Aragorn Commands The Steward of Gondor, “Do now thy office!”

It was in the year 2050 of the Third Age that Eärnur, the last king of Gondor, rode to Minas Morgul in answer to the challenge of the Witch-King, the Lord of the Nazgûl. No tale was ever told of a battle between them but Eärnur was never seen again. He had no heir but the people of Gondor chose not to make a member of another family their king but to wait for the king’s return. They chose a Steward to govern them “to hold rod and rule in the name of the king, until he shall return”.

A thousand years passed before the War of the Ring and the downfall of Sauron during which the Stewards of the line of Mardil did their office. In all but name they were kings of Gondor but they never sat upon the throne or wore the crown. Tolkien remarks that although “some remembered the ancient line of the north”, the descendants of Elendil and Isildur of the kingdom of Arnor, the Ruling Stewards “hardened their hearts” against a true return of the king. Denethor may have told Boromir that only in places of “less royalty” could a steward have claimed the throne but as we saw in his last days he regarded Aragorn as an upstart. At the end of his life he cried out to Gandalf, “I will not bow down to such a one, last of a ragged house long bereft of lordship and dignity”.

Faramir saw things differently. It was one of the many ways in which he was divided from his father. Faramir may have been tutored by Gandalf, just as Aragorn was, but Gandalf could only teach him because he was already captured by the story of Númenor. There were effectively two stories of Númenor. Perhaps there are always these stories in every human enterprise. One was the story of the desire for power and a growing bitterness about everything that constrained them. At last all the bitterness about these constraints was concentrated upon anger about mortality and about the divinities, the Valar, who seemed to hold life unjustly as a private possession. The Valar, the governors or stewards of Earth on behalf of Illuvatar, the One, became through this belief as no more in the eyes of the kings of Númenor than rivals for power. Sadly this was the story that Denethor nourished in his heart and why he ended his life in despair and denial.

The other story, the story to which both Faramir and Aragorn gave their loyalty, was to Númenor as a gift. The first families of Men who wandered across the mountains into Beleriand in the First Age were befriended by and allied themselves to the Elves in the wars against Morgoth and the darkness. It was because of their faithfulness in those wars that they were given Númenor as a gift. So friendship and faithfulness lay at the heart of this other story and a submission also to the mystery of mortality. While the later kings of Númenor became embittered by this mystery, Elendil the Elf-friend and his followers chose to accept the mystery of mortality as a gift just as Númenor’s separation from the Undying Lands was also a gift.

We live in times in which the limitation of mortality is resented even as it was by Ar-Pharazôn, the last king of Númenor. Recently Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, argued that humans can only remain “economically viable” as cyborgs while Ray Kurzweil, the director of engineering at Google, argues for human immortality by digital means believing that it will be a possibility by the 2030s. The philosopher, John Gray, describes these immortalizers as “the God-builders”.

Who is faithful to the true story of Númenor, the mystery of mortality, as a gift, as Aragorn and Faramir are? Who awaits the coming of the true king? It is because Faramir nourished his longing for the return of the king in his heart that on the great day when Aragorn comes to Minas Tirith to claim the crown that he is willing to be a true steward and to lay his ruling authority down. It is because of his faithfulness that renewal comes to Gondor.

“Do now thy office!”

Faramir Gazes at the Overwhelming Wave and Thinks of Númenor as He Takes Éowyn in his Arms.

The moment when the Ring goes to the Fire and the reign of Sauron is ended is told in three separate places in The Lord of the Rings and from three different perspectives. The first is at Orodruin itself as Sam carries Frodo from the Cracks of Doom and sees a brief vision of Sauron’s overwhelming power before “all passed… Towers fell and mountains slid; walls crumbled and melted, crashing down; vast spires of smoke and spouting steams went billowing up, up, until they toppled like an overwhelming wave, and its wild crest curled and came foaming down the land”. The second telling is at the Black Gate of Mordor as the embattled host of the West stand at bay against their enemies and Gandalf cries out, “‘The realm of Sauron is ended!.. The Ring-bearer has fulfilled his Quest.’ And as the Captains gazed south to the Land of Mordor, it seemed to them that, black against the pall of cloud, there rose a huge shape of shadow, impenetrable, lightning crowned, filling all the sky. Enormous it reared above the world, and stretched out towards them a vast threatening hand, terrible but impotent: for even as it leaned over them, a great wind took it, and it was all blown away, and passed; and then a hush fell.”

The third and last telling takes place in the gardens of the Houses Houses of Healing as a young man and a woman stand, hand in hand (although they do not know it) as they gaze northward towards the Morannon as all the earth holds its breath and “Time halted”.

“Then presently it seemed to them that above the ridges of the distant mountains another vast mountain of darkness rose, towering up like a wave that should engulf the world, and about it lightnings flickered; and then a tremor ran through the earth, and they felt the walls of the City quiver. A sound like a sigh went up from all the lands about them; and their hearts beat suúddenly again.”

At last Faramir speaks.

“It reminds me of Númenor,” he says, and he tells Éowyn of his dream of the great wave that rises above the fields and the hills to drown it and a “darkness unescapable”. Éowyn draws closer to him. Is the Darkness Unescapable coming? But no, Faramir’s limbs are light and he feels a hope and a joy that no reason can deny. And then he kisses Éowyn upon the brow.

Tolkien too had a recurring dream of an overwhelming wave that he associated with the fall of Atlantis and of Númenor. In his legendarium Tolkien tells of the great hubris of the king of Númenor, Ar-Pharazôn, who was seduced by Sauron to defy the Valar and make an assault upon the Undying Lands. Because of this attempt to break the  bounds of human mortality Eru, the One, intervenes and destroys Númenor with a great wave, saving only Elendil, the Elf-friend, his family and followers.

Tolkien and his wonderful creation, Faramir, both dream about the catastrophe and Faramir carries the sorrow of the failure of his great ancestors and the gradual decline of Gondor in his heart. He longs for the restoration of his people and yet fears their destruction. The sudden and terrifying appearance of the great wave above him tells him that the end has come and yet his heart says, no! His heart is pierced with hope and joy!

This is the eucatastrophe, a word coined by Tolkien himself and one that runs counter both to the hubris of our own times and to our own fear of catastrophe. Tolkien said that eucatastrophe is “the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears”. He said that this was the highest function of a fairy-story, something that he declared The Lord of the Rings to be and which was in no sense meant to be a disparagement of his work. The happy turn for Tolkien was never meant to reduce his readers to the kind of children who cannot bear unhappiness and must forever remain in an enchanted world in which no harm can come. Just as with Julian of Norwich’s great declaration that “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well” the eucatastrophe, the sudden and entirely unexpected surprise of joy can only come to those who have stared the darkness straight in the face.

No wonder Faramir kisses Éowyn at this moment; and no wonder Éowyn allows him to do so. But more on that next week.

Legolas and Gimli in Minas Tirith

On the morning after the great battle Legolas and Gimli are eager to find Merry and Pippin.

“It is good to learn that they are still alive,” said Gimli; “for they cost us great pains in our march over Rohan, and I would not have such pains all wasted.”

And so they make their way up through the city towards the Houses of Healing and as they do so they ponder this greatest of cities and see all that it lacks. Gimli sees the city through the eyes of a worker of stone, admiring the best of what he sees but also how he might improve it with the aid of the stonewrights of Erebor. And Legolas sees through the eyes of a gardener and by this he does not mean a suburban garden with its neatly tended rows; he will bring his forest home to Minas Tirith with “birds that sing and trees that do not die.”

So begins a reflection on the nature and works of humankind and they fail to reach a conclusion. When they meet the Prince Imrahil Legolas is moved to say that “If Gondor has such men still in these days of fading, great must have been its glory in the days of its rising.”

It is this tension between fading and rising that occupies them most of all. The history of Dwarves and of Elves has been a long and slow fading. The timescale over which this has been played out is so long that sometimes to the observer it feels as if it is no fading at all. Rivendell and Lothlórien seem ever fresh in their beauty and nothing surely can possibly bring them to an end. Yet an end will come and the Elves know it. Even so the Dwarves have a memory of Moria, of Khazad-dûm, that Tolkien shows us in Gimli’s sad journey through its darkened ruins. It is a memory that casts into relief even the best of what they can achieve in Erebor. It is within their power to restore the kingdom under the Mountain but they cannot restore Moria. That lies forever beyond their grasp.

But if Legolas and Gimli know the ending of their own peoples then, try as they might to perceive it, they do not know the destiny of humankind. Gimli speaks of their fading.

“Doubtless the good stonework is the older and was wrought in the first building… It is ever so with the things that Men begin: there is a frost in Spring, or a blight in Summer, and they fail of their promise.”

But Legolas speaks of renewal.

“Yet seldom do they fail of their seed… And that will lie in the dust and rot to spring up again in times and places unlooked for. The deeds of Men will outlast us, Gimli.”

This is the mystery of humankind. Tolkien himself in his legendarium tells of both the glory and the horror of Númenor and he tells of human renewing in the founding of the kingdoms of Gondor and of Arnor by Elendil the Elf Friend. Legolas and Gimli are in no doubt that if Aragorn emerges triumphant over his foes he will bring about a renewal after the nature of the one achieved by Elendil but whether it will last that they do not know. As Legolas says, “To that the Elves know not the answer.”

I am struck that Tolkien leaves his question open and unanswered. If Lewis is sure that history must end in a final destruction before a final renewal can take place at he demonstrates in The Last Battle Tolkien seems prepared to allow for uncertainty. My own conviction is that Legolas is speaking for Tolkien here. As for myself I would like to end my reflection with some thoughts by the Russian 20th century philosopher, Nikolai Berdyaev. Perhaps they will begin some debate among my readers alongside Tolkien’s reflections on human destiny.

“It must be recognised that man in his limited and relative earthly life is capable of bringing about the beautiful and the valuable only when he believes in another life, unlimited, absolute, eternal. That is a law of his being. A contact with this mortal life exclusive of any other ends in the wearing-away of effective energy and a self satisfaction that makes one useless and superficial. Only the spiritual man, striking his roots deep in infinite and eternal life, can be a true creator.”

The King and The Healing of Faramir

It is not so much the wound that Faramir received in battle that brings him close to death. Aragorn reaches the heart of the matter when he says to Imrahil, “Weariness, grief for his father’s mood, a wound, and over all the Black Breath”. All these things have finally overcome the valiant Faramir. All his life he has resisted the creeping shadow both in the rise of Mordor beyond the borders of Gondor and within the hearts of his own people and now, at last, his hope is gone.

It is not by Athelas alone that Aragorn heals Faramir. Tolkien does not enter into any explanation of the process but simply describes what Aragorn does.

“Now Aragorn knelt beside Faramir, and held a hand upon his brow. And those who watched him felt that some great struggle was going on. For Aragorn’s face grew grey with weariness; and ever and anon he called the name of Faramir, but each time more faintly to their hearing, as if Aragorn himself was removed from them, and walked in some dark vale, calling for one who is lost.”

What Tolkien describes here is some form of the coinherence about which the Inklings used to speak and an idea which was introduced to them by Charles Williams. Williams believed that Christians could voluntarily bear the suffering or burden of another and so aid their healing. Aragorn’s apparent journey away from himself and his profound weariness as he makes this journey seems to suggest that this is what is happening. For those who would like to explore this idea further I would warmly recommend the work of Sørina Higgins on Charles Williams which you can explore by going to and clicking on coinherence in the tags on the right hand side of the page.

It may be that Aragorn is able to call Faramir back from his journey towards death by this means but the healing is made complete when Bergil arrives with athelas. Aragorn crushes two leaves and casts them into a bowl of water and life is restored to both the healer and the one who is near to death.

“The fragrance that came to each was like a memory of dewy mornings of unshadowed sun in some land of which the fair world in Spring is itself but a fleeting memory.”

As you read the account of the healings in this beautiful chapter you will note that the fragrance of athelas is somehow different for each person that is healed. It is a beautiful expression of the unique relationship between the one who is hurt, the means of their healing and the healer. Surely in Faramir’s case we catch a glimpse, just for a moment, of his deepest yearning. When Faramir explained to Frodo the meaning of the ceremony that he and his men observed before eating in Henneth Anûn he spoke of his longing for the restoring of Gondor and also for something deeper even than that longing. He spoke of “that which is beyond Elvenhome and will ever be”.

Faramir has long pondered that which Númenor and even Valinor can only point to. He is one who cannot stay at the surface of things and so passes through his experience as son of the Steward of Gondor through the history of his people and unto their origins in Númenor. And on arriving there and pondering both its glory and its fall under the shadow he goes deeper yet until he comes to Valinor which is forever closed to them. He will know that it is at the surface of Valinor the deathless land that the corrupted kings of Númenor stayed and so desired to possess it and the gift of immortality and so he passes deeper yet to what lies beyond Elvenhome. This is what he and all in the Houses of Healing glimpse just for a moment. It is a glimpse into the most secret place within his soul, into his most true self, even into the deepest reality of all and so he is called back from the shadows into light and life and into service of the king for whose return he has long waited.

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)

The White Tree of Gondor Teaches us about Death and Resurrection

Gandalf and Pippin enter the Citadel in Minas Tirith and the white-paved Court of the Fountain where, in the midst, “drooping over the pool, stood a dead tree, and the falling drops dripped sadly from its barren and broken branches back into the clear water. ”

Pippin does not understand why, in such a beautifully tended place, something dead is at the centre. Then some words that Gandalf had spoken come to mind:

Seven stars and seven stones and one white tree.

These are the emblems of Elendil whose ships carried the faithful to Middle-earth from the wreck of Númenor after Sauron had seduced their king into rebellion against the Valar. The white tree was a symbol of renewal descended, as it was, from Nimloth the Fair the tree of Númenor and before that from Galathilion of Telperion in the Deathless Lands. Thus there remains a link between the peoples of Gondor and the Valar and High Elves but it is a link  contained in something that is dead.

Sauron has always had a particular hatred for the tree, knowing what it represents. To Sauron it means that only through submission to the Valar and their judgement could there ever be a reconciliation and forgiveness.  He clings to the belief that he can achieve mastery over all life, that he can resist the Valar and the Ring is the entire focus of that belief. When he was a prisoner in Númenor he persuaded Ar Pharazôn to cut down Nimloth the Fair. Númenor’s king had become convinced that the Valar held the gift of immortality and kept it deliberately from him. Through Sauron’s persuasion Ar Pharazôn had come to see all links to the Valar as a part of their denial of life to him. Nimloth the Fair was a key symbol of that link. But to the Elf Friends, the house of Elendil, it was not a symbol of denial but of hope and renewal. Isildur, at great risk to himself,  took a sapling of Nimloth before it could be cut down. He was wounded almost to his death in the attempt but in the first spring after he had taken the sapling the young tree flowered and Isildur was healed.

It was only after the failing of the line of kings in Gondor that the tree finally died and no sapling could be found but the tree was never cut down. Always it stood in the Court of the Fountain in Minas Tirith as a sign of hope that one day the king would return but now the dead tree has stood there for over three hundred years and is there any hope left?

The hope lies, not in some form of resuscitation, the continuing of some kind of existence in a body that must inevitably die, but in an ending that must lead to a renewing. The Gondor of the Stewards that has so bravely resisted the darkness is about to come to an end but the king will return.

I write this at the beginning of the week that Christians call, Holy. It is a week when we are called to think most especially about the ending of things as we follow Jesus on his journey towards the cross and towards death and burial. If we understand these things aright then we will come to know that our lives are not about an effort to continue existence, to hold the day of ending at bay for as long as a we can. We will come to know that we can face all our endings without fear, whether they are the loss of a job, of a career, of reputation, of wealth or health or even the loss of someone we love or the loss of our own life. We will come to know that our all our endings are beginnings that point to the day of resurrection and a transformation that can have nothing to do with death but only life. About what that means we can can catch only glimpses now but even the glimpses tell us that what lies before us is entirely wonderful, it is bliss, it is delight.



Faramir remembers “That which is beyond Elvenhome and will ever be.”

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

So we come to the last of these three reflections on Faramir’s explanation of the silence that he and his men observe in his refuge of Henneth Annûn before they eat, a silence that is woven into the life of Gondor and most particularly into Faramir’s own heart. In the first we thought about the tragic fall of Númenor as recounted by Tolkien in The Akallabêth a chapter near the end of The Silmarillion. In the second we thought about the two mysteries of the Children of God, the immortality of the Elves and the mortality of Humankind, which neither Elves nor Humankind can penetrate. And in this last we will think about that which “will ever be”.

It was Sauron who, when a prisoner of Númenor, denied the reality of any reality beyond that which his captors could perceive save only that which they already knew which was the darkness. For all the Númenorians could perceive in respect of their mortality was the experience of death and decay and an unknown that lay beyond their perishing. So Sauron spoke to them of what he named “the Ancient Darkness”. And of this, he told them “the world was made. For Darkness alone is worshipful, and the Lord thereof may yet make other worlds to be gifts to those that serve him, so that the increase of their power shall find no end.”

And  Ar-Pharazôn, mighty king of  Númenor, facing his own mortality as an implacable limit upon all his ambitions and perceiving the Valar, the angelic rulers of the earth, as the greatest enemy of those ambitions, listened to all that Sauron had to say to him and so became a worshipper of the Dark and of its Lord first secretly and then openly desiring the worlds of which Sauron had spoken and a power that would “find no end”.

It was part of the lie that Sauron told that he should deny any other reality than the Dark, even to claim that any other reality was the malicious invention of the Valar in their desire to deny immortality to Humankind, “seeking to enchain Men in servitude to themselves.” Now, in the likelihood of the victory of the Dark and of its messenger, Sauron, Faramir rejects the Dark. He will face it courageously even in defeat. He will be a true follower of Elendil and the Elf-friends of old until the end. He will accept the limitation that his own mortality imposes upon him not as a punishment but as a gift looking towards a home that “is not here, neither in the land of Aman nor anywhere within the Circles of the World.”

Augustine, writing in the fifth century, spoke of humankind as those eager to “achieve unity by themselves, to be their own masters and to depend only on themselves”. In The Lord of the Rings it is Faramir who is given the part of articulating the rejection of such desire, a renunciation of the despair that leads to the worship of the Dark. Faramir affirms the hope that the last word of all belongs, not to the Dark, but to the Light. It is in this renunciation that his greatness lies but what will he do when he learns that the Ring of Power, the very symbol of the greatness that the Dark can confer upon its master, lies within his grasp?