I Will Wait in Silence

“The trumpets sounded. The horses reared and neighed. Spear clashed on shield. Then the king raised his hand, and with a rush like the sudden onset of a great wind the last host of Rohan rode thundering into the West.

Far over the plain Eowyn saw the glitter of their spears, as she stood still, alone before the doors of the silent house.”

And so the host of Rohan rides to do battle with the forces of Isengard. Gandalf has roused Théoden, King of Rohan from his slow decline and with Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas, he rides with them upon Shadowfax, mightiest of all horses in Middle Earth. Brave words have been spoken; courage has been roused in the hearts of the Riders; but Tolkien does not end this chapter with the sound of horses’ hooves or the sound of the wind in the ears of the riders but with silence before the doors of Meduseld as we stand with Eowyn as she gazes after them.

The silence that ends the chapter is intentional. We are meant to stay in a space that is almost empty. The action is taking place somewhere else and we wait alone. Not for us the comforting sound of the thunderous gallop of horses to keep our courage up. We must be brave in a silence that is an absence of sound and an emptiness that is an absence of the people that we love. And there is a fear also that the silence will end with the harsh cries of orcs as they advance upon us.

It is this kind of waiting that has been the lot of women in time of war throughout the ages. I remember speaking once with an elderly woman in the cottage in which she had been born and had lived in throughout her life as she described to me the day when her father had walked down the garden path to go to war in France in the autumn of 1914. For her that memory was as vivid and fresh as if she had just lived it and I could feel the warm autumn sun and see the closing of the gate as he walked down the village lane as she told her story. What I cannot remember is whether he ever came home again.

Tolkien was himself one of the young men who left for war in that same conflict. He did come home but lived the rest of his life with the memory. He never made his writings a vehicle for his memories but his experience of war shapes each page of The Lord of the Rings as they must have shaped the life that he lived after that experience.

Tolkien was never a propagandist but a story teller. In propaganda it is the message that is of prime importance. All experience must be reduced to the message. Each story must be flattened and simplified. Propaganda cannot allow complexity because to allow this is a betrayal of the purity of the message. Robert Runcie was Archbishop of Canterbury between 1980 and 1991 and had served as a tank commander during the Second World War, winning the Military Cross for bravery in action. Later in life he described how his tank had destroyed a German tank and how he and his men had gone to check for survivors in it. There were none and he told how as he looked at the faces of the dead men he suddenly saw them as sons, husbands, boyfriends; that there were people waiting for them who would never see them again. Such a story cannot be used by a propagandist and Runcie was no friend to propagandists during his time in office as Archbishop. Story will always leave the reader or hearer to choose how to respond, shaping lives that grow in sympathy and compassion and not reducing them to cartoon automata. Propaganda only wants automata who will do the bidding of the propagandist.

The Dark Lord is Afraid of the Dark

Last week I tweeted the link to my Blog “The Darkness Shall be the Light” and then became anxious. What if people should think that I was a supporter of Sauron, the Dark Lord himself? Surely this would be the kind of slogan that either he or his lord, Morgoth, might use? And so I rapidly typed in the words, “And I don’t mean Sauron!” into my Tweet. But after sending it I began to think. Why should I not mean Sauron? For Sauron would try to twist anything to his own purpose, even light itself. Readers of this Blog will know that I have thought of Morgoth’s hunger for light, a story that Tolkien told in The Silmarillion, on a number of occasions. Tolkien tells how Morgoth destroyed the Trees of Light with the aid of the monstrous spider like creature, Ungoliant, and later how he stole the Silmarils, jewels made by Feanor that captured the light of the Trees, and placed them in his iron crown even though they caused him torment. Thus the relationship between Morgoth and his followers, Sauron foremost among them, is ambiguous and contradictory from the start. And how could it be otherwise? For Morgoth and Sauron desire that which will expose them and leave them vulnerable and will also remind them for ever of the blessed state that they have rejected in favour of their own desire for power over others.

And there is one thing more that struck me as I considered this. Sauron fears the very thing that he uses as a weapon against others. He does not delight in the dark as I might delight in a scene of great beauty like the view from a hill top. He can only use something. He cannot delight in it. For delight is the enjoyment of something or someone for their own sake. I do not seek to own the view that lies before me and even if I did I do not think that it could give me more pleasure than it does. Sauron can never think like this. He is only capable of thinking in terms of usefulness and especially in terms of how he can use something in order to gain more power over others. Long experience has taught him that he can use darkness as an instrument of fear, that by cloaking himself he can suggest to others that his power is greater than it truly is. He seeks to blot out the light of the sun in order to weaken the resolve of those who would resist him and yet he knows that should he fail what awaits him is endless night and he fears that above all. Sauron, the Dark Lord, is afraid of the dark, he is afraid of death.

And this makes him different from the members of the Fellowship of the Ring. They too fear the dark and yet they love the light more and for the sake of the light they will journey down dark roads, facing their own fear and overcoming it. It is because of the dark journeys that they themselves have taken that Gandalf and Aragorn are able to bring Théoden out of his dark places into the light and then onwards into battle with little hope first against Saruman and then the Dark Lord himself. They teach Théoden that beyond all nights there is a dawn and that at the ending of this world of shadows there is the True Dawn.

Near my home there is a woodland with two streams running through it that join at its heart. Last year in the dark months I did not venture into it except in the daylight. This year I have decided to make a daily journey in it to the point where the streams join a spiritual exercise. I want to make my own dark journey through the woods. It is only a journey of a couple of hundred yards but each day I leave the known way of the path that runs past the woods and step into them into sudden and deeper dark. I realise that I am reliant on my memory of familiar points along my way and also the feel of the ground beneath my feet. There is a narrow path through the woods though it is not distinct enough for me to be able to see it, even at my feet. I rely on making out the difference between feel of the trodden down ground of the path and the softer ground that lies to either side of it beneath my boots. At present I am concentrating on the physical experience. How it feels not to be able to see, the moments of anxiety when I miss my way, and the excitement and relief when I meet the joining of the streams or clasp a great beech tree that tells me that I am near the end of my own dark journey. Eventually I would like to develop a form of prayer that will make the experience more consciously my own and help me to open my self to whatever gifts this place and the walk through it at this dark time of the year might be awaiting me. Most of all I seek the dawn that come only through journeying through the dark of the night. Maybe I will meet and overcome the monsters in my own psyche. Maybe I will journey through my own sense of loss and the death of my hopes as Aragorn does.

What Can the Weather Teach Us?

Gandalf and Théoden emerge from the darkened hall and stand upon the highest stair. How long is it since Théoden last stood there? As if to emphasise the point Tolkien tells us that a keen wind is whistling in through the doors and breaking up the musty stillness of the hall.

“Now, lord,” says Gandalf, “look out upon your land! Breathe the free air again!”

And as Théoden breathes and the cold air fills his lungs Tolkien tells us that “curtains of wind-blown rain were slanting down.” In his first venture into the open air in many a long day the king of Rohan is getting wet!

It is, of course, no mistake that Tolkien wishes to draw our attention to the weather. The contrast must be drawn between the dead and darkened air of Théoden’s hall with a wizened old man shrinking into the shadows and the keen air that blows over a wide land bearing a cleansing rain upon a mighty king who has come into the light. Théoden is being washed clean and he must stand and take whatever the weather chooses to throw at him. We might even say that he needs this weather; that a warm and gentle breeze upon a spring morning would not be sufficient for him.

It is the essence of the Babel story found in the bible that humankind wishes to create a city that shuts God out, one that is self-controlled and self-contained. In our own time we seem closer than ever before to making the story a reality. Our ability to create micro-environments in homes, places of leisure and work and in the modes of transport that take us from one to another of these places bears witness to our mastery over the world. We are the lords of Babel indeed! We are our own gods now! We may note that just as in the old story the peoples may be divided from one another but we have progressed from the early story-tellers and their world. We can build high walls with strong gates to bar the outsider so that our personal Babels are both environmentally and socially controlled. London may be the tuberculosis capital of Europe but as long as we can keep the poor who are afflicted by the disease from our gates then it matters very little. We may even be able to persuade our government to withdraw the right to free healthcare from such people and so reduce our taxes.

And while this happens we do not even notice that spiritually we are becoming the shrunken dwarf that was Théoden before Gandalf freed him. We do not know that we become ever more helpless before our foes for we surround ourselves with counselors like Wormtongue in the form of our newspapers and other media outlets and in our gatherings of like minded acquaintances.

How we need a Gandalf to set us free from our darkened halls, to lead us out into real and uncontrolled weather and to make us stand there until we are made clean by the icy rains of reality. How we need a counselor who will say to us, “cast aside regret and fear… do the deed at hand.” One who will take us out of the half lives of our present age and make us truly human, fully alive.

And if we do not have such a counselor then we must take ourselves out into the weather day after day until it has taught us that which we need to hear.

Théoden Unbound!

Perhaps one of the most tragic elements of the prisons that we build for ourselves is that they seem to be eternal and that there is no way out of them. Théoden’s very body seems to conspire with him to ensure that he remains locked inside it. You may remember that I described him as being very old and yet he is younger than Aragorn. In part this is because of Aragorn’s lineage. He is of the house of Elendil the Numenorean, a people granted long life because of their faithfulness in the long struggle against the powers of darkness, but even among his own people Aragorn is regarded as exceptional. Théoden’s decrepitude is due in part to the whisperings of Wormtongue but also it is his own work. He has chosen to become the shrunken creature that Gandalf and his companions first encounter in the darkened halls of Meduseld.

Théoden’s own personal prison is one of shame. He feels the condemnation of his mighty ancestor whose image he looks upon each day. Eorl the Young rides into battle and glory while he sits helplessly by as his kingdom disintegrates about him. The agony of his shame is slowly killing him and yet he chooses this over the way of Eorl, who risked all upon one charge against overwhelming odds. He may be in misery but at least he is alive. We may question whether it is a life worth holding onto but habit is a powerful thing and Théoden fears the unknown more than the dark he has become accustomed to.

The seemingly eternal nature of our prisons is one of the most tragic elements of them but because they are in large part self-built our hope lies in the fact that in a moment we can be free of them. The most human of the three books that make up Dante’s great work, The Divine Comedy, is the second, entitled Purgatory. It is the most human because it is closest to our own condition, that is neither eternal bliss nor eternal misery. Those who dwell in purgatory are in chains and yet carry the hope of liberation even if that hope feels like the last flickering ember of a fire that once burnt brightly. It is also most human because those in purgatory can be free in a moment. They can learn that the burdens they carry are not an eternal punishment but can be cast away. Bunyan’s pilgrim finds the same thing at the foot of the cross when his burden falls from his back. Théoden journeys from shrunken old man to leader in battle in a few short steps and with his liberation comes the liberation of his people too.

John O’Donohue describes both the building of prisons and our liberation from them in his wonderful book, Eternal Echoes. In it he speaks of the kind of prisons we choose to build for ourselves, the fixed images that we assign to ourselves, images that inevitably begin to atrophy just as soon as we create them. He writes: “Fear and negativity are immense forces which constantly tussle with us. They long to turn the mansions of the soul into haunted rooms. These are the living conditions for which fear and negativity long and in which they thrive. We were sent here to live life to the full. When you manage to be generous in your passion and vulnerability, life always comes to bless you.”

“When you manage to be generous in your passion and vulnerability life always comes to bless you.” What wonderful words of hope! Dante’s prisoners of purgatory, Bunyan’s pilgrim at the cross and Théoden stepping out from his darkened hall into the light all find this blessing and all find it as they take the first steps of vulnerability. And so can we if we do the same.

Théoden Bound and Ashamed

Gandalf and his companions enter Théoden’s darkened hall whose majesty lies half hidden in shadows. Around them upon the walls hang many woven cloths and “over their wide spaces marched figures of ancient legend”. To one in particular their eyes are drawn even before they look upon the king himself because in the dark the light of the sun has fallen upon it through an opening high in the roof. “A young man upon a white horse… blowing a great horn… his yellow hair flowing in the wind.”

“Behold Eorl the Young!” said Aragorn. “Thus he rode out of the North to the Battle of the Field of Celebrant.”

That we should look upon Eorl before we see the king is no accident. Eorl is forever young and Théoden is old; very old indeed. He is a man “so bent with age that he seemed almost a dwarf.” Eorl is bathed in sunlight while Théoden is hidden in the shadows. Tolkien means us to gaze upon Eorl in his majesty because that is where Théoden himself looks and what he sees acts as a constant reproach to him. Eorl rides to battle, to victory and to glory while Théoden sits helplessly by as he hears daily of defeat, of the death of his only son in battle and of the impending doom of his house and of his people. Almost his last words just a few weeks later at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields will be, “I go to my fathers. And even in their mighty company I shall not now be ashamed.”

Théoden has been ashamed, literally crippled and shrunken by shame even as Wormtongue’s whisperings have steadily weakened his resolve. Faced by the dangers that surround him he has withdrawn behind the diminishing safety of his own walls yet even there the image of his mighty ancestor rebukes him. Age must come to us all if we live long enough to see it and many find that the world about them becomes a more fearful place. Tove Jansson, writer of the wonderful Moomintroll stories, summered for many years on an island some way off the coast of Finland. One day she stepped out of her hut on the island to gaze upon the sea and she was suddenly afraid, a feeling she had never known before in that place. When she left her island as the summer ended it was to be for the last time. She never returned there again.

Théoden is freed from the prison of his own walls by Gandalf. We will think more about that next week. He will then throw himself into life for a few brief and dangerous days before finally falling in battle before the walls of Minas Tirith. Those for whom the most important thing in life is to achieve security will find Gandalf’s behaviour reprehensible and Théoden’s foolish. What kind of care for the aged is it that counsels leaving safety and care and going into battle? Yet Gandalf’s counsel will enable Théoden to break free from fear and from shame and to die a free man. Who would deny him this? And which of us are in danger of denying freedom to ourselves and building darkened prisons for our own souls?

A Life as Brief as a Sparrow’s Flight

As Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli approach Edoras, the dwelling place of Théoden, King of Rohan and the Rohirrim they ponder the story of that people. Five hundred years the Rohirrim have dwelt in that land since first Eorl the Young led them to the field of Celebrant to aid the people of Gondor in battle. To them that day is so long ago that they have no memory of what came before but to Legolas, ageless wood elf of the Greenwood, those five hundred fallings of the leaves seem “but a little while.” And so Tolkien calls to mind another of the great themes of his stories, the great difference between elves and humankind. The sorrow of being human is to know the brevity of life; the sorrow of being an elf is not themselves to know death and yet to know the decay and loss of all else that lies about them.

Aragorn, who served Théoden’s father, Thengel, at one time in his youth, sings one of the songs of the Rohirrim in their own tongue. Legolas, not knowing the tongue, speaks of it as “laden with the sadness of Mortal Men.”

Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing? Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?…Who shall gather the smoke of the dead wood burning, Or behold the flowing years from the Sea returning?”

It is the image of the vain attempt to gather up the smoke of the fire that is most poignant in the song reminding us that we, who are mortal, can no more hold onto life than to perform this impossible task.

Tolkien was one of the greatest scholars of early English of his time and surely here he recalls the famous speech recounted by the Venerable Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People in which the pagan priest, Coifi, addresses Edwin, mighty king of the Northumbrians. Paulinus has just declared the Christian message to the king and Coifi speaks.

“It seems to me that the life of a man on earth is like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the hall, where you, O King, sit at table on a winter’s day with your captains and counsellors. In the midst of the hall there is a comforting fire to warm it. Outside the storms of winter rain and snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one window of that hall and out through another. While he is inside, the bird is safe from the winter storms, but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. So man appears upon earth for a little while- but of what went before this life, or what follows, we know nothing.”

I first heard this story as a young boy and this image seared itself into my consciousness. I could see the hall of the king, the fire burning brightly, the winter storm blowing outside. I could see the bird flying swiftly from one window to another. And at some level, perhaps beyond understanding, I knew that life was short, so heartbreakingly short.

When Gandalf and his companions arrive at Meduseld, the hall of the king, they find the Rohirrim, bowed down under the weight of this consciousness and unmanned by the whisperings of Grima Wormtongue, secret servant of Saruman. But soon the people of Rohan will be woken to new hope and to brave deeds. They will find such meaning in their brief life that they will be able to stand against all the powers of darkness that now oppress them.

But that is for another week…

You Are Our Captain

How wonderful it is to be able to find clarity and purpose after long doubt and uncertainty. We have followed Aragorn through doubt until his choice to follow Merry and Pippin brought him serenity even when all seemed lost and it seemed that the best he could achieve was to find the young hobbits and then starve with them in the forest. He had found a peace but it was the peace of someone who had given all that they could but who must now lay down their struggle and their life. It was the peace that someone finds when all hope is gone but there remains the knowledge that the choice was right and that is now enough.

“Come Aragorn, son of Arathorn!” says Gandalf. “Do not regret your choice in the valley of the Emyn Muil, nor call it a vain pursuit. You chose amid doubts the path that seemed right: the choice was just and it has been rewarded. For so we have met in time who otherwise might have met too late.”

How wonderful it is to find clarity after long doubt and so it is for Aragorn as he meets Gandalf once more after long night. How wonderful it is to hear this well done from one he has long thought of as father. And at this moment, although he has laboured long and hard, he has energy for any task to which he might be called, indeed he longs to receive orders again.

“The quest of your companions is over. Your next journey is marked by your given word. You must go to Edoras and seek out Théoden in his hall. For you are needed.”

Saruman is now in open war against Rohan. He fears that Théoden might possess the Ring now that his messengers have been slain by Eomer’s war band? Aragorn must aid Théoden in this fight. All weariness falls from him.

“You are our captain and our banner,” he declares to Gandalf. “The Dark Lord has Nine. But we have One, mightier than they: the White Rider. He has passed through fire and the abyss, and they shall fear him. We will go where he leads.”

Most men unless they have passed over into despair will feel the thrill of these words for most of us long for a true captain to follow. Sadly many pass through life having never found that captain or, even more tragically, to have found one who seemed to be what we sought but who has proved faithless. The faithless captain is one who seeks their own gain above all else and who will sacrifice others to that end. Aragorn knows that Gandalf is not faithless and he will not rest until the struggle is ended being willing to sacrifice himself for the sake of those who follow him. Men love such leaders and will follow them through thick and thin if they can find them.

Ernest Shackleton, a Faithful Captain

It is a lonely moment when we realise that unless we are prepared to be the leader the task will not be done. It is a lonely moment when we realise that unless we make the sacrifice then there will be a company of people who cannot be free. To have a sense that what we do has meaning and truth sets us free. “How are the people to know that they are faithful” wrote Anglican theologian, Richard Hooker in the sixteenth century, “unless their captains tell them?” Gandalf has told Aragorn that he has proved faithful and now he has strength to fight. How much we need such captains. Perhaps we have been called to be such a captain to a company of people ourselves.

On Learning to Receive Good News

It can almost be as hard to receive and believe unexpected good news as it is to receive and believe the opposite. Disappointment can become a habit of life and preparing for it so that we can bear it when it comes can become the main discipline of our inner lives. The expectation of disappointment and our preparation for its “inevitable” arrival has a way of creeping into every fibre of our being. We will see this negative expectation at work in two major characters of The Lord of the Rings in later postings on this blog. One is Théoden of Rohan and the other is Denethor of Gondor.

The return of Gandalf is one of the glorious moments of the whole story. We saw him fall with the Balrog into the abyss in Moria, crying, “Fly, you fools!” as he did so. We shared in the grief of his companions at his loss and in the sense that their task had become so much harder if not impossible. We have reflected more than once on how for Aragorn the unexpected burden of the leadership of the company threw him into doubt regarding his personal ambitions. And we could say that although it was the attack of the orcs that finally sundered the Fellowship of the Ring that it was from the fall of Gandalf that such a sundering became inevitable.

And now in the Forest of Fangorn as Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli bravely pursue what seems a hopeless cause, Gandalf returns to them.

“They all gazed at him. His hair was white as snow in the sunshine; and gleaming white was his robe; the eyes under his deep brows were bright, piercing as the rays of the sun; power was in his hand. Between wonder, joy and fear they stood and found no words to say.”

They are able to receive this good news with joy and then to continue their journey with renewed hope. Soon they will know that there is no point in continuing to search for Merry and Pippin. They will waste no time on comments like, “so why did we bother, then?” Only one thing will matter to them and that will be to do the next task, and then the next one and the next one. In this they differ from Théoden (at first at least) and from Denethor. Denethor, most of all, has become so set in his belief that good days are only pauses on the inevitable road to destruction that he considers all who continue to have hope as fools and so Gandalf is dismissively called the “grey fool”. In Théoden despair is mixed with guilt. He regards himself as a failed king. Aragorn is different from both. He has passed through his time of despair, not even regarding his own failure as something that disqualifies him from doing the next task with all the strength that he can bring to it.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German pastor, theologian and anti-Nazi resister, wrote powerfully about this not long before he was arrested and held in the Tegel prison in Berlin.

He reflected on ten years of resistance to the Third Reich within Germany, much of which had been ineffective, and upon all that he and his fellow resisters had learnt through those years. He wrote that he had learnt that it was of no importance whether anyone emerged as a hero from this experience. All that mattered was to keep on asking the question, day after day after day, “How is the next generation to live?” Aragorn has stopped worrying about whether he is a hero or whether others see him as one. All that matters is the task. Once that is clear to him he has no barrier within himself to weeping tears of sorrow or of joy and no barrier to living a faithful life.