On Deadly Wounds and Their Healing. Aragorn Tries to Offer Frodo Some Relief After the Nazgûl Attack.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 190-94)

There are times in a reading of The Lord of the Rings in which it is necessary to know that we are reading is not the kind of history that is a listing of events but a mythology. Doubtless it would do all students of history good to recognise the quasi-mythological nature of every historical narrative but Tolkien was not attempting a historical narrative that we must then seek to demythologise. He consciously sought to create a mythology, a sub-creation that honoured God. And so it is here in this description of the attack upon the camp below Weathertop by the Nazgûl. Could they have seized the Ring, even slaying the hobbits and Aragorn too? We must assume that they could. That they expected that Frodo would gradually fall under the malign influence of the Morgul-blade, a fragment of which was left in his shoulder, is without doubt, but the very nature of Frodo’s resistance to their attack shows that what happened that night was a spiritual battle as much as a clash between two forces of warriors. If it had merely been the latter I fear that the brave adventure of the hobbits would have ended that night and the Ring taken to be restored to its maker.

I know that the Morgul-king’s sword bears no resemblance to the description of the knife in The Lord of the Rings but this painting is a fine expression of the overwhelming power of the Nazgûl

As we saw last week Aragorn’s singing of The Lay of Leithian, the Tale of Beren and Lúthien, took the company into the spiritual milieu of the Elder Days and the songs of Lúthien that overcame Sauron and even Morgoth long ago. Aragorn invokes the same powers as did his ancestors and so the fragile circle of light that the Nazgûl invade is a different place to the simple camp that the travellers had earlier created.

So it is that even though, to his shame, Frodo is unable to resist the command of his foes to put on the Ring, he is able, even while wearing it, to invoke the name of Elbereth, the Queen of the Valar, the angelic beings charged by God to watch over the earth.

This was the name invoked by the company of Gildor Inglorien that drove away the Black Rider on that first encounter in the woods of the Shire .

“Snow-white! Snow-white! O Lady dear! O Queen beyond the Western Seas! O light to us who wander here amid the world of woven trees!”

Elves in the Woody End, by Ted Nasmith

Gildor named Frodo, elf-friend, that night, and such names are not a trivial thing in Tolkien’s world but convey a reality. “More deadly to him was the name of Elbereth,” says Aragorn, speaking of Frodo’s resistance to the Morgul-king’s attack. And just as there is all the difference in the world between the casual naming of Jesus in everyday chatter and a cry to him in desperate need so too the naming of Elbereth by an elf-friend in need has great power, far more power than that of Frodo’s will to resist.

And so the Nazgûl withdraw for a season, ringless for the present but confident that soon Frodo will be a wraith like them and powerless to resist them any longer. But there is another power at work. Aragorn goes off in search of athelas. He knows this land and where he might find what he seeks. “It is a healing plant that the Men of the West brought to Middle-earth… It has great virtues, but over such a wound as this its healing powers may be small.”

Later in the story Aragorn will be revealed to his people through the acts of healing that he will accomplish through the use of this herb but for now he has not yet come into his own, his kingdom, and he can do little more than stay the effects of the Morgul-blade. But perhaps all that he can do as a healer is to assist the healing that another desires. Later Éowyn will be healed, not by Aragorn’s power, but by her willingness to embrace the future and to let the past be at rest. For his part Frodo will be healed by the “Gentle Purgatory” (as Tolkien put it in a letter on the subject) that he will eventually accept and undergo in the Undying Lands. For now Frodo must endure his wound while his foes wait for the opportunity to seize the Ring and so to triumph.

The Tale of Beren and Lúthien Tinúviel. Aragorn Brings Aid at a Moment of Deadly Peril from the Unseen World.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 184-191

Aragorn’s telling of the Tale of Tinúviel is a thing of beauty and draws us in so near that we want to lose ourselves in it as, for a brief moment, are its teller and its four hearers.

“As Strider was speaking they watched his strange eager face, dimly lit in the red glow of the wood fire. His eyes shone and his voice was rich and deep. Above him was a black starry sky.”

Aragorn tells the Tale of Tinúviel

The travellers are sheltering in a dell below Weathertop and, as well as the shining of Aragorn’s eyes and the sky, aflame with starlight, the moon rises above the hilltop. Three shinings on a night of ever present danger. For close at hand, five of the Nazgûl, led by their lord, are stealthily approaching the camp. Soon they will attack and a Morgul blade will pierce Frodo’s shoulder yet, as we readers of the tale listen to Aragorn, even if we have read it many times, we are as glad to be lost in it for a moment.

In Verlyn Flieger’s wonderful study, The Splintered Light, she begins by reflecting upon two apparently contradictory elements within Tolkien’s mind and in his work. One is the eucatastrophe of the fairy tale. The entirely unexpected and yet longed for happy ending that transforms all the suffering that has gone before. The other is the dyscatastrophe, the final defeat suffered by even the greatest hero. In his wonderful lecture, The Monsters and the Critics, Tolkien expresses this with heartbreaking poignancy.

“The great earth, ringed with… the shoreless sea, beneath the sky’s inaccessible roof, whereon, as a little circle of light about their halls, men with courage as their stay went forward to that battle with the hostile world and the offspring of the dark which ends for all, even the kings and champions, in defeat.”

Champions With Courage as Their Stay. Beren and Lúthien by Alan Lee.

“A little circle of light.” Was Tolkien alluding to this when he drew our attention to the shinings in that most fragile of “halls” in the dell below Weathertop? Perhaps, and so we might ask if the ending of the chapter that is so menacingly entitled, A Knife in the Dark, is the dyscatastrophe, the inevitable defeat suffered by all heroes. Frodo himself cries out in despair when he first learns that the Ring itself draws the Nazgûl towards him, “Is there no escape then?… If I move I shall be seen and hunted! If I shall stay, I shall draw them to me!”

But the tale itself is an inbreaking of light, so bright, into the darkness, that shining eyes, stars and moon are at most a pale reflection of it. For it is the tale of Beren and Lùthien, the greatest of all Tolkien’s love stories, one so precious to him that he wanted those names to be inscribed beneath his and his wife’s names upon their gravestone. Aragorn, whose eyes shine with strange eagerness in the telling of it, perceives his own story as a kind of retelling of the tale.

Edith and John Tolkien. Lúthien and Beren.

“Beren was a mortal man, but Lúthien was the daughter of Thingol, a King of Elves upon Middle-earth when the world was young; and she was the fairest maiden that has ever been among all the children of this world. As the stars above the mists of the Northern lands was her loveliness and in her face was a shining light.”

The Betrothal of Lúthien and Beren by Rasmus

A theme that recurs throughout the tale is one of the power of word and music. Lúthien is enchanted by hearing the sound of her own name upon the lips of Beren while, first Sauron and then Morgoth himself, of whom Sauron was but a servant, are overcome by Lúthien’s song. Does the chanting of the Lay that tells their tale invoke them at a moment in which “the offspring of the dark” make their attack or, perhaps more importantly even than this, invoke the same powers that aided them in their hopeless struggle with the dark? As Aragorn says to Sam after the attack, “More deadly to him [the Witch-king] was the name of Elbereth.”

The finest minds are those that are able to live with the greatest paradox. Surely at this pivotal moment in The Lord of the Rings the invasion of the desperately fragile “circle of light” and the telling of the tale that invokes a hope that is not broken even by the greatest evil is the coming together of Tolkien’s antitheses of eucatastrophe and dyscatastrophe, of heavenly light and the darkness of hell.

The Attack below Weathertop by Rafael Diaz

A Journey into the Wild Pursued by Enemies. The Hobbits and Strider Set Out From Bree to Rivendell.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp.169-80

Up until this point of the journey the hobbits have been more or less “looked after”. Even though almost from the beginning their steps have been dogged by the pursuit of the deadliest of enemies in the shape of the Nazgûl of Mordor they have been able to find protection from such mighty allies as the company of High Elves led by Gildor Inglorien or Tom Bombadil in the Old Forest and the Barrow Downs. And as well as the hospitality they enjoyed in the house of Tom Bombadil and Goldberry they have been well fed and watered in the farmhouse of the Maggots and the Prancing Pony in Bree.

But now the nature of the journey makes a sudden change with the attack upon the Prancing Pony in the night. The hobbits lose their ponies and set off with a poor half-starved creature belonging to Bill Ferny, the biggest villain in the Breeland, who is certainly in league with the Black Riders and who makes as much money as he can from their misfortune.

When I say, misfortune, I mean the fact that, from their perspective, that what they thought was going to be a road journey by sturdy pony from Bree to Rivendell, has become a hard march, a yomp as soldiers call it, across hard terrain, carrying heavy loads, with no shelter. Their only pony has to carry as much food as it can take for a fortnight’s journey and the hobbits have to take the rest upon their backs. Only Strider is not much discomfited by this. For him a yomp from place to place is normal life and he has but one extra burden to carry and that is the care of four companions about whose capacity to deal with hardship he has many doubts. Butterbur has already voiced these aloud through his remark that the hobbits are acting as if they are on holiday but even with these doubts in mind Strider has already made up his mind.

Strider Leads the Hobbits through the Wild

“I am Aragorn son of Arathorn; and if by life or death I can save you, I will.”

The journey really begins with the crossing of the Midgewater Marshes. Tolkien never liked boggy country. I was about to say that nobody does but at one time a whole way of life was developed by people living in the fenland of eastern England or the Somerset Levels. Those who know their English history will treasure the year 877 when all that remained of free England was the Isle of Athelney hidden deep in the Somerset Levels when Alfred the Great hid there from Danish invaders. Some call this place the birthplace of England, a place so remote that the Danes could not reach it with sufficient forces to capture the king. Others will remember the last defence of Hereward the Wake against the all conquering armies of William of Normandy on the isle of Ely in the Cambridgeshire fens two centuries later when he too used the natural defence of the bog against his enemies. But a bog makes good defence because it is hard to cross by foot. I remember once having to cross one late in the day. I was grateful for the sturdy stick that I had with me. Every step that I took required a careful use of the stick to find ground firm enough to take my weight and I would often use it to swing across from tussock to tussock hoping that I would not miss my footing and find my boots and then my legs disappearing into the ooze. Recently I learned that in the trenches of the First World War British soldiers feared the mud more even than shells exploding about them and that many of them drowned in that mud.

The Isle of Athelney in 877

Tolkien knew the mud of the Western Front at first hand and hated it. Is it a coincidence that two of the great journeys of The Lord of the Rings begin with a journey across marshland, the journey from Bree to Rivendell and later the journey of Frodo and Sam from the Emyn Muil to Mordor. For Tolkien nothing would better express the hardships that lay ahead. For the hobbits even the companionship of the greatest traveller of his age cannot protect them from the hardships that they must now endure.

The Midgewater Marshes looking towards Weathertop by Anna Kulisz

The Shire is Stranger than Frodo Thinks. The Hobbits Encounter with the Nazgûl and with Elves.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp 73-80

There is a phrase that shows just how disorientating it is when something happens in your backyard that is entirely unexpected. Frodo has just encountered one of the Nazgûl for the very first time. He has no idea that what he can see, just a few yards away, is one of the most terrifying things that he could ever meet unless he stood before the Dark Lord himself. He begins to have an overwhelming desire to put on the Ring, convinced that he would be safe if he did so. “And I am still in the Shire,” he thinks.

I am still in the Shire

Still in the Shire. Still in a place in which every blade of grass, every tree and rise and fall of the road speaks of familiarity and of predictability. The unexpected has no place in the Shire. Of all places in Middle-earth this is the one where the outlandish is where it should be; in the lands outside and beyond the borders. You would have thought that Frodo Baggins, of all hobbits, would have known that this was not true. The stories and actions of Bilbo, his friendship with Gandalf, and his own dealings with the world outside should have taught him that the world is not safe and predictable. As the poet, Louis Macneice put it (in a poem entitled, Snow, written in my parents in law’s house in Birmingham, England), “world is suddener than we fancy it”.

But that, of course, is the problem, even for Frodo. We fancy the world to be in a sense, on time. Not too late or we will make a complaint to the management. Nor too soon neither. Every event that departs from this ‘law’ we regard as abnormal. Except the abnormal keeps on happening. But this event is so abnormal that perhaps we could forgive Frodo. I think that the Powers do forgive him. He is not yet ready for this encounter and so Something prevents him from putting on the Ring, his life is saved, the Ring is not returned to its Maker and the world is not yet subjected to darkness.

World is suddener than we fancy it

And Something brings him into contact with another power at work in the world, a power that even the Nazgûl are not quite ready to match themselves against. Not just yet, anyway. When the hobbits encounter the Nazgûl for the second time Frodo wants to put on the Ring once more but “this time it was stronger than before. So strong that before he realised what he was doing, his hand was groping in his pocket”. The Ring has only one desire and that is to return to its Master and Frodo is no match for it.

But “world is suddener… world is crazier and more of it than we think, incorrigibly plural” and in its glorious plurality a large company of High Elves just happens to be on the same stretch of road in the Shire as the hobbits, the Nazgûl and the Ring, at precisely that moment and, once more, Frodo and the world is saved.

Is this a writer’s tendency to allow a coincidence to occur in order to solve a problem with the plot? Or is it how this writer understands the world? I think that the latter is the case. Tolkien’s enchanted world, suddener, crazier, more of than we think, incorrigibly plural, is one in which powers are at work of which we are not usually aware. We might use the word, Providence, to describe these powers. You will remember how when Gandalf said that Bilbo was meant to have the Ring he spoke of “something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker”. Tolkien was always reticent when it came to his Christian faith and his imaginative work, especially in The Lord of the Rings. He chose to know no more than the main characters in his story, who were the hobbits, except by implication. They must learn about the powers at work in the world just as we do. But the world is suddener, and in it there are High Elves, the eldest of the children of Ilúvatar, who see its suddenness, its craziness and plurality with perfect clarity. And they take the hobbits under their protection.

World is crazier and more of it than we think

“Where Shall I Find Rest?” Frodo Longs For Home. His True Home.

The hobbits are eager for home and set out for the Shire with Gandalf. It is the sixth of October when they reach the Ford of Bruinen, a place redolent with memory for Frodo as he almost fell into the grasp of the Nazgûl there. The date too is filled with ominous significance. It was on this date a year before that the Nazgûl attacked the camp below Weathertop and Frodo received a wound that almost made him a wraith like them but under their power.

The combination of the two is almost too much for Frodo and he says to Gandalf: “I am wounded with knife, sting and tooth, and a long burden. Where shall I find rest?”

Right from the very beginning of the quest it has been clear that Frodo and his companions have taken on a task that is too big for them. For the briefest of moments Frodo is excited by the thought of the adventure that lies ahead but soon that excitement is replaced by the unhappy realisation that he must leave the Shire, leave his friends, leave home. And soon it is clear that there are powers in the world that are far greater than he is. Old Man Willow in the Old Forest; the Wight in the Barrow Downs; and most deadly of all, the Nazgûl haunting their every step along the way. Aragorn doubts the hobbits’ capacity for the task. Butterbur fears they behave like gentlemen engaged in nothing more dangerous than a walking holiday.

But that is exactly the point. That is the mysterious wisdom of The Lord of the Rings. This is a task that can only be achieved by those for whom it is too great. Those who might have the capacity to undertake the task, who might be strong enough to carry the Ring to Mordor in order to destroy it are those who are in the greatest danger. Gandalf and Galadriel are both offered the Ring and both reject it despite being profoundly tempted to take it. They have come to realise that it is stronger than they are and that in taking it they would begin the road to becoming the Dark Lord or Lady. Boromir does not understand this believing that his noble spirit is sufficient defence against the Ring and he is almost overthrown entirely.

The task and the Ring itself is most certainly too great for Frodo and he knows that it is. Even he begins to ponder what it might mean to seek to possess and to use the Ring as he shows in his questioning of Galadriel at her mirror. Eventually it will overcome him and only through the strange mercy of Gollum’s attack will he and all Middle-earth be saved.

Frodo is saved but he is broken too. The knife that the Witch King of Angmar drove into his shoulder at Weathertop, the sting of Shelob in her lair, Gollum’s tooth biting the Ring from his finger at the Cracks of Doom and worst of all, the slow, inexorable overpowering that the Ring achieves over him, all these have done their terrible work.

“Where shall I find rest?”

Frodo knows that the return to the Shire will be no true home-coming for him. It may be the same but he will not be. This is a powerful insight and one that Tolkien must have gained on his return from the trenches of the First World War as did so many of his generation. It was not just the journey from the familiarity of home to the horror of the battlefield that lead to a profound sense of displacement but the journey back again to what should have been familiar but was no longer. Frodo puts it this way. “It shall not be the same; for I shall not be the same”.

Frodo knows that if there is to be a place of rest for him then it will be somewhere else than the Shire but he does not know where such a place can be. We might know that this sense of displacement, of homelessness, of exile is that which will lead us in search of our true home but when we are gripped by this it is nothing less than terrible.

 

A Few Thoughts on Being an Ally of Sauron

There comes a moment on their journey through Mordor when Frodo and Sam are able to look across the “hateful land” towards Orodruin, Mount Doom and the vast shadow beyond of Barad-dûr. Between them and the mountain they can see the armies of Mordor moving along its roads and the many military camps, some of tents and others like small towns “with straight dreary streets of huts and low drab buildings.” To their surprise it is Men and not Orcs that they can see upon the road.

We have already met some of the allies of Mordor earlier in the story. The force that Faramir and his Rangers of Ithilien ambush near Henneth Annûn, the Corsairs of Umbar that are defeated by Aragorn and the army of the Dead at Pelargir and the army of Harad whose king is slain at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields by the charge of Théoden’s knights. In addition to these there are the forces of the Easterlings who dwell near to the great inland sea of Rhûn. What all share in common is that they have long been enemies of Gondor and also allies of Mordor.

Why do those who are not Sauron’s slaves so willingly fight for him? As they journey through the dreary land can they not see that the future that they fight for looks like this? Everything that Sauron touches is spoilt and eventually dies. He values power and control over everything else and it is his power and his control that he values most. The lands of the East may be his allies now but surely the only destiny open to them is to become as much Sauron’s slaves as are the orcs.

Some of humankind have been allies of the dark ever since the First Age, siding then with Morgoth and later from the Second Age with Sauron. It is likely that that some of the Nazgûl, Lords of Men who were given Rings of Power by the Dark Lord, were descendents of these early allies. Others were Númenóreans who had returned to Middle-earth during the Second Age and had fallen under Sauron’s sway. What all shared in common with him was the desire for power and a hatred for the peoples of the West. The glory of the kingdoms of Beleriand in the First Age and then of Númenor in the Second and of Gondor in the Third all excited both envy, resentment and ultimately hatred.

It might be argued that this was not entirely their fault. It is hard to be treated with contempt, to be regarded as deplorables from one generation to another. Even the loyal allies of Rohan feel inferior to Gondor. Denethor’s policy might easily be summarised as “Gondor first…Gondor first”. In fact the words that he actually uses in an angry exchange with Gandalf are, “Gondor alone”. Denethor might need Rohan in time of need but only as an inferior within the alliance. The words of contempt that Théoden and his men actually heard came from the lips of Saruman but might they have come too from Denethor in an unguarded moment?

Sauron certainly shares this contempt as he does for all creatures saving only himself and his lord, Morgoth. But he focuses the resentment of his allies upon Gondor and he offers power, real power. We might be able to see that, as with the Ringwraiths, Sauron’s gifts may bring power but they also ultimately enslave, but when the gift is offered what is most enticing is revenge over an ancient foe and a share in a seemingly inevitable victory. We are more than willing, so it seems, to believe that we might be exceptions to the slavery and the misery.

I end this piece with the word, we, for any wise reader of The Lord of the Rings must know that they or we, too, are capable of falling under Sauron’s spell. All of us are likely to have reasons for envy and resentment at some time or other and the opportunity to have power over someone else will be tempting too. These are the temptations that make us vulnerable to the darkness and its power. Our hearts need to be guarded against them with constant vigilance.

The Siege of Gondor: A Word to Those For Whom Hope Has Gone

“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 be breached. 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.

Don’t give up.