His Name is Peregrin, a Very Valiant Man.

Thus declares Gandalf when challenged by the guards of the Rammas Echor, the defence that surrounds the fields of the Pelennor, the fertile farm lands that lie before the great city of Minas Tirith. Ingold, their commander, recognises Gandalf who has been to the city many times but who is his small companion? Gandalf replies:

“As for valour, that cannot be computed by stature. He has passed through more battles and perils than you have, Ingold, though you be twice his height; and he comes now from the storming of Isengard, of which we bear tidings, and great weariness is on him, or I would wake him. His name is Peregrin, a very valiant man.”

A few weeks ago we thought about the journey of Samwise Gamgee from simple gardener to mighty warrior. By doing so we did not seek to diminish the calling of gardener. Sam will return to his gardens gladly but he will be a kingly gardener even as Faramir will be a kingly gardener as Prince of Ithilien, the Garden of Gondor. The journey to manhood must pass through hardship, peril and battle. Such a journey will make a boy a warrior and perhaps a lover and a wise teacher too; and if the journey is continued until its ending it will make the man kingly.

Pippin began the journey as a boy. His ambition on its second full day, even after the first encounters with the Ringwraiths, was limited to spending as much time as possible in The Golden Perch at Stock in the East Farthing of the Shire and enjoying its excellent beer. That day lies just a few short months ago in the past and Pippin will never lose the boyishness that will always make him so attractive but since that day he has passed through the attack upon the camp below Weathertop, the fall of Gandalf at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm, the time he spent as a prisoner of the orcs of Isengard and then the time with Treebeard and the storming of Isengard. And last and as significant as all of these there is the humiliation that he suffered before the ravenous gaze of Sauron when he looked into the Seeing Stone of Orthanc.

All of these things have transformed Pippin, not by some kind of magical action that happens simply when a person passes through hardship and failure but by the wisdom that is learnt through such experience. Pippin is a little sadder and much wiser through what he has learnt so he declares:

“I am a hobbit and no more valiant than I am a man, save perhaps now and again by necessity.”

Ingold immediately recognises that these are words spoken by a true warrior one who has truly learnt the lessons of hardship. A boy would try to convince others of his courage by boastfulness. Pippin is no longer a boy.

The words that Gandalf spoke were not just intended for Ingold and his men but for Pippin also. Gandalf knows that whatever lies ahead Pippin will need great courage. In calling Pippin a man he calls him to manly deeds and bearing. Pippin may make light of all that he has been through. He is more aware of what he owes to the courage of Boromir and his humiliation with the Palantir than he is of any deed he may have performed but his back is a little straighter and he stands a little taller because of Gandalf’s words. Perhaps we should say especially because they are Gandalf’s words. Pippin will remember Gandalf’s angry rebukes.  A boy usually needs the blessing, the approval of a wise father in order to become a true man. “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Pippin has received a father’s blessing. He is Peregrin, a very valiant man.

An Agent of Saruman or a friend to Treebeard

Treebeard has learnt sympathy during the long years of his sojourn in Middle-earth. On learning from Gandalf that Saruman has refused to leave Orthanc he says:

“So Saruman would not leave?… I did not think he would. His heart is as rotten as a black Huorn’s. Still, if I were overcome and all my trees destroyed, I would not come while I had one dark hole left to hide in.”

“No,” said Gandalf. “But you have not plotted to cover all the world with your trees and choke all other living things.”

For Saruman had indeed dreamed and plotted to cover the world and to rule over it. Many have commented that it was the creeping spread of industrial Birmingham in the English Midlands into the Worcestershire countryside where Tolkien grew up that inspired much of the story of The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien grew up in the village of Hall Green. I know this now as a suburb of Birmingham that lies well within the modern city boundary a few miles to the north of my own home. I can well see how he would have seen this encroachment as an invasion.

My own home lies still within the Worcestershire countryside. As I write this on a frosty February morning I can detect the first signs of approaching Spring about me. Soon I will see swans, ducks, moorhens and coots marking out their territories in the waters around my home and soon after I will see them raising their young once more. I have made the acquaintance of an angler who sits patiently by the waters through the warmer months of the year. I say acquaintance for like most anglers he is a marsh wiggle by nature and keeps himself to himself but he is ready to share his wisdom as long as I don’t disturb him from more important matters. The best time to talk is at the end of the day when he is about to make his way home. He has taught me where the kingfishers will make their nest and, for me, most exciting of all, where he has seen an otter and her cub, something not seen near here for many a year. And he knows the difference between the native otter and the pernicious foreign mink so I believe in his sighting. One day…one day… I hope to see an otter near my home myself.

I think that Tolkien would have loved the country near my home. Indeed he probably knew it himself. And yet if I walk towards the small town near where I live it is not long before I reach a major highway that cuts through the heart of the county. I have written before about my early morning walks through woodland with my dog in the autumn and winter darkness. What I have not mentioned is the noise of traffic from the highway. The dark of the woodland is real thanks both to the trees themselves and to a high embankment that lies between them and the road but so too is the noise.

I have developed a form of prayer for my daily walks with my dog and more and more I feel that the place in which I pray is a part and a vital part of the prayer. It is not some simplistic expression of “all that is green and living is good and all that is asphalt is bad”. I am too much implicated by own participation in the modern world to be able to do that without being justly called a hypocrite. But it is right that my prayer should happen at this point of tension in the woodland by the highway in which I do not know how much I am an agent of Saruman or a friend to Treebeard. Last year a group of folk planted the land between the woodland and the highway with hundreds of young saplings. That was a fine deed. Perhaps by supporting it I can offer something to Treebeard and to the Worcestershire man who created that character and in whose Shire I still live.

Saruman Fails To Get The Joke!

After a journey of wonders the company led by Théoden and Gandalf arrive at the gates of Isengard to find them cast down and in ruins with a great rubble heap piled up beside them “and suddenly there were aware of two small figures lying on it at their ease…There were bottles, bowls and platters laid beside them, as if they had eaten well, and now rested from their labour.” And so it is that after all the adventures that have befallen the company since its sundering at Tol Brandir Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas are re-united with Merry and Pippin.

This is a good tale to tell at Christmas for as Mary’s great song from The Gospel of Luke chapter 1 tells us, with the coming of the Messiah the mighty are cast down from their seats and the humble and meek are exalted, the hungry are filled with good things and the rich are sent empty away. It was indeed Saruman’s intention to bring the hobbits to Isengard but we can be sure that he had no intention to feast them upon the best of his food amidst the ruins of his once mighty fortress. And yet it is precisely because of his intentions that Saruman has been cast down from his seat and that hobbits, the least significant of creatures, have been the means of his downfall. For the orcs that Saruman sent to bring the hobbits to his dungeons were able to bring them swiftly to Fangorn where they met Treebeard, the most ancient of Ents. And it was through that meeting that the Ents were roused from their long slumber, marched upon Isengard and reduced it to ruins.

There is no doubt that Tolkien takes pleasure in the comic elements of the scene he paints for us. The small figures who could not be less heroic, the piles of empty dishes and bottles, the smoke rising from pipes smoked at ease (and as anyone who has ever tried to smoke a pipe will tell you it is necessary to be at ease in order to smoke one well!) and all this amidst the scene of a terrible battle.

And you can be sure that Saruman does not get the joke! Nor, of course, did Herod when the Magi asked him where the King of the Jews had been born. Perhaps we get closest to the truth of Christmas if we learn to see it as a cosmic joke. So much religion seems hung up with efforts to portray itself as mighty, as deserving of a place at the tables of the powerful. If the wonderful joke of the nativity were to manifest itself at such tables then the religious might well be discomfited as much as kings and princes. Before the modern era it was the custom for kings to have a joker nearby them to remind them of who they truly were. Where are the jokers of our own age? How many board rooms of our great corporations make sure they have a joker among them? Or might they fear that the joker might bring them crashing down to ruins?

If Saruman were to get the joke then he would be free from the prison that he has created for himself. And so too would we if, as Mary sang, we allow that which desires to be rich and dominating of the weak within our souls to be “sent empty away”. Our laughter would truly be that of the merry and so would our Christmas too.

Songs that Come to Us out of Strange Places

It is through the intervention of the Ents of Fangorn that victory is won at Helm’s Deep but this frightens the Riders of Rohan more perhaps than did the enemies they faced in the battle. For a kind of disenchantment has been at work among them for a very long time. You may remember that when Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli first encountered Eomer and his war band upon the plains of Rohan they met with mistrust and some fear. When Eomer heard that the friends had met Galadriel in Lothlorien he reacted with both wonder but also fearful hostility.

“Then there is a Lady in the Golden Wood, as old tales tell!” he said. “Few escape her nets, they say. These are strange days! But if you have her favour, then you also are net-weavers and sorcerers, maybe.”

Théoden’s reaction to his first encounter with Ents is less hostile, perhaps, after all he has just benefitted from their timely intervention, but it is hardly less ignorant! He declares that he knows nothing of them so Gandalf takes the opportunity to teach him a few home truths and he shows Théoden that they are indeed truths he once learned in his own home.

“They are the shepherds of the trees…Is it so long since you listened to tales by the fireside? There are children in your land who, out of the twisted threads of story, could pick the answer to your question. You have seen Ents, Ents out of Fangorn Forest, which in your tongue you call the Entwood. Did you think that the name was given only in idle fancy?”

Théoden’s response shows that he may be ignorant as are his people but that he does ponder things deeply.

“Out of the shadows of legend I begin to understand the marvel of the trees, I think…Songs we have that tell of these things, but we are forgetting them, teaching them only to children, as a careless custom. And now the songs have come down among us out of strange places, and walk visible under the Sun.”

Théoden’s musings tell the tale of our own times too. What we know call Fairy Tales are stories thought to be fit only for children and so the very word, Fairy, is considered childish and the culture in which these tales arose, the culture of our medieval ancestors, is thought to have been immature and in need of enlightenment. Indeed from the time of the Enlightenment onward such tales became, as Théoden put it, taught only to children “as a careless custom”.

Recently it has been noted by many critics that much of the best writing of our time has been written ostensibly for children though sadly one leading author in the UK commented that he was disturbed by the sight of adults on trains reading Harry Potter. In the packed church in which I watched a school nativity play this morning there was an atmosphere of delight as parents and grandparents gazed upon their young dressed as characters from the gospel stories. There is a general acceptance that faith is a good thing for children especially when linked to a moral education but one, sadly perhaps, that must be left behind on leaving childhood. And yet the word adult when used as an adjective to describe books, films, pictures etc. is used to denote a deeply immature sexuality that has perhaps a place in an occasional time of carnival as ancient societies knew but is deeply destructive of mature sexual relationships and mature societies when it becomes the norm.

Thankfully Tolkien himself created a mythology that speaks to both adults and children in our own time. His work has transformed the lives of many and sowed seeds of enchantment among many more that will bear fruit. I pray that we too may find songs coming down to us “out of strange places” that may “walk visible under the Sun.”

Gimli Teaches Us The Importance of Seeing

After the victorious ending of the Battle of Helm’s Deep Gandalf takes Théoden and a small company with him to go to Isengard and for the first time since the sundering of the Fellowship at the Falls of Rauros the pace of the story is able to slacken somewhat. The pursuit of the orc company who seized Merry and Pippin, the rush to Edoras and the battle that followed all lie behind and many and great dangers lie ahead, but for a brief time Legolas and Gimli have time to look about them and to wonder.

Both of them are drawn to those things that delight them most. For Legolas this means all that grows in the earth and he wonders at the Ents and the trees that they tend; and for Gimli this means the earth itself and the wondrous caves of Aglarond that he has just encountered.

Legolas is drawn to the ancient wonder that dwells within the Forest of Fangorn that we thought about when Merry and Pippin escaped from their captors and met Treebeard in Fangorn. Immediately he wants to know, to understand and to communicate: “They are the strangest trees that ever I saw…and I have seen many an oak grow from acorn to ruinous age. I wish that there were leisure now to walk among them: they have voices, and in time I might come to understand their thought.”

And in this we remember that Treebeard told the hobbits that it was Elves who first taught speech to the Ents. It is Elves who long to commune with all living things and to draw them into their own beatitude, their own state of blessing, that all creation might find its own voice and thus speak with the One.

But if Legolas is moved by his delight in the living forest he is outmatched in this by his good friend Gimli. The three pages in The Lord of the Rings in which Gimli describes the Glittering Caves of Aglarond are among the most beautiful in the whole work and Tolkien gives this beauty to a dwarf! Even Legolas declares, “I have never heard you speak like this before.” I wish I had space to quote them in full but I will just have to encourage you to read them for yourself. Just one section must be quoted and that is Gimli’s response to Legolas’ concern that Dwarves might mar the natural beauty of the caves in their greed for gain.

“No, you do not understand,” said Gimli. “No dwarf could be unmoved by such loveliness. None of Durin’s race would mine these caves for stones or ore, not if diamonds and gold could be got there. Do you cut down groves of blossoming trees in the springtime for firewood? We would tend these glades of flowering stone, not quarry them. With cautious skill, tap by tap- a small chip of rock and no more, perhaps, in a whole anxious day- so we could work…”

As we read these words they call to mind Leonardo da Vinci working in this way on his great fresco of The Last Supper at the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. It is said that he would spend whole days just looking at his work as it unfolded and doing nothing. Imagine describing such a way of working in an appraisal interview!

What we see described here at this brief moment of rest in the story is the fruit of intense seeing and then the using of the language of seeing. Tolkien gives to these two friends the roles of artist and poet. And why do so at this moment in the story? Is it perhaps to make the contrast with Saruman, the man whose mind is full “of metal and wheels”, who we are about to meet face to face, even greater? Or is it to show that these heroes are more than just warriors and are only warriors at all at greatest need? Surely at the least he shows us that his warriors are first of all great lovers and that it is because of this that their prowess in battle can bring forth good. Tolkien will return to this later in the story in his reflection on the contrast between the brothers, Boromir and Faramir, but we will leave this part of the story, perhaps, contemplating our own need to train our ability both to see and to learn to describe what we can see.

Ready to Risk Everything

Treebeard has lived for ages beyond the reckoning of almost every living creature, except perhaps Tom Bombadil. He has seen the rise and fall of many kingdoms, the glory of Gondolin and Nargothrond and the terrible might of Angband and its master, Morgoth. And he has weathered all this like a mighty oak delighting in the summer sun and standing fast against the storms of winter. To live through all that he has seen has required above all the ability to survive, to harvest whatever is given, to store when necessary, and to endure, always to endure. “I do not like worrying about the future,” he tells Merry and Pippin. For him it is enough to live each day as best he can, fulfilling the task given to him to be the shepherd of the trees.

But now he is prepared to risk all upon an attack on Saruman’s stronghold of Isengard, an attack that may well see the end of the Ents and their age long vigil. “It is likely enough that we are going to our doom,” he says, “the last march of the Ents.”

When the human enterprise is reduced, either to a desire to dominate others for the sake of our own aggrandisement, or in a bid to build fortresses about ourselves when domination no longer seems to be a possibility in order to preserve whatever we can hang onto then this enterprise has been given over to the mean and diminished spirit of Saruman. There is a right and proper desire to conserve what is good, true and beautiful, but as Gandalf says to Treebeard, “You have not plotted to cover the world with your trees and choke all other living things” as Saruman has done, choosing at the moment of the wreck of his ambition to hang onto the shreds of his desire rather than submit and so become a servant once more.

Perhaps, like Treebeard, we will rightly give much of our lives to the building and preservation of some goodness in the world, a home where children can be raised and guests welcomed. Such a life is a good life and worthy of respect. It is when our homes become mean places set in competition against the need of others, with doors and windows permanently barred and shuttered, that they diminish and we with them. And the same is so when we become incapable of risking what we have for the sake of a greater good. Patrick Kavanagh expresses this in his wonderful poem, “The Self Slaved” when he declares:

Me I will throw away.
Me sufficient for the day
The sticky self that clings
Adhesions on the wings
To love and adventure,
To go on the grand tour
A man must be free
From self-necessity

Kavanagh discovered this freedom after being successfully treated for cancer and sensing that he had been given his life back again.

In the poem he discerns a meanness of spirit from which he has been liberated. Now he can truly live life. He goes on to say:

I will have love, have love
From anything made of
And a life with a shapely form
With gaiety and charm
And capable of receiving
With grace the grace of living
And wild moments too
Self when freed from you.

Treebeard knows this spirit and in marching on Isengard he gives himself up to such a wild moment with joy. Happy the one who knows how to do this, whose life does not shrivel up in meanness and diminishment.

Living a Life that is Too Big for Us

It was a year ago, after trying to write a book about The Lord of the Rings for the best part of a couple of years and basically getting nowhere, that I discovered that although I did not seem capable of writing a thousand words a day and constructing whole chapters I could write 500-700 words each week and post it as a Blog. This isn’t a boast on my part but I seem to be able to construct what would be a weekly column if I were writing for a newspaper. And so that is what I have been doing ever since that time. I have been journeying with Frodo Baggins and his companions all the way from Bilbo Baggins’s Birthday Party till Merry and Pippin’s encounter with Treebeard in the Forest of Fangorn after their escape from the Orcs and as I have done so I have written a weekly reflection on each section that I have read. I have not tried to be scholarly. I am just someone who has been reading this great work since being introduced to it by my schoolmate, Jon Flint, when I was about 14 or 15 years old. That is over forty years now and I feel that I have something to say about a book that I have loved ever since that time. I share J.R.R Tolkien’s Christian faith although not his Roman Catholicism. Like Tolkien’s great friend and collaborator, C.S Lewis, I am an Anglican.

Reading The Lord of the Rings slowly and thoughtfully has been a rich experience and I hope that I have managed to convey some of that in my weekly blogs. I have been especially caught up with the hobbits who find themselves in a story that is too big for them. And although they grow with the story they can never become heroic figures like Aragorn or Boromir. All they can do is to offer what they can the best they can. There are some in the story who have great discernment and see this offer as a deed of great worth. Faramir of Gondor is one and so is Treebeard of Fangorn who allows Merry and Pippin to lead him into an adventure that is likely to end with the destruction of the Ents. Come to think of it, both of them allow themselves to be carried into stories too big for them as well.

If there is a Christmas message in this (and I hope you won’t mind me for looking for one at this season) then it is the idea of a God who chooses to come among us and to commit himself to the same experience that we know, living a life that is too big for us and yet doing it with faithfulness, joy and love.

If you want to look at any of my earlier blogs from December 2012 to October 2013 you will find a complete archive on my website http://www.stephenwinter.net/page6.htm and whatever you do over the Feast of the Nativity may you do it with joy and delight.