“There Are Some Things That it is Better to Begin Than to Refuse, Even Though the End May be Dark.” Aragorn Ponders The Fate of The Young Hobbits.

The Two Towers by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991, 2007) pp. 571-573

With some misgivings expressed by his company, Eomer gives three horses to Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli. Or I should say that he gives two, because Gimli refuses the offer, feeling no more at ease on the back of a horse than Sam Gamgee felt in the Elven boats of Lothlórien. Aragorn is asked to promise that he will return the horses to Meduseld, the golden hall of the King of Rohan and this he promises to do. After that the three hunters follow the orc trail until they come to the eaves of Fangorn Forest.

There they find the scene of the battle a great burning of the orc host, the burial mound for the fifteen members of Eomer’s company, but no sign of the hobbits. Eomer has told them that only orcs were burned but Gimli is sure that the hobbits must have been among them.

The hunters search for the hobbits amidst the orcs.

“It will be hard news for Frodo, if he lives to hear it; and hard to for the old hobbit who waits in Rivendell. Elrond was against their coming.”

“But Gandalf was not,” said Legolas.

“But Gandalf chose to come himself, and he was the first to be lost,” answered Gimli. “His foresight failed him.”

Gimli bases his judgement regarding the wisdom of a choice upon one thing only; whether the choice leads to a successful outcome. Gandalf fell in Moria at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm in the battle against the Balrog. Gimli fears that Merry and Pippin have fallen in the battle under the eaves of Fangorn Forest. Gandalf chose to accompany the Fellowship on its mission to destroy the Ring. Gandalf persuaded Elrond to allow the young hobbits to be a part of their company and it seems that they too are lost. Gimli is clear that Gandalf’s wisdom failed him as did his foresight.

Merry and Pippin were determined to join the Fellowship.

To be fair to Gimli, Merry and Pippin feel the same way about the wisdom of their desire to go with Frodo and Sam. At least they feel that way while they are prisoners of the orcs. “I wish Gandalf had never persuaded Elrond to let us come,” says Merry. And who can blame him for feeling that way while he is trussed up like a piece of baggage and carried by his orc captors.

But Aragorn thinks differently. He too tried to persuade Gandalf not to go to Moria because he had a foreboding that something would befall Gandalf there. We are not told what he thought about Merry and Pippin going with the Company. His first impression of them, based upon his encounter with the hobbits at the Prancing Pony in Bree, had not been encouraging. But his respect for them grows on the journey to Rivendell as he realises that they are made of sterner stuff than he first thought. But he recognises that there are reasons for choices that outweigh any considerations the success or otherwise of the venture. Friendship is one of them. Merry and Pippin simply could not abandon Frodo and Sam just as Gimli could not abandon Legolas, just as they could not abandon the young hobbits.

The other reason is Aragorn’s own choice to go with the Fellowship. He must fulfil his destiny as the heir of Eärendil, as the heir of Isildur. Either he will succeed, thus becoming King of Gondor and of Arnor and winning the hand of Arwen, or he will fall in the attempt and be the last of his line. He can refuse the attempt but to do so will be to refuse hope both for himself and for the free peoples of Middle-earth. Like Denethor later he would have to accept that “the West has failed”. He does not know whether he will succeed or not. Indeed after the fall of Gandalf he has very little hope that he will. But he must go on, perhaps with failure the only outcome.

“The counsel of Gandalf was not founded on foreknowledge of safety, for himself or others… There are things that it is better to begin than to refuse, even though the end may be dark.”

The Counsel of Gandalf was not founded on foreknowledge of safety

“I Must See It Through, Sir”. Thoughts, With The Help of Sam Gamgee, on the Yeomen of Worcestershire on Remembrance Sunday 2022

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) p.85

Back in May 2020, early on in our experience of the Coronavirus, as I began once more to write reflections on The Lord of the Rings after a pause of over a year as I got used to my duties as a parish priest in Worcestershire, I wrote about the moment when Frodo, Sam and Pippin prepare to leave the place above Woodhall in the Shire where they have enjoyed the hospitality of Gildor Inglorien and his wandering company of High Elves. If you would like to read that piece please click on the link below.

https://stephencwinter.com/2020/05/15/

Alan Lee’s beautiful depiction of the hobbits’ stay with the Elves above Woodhall.

I want to go back to that moment in the story today in order to think, once more, about the conversation between Frodo and Sam that takes place there; and I want to think about it on Remembrance Sunday here in Great Britain, and here in the County of Worcestershire, Tolkien’s Shire. For the little village of Hall Green in which he spent his early years lies within the ancient county boundaries of Worcestershire, and his grandfather and aunt on his mother’s side of the family farmed in Dormston which is just 6 miles from where I am writing these thoughts. Tolkien’s hobbits are very much based upon the country folk that he got to know as he grew up and he said of himself that his personal tastes and habits were very much those of a hobbit. Worcestershire gave up Hall Green to the growing city of Birmingham some years ago, a development that Tolkien watched and very much regretted. Dormston is still a country village but folk who live hereabouts watch, with some anxiety, the gradual spread of the kind of housing development that Saruman was starting to create during the brief time in which he ran the Shire.

The farm known as Bag End in Dormston where Tolkien’s Suffield relatives lived.

Remembrance Sunday takes place every year on the Sunday nearest to Armistice Day, November 11th, recalling the moment at 11 am on that day in 1918 on which the guns fell silent on the Western Front in France and Belgium and the terrible slaughter of the previous four years finally came to an end. In London, at the Cenotaph in Whitehall, the King will lead a national act of Remembrance that is centred around a silence of two minutes and in villages and towns up and down the land there will be local acts of Remembrance taking place. I will lead one in the village of Ombersley and it will take about 5 minutes to read all the names of the fallen just from that village. It is about the nearest thing that this country has to a national day. There is no independence to celebrate as no conquest has taken place in nearly a thousand years and there is no overthrow of tyranny to celebrate, as in France, because we have largely been content (with all the usual grumbling) with our form of government for over 350 years now. I wonder sometimes what will be left of our national identity when the memory that this day seeks to keep alive finally begins to fade. But that would require another essay in order to ponder it.

It has been effectively shown that The Lord of the Rings is very much a personal response to Tolkien’s experience of the trenches of the Western Front. John Garth’s excellent study on the subject, Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth, very much established that as fact, as did the biopic, Tolkien, of 2019. Scholars, at least on this side of the Atlantic, still seem very reluctant to add Tolkien to the canon of war writers. I read an excellent study this year on another Worcestershire writer of the early 20th century, A.E Houseman, who never went to war himself but whose poetry was carried by thousands of British servicemen who did, that does not even mention Tolkien in its survey of war literature from this part of England. That Houseman played a vital part in the creation of English culture in the 20th century is undeniable. That Tolkien continues to do so today is surely equally so. In Blackwell’s bookshop, the largest and most important in Oxford, a whole section is devoted to Tolkien. No other writer comes even close to the the number of books on display either by or about him. The readers of Oxford do not need to be persuaded of his importance even if the university’s literary establishment may still regret it.

But let me come back in conclusion to Sam Gamgee. If one of the tasks of The Lord of the Rings is to re-enchant a world that has effectively lost touch with that which most truly nourishes its soul, then can we also say that the book also re-enchants warfare? Surely we must say that in one sense the slaughter that took place in the battlefields of Europe between 1914 and 1918 cannot be enchanted. And yet the deepest instinct of the British people is that the dead who will be remembered on this Remembrance Sunday cannot be so as if what they did was utterly useless and wasteful. Yes, the industrial nature of that conflict was simply appalling but each person whose name will be read out today was essentially beautiful. And Sam Gamgee speaks for them. He speaks for the country folk of England, of Worcestershire, who went cheerfully to war simply because they had been asked to do so.

“I have something to do before the end”.

“I seem to see ahead, in a kind of way. I know that we are going to take a very long road, into darkness; but I know I can’t turn back. It isn’t go see Elves now, nor dragons, nor mountains that I want- I don’t rightly know what I want: but I have something to do before the end, and it lies ahead, not in the Shire. I must see it through, sir, if you understand me.”

“How Shall a Man Judge What to Do in Such Times?” Eomer Ponders The Making of Choices. To Aid or To Thwart Aragorn.

The Two Towers by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991, 2007) pp. 565-571

Eomer dismisses his company in order to speak to Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli in private, and in order to give himself time to make his choice. Whether to aid or to thwart the hunters in their effort to find Merry and Pippin. He has already taken a risk in leading his men against the orc band that had slain Boromir and taken the hobbits prisoner. Theoden, the king, did not give him permission to go. Now what will he do about these three strangers who walk across the fields of Rohan?

Eomer needs space in order to make his decision. Anke Eissmann depicts the meeting between him and Aragorn.

Eomer needs space to think. He also needs space to reorient himself after all the things that he has just been told.

“It is hard to be sure of anything among so many marvels. The world is all grown strange. Elf and Dearf in company walk in our daily fields; and folk speak with the Lady of the Wood and yet live; and the Sword comes back to war that was broken in the long ages ere the fathers of our fathers rode into the Mark! How shall a man judge what to do in such times?”

In my last piece on this blog I wrote about a world “grown strange”. I wrote about how hobbits were dismissed as mere “children’s tales out of the North” while Galadriel is feared as one who belongs to “net-weavers and sorcerers”. Tolkien once wrote that if someone comes bearing tales of dragons either he will not be believed and so will be dismissed as a mad man or he will be believed and so will be regarded as dangerous and uncanny. Aragorn and his companions seem to be regarded as both at one and the same time and so Eothain, who speaks for the ordinary person dismisses them as “wild folk” who should be left to their fancies.

Bilbo tells tales of dragons and so is dismissed as mad, even though he gives very good parties.

It was not just because the world would be a more delightful place if it were to be more magical, to be re-enchanted, that Tolkien and the other Inklings wrote their stories. It was because the world would be more true. So the good, the beautiful and the true are really one and in order for something to be true it is not necessary to separate it out from the beautiful.

Nor is it necessary to separate the true from the good. “How shall a man judge what to do in such times?” Aragorn’s answer is both clear and simple.

“As he has ever judged… Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men. It is a man’s part to discern them, as much in the Golden Wood as in his own house.”

Boromir began to make his choice to take the Ring while in the Golden Wood.

So Eomer is left with a choice to make. Aragorn has made it clear to him that he will not abandon Merry and Pippin. He determined to find them when at Tol Brandir even at the cost of his own life. If the wise choice were simply about finding out what was in his own interest and then pursuing it he would certainly not have followed the orc band. The wise choice would probably have been to go on to Minas Tirith. He could have spoken of his promise made to Boromir and expressed genuine regret about the unhappy fate of Merry and Pippin but the principle of self interest would have left him little choice in the matter. Of course by going to Minas Tirith he would have brought himself into conflict with Denethor who would have contested any claim that he might have made, but then politics and the achievement of power is always a matter of navigation through one set of circumstances after another in seeking to achieve the goal. That Aragorn would not have met with Gandalf once again in the Forest of Fangorn nor played his part in the defeat of Saruman and through that to win the loyalty of Rohan not just in the battles that immediately lay ahead but in the future too would simply be unfortunate. After all, it is not possible to achieve everything at any one moment. But Aragorn does not make this choice. He chooses the good in his loyalty to the young hobbits and so wins the respect and the aid of Eomer who chooses to try to do the good also. He gives horses to the three companions to aid them in their task and this choice will cost him his freedom, for some time at least.

“Do We Walk in Legends or On The Green Earth in Daylight?” The Riders of Rohan Encounter Dreams of Legend Springing Out of the Grass.

The Two Towers by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991/2007) pp.558-565

As Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli continue their weary and hopeless march across the plains of Rohan in pursuit of the orc host that have taken Merry and Pippin captive they become aware that a band of horsemen is moving swiftly towards them back down the very trail that they are following. The horsemen are Rohirrim, riders of Rohan. Aragorn describes them to his companions.

“They are proud and wilful, but they are true-hearted, generous in thought and deed; bold but not cruel; wise but unlearned; writing no books but singing many songs, after the manner of the children of Men before the Dark Years.”

The Riders of Rohan at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields

The companions decide to wait for the riders to come to them and Aragorn greets them as they ride by. Wrapped about in their cloaks of Lothlórien it seems to the riders that they have sprung from the grass itself and what follows is a tense encounter that almost ends in disaster. For Tolkien in this scene brings us into the heroic world of the North in which honour has more meaning than even life itself and most certainly of a life, or existence, in which honour has been lost. So Gimli is ready, almost eager, to die for the sake of the honour of Galadriel, the lady of Lothlórien, when he feels that it has been slighted by Éomer, who leads the company of riders.

The Rohirrim surround the three companions

Aragorn is able to avert the disaster but then, in the manner in which he announces himself, brings us all back into the very stuff of legend.

“I am Aragorn son of Arathorn, and am called Elessar, the Elfstone, Dúnadan, the heir of Isildur Elendil’s son of Gondor. Here is the Sword that was Broken and is forged again! Will you aid me or thwart me? Choose swiftly!”

Anke Eissmann imagines the first meeting between Aragorn and Eomer

So Tolkien deliberately mingles the stuff of legend with the stuff of ordinary life and invites his readers to make the same kind of choice that Aragorn demands of the Rohirrim. For Tolkien not only makes the Rohirrim the people who would have heard tales like that of Beowulf which would have been told in the halls of their lords in the early middle ages, but he also makes them a very modern people for whom a story like Beowulf that might be one that stirred them when they were young but which would have been consigned to the pleasant, but private, world of fantasy when they grew up. For real life with its duties can, for the modern person, only be lived with stuff that can be touched, smelt, heard, seen or tasted. The life of the imagination might give a moment of pleasure amidst the grim reality of ordinary life but it can never be regarded as real.

This division between that which is heroic and that which is ordinary is one that Aragorn suggests is false. When the rider who stands beside Eomer scoffs at Aragorn’s mention of halflings Aragorn’s response is not to the rider but to his Lord. The Rider dismisses the mention of halflings as “old songs and children’s tales out of the North”. And then he asks, “Do we walk in legends or on the green earth in the daylight?”

“A man may do both,” said Aragorn. “For not we but those who come after will make the legends of our time. The green earth, say you? That is a mighty matter of legend, though you tread it under the light of day!”

I say that Aragorn addresses Eomer because, as far as the Rider is concerned, Aragorn is simply speaking nonsense that does not deserve attention. He, and his fellows, are the spiritual kin of Cervantes’ Sancho Panza, the sensible though devoted servant of Don Quixote. While Don Quixote tilts at windmills Sancho Panza does all that he can to keep his master out of trouble. Modern readers side with the servant yet wish, secretly, that they could live in the lost enchanted world of the master. Aragorn argues that it is possible to do both as he presents himself as a representative of the world of legend amidst the world of the sensible.

As far as the Riders are concerned the strange creatures who have sprung from the grass are merely “wild men”, but Eomer heard the rhyme that Boromir spoke when he came to Edoras, the rhyme that spoke of halflings as well as the blade that was broken. Eomer knows that he needs to pay closer attention to Aragorn’s words even if he does not understand them. Perhaps there is more to what Aragorn is saying than mere tilting at windmills.

An End to Hope, Maybe, But Not to Toil. Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli Pursue the Orcs of Isengard Across the Plains of Rohan.

The Two Towers by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991, 2007) pp. 547-558)

Three times the sun rises upon the chase of Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli, the three hunters, as they pursue the orcs of Isengard first through the foothills of the Emyn Muil and then across the plains of Rohan. The hunters have run many miles and yet have come no closer to their enemies and their goal, their longing to find and then rescue Merry and Pippin from their captors. Among Men, Dwarves and Elves they have done a deed that will rightly be accounted mighty but the orcs have hardly rested by day or by night.

Hope, what little hope that they had, is fading.

“For many hours they had marched without rest. They were going slowly now, and Gimli’s back was bent. Stone-hard are the Dwarves in labour or journey, but this endless chase began to tell on him, as all hope failed in his heart.”

The “hopeless” journey of the three companions across Rohan. Alan Lee depicts the pursuit and those who are pursued.

There have been moments when faint glimmers of hope have been rekindled in their hearts. The green smell, as Legolas puts it, of the wide grasslands, lifts their spirits for a time. And there is the discovery of hobbit footprints and the broach of an elven-cloak. “Not idly do the leaves of Lórien fall,”says Aragorn. It is a sign that at least one hobbit was still alive when the orc company passed that way. Aragorn thinks it was Pippin. But as the hunters begin to realise that they are coming no closer to their quarry so hope fails.

“Not idly do the leaves of Lórien fall”, as depicted by Dante 2060.

Aragorn never had much hope. He does not even think that what they seek to do has much significance within the great story in which he is a part. At one point he looks southwards across Rohan to the White Mountains that are the northern border of Gondor and in song he yearns to be there.

O Gondor, Gondor! Shall Men behold the Silver Tree,
Or West Wind blow again between the Mountains and the Sea?

And then there is a moment in which Gimli longs for a light such as Frodo bears to guide them in the dark.

“It will be more needed where it is bestowed,” said Aragorn. ‘With him lies the true Quest. Ours is but a small matter in the great deeds of this time. A vain pursuit from its beginning, maybe, which no choice of mine can mar or mend. Well, I have chosen. So let us use this time as best we may.”

So continues Aragorn’s long reflection upon the question of hope that began with the fall of Gandalf in Moria. I say that it began there but perhaps it is more true to say that his whole adult life has been a reflection, a meditation upon this theme. Even the very name, Estel, that was given to him by his mother means Hope. And not hope as in the sense of crossing one’s fingers and trusting to luck but in something that goes much deeper. The Elven king, Finrod Felagund, sought to explain this deeper sense when he says that estel “is not defeated by the ways of the world, for it does not come from experience, but from our nature and first being. If we are indeed the Eruchin, the Children of the One, then He will not suffer Himself to be deprived of His own, not by any Enemy, not even by ourselves.”

Aragorn has sought to embody estel within himself in his long years of service in Gondor, in Rohan, and as the leader of the Rangers of the North. Always he has held before him his longing for personal happiness in his desire to marry Arwen. And he has sought to be the expression of hope for his people, for the fading remnant of Númenor in the North and for the brave but beleaguered defenders of freedom in Gondor. But now he feels that he has been seperated from this hope. The fall of Gandalf has affected him deeply but, so too, has Frodo’s decision to leave the Company and to make the journey to Mordor without them. Aragorn realises that he no longer has any part to play in that journey. He may be determined to rescue the young hobbits or die in the attempt. He may be certain that what he has chosen is right. But he is bitterly aware that he has been pushed, as it would seem, to the margins of the story. For him the loss of hope is not just about whether they will be able to rescue Merry and Pippin but about the sense of destiny that has given him meaning throughout his life. We might say, to use the language of Finrod Felagund, that his sense of hope, of estel, has been founded, not upon a belief that Illuvatar will not leave himself bereft of his children within the world, but upon something much more personal, that he, Aragorn, will be the bearer of that hope. Now, as he begins his pursuit on the third morning after the breaking of the Fellowship that hope is gone and all that remains is toil.

Aragorn at the Argonath. Can he fulfil the hope of his people?

“Now May I Make a Right Choice, and Change The Evil Fate of This Unhappy Day.” Aragorn Chooses to Follow the Orcs of Isengard.

The Two Towers by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991, 2007) pp. 544-546

Boromir has passed over Rauros in the elven boat in which Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli have laid him, and by virtue of the skill learned by Elves over thousands of years in which craft and nature have become seamlessly woven together the boat is not dashed to pieces by the force of water and of rock nor have its contents been spilled into the river. The three companions have done their duty to their comrade and now they may turn their attention to their duty to the hobbits.

Already they know that Merry and Pippin have been taken by the Uruk-hai, the orcs of Isengard, back towards their fortress across the plains of Rohan and soon it becomes clear what has become of Frodo and Sam.

“So much at least is now clear,” said Legolas: “Frodo is no longer on this side of the River: only he can have taken the boat. And Sam is with him; only he can have taken his pack.”

The companions have a choice. Either they can follow Frodo, as Sam has done, and guide him to Mordor, or they can follow Merry and Pippin and their orc captors towards Isengard. Neither path holds out much hope for them. In doing their duty to Boromir they have lost many hours.

At last Aragorn makes his choice.

“Let me think!” said Aragorn. “And now may I make a right choice, and change the evil fate of this unhappy day!” He stood silent for a moment. “I will follow the Orcs,” he said at last. “I would have guided Frodo to Mordor and gone with him to the end; but if I seek him now in the wilderness, I must abandon the captives to torment and death. My heart speaks clearly at last: the fate of the Bearer is in my hands no longer. The Company has played its part. Yet we that remain cannot abandon our companions while we have strength left.”

Alan Lee depicts the hopeless chase of the three hunters.

Aragorn speaks of the fate of the day. He is seeking after the biggest story that he can find and tell about all that has befallen the Fellowship since it began. The day began with a belief among them all that they would make a decision together and follow it together. Only Boromir had made it clear from the beginning that he would travel on to Minas Tirith whatever choice was made by the others. Frodo is becoming ever more certain that he must make the journey alone to Mordor but he is afraid to tell the others, afraid too of the journey itself. But now the possibility that the Fellowship might make a decision together has been made impossible. In trying to take the Ring from Frodo Boromir has set in motion a chain of events that means that the Fellowship can never take one course of action together again. Frodo and Sam have crossed the Anduin together. Boromir has died defending Merry and Pippin from the Uruk-hai of Isengard and the young hobbits have been taken prisoner.

Frodo has made a free choice and Sam has gone with him. Merry and Pippin are prisoners. And so Aragorn must honour both Frodo’s freedom and the young hobbits’ captivity. He will not guide Frodo to Mordor. That necessary task will be undertaken by the most unlikely of people, by one who seeks to kill him and to regain the Ring. The young hobbits will regain their freedom in the confusion of battle. The three hunters will not find them again until they meet amidst the ruin of Isengard. No choice that Aragorn will take this day will lead to either course of events and yet he must still choose.

The Three Hunters look out over the plains of Rohan.

I spoke of the fate of the day, of the task of seeking the biggest story that can be found. The story that Aragorn chooses is that of freeing the captives or dying in the attempt. He knows that it is the dying that is most likely and that, like Boromir, he will probably fall in hopeless defence of two hobbits who probably should not have come with them in the first place but that in choosing this story he opens the possibility that something greater, more wonderful, might happen. And at the very least he will do something worthy of a song.

Yonatan Ayala gives a marvellous sense of the tremendous energy of the chase that will be accounted a marvel among the three kindreds of Elves, Dwarves and Men.

“They Will Look for Him From The White Tower… But He Will Not Return.” Boromir is Laid to Rest in an Elven Boat.

The Two Towers by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991,2007) pp. 538-544

Legolas and Gimli find Aragorn kneeling beside the body of Boromir and, at first, they fear that he is mortally wounded too. But soon they are reassured and learn of all that has taken place, of the slaying of Boromir by many orcs as he sought to defend the hobbits.

Now there are questions to answer. Are the hobbits still alive or have they been taken by the orcs? And if they have been taken which way have they gone? They know that Boromir had gone to defend Merry and Pippin but were Frodo and Sam among them? What should they do now? Should they follow the orcs to aid Merry and Pippin or should they find Frodo’s tracks and follow him for the sake of the quest? It is an evil choice that lies before them.

“First we must tend the fallen,” Legolas says. “We cannot leave him lying like carrion among these foul orcs.”

Aragorn stands over the body of Boromir in this poignant depiction by Anke Eissmann.

They do not have time to bury Boromir or raise a cairn of stones above him and so they determine to lay him to rest in one of the elven boats. We are reminded here of the ship burials of the Norse or Germanic peoples of Europe. The most famous of these burials here in England is the Sutton Hoo burial from the early 7th century of an Anglo-Saxon king laid to rest in a a ship that was nearly 90 feet long and when discovered in a famous excavation in 1939 was found to contain the most spectacular treasures from as far afield as Byzantium and Sri Lanka.

The Sutton Hoo ship burial and the famous warrior’s mask now kept in the British Museum.

Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli lay what treasures they can around the fallen hero, son of Denethor, Lord of Gondor. “The grey hood and elven-cloak they folded and placed beneath his head. They combed his long dark hair and arrayed it about his shoulders. The golden belt of Lórien gleamed about his waist. His helm they set beside him, and across his lap they laid the cloven horn and the hilt and shards of his sword; beneath his feet they put the swords of his enemies.”

And so the Anduin, the mighty river of Gondor, takes Boromir over the Rauros falls and down through Osgiliath “out into the Great Sea at night under the stars”.

It is a deeply poignant moment within the story. A brief pause amidst all the frantic action that has taken place that day and all that lies ahead of the three companions. As Tolkien was writing this scene he must have thought of the many fallen soldiers at the Battle of the Somme in which he fought and, most of all, of Robert Gilson and Geoffrey Bache Smith of the Tea Club, Barrovian Society, the T.C.B.S of King Edward’s School in Birmingham, both of whom fell in 1916.

For so many of the dead in that war there could be no pause amidst the fighting and the carnage amidst the trenches of the western front. Many bodies could not even be identified and it was not until after the war ended that the people of Great Britain began the long and patient task of creating memorials to their war dead. From the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey, over which Queen Elizabeth’s coffin was carried at her funeral, to the memorial at the Menin Gate in Ypres in Belgium where those whose bodies were never identified are remembered, to the war cemeteries in Belgium and in France where thousands upon thousands lie, among whom are two of my mother’s uncles, and then the memorials raised in communities up and down the land for those who they had lost, the people of Britain did all that they could to honour their fallen. And we still do on each Sunday nearest to the 11th of November every year at those same memorials in all but a small number of villages across the land where everyone came home from the war. No such villages exist in my county of Worcestershire.

There is much debate among Tolkien scholars about the extent to which The Lord of the Rings is as much a memorial to the fallen of the Great War as it is the creation of a myth that reaches back into a distant past. The recent biopic about Tolkien’s early life certainly suggests this and I, for one, am persuaded. Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli do all that they can to give meaning to the fall of Boromir and Tolkien makes heroes of the thousands who fell on the western front by creating a myth big enough to contain their stories.

One of the many war cemeteries in Belgium and Northern France from the Great War of 1914-18.

“You Have Conquered. Few Have Gained Such a Victory. Be at Peace!” Is Aragorn Just Being Kind to Boromir as He Dies?

The Two Towers by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991, 2007) pp.537-540

In Tolkien’s telling of the tale the whole of Boromir’s last fight takes place off stage and we are taken with Aragorn upon his pointless climb after Frodo up Amon Hen and then his equally pointless descent of the hill when he hears the horn of Boromir and realises that both Boromir and, probably, the hobbits are in need. At last he draws his bright sword, and crying out, Elendil! Elendil! he crashes through the trees.

But it is all too late. Aragorn finds Boromir “sitting with his back to a great tree” as if he was resting. His body is pierced by many orc arrows, his sword is broken near the hilt and his horn is cloven in two by his side.

Inger Edelfelt’s poignant depiction of the death of Boromir.

Boromir’s final words are both a report on how the hobbits have been taken by orcs and an admission of guilt.

“I tried to take the Ring from Frodo,” he said. “I am sorry. I have paid.”

Anke Eissmann depicts the terrible moment in which Boromir comes to try to take the Ring.

Aragorn’s response is one of great, and gentle, kindness.

“No!” said Aragorn, taking his hand and kissing his brow. “You have conquered. Few have gained such a victory. Be at peace! Minas Tirith shall not fall!”

And Boromir smiles; and then he dies.

Is Aragorn simply being kind to a dying man? One might begin to try to answer this question by saying that such kindness is never a simple matter. When we are with someone as they reach the moment in which they will cross the river, never to return, it is a deeply solemn affair. We are aware that a fellow human being is entering into a mystery about which we know almost nothing. If we are people of faith then we will have received from our traditions some sense of what awaits them and rightly we will seek to comfort the one who is dying with the confidence of that tradition but we all know that faith does not mean seeing. We may even receive some comfort from the dying. A good friend of my wife told me that when her mother was dying she began to speak with joy to the people who were waiting to greet her and our friend was, indeed, greatly comforted by this. But for all the comforts death remains a mystery.

“Alas!” said Aragorn. “Thus passes the heir of Denethor, Lord of the Tower of Guard! This is a bitter end.”

But Aragorn’s words to Boromir are more than a matter of comfort, important though that is. They are a matter of truth. Boromir did conquer. Although he did try to take the Ring from Frodo, almost immediately after Frodo’s escape he became aware of what he had done and returned with bitter regret to the place where the rest of the Company were. He met Aragorn’s distress and anger without any attempt at self justification and upon Aragorn’s command to go after Merry and Pippin and to watch over them he did so without question and then gave his life in their defence when they were attacked and taken by the Uruk Hai of Isengard. One might think that for the heir of the Steward of Gondor, one of the mightiest lords of Middle-earth, to give his life for hobbits, perhaps the least significant of its peoples, was a wasted gift, but doubtless Boromir remembered his words to Frodo, of his curse upon all halflings, and wished with all his heart to undo them, to pay a price for what he had sought to do.

Boromir’s deed in laying down his life for the hobbits was a victory over his desire, at all costs, to achieve greatness, to be the hero of Middle-earth and the Third Age. In itself this was a conquest. But it also achieved much in the task of the Fellowship. In taking Merry and Pippin the orcs believed that they had accomplished their mission to seize the halflings and so Frodo and Sam were able to make good their escape and to continue their journey to Mordor. Surely the fact that a great warrior was defending the hobbits convinced Uglûk and the Isengarders that they had done what they had been ordered to do. There was no need to hunt and kill anyone else. They could return to base. The lives of Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli were probably saved by this mistake. And surely there is something in Aragorn’s declaration that Minas Tirith would not fall that is linked to Boromir’s conquest. Just as the pity of Bilbo, when he did not begin his keeping of the Ring with the murder of Gollum, was to rule the fate of Middle-earth, might we not say that Boromir’s conquest over the corrupting power of the Ring in his own heart, expressed in his sacrifice for the hobbits and his truth telling to Aragorn, also rules the fate of his people?

I love this depiction of Boromir’s last moments. The picture is entitled ‘The Horn of Boromir’ by Matthew Stewart. Note the contrast between the fear on the faces of Merry and Pippin, the violence of the orcs, and the achievement of an inner peace shown upon the face of Boromir. He has conquered indeed.

Many thanks to Overly Devoted Archivist for letting me know about the source of the artwork. To find Matthew Stewart’s work please go to the comment below and click on the link there.

“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.

“From the First my Heart Misgave Me”. Gandalf, and Tolkien too, only gradually begin to understand the meaning of the the Ring.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) p.245

When I thought to spend a few weeks reflecting upon themes from The Fellowship of the Ring over the summer before continuing with The Two Towers in September I did not expect to spend much of the time writing about Gandalf; but so it has proved. Maybe I should not have been surprised. When Elrond asks Gandalf to speak at the Council in Rivendell he introduces him by saying, “in all this matter he has been the chief”.

Peter Xavier Price imagines the Council of Elrond in Rivendell

I wrote a few weeks ago about how Gandalf loved to play in order to find some rest from his labours and how the Shire became especially important to him to allow him to do this. We saw how this desire for play proves to be utterly crucial in the history of Middle-earth. We recall that when Tolkien’s publishers first asked him for “more about hobbits” after the success of The Hobbit that he first regarded the request as an annoying interruption to what he regarded as his life’s work, the history that his son Christopher would eventually edit and publish as The Silmarillion. It was only with time that it began to dawn upon him that the ring that Bilbo found in the depths of the Misty Mountains and put to such good and, might one say, playful use, might be prove critical to the resolution of the history of the Third Age.

Why was the Ring given into Bilbo’s safekeeping?

As Gandalf puts it to the Council what began as a little more than a misgiving began to turn to dread. The thing that Bilbo had in his possession, that he regarded as little more than something useful in case awkward relatives like the Sackville Baggins came to call, was indeed the Ring of Power that Sauron had lost in the great battle at the end of the Second Age and for which he was now seeking in order to complete his conquest of Middle-earth.

Gandalf’s misgiving that turned to dread moved hobbits from a pleasant distraction on the fringes of his life onto the centre stage. When he reflects upon what he can discern of the big story, of the purposes of the divine, of Illuvatar in Arda, he tells Frodo that first Bilbo and then himself were meant to have the Ring. This is a statement of incredible importance. I use the word, incredible, in its essential meaning, as speaking of something that is hard, almost impossible, to believe. If the divine mind were to entrust the Ring to anyone for safekeeping surely a hobbit would be the last person chosen. Even hobbits are not, in themselves, a completely reliable choice. After all, Gollum was himself a hobbit and he began his possession of the Ring with murder.

But what began in Tolkien’s telling of a children’s story in The Hobbit as the happy and fortuitous entrance of magic into that tale was to turn into something that would be critical to the whole history of Middle-earth and it became clear that neither elf, nor dwarf or man could be entrusted with the Ring. It had to be a hobbit and it had to be a particular hobbit with the history and character that Bilbo had. And then because the Ring was beginning to have a destructive influence even on this good hobbit it had to pass to another, to Frodo. It has to pass to someone who does not want it, or the burden that it represents. Frodo tries to give it to Gandalf in Bag End, to Aragorn in Rivendell and to Galadriel in Lothlórien. He is the perfect person to have the Ring in his possession and even he will be overcome by it in the end.

Gandalf might have said that in his reluctance to take on the burden of the Ring Frodo reminded him of himself. When the Valar first thought to send the Istari to Middle-earth Gandalf was reluctant to go because he feared Sauron. Perhaps it is this reluctance, this desire for peace, even obscurity, that makes Gandalf, and Frodo too, the ones who can be chosen for the really great tasks. Help will be given to them when they most need it. Frodo will eventually achieve his task through the aid of Gollum. But it is not the ones who seek greatness who can be entrusted with the great things. It is those who wish to be little but are willing to say yes to the call that they receive.

Gandalf did not want to go to Middle-earth.