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.
So it is that Legolas and Gimli meet and speak with Merry and Pippin in the gardens of the Houses of Healing. And there the Elf and the Dwarf tell of the mighty ride of the Dunedain and the hosts of the Dead through the valleys of Gondor through Lebennin to the mouth of the Great River at Pelargir. And they tell of how the Corsairs of Umbar and the Haradrim were overthrown by the terror of the Dead so that it was an army of Gondor that came to the landings of Harlond at the key moment in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields and not her enemies.
And the friends speak of the greatness of Aragorn, a greatness that through the mighty ride through Gondor and in the battles after was a terrible thing to behold. And Legolas says,
“In that hour I looked on Aragorn and thought how great and terrible a Lord he might have become in the strength of his own will, had he taken the Ring to himself. Not for naught does Mordor fear him.”
In the Houses of Healing we saw Aragorn as a healer passing his hand gently through Merry’s hair and kissing Éowyn gently upon her brow, restoring both to life. Is it possible that one man should contain such apparent opposites within himself? We might remember that the Warden of the Houses of Healing presumed that a captain of war could not also be a man of learning. His assumption is that a man will be either one or the other but not both.
So is Aragorn a divided man? I would argue not. And that is why he does not take the Ring for himself. His might in battle is not the seizing of power by a ruthless man but a self offering for the sake of the peoples of Middle-earth. He will die for his people if need be and his offering is a terrible thing in its ferocity. But he will not win at any price and he values the freedom of the peoples of Middle-earth above victory.
Compare this to Denethor when debating with Gandalf before the battle. Denethor makes it clear that he values Gondor above all other nations and also that he values his own lordship even above the welfare of his people. Aragorn is entirely different. He has spent his life in the service of all Free Folk and that is why Elf, Dwarf and Hobbits love him. And like Faramir his desire for Gondor is that it should be “full of light, high and fair, beautiful as a queen among other queens… Not feared, save as men may fear the dignity of a man, old and wise.”
Moore and Gillette would argue that what Aragorn does is to access the energy of the great masculine archetypes, King, Magician, Warrior and Lover and is able to do so at will but that he never identifies his Self with any of them. This is such an important distinction to be able to make if we are to understand true maturity. If we overly identify our Self with one of the archetypes then that Self will be a slave to the archetype and almost certainly to a false or immature version of it. Sauron is a terrible example of this. His desire for domination has led him to identify entirely with the energy of the King archetype. He is enslaved by his desire for power and has no freedom over this. By contrast Aragorn’s Self is greater than any of the archetypal energies. Legolas puts it this way, “But nobler is his spirit than the understanding of Sauron; for is he not of the children of Lúthien?”
To become our True Self we must learn how to draw upon archetypal energy but we must learn too that our True Self is greater than any archetype. Aragorn is able to call upon the energy of the Warrior archetype to a terrible degree in battle and then to lay it aside afterwards. He is master of himself for a purpose higher than himself.
I have been looking forward to this part of The Lord of the Rings for some time now. Regular readers of this blog will know that I have been carefully reading Tolkien’s wonderful story and that each week I write a reflection or meditation inspired by what I have just been reading. And so in recent weeks I have been reading Tolkien’s account of The Battle of the Pelennor Fields and the Death of Théoden and the Fall of the Witch King of Angmar at the hands of Éowyn of Rohan and Meriadoc Brandybuck of The Shire.
And now I want to turn to the beautiful account of the coming of the King to The Houses of Healing and in the weeks to come we will walk with him to the beds of Faramir, Éowyn and Merry and feel for ourselves the power of the king and perhaps, from afar, catch the fragrance of athelas.
And just in case regular readers may have noticed that I have not made any reference to the timely arrival of Aragorn upon the battlefield that is because I want to reflect on that event through the telling of the story by Legolas and Gimli.
The battle that has been fought has been unlike any other in that a power is at work in the wounded that is named “the Black Shadow, for it came from the Nazgûl”. Tolkien tells us that “those who were stricken with it fell slowly into an ever deeper dream, and then passed to silence and a deadly cold, and so died”. Viktor Frankl describes something remarkably similar in his account of working as an inmate physician in the Nazi concentration camps with nothing more available to him than a few bottles of aspirin. He noted that if someone lost hope and a sense of meaning then they would almost certainly soon die. But if they were able to hold onto hope and meaning then there was a good chance that they might survive the many epidemics that swept through the camps even though they were half starved.
It is the coming of the king that brings hope and meaning to the stricken. In their seminal work, King, Warrior, Magician, Lover Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette describe the energy of the King Archetype as being one that brings order and a sense that everything is in its right place without anything needing to be forced and as one that brings blessing and fruitfulness. It is not just Aragorn who brings this archetype to bear. We saw the impact that Théoden’s arising from his chair to lead his people once again had upon them. It was literally transformative. This transformation shows why Saruman and his agent, Wormtongue, put so much effort into unmanning the king. And now in the account of the events in the Houses of Healing Tolkien makes it clear that Gandalf is unable to heal those who have fallen under the Black Shadow. It is not that Aragorn has a magic that Gandalf does not have but that he can connect to the King Archetype in a way that Gandalf cannot. Aragorn is the king.
In English history the belief that the king or the queen was a healer persisted right into the 18th century and a liturgy for the royal touch was included in the Book of Common Prayer that was possessed by most literate people of the time. It was only with the growing influence of the Enlightenment that the monarch came just to make a gift of money instead of also laying hands upon the sick. The Queen still makes the gift in a service on Maundy Thursday each year. Shakespeare wonderfully describes the older practice in lines from Macbeth,
“Strangely visited people, all swol’n and ulcerous, pitiful to the eye, the mere despair of surgery, he cures, hanging a golden stamp about their necks, put on with holy prayers.”
It is this ancient belief that Tolkien draws upon here in the stories of Aragorn’s healings, and ancient belief that I would argue was seen at work in Viktor Frankl’s experience in the Nazi concentration camps. Frankl showed implicitly in a way that Moore and Gillette do explicitly that access to the King Archetype is available to all of us and will order, heal and bless.
From time to time during the history of this blog we have drawn upon the work of Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette on the masculine psyche in their book, King, Warrior, Magician, Lover. In this book they speak about these four archetypes in both their mature and their immature manifestations and how we can gain access to the positive energies related to each one. That we do connect to the energies related to each archetype is inevitable. We cannot avoid this and any attempt to repress the energy is futile. So Denethor hates and fears the kingly energy that he sees in Faramir but Faramir is not playing a game as his father accuses him of doing. Faramir’s noble kingliness is so deeply rooted that it is able to resist the anger and scorn of his father. Eventually Denethor makes various attempts to kill his son so great is his hatred. And eventually we see Denethor’s relationship to the archetypal energy of the king become entirely destructive. He gives up the responsibility that he has towards his people in their darkest hour and uses all the energy that is left to him in an attempt to destroy both himself and his son.
Théoden too has been through his own struggle with impotence and despair. When we first met him in the darkness of Meduseld we saw the contrast that Tolkien drew between the glory of Eorl the Young, celebrated in a tapestry that adorns the walls of the hall, and the shrivelled old man imprisoned within his own mind and the whisperings of Grima Wormtongue. Gandalf liberates the true Théoden and does so to such effect that just a few days later Théoden is able to lead his people on the glorious charge against the hosts of Mordor massed against the gates of Minas Tirith.
Théoden manifests the energy of the king and the warrior archetypes in their most positive way. As a true king he shows his people that he will die in their defence. As a true warrior he hurls himself into the forefront of the battle with such force that he is able to turn the direction of the battle. Even the Lord of the Nazgûl himself must leave his long cherished triumphant entry into the city in order to deal with the new threat. And as a warrior king Théoden focuses the energies of all his people onto one goal and that is the defeat of their enemies. So truly does he manifest these energies that all his people are as one with him upon the charge, even the frightened Merry.
Last week we saw how Tolkien turns to the language of myth in order to describe this scene and the energy expressed within it. It is Oromë the Great Hunter that Tolkien invokes, the Valar with whom the Rohirrim feel the closest connection believing their greatest steeds, the Mearas, to have been descended from horses that Oromë had brought out of the West at the dawn of time. Tolkien deliberately re-enchants the scene by this means. Théoden becomes a godlike figure and his people will follow him into the very jaws of hell itself.
When the archetypal energy of the true warrior king appears to be absent then the whole community suffers. In an organisation it might be a growing belief that the leaders are more concerned with their own interests than with the organisation as a whole. Myths such as that of the Fisher King, literally a tale of a king who gives up his call to lead his people in order to go fishing every day, described the ebbing away of energy from the community. Crops are not planted or harvested; children are not born or nurtured. The community ceases to believe in its own future. Such communities become vulnerable to the predatory power of dark lords just as Germany did to Hitler and to national socialism in the 1930s. When that happens the outcome is always destruction.
Rohan had been on the road to destruction and the predatory lusts of Saruman before the intervention of Gandalf. Now with their king restored to them they ride to glory.
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. Continue reading →
At the end of the Second Age the King of the Mountains swore allegiance to Isildur at the Stone of Erech. But when war against the Dark Lord came the king proved faithless for he had worshipped Sauron in the Dark Years and still believed the dark to be greater than the light. And so Isildur said to him:
“Thou shalt be the last king. And if the west prove mightier than thy Black Master, this curse I lay upon thee and thy folk: to rest never until your oath is fulfilled. For this war will last through years uncounted, and you shall be summoned once again ere the end.”
The miserable story of the King of the Mountains acts as a kind of parable within The Lord of the Rings concerning the fate that awaits all who give way to the Dark believing either that their advantage lies that way, or that they have no choice, or some combination of the two. The story of Saruman is another expression of this reality and, if Sauron had triumphed, no doubt the story of the king and people of Harad and the other allies of Mordor would have been another. Isildur’s curse is not an act of arbitrary power. He simply declares what all worshippers of the Dark most truly desire; to exist in the darkness.
When Aragorn declares that heis the true king, the heir of Isildur, he calls the Dead to fulfil their oath. They must now serve him. Unlike the hapless Baldor, son of Brego the second king of Rohan, who sought to tread the Paths of the Dead in his own pride and without authority, Aragorn comes as one to whom authority has been given and so the dead must obey him. Baldor died because the way was shut “until the time comes”. The time has now come. The king has spoken and the dead must hear.
In one of his Advent reflections that you can find in his collection, entitled Waiting on the Word, Malcolm Guite calls Jesus “the king who walks alongside us disguised in rags, the true Strider.” https://malcolmguite.wordpress.com/2015/12/22/o-rex-gentium-a-sixth-advent-reflection/ This reference to Aragorn belongs to a poem inspired by the Advent antiphon, O Rex Gentium, O King of the Nations and their desire. The Lord of the Rings is an Advent work proclaiming light in the darkness as we saw a few months ago when we heard Frodo cry out “Aiya Eärendil Elenion Ancalima!”, Hail Eärendil O Brightest of Stars! when he was lost in the utter darkness of Shelob’s Lair. https://stephencwinter.com/2016/01/12/the-dayspring-from-on-high-comes-to-the-aid-of-the-hobbits/ Advent is also the time when we long for the true king to come and heal the lands. We long for “the true Strider”. The Lord of the Rings shows us those, like Faramir, who have kept the faith, waiting for the true king and perhaps for the restoration of Númenor and maybe even the deepest reality of all, that to which Númenor, even at its most true, could only point to. It also shows us those, like Denethor, who lose faith, or those like Saruman or the King of Harad who come to believe in a perversion of the Advent hope believing the lie that declares that it is the dark that is the true reality.
Aragorn’s journey through The Paths of the Dead calling the dead to obedience and so to an end to their misery also recalls the ancient story of how Jesus went down to the dead after his death on the cross and so harrowed hell leading the dead from despair to life.
This is the journey that Aragorn now takes with the companions who follow him and he points us to the true Strider who calls us, too, to follow him through darkness into light.
To become a man, truly and healthily drawing upon the King archetype, it is necessary to serve an apprenticeship, serving a master and learning all that can be learned from him. Aragorn has been such an apprentice. The great fathers of his life have been Elrond of Rivendell and Gandalf the Grey but he also contested against the forces of Mordor under Ecthelion, the father of Denethor, the Steward of Gondor, and under Thengel, father of Théoden, the King of Rohan. There is a passage in a letter from St Paul that speaks of such apprenticeships and their outcome.
“I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.”
We live in a world in which we desire wealth and success as soon as possible. In the words of Simba, the lion cub, “I just can’t wait to be king!” I confess that when as a young man I found myself, for a time, working on factory production lines when I thought I was destined for great things I used to fantasise about marching into a great corporate building surrounded by an entourage who hung upon my every word. I had no idea then that in working in factories alongside other workers that I was serving the kind of apprenticeship that St Paul speaks of and that it had just as much significance for my life as did my university studies.
In 1943 the pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrote a paper for fellow members of the conspiracy to overthrow Adolf Hitler. It was a reflection on what had been learned through 10 years of living under the tyranny of the Third Reich and asked questions about the way ahead. At its heart Bonhoeffer wrote these words:
” The ultimate responsible question is not how I am to extricate myself heroically from the affair, but how the next generation is to live.”
For Bonhoeffer the idea of responsibility was the same as the biblical idea of righteousness and it perfectly describes what Aragorn is in Tolkien’s story. Last week we drew the contrast between him and Saruman in terms of ambition. Saruman really wants to be king! Now we also see in what way Aragorn is different from Boromir. Boromir desperately wanted to be the hero of the story. He wanted to raise a banner that the whole world would flock to and march under. Aragorn wants to make room for the next generation to live. Not just to exist but to live. When the moment comes to raises his banner and to declare himself king he will do so but not in order to be the hero but in order to serve the people and the people know it.
Next week we will think about the terrible journey that Aragorn must take in order to reach the battle in time. He must tread the Paths of the Dead. And when he does so he will be followed by the Rangers of the North because they love him; he will be followed by Legolas of the Greenwood Realm and Gimli of the Lonely Mountain because they love him; and Merry would have followed him if he could, as would Eowyn of Rohan, but he would not permit them to come with him. All are willing to lay down their lives with and for him because they know that he would lay down his life for them.
It is important to know that the kind of apprenticeship, spoken of by St Paul, does not refer to a particular period of our lives. It does not mean that at some point I must serve an apprenticeship in order that I can become a master and direct the labours of others. To be an apprentice is a way of life. I choose to learn all that I can each day from what each experience can teach me. And each day I am ready to act boldly and responsibly when called upon to do so. Aragorn is about to tread the Paths of the Dead. I have duties to perform. I can do all things through him who gives me strength.