The King and The Healing of Merry

And so last but not least Aragorn comes to the bed in which Merry lies. Pippin sits anxiously beside his friend, fearing that he might die but Aragorn speaks words of reassurance.

“Do not be afraid… I came in time, and I have called him back. He is weary now, and grieved, and he has taken a hurt like the Lady Éowyn, daring to smite that deadly thing. But these evils can be amended, so strong and gay a spirit is in him. His grief he will not forget; but it will not darken his heart, it will teach him wisdom.”

And so Aragorn reaches past all the anxiety, self-doubt and fear that has beset Merry on a journey that has been almost too much for his conscious self and he reaches within to what Merry truly is, one that is both strong and gay. We saw both with Faramir and Éowyn that when Aragorn crushes the leaves of athelas and sprinkles them onto the bowl of steaming water that the fragrance that rises to fill the room speaks of the true self and calls it forth from the dark tomb created by the Black Breath; and so it is with Merry.

“When the fragrance of athelas stole through the room, like the scent of orchards, and of heather in the sunshine full of bees, suddenly Merry awoke, and he said:

‘I am hungry. What is the time?'”

If Faramir’s true self lies in the realm of his deepest yearning, a realm beyond the borders of Middle-earth, and even beyond Valinor, and if Éowyn’s lies in the pure Northernness that is evoked in the tapestry of her ancestor, Eorl the Young, and in the memory of the origins of her people, then for Merry it is a self that is entirely at one with his land and his people.

A few minutes later, when the great ones have gone to attend to other matters, Merry and Pippin sit down to attend to the ritual of preparing a pipe for smoking. And as they do so they briefly ponder what they have experienced and the great ones that they have met along the way. Aragorn had said that Merry would learn wisdom from what he had experienced and now Merry displays this wisdom as he reflects a moment.

“It is best to love first what you are fitted to love, I suppose: you must start somewhere and have some roots, and the soil of the Shire is deep. Still there are things deeper and higher; and not a gaffer could tend his garden in what he calls peace but for them, whether he knows about them or not. I am glad that I know about them, a little.”

If only this wisdom were more widely understood, practiced and taught. To learn how to love, to truly love and to cherish that which we know does not close the door to what Merry calls the things that are “deeper and higher”. In fact it opens the way to them. The great Irish peasant poet, Patrick Kavanagh, wrote:

“To know fully even one field or one land is a lifetime’s experience. In the world of poetic experience it is depth that counts, not width. A gap in a hedge, a smooth rock surfacing a narrow lane, a view of a woody meadow, the stream at the junction of four small fields- these are as much as a man can fully experience.”

Perhaps Merry is not yet able to say these words but one day, perhaps when his youthful energy is somewhat abated and he begins to sit a little longer beside the junction of streams in a woody meadow and looks at them and then looks at them some more, then he will be able to speak these words for himself. He may even be able to link them to “poetic experience” to “the dearest freshness deep down things” as Hopkins puts it. He has already begun to do so now pondering the greatness of Aragorn and Gandalf and in the days of uncertainty that lie ahead in his enforced rest in the Houses of Healing the deepening of his wisdom will continue.

“He Would Have Brought Me a Mighty Gift.” Denethor and the Ring.

Denethor sits with Faramir and Gandalf in his chamber with Pippin standing in attendance. Until now he has maintained a courteous front but in the presence of his son, the wrong son, the mask slips and both his anger, his resentment and his desire are displayed to all.

“Boromir was loyal to me and no wizard’s pupil. He would have remembered his father’s need, and would not have squandered what fortune gave. He would have brought me a mighty gift.”

With these words Denethor displays his lack of self-knowledge. He believes himself to be greater than the Ring. Lesser beings than himself may fear the Ring but he is not weak as they are. He is the Steward of Gondor and a true son of Númenor and the Ring holds no terror for such as he. And when Gandalf asks him what he would have done with the Ring Denethor replies:

“It should have been kept, hidden, hidden dark and deep. Not used, I say, unless at the uttermost end of need, but set beyond his grasp, save by a victory so final that what befell would not trouble us, being dead.”

So Denethor would use the Ring “at the uttermost end of need” and he judges that he above all others has the capacity to judge when that time has come. We have seen already that the Ring will twist the heart of even the strongest. Gandalf and Galadriel have both been offered it by Frodo and both have been sorely tempted to take it but both have resisted the temptation. Denethor does not even recognise this as a temptation. To him it would be a gift, an opportunity to be grasped by the bold and by those who are worthy to receive it. And he judges himself to be worthy.

Denethor has lived his life as one given to fantasy. In his fantasy he is the wise and benevolent lord of the West, the one who achieves the final victory over Sauron and all his allies, the one who receives the grateful thanks and submission of all free peoples, the one who rules over them in wisdom and might. In another post at a later date on this blog we will think more about Denethor and the Palantir but suffice to say on this occasion that Sauron, who sees all weakness in others but never their greatness, has fed this fantasy over many years. Indeed the very reason that Denethor has used the Palantir is because of this fantasy. Denethor believes himself to be strong enough to use it even as he believes himself strong enough to use the Ring. But his belief is a delusion. He has disastrously misjudged his own capacity.

True strength and true wisdom involves the capacity to judge these things aright. The strong know their weakness better than any. This is why Faramir does not take the Ring, either for himself or for Denethor and why Aragorn deems that he can challenge Sauron in the Palantir. Faramir knows that he could only take possession of the Ring by force against one weaker than himself and he will not dishonour himself and all that he holds dear by doing so. Not even his father’s specious argument of “uttermost need” could persuade him otherwise. On the other hand Aragorn is the heir of Elendil to whom the Palantir were given and so he judges that he has the right and the strength to use it. Denethor has neither the right nor the strength either to take the Ring nor use the Palantir. He recognises only that he has the opportunity and he misjudges his own strength. The end can only be disaster.

We must achieve wise self-knowledge if we are to act rightly and an essential part of this is to know our weakness. When we are given an honourable job to do then we should act with all boldness believing that we will be given strength to do it. This is why Frodo can take the Ring even though he is only too aware of his weakness. Denethor on the other hand does not and so Gandalf is glad that the Ring never fell within his grasp.

 

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.”

What Can the Weather Teach Us?

Gandalf and Théoden emerge from the darkened hall and stand upon the highest stair. How long is it since Théoden last stood there? As if to emphasise the point Tolkien tells us that a keen wind is whistling in through the doors and breaking up the musty stillness of the hall.

“Now, lord,” says Gandalf, “look out upon your land! Breathe the free air again!”

And as Théoden breathes and the cold air fills his lungs Tolkien tells us that “curtains of wind-blown rain were slanting down.” In his first venture into the open air in many a long day the king of Rohan is getting wet!

It is, of course, no mistake that Tolkien wishes to draw our attention to the weather. The contrast must be drawn between the dead and darkened air of Théoden’s hall with a wizened old man shrinking into the shadows and the keen air that blows over a wide land bearing a cleansing rain upon a mighty king who has come into the light. Théoden is being washed clean and he must stand and take whatever the weather chooses to throw at him. We might even say that he needs this weather; that a warm and gentle breeze upon a spring morning would not be sufficient for him.

It is the essence of the Babel story found in the bible that humankind wishes to create a city that shuts God out, one that is self-controlled and self-contained. In our own time we seem closer than ever before to making the story a reality. Our ability to create micro-environments in homes, places of leisure and work and in the modes of transport that take us from one to another of these places bears witness to our mastery over the world. We are the lords of Babel indeed! We are our own gods now! We may note that just as in the old story the peoples may be divided from one another but we have progressed from the early story-tellers and their world. We can build high walls with strong gates to bar the outsider so that our personal Babels are both environmentally and socially controlled. London may be the tuberculosis capital of Europe but as long as we can keep the poor who are afflicted by the disease from our gates then it matters very little. We may even be able to persuade our government to withdraw the right to free healthcare from such people and so reduce our taxes.

And while this happens we do not even notice that spiritually we are becoming the shrunken dwarf that was Théoden before Gandalf freed him. We do not know that we become ever more helpless before our foes for we surround ourselves with counselors like Wormtongue in the form of our newspapers and other media outlets and in our gatherings of like minded acquaintances.

How we need a Gandalf to set us free from our darkened halls, to lead us out into real and uncontrolled weather and to make us stand there until we are made clean by the icy rains of reality. How we need a counselor who will say to us, “cast aside regret and fear… do the deed at hand.” One who will take us out of the half lives of our present age and make us truly human, fully alive.

And if we do not have such a counselor then we must take ourselves out into the weather day after day until it has taught us that which we need to hear.

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.

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.