Gandalf Shows Aragorn a Sapling of the White Tree of Gondor

Recently I have been thinking a lot about a line from a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things…” When I say, think, I mean to say that it often comes to mind and then I repeat it as a prayer. The line comes from his poem, “God’s Grandeur” which laments the destructive behaviour of humankind upon the earth but affirms something deeper, the grandeur and glory of God.

Victory has been achieved over the Dark Lord and Aragorn has been crowned King of Gondor. But he fears for the future. He has no heir and as Gandalf says, “Though much has been saved, much must now pass away; and the power of the Three Rings also is ended”. These Rings represented what remained of the power of the Elder Days and the Elves in Middle-earth and although not controlled by the One Ring were, nonetheless, linked to its forging. These Rings were held by Gandalf, Elrond and Galadriel and it was these three who energised resistance to Sauron throughout the last centuries of the Third Age  as he began to build his forces for a renewed assault upon the West.

With the passing of the Three Rings so too must their bearers depart but that leaves Aragorn alone to govern the Western Lands. “I shall grow old,” he says to Gandalf. “And who then shall govern Gondor and those who look to this city as to their queen, if my desire be not granted? The Tree in the Court of the Fountain is still withered and barren. When shall I see a sign that it will ever be otherwise?”

Gandalf’s response is not just a reply to Aragorn’s question but is a spiritual principle based upon wisdom learned from years of long struggle.

“Turn your face from the green world, and look where all seems barren and cold!”

Gandalf reminds Aragorn that the hope of the West long lay hidden in the wastelands of the North. So unlikely did it seem that any hope could lie there that Denethor described the House of Isildur that Aragorn represented as “a ragged house long bereft of lordship and dignity”. We should learn that an answer that is cultivated in prosperous times and places leaves our pride and independence intact. Denethor desired such an answer, one that would come ideally from his own house. The danger with answers of this kind is that pride intact simply continues to grow until at the end it overreaches itself and ends in catastrophe just as it did with the Fall of Númenor. But an answer that is found in the barren place, the unexpected place, must be received as a gift. Aragorn has come from the ragged house of Isildur and the White Tree is found in the waste of the mountains high above Minas Tirith.

It is a sapling no more than three feet high, grown from a fruit planted long before by the kings of Gondor. This planting was a secret that not even the Stewards knew so that when the White Tree in the Court of the Fountain died in 2852, some 150 years before this time they had no knowledge of the fruit’s existence.

Aragorn describes the sapling as being no more than seven years old. At the time when it first began to grow Gandalf and Aragorn were fruitlessly searching for Gollum in the wild while the Ring lay hidden in the Shire, its true identity suspected but still unknown. Sauron’s power continued to grow as he put his energy into regaining the Ring. In the world outside darkness seemed to grow unchecked but the White Tree lived according to a different rhythm at its own pace and in its own time growing neither faster nor slower as events unfolded in the world around.

Hopkins reminds us of this deeper rhythm in his poem.

“And though the last lights off the black West went Oh, morning, at the brown brink Eastward springs- because the Holy Ghost over the bent world broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings!”

I think it is because I see so much that is being trodden down about me that I seek the wisdom of the deeper rhythm that I learn in Hopkins and in Tolkien. Like Gandalf and Aragorn I may have to pay close attention to the events that happen about me but if I contemplate “the dearest freshness deep down things” then I will be held by that freshness and not defeated.

This week’s artwork is by Darrell K. Sweet

 

 

The White Tree of Gondor Teaches us about Death and Resurrection

Gandalf and Pippin enter the Citadel in Minas Tirith and the white-paved Court of the Fountain where, in the midst, “drooping over the pool, stood a dead tree, and the falling drops dripped sadly from its barren and broken branches back into the clear water. ”

Pippin does not understand why, in such a beautifully tended place, something dead is at the centre. Then some words that Gandalf had spoken come to mind:

Seven stars and seven stones and one white tree.

These are the emblems of Elendil whose ships carried the faithful to Middle-earth from the wreck of Númenor after Sauron had seduced their king into rebellion against the Valar. The white tree was a symbol of renewal descended, as it was, from Nimloth the Fair the tree of Númenor and before that from Galathilion of Telperion in the Deathless Lands. Thus there remains a link between the peoples of Gondor and the Valar and High Elves but it is a link  contained in something that is dead.

Sauron has always had a particular hatred for the tree, knowing what it represents. To Sauron it means that only through submission to the Valar and their judgement could there ever be a reconciliation and forgiveness.  He clings to the belief that he can achieve mastery over all life, that he can resist the Valar and the Ring is the entire focus of that belief. When he was a prisoner in Númenor he persuaded Ar Pharazôn to cut down Nimloth the Fair. Númenor’s king had become convinced that the Valar held the gift of immortality and kept it deliberately from him. Through Sauron’s persuasion Ar Pharazôn had come to see all links to the Valar as a part of their denial of life to him. Nimloth the Fair was a key symbol of that link. But to the Elf Friends, the house of Elendil, it was not a symbol of denial but of hope and renewal. Isildur, at great risk to himself,  took a sapling of Nimloth before it could be cut down. He was wounded almost to his death in the attempt but in the first spring after he had taken the sapling the young tree flowered and Isildur was healed.

It was only after the failing of the line of kings in Gondor that the tree finally died and no sapling could be found but the tree was never cut down. Always it stood in the Court of the Fountain in Minas Tirith as a sign of hope that one day the king would return but now the dead tree has stood there for over three hundred years and is there any hope left?

The hope lies, not in some form of resuscitation, the continuing of some kind of existence in a body that must inevitably die, but in an ending that must lead to a renewing. The Gondor of the Stewards that has so bravely resisted the darkness is about to come to an end but the king will return.

I write this at the beginning of the week that Christians call, Holy. It is a week when we are called to think most especially about the ending of things as we follow Jesus on his journey towards the cross and towards death and burial. If we understand these things aright then we will come to know that our lives are not about an effort to continue existence, to hold the day of ending at bay for as long as a we can. We will come to know that we can face all our endings without fear, whether they are the loss of a job, of a career, of reputation, of wealth or health or even the loss of someone we love or the loss of our own life. We will come to know that our all our endings are beginnings that point to the day of resurrection and a transformation that can have nothing to do with death but only life. About what that means we can can catch only glimpses now but even the glimpses tell us that what lies before us is entirely wonderful, it is bliss, it is delight.

 

 

Faramir Teaches Us How to Remember Well

Faramir has completed his interrogation of Frodo and now he takes Frodo and Sam to a secret refuge. As they walk together Faramir begins to speak of what is in his heart.

“For myself… I would see the White Tree in flower again in the courts of the kings, and the Silver Crown return, and Minas Tirith in peace: Minas Anor again as of old, full of light, high and fair, beautiful as a queen among other queens: not a mistress of many slaves, nay, not even a kind mistress of willing slaves.”

Faramir is a man of memory. Each beauty that he recalls, the White Tree, a scion of Nimloth the Fair, the tree given to Elros, first king of Numenor, by the Valar and the Silver Crown of Elendil that awaits the return of the true king, is alive within his heart. Indeed these beauties, and his long contemplation of them, shape his heart. Now that Boromir is dead Faramir is heir of Denethor, Steward of Gondor, whose task is to rule until the King returns and yet Faramir does not speak of ruling as did his brother. For the White Tree cannot flourish until the king returns and when the king returns the Steward will rule no longer. And even the task of ruling is not seen as being the mistress of slaves, “not even a kind mistress of willing slaves” but as a beautiful queen among other queens, “loved for her memory, her ancientry, her beauty; and her present wisdom. Not feared, save as a men may fear the dignity of a man, old and wise.” When someone remembers in the way that Faramir does that which is remembered is not an expression of a longing to return to some idealised past. Later we will see Denethor expressing his wish that all could remain unchanged, that all could be as it once was. For people such as Denethor the way in which meaning in life is formed connects to something perceived as lost. For such a person life becomes a matter for regret and the ability to do good is sadly diminished. Such a person may become so wedded to that which is lost that they may even try to hinder the good that others would yet do. This is not so with Faramir. He does not allow memory to become the pathway to despair. For Faramir, the memory, the beauty and the ancientry are an inspiration to present action and to present wisdom.

When Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings it formed part of his desire to make a mythology for England. Mythology has been described as that which never happened and that which is always true. The nature of modernism is to believe that the only truth is that which has happened and seeks to reduce everything to something that can be observed and measured. Thankfully modernism has never held complete sway over our hearts and minds or else we would have no ability to perceive beauty or to experience joy or grief. But when we experience such things those who are modernists whether consciously or not do not know what to do with them. Modernism offers us no narrative that allows the experience of beauty, joy or grief to enrich or enliven us. All we are left with, at best, is mere nostalgia and its attendant regret. At worst we give way to despair completely. Tolkien’s work challenges all its readers to engage with the gift of our own history in such a way that we can be enlivened and as we examine our own lives we will want to consider the role that memory plays; whether it enlivens us or leads us toward despair.