The Funeral of Théoden

It was 4 years ago when I first wrote about Théoden, a man bound to his chair by the leachcraft of Grima Wormtongue staring miserably at the image of his glorious ancestor, Eorl the Young, the founder of the Kingdom of Rohan. I quoted the Irish poet and priest, John O’Donohue from his wonderful book, Eternal Echoes, in which he writes about the different types of inner prison that we build for ourselves. He could have been writing about Théoden.

“Fear and negativity are immense forces which constantly tussle with us. They long to turn the mansions of the soul into haunted rooms. These are the conditions for which fear and negativity long and in which they thrive. We were sent here to live life to the full. When you manage to be generous in your passion and vulnerability, life always comes to bless you.”

O’Donohue creates a rich contrast between the soul’s true nature described as a spacious and elegant mansion and the haunted room created by fear and negativity. Tolkien gives us the contrast between the richly tapestried walls of Meduseld with the memory of the young hero and the shrivelled and wizened creature imprisoned in his chair. Théoden is shamed by the ancestral hero upon whose image he is forced to gaze each day and his people live in a wasteland. Such is the fate of a people whose king is no longer a source of fruitfulness. It is the fate of the people of the Fisher King in the Parsifal legend. It is the fate of the people of Rohan.

And then Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli come and with their burning ardour overthrow the prisons of Wormtongue and his master, Saruman. The armies of Rohan are no more powerful than before and the threat from their enemies is undiminished but Théoden steps out from his prison and feels the good rain upon his face and the hilt of a sword in the grasp of his hand. Once more this good man is generous in his “passion and vulnerability” and life comes to bless him. He arouses a people who have longed for the opportunity to give their best and their utmost. He restores their pride. In a few short days they defeat the armies of Saruman at Helms Deep and at the very limits of endurance they break the siege of Minas Tirith at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. Théoden is overthrown at the last by the Lord of the Nazgûl but dies at peace and without shame as he prepares to meet his ancestors.

And now he makes his return to Edoras in glory as a true king should, honoured by all free peoples. He is laid upon a golden bier and carried on a great wain from Minas Tirith to his home. Merry, the faithful squire who stood bravely at the side of his lord in his final battle rides upon the wain and keeps his arms. Then Tolkien names each member of the Fellowship in their turn.

“Frodo and Samwise rode at Aragorn’s side, and Gandalf rode upon Shadowfax, and Pippin rode with the knights of Gondor; and Legolas and Gimli as ever rode together upon Arod.”

And in Théoden’s funeral procession the Queen Arwen, Celeborn and Galadriel and their people, Elrond and his sons and the princes of Dol Amroth and Ithilien with the knights of Gondor ride to do him honour. “Never had any king of the Mark such company upon the road as went with Théoden, Thengel’s son to the land of his home.”

And Gléowine, the king’s minstrel makes his last song for his lord.

Out of doubt, out of dark, to the day’s rising he rode singing in the sun, sword unsheathing. Hope he rekindled, and in hope ended; over death, over dread, over doom lifted, out of loss out of life, unto long glory”

All of this is a celebration of a few short days after years of darkness and they are right to make this praise. Théoden is so gloriously generous in his passion and vulnerability in those few days that a people is restored and the world is saved. His story is one of the finest that Tolkien tells and it is right that he should end it with such glorious solemnity.

The Fellowship Carry Frodo and Sam to Mordor

So now we have seen that Sam carries Frodo to Mordor and, at the end of the journey, he will do so literally. Frodo carries Sam to Mordor, helping him to grow into the kind of person capable of making such a journey. Without the widening of Sam’s imagination he could never have begun the journey, let alone finished it. But even with all the support that Frodo and Sam give to each other they could never have got to Mordor alone. Next week we will meet their guide in the journey, one they never expected to meet in that role. This week we will see how they are carried by their friends and in so doing think about our relationships to one another and how we touch one another’s lives, often without realising how we do it.

When the Fellowship of the Ring is broken by the events at Parth Galen Merry and Pippin are carried like baggage toward to Isengard by orcs that Saruman has sent to waylay the company. But even as the captors hurry westward bearing their prize messages are sent to Barad-dur by orcs loyal to Sauron bearing news of what has been taken. In their gentle loyalty to their friends and then, following their escape from the orcs in their rousing of the Ents, Merry and Pippin play a key role in Saruman’s downfall. But it is not only in the downfall of Saruman that they play a part. When Sauron receive news that hobbits have been taken to Isengard much of his attention is given to the doings of an ally Sauron knows to be unreliable.

Once they know of the capture of the young hobbits Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli choose not to follow Frodo and Sam but to seek to rescue Merry and Pippin. From the start there is little chance of success but they know they cannot simply abandon the young hobbits to torture and to death. If they had been crude utilitarians Aragorn and his companions would have sacrificed Merry and Pippin to some abstract concept of “the greater good” believing they might achieve that good by helping Frodo and Sam take the Ring to the fire. They reject such calculated morality and in following the orc band they meet Eomer and his warriors and then, later, Gandalf in the Forest of Fangorn. After this they travel with Gandalf to Edoras to free Théoden from bondage before aiding him in the victory over the forces of Isengard at Helms Deep thus making Rohan an active participant in the war who had been reduced almost to miserable inactivity. When Sauron learns of this his attention is given even more to events away from his border.

At first the Fellowship are not aware of what they are giving to Frodo and Sam by their faithfulness in doing what they can. Later, after they receive news from Faramir, they will know that by openly challenging Sauron’s might they can prevent him from fortifying his borders preventing any from getting in or out of Mordor. Their deeds are heroic and without them all that Frodo and Sam could do would have been worth very little. If victory had not been gained at Helms Deep or the Pelennor Fields Frodo and Sam would have had very little to return to but equally without the success of Frodo and Sam’s mission those victories would have meant nothing. Sauron would have triumphed and all would have been vain.

In his letter to the Galatians in the New Testament, Paul tells us to “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ.” What we see from the relationship of the members of the Fellowship to each other that it is not just, or even primarily, in being physically present to one another that we can do this. The Fellowship carry Frodo and Sam simply by being faithful to their tasks. Meister Eckhart wrote that “Wisdom consists in doing the next thing you have to do, doing it with your whole heart and finding delight in doing it.” He might have added, “And in so doing you will bear one another’s burdens and so fulfil the law of Christ.”

Legolas and Gimli teach us about the Mystery of a Person

“No common recipe for children’s stories will give you creatures so rooted in their own soul and history as those of Professor Tolkien- who obviously knows much more about them than he needs for this tale.” So wrote C.S Lewis in his anonymous review of The Hobbit in a 1937 edition of The Times Literary Supplement. Lewis himself knew perfectly well that Tolkien knew far more about his creations than was required for The Hobbit for he was privy to his friend’s labours in the creation of a world that had already taken the best part of a quarter of a century.

What this means is that every character in Tolkien’s work has a depth that is almost unique in literature. For not only do we have the development of a character within each of his books but also the way in which each character has been shaped by a particular history, not just their own but that of their people, and not just of their people but the way in which their people’s history has interacted with a greater one.

So it is that Legolas and Gimli bring to each of their actions within The Lord of The Rings the kind of depth that any person brings when they walk into our lives. However, they may bring that depth but we may not ever perceive it because we choose not to make the effort to do so. Equally it is possible to read the stories of Legolas and Gimli within The Lord of the Rings as just being there to make up the numbers in the Fellowship or to set in some kind of relief the bigger figures in the story, such as Aragorn. Of course it is one of the features of all of our lives to set each other’s stories in relief. It is a humble and humbling feature of our lives that in relation to the story of an Other we may only be comic relief for example, but this kind of shallow reflection of one another is all too common. Tolkien does not make that mistake and in his description of the Battle of Helm’s Deep in which Legolas and Gimli’s participation does have comedic elements we know that both bring with them a long history with orcs and with one another that makes some sense of their counting game.

Gimli will not have forgotten that his father, Gloin was once the prisoner of Legolas’ father, Thranduil of Mirkwood. Dwarves keep long scores of wrongs done to them and their forebears. And Elves who have the longest memories of all would remember betrayals by Dwarves that went back to The First Age of Middle Earth and the wars with Morgoth of Angband. So it is that when Legolas and Gimli stand and fight together we know that a profound act of healing and reconciliation has taken place that that belongs not only to the pages of The Lord of the Rings but also other stories too.

We do not have the time to tell these stories now. I hope there may be other occasions when we are able to return to them. What we can see now is that all our stories are a mysterious weaving of personal and greater histories, of character and of archetype, of word and of flesh. We do wrong to ourselves and to one another when we reduce ourselves and one another to merely the personal or merely the greater. Gimli is not just a Dwarf nor Legolas just an Elf. I am not just English. Actually I know I am not just English because through my great grandparents on my mother’s side I am part Irish and through my great grandparents on my father’s side I am part Italian. But I cannot be reduced even to that bigger story, there are so many other layers too. I am a mystery even to myself and always will be. And if I am to do due honour to others then I am not permitted to reduce them to some small part of my own tale. They are far too big, far too mysterious for that. I must seek to give them the worthship to which they are due.

On Learning to Receive Good News

It can almost be as hard to receive and believe unexpected good news as it is to receive and believe the opposite. Disappointment can become a habit of life and preparing for it so that we can bear it when it comes can become the main discipline of our inner lives. The expectation of disappointment and our preparation for its “inevitable” arrival has a way of creeping into every fibre of our being. We will see this negative expectation at work in two major characters of The Lord of the Rings in later postings on this blog. One is Théoden of Rohan and the other is Denethor of Gondor.

The return of Gandalf is one of the glorious moments of the whole story. We saw him fall with the Balrog into the abyss in Moria, crying, “Fly, you fools!” as he did so. We shared in the grief of his companions at his loss and in the sense that their task had become so much harder if not impossible. We have reflected more than once on how for Aragorn the unexpected burden of the leadership of the company threw him into doubt regarding his personal ambitions. And we could say that although it was the attack of the orcs that finally sundered the Fellowship of the Ring that it was from the fall of Gandalf that such a sundering became inevitable.

And now in the Forest of Fangorn as Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli bravely pursue what seems a hopeless cause, Gandalf returns to them.

“They all gazed at him. His hair was white as snow in the sunshine; and gleaming white was his robe; the eyes under his deep brows were bright, piercing as the rays of the sun; power was in his hand. Between wonder, joy and fear they stood and found no words to say.”

They are able to receive this good news with joy and then to continue their journey with renewed hope. Soon they will know that there is no point in continuing to search for Merry and Pippin. They will waste no time on comments like, “so why did we bother, then?” Only one thing will matter to them and that will be to do the next task, and then the next one and the next one. In this they differ from Théoden (at first at least) and from Denethor. Denethor, most of all, has become so set in his belief that good days are only pauses on the inevitable road to destruction that he considers all who continue to have hope as fools and so Gandalf is dismissively called the “grey fool”. In Théoden despair is mixed with guilt. He regards himself as a failed king. Aragorn is different from both. He has passed through his time of despair, not even regarding his own failure as something that disqualifies him from doing the next task with all the strength that he can bring to it.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German pastor, theologian and anti-Nazi resister, wrote powerfully about this not long before he was arrested and held in the Tegel prison in Berlin.

He reflected on ten years of resistance to the Third Reich within Germany, much of which had been ineffective, and upon all that he and his fellow resisters had learnt through those years. He wrote that he had learnt that it was of no importance whether anyone emerged as a hero from this experience. All that mattered was to keep on asking the question, day after day after day, “How is the next generation to live?” Aragorn has stopped worrying about whether he is a hero or whether others see him as one. All that matters is the task. Once that is clear to him he has no barrier within himself to weeping tears of sorrow or of joy and no barrier to living a faithful life.