“The Nine Walkers Shall Be Set Against The Nine Riders That Are Evil.” Thoughts on the Power of Symbols in The Lord of the Rings.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 269

I had intended to start blogging on The Two Towers this week but events in my islands have got me thinking a lot about the nature of power. It will be the subject of my sermon in the village parishes in the Shire, that I care for, tomorrow. The event, of course, to which I refer, is the death of Queen Elizabeth II and this Sunday, the 18th September, will be the eve of her funeral in Westminster Abbey.

I came across an interview with former President, Bill Clinton, on YouTube this last week about Queen Elizabeth. In this interview the question was raised as to why heads of state, including President Biden, from around the world are going to gather in London for the funeral of a woman who wielded very little power and was head of state of a country that also has no longer great geopolitical significance. For a moment, it seemed to me, the interview got a bit stuck until Clinton and his interviewer both agreed on the fact that Queen Elizabeth was “one helluva woman” and both laughed and the interview moved on.

Now, if there is someone who ought to know that power is not merely a matter of (to refer to Joseph Stalin’s crude comment about the Pope) how many army divisions someone has, it ought to be Bill Clinton. I remember once listening to two wise women discussing a fictional biography of Hillary Clinton and noted, with some fascination, that when they started to talk about Bill they were soon giggling like teenage girls. What, I wondered, as a mere male, causes that kind of reaction in normally mature women?

I think, by this point, we are beginning to see that there is more to power than mere strength and this is a major theme that runs through The Lord of the Rings. Right from the start of the Quest in Rivendell Elrond makes it clear that it will not be because of might that Sauron will be overthrown. “Had I a host of Elves in armour of the Elder Days,” he says, “it would avail little, save to arouse the power of Mordor.” For Boromir this very admission diminishes the value that he places upon Elrond and all that he represents. “The might of Elrond is in wisdom not in weapons,” he says, and it is quite clear that he regards weapons more highly than wisdom. How many divisions, he might ask, does Elrond have?

The Nine Walkers against the Nine Riders

Sauron would ask the same question and it was because of his understanding of power as a simple application of strength that he forged the One Ring in the first place. As the title of the current Amazon series tells us, it is a Ring of Power, of absolute Power. That is what makes it such a fearful thing but it also that which makes Sauron so vulnerable. For one thing he has no understanding of the power of something like friendship. To choose four hobbits to stand against the might of the Nazgûl would seem laughable to him. And as Gandalf says at the Council, “the only measure he knows is desire, desire for power; and so he judges all hearts. Into his heart the thought will not enter that any will refuse it, that having the Ring we may seek to destroy it. If we seek this, we shall put him out of reckoning.”

The very rejection of a certain kind of power is a key theme throughout The Lord of the Rings but Elrond shows that there is another kind of power, about which Sauron also has no understanding, and that is the power of symbol. All symbols point towards something else than themselves. They are, by their very nature, signposts. The Nazgûl are by their very nature simply themselves, men that have become wraiths whose power derives from the Ring of Power and the fear that this creates. The Nine Walkers represent utter freedom of choice. They do not stand against the Nazgûl by reason of enslavement. Nor apart perhaps for Gandalf, and maybe Aragorn, do they stand against them by reason of their wisdom and insight. Saruman will dismiss the hobbits as merely little creatures behaving like young lordlings who need a good lesson in the true nature of power. He has no understanding of the power of the hobbits’ love for one another either.

The Power of Friendship

Tolkien, to the best of my knowledge, makes no explicit reference anywhere to the power of archetype, something that the work of Carl Jung has helped us to understand much better, but I would argue it is this power, and the wielding of this power, that proves decisive in The Lord of the Rings. It is this power, I argue, that Queen Elizabeth instinctively understood throughout her long life. The archetypal power of kingship was granted to her at the intensely mystical ceremony of her coronation in 1952, the key moments of which took place under a canopy in secret away from the television cameras. What enabled her to channel that power so effectively was the deep humility that she gained through a lifetime’s practice of her Christian faith. She knew that power was not her own possession but a gift from the king of kings, so she did not reduce her role to mere crude mockery of that power. The pomp and ceremony never became vulgar but retained a remarkable purity of expression until the very end. Of course, she alone could not hold back the decline of the country over which she ruled. The problems concerning Britain’s political and economic frailty await both our new King and his government but, I would argue, it was that remarkable purity of Queen Elizabeth’s expression of archetypal power that is drawing about 100 heads of state to London this weekend. When we encounter real archetypal power at work we almost cannot help but be drawn towards it.

A short postscript… When I spoke of my village churches in the Shire I was referring to the English county of Worcestershire. Tolkien said of this county that it was “my Shire”, a place of “woods and fields and little rivers”. He loved it deeply and so do I.

Wisdom From The Lord of the Rings

My first encounter with The Lord of the Rings came when I was 13 years old and a pupil at The Royal Grammar School in High Wycombe, England. The Royal Grammar Schools were originally founded by Queen Elizabeth I and so are younger than J.R.R Tolkien’s alma mater, King Edward VI School in Birmingham, but only by a few years. When I arrived at the RGS in 1967 it had not long since celebrated the 400th anniversary of its original foundation.

My introduction to Tolkien’s great tale came through two sources. One was my English teacher, Mr Roger Humphries and the other was my classmate, Jonathan Flint. Jonathan was the son of the commander of RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus, the Royal Air Force’s largest overseas base, and still very much in active use today. I will be forever grateful to him for sharing his love of The Lord of the Rings with me and for selling me my first copy of the book, a paperback in a single volume, for 25 shillings. For me that represented five Saturday mornings’ work on the farm nearby that my father ran for a member of the Rowntree family (the famous confectioners originally of York). That was how I earned my pocket money back then. It was worth every penny then and now. Jonathan also shared his love for poetry with me which has been another lifelong gift for which I will always be deeply grateful.

I think that Jonathan got to know Mr Humphries at Tylers Wood house, a house once owned by a Nobel Prize winning scientist and which was lived in by about 25 boys at the school between the ages of 11 and 18 many of whom, like Jonathan, were the sons of senior military officers posted overseas. At the end of each term they would fly out to different parts of the world to rejoin their families. Mr Humphries had achieved legendary status at Tylers Wood when a group of boys had barricaded themselves into a room and resisted all demands to open the door. Mr Humphries gloriously put his shoulder to the door, smashing it from its frame and hinges. The boys within the room surrendered immediately and Mr Humphries was adored forever after. It was the kind of display of masculinity that boys both aspire to and worship.

I was one of the worshippers but sadly he did not think much of me. He regarded my work as mediocre at best and I think he was right. Jonathan was his favourite pupil but as I was an admirer of Jonathan too I never resented it. I only wished that he would notice me too.

Over the next 40 years or so I read and re-read The Lord of the Rings and later The Hobbit, greeting the publication of The Silmarillion with great excitement. I came to share Tolkien’s Christian faith when an undergraduate at university although not his Roman Catholicism. Like C.S Lewis and Charles Williams I found my home within Anglicanism and was eventually ordained as a minister in The Church of England in Birmingham in 1988. I have stayed in that part of the world ever since, marrying a doctor who at that time was working in one of the city hospitals, and we have had two daughters together and now live in a cottage (our Crickhollow) in the Worcestershire countryside just a few miles from the farm that was once owned by Tolkien’s aunt and called Bag End.

I think that it took me a long time to develop a confidence in my own voice. For too long I tried to imitate somebody else’s. I think that is why Mr Humphries did not think much of me. There wasn’t much of a me about whom he could actually think.

It was about ten years ago that finally I began to think that I might have something worth saying about the book that I had loved for so long. I began to try to write about it but nothing seemed to quite work. The breakthrough came in 2012 when I first discovered blogging. I realised that although I struggled to write the kind of lengthy sustained argument that would form a chapter of a book I could write a short piece of about 500 to 700 words and I started to do so. My first efforts were published on a website that I created after buying a package and they were read by just a handful of people. A friendly press officer of my acquaintance suggested that I learn to use Twitter to publicise my work and it was there that providentially I met Brenton Dickieson   https://apilgriminnarnia.com and Sørina Higgins https://sorinahiggins.wordpress.com , both of whom have encouraged my work ever since.

It was through Brenton’s encouragement that I first published my blog on WordPress in October 2013. I had just completed my reflections on The Fellowship of the Ring, reflections that hardly anyone read, and was starting to write about The Two Towers. I began to write a short piece each week learning how to write by just doing it. By the end 2015 my readership had grown to about 15 a day. I think that what kept me going were the comments that people around the world were leaving. I began to develop a correspondence with people, most of whom I had never met, about a book that I loved. I am grateful to every person who has left a comment on the blog. You have no idea how much your encouragement has helped me to develop my writing.

Towards the end of 2016 a kind of breakthrough was made when I had more than 1,000 views in a month for the first time. This is now over 2,500 and it is still growing. Thank you to everyone who reads my work.

Last week I wrote a piece entitled, Well I’m Back, Tolkien’s famous “flat ending” to The Lord of the Rings. It was the end of a six year project. What I hope to do now is to relaunch it. As I said, hardly anyone read what I wrote about The Fellowship or The Two Towers for that matter and I have been developing my style all the way through that time. I have also been learning a lot about what Tolkien was doing through his work. I have never wanted to write a scholarly work with footnotes and all but I can’t ignore the scholars either, nor do I want to. I think that we might be at the beginning of a quiet revolution in scholarship today. Those of you who listen to Alan Sisto and Shawn Marchese’s excellent podcast https://theprancingponypodcast.com will have heard an interview with the great Prof Tom Shippey recently in which he said that he thought that Signum University might be the way forward in scholarship. By the way, Sørina Higgins is Chair of the Department of Language and Literature at Signum. Brenton Dickieson also teaches there. I would be honoured to make a small contribution at what I deliberately wish to be a popular level of writing.

So please do come back dear readers when I start at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring next week. You will see a few changes and one or two innovations but just as I know that many of you do, after you have finished a reading of The Lord of the Rings, I hope that you will start again at the beginning and that we will read it together.