Gandalf Speaks of Stewards and Kings

Gandalf and Pippin are about to enter the Citadel and Gandalf gives Pippin a few last minute instructions.

“Leave quiet the matter of Frodo’s errand. I will deal with that in due time. And say nothing about Aragon, either, unless you must.”

Pippin is confused. “What is wrong with Strider?” he asks. The very fact that Pippin still refers to Aragorn by the nickname by which he is known in Bree tells us much, both about Pippin and the way in which Aragorn has behaved towards him throughout their journey together. Readers of my blog may remember a piece I wrote over a year ago about the reunion of Aragorn and the young hobbits at Isengard that I entitled, “Strider has come back!” It was about a weary Aragorn smoking his pipe with his feet up. It was about the way that Pippin sees his friend.

But now Pippin needs to understand things better. “See, Master Pippin, there is no time to instruct you now in the history of Gondor… It is scarcely wise when bringing the news of the death of his heir to a mighty lord to speak overmuch of the coming of one who will, if he comes, claim the kingship.”

The history to which Gandalf refers took place almost a thousand years before the events of The Lord of the Rings. It refers to the time when the Lord of the Nazgûl, the Witch King of Angmar, had brought about the final downfall of the northern kingdom of the Dunedain in Arnor but how he in his turn had been defeated in battle by Glorfindel of Rivendell and had retreated to Mordor. The Witch King had then taken the city of Minas Ithil from Gondor and made it his capital, Minas Morgul and how he had then taunted the young and still childless king of Gondor , challenging him to single combat. Eärnur finally accepted the challenge and rode to Minas Morgul, never to be seen again.

Gondor now had no king but instead of choosing another from one of her great houses she made Mardil the Steward,  “until the king returns”. Many stewards had ruled Gondor in the long years since but the king was still awaited. Boromir once asked his father, Denethor, how long they should wait until the Steward   could become the king. “Few years, maybe, in other places of less royalty,” came Denethor’s reply. “In Gondor ten thousand years would not suffice.”

Ten thousand years would not suffice. And here we see the true meaning of royalty. To be a king does not mean simply being the one who sits at the top of the heap or to be the one, to use British prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli’s words, who has climbed to the top of the greasy pole. Richard Wagner captured the essence of true kingship in his final opera, Parsifal, his own telling of the Grail myth. He told of how the keepers of the Grail are ruled by a priest king, Amfortas, who has lost the spear that pierced the side of Christ when seduced by Kundry and who is now the Fisher King presiding over a dying kingdom. Parsifal, the perfect fool, is able to overcome Kundry’s temptations and the power of the witch king, Klingsor, and when he returns to the knights of the Grail bearing the sacred spear he brings healing to the land and to Amfortas and his men. It is through this healing that all recognise that Parsifal is the true king. There is no palace revolution. Amfortas lays down the kingship willingly.

Tolkien also tells the tale of a dying land and of a king who returns “with healing in his wings”. As with Parsifal, Aragorn passes through many trials in his own dark journey before he can claim the kingship.  In doing so Tolkien does not steal an idea from Wagner but draws from the same archetype. The true king is divinely anointed. The Steward can only watch over the kingdom until the true king comes. To be a steward is a position of high honour, and Gondor knows this, but Denethor sits in a simple chair beneath the throne. He is not the king.

A Meditation on a True King

The Riders of Rohan ride for two days towards the Fords of Isen where the remnant of the army that had been commanded by Theodred, son of Théoden, until he fell, still strive to hold out. They are met by a messenger who counsels them to go no further.

“Where is Eomer?” he cries, “Tell him there is no hope ahead. He should return to Edoras before the wolves of Isengard get there.”

The whole mood is one of despair and the arrival of Eomer makes no difference to this. But then Théoden rides forward and speaks to the messenger.

“I am here,” he says. The last host of the Eorlingas has ridden forth. It will not return without battle.”

And with those words everything is transformed. The messenger falls to his knees “with joy and wonder”. No new hope has been given. The likely end to this story is still death for them all and the end of Rohan and yet despair has gone because the King has come to his people. What until that moment had been expectation of a meaningless death is now full of meaning. We know that the title of the last volume of The Lord of the Rings was The Return of the King and that it refers to Aragorn and his return to Gondor; but it could equally refer to Théoden and his return to his own people, the Rohirrim. The return of the King always brings transformation.

In their study of the masculine psyche, King, Warrior, Magician, Lover Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette write, “The mortal man who incarnates the King energy or bears it for a while in the service of his fellow human beings, in the service of the realm (of whatever dimensions), in the service of the cosmos, is almost an interchangeable part, a human vehicle for bringing this ordering and generative archetype into the world and into the lives of human beings.” In other words it is the energy that matters more than the person. If Eomer were the king as he will be later then his arrival would be enough. He would incarnate the King energy just as Théoden does now. What matters is that the energy must be incarnated by a true king who gives his life in service of the people, the realm, the cosmos. When that happens a life giving order comes to the world.

This is what distinguishes a true from a false king. The false king, as Moore and Gillette say, is either a tyrant or a weakling. The Rohirrim go to war with Saruman, the tyrant, the false king, who can only impose order by force and fear and whose rule will always take life and not give it. Even the instruments of the tyrant must ultimately be a denial, a mockery, of life. In The Lord of the Rings this mockery is expressed by means of the orcs. But it is not only from the tyrant that the people seek liberation but from the weakling too. The Rohirrim have been delivered from their own weakling king. As Moore and Gillette put it, “Kings in the ancient world were often ritually killed when their ability to live out the King archetype began to fail. What was important was that the generative power of the energy not be tied to the fate of an aging and increasingly impotent mortal.”

Gandalf has liberated Rohan from their increasingly impotent king and an energy is released in its people that Saruman and his slaves can never know. Now even if they are defeated the defeat will not be meaningless but still generative. Now the deaths that have been suffered at the Fords of Isen and the death of Theodred, the king’s son have meaning. We will end this week with Moore and Gillette again.

“When we are accessing the King energy correctly, as servants of our own inner King, we will manifest in our lives the qualities of the good and rightful King, the King in his fullness… We will feel our anxiety level drop. We will feel centred and calm, and hear ourselves speak from an inner authority. We will have the capacity to mirror and to bless ourselves and others.”