The Imagining of Valinor. Film Makers and Artists Try to Depict The Undying Lands.

Valinor Imagined in the New Amazon Series

Like people all around the world I was captivated by the publicity image of Valinor that announced the new Amazon TV series of The Lord of the Rings. It is, of course, the quality of the light that entrances. I am not one of the fortunate reviewers who are permitted to watch the series and so I can only guess that what we can see on the horizon is Laurelin, the golden tree that brought the light of day to the Undying Lands. And what is portrayed in this image is a kind of eternal sunrise, the light always coming from the horizon. It was only after the trees were destroyed by Ungoliant that the light that we know came into existence, the light of the sun and moon.

And so what we have is a remarkable act of the imagination on Tolkien’s part and one that has been represented to us by one of the great artists of Tolkien’s world, John Howe, who is one of the chief conceptual designers on the films. We all know the feeling that we have at sunrise and sunset and that we perceive the world differently at those times than at any other part of the day. Now we are invited to perceive a world in which that light and possibly that feeling is always present at least in daylight.

John Howe’s visual imagination invites us into a world that is close enough to our experienced reality for us to recognise and yet is an intensification of that experience so that this new world that we perceive is a “more than” all that we know.

It is not just the light in this image that is captivating, it is the world that we perceive through the eternal sunrise towards which we look and possibly move. Note the contrast between the mountains that frame both sides of the picture and the city (is it Tirion of the Noldor?) and the parkland like foreground over the lone figure of an elf is moving. Wildness and cultivation seem to lie together easily. There is no strain in the image. It is not like the hall of a king of the northern world, a fragile oasis of light and warmth in the midst of a dark and dangerous wild like Hrothgar’s hall in Beowulf.

Alan Lee imagines Alqualondë, the Haven of Valinor

My own early visual experiences of the sublime were twofold in nature. Among those that I recall were the moment when I stepped inside the doors of Westminster Abbey for the first time and a journey southwards from Keswick down through The Lake District of England on a coach. In Westminster Abbey what I recall is a sudden broadening of my horizons contained within a building and a sense, equally sudden that I was a very small figure in this beautiful space. My memory of the journey through The Lake District is of the mountains rearing up above me with the same suddenness that I experienced in Westminster Abbey and that same perception of self as very small but not insignificant. The self that experienced both had entered two worlds that had both grown much greater than I had previously known but the feeling was not one of fear but of excitement. I wanted more of what both seemed to be inviting me to explore.

In my weekly blog posts in which I am reflecting upon The Lord of the Rings I am just about to begin the southward journey of the newly formed Fellowship of the Ring into the dangerous wilds of Middle-earth. It is a very different world from the imagining of Valinor with which I began this post. In the Middle-earth journey every aspect of the landscape strains against each other and perhaps the most powerful example of this is in the attempted crossing of the Redhorn Gate below Caradhras that we will come to soon. It is a terrible journey but am I alone in my feeling that it is more glorious than the everlasting serenity that we perceive in the picture, beautiful as it is, of Valinor at the head of this piece? Does my own desired experience of the sublime require wild moments too?

Alan Lee’s Awe Inspiring Depiction of Caradhras Seen From The Redhorn Gate

A Far Green Country Under a Swift Sunrise. Frodo’s Dream in the House of Tom Bombadil.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 132-133

“Frodo heard a sweet singing running in his mind: a song that seemed to come like a pale light behind a grey rain-curtain, and growing stronger to turn the veil all to glass and silver, until at last it was all rolled back, and a far green country opened before him under a swift sunrise.”

This dream passage comes at the beginning of Frodo’s journey on the last night of the hobbits’ stay in the house of Tom Bombadil, the second of two important dreams at this part of the story, the other of which was the tower dream in Crickhollow the night before the hobbits entered the Old Forest. But Tolkien uses the same words at the end of the story at the very end of Frodo’s earthly travels following his sea voyage with Bilbo, Gandalf, Galadriel and Elrond, the Ringbearers, into the West, and Tolkien makes a point there of remembering Frodo’s dream as it is fulfilled.

The Grey Havens by Alan Lee

A far green country under a swift sunrise. As far back as 1944 Tolkien intended to end his story with a remembrance and a fulfillment of the dream in Bombadil’s house. He meant to use these words as a frame about his story. (The Letters of J.R.R Tolkien p. 104). Of course at this point of the story, with all the struggles that lie ahead of him, Frodo has no notion of this, but the story and the storyteller does. As we have considered in other posts Frodo is a part of a story far greater than he is. He is meant to have the Ring. He will be overcome by its utterly malign power but by grace he will not be destroyed either by the Ring nor by its maker, nor will he be caught up in its destruction; but neither will he find healing in Middle-earth. By the prayer of Arwen Undómiel, whose place he will take on the ship bearing her father, Frodo will be permitted to enter the Undying Lands and there he will be healed.

A Far Green Country

But why does Tolkien refer to Frodo’s healing in Undying Lands at this point of the story? It does Frodo no good in so far as we are able to tell and until we, who read The Lord of the Rings, come across these words once again at the end of the story, it has no effect upon us either. There is no comfort to be gained here for any of us.

I think that there are two things to be said. On the one hand it is an encouragement to read The Lord of the Rings again and again, as I hope you are doing. There are so many layers of meaning to be discerned within the story that we will discover more and more with every reading. But the other speaks to how Frodo, and we ourselves as his fellow creatures, must live. Frodo will carry this dream within his subconscious throughout and there, no doubt, it will do its work within his psyche as dreams will always do but the dream will point to a reality that does not require our conscious assent to be entirely itself. Even before Arwen’s prayer or before Frodo’s despair that he will ever find healing in Middle-earth, a place has been prepared for him in which, as Tolkien put it in another letter, Frodo will go “both to a purgatory and peace” (The Letters of J.R.R Tolkien p. 328). There is no sense in which this purgatory is a punishment in the usual way in which this has been understood and if prayers are required to release him from it it can only be that what awaits him beyond the circles of the world is of such surpassing wonder that to be denied it, even in an earthly paradise, is punishment by comparison. Those of us who are mortal can only grasp this reality by faith and be encouraged in it by those occasional glimpses that might be afforded to us, but even these are enough to strengthen us to live our lives courageously and so fulfill our calling even as Frodo does.

I am grateful to Keith Kelly and Michael Livingston for a fine paper published by The Mythopoeic Society and which can be accessed through the link below.

That’s What Friends Are For. Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin Gather For the Last Time By the Great Sea.

It is just over three years since the Four Travellers sat together with Fredegar Bolger at Crickhollow and the “conspiracy” was revealed that led to Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin leaving the Shire together on the great adventure of the Age. Only three years but in that time the whole world has changed and so have they. Now they stand together for the last time by the shores of the Great Sea as Frodo prepares to board ship for the West and the Undying Lands. Sam is there because Frodo wants him to be there. Merry and Pippin are there because Gandalf in his wisdom and in his kindness knows that it would be almost unbearably hard for Sam to return alone from the Grey Havens back to Hobbiton and Bag End.

“‘You tried to give us the slip once before and failed, Frodo'” says Pippin amidst his laughter and his tears. “‘This time you have nearly succeded, but you have failed again. It was not Sam, though, that gave you away this time, but Gandalf himself!'”

Pippin can be forgiven for only remembering one occasion when Frodo tried to slip away alone from his friends. On the second he and Merry were the prisoners of the Uruk-hai of Isengard when Frodo tried to cross the River alone in order to make the journey to Mordor. Frodo had always had a sense that he could not take his friends with him on a journey that would lead almost certainly to failure and death. Perhaps, too, his sense of responsibility for others fitted neatly into his solitary temperament. Frodo was raised as an only child and after Bilbo’s departure for Rivendell he lived alone often preferring his own company on long walks alone. It is not inevitable that those who are solitaries are also lonely but what solitaries have to learn is that friends are necessary, that we cannot live without them.

It was the great German theologian and anti-Nazi resister, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who taught: “Let him who is not in community beware of being alone”. The kind of solitariness to which Bonhoeffer and, I suspect, Frodo, was drawn, was inhabited by books and a rich interior conversation that never became dull. The danger of such a life is that in such a conversation the solitary is never in danger of being challenged. It was the Inklings that turned Tolkien’s own rich interior conversation into The Lord of the Rings. Without the others who listened, criticised and encouraged, that richest of imaginations would have remained a private possession and we would all be the poorer for it. Bonhoeffer discovered the power of community in a gathering of young theologians in the 1930s hidden briefly away from the Nazi tainted official training establishments for Lutheran pastors. He was its director but he found friendship there that was to sustain him later when he was an enforced solitary in the Tegel Military Prison in Berlin. Frodo would never have reached the Cracks of Doom without his friends and most especially without Sam.

My hope is that, in company with Bilbo, Frodo came to learn true community during his gentle purgatory in the Undying Lands. Of course the True Self will enjoy a natural rhythm of aloneness and community both of which will nourish one another. Bonhoeffer, with equal wisdom also taught, “Let him who cannot be alone beware of community.” It is those who are at peace with themselves who will be able to give most to their communities. Those who are not peace will always be taking from them and rarely giving.

It is good that Gandalf recognises that there are times when it is hard to be alone and that he sends a message to Merry and Pippin to come to the Grey Havens as quickly as possible. And it would have been unkind for Merry and Pippin not to have been allowed to make their own farewells. But let us forgive Frodo. At this point in his life he is so burdened still that he does not always think of the needs of others. And let us remember too that he has been wounded so deeply in laying down his life for others. He will be healed at last of the hurt in the Undying Lands and Sam, Merry and Pippin will have “great comfort” in one another “on the long grey road” back to the Shire.

The Enigma of Arrival. Frodo makes Preparation to Go Home.

In the last few weeks on this blog we have been thinking about the love story of Aragorn and Arwen “both the sweet and the bitter” as Arwen herself calls it. Now we return to the moment in which the sweetness is at its most intense. It is the first days of the marriage of Aragorn and Arwen after their long separation and for Aragorn all is healed. When Frodo comes to see the king and queen to ask permission to go home he is kingly in all that he offers. “If there were any gifts that I could give that could match with your deeds you should have them; but whatever you desire you shall take with you, and you shall ride in honour and arrayed as princes of the land.”

This is seemly and befits a king in his triumph and bliss but Arwen sees more keenly, even in her happiness. She speaks of her father departing for the Havens and that because she has made the choice of Lúthien she will not go with him. Then she speaks to Frodo showing that she understands the extent of the price that he has paid and the hurt that he has taken, wounded by the Nazgûl knife, the sting of Shelob and the tooth of Gollum and perhaps most of all by the Ring that he bore to its destruction and yet did not choose to destroy it at the end needing the crazed passion of Gollum to enable him to accomplish his task. Others, like Aragorn, rightly honour him for all that he has done, but he gives no honour to himself.

“In my stead you shall go, Ring-bearer, when the time comes, and if you then desire it. If your hurts grieve you still and the memory of your burden is heavy, then you may pass into the West until all your wounds and weariness are healed.”

We will return at a later time to think more about Frodo’s need for healing and a little of the means by which he will be healed but it is worth noting here that he is freely offered, by the grace of the Valar and the loving choice of Arwen, that which long before Ar-Pharazôn sought to seize by force. He is granted free passage to the Undying Lands. But note that he is not granted the immortality of the Elves but the gift of healing. When he is healed, when his soul learns again its true road to heaven and he is wholly free of the burden of the Ring at last and he has lived out his days then he will die. The tragedy of Ar-Pharazôn is that he sought to gain something that was never his and so lost the gift that was his for ever and could not be lost unless it was cast away.

In 1912 the artist Giorgio de Chirico painted The Enigma of Arrival and the Afternoon. In the painting two figures are seen walking through a classical landscape as the ship that has perhaps brought them there is seen already in full sail and leaving on its way to somewhere else. In 1987 the great Trinidadian novelist V.S Naipaul made this the title of one of his finest works. In it he tells of a man who is constantly in search of a home but finds that as soon as he reaches a place it begins inexorably to move away from him. His arrival coincides with its departure. It is a beautiful and poignant description of the endless flow of things. There are moments within this exquisite work in which, in a Proustian manner, Naipaul makes time almost stop still for a moment, but I had to use the word, almost. Time does not stand still. This tragic insight is displayed in a comic courtesy soon after the scene that we have considered in The Lord of the Rings when the quarrel between Éomer and Gimli over the question as to whether the Lady Galadriel is the most beautiful of all ladies is at last resolved. Éomer begs Gimli’s forgiveness. He cannot call Galadriel the most beautiful for now he has seen the Queen Arwen. Gimli forgives him but with great sadness. “You have chosen the Evening; but my love is given to be Morning. And my heart forbodes that soon it will pass away for ever.”

This week’s artwork is a digital reproduction of the The Enigma of Arrival and the Afternoon by Giorgio de Chirico downloaded from Pinterest.