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a wound not serious enough to cause lasting damage but serious enough to mean that the soldier who received it would be withdrawn from the front line for a lengthy period of recuperation.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.

 

Théoden Bound and Ashamed

Gandalf and his companions enter Théoden’s darkened hall whose majesty lies half hidden in shadows. Around them upon the walls hang many woven cloths and “over their wide spaces marched figures of ancient legend”. To one in particular their eyes are drawn even before they look upon the king himself because in the dark the light of the sun has fallen upon it through an opening high in the roof. “A young man upon a white horse… blowing a great horn… his yellow hair flowing in the wind.”

“Behold Eorl the Young!” said Aragorn. “Thus he rode out of the North to the Battle of the Field of Celebrant.”

That we should look upon Eorl before we see the king is no accident. Eorl is forever young and Théoden is old; very old indeed. He is a man “so bent with age that he seemed almost a dwarf.” Eorl is bathed in sunlight while Théoden is hidden in the shadows. Tolkien means us to gaze upon Eorl in his majesty because that is where Théoden himself looks and what he sees acts as a constant reproach to him. Eorl rides to battle, to victory and to glory while Théoden sits helplessly by as he hears daily of defeat, of the death of his only son in battle and of the impending doom of his house and of his people. Almost his last words just a few weeks later at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields will be, “I go to my fathers. And even in their mighty company I shall not now be ashamed.”

Théoden has been ashamed, literally crippled and shrunken by shame even as Wormtongue’s whisperings have steadily weakened his resolve. Faced by the dangers that surround him he has withdrawn behind the diminishing safety of his own walls yet even there the image of his mighty ancestor rebukes him. Age must come to us all if we live long enough to see it and many find that the world about them becomes a more fearful place. Tove Jansson, writer of the wonderful Moomintroll stories, summered for many years on an island some way off the coast of Finland. One day she stepped out of her hut on the island to gaze upon the sea and she was suddenly afraid, a feeling she had never known before in that place. When she left her island as the summer ended it was to be for the last time. She never returned there again.

Théoden is freed from the prison of his own walls by Gandalf. We will think more about that next week. He will then throw himself into life for a few brief and dangerous days before finally falling in battle before the walls of Minas Tirith. Those for whom the most important thing in life is to achieve security will find Gandalf’s behaviour reprehensible and Théoden’s foolish. What kind of care for the aged is it that counsels leaving safety and care and going into battle? Yet Gandalf’s counsel will enable Théoden to break free from fear and from shame and to die a free man. Who would deny him this? And which of us are in danger of denying freedom to ourselves and building darkened prisons for our own souls?