The Return of the King

Last week we read about the failure of Númenor and the line of Stewards in Gondor that at its best kept the memory of Númenor and the faithfulness of the House of Elendil alive but eventually came to believe more in the memory than the reality. Memories are safer than realities. You can make of them what you will and your remembering can allow you to keep things as they are and not to change. So it is that we are reminded of Denethor’s words to Gandalf, “I would have things as they were”.

What capacity we all have for self deception! “Things as they were” in Gondor meant a dying land even without the invasion of Mordor. Legolas saw it and said, “The houses are dead, and there is too little here that grows and is glad”. When Denethor wished for things as they were all he really meant was that he would remain in power. What he really mourned was his own loss of control or prestige.

Faramir believes in the reality and so welcomes the king when he returns. At the moment when Gandalf crowns Aragorn, thus fulfilling the mission given to him by the Valar, Faramir cries out, “Behold the King!” He tells his people that the true king stands before them in flesh and blood with wisdom upon his brow, strength and healing in his hands, and a light about him. If any still long for the past then they are commanded to change. This is the kind of change that is meant in the word metanoia in the bible, the word that is usually translated as repentance. A new reality has come and we must change.

Tolkien goes on to tell us how everything does change.

“In his time the City was made more fair than it had ever been, even in the days of its first glory… and all was healed and made good”.

You would think that everyone would be glad to see this change, and I believe that thanks to Faramir’s leadership most people did, but I suspect that some longed for “the good old days” of the ruling Stewards.

When the true king rules everything is healed and becomes fruitful. This is a fundamental principle. In Gondor this means that gardens grew again and children were born and flourished. When King Energy is at work within us then our lives become ordered without being rigid, fruitful without being overgrown and we live and work in a kind of flow, of blessing, both for ourselves and for others.

Moore and Gillette put it this way in their seminal study of the masculine archetypes and psyche, King, Warrior, Magician, Lover.

This is the energy that expresses itself through a man when he takes the necessary financial and psychological steps to ensure that his wife and children prosper. This is the energy that encourages his wife when she decides to go back to school to become a lawyer… This is the energy that expresses itself through you when you are able to keep your cool when everyone else in the meeting is losing theirs… This is the energy that seeks peace and stability, orderly growth and nurturing for all people- and not only for all people but for the environment, the natural world. The King cares for the whole realm and is the steward of nature as well as of human society.”

This is what Aragorn is. It is what Faramir is too. You don’t have to be the boss in order to display King Energy. You can display it in service of another. I have a favourite movie, The Intern, in which a character played by Robert de Niro displays King Energy in lavish quantity as an enabler of others in a very humble role. Try and watch it and you will see what I mean. Actually the one in true authority is always aware of being a servant. In the prayers for the Queen in the Church of England we say this, “that she, knowing whose minister she is, may seek thy honour and glory”. It is only those who know that they are a servant who are able to be trusted with authority over others who can bring life-giving order, fruitfulness and blessing to them.

This week’s image was drawn by Anna Lee


Aragorn Commands The Steward of Gondor, “Do now thy office!”

It was in the year 2050 of the Third Age that Eärnur, the last king of Gondor, rode to Minas Morgul in answer to the challenge of the Witch-King, the Lord of the Nazgûl. No tale was ever told of a battle between them but Eärnur was never seen again. He had no heir but the people of Gondor chose not to make a member of another family their king but to wait for the king’s return. They chose a Steward to govern them “to hold rod and rule in the name of the king, until he shall return”.

A thousand years passed before the War of the Ring and the downfall of Sauron during which the Stewards of the line of Mardil did their office. In all but name they were kings of Gondor but they never sat upon the throne or wore the crown. Tolkien remarks that although “some remembered the ancient line of the north”, the descendants of Elendil and Isildur of the kingdom of Arnor, the Ruling Stewards “hardened their hearts” against a true return of the king. Denethor may have told Boromir that only in places of “less royalty” could a steward have claimed the throne but as we saw in his last days he regarded Aragorn as an upstart. At the end of his life he cried out to Gandalf, “I will not bow down to such a one, last of a ragged house long bereft of lordship and dignity”.

Faramir saw things differently. It was one of the many ways in which he was divided from his father. Faramir may have been tutored by Gandalf, just as Aragorn was, but Gandalf could only teach him because he was already captured by the story of Númenor. There were effectively two stories of Númenor. Perhaps there are always these stories in every human enterprise. One was the story of the desire for power and a growing bitterness about everything that constrained them. At last all the bitterness about these constraints was concentrated upon anger about mortality and about the divinities, the Valar, who seemed to hold life unjustly as a private possession. The Valar, the governors or stewards of Earth on behalf of Illuvatar, the One, became through this belief as no more in the eyes of the kings of Númenor than rivals for power. Sadly this was the story that Denethor nourished in his heart and why he ended his life in despair and denial.

The other story, the story to which both Faramir and Aragorn gave their loyalty, was to Númenor as a gift. The first families of Men who wandered across the mountains into Beleriand in the First Age were befriended by and allied themselves to the Elves in the wars against Morgoth and the darkness. It was because of their faithfulness in those wars that they were given Númenor as a gift. So friendship and faithfulness lay at the heart of this other story and a submission also to the mystery of mortality. While the later kings of Númenor became embittered by this mystery, Elendil the Elf-friend and his followers chose to accept the mystery of mortality as a gift just as Númenor’s separation from the Undying Lands was also a gift.

We live in times in which the limitation of mortality is resented even as it was by Ar-Pharazôn, the last king of Númenor. Recently Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, argued that humans can only remain “economically viable” as cyborgs while Ray Kurzweil, the director of engineering at Google, argues for human immortality by digital means believing that it will be a possibility by the 2030s. The philosopher, John Gray, describes these immortalizers as “the God-builders”.

Who is faithful to the true story of Númenor, the mystery of mortality, as a gift, as Aragorn and Faramir are? Who awaits the coming of the true king? It is because Faramir nourished his longing for the return of the king in his heart that on the great day when Aragorn comes to Minas Tirith to claim the crown that he is willing to be a true steward and to lay his ruling authority down. It is because of his faithfulness that renewal comes to Gondor.

“Do now thy office!”

The Battle Before the Black Gate. Do the Best Stories have Happy Endings?

I had intended to return to Frodo and Sam at the Tower of Cirith Ungol this week but I felt that I needed to offer one last meditation on the “hopeless” battle before the Black Gate of Mordor before I leave it for a while. At the very least I felt that I owe it to Pippin who is lying under the body of a Troll chieftain that he has just valiantly slain in defence of Beregond of the Guard, his friend. I can’t just leave him there without hope!

When I first read The Return of the King as a teenager it was a volume that I had borrowed from my school library. After eating my evening meal I disappeared to my room and read and read and read…

I wonder how long it took me to read the section from the end of Book 5 and the battle before the Black Gate to the moment when Gandalf calls upon the armies of the West to “stand and wait!” I was reading as fast as I could but even so it must have been a good hour or so before I got there. Tolkien’s happy ending, his eucatastrophe, as he termed it, was something for which I was made to wait. I had to endure the endless journey through the horror of Mordor that Frodo and Sam had to make in order to reach Mount Doom and once there I had to watch helplessly with Sam as Frodo failed in his mission and all was saved only by the unlooked for intervention of Gollum.

But still the happy ending came. Did it come because of the courage of the Armies of the West and their brave captains? Did it come because of the faithful witness to the Good that Gandalf had born through the long centuries of his sojourn in Middle-earth? Did it come because of the friendship of the nine companions who set out from Rivendell just three months before? Did it come because Frodo staggered, step by weary step, supported and, at the last, carried by Sam up the slopes of Mount Doom?

After we have given due praise to all of the characters that we have come to know and love in Tolkien’s great work, and each of them deserves great praise, we have to say that none of these things actually brings about the happy ending. That comes through grace alone, from something that lies beyond the endless repetition of cause and effect.

This is one of Tolkien’s greatest contributions to the culture of our time and one which has brought the greatest anger from literary critics. Most of all Tolkien has been accused of being an escapist. Life, real life, the critics say, is not like that. Tolkien is treating us as if we are children. This is mere fairy tale and it is time for us to grow up and embrace reality.

Tolkien faced this criticism head on in an essay first printed in 1947 entitled, On Fairy-Stories. In it he wrote, “I coined the word ‘eucatastrophe’: the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears  (which I argued it is the highest function of fairy-stories to produce). And I was there led to the view that it produces its peculiar effect because it is a sudden glimpse of Truth, your whole nature chained in material cause and effect, the chain of death, feels a sudden relief as if a major limb out of joint had suddenly snapped back”.

It is this “sudden glimpse of Truth” that is so subversive to the “chain of death” that is held to be the only reality by the so-called modernists. And it is precisely from that prison, surrounded by the chain of death, from which Tolkien calls us to escape. Is it a coward who cannot face up to reality who tries to escape from this prison? Surely it is the ones who tell us that the prison is the only reality and that there is no freedom beyond it who lack courage. The courageous life is the one that refuses to submit to the tyranny of the “chain of death” as do Tolkien’s heroes.