And The Stillness The Dancing

Last week I wrote about Théoden, King of Rohan, offering himself as suffering servant to his people in their darkest hour; and the week before about Eowyn gazing into the west as the armies of Rohan went to war. And there is a line from T.S Eliot’s “Four Quartets” that comes to mind as I think about these moments in the story.

“So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.”

In thinking about this line I hope we will see that Théoden and Eowyn are in different places in their spiritual journeys at this point of the story and perhaps we might gain some insight into our own story, our own journey.

Théoden has embraced the dark journey not as one who seeks to be the servant of the dark as does Sauron and now Saruman too but as one who has come to trust a loving goodness that can only be found upon that journey. Through all the sad days of his decline he had believed the great lie that Grima Wormtongue had told him that the dark was both something to be feared and yet also inevitable. And in believing the lie he did what all who believe it must do and that is do all he can to shut out the dark for as long as possible. Now he is able to lead his people into battle not as some last despairing howl of rage but as an act of faith. Théoden and the people who will follow him will find through this act of faith that the darkness is the light.

Proud and faithful Eowyn whose part in the story has been to watch the decline of her king who was a man who had been as a father to her, and with him her people also, has not yet reached that place of rest. As she gazes after the riders as they pass into the west her hope is in one of them and her longing is for him also. For in her encounter with Aragorn, mighty heir of Elendil and Isildur, she has met one she believes can free her from her shame and despair. She longs to be at peace but by choosing this way to peace she can never find it.

One day she will find her peace even as Théoden has found it but she must make her dark journey too and we must be lovingly patient with her and with ourselves also. Few of us will discover that the darkness is the light and the stillness the dancing except by way of despair. We may spend years hoping for the wrong thing or loving the wrong thing but on making that journey we will eventually learn to wait and as Théoden has found, “the faith and the hope and the love are all in the waiting.”

“I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope

For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love

For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith

But the faith and the hope and the love are all in the waiting.

Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:

So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.”

 

A Meditation on a True King

The Riders of Rohan ride for two days towards the Fords of Isen where the remnant of the army that had been commanded by Theodred, son of Théoden, until he fell, still strive to hold out. They are met by a messenger who counsels them to go no further.

“Where is Eomer?” he cries, “Tell him there is no hope ahead. He should return to Edoras before the wolves of Isengard get there.”

The whole mood is one of despair and the arrival of Eomer makes no difference to this. But then Théoden rides forward and speaks to the messenger.

“I am here,” he says. The last host of the Eorlingas has ridden forth. It will not return without battle.”

And with those words everything is transformed. The messenger falls to his knees “with joy and wonder”. No new hope has been given. The likely end to this story is still death for them all and the end of Rohan and yet despair has gone because the King has come to his people. What until that moment had been expectation of a meaningless death is now full of meaning. We know that the title of the last volume of The Lord of the Rings was The Return of the King and that it refers to Aragorn and his return to Gondor; but it could equally refer to Théoden and his return to his own people, the Rohirrim. The return of the King always brings transformation.

In their study of the masculine psyche, King, Warrior, Magician, Lover Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette write, “The mortal man who incarnates the King energy or bears it for a while in the service of his fellow human beings, in the service of the realm (of whatever dimensions), in the service of the cosmos, is almost an interchangeable part, a human vehicle for bringing this ordering and generative archetype into the world and into the lives of human beings.” In other words it is the energy that matters more than the person. If Eomer were the king as he will be later then his arrival would be enough. He would incarnate the King energy just as Théoden does now. What matters is that the energy must be incarnated by a true king who gives his life in service of the people, the realm, the cosmos. When that happens a life giving order comes to the world.

This is what distinguishes a true from a false king. The false king, as Moore and Gillette say, is either a tyrant or a weakling. The Rohirrim go to war with Saruman, the tyrant, the false king, who can only impose order by force and fear and whose rule will always take life and not give it. Even the instruments of the tyrant must ultimately be a denial, a mockery, of life. In The Lord of the Rings this mockery is expressed by means of the orcs. But it is not only from the tyrant that the people seek liberation but from the weakling too. The Rohirrim have been delivered from their own weakling king. As Moore and Gillette put it, “Kings in the ancient world were often ritually killed when their ability to live out the King archetype began to fail. What was important was that the generative power of the energy not be tied to the fate of an aging and increasingly impotent mortal.”

Gandalf has liberated Rohan from their increasingly impotent king and an energy is released in its people that Saruman and his slaves can never know. Now even if they are defeated the defeat will not be meaningless but still generative. Now the deaths that have been suffered at the Fords of Isen and the death of Theodred, the king’s son have meaning. We will end this week with Moore and Gillette again.

“When we are accessing the King energy correctly, as servants of our own inner King, we will manifest in our lives the qualities of the good and rightful King, the King in his fullness… We will feel our anxiety level drop. We will feel centred and calm, and hear ourselves speak from an inner authority. We will have the capacity to mirror and to bless ourselves and others.”

I Will Wait in Silence

“The trumpets sounded. The horses reared and neighed. Spear clashed on shield. Then the king raised his hand, and with a rush like the sudden onset of a great wind the last host of Rohan rode thundering into the West.

Far over the plain Eowyn saw the glitter of their spears, as she stood still, alone before the doors of the silent house.”

And so the host of Rohan rides to do battle with the forces of Isengard. Gandalf has roused Théoden, King of Rohan from his slow decline and with Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas, he rides with them upon Shadowfax, mightiest of all horses in Middle Earth. Brave words have been spoken; courage has been roused in the hearts of the Riders; but Tolkien does not end this chapter with the sound of horses’ hooves or the sound of the wind in the ears of the riders but with silence before the doors of Meduseld as we stand with Eowyn as she gazes after them.

The silence that ends the chapter is intentional. We are meant to stay in a space that is almost empty. The action is taking place somewhere else and we wait alone. Not for us the comforting sound of the thunderous gallop of horses to keep our courage up. We must be brave in a silence that is an absence of sound and an emptiness that is an absence of the people that we love. And there is a fear also that the silence will end with the harsh cries of orcs as they advance upon us.

It is this kind of waiting that has been the lot of women in time of war throughout the ages. I remember speaking once with an elderly woman in the cottage in which she had been born and had lived in throughout her life as she described to me the day when her father had walked down the garden path to go to war in France in the autumn of 1914. For her that memory was as vivid and fresh as if she had just lived it and I could feel the warm autumn sun and see the closing of the gate as he walked down the village lane as she told her story. What I cannot remember is whether he ever came home again.

Tolkien was himself one of the young men who left for war in that same conflict. He did come home but lived the rest of his life with the memory. He never made his writings a vehicle for his memories but his experience of war shapes each page of The Lord of the Rings as they must have shaped the life that he lived after that experience.

Tolkien was never a propagandist but a story teller. In propaganda it is the message that is of prime importance. All experience must be reduced to the message. Each story must be flattened and simplified. Propaganda cannot allow complexity because to allow this is a betrayal of the purity of the message. Robert Runcie was Archbishop of Canterbury between 1980 and 1991 and had served as a tank commander during the Second World War, winning the Military Cross for bravery in action. Later in life he described how his tank had destroyed a German tank and how he and his men had gone to check for survivors in it. There were none and he told how as he looked at the faces of the dead men he suddenly saw them as sons, husbands, boyfriends; that there were people waiting for them who would never see them again. Such a story cannot be used by a propagandist and Runcie was no friend to propagandists during his time in office as Archbishop. Story will always leave the reader or hearer to choose how to respond, shaping lives that grow in sympathy and compassion and not reducing them to cartoon automata. Propaganda only wants automata who will do the bidding of the propagandist.

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?

A Life as Brief as a Sparrow’s Flight

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…

You Are Our Captain

How wonderful it is to be able to find clarity and purpose after long doubt and uncertainty. We have followed Aragorn through doubt until his choice to follow Merry and Pippin brought him serenity even when all seemed lost and it seemed that the best he could achieve was to find the young hobbits and then starve with them in the forest. He had found a peace but it was the peace of someone who had given all that they could but who must now lay down their struggle and their life. It was the peace that someone finds when all hope is gone but there remains the knowledge that the choice was right and that is now enough.

“Come Aragorn, son of Arathorn!” says Gandalf. “Do not regret your choice in the valley of the Emyn Muil, nor call it a vain pursuit. You chose amid doubts the path that seemed right: the choice was just and it has been rewarded. For so we have met in time who otherwise might have met too late.”

How wonderful it is to find clarity after long doubt and so it is for Aragorn as he meets Gandalf once more after long night. How wonderful it is to hear this well done from one he has long thought of as father. And at this moment, although he has laboured long and hard, he has energy for any task to which he might be called, indeed he longs to receive orders again.

“The quest of your companions is over. Your next journey is marked by your given word. You must go to Edoras and seek out Théoden in his hall. For you are needed.”

Saruman is now in open war against Rohan. He fears that Théoden might possess the Ring now that his messengers have been slain by Eomer’s war band? Aragorn must aid Théoden in this fight. All weariness falls from him.

“You are our captain and our banner,” he declares to Gandalf. “The Dark Lord has Nine. But we have One, mightier than they: the White Rider. He has passed through fire and the abyss, and they shall fear him. We will go where he leads.”

Most men unless they have passed over into despair will feel the thrill of these words for most of us long for a true captain to follow. Sadly many pass through life having never found that captain or, even more tragically, to have found one who seemed to be what we sought but who has proved faithless. The faithless captain is one who seeks their own gain above all else and who will sacrifice others to that end. Aragorn knows that Gandalf is not faithless and he will not rest until the struggle is ended being willing to sacrifice himself for the sake of those who follow him. Men love such leaders and will follow them through thick and thin if they can find them.

Ernest Shackleton, a Faithful Captain

It is a lonely moment when we realise that unless we are prepared to be the leader the task will not be done. It is a lonely moment when we realise that unless we make the sacrifice then there will be a company of people who cannot be free. To have a sense that what we do has meaning and truth sets us free. “How are the people to know that they are faithful” wrote Anglican theologian, Richard Hooker in the sixteenth century, “unless their captains tell them?” Gandalf has told Aragorn that he has proved faithful and now he has strength to fight. How much we need such captains. Perhaps we have been called to be such a captain to a company of people ourselves.