a short while longer is hardly an achievement of any merit.

At the ending of The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen Aragorn speaks to Arwen as he draws near to the end of his great life. Arwen finds the choice of her husband to lay down his life a hard one but Aragorn replies, “Take counsel with yourself, beloved, and ask whether you would indeed have me wait until I wither and fall from my high seat unmanned and witless.”

Aragorn chooses the grace given to the Númenorians by the Valar of old to lay down their lives freely and so entrust themselves to the mystery of death unafraid. “In sorrow we must go,”  he says, “but not in despair. Behold! we are not bound for ever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory.”

Aragorn lays down his life in freedom in the glory of his kingship. Théoden lays down his life in freedom upon the field of battle in the glory of a promise kept and his people raised from shame to honour. It is this freedom that is the essence of both in the ending of their lives. At the end of his great book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl, a survivor of Auschwitz, puts it like this, “Man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.” Frankl recognised that our choice to find life as meaningful is the greatest one that we make and that we must make it daily. Théoden made the choice on that day in Edoras, made it again on the Pelennor Fields and so he ends his life in peace.

Merry Feels Useless as He Prepares for Battle

We are on the road with the Rohirrim passing through the Druadan forest and it is held against us by our enemies. We could engage them in battle and doubtless would prevail but there is no time for delay, not even a victorious one, because the hosts of Mordor are at the gates of Minas Tirith.

Théoden and his commanders are busy about the business of war and are in conference with the people of the Druadan wood, seeking a way to bring the riders past those who would prevent their passage but one among their number is lonely and unhappy.

We have seen Merry like this before, on more than one occasion. He carries a great burden with him, one that he does not seem to know how to cast away, and that is his sense of insignificance.

Elfhelm, the commander of the éored to which Dernhelm/Éowyn is attached, trips over Merry, hidden as he is by the elven cloak that he wears, and roundly curses the tree-roots.

“I am not a tree root, Sir,” Merry said, “nor a bag, but a bruised hobbit.”

Poor Merry! It was his desire to be of some use that brought him here but it is his sense of uselessness that afflicts him now that he is close to battle. He wishes “he was a tall rider like Éomer and could blow a horn or something and go galloping to his rescue.”

Ah, the blowing of horns and the business of galloping about. How many people are relieved to spend their time going from meeting to meeting, not because of the value of what each meeting can bring to the enterprise that they are meant to serve but because each meeting can fill the void that otherwise they would gaze over as each day’s work begins. When they take their place around the meeting table at least they do not have to justify their reason for being there.

Merry is there in disobedience to the king’s express command. What can we say to comfort him? Elfhelm does not try and Dernhelm keeps silent. And if they did speak there would be nothing that they could say. Soon as they look down upon the Pelennor Fields and the hosts of Mordor massed against them they will all feel afraid and they will all have to master their fear. Even Théoden will “sit upon Snowmane, motionless, gazing upon the agony of Minas Tirith, as if stricken suddenly by anguish, or by dread.”

And at that moment all that there will be for any to do will be to rush into the heart of battle. Only a few battle hardened veterans will know what it is that they must do when they meet the enemy, the rest will have to learn quickly or perish as they do so. And Merry will find himself confronting a foe so terrible that even if he had been a veteran of many battles and had won many victories, not one of them would be of any use to him. But we will have to wait until another time to think about that story.

So there is no comfort that we can give him now and if we were to tell him what he will face in the battle we might terrify him so much as to unman him completely. It is best not to think too much about what lies ahead. John Henry Newman puts it well in his beloved hymn, “Lead Kindly Light” and we will end this week’s reflection on The Lord of the Rings with his words. Newman was a priest at the Birmingham Oratory whose clergy raised Tolkien after his mother’s death and so I would imagine that he knew this hymn very well.

“Lead, kindly light, amid the encircling gloom; lead thou me on! The night is long and I am far from home; lead thou me on! Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see the distant scene- one step enough for me.”

Anyone who has walked in real darkness will know one step is all that you can take at any point. Faith tells you that it is all you need. It is enough.