Faramir Remembers “Númenor that was”

I am on a holiday with my wife in the county of Pembrokeshire in west Wales, the county in which my father in law was born and grew up. I am sitting in a pub with a glass of ale at my hand. I do not wish to write something new this week and so I decided to republish an old post in the hope that I would get some new readers for it. Do let me know what you think. When I first wrote this it was the first of three posts on “Númenor that was”, “Elvenhome that is” and “That which is beyond Elvenhome and will ever be.” Why don’t you read all three.

“We look towards Númenor that was, and beyond to Elvenhome that is, and to that which is beyond Elvenhome and will ever be.”

Faramir looks westward with Frodo and Sam

So says Faramir to Frodo and Sam motioning to them to stand with himself and his men facing westwards into the setting sun at the refuge of Henneth Annûn before they sit to eat. And in this simple action the people of Gondor recollect both their history and their identity day by day.

They remember the peril that Eärendil “ventured for love of the Two Kindreds” at the end of the First Age of the Earth. For when the forces of Morgoth had all but overthrown the kingdoms of the Elves and Men in Beleriand Eärendil had journeyed to Valinor to plea for the mercy of the Valar in their uttermost need, and mercy was granted to them. They remember how Morgoth was overthrown and in punishment was “thrust through the Door of Night beyond the Walls of the World into the Timeless Void”. They remember how Elros and Elrond, the sons of Eärendil, were granted a choice that none had ever been offered either before nor since. The Valar offered to them either to live as one of the deathless that was the destiny of the Elves upon the Earth or to choose mortality that was the destiny of Humankind. And they remember how Elrond chose the destiny of the Elvenkind and so came to live in Rivendell in Middle-earth and how Elros chose mortality and was granted as gift for himself and his people the great isle of Númenor in the Western Seas just within sight of Valinor.

The Shores of Númenor by Izzi Saeta Cabrera

They remember how at first their ancestors lived in contentment with the choice that Elros had made and the land that had been granted as gift; but how, even as their power grew, they grew envious of those that were deathless, coming to see their own mortality as a punishment laid upon them by the Valar who they now regarded as tyrants. This discontent and envy grew and festered over many years even as their might grew. Indeed, we might say, unease and power seemed to grow in equal measure. Eventually so great was that power that they were able to overthrow and make prisoner Sauron even after he had forged the One Ring and had made Barad-dûr in Mordor the heart of his dominions within Middle-earth. But their victory over Sauron was achieved, not as a rejection of his darkness but in envy of his power and so, even as a prisoner, Sauron was able to make that envy grow directing it now against the Valar. Eventually with Sauron’s encouragement they assaulted Elvenhome itself believing that if they could conquer it they would achieve the immortality that they desired, that it was the land itself that somehow granted to its people their deathlessness. But a great wave arose that destroyed the fleets and even the Isle of Númenor and so it is that when Faramir and his men stand in silence they remember “Númenor that was”.

The Fall of Númenor

But even as the faithlessness of the kings of Númenor and those that followed them comes to mind every time the people of Gondor stand before they eat so too does the memory of those who were faithful at great cost to themselves. For among the people of Númenor there were those known as Elf-friends who still loved the Valar and were content with the choice of Elros. When the fleets of Númenor sailed in assault upon Valinor they refused to go with them and the great wave that destroyed Númenor carried Elendil, his sons, Isildur and Anárion and all their peoples, in nine great ships to the shores of Middle-earth where they founded the kingdoms of Gondor and Arnor.

All this is called to mind as the peoples of Gondor remember “Númenor that was”, and it is a memory of gift, of choice, of growing discontent and envy that led to unfaithfulness and also to the faithfulness of Elendil and his people, the Elf-friends. And each time they do this they know that they themselves are the fruit of this story and how they too must live.

In this week’s reflection we have remembered  “Númenor that was” and perhaps it has caused us to think of our own discontents with our lives and what has been given to us and what it might mean for us to be faithful even as were the Elf-friends. Next week we shall think with Faramir and his men of “Elvenhome that is” and all that comes to mind as they gaze towards it.

Old Man Willow. O Hobbits, Take Care Where You Sleep!

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (HarperCollins 1991) pp 108-116

The hobbits have to make their way through the Old Forest in order to rejoin the East-West road through Eriador. Their intention is to throw the Black Riders off their scent and so to arrive safely in Bree. There, or at least so they hope, they will meet up with Gandalf and so journey on to Rivendell together.

Well, that is their intention anyway, but first they have to get through a forest that clearly regards them with dislike or worse. “They all got an uncomfortable feeling that they were being watched with disapproval, deepening to dislike and even enmity”.

The Old Forest by Alan Lee

The Old Forest was all that was left in Eriador of the great primeval forest of the Elder Days. When Merry and Pippin meet Treebeard in the forest of Fangorn later in the story he tells them that “there was all one wood once upon a time from here [Fangorn] to the Mountains of Lune”.

“I do not doubt,”says Treebeard, “that there is some shadow of the Great Darkness lying there still away north”, and it is the Darkness, the time of the dominion of Morgoth, in the First Age of the World, of whom Sauron was merely a lieutenant that led even a part of the natural world to fall under its dominion.

We should not blame the hobbits too much for their unwariness. Life until now has taught them so little of the dangers of the world. But they should not have fallen asleep with their backs to the trunk of Old Man Willow, the heart of the hostility of the Forest. Falling asleep in the wild can either be an opening into wonder or danger. I read just the other day of an explorer of the wild who fell asleep on a warm summer day in the woods and awoke to find a female Roe Deer gazing at him just a few inches from his face. Their encounter lasted only a few seconds before the deer ran off into the undergrowth but it left him with a sense of peace and wonder that stays with him to this day. I once climbed down with a companion into a gorge a little below the Victoria Falls on the Zambezi river. This was in the days before it was possible to navigate the gorges in inflatable craft and so we had this place to ourselves. At the bottom of the gorge he wandered off to look around and I fell asleep in the stifling heat of the afternoon with my back to a rock. I awoke to find myself surrounded by a troop of baboons who were eyeing me with great curiosity. I stayed quite still and looked back at them. What would have happened next I do not know for my companion returned, startled the troop and they ran away. Like the explorer and the deer my brief connection with wild things has never left me.

To be awoken by a gentle deer is one thing. It is a little more uncertain to be awoken by a troop of baboons and I sometimes wonder what was going to happen next if my companion had not returned. But Old Man Willow wishes nothing but harm for the hobbits. He tries to drown Frodo in the Withywindle river and to entrap Merry and Pippin within himself. Only Sam seems to be alert to his malice. The first time in The Lord of the Rings in which he is ahead of the others. But the great adventure seems to be at an end on the very first day beyond the borders of the Shire until a song of utter carefree joy alerts Frodo and Sam to the rescue that is about to come to them.

So do take care where you fall asleep. You may avoid danger that way. But there again you may avoid wonder too. To be open to wonder it seems that you have to be open to danger as well. At least that is what the hobbits discover. They fall into danger but wonder is bounding down the path towards them.

Wonder bounds down the path towards the hobbits

The Eagles of Manwë Praise the Faithfulness of the People of Minas Tirith.

Last week I promised to continue the love story of Faramir and Éowyn but I ask you to permit me to make you wait one week more before we return to it. Last week we thought about the great wave that seemed to threaten the end of all things and yet brought a joy that was both entirely unlooked for and which brought tears to those who were pierced by it. Now all the people in the city learn what has brought such joy for,

“Before the Sun had fallen far from the noon out of the East there came a great Eagle flying, and he brought tidings beyond hope from the Lords of the West, crying:

Sing now, ye people of the Tower of Anor, for the Realm of Sauron is ended for ever, and the Dark Tower is thrown down.”

I hope that discerning readers will have noticed that Tolkien is careful about the use of capital letters for nouns in his work. In an earlier post on this blog we saw it in his use of the word, Pity, and so here Tolkien uses it to draw our attention to the importance of the noun that is capitalised. In the sentence that I quoted above there are four nouns that receive a capital letter, a sign that this is a sentence of particular importance, but the one that I want to focus on is the word, Eagle.

This is no ordinary Eagle. For one thing the Eagle sings in human speech and comes to Minas Tirith as the herald of the free peoples of Middle-earth. For another this Eagle was one of those who came to the climactic battle before the Black Gate. This Eagle is a descendant of those that Manwë, the lord of the Valar, sent to Middle-earth in the First Age to be his messengers. Their task was to keep watch on Morgoth, who was Sauron’s lord, and to do this they built their eyries on the peak of Thangorodrim itself, the very mountain beneath which Morgoth built his fortress of Angband.

They have kept their watch faithfully through long ages and from time to time, at crucial moments, they have intervened directly in the affairs of the free peoples. They carried Beren and Lúthien from Angband, the party of Thorin’s dwarves from the trees in which they were trapped by orcs and wargs, Gandalf from the Tower of Orthanc when he was held captive by Saruman and later carried him from the mountain top after the great battle with the Balrog and finally they attacked the Nazgûl at the Battle of the Black Gate.

It is thus no coincidence that it is an Eagle of Manwë that is the herald of the fall of Sauron. The faithfulness of the Eagles speaks to the faithfulness of Minas Tirith.

Sing and rejoice, ye people of the Tower of Guard, for your watch hath not been in vain.”

Just as the armies of the West were drawn into the story of Frodo and Sam at the Field of Cormallen so that it became their story too so all who have remained in the city as the host went to battle are brought into the story of the faithful vigil of the ages. The boys who play with Bergil, son of Beregond of the Guard of the Tower, the women who Ioreth of the Houses of Healing tells of the first coming of the king to his city, all become part of the story of the faithful watch.

The 16th century English theologian, Richard Hooker, once wrote, “How are the people to know they are faithful unless their captains tell them?” Faithfulness will lie at the very heart of the civilisation that is born with the downfall of Sauron and the return of the King and the story of faithfulness with which the new age begins will dignify every man, woman and child to whom the captains tell it. It is this act of giving dignity to the people that is one of the central tasks of the captain whether a parent, teacher, chief executive, president or king. Any who fail in this task are not true captains.

  

Sauron and Frodo and Sam Show Us Two Different Relationships to Darkness

Frodo and Sam begin the last stage of their journey. A fifty mile walk, or stagger, that Sam estimates will take a week because of Frodo’s condition. There is only one path that they can take and that is the main road from the Black Gate to Barad-dûr itself. It ought to be bustling with traffic and it usually is. But not now. Now there is a strange quiet and so Frodo and Sam are able to take the direct road to the mountain.

Tolkien tells us why.

“Neither man nor orc now moved along its flat grey stretches, for the Dark Lord had almost completed the movement of his forces, and even in the fastness of his own realm he sought the secrecy of night, fearing the winds of the world that had turned against him, tearing aside his veils, and troubled with tidings of bold spies that had passed through his fences.”

In other places Tolkien tells us that after the fall of Morgoth, the first Dark Lord, at the end of the First Age, Sauron submitted for a little while to the authority of the Valar. Sauron had been Morgoth’s chief lieutenant in the wars of the First Age, second to him in power but not in malice and his brief submission was a recognition of the greater power of the Valar but when their command to him to go to Valinor for judgement was not enforced and when he perceived that there was no lordship in Middle-earth but rather a kind of anarchy he began to try to make himself its lord.

There is no time here to reflect upon the history of the Second Age but we could remember that this was the age of great Elven kingdoms and Durin’s great kingdom of Moria, of Khazad-dûm, as well as the age of Númenor and the glory of Men. For a time Sauron appeared to be an ally to them all but always he was plotting his own rise to supreme power chiefly through the forging of the Rings of Power that he would bind and rule through the One Ring.

This was always his desire but with the desire came also a fearfulness. Sauron may have sometimes miscalculated his power but the experience of failure made him cautious. There is one thing missing that will make his triumph complete and that is the Ring itself. He will risk everything in order to regain it but his fear is that either Aragorn, the heir of Isildur, who once cut the Ring from his hand, or Gandalf the Maia, now wealds the Ring against him. Their forces may be small but he fears them nonetheless and the change in the wind just at the moment of triumph and those spies…

In other words Sauron is always in search of the ever elusive experience of total and perfect control, always anxious about everything and anything that could be a threat to that experience. Eventually this will mean anything that has its own will. Only that which is entirely enslaved and that has no longer any capacity for freedom will allay his anxiety. Until that time comes he requires darkness and secrecy to protect himself. When that time comes there will be only darkness.

Sauron has spent millenia seeking this certainty. Frodo and Sam have learned, in just a few short years, that such certainty is impossible. Sauron is the ultimate example of one who in seeking to save his own life loses it. Frodo and Sam walk freely into a darkness knowing that it is likely that they will lose their lives. Indeed Frodo fully expects that he will lose his life and it is possible that by this point he even looks forward to death as a kind of release. For Frodo and Sam the darkness, an experience that they have not chosen yet, in so far as they are able, they have embraced, is the road to life, both to the world that they will save and to themselves.

This is the difference between them. For Sauron the darkness is a defence that will ultimately prove futile. For Frodo and Sam the darkness is something that they feel they must embrace and will lead to life.

O Dayspring, Come and Enlighten Those in the Shadow of Death

When Frodo raises the star glass and cries out, “Hail, Eärendil, O Brightest of Stars!” he invokes a history of which, with Sam, he is now a major part. Throughout the history of Arda (the earth) there has been a war against the Light that began with Morgoth and now continues with his lieutenant, Sauron. The light of the Silmarils captured in the star glass once blazed forth from Morgoth’s iron crown after he stole them from Fëanor, their maker. One now shines out in the heavens at morning and at evening in the ship, Vingilot, with “Eärendil the mariner sat at the helm, glistening with dust of elven-gems, and the Silmaril was bound upon his brow”. We see it still today and know it as Venus, the Morning Star and the Evening Star.

Eärendil carried the Silmaril back across the seas to the Undying Lands and brought too the prayer of the peoples of Middle-earth to the Valar for mercy. For Morgoth had reduced them to ruin and, perhaps worse even than this, the sons of Fëanor, bound by a terrible oath to their father not to allow the Silmarils to fall into the hands of anyone even a friend, attacked Eärendil’s people and destroyed their homes. Eärendil, even as he bore this sorrow in his heart, prayed too for the sons of Fëanor when he came before the Valar.

Why do I tell this story even as Frodo holds the Star Glass before Shelob? It is because of the place of mercy in the whole of Tolkien’s great story. Tolkien said of Morgoth that “to him that was pitiless the deeds of pity are ever strange and beyond reckoning”. All through Tolkien’s tale it is such deeds that undo the enemy. Why is Frodo’s cry effective?  It is because of the pity of Eärendil. It is because of the pity of Bilbo. It is because of the pity of Galadriel who gave the glass to Frodo. We do not stand because of our own deeds but because of all who have come before us.

In his poem on the Advent antiphon, O Oriens,  Malcolm Guite makes this point exactly. Oriens is the Morning Star, the Dayspring, the herald of grace and of hope. Guite quotes from Dante’s Paradiso at the heading of his poem when Dante tells us that he saw “light in the form of a river”. The story of light is a river in which we, by grace and mercy, now stand.

“Dante and Beatrice are bathing in it now, away upstream…  so every trace of light begins a grace in me, a beckoning. ”

Once again we remember Frodo’s dream in the halls of Elrond in Rivendell; a dream that ended with the sound of Bilbo telling the story of Eärendil. And we begin to understand that we too receive so much from the mercy of others and that every act of mercy that we perform today is a gift to people yet unborn. We stand here because of the prayers of others before us. Others stand today and will stand in times to come because of our prayer and our acts of mercy.