“Do We Walk in Legends or On The Green Earth in Daylight?” The Riders of Rohan Encounter Dreams of Legend Springing Out of the Grass.

The Two Towers by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991/2007) pp.558-565

As Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli continue their weary and hopeless march across the plains of Rohan in pursuit of the orc host that have taken Merry and Pippin captive they become aware that a band of horsemen is moving swiftly towards them back down the very trail that they are following. The horsemen are Rohirrim, riders of Rohan. Aragorn describes them to his companions.

“They are proud and wilful, but they are true-hearted, generous in thought and deed; bold but not cruel; wise but unlearned; writing no books but singing many songs, after the manner of the children of Men before the Dark Years.”

The Riders of Rohan at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields

The companions decide to wait for the riders to come to them and Aragorn greets them as they ride by. Wrapped about in their cloaks of Lothlórien it seems to the riders that they have sprung from the grass itself and what follows is a tense encounter that almost ends in disaster. For Tolkien in this scene brings us into the heroic world of the North in which honour has more meaning than even life itself and most certainly of a life, or existence, in which honour has been lost. So Gimli is ready, almost eager, to die for the sake of the honour of Galadriel, the lady of Lothlórien, when he feels that it has been slighted by Éomer, who leads the company of riders.

The Rohirrim surround the three companions

Aragorn is able to avert the disaster but then, in the manner in which he announces himself, brings us all back into the very stuff of legend.

“I am Aragorn son of Arathorn, and am called Elessar, the Elfstone, Dúnadan, the heir of Isildur Elendil’s son of Gondor. Here is the Sword that was Broken and is forged again! Will you aid me or thwart me? Choose swiftly!”

Anke Eissmann imagines the first meeting between Aragorn and Eomer

So Tolkien deliberately mingles the stuff of legend with the stuff of ordinary life and invites his readers to make the same kind of choice that Aragorn demands of the Rohirrim. For Tolkien not only makes the Rohirrim the people who would have heard tales like that of Beowulf which would have been told in the halls of their lords in the early middle ages, but he also makes them a very modern people for whom a story like Beowulf that might be one that stirred them when they were young but which would have been consigned to the pleasant, but private, world of fantasy when they grew up. For real life with its duties can, for the modern person, only be lived with stuff that can be touched, smelt, heard, seen or tasted. The life of the imagination might give a moment of pleasure amidst the grim reality of ordinary life but it can never be regarded as real.

This division between that which is heroic and that which is ordinary is one that Aragorn suggests is false. When the rider who stands beside Eomer scoffs at Aragorn’s mention of halflings Aragorn’s response is not to the rider but to his Lord. The Rider dismisses the mention of halflings as “old songs and children’s tales out of the North”. And then he asks, “Do we walk in legends or on the green earth in the daylight?”

“A man may do both,” said Aragorn. “For not we but those who come after will make the legends of our time. The green earth, say you? That is a mighty matter of legend, though you tread it under the light of day!”

I say that Aragorn addresses Eomer because, as far as the Rider is concerned, Aragorn is simply speaking nonsense that does not deserve attention. He, and his fellows, are the spiritual kin of Cervantes’ Sancho Panza, the sensible though devoted servant of Don Quixote. While Don Quixote tilts at windmills Sancho Panza does all that he can to keep his master out of trouble. Modern readers side with the servant yet wish, secretly, that they could live in the lost enchanted world of the master. Aragorn argues that it is possible to do both as he presents himself as a representative of the world of legend amidst the world of the sensible.

As far as the Riders are concerned the strange creatures who have sprung from the grass are merely “wild men”, but Eomer heard the rhyme that Boromir spoke when he came to Edoras, the rhyme that spoke of halflings as well as the blade that was broken. Eomer knows that he needs to pay closer attention to Aragorn’s words even if he does not understand them. Perhaps there is more to what Aragorn is saying than mere tilting at windmills.

“The Sword-that-was-Broken Shall Be Reforged”. The Heir of Isildur Prepares For War.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 269-272

It was almost certainly Bilbo who composed the rhyme that begins with the words “All that is gold does not glitter”, words that Gandalf quoted in the ill fated letter that he left at The Prancing Pony to be taken to Frodo and which Barliman Butterbur forgot. And it is this poem that contains the line, “Renewed shall be blade that was broken: The crownless again shall be king”. Bilbo dismisses his own verse as “not very good” but what he is able to do is to make things memorable and so Gandalf uses it to introduce Aragorn to Frodo and his companions.

Bilbo is not a prophet but he is a great collector and reteller of stories and so he gathers together all the ancient stories of how the king would return. It is something that Bilbo longs for because he has befriended Aragorn. The verse that Gandalf uses contains more than a little of Bilbo’s desire but is accurate nonetheless. It is in Rivendell that the ancient memories of the King are kept alive and the belief that one day he would be restored to his throne; and central to that belief is that The Sword-that-was-Broken would be reforged before the restoration came.

The forging of Andúril, Flame of the West

The Sword-that-was-Broken is Narsil, the great sword of Elendil that was broken beneath his body when he was struck down by Sauron at the great battle that concluded the Second Age. And it was the broken blade that Isildur seized when he was attacked in his turn by the Dark Lord and with which he cut the Ring from Sauron’s finger.

Isildur resists the Dark Lord with the broken blade of his father.

Narsil remained a broken blade throughout the Third Age until it was “forged anew by Elvish smiths”. Tolkien tells of how a “device of seven stars was set between the crescent Moon and the rayed Sun, and about them was written many runes; for Aragorn son of Arathorn was going to war upon the marches of Mordor”. This is one of the occasions in which Tolkien abandons a modern narrative style of writing and adopts the style of an Old English storyteller.

“Very bright was that sword when it was made whole again; the light of the sun shone redly on it, and the light of the moon shone cold, and its edge was hard and keen. And Aragorn gave it a new name and called it Andúril, Flame of the West.” There is a particular reason why Tolkien adopts this style and it is because he is moving away from the telling of a history to the telling of myth. Tolkien deliberately moves between the historical and the mythological in The Lord of the Rings thus inviting his readers to view all history as mythology. Some, for example, have noted that the events of 1940 have become a new founding myth of England, the year in which England (and please note that I deliberately say England and not Great Britain!) “stood alone” against the might of Nazi Germany. One approach to such myth-making is to demythologise but I rather think that this misses the point. Surely the right question is to ask what story do the myth makers seek to tell and why has it become so important at this point in history?

Some readers of The Lord of the Rings might try to apply a modern form of historicism to the reforging of Narsil. How has Aragorn survived all these years in the wild carrying a useless blade? Why had the same Elvish smiths who reforged Narsil in Rivendell not done so at some other moment in the Third Age? To try to answer these questions we must try to get away from trying to read Tolkien as literal history that just happens to take place in a fantasy world. Tolkien is writing mythology just as Homer did or the tellers of the Volsunga saga. He just did it in the world of the modernist novel.

I do not know if Tolkien drew upon the scene at the end of the first act of Richard Wagner’s Siegfried when the hero takes his father’s broken sword to reforge it. He names the sword, Notung. It is the sword that he needs. The dwarf Mime, who has fostered Siegfried for his own selfish purposes has tried over and over again to reforge the blade but has always failed but now when the hero needs it the task is simple. Aragorn son of Arathorn is going to war upon the marches of Mordor and he needs the sword of his mighty ancestor. It is at this moment of necessity that the deed can be done.

Notung, Neidlisches Schwert from Wagner’s Siegfried.
Wagner, Richard Komponist 1813–1883. Werke: Siegfried (1871). “Siegfried schmiedet das Schwert Notung”. Gemälde von Ferdinand Leeke (1859–1923).

Merry Wakes From a Dream as He Reaches The Shire But Frodo is Falling Asleep.

Last week I wrote about the hobbits as they prepare to return to the Shire after their adventures. In a comment  on the post Brenton Dickieson who writes the truly wonderful blog, A Pilgrim in Narnia,   https://apilgriminnarnia.com told me that his son Nicolas noted that in returning to the Shire the hobbits re-entered history once more.

When I read this it was one of those revelatory moments that causes you to see a text in an entirely new way. The idea was not entirely new and for that I am grateful to Joe Hoffman who writes as The Idiosopher http://www.idiosophy.com. Joe wrote a fascinating piece in which he noted that different places within Middle-earth exist in different periods of history and that the Shire belongs to the 18th century while Gondor, for example,  belongs to the high Middle Ages. My first reaction to this was to concede that Joe had made an excellent point but also to admit a certain disappointment to myself. I had always admired the care with which Tolkien had created his legendarium and it seemed that Joe had discovered a major flaw in Tolkien’s work. Far from being a remarkably consistent creation Middle-earth was full of historical inconsistency. Now in reading Nicolas Dickieson’s comment I realised that far from being inconsistent Tolkien had created a remarkable whole that I had never before fully realised or understood.

It is as Gandalf races away upon Shadowfax towards the Barrow Downs and beyond to his meeting with Tom Bombadil that Merry says, “Well here we are, just the four of us that started out together… We have left all the rest behind, one after another. It seems almost like a dream that has slowly faded.”

To which Frodo replies,  “Not to me… To me it feels more like falling asleep again.”

In just a few brief lines Tolkien has drawn a profound contrast between Faerie and History and yet tells us that the hobbits live in both.

The Inklings, the fellowship of like-minded academics and writers of which Tolkien was a central figure, had long explored this relationship. Perhaps it was most explicitly stated in That Hideous Strength by C.S Lewis in which the history of a research institute is gloriously invaded by mythology, by Faerie, in the figure of Merlin. Later a character by the name of Dimble reflects on this.

“There was a moment in the Sixth Century when something that is always trying to break through into this country nearly succeded. Logres was our name for it- it will do as well as another. And then we began to see all English history in a new way. We discovered the haunting.”

The haunting is the inbreaking of Faerie, of Myth, and beyond that, the True Myth of the Incarnation to which all other myth points, into History. In Lewis’s story this is íÓby means of Merlin and in Tolkien’s by means of the whole mythical story of the Ring entering the history of the Shire. Frodo and his companions embody the tension between the two. For Merry and Pippin the mythical has a dreamlike quality from which they are awaking. For Frodo it is the myth that is the real. Sam is “torn in two”.

In thinking about this I was drawn to the story of Oisín (pronounce Osheen) and Niamh (pronounce Neeve) and the mythical land of Tír na nÓg, the land of Faerie that feels so much in character like Tolkien’s Beleriand or perhaps Lothlórien. Oisín falls in love with Niamh, the Fairy princess and dwells with her in bliss for three hundred years. Eventually he wishes to visit his home in Ireland but finds that it is now Christian and effectively ruled by St Patrick. In some versions there is a debate between Patrick and Oisín http://www.ricorso.net. I have to say that in the version I read, translated from the Irish by Lady Augusta Gregory in 1904, Patrick comes across as a particularly unattractive character and my natural sympathies were with Oisín. I would like to say that in his breastplate Patrick feels much closer to Oisín’s world than in the debate that I read.

But whatever the nature of that debate I believe that in The Lord of the Rings Tolkien achieves a unity between Faerie and History and the relationship between the two. In coming weeks as we read The Scouring of the Shire and The Grey Havens I hope to explore this more closely and to consider Tolkien’s version of the Haunting and to relate it to our own experience. But now we must leave the hobbits at the shut gates of their homeland either awakening or falling asleep.

The artwork this week imagines the encounter between Oisín and St Patrick.