Aragorn or Sauron, Who is Lord of the Palantir?

The day after the Grey Company overtake Théoden and his escort and deliver their messages to Aragorn, he emerges from a chamber in the Hornburg with Halbarad, the sons of Elrond, and Legolas and Gimli. Merry gazes at him in shock. It is “as if in one night many years had fallen on his head. Grim was his face, grey-hued and weary.”

Later Aragorn tells them that he has looked into the Stone of Orthanc and that there he has confronted Sauron himself. Gimli is horrified, remembering what had happened to Pippin when he looked into it and perhaps thinking, too, of Saruman and how he had been corrupted by Sauron and turned traitor.

“‘You have looked in that accursed stone of wizardry!’ exclaimed Gimli with fear and astonishment in his face. ‘Did you say aught to – him? Even Gandalf feared that encounter.'”

The implication in what Gimli says is that Aragorn has no more business looking into this tool of the Dark Lord’s than Pippin. Aragorn’s response is almost frightening.

“You forget to whom you speak… What do you fear that I should say to him? Did I not openly proclaim my title before the doors of Edoras?”

But Gimli has forgotten. The travel stained warrior with whom he has gone through so much is the heir of Isildur and Elendil. He rightfully bears Andúril, Narsil, the sword that cut the Ring from Sauron’s hand, reforged. He is the heir of Eärendil, the Morning Star, who brought aid to the defeated peoples of Middle-earth when it seemed that Morgoth and his lieutenant, Sauron, had triumphed. And he is heir to Beren and to Lúthien who took a Silmaril from the iron crown of Morgoth. He is  “the lawful master of the Stone and has “both the right and the strength to use it.”

It is essential here to understand that Aragorn is not trying to present himself as one who has gained some kind of extra special bragging rights. There is no, “Look at me, everyone!” going on here. This is what it means to respond to a calling. George, Duke of York, was gripped by fear as he approached a coronation that he never expected before his brother, Edward VIII, abdicated. The fear was connected to the terrible stammer from which he suffered, a story told in the film, The King’s Speech.  Later he was to describe how, when the Archbishop of Canterbury anointed him, a strength came into him and he left Westminster Abbey a different man. He was King George VI. He continued to struggle with many fears and there is a particularly poignant story of a day when he was to meet British troops in North Africa and had almost to be dragged from his tent because once again the fear had overcome him. When I first heard this story my love and admiration for him deepened, knowing the inner fears that he had to overcome, almost daily, in order to fulfil his duty to his people. The struggle ultimately brought him to an early death when in his 50s. Strength is given to fulfil a calling but a price has to be paid as well. This is rarely understood by those who seek power.

That is why Aragorn overcomes Sauron in the struggle for ownership of the Stone of Orthanc, just. He is its true lord and yet he recognises that he is the servant of a destiny that is far greater than he is. Thomas Merton put this tension wonderfully in his book, No Man is an Island. 

“Our Christian destiny is, in fact, a great one: but we cannot achieve greatness unless we lose all interest in being great. For our own idea of greatness is illusory, and if we pay too much attention to it we will be lured out of the peace and stability of the being God gave us, and we will seek to live in a myth we have created for ourselves. And when we are truly ourselves we lose most the futile self-consciousness that keeps us constantly comparing ourselves with others to see how big we are.”

It is not Aragorn but Sauron who lives in a self-created myth and that is why he loses this struggle but, as Gimli puts it, “he wields great dominion, nonetheless.” Aragorn’s challenge will bring forth a terrible response.

 

The Grey Company Come to Aragorn

As Théoden and his escort ride toward Edoras they are overtaken by a company of horsemen riding hard. After initial fears that it is an attack they learn that the riders are Rangers of the North who have come to give aid to Aragorn, their kinsman and that with them have come also Elladan and Elrohir, the sons of Elrond of Rivendell. Aragorn is delighted. Only thirty have come but, as Théoden declares, “If these kinsmen be in any way like to yourself, my lord Aragorn, thirty such knights will be a strength that cannot be counted by heads.”

And Théoden is right. This is a mighty company of knights hardened in battle and loyal to their lord. The peaceful communities of Bree and the Shire have long been their care and little peace would they have known without it. So careful have they been to hide what they do that they have received little honour from the peoples that they have protected. Aragorn’s name of Strider by which he first introduced himself to Frodo and his companions at The Prancing Pony in Bree, is no affectionate pet name but a dismissal of one who is little regarded.

And yet the Rangers of the North are Dunedain, sons and daughters of Númenor and the once proud kingdom of Arnor. Over the long years since the wars against the witch kingdom of Angmar they have dwindled and their lord can no longer call himself, king, but only their chieftain, yet they have not shrunken into themselves as Saruman does after the fall of Isengard, who, even when he becomes lord of the Shire, is found to be living in miserable squalor. Their numbers may be few but they are a people who know their own greatness.

And this is because of Aragorn, their lord. Some years ago I came across some words of the 16th century Anglican theologian, Richard Hooker, that made a deep impression upon me then and still do today. “How are the people to know that they are faithful unless their captains tell them?”

To know myself as faithful is to know that my life has a purpose, a meaning and a value because it has been given to something greater than itself and it has been given well. The reason why the Rangers do not need the praise of the Shire and of Bree is because they have the praise of one that they honour far beyond them. Aragorn, their lord, named Estel, or Hope, by Gilraen his mother, raised by Elrond of Rivendell, befriended by Gandalf the Grey, loved by Arwen Undomiel, who fought with Rohan and Gondor as a young man is one whose praise is to be sought above any that they know. Think of Aragorn’s first words when he greets them.

“Halbarad!” he said. “Of all joys this is the least expected!”

Then think how you would feel if someone that you greatly respect spoke words like that to you. This is a people who know that they are faithful because their captain has told them and in knowing it they grow into the knights that Théoden speaks of. They are not simply a band of horsemen but a company of knights errant who have come to follow their lord wherever he goes even if it is unto death.

How much we need leaders like that today. Leaders who are praiseworthy in themselves because we know that they are willing to make great personal sacrifice for the sake of those who follow them and who make their followers as much a part of the enterprise that they share together as they are themselves. Too often it seems that the true purpose of an enterprise is to enrich a small number of people while many within it make great personal sacrifice simply to earn enough to get by. When things go wrong it is the loyal followers who must pay the price while the leaders walk away enriched by what others have given to them.

Aragorn is not such a leader. There are some that I have met who have something of his quality but not many. And it is a challenge to me to give thought to how I can be such a leader to others. My sphere of influence may not be great but I can make a difference within it.

 

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.”