For Aragorn “An Hour Long Prepared Approaches”

At this point of the story Tolkien leaves Pippin and Gandalf in Minas Tirith as the dawnless day begins that heralds the beginning of the assault of the forces of Minas Morgul upon the city. We return to Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli and Merry just after Gandalf leaves with Pippin as they prepare to ride with Théoden to Edoras and Aragorn speaks to his companions.

He tells them that Théoden will go to “the muster that he commanded at Edoras, four nights from now. And there, I think, he will hear tidings of war, and the Riders of Rohan will go down to Minas Tirith. But for myself, and any that will go with me… it is dark before me. I must go down to Minas Tirith, but I do not see the road. An hour long prepared approaches.”

Aragorn knows that this is his moment of destiny. He has lived upon the earth for nearly 90 years and each one of them has been a step towards it. He was born to a noble but dwindling people in the north who carried little more than a memory of the greatness of the past. His father, Arathorn, was killed by orcs when he was just two years old, and so he became the heir of Isildur and chieftain of his people. He was named, Estel, meaning hope, and went to live in Rivendell and Elrond became as a father to him.

One day Elrond called him by his true name and gave him the heirlooms of his house. “Here is the ring of Barahir,” he said, “the token of our kinship from afar; and here also are the shards of Narsil. With these you may yet do great deeds; for I foretell that the span of your life shall be greater than the measure of Men, unless evil befalls you or you fail at the test. But the test will be long and hard. The sceptre of Annúminas I withhold, for you have yet to earn it.”

What words to speak to a young man of twenty years of age! What gifts to give to him! In Peter Jackson’s films this moment is recalled just before Aragorn takes the Paths of the Dead when Elrond gives Andúril,  Narsil reforged, to him with the words, “Be who you were meant to be.” It is a fine moment in Jackson’s telling of the tale but in his telling Elrond gives Aragorn the sword as a beaten man with a dying daughter and his people leaving for the ships. In Tolkien’s telling of the story Elrond addresses Aragorn as one of the great lords of Middle-earth at the height of of his powers. When such a father speaks, his very words convey power upon his son. How we need more fathers like him!

The ring of Barahir speaks of Aragorn’s mighty lineage. It was the ring that Beren carried when he and his beloved Lúthien won a Silmaril from the iron crown of Morgoth in his impenetrable fortress of Thangorodrim. The shards of Narsil speak of his mighty ancestor, Elendil, on the day that he stood against Sauron before the gates of Barad-dûr and fell in the battle. It tells of how Isildur took the shards of the broken sword and cut the Ring from the finger of the Dark Lord and so defeated him winning long years of peace for the world. The sceptre of Annúminas speaks of a throne that Aragorn must still win through his deeds.

It is this lineage to which Aragorn must aspire and that he thinks of as he speaks to his friends. He also recalls that Elrond told him that only the king of both Arnor and of Gondor would be worthy of the hand of his daughter, Arwen. This is his destiny. This is the moment through which he has been through so many hard tests in order to face. Will he achieve his destiny or will he fail at this last and greatest test?

So few young men ever get to hear words like this from their fathers or those who stand in the place of fathers to them. One generation of beaten and embittered men sends the next generation disabled into their adult lives so that they are boys in men’s bodies. In the sacrament of Baptism our children are anointed with the same oil that is used at the coronations of our kings and queens. This is intended to proclaim to them that they are sons and daughters of the living God. When will we teach our children who they really are and what their destiny is?

 

The Despair of Denethor

When Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli entered the halls of Théoden in Meduseld it was into a place of darkness. The throne chamber of Minas Tirith is not dark and stifling but cold and austere. The darkness of Meduseld matched the mood of its lord but Gandalf was able to deliver him, taking him outside into the wholesomeness of the wind and the rain. The throne chamber of Denethor is not dark but light but the light is cold revealing a man who has already bidden farewell to hope. Tolkien finds the image that most truly describes the man who sits upon the Steward’s chair beneath the throne of Gondor even at the one point in scene that reveals a little warmth. He speaks of “a gleam of cold sun on a winter’s evening.”

The fleeting moment comes when Pippin offers his service to Denethor. It is a moment when he shows that Gandalf’s words about him at the defences of the Pelennor Fields are true and Denethor recognises this too. “Looks may belie the man- or the halfling.” Pippin is indeed “a valiant man”. He hardly recognises it himself but he is battle hardened and the pride with which he answers Denethor is a good pride. That it is able to reach Denethor, even for a moment, shows that the Lord of Gondor has still a spark of life within him. For a true elder delights in the pride of a younger man, by one who is not daunted by hard words, who speaks courteously and yet looks him in the eye. The true elder is not threatened by a young man who displays such character.

But the moment soon passes, for Denethor is in the process of casting aside his eldership. The one young man for whom he truly cares is dead and his horn lies broken upon his lap. Boromir died at the hands of orcs at the Falls of Rauros, giving his life for Merry and Pippin, seeking to atone for his attempt to sieze the Ring from Frodo. Denethor does not attempt to hide the true state of his heart. “Though all the signs forebode that the doom of Gondor is drawing nigh, less now to me is that darkness than my own darkness.” From now on every person will only play a part in the story of his private grief. He is no longer Steward of Gondor in anything but name and even his son Faramir must be punished for being the son who is alive when Boromir is dead.

Do we condemn Denethor for this? Surely our hearts go out to him in his grief and yet we remember that Théoden too lost his only son in battle but did not then choose to lay down the burden of kingship leading his people in battle, thus restoring their pride. We honour Théoden for this event as our hearts go out to him also in his grief.

Denethor’s grief is mingled with a pride that cuts him off from all other bonds. Ultimately it will cut him off even from his true self as despair will always do. The early Fathers of the Church understood this, teaching that metanoia, the radical turning of the heart toward the light that is usually translated as repentance, must be founded upon a renunciation of despair. Sadly this was later to be reduced to the modification of certain behaviours, usually those that did not conform to the social norms of the time, thus often pushing more adventurous spirits outside of the church. But this was not the case when the church itself was the true home of the adventurous spirit. And it is never true when a saint calls humanity home to its true selfhood when it is fully alive.

And this is how we know that despair, while it may call forth our deepest sympathy, is not a true state of the heart. Denethor is already preparing his own funeral pyre even as he questions Pippin and receives his service. For the one who is connected to the true self even preparing for death is not an act of despair but of expectation.

Sam Shows Us How to Make Good Mistakes

Perhaps we should not be too harsh on Sam. Ever since the sundering of the Fellowship at Parth Galen above the Falls of Rauros he has been forced by reason of necessity to live on a diet of the Elves’ waybread alone. “This waybread keeps you on your legs in a wonderful way,” he said to Frodo earlier in the journey, “though it doesn’t satisfy the innards proper as you might say: not to my feeling anyhow, meaning no disrespect to them as made it.”

Sam has long desired for something he can put in the pot and with that purpose in mind he has carried his cooking gear on the journey across the Dead Marshes to the Black Gate and then into Ithilien. Now at last in the woodlands of that once fair land he has the chance to use his gear and with the aid of Sméagol he is able to clean, prepare, cook and then eat two rabbits on his campfire. At least Sméagol offered his aid to catch the rabbits. Once he realised that Sam did not intend to eat them raw no more aid was forthcoming and soon he departed to catch and eat his own prey.

It was the campfire that led to the capture of the hobbits. Perhaps Sam is a little too content after doing the first cooking he has been able to do for such a long time for when he goes to wash his gear he forgets to smother his fire and it is the smoke rising from it that draws his captors to him. Four tall men stand before Frodo and Sam, two with spears in their hands and two with great bows; all with swords at their sides. They are men of Gondor and their Captain is Faramir, son of Denethor, the Steward of Gondor.

I said a few moments ago that perhaps we should not be too harsh on Sam. He longed to cook something that he regarded as properly nourishing for Frodo, the master that he loves. Sam’s whole identity is founded upon his determination to serve and to deny this would be to do harm to something essential, even holy in himself. It is this sense of identity that causes him to hate Gollum who he regards as utterly false. So if Sam is going to make a mistake we would expect it to be the result of his identity. That is what makes Sam and Gollum so different. When Gollum murdered Déagol long ago in order to take the Ring from him he had to deny something essential in himself. Sam does not do this when he forgets to smother his fire. He has made a mistake but he has not denied his true self.

Is it because of this that Sam and Frodo fall into the hands of a good man and not one who is false or into the hands of a company of orcs? I wish I could say so but to do that would be to say that in some way those who enjoy good fortune deserve it; or, alternatively, that those whose fortune is bad equally deserve theirs. To say such a thing is not true and does no good either to those who say it or to those about whom it is said. “Somewhere in my youth or childhood I must have done something good,” sings Captain von Trapp as he holds Maria in his arms. I think we can safely say that he is happily mocking himself and giving thanks for a good fortune he does not feel he deserves. I am glad that Tolkien does not make Frodo and Sam suffer for Sam’s gentle mistake. Such suffering still lies before them. But whether we suffer or not we cannot do good with a mistake that flows from a denial of our true self. One that flows from the true self can always lead to good because good was always intended.