The Riders of Rohan reach the Pelennor Fields at last and look down upon the horror below them. “The king sat upon Snowmane, motionless, gazing upon the agony of Minas Tirith, as if stricken suddenly by anguish or by dread. He seemed to shrink down, cowed by age.” Until this moment it has been possible to push the impossibility of what they must do to the back of their minds by attending to all of the essential tasks that a soldier must do. That possibility exists no longer. Théoden stares at his own annihilation, something that he shrank from through the years of Wormtongue’s whisperings, and for a moment he is the shrivelled old man in the darkness of his hall and of his mind. And then…
“Arise, arise, Riders of Théoden! Fell deeds awake: fire and slaughter! spear shall be shaken, shield be splintered, a sword day, a red day, ere the sun rises! Ride now, ride now! Ride to Gondor!”
And the old man is transformed and rides into battle like a god, “even as Oromë the Great in the battle of the Valar when the world was young”. And like Oromë the hunter he takes a horn and blows such a mighty blast upon it “that it burst asunder”. Théoden the godlike king rides with such might that he outruns even the swiftest of his army and as he rides the grass about Snowmane’s feet flames into green, the wind turns and blows fresh from the sea “and darkness was removed and the hosts of Mordor wailed, and terror took them, and they fled, and died, and the hoofs of wrath rode over them.”
Tolkien takes the language of myth and of Old English song that had captured his heart when he was a young man in order to describe this scene in the story. Skilled story teller as he is he could have taken us into battle with the frightened Merry or the death-seeking Éowyn or the standard-bearer Guthláf trying desperately to keep up with his lord but he chooses the godlike king before whose face all creation is transformed, transfigured.
And what do we do as readers? Is it encumbered upon us as those who are disillusioned and disenchanted modernists to demystify or demythologise Tolkien’s language and to insist that we describe war as what it is, as foul and filthy, as a thing of horror? We could do so if we choose and what is more Tolkien could do so better than most of us for he saw war at first hand in the killing fields of Flanders in the First World War. But Tolkien chooses not to do this but to take us to a wholly different level of human experience. It is not that he has a nostalgic longing for medieval warfare which was just as foul and bloody as anything that we can invent today nor does he seek to promulgate what Wilfred Owen called, “the old lie”, that to die for one’s country is a sweet and proper thing. No, what Tolkien does is to take the human experience of the horror of war and to transform it. Note, please, that I have not said take the horror of war and transform it but to take the human experience of war and transform it. And in doing so he chooses not to reduce human beings in war to dumb animals in the slaughter house but to elevate them to gods. And he does it for just this paragraph only as the Rohirrim ride into battle giving us the briefest of glimpses into what we truly are. When we look across the page we return to the description of events, to one action after another. Both kinds of narrative are true and both are true together.
And we will end this week’s reflection with a final thought. When the hopelessly outnumbered Riders of Rohan ride into battle in defence of Minas Tirith they do so in the likelihood that they will die in the attempt. And yet they still ride on. Their plunge into the heart of darkness is godlike and one that was recognised in one of the oldest of English poems, The Dream of the Rood, a poem that likens the death of Christ upon the cross to the triumph of a mighty warrior in battle and so transformed the experience of the warrior forever. Continue reading →
“So now at last the City was besieged, enclosed in a ring of foes.” And in the next few pages Tolkien relentlessly builds a picture of hopelessness as the hosts of Mordor begin the assault upon Minas Tirith until he reaches the appalling climax of the winged ride of the Nazgûl.
“Ever they circled above the City, like vultures that expect their fill of doomed men’s flesh. Out of sight and shot they flew, and yet were ever present, and their deadly voices rent the air. More unbearable they became, not less, at each new cry. At length even the stout-hearted would fling themselves to the ground as the hidden menace passed over them, or they would stand, letting their weapons fall from nerveless hands while into their minds a blackness came, and they thought no more of war; but only of hiding and of crawling, and of death.”
And so Tolkien brings us to a dark place once again and, as with Frodo and Sam in Shelob’s Lair, a light will break in that will proclaim that there is no darkness so deep that it cannot bebreached. And the words of the one hundred and thirty-ninth psalm come to mind declaring:
If I say surely the darkness shall cover me; even the night shall be light about me.
Yea, the darkness hideth not from thee; but the night shineth as the day: the darkness and the light are both alike to thee.
This week’s posting on my blog is dedicated to all those who are in dark places; to all those who see no way to light and life beyond the darkness. It is dedicated to those for whom everything in which they have placed their trust has proved to be a broken reed. They are like the men of Gondor looking out across the Pelennor and seeing no possibility of relief; like the defenders of the city thinking “only of hiding and of crawling and of death”.
In a few days time on this blog I will tell the story of a man whose wife lies, an innocent prisoner in a foreign jail, a pawn in a game played by people of power; a man who cannot reach her or see her. Today I dedicate this piece to him and to his wife. And if you know something of the darkness that the defenders of Gondor know then this is for you as well.
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.
I never thought that I would be saying this but I seem to have no choice. In the last few weeks on this blog we have been thinking about the weaknesses in his character but especially in the debate following the piece I wrote entitled https://stephencwinter.com/2016/10/27/he-would-have-brought-me-a-mighty-gift-denethor-and-the-ring/ I was strongly challenged by The Joviator to rethink my view of Denethor. I do hope that you can read that debate and the excellent piece that The Joviator wrote on his own blog http://www.idiosophy.com/2016/11/denethor-as-tragic-hero/. I have decided to start by turning away from my own judgement of Denethor and to take what he says of Gandalf seriously. And if I decide still to follow Gandalf it will be for reasons entirely other than my judgement of Denethor’s motives.
“What then is your wisdom?” said Gandalf.
“Enough to perceive that there are two follies to avoid. To use this thing is perilous. At this hour, to send it in the hands of a witless halfling into the land of the Enemy himself, as you have done, and this son of mine, this is madness”
“And the Lord Denethor what would he have done?”
“Neither. But most surely not for any argument would he have set this thing at a hazard beyond all but a fool’s hope, risking our utter ruin, if the Enemy should recover what he lost.”
Let us set aside Denethor’s judgement of Frodo for the moment. It is precisely because Faramir did not judge Frodo to be witless but a figure of some greatness that he chose to aid his mission and not to bring him to Minas Tirith. But Denethor regards his son to be as foolish as Gandalf and so we cannot use our knowledge of Frodo as a defence for the course of action decided at the Council of Elrond. Frodo is as much involved in the fool’s hope as everyone else at the Council. If he is witless then so too are they.
In order to read The Lord of the Rings properly we need to agree with Denethor. Frodo’s mission is impossible. Even if the Fellowship had not been sundered at the Falls of Rauros and Aragorn and Boromir, Legolas and Gimli had been at Frodo’s side on the journey to Mount Doom it would have remained impossible. When Gandalf describes Cirith Ungol and the Morgul Vale as cursed places one is tempted to ask what other route he would have counselled Frodo to take? Each one would have been as impossible as the next and the likely outcome of all that the Ring would fall into Sauron’s hands.
And in order to read The Lord of the Rings properly we need to leave behind the heroic tale that Peter Jackson tells. There we see that “even the smallest” can be heroes and that is an inspiring thought. In his telling of the story it is the heroism of Frodo and perhaps even more of Sam that stands in contrast to the weakness of Faramir and the cowardice of Denethor. It is that heroism that is the axis upon the whole story turns and each character is judged by whether they support or oppose it.
Tolkien tells a story that is profoundly different and it recalls words that St Paul writes to the Corinthians in the New Testament when he says that “God foolishness is wiser than human wisdom and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” (1 Corinthians 1.25) The foolishness and weakness to which Paul points is the cross and the proclamation of the cross. The death that Jesus dies alone, betrayed, abandoned is a foolishness and a weakness that shapes all reality. Paul says it himself that Christ crucified is “the power of God and the Wisdom of God”.
The Lord of the Rings is set in a world that has not known the Gospel message of God becoming one of us. That is what makes it different from C.S Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia in which Aslan is a participant in the stories.But it is a world that is shot through with the wisdom and power of which Paul speaks. In it we see that reality is shaped by the Cross. The Lord of the Rings knows it as Providence showing that there is a hidden Power at work in the world greater than any other that meant Frodo to have the Ring. Gandalf’s Yes to this Providence is indeed a Fool’s Hope but I am on the side of his foolishness and against the wisdom of Denethor.