“This Old Man Had a Hat Not a Hood.” Who Did The Three Hunters See Under The Eaves of Fangorn?

The Two Towers by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991, 2007) pp.573-577

Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli have found the site of the battle between the Riders of Rohan and the Orc band who had taken Merry and Pippin but they have found no sign of the hobbits themselves. Now before they continue their search they decide to make camp for the night right under the eaves of an ancient chestnut tree. They build a fire taking care not to cut wood from any living tree but only that which they can gather from the ground about them.

As they rest by their fire they ponder the journey that lies before them, a journey that is likely to take them into the forest itself.

“Celeborn warned us not to go far into Fangorn,” Legolas says. “Do you know why, Aragorn?”

But Aragorn knows little of the forest save that it is old, “as old as the forest by the Barrow-downs, and it is far greater. Elrond says that the two are akin, the last strongholds of the mighty woods of the Elder Days, in which the Firstborn roamed while Men still slept. Yet Fangorn holds some secret of its own. What it is I do not know.”

Alan Lee evokes the wonderful mystery of forests.

The journeys of The Lord of the Rings sometimes lead under the ground, such as the journey through Moria, the Paths of the Dead under the White Mountains between Rohan and Gondor and the path through Shelob’s Lair that passes under the mountains that surround Mordor. Each of these paths hide a deadly peril. The Balrog lurks in the depths of Moria; the Dead haunt the paths under the White Mountains; and Shelob lies in wait for any that might pass through her lair under the mountains of Mordor. All who pass through these dark ways will come to an end of themselves in some way and emerge the other side as different from the self that first entered in.

But the journeys through forests are different in nature. In these journeys a secret is encountered. The hobbits encounter Tom Bombadil in the Old Forest, a strange and delightful wonder. In Lothlórien, the Golden Wood, the Fellowship meet the Lady of the Wood, Galadriel. And in Fangorn Forest Merry and Pippin meet Treebeard, the oldest of the Ents, the Onodrim of which Legolas speaks by the campfire. Each forest is alive, not just as the aggregation of many things, many separate trees and other plants, but as an intelligence that holds all the separate parts together and which is expressed in the secret life hidden therein.

The night passes and Gimli is on watch by the fire when something happens that awakens all three. Or perhaps I should say that two things happen. An old man “wrapped in a great cloak” is seen standing in the firelight but who disappears when challenged by Aragorn. And the other thing is that the horses run off at the same moment.

Shadowfax, Chief of the Mearas.

Gimli is convinced that the old man is Saruman and that he has driven their horses away. He is partly correct in this. The following day the companions will meet Gandalf in the forest. It is one of the great moments of the story. Gimli will ask Gandalf if it was him or Saruman who he had seen by the fire and Gandalf will reassure him that he was not there so it was likely to have been Saruman; that Saruman had not been able to wait for his orcs to bring him the hobbits and with the hobbits the greatest prize of all, the One Ring. But it was not Saruman who drove away the horses. The following morning Aragorn will remark to the others that the horses did not sound as if they were fleeing in terror and Legolas will reply that “they spoke as horses will when they meet a friend that they have long missed.” The friend, as we will learn later, is Shadowfax, the greatest of horses who has drawn near to Fangorn in order to await Gandalf. If the companions knew this they would not have to worry about their horses. As Galadriel told them their paths are laid out before their feet and all they need do is to walk the paths in trust.

Gandalf and Saruman together.

A Cock Crow Announces the Fall of Mordor

The Lord of the Nazgûl chooses to enter the gates of Minas Tirith on horseback. He has waited long years for this moment and it must be done in the appropriate manner. All the defenders of the city flee before him except one. Gandalf remains upon Shadowfax who does not desert him. Gandalf is steadfast but even he cannot stand alone before his enemies.

And then something happens that surely no one notices and yet Tolkien, as narrator, knows is of the most profound significance.

“Gandalf did not move. And in that very moment, away behind in some courtyard of the City, a cock crowed. Shrill and clear he crowed, recking nothing of wizardry or war, welcoming only the morning that in the sky far above the shadows of death was coming with the dawn.”

It is a glorious moment and one easily missed because of the event that follows immediately after. And Tolkien gives space to the moment because there is a theme that has run throughout The Lord of the Rings and that is the resistance of the natural world against all that the powers of darkness can hurl against it.

Contrast the massive effort that turns the mûmakil of the Harad, the “oliphaunts” that Sam so delighted to see in Ithilien into engines of war to the simplicity of the cockcrow. Think of how after all the effort to train them the Lord of the Nazgûl casually wastes their lives, for “their purpose was only to test the strength of the defence and to keep the men of Gondor busy in many places”. Contrast too the one horse upon which the Lord of the Ringwraiths rides, a once free and proud beast, savagely broken so that it might become the instrument of its master’s will, to the free  choice of Shadowfax who does not flee when  all others do, whether man or beast. Cavalry is the one thing that the forces of Mordor do not possess. The bond between horse and rider that Gandalf and Shadowfax display or which brings the Rohirrim to the battlefield can only be created by the armies of Mordor with the most brutal force and it is easier to put the energy that is required to break the horses to a different, though equally savage, use.

The cock crows in the city because it is a cock. As Gerard Manley Hopkins wonderfully declares in his great poem, As Kingfishers Catch Fire, 

“Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; Selves- goes itself; myself it speaks and spells; crying What I do is me: for that I came.”

 Note please that Hopkins does not say “What I do is for me”. The Lord of the Nazgûl says that endlessly even in his service of Sauron. What Hopkins declares is far more profound because unlike the slave King of Angmar Hopkins is free, as is the kingfisher, as is the cock in the city courtyard, as is Shadowfax, as is Gandalf. And so he can say “What I do is me”!

The day has dawned in the sky above the war in Minas Tirith despite all the mighty efforts of the Dark Lord. Far away Ghân-buri-Ghân sniffed the air on the previous day and a light came into his eyes as he said, “Wind is changing!” Sauron is not the lord of the weather despite all the outpouring of his might and for that brief and glorious moment as the cock crows in complete indifference of all the powers of darkness, “recking nothing of wizardry or war” he is not even lord of a simple creature who is being itself.

We will encounter many who claim to be “lords” and sometimes we will feel quite powerless before them. If we are to stand against them in total freedom as Gandalf does then we need to learn how to commune with all that is free, with the free creation that Selves. We need to learn how to delight in all around us in its freedom and its beauty. To allow it to be itself even as we learn to become our true selves.

 

 

On, Shadowfax! We must Hasten. Time is Short.

Pippin awakes from a “swift moving dream in which he had been wrapped so long since the great ride began”. Shadowfax, the mightiest of horses,  is rushing through Anórien, the most northerly region of the land of Gondor, bearing Gandalf and Pippin towards Minas Tirith and towards war. It is the third night since Pippin looked into the Stone of Orthanc and so was forced to endure the gaze of Sauron. Now the Dark Lord believes that a hobbit is at Isengard. He gloats ravenously at him. Is this the one who has the Ring?

Sauron is so overcome by his own anticipation that he does not wait to ask further questions. He has servants who can reach Isengard swiftly and bring the prize to him. When he has the Ring there will be no further need for questions and ample time to punish the creature who has kept it from him.

And so by a lack of curiosity Sauron gives his foes just a little time for action. Gandalf siezes the time, removing Pippin from the palantir and from the place that the Dark Lord believes him to be, and rushing as fast as possible towards the place of crisis where the battle must be fought. So too do Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli; they must find their way to Minas Tirith as quickly as they can. And so too must the hosts of Rohan and messages are sent far and wide by Théoden, their king,  calling them to gather at Dunharrow. All must reach Minas Tirith in time for if the city of Gondor falls then even if Frodo is able to succeed in his mission and the Ring is unmade in the fires of Mount Doom there will be nothing to save and Frodo can go no faster than his feet can carry him and his burden will permit him. On the night on which Pippin gazes at the moon setting in the west Frodo watches it from the refuge of Henneth Anûn. He has far yet to go.

Wisdom trains us, through life and hard experience, that there are times when we can do nothing but wait; times when we must labour patiently, perhaps hoping against hope; times when we must get up again after failure and defeat; and then there times when we must grasp the slimmest of chances as swiftly as we can when they are presented to us. Gandalf has known all of these. He has laboured over two thousand years,  bearing Narya, the Ring of Fire, to keep hope alive in the hearts of the free peoples of Middle-earth and in all that time he has been forced to wait as Sauron has grown in power. He has been the captive of Saruman in Orthanc, watching helplessly as the Nazgûl seek for the Ring. He has been a beggar at the gates of Théoden, forced to endure the humiliations of Wormtongue. He has even journeyed through death after the battle with the Balrog of Moria. Now there is a moment, just the briefest of moments, when he can act and even now it may be too late.

We must live our lives with our eyes open,  watching for moments of opportunity. It may be given to a few to know that these are of great significance in the history of an age. They are like Simeon and Anna in the temple in Jerusalem looking for the coming of the Messiah. But all of us are called to be people of hope like them and while we wait for the dawning of the day we are called to do the acts of mercy in the knowledge that each one of them brings that dawn nearer. And we must do them most of all when it seems that the night is darkest.