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.

 

Faramir shows us a Man who is his True Self

When I first began to think about writing about The Lord of the Rings a particular scene from the story came to mind before any other. Frodo and Sam are in the refuge behind the Falls of Henneth Annûn and are about to eat with Faramir and his men.

“Before they ate, Faramir and all his men turned and faced west in a moment of silence. Faramir signed to Frodo and Sam that they should do likewise.

‘So we always do,’ he said as they sat down: ‘we look towards Numenor that was, and beyond to Elvenhome that is, and to that which is beyond Elvenhome and will ever be.'”

Even now as I write these words I am deeply moved by them. In a brief moment of formal gesture we learn of all that inspires the best in the people of Gondor. It is an action that takes but a moment to learn but whose meaning requires a lifetime of faithfulness in order to understand. It is not enough simply to know the history and the faith that lies behind the action although the next time I write this blog I will write about this history and this faith a little more. What is required for true understanding is to live this history and this faith. All present at this meal are faithful in the deed. Perhaps only Faramir is faithful in all that the deed signifies.

I first read The Lord of the Rings as a young teenager. I will be forever grateful to my classmate, Jon Flint for introducing it to me. Jon was the son of a senior officer in the Royal Air Force and in many ways a Faramir like figure or one I can imagine Faramir being as a boy. At first we mistook his love of poetry and art for a kind of weakness, even effeminacy, and we began to torment him. One straight left punch into the nose of a tormentor was enough to teach us our mistake! I can imagine Faramir teaching similar lessons. In a moment I learnt that manliness and a love of beauty could exist in one person. Thank you, Jon.

Tolkien was a man of profound spiritual insight and I feel that in the creation of Faramir he displays that insight quite wonderfully. Recently I began to re-read Thomas Merton’s great spiritual classic of the late twentieth century, The New Man, and as I did so I could not help but feel that Faramir was an example of the kind of person that Merton was describing.

“In those who are most alive and therefore most themselves, the life of the body is subordinated to a higher life that is within them. It quietly surrenders to the far more abundant vitality of a spirit living on levels that defy measurement and observation. The mark of true life in man is therefore not turbulence but control, not effervescence but lucidity and direction, not passion but the sobriety that sublimates all passion and elevates it to the clear inebriation of mysticism. The control we mean here is not arbitrary and tyrannical control by an interior principle which can be called variously, a ‘super-ego’ or a pharisaical conscience: it is the harmonious coordination of man’s powers into one perfect actuality which is his true self, that is to say his spiritual self.

Man, then, can only fully be said to be alive when he becomes plainly conscious of the real meaning of his own existence, that is to say when he experiences something of the fullness of intelligence, freedom and spirituality that are actualised within himself.”

Frodo felt “strangely rustic and untutored” in the presence of Faramir at the moment of silent recollection even as I do before Merton’s words here. Perhaps the best I can do is to offer my desire to learn and so to grow into my true self which is my spiritual self.

Gandalf’s Dark Journey

Already we have seen signs that Gandalf is not what he was before Moria. He is no longer Gandalf the Grey but the White and he describes himself as being what Saruman should have been. There is a potency in him that Aragorn and his companions have not seen before so that when Aragorn names him, Captain, it is a recognition of that potency. It is a recognition too of a turning of the tide. The brave but seemingly hopeless pursuit of the young hobbits and their captors is at an end and now there is a call to war.

And this moment of transformation comes for them all after a dark journey. For Aragorn it comes after doubt and then a commitment to a hopeless task. For Gandalf it comes after his mighty battle against the Balrog in Moria, a battle described in the language of myth, a struggle of super beings, of warfare in heaven where Michael the Archangel does battle with Satan and casts him out down to the earth. It is a battle that takes Gandalf to unimaginable depths and heights and eventually it costs him his life.

“Then darkness took me, and I strayed out of thought and time, and I wandered far on roads that I will not tell…Naked I was sent back- for a brief time, until my task is done.”

The great spiritual traditions all know the dark journey. The long sojourn of the children of Israel in the wilderness and the captivity in Babylon; Jesus in the wilderness, fasting forty days and nights, surrounded by wild beasts and tempted by the devil; St Anthony in the desert doing battle with the demons and the spiritual tradition of the monastary that was inspired by his example; the Dark Night of the Soul of St John of the Cross in which all consolation is taken away so that the soul learns at last to cleave to God without consolation. And if we listen to the wisdom that the great traditions have to teach us then our own journeys through the dark can be journeys not of loss but of transformation.

I suspect that it has never been easy for us to be able to embrace the dark journey. If it were easy then why is the journey so often described in the language of elemental struggle? It is striking that so much literature written for children lives with this language quite comfortably and that so much so called “adult” literature shies away from it. Even in the world of contemporary spiritual literature the really popular titles are of books that promise “success” and the overcoming of our inner demons. The language that we are most comfortable with is that of ascent. This is not surprising. Our fear is that when we descend into the abyss it may be without a bottom and there may be no way out of it. When William Shannon first wrote his excellent biography of the 20th century American monk, Thomas Merton, he entitled it, “Thomas Merton’s Dark Journey.” When I bought my copy a few years later the title had become “Thomas Merton’s Paradise Journey.” I did not mind too much. The content was the same and I knew that the Dark Journey and the Paradise Journey are one and the same thing for those prepared to travel on them but I suspect that the publishers may have felt that the second title may have been easier to sell than the first.

The Lord of the Rings is a dark journey and Tolkien employs the language of myth to take us on it. Wisely he does not try to preach to us but I suspect that much of its popularity is because as we read it we are taken on this journey at a level below our consciousness. This will have done more good than any can tell. Deeds done in the unseen world can never be measured. But it is possible to allow this great myth to teach us to embrace our own dark journeys and to find the courage to endure them and the hope that we will at last find transformation just as Gandalf and Aragorn do.