Denethor has sent Faramir to the fords of Osgiliath so that he might try to hold them against the invaders for as long as possible. All remaining hope is pinned upon the arrival of the Rohirrim to raise the siege and Denethor hopes that in holding the outer defences of the Pelennor he can keep the hosts of Mordor from the walls of Minas Tirith itself and that the Rohirrim will not be divided from the defenders of the city.
That is Denethor’s hope but the invading force is too great in number for Faramir to withstand and soon they are in retreat and eventually the retreat becomes a rout. Only the action of Prince Imrahil of Dol Amroth, who turns back the attack, and of Gandalf, who withstands the Lord of the Nazgûl, saves the fleeing force from slaughter.
But for Faramir this comes too late. Even as the Nazgûl swerve aside Faramir is struck by a deadly dart and Imrahil carries him from the field of battle. Faramir is defeated and his life hangs by a thread.
Faramir has lain down his life for his friends, a line from the Gospel of John in which Jesus, on the night of his betrayal declares that “No one has greater love than this, to lay down ones life for one’s friends”. It is a phrase that Shakespeare takes up in the speech made by Henry V to his men before the Battle of Agincourt where the king calls them brothers “be he ne’er so vile”. Faramir has fallen at the head of his men seeking to ensure an orderly retreat. Imrahil declares to Denethor that Faramir has done “great deeds” but he has fallen and will play no more part in the war except to declare Aragorn, king, and then to wait.
I meet very few people who are able to wait well when their work is finally done. Often they rail against a loss of power and influence sometimes seeking to intervene when it is no longer appropriate that they should. They should have been ready to pass on a task or responsibility to another but they fail to do so. They may become angry at their apparent impotence and the lack of respect or gratitude that they feel they should receive from others and their anger may turn to bitterness or depression.
Faramir does not give way to this although he will come close to it and will need the intervention of the king in the Houses of Healing. But just as we thought of his Christlikeness in the laying down of his life for his people so too do we see him pass through dereliction on his road to healing and serenity. We are reminded of the words of Jesus on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
But why does Faramir’s dereliction end in life while Denethor’s ends in a despairing death? My conviction is that Faramir truly suffers. In saying that I use the word in its old sense of giving permission to something to happen, of believing that there is something that is bigger even than my death. Something that gives meaning to my death even if I do not know what it is. Ultimately Denethor’s death is a denial of suffering. He gives permission to nothing. Nothing has meaning. Faramir will awaken through the aid of the king and will serenely await the outcome of the final battle. If it ends with victory and the king returns he will lay down his office even as he was prepared to lay down his life. If it ends with defeat he will lead his people in a final defence of the city believing that this too will have meaning. One heart will be won entirely by the nobility of his patience but that is a story we must tell another time.
“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.