As Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli approach Edoras, the dwelling place of Théoden, King of Rohan and the Rohirrim they ponder the story of that people. Five hundred years the Rohirrim have dwelt in that land since first Eorl the Young led them to the field of Celebrant to aid the people of Gondor in battle. To them that day is so long ago that they have no memory of what came before but to Legolas, ageless wood elf of the Greenwood, those five hundred fallings of the leaves seem “but a little while.” And so Tolkien calls to mind another of the great themes of his stories, the great difference between elves and humankind. The sorrow of being human is to know the brevity of life; the sorrow of being an elf is not themselves to know death and yet to know the decay and loss of all else that lies about them.
Aragorn, who served Théoden’s father, Thengel, at one time in his youth, sings one of the songs of the Rohirrim in their own tongue. Legolas, not knowing the tongue, speaks of it as “laden with the sadness of Mortal Men.”
Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing? Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?…Who shall gather the smoke of the dead wood burning, Or behold the flowing years from the Sea returning?”
It is the image of the vain attempt to gather up the smoke of the fire that is most poignant in the song reminding us that we, who are mortal, can no more hold onto life than to perform this impossible task.
Tolkien was one of the greatest scholars of early English of his time and surely here he recalls the famous speech recounted by the Venerable Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People in which the pagan priest, Coifi, addresses Edwin, mighty king of the Northumbrians. Paulinus has just declared the Christian message to the king and Coifi speaks.
“It seems to me that the life of a man on earth is like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the hall, where you, O King, sit at table on a winter’s day with your captains and counsellors. In the midst of the hall there is a comforting fire to warm it. Outside the storms of winter rain and snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one window of that hall and out through another. While he is inside, the bird is safe from the winter storms, but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. So man appears upon earth for a little while- but of what went before this life, or what follows, we know nothing.”
I first heard this story as a young boy and this image seared itself into my consciousness. I could see the hall of the king, the fire burning brightly, the winter storm blowing outside. I could see the bird flying swiftly from one window to another. And at some level, perhaps beyond understanding, I knew that life was short, so heartbreakingly short.
When Gandalf and his companions arrive at Meduseld, the hall of the king, they find the Rohirrim, bowed down under the weight of this consciousness and unmanned by the whisperings of Grima Wormtongue, secret servant of Saruman. But soon the people of Rohan will be woken to new hope and to brave deeds. They will find such meaning in their brief life that they will be able to stand against all the powers of darkness that now oppress them.
But that is for another week…