Eomer Prepares for a Good Death in Battle.

After the fall of the Lord of the Nazgûl and the death of Théoden the battle upon the Pelennor Fields flows one way and then another. It is Prince Imrahil of Dol Amroth who leads a charge from the city to come to the aid of the Rohirrim, led now by Éomer, but even with their forces combined upon the field and with their great skill in battle upon horseback the sheer number of their foes is ultimately too great and Éomer prepares to make a final stand. For this he has been long prepared since first hearing the songs of his people in the halls of Théoden. His spiritual formation has been made there and he knows that what is expected of him is to make a good death with his face turned towards his foes and with his men about him. He plants his banner upon a hillock and laughs as he cries out,

Out of doubt, out of dark to the day’s rising I came singing in the sun, sword unsheathing. To hope’s end I rode and to heart’s breaking: Now for wrath, now for ruin and a red nightfall.”

And the song-makers will take the deeds of the day, the hewing of Forlong the Fat with axes as he fights on alone and unhorsed, and the trampling to death of Duilin of Morthond and his brother beneath the terrible feet of the mûmakil, and they will make them beautiful. Tears will flow as the great songs are sung once more and pride rekindled in the hearts of the people. The Rohirrim will know that they are a great people and boys will know, as they grow to manhood, that the worst thing that they could possibly do is to bring shame upon the memory of their ancestors. And so we recall once again the satisfaction that Théoden feels, even as life ebbs from his body, that he can face his forefathers without shame, that what has happened upon this terrible day can be spoken of with pride alongside the great deeds of the past.

It is a bad thing to rob someone of their pride. It is something that might be done by a mighty person who does not fear the power of their enemies, who seeks to display their own greatness by means of humiliation, but resentment will always lead to deeds of revenge and memories forged by bitterness are long. I like to think that the victors at the Pelennor Fields gave as much attention to enabling their foes to retain their pride as they did to winning the battle. It is a wise lord who knows how to make peace even as they must, in time of need, know how to make war.

There are some who in describing the times in which we live have named them an age of anger. They show how resentment, born of felt humiliation, is felt by growing numbers in a world in which a small number seek to gather as much power and wealth for themselves as possible at the expense of the rest of humankind. The powerful may for the time being be able to contain the angry by means of the security apparatus but we see that even the highest walls cannot keep all anger at bay. Our leaders and we whom they lead need to consider how we can allow those who regard themselves as our enemies to withdraw from conflict with pride. If we do not do this then we and our children may have to pay a great price for our pride and their humiliation.

Théoden Leads His Army into Battle.

The Riders of Rohan reach the Pelennor Fields at last and look down upon the horror below them. “The king sat upon Snowmane, motionless, gazing upon the agony of Minas Tirith, as if stricken suddenly by anguish or by dread. He seemed to shrink down, cowed by age.” Until this moment it has been possible to push the impossibility of what they must do to the back of their minds by attending to all of the essential tasks that a soldier must do. That possibility exists no longer. Théoden stares at his own annihilation, something that he shrank from through the years of Wormtongue’s whisperings, and for a moment he is the shrivelled old man in the darkness of his hall and of his mind. And then…

“Arise, arise, Riders of Théoden!  Fell deeds awake: fire and slaughter! spear shall be shaken, shield be splintered, a sword day, a red day, ere the sun rises! Ride now, ride now! Ride to Gondor!”

And the old man is transformed and rides into battle like a god, “even as Oromë the Great in the battle of the Valar when the world was young”. And like Oromë the hunter he takes a horn and blows such a mighty blast upon it “that it burst asunder”. Théoden the godlike king rides with such might that he outruns even the swiftest of his army and as he rides the grass about Snowmane’s feet flames into green, the wind turns and blows fresh from the sea “and darkness was removed and the hosts of Mordor wailed, and terror took them, and they fled, and died, and the hoofs of wrath rode over them.”

Tolkien takes the language of myth and of Old English song that had captured his heart when he was a young man in order to describe this scene in the story. Skilled story teller as he is he could have taken us into battle with the frightened Merry or the death-seeking Éowyn or the standard-bearer Guthláf trying desperately to keep up with his lord but he chooses the godlike king before whose face all creation is transformed, transfigured.

And what do we do as readers? Is it encumbered upon us as those who are disillusioned and disenchanted modernists to demystify or demythologise Tolkien’s language and to insist that we describe war as what it is, as foul and filthy, as a thing of horror? We could do so if we choose and what is more Tolkien could do so better than most of us for he saw war at first hand in the killing fields of Flanders in the First World War. But Tolkien chooses not to do this but to take us to a wholly different level of human experience. It is not that he has a nostalgic longing for medieval warfare which was just as foul and bloody as anything that we can invent today nor does he seek to promulgate what Wilfred Owen called, “the old lie”, that to die for one’s country is a sweet and proper thing. No, what Tolkien does is to take the human experience of the horror of war and to transform it. Note, please, that I have not said take the horror of war and transform it but to take the human experience of war and transform it. And in doing so he chooses not to reduce human beings in war to dumb animals in the slaughter house but to elevate them to gods. And he does it for just this paragraph only as the Rohirrim ride into battle giving us the briefest of glimpses into what we truly are. When we look across the page we return to the description of events, to one action after another. Both kinds of narrative are true and both are true together.

And we will end this week’s reflection with a final thought. When the hopelessly outnumbered Riders of Rohan ride into battle in defence of Minas Tirith they do so in the likelihood that they will die in the attempt. And yet they still ride on. Their plunge into the heart of darkness is godlike and one that was recognised in one of the oldest of English poems, The Dream of the Rood, a poem that likens the death of Christ upon the cross to the triumph of a mighty warrior in battle and so transformed the experience of the warrior forever.
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Merry Feels Useless as He Prepares for Battle

We are on the road with the Rohirrim passing through the Druadan forest and it is held against us by our enemies. We could engage them in battle and doubtless would prevail but there is no time for delay, not even a victorious one, because the hosts of Mordor are at the gates of Minas Tirith.

Théoden and his commanders are busy about the business of war and are in conference with the people of the Druadan wood, seeking a way to bring the riders past those who would prevent their passage but one among their number is lonely and unhappy.

We have seen Merry like this before, on more than one occasion. He carries a great burden with him, one that he does not seem to know how to cast away, and that is his sense of insignificance.

Elfhelm, the commander of the éored to which Dernhelm/Éowyn is attached, trips over Merry, hidden as he is by the elven cloak that he wears, and roundly curses the tree-roots.

“I am not a tree root, Sir,” Merry said, “nor a bag, but a bruised hobbit.”

Poor Merry! It was his desire to be of some use that brought him here but it is his sense of uselessness that afflicts him now that he is close to battle. He wishes “he was a tall rider like Éomer and could blow a horn or something and go galloping to his rescue.”

Ah, the blowing of horns and the business of galloping about. How many people are relieved to spend their time going from meeting to meeting, not because of the value of what each meeting can bring to the enterprise that they are meant to serve but because each meeting can fill the void that otherwise they would gaze over as each day’s work begins. When they take their place around the meeting table at least they do not have to justify their reason for being there.

Merry is there in disobedience to the king’s express command. What can we say to comfort him? Elfhelm does not try and Dernhelm keeps silent. And if they did speak there would be nothing that they could say. Soon as they look down upon the Pelennor Fields and the hosts of Mordor massed against them they will all feel afraid and they will all have to master their fear. Even Théoden will “sit upon Snowmane, motionless, gazing upon the agony of Minas Tirith, as if stricken suddenly by anguish, or by dread.”

And at that moment all that there will be for any to do will be to rush into the heart of battle. Only a few battle hardened veterans will know what it is that they must do when they meet the enemy, the rest will have to learn quickly or perish as they do so. And Merry will find himself confronting a foe so terrible that even if he had been a veteran of many battles and had won many victories, not one of them would be of any use to him. But we will have to wait until another time to think about that story.

So there is no comfort that we can give him now and if we were to tell him what he will face in the battle we might terrify him so much as to unman him completely. It is best not to think too much about what lies ahead. John Henry Newman puts it well in his beloved hymn, “Lead Kindly Light” and we will end this week’s reflection on The Lord of the Rings with his words. Newman was a priest at the Birmingham Oratory whose clergy raised Tolkien after his mother’s death and so I would imagine that he knew this hymn very well.

“Lead, kindly light, amid the encircling gloom; lead thou me on! The night is long and I am far from home; lead thou me on! Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see the distant scene- one step enough for me.”

Anyone who has walked in real darkness will know one step is all that you can take at any point. Faith tells you that it is all you need. It is enough.

The Suffering of Faramir

Denethor has sent Faramir to the fords of Osgiliath so that he might try to hold them against the invaders for as long as possible. All remaining hope is pinned upon the arrival of the Rohirrim to raise the siege and Denethor hopes that in holding the outer defences of the Pelennor he can keep the hosts of Mordor from the walls of Minas Tirith itself and that the Rohirrim will not be divided from the defenders of the city.

That is Denethor’s hope but the invading force is too great in number for Faramir to withstand and soon they are in retreat and eventually the retreat becomes a rout. Only the action of Prince Imrahil of Dol Amroth, who turns back the attack, and of Gandalf, who withstands the Lord of the Nazgûl, saves the fleeing force from slaughter.

But for Faramir this comes too late. Even as the Nazgûl swerve aside Faramir is struck by a deadly dart and Imrahil carries him from the field of battle. Faramir is defeated and his life hangs by a thread.

Faramir has lain down his life for his friends, a line from the Gospel of John in which Jesus, on the night of his betrayal declares that “No one has greater love than this, to lay down ones life for one’s friends”. It is a phrase that Shakespeare takes up in the speech made by Henry V to his men before the Battle of Agincourt where the king calls them brothers “be he ne’er so vile”. Faramir has fallen at the head of his men seeking to ensure an orderly retreat. Imrahil declares to Denethor that Faramir has done “great deeds” but he has fallen and will play no more part in the war except to declare Aragorn, king, and then to wait.

I meet very few people who are able to wait well when their work is finally done. Often they rail against a loss of power and influence sometimes seeking to intervene when it is no longer appropriate that they should. They should have been ready to pass on a task or responsibility to another but they fail to do so. They may become angry at their apparent impotence and the lack of respect or gratitude that they feel they should receive from others and their anger may turn to bitterness or depression.

Faramir does not give way to this although he will come close to it and will need the intervention of the king in the Houses of Healing. But just as we thought of his Christlikeness in the laying down of his life for his people so too do we see him pass through dereliction on his road to healing and serenity. We are reminded of the words of Jesus on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

But why does Faramir’s dereliction end in life while Denethor’s ends in a despairing death? My conviction is that Faramir truly suffers. In saying that I use the word in its old sense of giving permission to something to happen, of believing that there is something that is bigger even than my death. Something that gives meaning to my death even if I do not know what it is. Ultimately Denethor’s death is a denial of suffering. He gives permission to nothing. Nothing has meaning. Faramir will awaken through the aid of the king and will serenely await the outcome of the final battle. If it ends with victory and the king returns he will lay down his office even as he was prepared to lay down his life. If it ends with defeat he will lead his people in a final defence of the city believing that this too will have meaning. One heart will be won entirely by the nobility of his patience but that is a story we must tell another time.