Théoden and The Lord of the Nazgûl

It is but thirteen days since Gandalf came to Edoras and restored a shrivelled old man to life and to vigour. Now his body lies broken upon the field of battle and life ebbs swiftly away. It is Merry who is near him at the end, who hears the words of a man at peace.

“Farewell, Master Holbytla!” he said. “My body is broken. I go to my fathers. And even in their mighty company I shall not now be ashamed. I felled the black serpent. A grim morn, and a black day, and a golden sunset!”

And we remember, that day after day, the wizened creature enslaved by the leechcraft of Grima Wormtongue had to look upon the image of his mighty forefather, Eorl the Young, as he rode to victory and glory long ago and so won the plains of Calenardhon for his people as a gift from the Steward of Gondor. Doubtless this torture was a part of Wormtongue’s purpose as the shame Théoden felt worked its way into his heart and so unmanned him. It was from this that Gandalf freed him so that he could lead his people into battle, casting down the chieftain of the Haradrim and his serpent banner and driving his forces from the field. And it was from this that Gandalf freed him so that he could lie broken before the wreck of the Lord of the Nazgûl and the foul monster that the Ringwraith had ridden through the air into the battle.

If Gandalf had failed to heal him or if he had chosen to leave him in his chair then doubtless Théoden would have held onto life a little longer. For many it is this clinging onto life that is regarded as the final work of old age and when the weakness and the pain of the last days of life is borne with courage as it was by Pope John Paul II who allowed the world to watch his final struggle and, as I remember it, by my own father who bore great pain with quiet dignity in his last days, then this is praiseworthy. But to hold onto life merely for the sake of extending our existence just a short while longer is hardly an achievement of any merit.

At the ending of The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen Aragorn speaks to Arwen as he draws near to the end of his great life. Arwen finds the choice of her husband to lay down his life a hard one but Aragorn replies, “Take counsel with yourself, beloved, and ask whether you would indeed have me wait until I wither and fall from my high seat unmanned and witless.”

Aragorn chooses the grace given to the Númenorians by the Valar of old to lay down their lives freely and so entrust themselves to the mystery of death unafraid. “In sorrow we must go,”  he says, “but not in despair. Behold! we are not bound for ever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory.”

Aragorn lays down his life in freedom in the glory of his kingship. Théoden lays down his life in freedom upon the field of battle in the glory of a promise kept and his people raised from shame to honour. It is this freedom that is the essence of both in the ending of their lives. At the end of his great book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl, a survivor of Auschwitz, puts it like this, “Man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.” Frankl recognised that our choice to find life as meaningful is the greatest one that we make and that we must make it daily. Théoden made the choice on that day in Edoras, made it again on the Pelennor Fields and so he ends his life in peace.

The Care of the Elderly: What Théoden has to Teach Us.

On the morning of March 2nd in the year, 3019 of the Third Age Théoden of Rohan was an old man sitting in his chair in Meduseld. On March 15th, just thirteen days later, he was dead. When we read these facts, presented in this manner, there is little to surprise us. An old man fades away and dies. We have seen it before and when we think of the old men that we have said farewell to, we sorrow over the fading and think back, as I think of my father, to a time when they were full of vigour.

But this is not the story of Théoden. He dies on the battlefield before the gates of Minas Tirith, the second great battle that he has fought in those few days, after a mighty ride at the head of his men, and after a charge into the heart of the forces of Mordor that raises the siege of the city and turns the battle.

Is the story of the last two weeks of his life simply the fruit of the imagination of the author? Or is there something to learn here about how life can be lived in our final years?

It is after the intense drama of the passage of the Paths of the Dead, and the display of Aragorn’s banner at the Stone of Erech, that Théoden arrives in Harrowdale after a wearying three days ride from Helms Deep. Éomer looks at him with concern and speaks to him in a low voice. “If you would take my counsel, you would return hither [to Edoras], until the war is over, lost or won.”

Théoden’s response is to smile and say, “speak not the soft words of Wormtongue in my old ears! Long years in the space of days it seems since I rode west; but never will I lean on a staff again. If the war is lost, what good will be my hiding in the hills? And if it is won, what grief will it be, even if I fall, spending my last strength?”

The key phrase here, I think, is “long years”. All who reach a certain age become aware of the speedy passing of the years. It is something that steadily creeps up upon us. At one time the prospect of waiting a few years meant to wait for ever. There comes a time when to look back over five or even ten years seems all too brief. As the psalm read at a burial puts it, “Our days are like the grass. We flourish like the flower of the field. When the wind goes over it, it is gone and its place will know it no more.”

No change of perspective can change this reality but for as long as it is possible we can choose to live each day fully. It was in Wormtongue’s interest to turn Théoden into an invalid, a man whose life had shrunk to the size of his darkened hall, but Éomer is no traitor or intriguer, he is just concerned for his uncle. It is the old man who reminds him that his gentle concern will have the same effect as Wormtongue’s intrigues. And Théoden resists his kindness. He will give himself up to life until his final breath.

Actually this is what the gospels mean when they speak of dying to self. We tend to think of this phrase in terms of some act of self-denial. What it really means is what happens when Théoden gets out of his chair with the fierce encouragement of Gandalf. It is his small self that Théoden casts aside with his stick and a big self that he grasps with his sword, a true self. And he grasps a big truth when he realises that two weeks of true life is worth far more than years of shrunken existence. It is like “long years”, and glorious years.

Meriadoc Brandybuck and the King of Rohan

There are many ways in which we can speak of greatness but Théoden shows us one that is not so often grasped. With all the preparations going on about him for the deeds that lie ahead, preparations in which he plays a full part, he notices something that everyone else has missed.

“The king was already there, and as soon as they entered he called for Merry and had a seat set for him at his side.”

What did he see that everyone else had missed? Just one hobbit who is always hurrying after everyone else but who is never quite necessary for anything. And why does that matter in the great scheme of things? Well, if that is what everything must be judged by then it matters little, but Théoden has a greater vision than that. He sees with his heart.

When Théoden speaks to Merry he reminds him that he made a promise that they should speak together and also he speaks of Merry’s loneliness now that Pippin has gone. Merry’s heart is deeply touched and he gives it to Théoden.

Merry “had never felt more grateful for any kindness in words. ‘I am afraid that I am only in everybody’s way,’ he stammered; ‘but I should like to do anything I could you know.'” And, “filled suddenly with love for this old man, he knelt on one knee, and took his hand and kissed it.” Then he offers his sword and his service to the king. Readers may remember the cold austere way in which Denethor received Pippin’s offer of service, even though his heart too was briefly touched. Théoden could hardly be more different from the Steward of Gondor.

“‘Gladly will I take it,’ said the king; and laying his long old hands upon the brown hair of the hobbit, he blessed him.”

It is a moment of gentle beauty in the midst of the great crisis of the age. The king and the hobbit take each other for father and son and, in the brief days that lie ahead before the ride of the Rohirrim to the walls of Minas Tirith, Théoden takes comfort in Merry’s companionship and in the simple tales of life in the Shire.

Théoden has no idea where his gentle deed will take either him or Merry. Indeed he will do all that he can to prevent Merry from reaching the place where he will play his part in one of the great deeds of the age. If Théoden had any element of calculation in his blessing of Merry then the falsehood of such an act would have robbed him of the very love that causes Merry to accomplish what he does at the Pelennor Fields. No, I am afraid that for all who wonder whether it might be a useful leadership strategy to win the loyalty of their followers by practising the same kind of kindness Théoden shows here that it simply will not work. Their kindness will have to come from the heart or it will have no meaning.

Perhaps that is why the famous political theorist of Renaissance Italy, Niccolò Machiavelli, offered his infamous dictum, “It may be more pleasant to be loved than feared, but it is safer to be feared than loved.” The creation of fear is always a matter of calculation. The creation of love can never be. Sometimes for Théoden it involves great risk. When Wormtongue’s treachery is revealed Théoden simply sets him free remembering that once he had been a faithful servant. As he does so he cannot know that by the time Wormtongue reaches Isengard the Ents will have completed their work of destruction and yet he frees him nonetheless. His generosity may have had grievous consequences and yet, despite the misery that he had suffered at Wormtongue’s hands, he still allows him to go where he will. There is no calculation and certainly no safety in Théoden’s kindness and so the love of his people is freely given. Merry loves him as a father and will lay down his life for him if he can. No degree in a business school could ever have formed such greatness.

A Life as Brief as a Sparrow’s Flight

As Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli approach Edoras, the dwelling place of Théoden, King of Rohan and the Rohirrim they ponder the story of that people. Five hundred years the Rohirrim have dwelt in that land since first Eorl the Young led them to the field of Celebrant to aid the people of Gondor in battle. To them that day is so long ago that they have no memory of what came before but to Legolas, ageless wood elf of the Greenwood, those five hundred fallings of the leaves seem “but a little while.” And so Tolkien calls to mind another of the great themes of his stories, the great difference between elves and humankind. The sorrow of being human is to know the brevity of life; the sorrow of being an elf is not themselves to know death and yet to know the decay and loss of all else that lies about them.

Aragorn, who served Théoden’s father, Thengel, at one time in his youth, sings one of the songs of the Rohirrim in their own tongue. Legolas, not knowing the tongue, speaks of it as “laden with the sadness of Mortal Men.”

Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing? Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?…Who shall gather the smoke of the dead wood burning, Or behold the flowing years from the Sea returning?”

It is the image of the vain attempt to gather up the smoke of the fire that is most poignant in the song reminding us that we, who are mortal, can no more hold onto life than to perform this impossible task.

Tolkien was one of the greatest scholars of early English of his time and surely here he recalls the famous speech recounted by the Venerable Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People in which the pagan priest, Coifi, addresses Edwin, mighty king of the Northumbrians. Paulinus has just declared the Christian message to the king and Coifi speaks.

“It seems to me that the life of a man on earth is like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the hall, where you, O King, sit at table on a winter’s day with your captains and counsellors. In the midst of the hall there is a comforting fire to warm it. Outside the storms of winter rain and snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one window of that hall and out through another. While he is inside, the bird is safe from the winter storms, but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. So man appears upon earth for a little while- but of what went before this life, or what follows, we know nothing.”

I first heard this story as a young boy and this image seared itself into my consciousness. I could see the hall of the king, the fire burning brightly, the winter storm blowing outside. I could see the bird flying swiftly from one window to another. And at some level, perhaps beyond understanding, I knew that life was short, so heartbreakingly short.

When Gandalf and his companions arrive at Meduseld, the hall of the king, they find the Rohirrim, bowed down under the weight of this consciousness and unmanned by the whisperings of Grima Wormtongue, secret servant of Saruman. But soon the people of Rohan will be woken to new hope and to brave deeds. They will find such meaning in their brief life that they will be able to stand against all the powers of darkness that now oppress them.

But that is for another week…