Legolas and Gimli teach us about the Mystery of a Person

“No common recipe for children’s stories will give you creatures so rooted in their own soul and history as those of Professor Tolkien- who obviously knows much more about them than he needs for this tale.” So wrote C.S Lewis in his anonymous review of The Hobbit in a 1937 edition of The Times Literary Supplement. Lewis himself knew perfectly well that Tolkien knew far more about his creations than was required for The Hobbit for he was privy to his friend’s labours in the creation of a world that had already taken the best part of a quarter of a century.

What this means is that every character in Tolkien’s work has a depth that is almost unique in literature. For not only do we have the development of a character within each of his books but also the way in which each character has been shaped by a particular history, not just their own but that of their people, and not just of their people but the way in which their people’s history has interacted with a greater one.

So it is that Legolas and Gimli bring to each of their actions within The Lord of The Rings the kind of depth that any person brings when they walk into our lives. However, they may bring that depth but we may not ever perceive it because we choose not to make the effort to do so. Equally it is possible to read the stories of Legolas and Gimli within The Lord of the Rings as just being there to make up the numbers in the Fellowship or to set in some kind of relief the bigger figures in the story, such as Aragorn. Of course it is one of the features of all of our lives to set each other’s stories in relief. It is a humble and humbling feature of our lives that in relation to the story of an Other we may only be comic relief for example, but this kind of shallow reflection of one another is all too common. Tolkien does not make that mistake and in his description of the Battle of Helm’s Deep in which Legolas and Gimli’s participation does have comedic elements we know that both bring with them a long history with orcs and with one another that makes some sense of their counting game.

Gimli will not have forgotten that his father, Gloin was once the prisoner of Legolas’ father, Thranduil of Mirkwood. Dwarves keep long scores of wrongs done to them and their forebears. And Elves who have the longest memories of all would remember betrayals by Dwarves that went back to The First Age of Middle Earth and the wars with Morgoth of Angband. So it is that when Legolas and Gimli stand and fight together we know that a profound act of healing and reconciliation has taken place that that belongs not only to the pages of The Lord of the Rings but also other stories too.

We do not have the time to tell these stories now. I hope there may be other occasions when we are able to return to them. What we can see now is that all our stories are a mysterious weaving of personal and greater histories, of character and of archetype, of word and of flesh. We do wrong to ourselves and to one another when we reduce ourselves and one another to merely the personal or merely the greater. Gimli is not just a Dwarf nor Legolas just an Elf. I am not just English. Actually I know I am not just English because through my great grandparents on my mother’s side I am part Irish and through my great grandparents on my father’s side I am part Italian. But I cannot be reduced even to that bigger story, there are so many other layers too. I am a mystery even to myself and always will be. And if I am to do due honour to others then I am not permitted to reduce them to some small part of my own tale. They are far too big, far too mysterious for that. I must seek to give them the worthship to which they are due.

And The Stillness The Dancing

Last week I wrote about Théoden, King of Rohan, offering himself as suffering servant to his people in their darkest hour; and the week before about Eowyn gazing into the west as the armies of Rohan went to war. And there is a line from T.S Eliot’s “Four Quartets” that comes to mind as I think about these moments in the story.

“So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.”

In thinking about this line I hope we will see that Théoden and Eowyn are in different places in their spiritual journeys at this point of the story and perhaps we might gain some insight into our own story, our own journey.

Théoden has embraced the dark journey not as one who seeks to be the servant of the dark as does Sauron and now Saruman too but as one who has come to trust a loving goodness that can only be found upon that journey. Through all the sad days of his decline he had believed the great lie that Grima Wormtongue had told him that the dark was both something to be feared and yet also inevitable. And in believing the lie he did what all who believe it must do and that is do all he can to shut out the dark for as long as possible. Now he is able to lead his people into battle not as some last despairing howl of rage but as an act of faith. Théoden and the people who will follow him will find through this act of faith that the darkness is the light.

Proud and faithful Eowyn whose part in the story has been to watch the decline of her king who was a man who had been as a father to her, and with him her people also, has not yet reached that place of rest. As she gazes after the riders as they pass into the west her hope is in one of them and her longing is for him also. For in her encounter with Aragorn, mighty heir of Elendil and Isildur, she has met one she believes can free her from her shame and despair. She longs to be at peace but by choosing this way to peace she can never find it.

One day she will find her peace even as Théoden has found it but she must make her dark journey too and we must be lovingly patient with her and with ourselves also. Few of us will discover that the darkness is the light and the stillness the dancing except by way of despair. We may spend years hoping for the wrong thing or loving the wrong thing but on making that journey we will eventually learn to wait and as Théoden has found, “the faith and the hope and the love are all in the waiting.”

“I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope

For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love

For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith

But the faith and the hope and the love are all in the waiting.

Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:

So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.”

 

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.”

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.

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.

Happy are Those Who Struggle

If Sauron were leader of the Fellowship, setting out from Rivendell in possession of the Ring, what would he do? Gandalf knows that it is a question that Sauron has asked himself. Sauron knows that the Fellowship left Rivendell and that they possessed the Ring. He knows something of each member of the Fellowship and that there are hobbits among them. And Gandalf knows that he fears that the Fellowship will go to Minas Tirith and there one of them will wield the Ring, assail Mordor with war, cast him down and take his place. Boromir counselled  that they should go to Minas Tirith but not that one of them should wield the Ring. He hid this desire even from himself.  And Gandalf and Galadriel were tempted to wield the Ring as well. Remember the occasions when Frodo offered the Ring to them, first to Gandalf at Bag End in the Shire and later to Galadriel in Lothlorien. Remember that both were tempted to the very limits of their strength to take it and seek to use it to cast Sauron down. Sauron knows that both have the capacity to do this and so he is afraid. He will unleash war against Minas Tirith as swiftly as he can before his enemies are strong enough to use the Ring to destroy him.

But…

What if Sauron is wrong? What if, as Gandalf says, “we should wish to cast him down and have no one in his place?” This not is a thought that “occurs to his mind”. And Gandalf continues: “that we should try to destroy the Ring itself has not entered into his darkest dream.” Indeed Sauron is incapable of dreaming such things. Our dreams, whether waking or sleeping, are the fruit of our spiritual practice. By this I do not mean our religious practices although they can be of help to us in the shaping of our spiritual practice. What I mean is how we cultivate our desire. For Gandalf and Galadriel desire is a deeply complex thing. On the one hand they long to heal the world, to right wrongs and set things right. On the other hand the thought that the power to do this might fall into their hands and that they might be the heroic saviours of the world with all flocking to their banner is deeply attractive. You will note that Boromir desired the same thing. But Sauron does not suffer this agony. He has a different agony because for him only one thing has meaning and that is power over others for it is only power that can free him from the fear that haunts him, his agony that never leaves him, the fear that one day someone will have the power to destroy him and take his place.

Happy are those who know spiritual struggle. Happy are those who wrestle against their own weakness and who begin to learn their own limitations. Happy are those who learn to laugh at themselves, who know that they are not the centre of everything and that it is just as well for everyone that this should be so. Happy are those who know that they have a contribution to make and who make it with a proper self respect but who know that others have a contribution to make too and it may be that the others will receive more praise than they will. And happy are those who just sometimes wish that they could be praised too and allow a wry smile as they recognise the lingering potency of that desire!

Unhappy is Sauron and all like him who do not know this struggle, whose spiritual lives are simple, having been reduced to the pursuit of one desire. Kierkegaard once said that simplicity is to will one thing and he is right. Perhaps it is possible to achieve such simplicity in pursuit of the good. There are signs in The Lord of the Rings that Gandalf and Galadriel have achieved such simplicity. Jesus finally achieves it at the moment when he says, “Father into your hands I commend my spirit.” But if it is achieved then it is a victory won as the fruit of a renunciation that is a profound struggle that tests them and everyone who pursue such simplicity to their limit and beyond.

The Temptation of St Anthony

This has to be a word of hope to all of us who struggle. Our struggle should not be a cause of pity in others. Rather others should pity us only if we give up fighting. But more of that next week. 

On Learning How to Receive Good Gifts

With long but steady strides Treebeard takes Merry and Pippin on a long journey across the Fangorn Forest but at its ending they are in a safe place for the first time since leaving Lothlorien. They are in Wellinghall at the foot of the Misty Mountains, one of Treebeard’s dwelling places in the forest. “I like it,” he says. “We will stay here tonight.”

Treebeard gives Merry and Pippin a drink very like the water of the Entwash that they had drunk earlier that day near the borders of the forest after escaping the orcs and Tolkien tells us that the water had “some scent or savour in it which they could not describe: it was faint, but it reminded them of the smell of a distant wood borne from afar by a cool breeze at night.” Tolkien seems to have had a particular love for this kind of description. He hints at what it is that his characters remember. They are “reminded” of the smell and the wood is “distant” and its savour “borne from afar”. Later in his description of Aragorn’s use of athelas to heal those who have been wounded in the Houses of Healing after the Battle of The Pelennor Fields he uses it in a particularly poignant manner. Instead of a simple and straightforward description of the properties of the herb or of the drink he evokes the memory of a sensation, a memory that lies hidden at the edge of consciousness. In the case of Aragorn’s use of athelas this is especially striking. When he uses it to bathe Frodo’s wound after the attack at Weathertop we are simply told that “the fragrance of the steam was refreshing, and those that were unhurt felt their minds calmed and cleared.” In the Houses of Healing Tolkien again hints at memories that are evoked by the effect of the steam. It is as if the memory, mingled with the working upon the senses of the aroma of the herb crushed in warm water and the hands of the true king, achieves the healing of body and soul and spirit together.

 

Here it is not so much healing that is achieved. That came about if you remember when the hobbits drank of the streams of the Entwash earlier that day. Here Merry and Pippin find refreshment and nourishment but what refreshment; what nourishment! Later their friends will observe that they have grown in stature and other hobbits will find them almost intimidating.

Image

 

What a journey they have been upon since their capture by the orcs and Pippin’s unhappy description of himself as “a nuisance: a passenger, a piece of luggage”. They have been through a kind of initiation together and now they are warriors and ready for battle. There is nothing that they have done which has brought about this transformation except their refusal to give up and their total loyalty to their friends and to the quest even though all seems hopeless. Later this will be described as a “gentle loyalty” thus distinguishing it from the fierce loyalty of battle hardened members of the Fellowship like Gimli or Legolas, but it is loyalty nonetheless. In Tolkien’s Christian understanding of such things no gift can be described as a payment to honour a contractual obligation. The hobbits did not encounter Treebeard or drink “of the draughts of Fangorn” as their due wage for loyalty. But without that loyalty no gift could have been received. The same is true for us. It is by means of our commitment to the good that we, like Merry and Pippin, will be capable of receiving gifts that will transform us.