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.

Pippin Follows His Captain

When I wrote last week’s blog post on Denethor’s cry of despair that “the West has failed” I came across something that took me by surprise. That moment came when I read Pippin’s speech to Denethor after he is released from the Steward’s service. It is a speech of some nobility and it shows how far Pippin has come since he looked into the Stone of Orthanc just a few days before. He is becoming the “very valiant man” that Gandalf declared him to be when they passed through the outer defences of the Pelennor Fields. He is making the kind of journey that someone with good foundations will make when those foundations are challenged. He will grow up into mature adulthood and become a source of strength to others.

“I will take your leave, sir,” he said; “for I want to see Gandalf very much indeed. But he is no fool; and I will not think of dying until he despairs of life. But from my word and your service I do not wish to be released while you live. And if they come at last to the Citadel, I hope to be here and stand beside you and earn perhaps the arms that you have given me.”

In saying this Pippin displays a kind of courage that was very dear to Tolkien and one that he saw in the heroic tales of northern lands. It is a courage that is not dependant on a happy outcome. It is a courage that is most truly displayed when hope is lost. We see it in the cheerfulness of spirit that Merry and Pippin display when they are prisoners of the orcs and when the Ents march upon Isengard. And we see its absence in Denethor’s despair. The Tolkien scholar, Tom Shippey, puts it this way. “Its great statement was that defeat is no refutation. The right side remains right even if it has no ultimate hope at all.”

This is courage indeed and it requires great inner strength to maintain it. And in Pippin’s speech we get an idea of where he finds that strength. “I will not think of dying until he [Gandalf] despairs of life.” All through the story the young hobbits have been aware of being of no great significance to the final outcome of the quest. For Merry this realisation has been a burden. He feels himself to be an item of baggage in someone else’s story and it hurts him to feel in this way. Pippin is not burdened in the same way. He is happy to leave the big decisions, even the big beliefs, in more competent hands. If Gandalf has not given in, well, then neither will Peregrin Took.

Let us not judge the value of Pippin’s courageous choice and find it wanting because it seems to require the greater courage and faith of someone else. Pippin does make brave choices and when he urges Beregond to stop great harm coming to Faramir he inspires a brave choice in another. But he is content, not to be a leader, but a follower. What matters is that he has a worthy cause to give his “gentle loyalty” to and a captain worth following.

If we think about this with some care we will come to this conclusion. We are all followers in certain aspects of life and if our leaders are of the right quality then it will be easier for us to keep going even in challenging times. Equally if our captains let us down our own capacity to keep on going gets a little harder. And we will also realise that other people depend upon us to keep going and that we must not let them down. We are all part of a community that needs each other and sometimes we can be surprised how widely that community extends and that people look to us that we rarely think about. Faramir will survive his father’s despair because Beregond gains strength from Pippin.

Éowyn and Merry Go to War

Where will wants not, a way opens, so we say.”

So speaks Dernhelm to the unhappy Merry as the host of Rohan prepare to make the great ride to the battle before the walls of Minas Tirith. Merry is unhappy because he is to be left behind. His pony could not follow the war steeds of the Rohirrim and, as Théoden says, “In such a battle as we think to make on the fields of Gondor what would you do, Master Meriadoc, swordthain though you be, and greater of heart than of stature?”

Merry has faced the same question ever since Elrond pondered in Rivendell about who should accompany the Ringbearer upon his journey. There it was not his stature that counted against him, for Frodo and Sam were chosen straightaway, there it was his youth, but ever since the Fellowship left Rivendell Merry has felt like baggage in someone else’s journey to be taken or left behind at the will of another but never at his own.

Now, once again, it is the choice of another to take him to battle. Briefly in the story we know the rider who bears Merry as Dernhelm. Merry had noted the rider on the morning of that day glancing keenly at him. “A young man, Merry thought as he returned the glance, less in height and girth than most. He caught the glint of clear grey eyes; and then he shivered, for it came suddenly to him that it was the face of one without hope who goes in search of death.”

Théoden will learn that Merry disobeyed him and rode to battle and at the end he will smile at the knowledge of the hobbit’s disobedience honouring his valiant heart and his courage. But he will never learn the true identity of Dernhelm and so will not die in grief but in comfort, for Dernhelm is Éowyn and the words that she speaks to Merry that began this blog post she speaks also regarding herself. She too, like Merry, did not lack in will. She desires to go to war and so end her life upon the battlefield, a life that she believes has no meaning without the love of Aragorn. But like Merry also, she lacks a way, at least a way that is permitted to her. Théoden will have her rule in Edoras in his absence just as she did while the host was at Helm’s Deep but this time she will not obey him although her disobedience is secret.

So once again Tolkien shows us the greatness of Éowyn. It is not in her despair that we see her greatness nor in her disobedience but in her decision to take Merry with her. This is not some kind of suicide pact of which Merry is ignorant nor is it the choice of a proud man that others should share his despair and die with him like the pilot who deliberately crashed the passenger plane into a mountainside. What Éowyn does is to recognise one who is a fellow sufferer and her heart goes out to him. This tells me that despair has not won its final victory in her heart for if it had her heart could not have seen anything beyond its own pain. Julian of Norwich put this beautifully when she said, as did Meister Eckhart, that there is a part of the human heart that has never said, Yes, to sin. This is what Tolkien shows us when her heart goes out to Merry. Is this what keeps her alive after the battle with the Lord of the Nazgûl and will not let her die even when she thinks that she wants to while lying in the Houses of Healing? In my imagination I see Julian and Eckhart reading her story and agreeing that this is exactly why she survives and then is gloriously restored to life through the patient and strong love of Faramir. It is her love for one who is almost a stranger to her that will hold her in her darkest days.

How Do We Know if the Time has Come Unless We Try the Door?

One night of rest remains before the host of Rohan begin the great ride to the plains before Minas Tirith. Théoden sits at table with Éomer and Eówyn upon his right and Merry upon his left. At first there is little talk as tends to be the way of it before a great event. What is there left to be said? But at last it is Merry who breaks the silence.

“Twice now, lord, I have heard of the Paths of the Dead,” he said. “What are they? And where has Strider, I mean the Lord Aragorn, where has he gone?”

Théoden does not reply but just sighs and so it is Éomer who tells Merry of the road into the mountains that Aragorn has just taken and the sad story of Baldor, son of Brego, who once dared to pass the door and who was never seen again.

Then it is Théoden who adds something to the telling of the story in order to bring some comfort and hope. He tells of how when Brego and Baldor first climbed the road in search of places of refuge in times of need they met a man of great age sitting before the door.

“The way is shut… It was made by those who are Dead, and the Dead keep it, until the time comes. The way is shut.”

Until the time comes.

This begs the question that Éomer now asks.

“But how shall a man discover whether that time be come or no, save by daring the door?”

Éomer’s question is answered in the asking of it and we know that Aragorn has already received the answer by daring the door with his companions and has passed through safely, commanding the dead to follow him.

There are moments of crisis in our lives when a choice must be made. It is at such times that the original meaning of crisis is revealed. A crisis is a time of judgment when the reality of who we are is brought into the light and revealed for what it truly is. The unhappy Baldor swore an oath in the pride of his youth, emboldened by the strong drink in the horn that he bore and so the way remained closed to him. Aragorn passed the door as the heir of Isildur at the great moment of the Age commanding the Dead to follow him and so fulfil their oath. Aragorn knew the authority that had been given to him and knew his greatness. To know this is not pride in the sense that it was for Baldor. In Baldor’s case the swearing of the oath was an aspiration, an attempt to declare himself a man of substance, of greatness, who could command the loyalty of his men. In Aragorn’s case the greatness was not something that he sought to grasp; indeed we saw him lay it down with all his personal hope of happiness in order to follow the orcs and try to free Merry and Pippin. Aragorn’s destiny is not an aspiration but is bound with the hope of the West and so he cannot refuse the attempt to pass the door.

And what of us?

Few of us will be called to a deed in which our lives will be put at risk as Aragorn was. But most of us, at some point in our lives, will be called to take a risk, to take a lead, at great cost to ourselves. At such times it will be necessary to examine ourselves to see if what we really desire is a reputation, a name that will gain the respect of others. If we can face ourselves and say that what we desire above everything is some expression of the Common Good then we should take the risk. It may be that in doing so we will achieve a reputation but that will not be our primary purpose. And we will not know, can never  know for sure, as Éomer asked, whether the time has come or not, until the risk is taken.

 

 

Why Does Éowyn Want to Die?

This week’s blog post in the current series of guestblogs on Éowyn of Rohan comes from David Rowe. As with Jennifer Leonard’s piece that was featured last week it ends with Éowyn’s healing journeying first with her desire to die. ‘David is the writer of ‘The Proverbs of Middle-earth’, soon to be published by Oloris Media. He tweets at @TolkienProverbs and @mrdavidrowe, and the following is an adaptation of a passage from his book.’ I am delighted that he has offered this excerpt from his work for this platform.

If you have a piece on Éowyn that you would like to include here then please send it to me in Word format using my email address mail@stephenwinter.net. Please include some detail about yourself and any links to your work that you would like me to include. 

 

‘I do not desire healing… and I do not desire the speech of living men. ‘I looked for death in battle… to ride to war like my brother Éomer, or better like Théoden the king, for he died.’

When first seen in her guise as Dernhelm, Merry shivers, perceiving in Éowyn ‘the face of one without hope who goes in search of death.’ Having disobeyed orders and ridden to war, rather than remaining in Rohan as the King’s regent, she achieves what no man could: the killing of the Lord of the Nazgûl. In doing so she rises higher than any woman, at any time, in any kingdom of Men, and yet her emptiness remains utter.

Recovering in the Houses of Healing, Éowyn feels like a prisoner: she is jealous of the dead, jealous of the now-departed host of the West, even jealous of those with a better view from their windows. How did she reach this point?

Éowyn grew up as an orphan, adopted into the King’s household but with neither mother nor adopted mother. Her lack of female role-models, alongside the restrictions that barred her from emulating the nation’s heroes (virtually all of whom, according to the Appendices, were male), left Éowyn powerless: unable to give vent to the determination, steely character, and latent greatness within her. With a spirit and courage at least the match of Éomer’s, but without the opportunity to fight for the fields of Rohan with a company of riders as he does, Éowyn lacks comradeship. She is left isolated and alone, an indomitable shieldmaiden reduced to ‘dry-nursing’ the declining King – a role she deemed ‘more ignoble than that of the staff he leaned on.’

The arrival of Aragorn to Edoras both sparks Éowyn back to life and plunges her into despair. As Faramir correctly diagnoses, ‘You desired to have the love of the Lord Aragorn… but when he gave you only understanding and pity, then you desired to have nothing, unless a brave death in battle.’ Having had her love and hope of high honour and nobility exposed as vain, Éowyn withers; seeking only the honour of a valiant end she goes ‘in search of death.’ Knowing that none have ever returned from the Paths of the Dead, she begs Aragorn to take her there with him, but is refused, and instead goes into disguise in order to ride to Minas Tirith with the host of the Eorlingas.

Where will wants not, a way opens, Éowyn declares as Dernhelm, Good will should not be denied. Although these words are spoken to and for Merry, a double meaning is also plain: Éowyn is using them to justify her own disobedience. While, by quoting traditional proverbs, Éowyn shows that she is still in touch with Rohan’s philosophical tradition, she is actually being unfaithful to its wisdom. In place of the Rohirric devotion to duty is a different fearless determination: that of self-destruction. While Théoden, Éomer, and Rohan at large embody the belief that doing your duty is fundamental to moral goodness, Éowyn scorns such a perspective. ‘Too often have I heard of duty,’ she says. ‘May I not now spend my life as I will?’

Disguised as Dernhelm, Éowyn becomes free at last, but the freedom she gains is the liberty to self-harm. She can ride with the host of the Rohirrim, but her motives are not theirs. A nihilism has taken over, arguing that life carries no intrinsic value or moral purpose, and therefore can be used (or disposed of) at the individual’s whim. Éowyn has become a lonely, solitary death-seeker, surrounded by courageous, faithful men, riding bravely against hopeless odds. She is alien even to her own people; not part of a company, nor sharing in the national motivations. She derides compassion, and is a stranger to dutiful courage and the great virtues. It is therefore fitting that, when she subsequently fails in her quest for death, she meets her match in Faramir, in whom these traits are so prevalent.

Éowyn emerges from her nihilistic darkness not through being argued into submission, but by being loved. Perhaps because she recognises that Faramir is a man ‘whom no Rider of the Mark would outmatch in battle’, she is able to listen to him and he to command her respect. Faramir draws her out of despair with his company and kindness, saying Do not scorn pity that is the gift of a gentle heart, referring both to Aragorn’s reaction to her and to his own love. And it is as this great warrior and leader willingly exposes his vulnerable core that ‘the heart of Éowyn changed, or else at last she understood it.’ The darkness departs, and she determines to marry, to become a healer, and to ‘love all things that grow’. Éowyn finally stops fighting, and Faramir is able to declare to the Warden:

‘Here is the Lady Éowyn of Rohan, and now she is healed.’

Eowyn of Rohan: a Call for Guestblogs

During the life of this Blog that is a slow and careful reading of J.R.R  Tolkien’s  The Lord of the Rings and my own reflections upon the story, the characters and the great themes of the book, one character has inspired many comments from readers and that is Eowyn of Rohan.

Over the years many have criticised Tolkien for what they have perceived as his “male centred” story. One might argue that Eowyn, herself, demands the attention of the men in her world. We don’t know about the women as I cannot call to mind a single interaction between Eowyn and any other woman in the story. Perhaps that is something a reader might like to reflect upon.

For a number of years now I have been wrestling with what constitutes an authentic male spiritual journey to true maturity. The Lord of the Rings has helped me greatly with this task. Now I want to reflect on the journey of one of the most significant women in Tolkien’s story and I would like to ask the help of my readers. Please offer your reflections upon Eowyn of Rohan. Certain themes come to mind as I think about her:

  • Eowyn the captive in the wasteland created by the lies of Wormtongue and the decline of Théoden.
  • Eowyn and her hopeless love for Aragorn.
  • Eowyn and her despair and her joining the Ride of the Rohirrim with Merry.
  • Eowyn, the death of Théoden and the battle with the Lord of the Nazgûl.
  • Eowyn in the Houses of Healing.
  • Eowyn and Faramir of Gondor.

If there are other themes that come to mind then please feel free to write about them. Do not feel restricted by my suggestions. They are merely guidelines. I will do some simple editing of grammar, spelling and punctuation but not of the substance of the material you write. I want to read your ideas and to learn from them. I might also include art work, photos etc.

Please send me your material in a Word document as an attachment to an email sent to mail@stephenwinter.net. My usual posts are about 600-800 words in length but please feel free to make your contribution longer or shorter. You may use a reflective style similar to my own but if you normally use another style, for example an imaginative style such as poetry or fan fiction, feel free to use that. Please include your name and any other details about yourself that you care to include. These might include website details, blogs, Facebook pages etc. I promise to include them when I post your material. I promise to acknowledge every contribution and give you some idea when it will be used. For example, if you write about Eowyn and Faramir in the land of Ithilien I may not use it for another couple of years or so.

If possible I would like to post for the first time on Eowyn in the week beginning July 25th so please endeavour to get your material to me by Friday July 22nd.

And could you please publicise my blog in your own web publishing space? I would appreciate that very much.

I am married to a remarkable woman and have two wonderful daughters emerging into adult life. I have been enriched beyond measure by each one of them. I have also enjoyed many friendships with women ever since I emerged from my adolescent shyness and still do today. I grow constantly more convinced that men and women will only achieve wholeness and maturity in good adult relationships to each other and yet this seems quite rare. Maybe together we achieve something towards this goal as we think about Eowyn. I do hope so.

With grateful anticipation,

Stephen Winter

 

Meriadoc Brandybuck and the King of Gondor

It is Arwen of Rivendell who declares Aragorn, king; doing so in the giving of the standard that Halbarad bears and from the moment it is given Aragorn is transformed. Readers who may have seen Peter Jackson’s films will remember that this transformation comes with the arrival of Elrond and the giving of the sword. They will remember too that it comes with the words, “Be who you were meant to be!” The words may be absent from Tolkien’s telling of the tale but when the standard comes the effect is the same. The standard may remain unfurled but Aragorn knows what it is. It is the standard of the king of Gondor and when Aragorn goes into battle he will do so, not as chieftain of the Rangers of the North, but as the king.

And as the king Aragorn challenges Sauron and wrests control of the Palantir from him. As the king he chooses to take his  own pathway to the battle before the walls of Minas Tirith. Until the moment the Grey Company overtook him he was content to be a part of Théoden’s company and to follow him into the battle and he does not fret about how he is to claim the crown. This is not Aragorn’s way. There is always only one question that he must answer and that is “What must I do now?” He knows the destiny to which he is called. He knows that he can never be united to Arwen unless as king of Gondor and of Arnor but he never plots or schemes to achieve this destiny. He never calculates the question of who is for him or against him. He never tries to make his destiny or his desire a possession to be defended. If he is to accomplish it then he must either receive it as a gift or to lay it down. How important a distinction this is. Once his choice has been made nothing and no one will dissuade him from his course of action. His willingness to wait so that when the time comes he receives his destiny as a gift is not a sign of weakness or indecisiveness. Indeed it is a sign of faith. It is the weak and fearful who fear that unless they make their desire happen it may never come to them. Saruman is one such, constantly calculating how he may achieve the power he desires. He knows that by seeking power for himself he betrays the mission given to him by the Valar and yet he wonders if the rebellion of Sauron might mean that the Valar will no longer intervene as they did at the end of the First Age and in the destruction of Númenor. Aragorn never stoops to such calculation. He is a true Númenorian and descendent of Elendil the Elf Friend, the faithful one.

And as with Théoden, perhaps less glorious in his lineage, but no less glorious in his faithfulness, Aragorn gives his concern to the lowly as well as to the great. When he declares his decision to Théoden Aragorn also bids farewell, for the time being, to Merry. He cannot  give him any comfort. Merry “could find no more to say. He felt very small, and he was puzzled and depressed by all these gloomy words.” He goes with Théoden and misses Pippin very much.

Aragorn may not be able to comfort Merry but his heart goes out to him. “There go three that I love, and the smallest not the least… He knows not to what end he rides; yet if he knew, he would still go on.” And such kindness and compassion is a true mark of a true king. For the most part we have to deal with those whose ambition for personal glory drives them on. But we can choose to be different. We can choose to give our love to all people from the greatest to the lowliest and like Aragorn and the true Númenorians we can trust that written deep into the fabric of reality is a law that is firm. We might call it the law of God.

“Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the Lord and who meditates on his law day and night. That person is like a stream planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither- whatever they do prospers.” (Psalm 1)

Meriadoc Brandybuck and the King of Rohan

There are many ways in which we can speak of greatness but Théoden shows us one that is not so often grasped. With all the preparations going on about him for the deeds that lie ahead, preparations in which he plays a full part, he notices something that everyone else has missed.

“The king was already there, and as soon as they entered he called for Merry and had a seat set for him at his side.”

What did he see that everyone else had missed? Just one hobbit who is always hurrying after everyone else but who is never quite necessary for anything. And why does that matter in the great scheme of things? Well, if that is what everything must be judged by then it matters little, but Théoden has a greater vision than that. He sees with his heart.

When Théoden speaks to Merry he reminds him that he made a promise that they should speak together and also he speaks of Merry’s loneliness now that Pippin has gone. Merry’s heart is deeply touched and he gives it to Théoden.

Merry “had never felt more grateful for any kindness in words. ‘I am afraid that I am only in everybody’s way,’ he stammered; ‘but I should like to do anything I could you know.'” And, “filled suddenly with love for this old man, he knelt on one knee, and took his hand and kissed it.” Then he offers his sword and his service to the king. Readers may remember the cold austere way in which Denethor received Pippin’s offer of service, even though his heart too was briefly touched. Théoden could hardly be more different from the Steward of Gondor.

“‘Gladly will I take it,’ said the king; and laying his long old hands upon the brown hair of the hobbit, he blessed him.”

It is a moment of gentle beauty in the midst of the great crisis of the age. The king and the hobbit take each other for father and son and, in the brief days that lie ahead before the ride of the Rohirrim to the walls of Minas Tirith, Théoden takes comfort in Merry’s companionship and in the simple tales of life in the Shire.

Théoden has no idea where his gentle deed will take either him or Merry. Indeed he will do all that he can to prevent Merry from reaching the place where he will play his part in one of the great deeds of the age. If Théoden had any element of calculation in his blessing of Merry then the falsehood of such an act would have robbed him of the very love that causes Merry to accomplish what he does at the Pelennor Fields. No, I am afraid that for all who wonder whether it might be a useful leadership strategy to win the loyalty of their followers by practising the same kind of kindness Théoden shows here that it simply will not work. Their kindness will have to come from the heart or it will have no meaning.

Perhaps that is why the famous political theorist of Renaissance Italy, Niccolò Machiavelli, offered his infamous dictum, “It may be more pleasant to be loved than feared, but it is safer to be feared than loved.” The creation of fear is always a matter of calculation. The creation of love can never be. Sometimes for Théoden it involves great risk. When Wormtongue’s treachery is revealed Théoden simply sets him free remembering that once he had been a faithful servant. As he does so he cannot know that by the time Wormtongue reaches Isengard the Ents will have completed their work of destruction and yet he frees him nonetheless. His generosity may have had grievous consequences and yet, despite the misery that he had suffered at Wormtongue’s hands, he still allows him to go where he will. There is no calculation and certainly no safety in Théoden’s kindness and so the love of his people is freely given. Merry loves him as a father and will lay down his life for him if he can. No degree in a business school could ever have formed such greatness.

Meriadoc Brandybuck Feels Like Baggage in Someone Else’s Story

When Aragorn makes the speech that we thought about in last week’s reflection Gimli and Legolas hear it as a call to arms. They have no doubt about what they must do. It is a thrilling thing to hear such words from a great captain. In a young man the warrior within is awakened and he feels himself grow taller and stronger and more truly himself. How important it is that the captain who makes the call is worthy  of such devotion. There are too many who call it forth for unworthy causes to the great hurt of all who follow them.

But there is one who hears Aragorn’s words who feels but a spectator to a great event in which he can play but a little part. When Aragorn declares that “an hour long prepared approaches”, Merry cries out:

“Don’t leave me behind! I have not been of much use yet, but I don’t want to be laid aside, like baggage to be called for when all is over. I don’t think the Riders will want to be bothered with me now. Though, of course, the king did say that I was to sit by him when he came to his house and tell him all about the Shire.”

If readers who know the story well think back to the first time that we meet Merry properly it is on the lane between the Bucklebury Ferry and Farmer Maggot’s farm when he meets Frodo, Sam and Pippin hiding in the back of Maggot’s cart for fear of the Black Riders. Merry is both confident and competent. He is on home territory and he knows what to do. There is food and there are hot baths awaiting the anxious travellers in the cottage at Crickhollow. He even leads the other hobbits in revealing what they know of the true purpose of Frodo’s journey and he makes sensible proposals regarding what they should do next.

But at this moment in the story all that must feel both a long time ago and a long way away as if it all belonged to someone else and not to him. Now Merry feels like unnecessary baggage and when, a little while later, Théoden’s party is overtaken by a mounted company and it is possible that there might be a fight that feeling deepens miserably.

Has he forgotten that it was he and Pippin who roused Treebeard and the Ents and so brought about the downfall of Saruman and the destruction of his fortress at Isengard and his army? Saruman may not forget and he does not forget but Merry does. For even there he was carried by the mighty leader of the Ents just as he had been carried by the Orcs as a captive. It has been a very long time since Merry has felt that he is a necessary part of this great enterprise and he desperately wants to feel as if he matters.

In this blog we have often gone back to this theme of being carried. In particular we have thought about it in relation to Frodo,  who, the closer he comes to the conclusion of his journey the less he is able to act on his own behalf. Indeed the last time we saw him he was being carried into Mordor by Shagrat and Gorbag and their orc companies.

We are so anxious to feel that we matter, that we can act on our own behalf and that we can make a difference. It is a thing that the young and the old share in common that their ability to act independently is small. The young long to emerge from the control of their elders. The old fear that they will become increasingly dependent upon others. And yet we know that Merry, simply by being where he is and offering himself as he is in all his weakness and fearfulness and yet with all his love and devotion too, shapes Tolkien’s great story in a way that few others do.

And that is an encouragement to all of us to do the same.

Peregrin Took Teaches Us the Value of Cheerfulness in Dark Times

It is Pippin’s cheerfulness that gives courage to Beregond, the soldier of Gondor. It was the kind of cheerfulness that Tolkien met among the soldiers from the villages of England in the trenches of the First World War. On July 1st of this year we will remember the first day of the Battle of the Somme on which 20,000 British soldiers were killed and about 40,000 wounded. Tolkien was present at the battle and survived. My great uncle, Tommy Young, was also present and did not survive. I shall think of him especially on that day.

Tolkien received what was known, amongst the soldiers, as a blighty wound during the battle. This was a wound not serious enough to cause lasting damage but serious enough to mean that the soldier who received it would be withdrawn from the front line for a lengthy period of recuperation. To receive such a wound was generally regarded as good luck among the soldiers. Tolkien though had to live with the fact that among his closest friends he was the only survivor of the war.

It is with this memory that Tolkien begins to describe the preparations for the great battle of The Lord of the Rings at the Pelennor Fields. It may not have been this battle that was to be the decisive action of the story. That was the journey of Frodo and Sam to Mount Doom and the events in the Sammath Naur. But if Minas Tirith had fallen to the armies of Minas Morgul there would have been nowhere to return to for Frodo and Sam.

Pippin’s cheerfulness before the overwhelming might of Mordor reminds us of Sam Gamgee’s reflection at the Black Gate when  it appeared that the journey was at an end. Tolkien tells us that Sam “never had any real hope in the affair from the beginning; but being a cheerful hobbit he had not needed hope, as long as despair could be postponed.”

It is this spirit that enables Sam to bring Frodo and the Ring to Mount Doom; that brings Merry and Eowyn to the place in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields where they are able to slay the Lord of the Nazgûl; and which enables Pippin to save the life of Faramir in the face of Denethor’s despair and the passivity of his guard. It is not quite the same thing as the great joy that Pippin sees in Gandalf after the encounter with Denethor. Gandalf’s joy is a heavenly thing that Pippin, as yet, can only catch glimpses of; it is the inbreaking of another world into the world that Pippin knows and one that declares that even in the darkest of times the last word belongs to love and to joy and not to darkness. The cheerfulness of the hobbits is of a different order and belongs to the earth. It is a peasant quality that determines to make the best of whatever life brings, enjoying the good without too much expectation that it will last for long and bearing up under times of difficulty. It takes a quiet pride in maintaining the right kind of face. This is not a kind of dissembling, a deliberate attempt to deceive, unless it is to deceive an enemy, but it is a kind of virtue, most closely akin to fortitude. Perhaps the last time it was seen in British life to a great degree was during the heavy bombing of British cities during the Second World War by the German Luftwaffe, an action that was intended to demoralise the civilian population but which failed to do so. Perhaps it should be noted here that the bombing of German cities proved to be just as ineffective in this regard.

Pippin’s cheerfulness will be needed much in the days that lie ahead for the “darkness has begun”. But it will be no mere whistling in the wind. It will be a source of strength that will enable him to do brave deeds and will prevent the doing of great harm. We will do well to honour this quality and to develop it ourselves.