“Go now with good hearts! Farewell, and may the blessing of Elves and Men and all Free Folk go with you. May the stars shine on your faces!”
So says the Lord Elrond at dusk on the 25th December in the year 3018 in the Third Age of the Earth as the Fellowship of the Ring sets out upon the quest to take the Ring of Power to the fires in which it was created upon Orodruin, Mt Doom, in the land of Mordor.
Within the story the date upon which the Fellowship sets out is determined by events such as Frodo’s decision to leave Bag End upon his birthday, the 23rd of September. This means that it is in the dead of winter that the great quest will leave Rivendell. But for Tolkien there is another reason why the 25th of December is chosen and that, of course, is because of the place of that date within the church’s calendar. It is Christmas, the Feast of the Nativity, of the birth of the Saviour to Mary and Joseph in a stable in Bethlehem. It is the day upon which the great adventure begins, “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”
In Tolkien’s legendarium, unlike C. S Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, there is no incarnation. There is no figure like Aslan, around whom the whole story turns, who will die and rise again for the world. But the whole story is a preparation for the Incarnation. All of Tolkien’s great work prepares us to hear the great words that are proclaimed in the Christmas gospel, that “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”
The destruction of the Ring of Power and the Fall of Sauron is not the end of the story. Tolkien goes to great lengths to show that. It is the point of the heartrending chapter near the end of The Lord of the Rings that he entitles, The Scouring of the Shire. The Ring may have gone to the Fire but a small band of brigands under a malicious leader can still do serious harm. It is the point of the departure from Middle-earth of Galadriel, Elrond and Gandalf and the ending of the great works that they were able to do with the three Elven Rings whose power fades with the destruction of the One Ring to which they were inextricably linked. For with the end of Sauron comes also the fading of Lothlórien and of Rivendell.
Christmas is yet to come in Middle-earth. We sense that when it does come it will do so as Tolkien’s great eucatastrophe, “the sudden happy turn in a story that pierces you with a joy that brings tears.” The long slow defeat of Tolkien’s story and our own experience of the world will end, not with the going out of the light for ever, but with the dawning of endless day that grows ever brighter. To this Great Day the Fall of Sauron and the Coronation of Aragorn as the returning King of Gondor and of Arnor is but a signpost. The reality that the sign points to has not yet come.
But for now we get ahead of ourselves in the story. It is the 25th of December and a small company without much gear of war goes south with the Ringbearer.
“There was no laughter, and no song or music. At last they turned away and faded silently into the dusk.”
“So now at last the City was besieged, enclosed in a ring of foes.” And in the next few pages Tolkien relentlessly builds a picture of hopelessness as the hosts of Mordor begin the assault upon Minas Tirith until he reaches the appalling climax of the winged ride of the Nazgûl.
“Ever they circled above the City, like vultures that expect their fill of doomed men’s flesh. Out of sight and shot they flew, and yet were ever present, and their deadly voices rent the air. More unbearable they became, not less, at each new cry. At length even the stout-hearted would fling themselves to the ground as the hidden menace passed over them, or they would stand, letting their weapons fall from nerveless hands while into their minds a blackness came, and they thought no more of war; but only of hiding and of crawling, and of death.”
And so Tolkien brings us to a dark place once again and, as with Frodo and Sam in Shelob’s Lair, a light will break in that will proclaim that there is no darkness so deep that it cannot bebreached. And the words of the one hundred and thirty-ninth psalm come to mind declaring:
If I say surely the darkness shall cover me; even the night shall be light about me.
Yea, the darkness hideth not from thee; but the night shineth as the day: the darkness and the light are both alike to thee.
This week’s posting on my blog is dedicated to all those who are in dark places; to all those who see no way to light and life beyond the darkness. It is dedicated to those for whom everything in which they have placed their trust has proved to be a broken reed. They are like the men of Gondor looking out across the Pelennor and seeing no possibility of relief; like the defenders of the city thinking “only of hiding and of crawling and of death”.
In a few days time on this blog I will tell the story of a man whose wife lies, an innocent prisoner in a foreign jail, a pawn in a game played by people of power; a man who cannot reach her or see her. Today I dedicate this piece to him and to his wife. And if you know something of the darkness that the defenders of Gondor know then this is for you as well.
Denethor has sent Faramir to the fords of Osgiliath so that he might try to hold them against the invaders for as long as possible. All remaining hope is pinned upon the arrival of the Rohirrim to raise the siege and Denethor hopes that in holding the outer defences of the Pelennor he can keep the hosts of Mordor from the walls of Minas Tirith itself and that the Rohirrim will not be divided from the defenders of the city.
That is Denethor’s hope but the invading force is too great in number for Faramir to withstand and soon they are in retreat and eventually the retreat becomes a rout. Only the action of Prince Imrahil of Dol Amroth, who turns back the attack, and of Gandalf, who withstands the Lord of the Nazgûl, saves the fleeing force from slaughter.
But for Faramir this comes too late. Even as the Nazgûl swerve aside Faramir is struck by a deadly dart and Imrahil carries him from the field of battle. Faramir is defeated and his life hangs by a thread.
Faramir has lain down his life for his friends, a line from the Gospel of John in which Jesus, on the night of his betrayal declares that “No one has greater love than this, to lay down ones life for one’s friends”. It is a phrase that Shakespeare takes up in the speech made by Henry V to his men before the Battle of Agincourt where the king calls them brothers “be he ne’er so vile”. Faramir has fallen at the head of his men seeking to ensure an orderly retreat. Imrahil declares to Denethor that Faramir has done “great deeds” but he has fallen and will play no more part in the war except to declare Aragorn, king, and then to wait.
I meet very few people who are able to wait well when their work is finally done. Often they rail against a loss of power and influence sometimes seeking to intervene when it is no longer appropriate that they should. They should have been ready to pass on a task or responsibility to another but they fail to do so. They may become angry at their apparent impotence and the lack of respect or gratitude that they feel they should receive from others and their anger may turn to bitterness or depression.
Faramir does not give way to this although he will come close to it and will need the intervention of the king in the Houses of Healing. But just as we thought of his Christlikeness in the laying down of his life for his people so too do we see him pass through dereliction on his road to healing and serenity. We are reminded of the words of Jesus on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
But why does Faramir’s dereliction end in life while Denethor’s ends in a despairing death? My conviction is that Faramir truly suffers. In saying that I use the word in its old sense of giving permission to something to happen, of believing that there is something that is bigger even than my death. Something that gives meaning to my death even if I do not know what it is. Ultimately Denethor’s death is a denial of suffering. He gives permission to nothing. Nothing has meaning. Faramir will awaken through the aid of the king and will serenely await the outcome of the final battle. If it ends with victory and the king returns he will lay down his office even as he was prepared to lay down his life. If it ends with defeat he will lead his people in a final defence of the city believing that this too will have meaning. One heart will be won entirely by the nobility of his patience but that is a story we must tell another time.
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.”
“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.