Frodo’s Wound

Is The Lord of the Rings a great book or not?  In the Western tradition, from Homer and Aeschylus on, the essential mark of a great book is that it must have a dilemma. It is not enough to have a ripping yarn populated with vivid characters and eloquently written: the narrative has to be built on a crisis that cannot be solved, a conflict that cannot be won. A struggle of right versus wrong might be entertaining but is not fundamentally interesting; however, a struggle of right versus right will hold our attention for centuries. Why is this? — it must be because deep down in our hearts we know that our own lives are dilemmas, which both make us truly alive and also destroy us. Thus, the heroine of Sophocles’ Antigone is right in her stand on natural bonds, but so is her adversary Creon in his stand on political necessity. In the Iliad, who is right, Achilles or Agamemnon — and who has the greater excellence, Achilles or Hector?  In Plato’s Apology, were the Athenians right to kill Socrates, or would they have been right to let him live? All the Platonic dialogues are built on dilemmas. Even in Greek mathematics the most significant propositions involve contradiction or paradox. I would also argue that the greatest Eastern classics are also caught on horns: thus the Mahabharata, with its perplexities concerning dharma and its deep ambivalence towards its heroes, is a greater epic than the Ramayana, which is too simply black-and-white. In Chinese, Confucius and Mencius are fascinated by seemingly balanced moral alternatives; and is there a book anywhere that is as abundant with dilemmas as Sima Qian’s Records of the Historian? In short, if The Lord of the Rings is only about the war between good and evil, in which the good triumphs, then it may be a rousing and edifying epic but it is not a great book. What lifts Tolkien’s work into greatness is Frodo’s dilemma, which breaks him.

   At the beginning of the “Homeward Bound” chapter, we learn that Frodo is not well:

‘Are you in pain, Frodo?’ said Gandalf quietly as he rode by Frodo’s side.
   ‘Well, yes I am,’ said Frodo. ‘It is my shoulder. The wound aches, and the memory of darkness is heavy on me. It was a year ago today.’
   ‘Alas! there are some wounds that cannot be wholly cured,’ said Gandalf.
   ‘I fear it may be so with mine,’ said Frodo. ‘There is no real going back. Though I may come to the Shire, it will not seem the same; for I shall not be the same. I am wounded with knife, sting, and tooth, and a long burden. Where shall I find rest?’
   Gandalf did not answer. (268)

What is this wound? We have watched him getting physically injured several times, and he has been treated by the best possible doctors — but there is something more. The wound aches, and the memory of darkness is heavy on me. The “and” is powerful: I am hurt by a wound, but also by a memory. I am wounded with knife, sting, and tooth, and a long burden. The second “and” stands out, suggesting that the real pain is not physical. Gandalf’s “alas” says that he knows what is going on, and that he knows that Frodo knows. There is no real going back: yes, there is a kind of apparent going back, but no real going back. Their conversation is like a patient talking with his doctor about a terminal cancer diagnosis. When Frodo asks Where shall I find rest? is it a rhetorical question, or a real, desperate question? Gandalf’s silence is full of meaning: either nowhere, or who knows?

   Frodo’s anguish is the profound mystery at the heart of the book; it has been prefigured by the transformation of Smeagol into Gollum. Perhaps Tolkien has too much tact to drag this mystery into the light of day and tell us straight out what it is, but it could also be that while he feels it the author himelf doesn’t comprehend it well enough to give words to it. On one level we are witnessing the post-traumatic stress of a sensitive soul who has seen pure evil and all the darkness possible in this world, face to face. After such an encounter it is not possible to return to ordinary life unshaken; the very existence of so much evil will cast everything in permanent shadow. But there is more to Frodo’s trauma. A little later, as they are heading home:

‘Well here we are, just the four of us that started out together,’ said Merry. ‘We have left all the rest behind, one after another. It seems almost like a dream that has slowly faded.’
   ‘Not to me,’ said Frodo. ‘To me it feels more like falling asleep again.’
(276)

While Merry feels that he is waking up, coming to his senses again, Frodo is sad to lose his hold on the hyper-reality of the epic world: his old hobbit life will be less vivid, less real, less interesting. The painful struggle to destroy the Ring, in all its misery and horror, is preferable to the tedium of comfortable mundane living. If it was Merry who voiced this, we would understand it more easily, because he at least has experienced the rush of battle and heroic action — but all Frodo has experienced is plodding hardship and literal torture. 

   Tolkien’s description of his fits of anguish can sound like an account of withdrawal from heroin addiction:

Sam stayed at first at the Cottons’ with Frodo; but when the New Row was ready he went with the Gaffer. In addition to all his other labours he was busy directing the cleaning up and restoring of Bag End; but he was often away in the Shire on his forestry work. So he was not at home in early March and did not know that Frodo had been ill. On the thirteenth of that month Farmer Cotton found Frodo lying on his bed; he was clutching a white gem that hung on a chain about his neck and he seemed half in a dream.
  ‘It is gone for ever,’ he said, ‘and now all is dark and empty.’
   But the fit passed, and when Sam got back on the twenty-fifth, Frodo had recovered, and he said nothing about himself. (304)

The white gem was given by Arwen in anticipation of his need: “When the memory of the fear and the darkness troubles you….this will bring you aid.” (253) It is either a magical antidote to a supernatural poison, or a more benign addiction to replace the harmful one. He clutches it in exactly the same way he used to clutch the Ring: has she given him a souvenir of hope and brightness to balance out the nightmares, or a milder version of the Ring, keeping him anchored to the period in his life when he felt most alive but without letting him be devoured by it? There is one more recurrence of the memory:

One evening Sam came into the study and found his master looking very strange. He was very pale and his eyes seemed to see things far away.
   ‘What’s the matter, Mr. Frodo?’ said Sam.
   ‘I am wounded,’ he answered, ‘wounded; it will never really heal.’
   But then he got up, and the turn seemed to pass, and he was quite himself the next day. It was not until afterwards that Sam recalled that the date was October the sixth. Two years before on that day it was dark in the dell under Weathertop.
(305)

The memory is of having been stabbed by the Witch-King and almost dying; it was Frodo’s baptism into death, his first experience of what it might be to fade away into nothing. On first consideration, this would seem to be the opposite of what I have described earlier as a more vivid hyper-reality. We have seen throughout journey to Mount Doom that Frodo has been largely absorbed in brooding, which is interrupted occasionally by Sam, who can make him laugh. It is a little like the devotional brooding of a monk, who goes through his daily tasks with his mind on God, and also like the brooding of someone enthralled by an intense inner experience that he cannot relinquish. It bears very little resemblance to Sauron’s obsession with the Ring, which is actually only an obsession with the power it represents; but we see in Frodo’s brooding, as well as in Gollum’s evident love for it, that the Ring brings much more than power. For Frodo and Gollum, putting on the Ring means connecting with something more intense than life can offer; it is not necessarily pleasant or blissful, and perhaps it cannot be expressed in any language of duality. Someone who through the Ring has experienced this higher state cannot go back and live in a world of simple moral valuations. The power of the Ring is that it releases its wearer from commitment to moral distinctions by acclimating them to the larger-than-life state of soul in which the wearer is willing to sacrifice anything to remain bound to this wonderful thing. 

   For a person of shallow character or wicked desires, this is not a problem: the Ring simply brings him what he he thinks he wants. However, for a decent person who cares about goodness and other people, the Ring comes as a terrible dilemma. It is essentially a Romantic dilemma, well expressed in poems by Coleridge, Keats, and Yeats. In Keats’ “Nightingale” Ode, the speaker seeks to escape this world of suffering into a realm of transcendent beauty through the song of the nightingale, but by the end of the poem finds himself alone and forlorn on a desolate shore. The decent, thoughtful person cannot be happy  without love, goodness, other people, the pleasures of life; but after experiencing the Ring, he also cannot live without connection to the dark, intense, inner reality in which these mere human values mean nothing. The tension between these two poles is more than Frodo can endure; it exhausts him and drains his will to live. On the surface, the epic tale is a triumph of light over darkness, with Frodo as the principal hero; but under the surface, it is a tale about the gradual breaking of a sensitive, intelligent being who loses interest in ordinary living because only the destroyed Ring could have given him something more vitally satisfying. 

   In the end Tolkien brings Frodo to a place very similar to the “magic casements opening on the foam / Of perilous seas in faery lands forlorn,” where Keats’ speaker finds himself bereft:

And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed on into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise. (310)

The journey to the Grey Havens is an image of a beautiful, chosen death. The poetically noble, who cannot bear to live any more in the Age of Men, decide to relinquish the world to its new owners, and Frodo — incapacitated for life — disappears with them into the dream world of legend, to which he belongs more than to this life. Is this a sad or happy ending? From the point of view of life, it is sad that the most complex, lovable character in the book, the one who has undergone and achieved the most, has been rendered unfit to live; and from the point of view of legend, Frodo is complete, has achieved everything he has set out to achieve, and he can vanish now in his fulfillment. Why wish anything more for him? He gets to fade away gracefully at his climax and not be reduced over the years, like most of us, to a boring, garrulous anticlimax who lives in the past. The dilemma of Frodo was born with the germ of unrest at the beginning of the tale, where already he knows he is not a hero of legend but also cannot be content to be just a hobbit; it then grows into something that both culminates and kills him.

   His dilemma is the heart of the entire book. Without it, we have just another tale of epic heroism. With it, we have a novel about the perplexed meeting of two incompatible worlds. It is not that the book contains no other dilemmas: Sam, Eowyn, Gollum, Faramir, and Denethor all have dilemmas that deepen the tale. But Frodo’s dilemma runs through the entire book like a diameter, and pierces it with an insoluble problem. We want long lives of pleasure and comfort, of material and social stability, of mundane virtues and cozy excellences, all warm and rounded — but we also want to risk ourselves in life-quests and life-missions, to be grand and save the world with a sword, to experience a great love and a great death. If we are lucky, like Merry, we get to partake in conventional heroism against a conventional monster; but if we are less lucky, we get to do the dirty, painful grind-work of the mission, in which we find ourselves transformed bit by bit into something very close to the darkness we are fighting — and from this transformation there is no going back. It is the same struggle we see in modern superhero stories, in which too our little lives are not enough and we have to do something stereotypically great, like save the world: some heroes do it by fighting, and others do it by becoming the villain in some way. At the end of the first war Isildur removed Sauron’s ring by cutting off his finger probably while his men hold him down; it is no coincidence that Frodo loses his own finger with the Ring. He knows what it is like to have been Sauron and Gollum, and this knowledge is the “long burden” that fulfills him, bringing out depths of power and goodness he never knew he had — and that also renders him unable to live in any earthly society.

   

   

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The Multiple Endings of The Lord of the Rings

The Lord of the Rings has a false ending. It occurs at the end of the chapter called “The Steward and the King,”  and in any other novel this would have been a beautiful way to conclude:

And Frodo when he saw her come glimmering in the evening, with stars on her brow and a sweet fragrance about her, was moved with great wonder, and he said to Gandalf: ‘At last I understand why we have waited! This is the ending. Now not day only shall be beloved, but night too shall be beautiful and blessed and all its fear pass away!’

   Then the King welcomed his guests, and they alighted; and Elrond surrendered the sceptre, and laid the hand of his daughter in the hand of the King, and together they went up into the High City, and all the stars flowered in the sky. And Aragorn the King Elessar wedded Arwen Undómiel in the City of the Kings upon the day of Midsummer, and the tale of their long waiting and labours was come to fulfilment. (251)

In both imagery and cadence, this is a perfect ending for the book as an epic and fairy tale: the cosmic battle of good and evil has been won, the rule of the good has been re-established, and there is peace and beauty in the kngdom again. Now we can all go home to our lives. If the reader wished to stop here and not read a single word more, it would have been a satisfying tale, concluding on the heights. But we know that there are sixty more pages to come. Why then is this ending not enough for Tolkien — why can he not stop here?

We have seen throughout that the epic tale of war is not the whole book, but a large part of the book — and it is this part that “The Steward and the King” concludes. The epic tale is embedded in a novel that starts in the Shire and that must return to the Shire. This novel is about the inner impulse to seek completion, fullness of soul; it is about a handful of hobbits’ participation in the epic tale, but their trajectory begins before the war and continues after the war. As a novelist and not a mere spinner of tales, Tolkien is less interested in the events themselves than in their impact on his characters. Gandalf himself says frankly that the war has really been a training for the hobbits:

‘I am with you at present,’ said Gandalf, ‘but soon I shall not be. I am not coming to the Shire. You must settle its affairs yourselves; that is what you have been trained for. Do you not yet understand? My time is over: it is no longer my task to set things to rights, nor to help folk to do so. And as for you, my dear friends, you will need no help. You are grown up now. Grown indeed very high; among the great you are, and I have no longer any fear at all for any of you.’ (275)

That is what you have been trained for. Do you not yet understand? What exactly is it that they do not yet understand? — that the purpose of the entire tale is to help them grow up, to take charge of their own lives, and to have no more need of the Big People? At the beginning of the trilogy the Shire seemed a sufficiently pleasant and comfortable world, amiably middle-class in the narrow security of its preoccupations — but it filled Bilbo and Frodo with restlessness because it was also an asphyxiating, infantilizing world where no one could ever grow up because they had no chance to face dangerous heights and depths. On their adventure, they developed fortitude and courage, found the hidden power of love and lost their fear of death. Moreover, they gained a broader perspective on life and death: having encountered the darkest evils and luminous visions of good, they should now find life on the middle scale more manageable and more intelligible. From the heights and the depths, they must now live on earth again. In not permitting his heroes to remain in the realm of high legend, Tolkien is a realist.

The greatest problems always come not from “enemies” but from neighbors — the people who immediately surround us and who impinge on our lives every moment, night and day. This is why Jesus in his wisdom said “love your neighbor as yourself.” It is much easier to love your enemy, because the Enemy is always a little abstract and remote. The neighbor, on the other hand, is right there, wearing away at you in all his annoying concreteness. Tolkien recognizes that Sauron is actually a great boring emptiness, and that the real threat is the people whom he influences. Now in any war, the powerful Enemy will always succeed in dividing even distant communities; there will always be some who are motivated to form an alliance with the Enemy, others who will go along with them, and others who will resist. Any Enemy worth his salt will have clever strategies to divide his opponents. Even the tranquil Shire is not invulnerable to internal divisions, and the hobbits are not done with their journey until they can deal with the depredations of their neighbors. This is always a more difficult task than destroying orcs, because neighbors have friends and families; killing off large numbers of them will only create long-term strife, and leave us with no peace and harmony to return to — that is to say, no home. This was the problem of Odysseus, who, absent for two decades, returned only to have to purge all of his neighbors, leaving a terrible mess that only the gods could solve. Perhaps there is no easy way out of this; there will always be determined allies of the enemy who will have to be eliminated, and their elimination will always have consequences.

What the hobbits find when they get home bears some striking similarities to the 20th century West. First, the Shire is being run by authoritarians who have succeeded in spreading the mantra  “We’re not allowed to.” (281) Second, the land has been marred by industrialization and the love of the ugly that so frequently accompanies it:

The travellers trotted on, and as the sun began to sink towards the White Downs far away on the western horizon they came to Bywater by its wide pool; and there they had their first really painful shock. This was Frodo and Sam’s own country, and they found out now that they cared about it more than any other place in the world. Many of the houses that they had known were missing. Some seemed to have been burned down. The pleasant row of old hobbit-holes in the bank on the north side of the Pool were deserted, and their little gardens that used to run down bright to the water’s edge were rank with weeds. Worse, there was a whole line of the ugly new houses all along Pool Side, where the Hobbiton Road ran close to the bank. An avenue of trees had stood there. They were all gone. And looking with dismay up the road towards Bag End they saw a tall chimney of brick in the distance. It was pouring out black smoke into the evening air. (283)

It was one of the saddest hours in their lives. The great chimney rose up before them; and as they drew near the old village across the Water, through rows of new mean houses along each side of the road, they saw the new mill in all its frowning and dirty ugliness: a great brick building straddling the stream, which it fouled with a steaming and stinking overflow. All along the Bywater Road every tree had been felled.
   As they crossed the bridge and looked up the Hill they gasped. Even Sam’s vision in the Mirror had not prepared him for what they saw. The Old Grange on the west side had been knocked down, and its place taken by rows of tarred sheds. All the chestnuts were gone. The banks and hedgerows were broken. Great waggons were standing in disorder in a field beaten bare of grass. Bagshot Row was a yawning sand and gravel quarry. Bag End up beyond could not be seen for a clutter of large huts.
   ‘They’ve cut it down!’ cried Sam. ‘They’ve cut down the Party Tree!’ He pointed to where the tree. had stood under which Bilbo had made his Farewell Speech. It was lying lopped and dead in the field. As if this was the last straw Sam burst into tears. (296)

As with many writers who love trees — Wordsworth, Cowper, Hopkins, Chekhov, Frost — nothing in Tolkien symbolizes the desecration of nature and the destructiveness of rampant desire better than the wanton chopping down of trees. People who can cut down the Party Tree and the great chestnuts for the sake of a quarry have no perception of beauty and are enemies to life’s simple delights — yet such people are around us, and crawl into the foreground whenever a master-vandal like Sauron removes the social inhibitions. Tolkien’s lyrical realm of elves, trees, heroes, and radiant mountains is set against the tenacious, low-minded thuggery of modern life that is incarnate in the industrial wasteland, the image of nature vandalized into trash: the Party tree lying lopped and dead in the field. This mentality is the true enemy, and Sauron only its catalyst.

The impulse to soil and desecrate is fueled by envious hatred for beauty and nobility, which for a vandal are sleepy delusions cocooned far away from the spikes and rigors of the ruthless “real” world. In his defiling of other people’s contentment, the vandal characteristically uses the vocabulary of “shaking up” or “waking up”:  “This country wants waking up and setting to rights.” (284) To some extent this is not wrong; Frodo himself grew sick of Hobbiton ease and comfort, and all four of our hobbits are better for having been woken up by their adventure.

Tolkien evokes these traits of the modern vandal but does not elaborate on them. The Shire is in fact easily scoured: the bad guys are killed off without much effort and leave behind them no poisonous miasma of ill-feeling to blight the land for generations; and even the industrial disfigurement of the countryside is healed in a short time with the help of Galadriel’s magic dust. Such buoyancy may be the defining trait of hobbits in general, and it may be more poignant because every adult reader comes to the book with old, unhealed wounds, and knows that hobbits, in this respect, are not like us.

The one element in “The Scouring of the Shire” that troubles me is the presence of Saruman. Would it not have been more true to life to have disposed of him at Orthanc, and then focused solely on hobbit neighbors in the Shire? In this final phase of the novel we do not need the great villains any more, and the task now is to learn how to handle the mundane ones. I can think of two good reasons why Tolkien may have felt it right to assimilate Saruman into the life of the Shire as “Sharkey” and then draw him out to an anticlimactic death. First, throughout the book he has embodied the modern spirit: he is technologist and technocrat, the one who finds nothing natural or social that cannot be manipulated, and who is consequently easily enraged by those who resist him. It is fitting then that Saruman should preside over the industrialization and spiteful vandalism of the Shire.

More important, however, is his role as Gandalf’s alter ego: “Gandalf the White” could have become Saruman, and for a time the two are indeed indistinguishable. They are two possible manifestations of the same person. Wizards with all their power can easily be tempted to use it to bend the world to their desires. It has been a distinguishing mark of Gandalf throughout the book is that he lets others be and trusts them to perform their designated parts, even though he himself may not understand these parts. He is content, for example, to leave Frodo free to do what he has to do, and accepts the danger of Gollum in the providential patterning of the whole. Saruman, on the other hand, is constantly scheming for the upper hand, and in every conversation needs to show that he is in charge: power for him is power over people and things, whereas for Gandalf true power is built upon the strength not to need power. Gandalf accompanies the hobbits at the beginning of their journey home, but it is Saruman who, after being granted mercy by Frodo, has the last word when they are finally able to settle:

Saruman rose to his feet, and stared at Frodo. There was a strange look in his eyes of mingled wonder and respect and hatred. ‘You have grown, Halfling,’ he said. ‘Yes, you have grown very much. You are wise, and cruel. You have robbed my revenge of sweetness, and now I must go hence in bitterness, in debt to your mercy. I hate it and you! (299)

Saruman’s You have grown, Halfling, you have grown very much is a twisted echo of Gandalf’s You are grown up now. In one reading of this echo, Gandalf was asserting that the hobbits have grown into strength, integrity, wisdom — a ripening into unequivocal excellence; but Saruman, on the other hand, is describing a darkly sophisticated adult mindset, for which no virtue is free of taint, and virtue and vice always equivocal. You are wise, and cruel: he is accusing Frodo of masking perceptive malevolence with apparent mercy. The act of mercy is intended to subjugate and humiliate. To Saruman, Frodo has learned and become wise in the ways of the world; he knows how to wield irony and to use goodness as an instrument of pain. Is Saruman just projecting his own tortuous paranoia onto the innocent hobbit, or is he somewhat right in his assessment of Frodo? If he is right, Frodo in the course of his journey has lost his innocence, his capacity for faith in simple goodness, and so cannot return to a life of contentment and delight in the Shire; if he is wrong, Frodo will nonetheless reflect on these words and wonder if he has indeed lost the hope of simple happiness. Saruman will have fired a poisoned dart on his way out. Yet it is because the hobbits have lost some vital part of their innocence that they are able to read the intentions of corrupted hobbits and spiteful men, and to take appropriate action against them: they have become worldly, realistic, lethal.

Thus, close to the end of the book, we get a view of Frodo through the eyes of Gandalf’s doppelganger, and these eyes give us Frodo as he has been transformed through his experiences. “The Steward and the King” chapter closes the book’s epic action, and “The Scouring of the Shire” is a necessary trammeling of elements, like Saruman, that have burst out of the epic action — but the book cannot be concluded until we understand what the main action has done to the hearts and minds of our heroes.

Tolkien’s Ceremonial Heroism


What most distinguishes a warrior from a great killing machine is an instinct for ceremony. Diomedes and Ajax have a gift for slaughter, but only Achilles, as he sends off Patroclus and the Myrmidons to fight, will perform a spontaneous ritual prayer:

Achilles went into his hut and opened up the lid
on a beautifully decorated chest
placed on board his ship by silver-footed Thetis
for him to take. She’d packed it with cloaks and tunics,
and woollen blankets, too—protection from the wind.
There he kept an ornate goblet. Other than Achilles 
no one used it to drink gleaming wine. With this cup
Achilles poured libations to no god but Father Zeus.
Taking this out of the chest, first he purified it
with sulphur, then rinsed it out in streams of water.
He washed his hands and drew some gleaming wine. 
Standing in the middle of the yard, he poured it out,
gazing up at heaven. Thunder-loving Zeus looked on.  (Iliad 16: 220-32)

We have seen that for Tolkien heroes are ennobled and beautified by ceremony. Boromir before his death was a less attractive man, resentful, truculent, and self-centered. But at his funeral — which is a perfect, spontaneous performance by three heroes, the sun, and the landscape — even those of us who previously disliked him discover now that we love him. The ceremony immerses him in a holy haze of beauty and reverence, which completes him by turning his life and death into an unforgettable picture:

Now they laid Boromir in the middle of the boat that was to bear him away. The grey hood and elven-cloak they folded and placed beneath his head. They combed his long dark hair and arrayed it upon his shoulders. The golden belt of Lórien gleamed about his waist. His helm they set beside him, and across his lap they laid the cloven horn and the hilts and shards of his sword; beneath his feet they put the swords of his enemies. Then fastening the prow to the stern of the other boat, they drew him out into the water. They rowed sadly along the shore, and turning into the swift-running channel they passed the green sward of Parth Galen. The steep sides of Tol Brandir were glowing: it was now mid-afternoon. As they went south the fume of Rauros rose and shimmered before them, a haze of gold. The rush and thunder of the falls shook the windless air. (The Two Towers, p.19)

Similarly, the war of the Ring is not concluded by the destruction of the Ring and of Sauron. A lesser novelist would have drawn out the scene at the Crack of Doom, amplified the struggle with Gollum, created a climactic fight with Sauron, and showed in detail the collapse of the evil empire, followed by a chapter to wrap it all up. For Tolkien, however, there have to be several ceremonious episodes before the war can be considered over, and to enjoy the book fully the reader has to have the capacity to enjoy ceremony and not rush over these pages. Since all rituals are conducted with solemn exactitude of speech and gesture, the reader must enjoy taking the time to visualize these and to let each moment sink in. It is not like the endings of popular films such as Star Wars, in which the ceremony consists of applause, fanfare, and smiling celebrity; all this does is embellish the action and signal to the audience that they can start to leave now. Tolkien’s ceremonies commemorate not victory but greatness and significance, together with loss and sacrifice. Indeed, the main function of slowness in ritual is to enable remembrance and contemplation, and the power of the ritual is in direct proportion to the memories of the participants and their contemplative inclinations. A film version of Tolkien’s ceremonies might effectively include slow flashbacks of crucial moments, bringing to mind the entire sequence of events and giving it a place in history or legend. The ceremony thus connects the passing particular with a timeless whole, which gives meaning and therefore motive for the warrior’s efforts. The fighter only fights, the killer only kills, but the warrior defends a whole world from disintegration into meaninglessness. 

   In the improvised perfection of Boromir’s funeral we see that ritual is not the rote repetition of traditional motions and formulas; it emanates from a deep sense for the complex harmonies of human action and natural setting. In the crowning of Aragorn, we see another improvisation without any guiding precedents. This time both Faramir and Aragorn make up the ceremony, which becomes not just a decorative flourish but a piece of theater — fusion of painting, dance, and poetry — that allows Aragorn to be manifested:

‘Men of Gondor, the loremasters tell that it was the custom of old that the king should receive the crown from his father ere he died; or if that might not be, that he should go alone and take it from the hands of his father in the tomb where he was laid. But since things must now be done otherwise, using the authority of the Steward, I have today brought hither from Rath Dínen the crown of Eärnur the last king, whose days passed in the time of our longfathers of old.’
   Then the guards stepped forward, and Faramir opened the casket, and he held up an ancient crown. It was shaped like the helms of the Guards of the Citadel, save that it was loftier, and it was all white, and the wings at either side were wrought of pearl and silver in the likeness of the wings of a sea-bird, for it was the emblem of kings who came over the Sea; and seven gems of adamant were set in the circlet, and upon its summit was set a single jewel the light of which went up like a flame.
   Then Aragorn took the crown and held it up and said:

Et Eärello Endorenna utúlien. Sinome maruvan ar Hildinyar tenn’ Ambar-metta!

And those were the words that Elendil spoke when he came up out of the Sea on the wings of the wind: ‘Out of the Great Sea to Middle-earth I am come. In this place will I abide, and my heirs, unto the ending of the world.’
   Then to the wonder of many Aragorn did not put the crown upon his head, but gave it back to Faramir, and said: ‘By the labour and valour of many I have come into my inheritance. In token of this I would have the Ring-bearer bring the crown to me, and let Mithrandir set it upon my head, if he will; for he has been the mover of all that has been accomplished, and this is his victory.’
   Then Frodo came forward and took the crown from Faramir and bore it to Gandalf; and Aragorn knelt, and Gandalf set the White Crown upon his head, and said:
‘Now come the days of the King, and may they be blessed while the thrones of the Valar endure!’
   But when Aragorn arose all that beheld him gazed in silence, for it seemed to them that he was revealed to them now for the first time. Tall as the sea-kings of old, he stood above all that were near; ancient of days he seemed and yet in the flower of manhood; and wisdom sat upon his brow, and strength and healing were in his hands, and a light was about him.  (245-46)

Aragorn does not become the king until this moment. It is not an identity that he has or has had all along, but it has to be conferred ceremonially, through proper timing and the right accessories. In the same way, Boromir becomes himself only at his funeral. Unlike a mere killing machine, who only has this life and this death, Aragorn and Boromir are raised by ritual into the timeless community of warrior heroes. 

   The real action of The Lord of the Rings is ceremonial theater, which frames the physical struggle and elevates it. The entire story exists as a tension between the sweating, striving, frail bodies of all the participants and their spiritual, mythic reality: Gandalf is Mithrandir, Frodo is The Ring-bearer. They do not shuttle between the two identities but are in fact both of them. This is one reason why the epic warriors of The Two Towers seem so flat: there, they are only one of these poles. This is also why Aragorn and Arwen are less satisfying. In contrast, Frodo and Sam are interesting because they are always wondering about how to situate themselves between rocky reality and the burdensome call of legend. 

   In our own times the ceremonial, whether religious or civic, can feel like a desperate affectation that arises from fear of change and resistance to loss. Because we either fear losing our traditions or have already lost them, we fabricate rituals that reassure us of our cultural identities: the “traditional” wedding that is in fact less than a century old, “traditional” Scottish kilts that were invented by an English industrialist and ended up using Flemish patterns, “traditional” Christmas roast turkey that would have been unheard of in Dickens’ day. Occasionally Tolkien’s ceremonialism can feel like the attempts of modern religious groups to evoke the radiant order of medieval piety. Thus, Aragorn’s stilted, archaic language when he slips into his persona of king is reminiscent of modern religious warriors who want to bring back the Caliphate. This modern traditionalism is actually an admission that the old order has been lost, and instead of the organic fluidity of a living culture we get a rigid, formal version that derives its authority from being thought of as “traditional.” In contrast, real Irishmen, unlike American Irishmen, don’t have to wear green on St.Patrick’s Day because whatever they wear is Irish. Throughout The Lord of the Rings the use of immemorial sacred props and ancient languages, the evocation of dead civilizations and the fascination with lost archives, are all acknowledgements that the world of old has passed and that we who are alive must come to terms with their passing. 

  Of the ceremonies that have to take place before the heroes can leave Gondor, most are typical of epics generally: ceremonies of feasting, hearing great deeds sung, gift-giving, the naming of heroes and of royal lineages, the burial of fallen kings. The most remarkable one involves Aragorn’s finding and transplanting of a sapling of the Eldest of Trees:

Then Aragorn cried: ‘Yé! utúvienyes! I have found it! Lo! here is a scion of the Eldest of Trees! But how comes it here? For it is not itself yet seven years old.’
   And Gandalf coming looked at it, and said: ‘Verily this is a sapling of the line of Nimloth the fair; and that was a seedling of Galathilion, and that a fruit of Telperion of many names, Eldest of Trees. Who shall say how it comes here in the appointed hour? But this is an ancient hallow, and ere the kings failed or the Tree withered in the court, a fruit must have been set here. For it is said that, though the fruit of the Tree comes seldom to ripeness, yet the life within may then lie sleeping through many long years, and none can foretell the time in which it will awake. Remember this. For if ever a fruit ripens, it should be planted, lest the line die out of the world. Here it has lain. hidden on the mountain, even as the race of Elendil lay hidden in the wastes of the North. Yet the line of Nimloth is older far than your line, King Elessar.’
   Then Aragorn laid his hand gently to the sapling, and lo! it seemed to hold only lightly to the earth, and it was removed without hurt; and Aragorn bore it back to the Citadel. Then the withered tree was uprooted, but with reverence; and they did not burn it, but laid it to rest in the silence of Rath Dínen. And Aragorn planted the new tree in the court by the fountain, and swiftly and gladly it began to grow; and when the month of June entered in it was laden with blossom.
   ‘The sign has been given,’ said Aragorn, ‘and the day is not far off.’ And he set watchmen upon the walls. (250)

   This sapling, no more than three feet high, had already put forth young leaves long and shapely, dark above and silver beneath, and upon its slender crown it bore one small cluster of flowers whose white petals shone like the sunlit snow. (250) There is something tinselly and synthetic about this young tree; indeed, it is not really a tree, but an emblem of a tree. Tolkien loved actual trees in their dense foliage and wild gnarliness, and he could have arranged for Aragorn to discover such a tree rooted deep in a mysterious valley that then becomes a place of pilgrimage for the kingdom. Instead, this sapling appears to have no roots: it is not of the kingdom, not of its earth, but can be placed anywhere at the king’s wish. It is a spiritual entity, not a natural one — essentially the same sort of thing as a plastic Christmas tree, but more elegant and somewhat alive. Tolkien has found the perfect symbol for the heroic mythology that scaffolds The Lord of the Rings: heraldic, beautiful, metallically shiny, and not fully alive. The world of the hobbits is alive: earthy, bustling, unceremonious, unsolemn, full of sensory delight and humor. Ceremony, on the other hand, cannot co-exist with humor; a single chuckle can bring down a ritual. Yet to Bilbo, Frodo, Sam, and later Merry and Pippin, the mundane comforts of hobbit existence are not enough: they need this higher solemnity to become completed. With the exception of Faramir and Éowyn, the martial warriors in this book are content to be epic figures and do not yearn for any fulfillment of their earthly natures. There is no living tension in them; they are like a silvery sapling growing in the snow, destined to reach maturity with magical speed because it is exempt from the patient labor of organic growth. 

   The faery sapling perfectly expresses Tolkien’s ambivalence towards the world of martial heroism: it is beautiful, we need it, but there is something not quite alive about it, something gleaming and superficial, without depth. In needing to have such an emblem before us,  we are confessing that we have already lost what it stood for: we no longer have an authentic, natural relationship with the higher order that gives meaning to our lives, and therefore we evoke it every now and again with ceremonial theater — or with fantasy novels. As the Daoist sage Zhuangzi put it, Those who seek to satisfy the mind of man by hampering it with ceremonies and music have already lost their original nature.

For Éowyn, a Trammel?

A hutch to trammel some wild thing in: this was Gandalf’s description of the life that had been assigned to Éowyn. In her heroic vanquishing of the Witch-King she seems to have broken out of the hutch, at least for a while. But what happens after the war? She cannot have the man she has loved for most of the book, she has lost Theoden, her shield arm is crippled, and she might have to settle for a life that is second-rate to her. Thus, when within the space a page she switches her love from Aragorn to Faramir, decides that she now has to be healer and not warrior, and sheds her desire for queenship, it is tempting to wonder if the author — in his concern not to leave her broken and unresolved — has forced her into a new captivity — a more insidious one, because this time she submits voluntarily. It turns out that Gandalf’s mixing of metaphors in combining a hutch with a trammel may be precise and appropriate after all: a tramnel is a finer-meshed, secondary net designed to trap fish that manage to escape from the main net. 

   There is a lot at stake in Éowyn’s sudden change of heart. Is it possible to relocate such an intense love-yearning so easily? Is it possible for a fierce, stubborn character like her to do so? Does Tolkien understand her? Does Tolkien understand sexual love? The questions are important because in general women are poorly or simplistically portrayed in The Lord of the Rings, and Eros — not only in its physicality, but also in the spirituality of its yearning — is practically absent, except in the figure of Éowyn. Aragorn’s ethereal love for an elf-lady doesn’t count, and we are told very little about why Arwen gives up elfdom for him. At the other end of the spectrum, there is also no Eros in the Shire. The closest we come is Sam’s cozy domestic partnership with Rose, and even though they must have sex they do not have Eros. If there is no room in Tolkien’s  world for Eros, then that world is painfully limited, with significant parts of the heart and the body amputated. In such a world, where even the strongest willed people let themselves be molded to the demands of the ruling order, there is no such thing as intractable nature, no radical mismatch of nature and state, and hence no possibility of tragedy. If Éowyn can be Éowyn and is allowed to love who and what she loves, there will be a price to pay but there will be life in this world; but if Éowyn can simply douse the fire of her yearnings and willingly finds a place in the new order by turning herself tepid, she will be confirming that in Aragorn’s realm there is really no such thing as an unruly, disordered heart. This would make Tolkien’s book a work of pure but desiccated fantasy. 

   We have seen that Tolkien can be awkward with romance, and even amidst the very beautiful exchanges between Faramir and Éowyn there are sentences that a sensitive person cannot read aloud without wincing:

‘Then, Éowyn of Rohan, I say to you that you are beautiful. In the valleys of our hills there are flowers fair and bright, and maidens fairer still; but neither flower nor lady have I seen till now in Gondor so lovely, and so sorrowful.  (238)

And so they stood on the walls of the City of Gondor, and a great wind rose and blew, and their hair, raven and golden, streamed out mingling in the air. (241) 

Engineering a romance between Faramir and Éowyn was surely one of Tolkien’s most difficult tasks as a writer. On the one hand, in Éowyn he has a strong, intransigent character who, both as male and female, seems incapable of backing down. Coming from a stock of the harsh warriors, who sing as they slay and who ruthlessly hunt down the indigenous Wild Men, Éowyn gives voice to a pure warrior ethos: ‘And it is not always good to be healed in body. Nor is it always evil to die in battle, even in bitter pain. Were I permitted, in this dark hour I would choose the latter.’ (236) She is, moreover, in love with a man whom she views as the ultimate warrior. Faramir, on the other hand, does not love fighting:

`For myself,’ said Faramir, ‘I would see the White Tree in flower again in the courts of the kings, and the Silver Crown return, and Minas Tirith in peace: Minas Anor again as of old, full of light, high and fair, beautiful as a queen among other queens: not a mistress of many slaves, nay, not even a kind mistress of willing slaves. War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend: the city of the Men of Númenor; and I would have her loved for her memory, her ancientry, her beauty, and her present wisdom. Not feared, save as men may fear the dignity of a man, old and wise.’ (“The Window on the West,” ch.5, The Two Towers, 280)

He loves civilization, beauty, and goodness — which are quite possibly things that leave Éowyn cold. But we have seen the gentle, tactful perceptiveness of his interrogation of Frodo, and have reason to think that if any man can find a way to relate to Éowyn it will be Faramir. He says that he is interested in her because of her beauty and her sorrow, but why would she be interested in him?

   In the build-up to her conversion, we can see how she becomes interested in Faramir:

‘Then if you will have it so, lady,’ he said: ‘you do not go, because only your brother called for you, and to look on the Lord Aragorn, Elendil’s heir, in his triumph would now bring you no joy. Or because I do not go, and you desire still to be near me. And maybe for both these reasons, and you yourself cannot choose between them. Éowyn, do you not love me, or will you not?’
   ‘I wished to be loved by another,’ she answered. ‘But I desire no man’s pity.’

He shows to her first that he sees precisely the main reason she will not go: he knows that she knows that if Aragorn were to summon her it would be out of pity, and the one thing she cannot endure is a man’s pity. But then he ventures a bold surmise: because I do not go, and you desire still to be near me. Why would he think that her desire to be near him might equal her feelings for Aragorn? Has she given any prior indication of such feeling? The tense of her response — I wished — suggests that he is not far off the mark: does she mean “I used to wish,” “I once wished,” or “I wished and still wish”?

   A few pages before this we saw their first meeting:

‘Do not misunderstand him, lord,’ said Éowyn. ‘It is not lack of care that grieves me. No houses could be fairer, for those who desire to be healed. But I cannot lie in sloth, idle, caged. I looked for death in battle. But I have not died, and battle still goes on.’
   At a sign from Faramir, the Warden bowed and departed. ‘What would you have me do, lady?’ said Faramir. ‘I also am a prisoner of the healers.’ He looked at her, and being a man whom pity deeply stirred, it seemed to him that her loveliness amid her grief would pierce his heart. And she looked at him and saw the grave tenderness in his eyes, and yet knew, for she was bred among men of war, that here was one whom no Rider of the Mark would outmatch in battle. (237)

I cannot think of another instance in this novel when there is the reciprocal looking of two characters trying to fathom one another, and seeing perhaps what the other sees. This meeting of two perspectives is the essence of the novel as an art form, and it is rare in Tolkien to get two perspectives merged in one paragraph. In what immediately follows, we have another novelistic moment: one character, now invested in another’s point of view, imagines, perhaps accurately, how she would be seen by him, and this imagining actually changes her. For the first time she doubted herself.

‘What do you wish?’ he said again. ‘If it lies in my power, I will do it.’

‘I would have you command this Warden, and bid him let me go,’ she said; but though her words were still proud, her heart faltered, and for the first time she doubted herself. She guessed that this tall man, both stern and gentle, might think her merely wayward, like a child that has not the firmness of mind to go on with a dull task to the end. (237)

Even characters as sensitive as Frodo and Sam never enter into another’s perspective like this. Perhaps Frodo does it with Gollum, but their relationship remains enigmatic. Gandalf does it when he gives his account of Éowyn’s unhappiness, and Aragorn tries to understand. But only Faramir and Éowyn nake a continuous effort to get under each other’s skin. It could be that between two people connected in this way, a look is sufficient to prove the bond — and the narrative emphasizes that they are always looking and intensely concerned with what the other is thinking.

‘Seven days,’ said Faramir. ‘But think not ill of me, if I say to you: they have brought me both a joy and a pain that I never thought to know. Joy to see you; but pain, because now the fear and doubt of this evil time are grown dark indeed. Éowyn, I would not have this world end now, or lose so soon what I have found.’

   ‘Lose what you have found, lord?’ she answered; but she looked at him gravely and her eyes were kind. ‘I know not what in these days you have found that you could lose. But come, my friend, let us not speak of it! Let us not speak at all! I stand upon some dreadful brink, and it is utterly dark in the abyss before my feet, but whether there is any light behind me I cannot tell. For I cannot turn yet. I wait for some stroke of doom.’

  ‘Yes, we wait for the stroke of doom,’ said Faramir. And they said no more; and it seemed to them as they stood upon the wall that the wind died, and the light failed, and the Sun was bleared, and all sounds in the City or in the lands about were hushed: neither wind, nor voice, nor bird-call, nor rustle of leaf, nor their own breath could be heard; the very beating of their hearts was stilled. Time halted.

   And as they stood so, their hands met and clasped, though they did not know it. (240)

Her words hold much for a lover to ponder on. Is the phrase “my friend” a way of keeping Faramir at arm’s length, or does it signal a new warmth and trust? What does she mean by her obscure statement? — I stand upon some dreadful brink, and it is utterly dark in the abyss before my feet, but whether there is any light behind me I cannot tell. For I cannot turn yet. I wait for some stroke of doom.’ While in Faramir’s response the “stroke of doom” might refer both to the outcome of the great battle being fought and to the prospect of being rejected by her, her statement encompasses both of those things and also expresses her terror at the thought of leaving her old self-image and supposed vocation behind as she leaps, or falls, into an uncertain new identity. It would suggest that for days she has been thinking of the prospect of a future very different from what she has spent her life imagining. If he has any inkling of this crisis in her, Faramir wisely leaves it unspoken; we have already seen in his conversations with Frodo that he is a man who doesn’t need to say everything he is thinking or force the other person into utterance. He has the capacity of Sam and Gandalf to wait for the moment of ripeness.

   When the fruit is ripe, it falls from the tree. When enough snow piles onto a leaf, at one moment the leaf bends and the snow slides off. There is no deliberation or intention involved, and action emerges spontaneously from a natural rightness. This is in fact what the Daoists would call non-action. And as they stood so, their hands met and clasped, though they did not know it.

   Has she in effect discovered that she already has a communion with this man? Returning to the conversation we started with, we see not only that he can understand why she might love an Aragorn but also that he is strong enough to acknowledge it calmly to her. Without saying it explicitly, he is getting her to see that she was in love with an idea. And where is she looking as he says all this? — down, to the side, or internally?   

‘That I know,’ he said. ‘You desired to have the love of the Lord Aragorn. Because he was high and puissant, and you wished to have renown and glory and to be lifted far above the mean things that crawl on the earth. And as a great captain may to a young soldier he seemed to you admirable. For so he is, a lord among men, the greatest that now is. But when he gave you only understanding and pity, then you desired to have nothing, unless a brave death in battle. Look at me, Éowyn!’
   And Éowyn looked at Faramir long and steadily; and Faramir said: ‘Do not scorn pity that is the gift of a gentle heart, Éowyn! But I do not offer you my pity. For you are a lady high and valiant and have yourself won renown that shall not be forgotten; and you are a lady beautiful, I deem, beyond even the words of the Elven-tongue to tell. And I love you. Once I pitied your sorrow. But now, were you sorrowless, without fear or any lack, were you the blissful Queen of Gondor, still I would love you. Éowyn, do you not love me?’

His Look at me, Éowyn! shakes her out of the sleep of her idealism. Look: be present, see what is before you. At me: behold the living, real man in front of you. Éowyn: I see who you are and understand you. Her response is sincere and deep, reflecting her grasp of the meaning of his words: And Éowyn looked at Faramir long and steadily. The time is ripe for his most romantic and audacious effusion, spoken like a warrior taking the greatest risk of his life: Even if you married Aragorn and were high above my hopeless love, I would still love you. Éowyn, do you not love me? Is this a real question, or an expression of granite certainty? He seems to have seen her before she sees herself.

   Now what happens in the moment of conversion? I think the climactic sentence only works if we have read the preceding four pages slowly and patiently, and have allowed them to unfold. It is because he can reflect her to herself and she is capable — through loving trust — to see herself reflected in him, that she can awaken to the recognition of feelings she didn’t know she had. 

   Then the heart of Éowyn changed, or else at last she understood it. And suddenly her winter passed, and the sun shone on her.

The phrase or else at last she understood it reveals an emotional sophistication rare in this book: it shows Éowyn to have been an idealist poorly attuned to the movements of her own heart, and that being an idealist, her heart changes only as her understanding changes. Faramir, being the more emotionally empathic of the two, happens to love this about her. Characteristically, like the warrior she is, her transformation is expressed in a vow of action and mastery — and she looks at him as she renounces her old self.

“I stand in Minas Anor, the Tower of the Sun, she said; and behold the Shadow has departed! I will be a shieldmaiden no longer, nor vie with the great Riders, nor take joy only in the songs of slaying. I will be a healer, and love all things that grow and are not barren.’ And again she looked at Faramir. ‘No longer do I desire to be a queen,’ she said. (242)

   The romance is accomplished over a mere eight pages. If, believing that the destruction of the Ring is the climax, we rush over these pages to get to the end, we will have missed the delicacy of one of Tolkien’s triumphs as a writer. A rapid reading will give the impression of artificially hurried romance, and Éowyn’s change of heart will seem forced — a subtle trammel. But each section of this book has its own rhythm, and this one is slower than the “Mount Doom” chapter. Even so, at important points in the story Tolkien tends to be laconic, as if inviting us to enter into the tale and dwell in it. If we take our time and let the relationship flower slowly in the time that it needs, we will be partaking in Faramir’s gentle wisdom as he allows Éowyn to find her own heart. Like Frodo and Sam, especially at the end, Éowyn is a character who has needed a life dilemma: she is princess and warrior, woman and man, in love with the unattainable and loved by the attainable. She is radically torn, and on the horns of her dilemma she cannot live a happy, fulfilled life. It is only a character like Faramir who can get her to resolve, because he has the empathy and intelligence to see who she is and love her for it, and because they can both look at each other. Their relationship is not a trammel, trapping her back into domesticity; instead, with him she is finally free to be Éowyn.

Mount Doom: Climax or Anticlimax?


In English there are several good words for the moment in a plot when everything “comes to a head,” the moment to which the entire previous action has been building up. The word “climax” comes from a Greek word meaning “ladder,” and was used in the sense of “point of highest intensity” only through a late 18th century misunderstanding; before that, it was a term in rhetoric referring to a sequence of propositions arranged in order of increasing effectiveness. The word “culmination” comes from a Latin word meaning “top, gable, peak, summit,” and before the 18th century was more commonly used in astronomy for the position of a celestial body when it crosses the meridian. The 18th century French term dénouement literally means “unknotting” or “unraveling,” and seems obviously appropriate to both comic and tragic endings, in which everything “comes apart” at the conclusion,  in the senses both of “disintegrating” and “becoming clear.” What is the climax, culmination, or dénouement of The Lord of the Rings?

   For over 800 pages we have followed Frodo and Sam in their journey from the Shire to the Crack of Doom, where they are to destroy the Ring. While hundreds of pages have been spent detailing the slow struggle over difficult terrain, the actual destruction of the Ring takes only one page, and the dissolution of Sauron, his armies, and his kingdom takes another page. The account of the scuffle over the Ring is terse, opaque, confused, leaving the reader wondering exactly what happened and how it happened. Tolkien does not extend the fight, linger on the Ring as it falls into the fire, or create any confrontation with Sauron — whereas a lesser writer would have found it irresistible to do all of these. Moreover, a glance at the Contents page tells us that after this there will be six more chapters, so if this scene is indeed the climax of the whole book, what follows must be eighty pages of obligatory wrapping-up. 

   We have seen in previous essays that at crucial moments Tolkien tends to be laconic, especially where Frodo is concerned. Let’s look carefully at what happens:   

Then Frodo stirred and spoke with a clear voice, indeed with a voice clearer and more powerful than Sam had ever heard him use, and it rose above the throb and turmoil of Mount Doom, ringing in the roof and walls.
   ‘I have come,’ he said. ‘But I do not choose now to do what I came to do. I will not do this deed. The Ring is mine!’ And suddenly, as he set it on his finger, he vanished from Sam’s sight. Sam gasped, but he had no chance to cry out, for at that moment many things happened.
   Something struck Sam violently in the back, his legs were knocked from under him and he was flung aside, striking his head against the stony floor, as a dark shape sprang over him. He lay still and for a moment all went black.

The three hobbit protagonists of the Mordor part of the story all converge here in one action. Physically, the details are vague: we know that there is a fire chasm, and that there are rock walls to this cave, but we do not know how far Frodo is from Sam or where exactly Sam lands in relation to the chasm. In a film, topography and relative distances have to be clear, but in prose spatial opaqueness can function to various ends — for instance, giving an effect of disorientation, or putting the moral and psychological relationships more in the foreground. When all went black, we also have temporal vagueness, because we don’t know how long after this Sam comes back to consciousness.

   At this point the narrative is disrupted by a startling change in point of view: for the first time in the book, we are allowed to enter  Sauron’s mind as he becomes aware of what is happening behind his back:

And far away, as Frodo put on the Ring and claimed it for his own, even in Sammath Naur the very heart of his realm, the Power in Barad-dûr was shaken, and the Tower trembled from its foundations to its proud and bitter crown. The Dark Lord was suddenly aware of him, and his Eye piercing all shadows looked across the plain to the door that he had made; and the magnitude of his own folly was revealed to him in a blinding flash, and all the devices of his enemies were at last laid bare. Then his wrath blazed in consuming flame, but his fear rose like a vast black smoke to choke him. For he knew his deadly peril and the thread upon which his doom now hung.
   From all his policies and webs of fear and treachery, from all his stratagems and wars his mind shook free; and throughout his realm a tremor ran, his slaves quailed, and his armies halted, and his captains suddenly steerless, bereft of will, wavered and despaired. For they were forgotten. The whole mind and purpose of the Power that wielded them was now bent with overwhelming force upon the Mountain. At his summons, wheeling with a rending cry, in a last desperate race there flew, faster than the winds, the Nazgûl the Ringwraiths, and with a storm of wings they hurtled southwards to Mount Doom.

It is remarkable that Tolkien makes Sam’s moment of blackness coincide with Sauron’s moment of awakening — as if Sam, with his instinct for lyrical transcendence and his invincible earthy faith, has to be removed before the dark, malicious mind of Sauron can manifest in the book. For one instant, Sauron becomes intelligent and sees; the implication is that in this instant both he and Frodo see each other, but the instant is private to the two of them and closed to Sam, who now wakes up.

Sam got up. He was dazed, and blood streaming from his head dripped in his eyes. He groped forward, and then he saw a strange and terrible thing. Gollum on the edge of the abyss was fighting like a mad thing with an unseen foe. To and fro he swayed, now so near the brink that almost he tumbled in, now dragging back, falling to the ground, rising, and falling again. And all the while he hissed but spoke no words.
   The fires below awoke in anger, the red light blazed, and all the cavern was filled with a great glare and heat. Suddenly Sam saw Gollum’s long hands draw upwards to his mouth; his white fangs gleamed, and then snapped as they bit. Frodo gave a cry, and there he was, fallen upon his knees at the chasm’s edge. But Gollum, dancing like a mad thing, held aloft the ring, a finger still thrust within its circle. It shone now as if verily it was wrought of living fire.
   ‘Precious, precious, precious!’ Gollum cried. ‘My Precious! O my Precious!’ And with that, even as his eyes were lifted up to gloat on his prize, he stepped too far, toppled, wavered for a moment on the brink, and then with a shriek he fell. Out of the depths came his last wail Precious, and he was gone. (Ch.3, 223-24)

Frodo temporarily disappears into the Ring, and only Gollum’s savage amputation restores him back to flesh-and-blood visibility. Gollum is twice described as like a mad thing: what is it to fight like a mad thing, and then dance like a mad thing? It is Sam’s perspective that gives us this view of the action; he seems paralyzed, too dazed to act, and is also horrified by Gollum’s inhuman frenzy — like a mad thing. The suddenness of Gollum’s death is true to life: people who witness their friends falling off a ledge describe the shock of a literal “now you see him, now you don’t” experience. 

   At that moment many things happened — and not only physical things. Gollum, Sam, Frodo, and Sauron all converge, and what happens is as none of them would have expected. 

   Sam, shortly before this, has felt a resurgence from a mood of mortal doubt to one of the purest heroism, ready for anything, willing to do anything, unshakeable:

But even as hope died in Sam, or seemed to die, it was turned to a new strength. Sam’s plain hobbit-face grew stern, almost grim, as the will hardened in him, and he felt through all his limbs a thrill, as if he was turning into some creature of stone and steel that neither despair nor weariness nor endless barren miles could subdue. (211)

But he is abruptly eliminated from the action and is for a short while not aware of what has happened. 

   Frodo has reached a disturbing new state of clarity and acceptance, but he has been stripped of his hobbit capacity for enjoying life :

‘Do you remember that bit of rabbit, Mr. Frodo?’ he said. ‘And our place under the warm bank in Captain Faramir’s country, the day I saw an oliphaunt?’
   ‘No, I am afraid not, Sam,’ said Frodo. ‘At least, I know that such things happened, but I cannot see them. No taste of food, no feel of water, no sound of wind, no memory of tree or grass or flower, no image of moon or star are left to me. I am naked in the dark. Sam, and there is no veil between me and the wheel of fire. I begin to see it even with my waking eyes, and all else fades.’ (215)

What is “the wheel of fire”? In Greek mythology Ixion is strapped by Zeus to a wheel of fire for lusting after Hera, and in King Lear the phrase is used to convey purgatorial or infernal suffering: “But I am bound upon a wheel of fire…” Frodo’s torture is to have lost his nature, his hobbit love of sensory pleasures as well as his poetic soul: he cannot even remember these things from his previous life. It is as if Frodo-the-hobbit has been nothing but clothing, and now this clothing has been torn away and thrown into the fire, leaving a poor, naked, defenseless being exposed to this wheel of fire. The image is repeated a few pages later, this time seen by Sam with his own waking eyes:

Then suddenly, as before under the eaves of the Emyn Muil, Sam saw these two rivals with other vision. A crouching shape, scarcely more than the shadow of a living thing, a creature now wholly ruined and defeated, yet filled with a hideous lust and rage; and before it stood stern, untouchable now by pity, a figure robed in white, but at its breast it held a wheel of fire. Out of the fire there spoke a commanding voice. (221)

The wheel of fire has become the Ring. Its burning is not a kind of general pain without particularized content, but the full pain in which our very identity, including the things in us that are dear to us, are burned away, burned off, melted down, almost to voidness. Frodo himself is aware that this could mean being reduced to Gollum’s state of being scarcely more than the shadow of a living thing, but at this point he is able to attain a lofty, sacrificial dignity in the bearing of the Ring.

   Gollum is intensely aware of having been diminished, ground down, pulverized:

Let us live, yes, live just a little longer. Lost lost! We’re lost. And when Precious goes we’ll die, yes, die into the dust.’ He clawed up the ashes of the path with his long fleshless fingers. ‘Dusst!’ he hissed. (221)

This  word “dust” carries connotations of “house dust” that we sweep out, inescapable mortality (ashes to ashes dust to dust), and trash (dustbin, dustman, dustpan, dust heaps). In this passage dust and lost are linked by consonance, as are precious and ashes. Gollum knows what the Ring has brought him to but, like an addict, he clings to it as the final barrier between himself and nullity. In what sense does he see himself as “lost”? — lost to meaning, lost to every possibility of happiness, or abandoned and irrecoverable? And when he speaks of dying into the dust, he clearly doesn’t mean dust literally; die into suggests willful self-annihilation, the deliberate turning into worthless nothing that lies under people’s feet. 

   All three feel grim determination to effect an end, but their individual plots all go awry: Sam doesn’t mean to be knocked out, Frodo hasn’t planned to keep the Ring or to fight with a mad thing for it, and Gollum doesn’t intend to slip into the crack at the height of his jubilation. For each of them the actions at the Crack of Doom are anticlimactic, because messy and accidental. Heroism has become irrelevant and has given way to something less noble but more mysterious. Only Frodo has had the strength of heart and the interest in heroism to bring the Ring as far as the brink; only Sam has had the physical fortitude, selfless devotion, and spontaneous courage to make sure Frodo gets there; and only Gollum has the mad, obsessive desperation to get it by biting off Frodo’s finger and then perish by momentarily forgetting where exactly he is. Through the coming together of this trio, the world is saved — and the one who has been brought down lowest by the Ring turns out to be the one who bring down the one seated in the highest place. Frodo recognizes this:

‘But do you remember Gandalf’s words: Even Gollum may have something yet to do? But for him, Sam, I could not have destroyed the Ring. The Quest would have been in vain, even at the bitter end. So let us forgive him! (225)

He is referring to what Gandalf had said near the beginning of The Fellowship, 800 pages ago:

…even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it. And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring. My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many – yours not least. (Fellowship, ch.3)

Gollum is able to be there at the ending of the Ring because of Bilbo’s mercy many decades ago. There has been something providential about the long chains of causation that have yoked these three beings together in this monumental task: who could have foreseen that Sauron would be destroyed by these particular hobbits? Certainly not Sauron, who is locked into rigid stereotypes of conflict, power, and victory — and therefore cannot understand quirky, paradoxical ways of thinking. Only at the moment of his defeat does he become aware of his own stupidity and lack of imagination. We do not get a substantial account of conflict between Sauron and our heroes precisely because Sauron is a nonentity, a being constructed only out of the same tedious old fantasies of power and animated by no vision of worthy or interesting ends of life. His sole function is to negate such ends, and so, as negation incarnate, no conflict is possible: he either annihilates or, when his enemies succeed, evaporates. His essence is anticlimactic, his purpose to frustrate good culminations. 

   In The Two Towers, Frodo and Sam had given heart to each other by invoking the tales that will be told of them in future generations, so that now — even if they should perish — they can continue in this adventure knowing that it will be a good story starring Sam and Frodo. Because their mission is really a suicide mission, they are free to be themselves. The same is true of Gollum, who is held by no fears or inhibitions. On the great field of battle, too, Aragorn and his troops have dedicated themselves to their only hope and, happily resigned to their own deaths, are fighting to buy time for the Ringbearer to accomplish his mission. All are indifferent to death, and this indifference releases them to do their utmost, like arrows shot from a bow. It is only because of this inner freedom from fear that what providence there is in this world can flow through their actions and accomplish their end for them in spite of themselves. Only Sauron craves control and the maintenance of security; the anxiety that narrows his actions also dulls his intelligence, and he is no match for antagonists who have nothing more to lose. 

   The disintegration of Sauron and his empire is only the beginning of the long climax to the Lord of the Rings, which will unfold over the next eighty pages and not release us until the last line. Tolkien is less interested in the plot of the struggle over the Ring than in the deep impact of this struggle. The novel’s dénouement or unknotting takes place in the political realm, as Gondor and Rohan get their souls back, and as the Shire recollects and recovers its ancient goodness; and also in the hearts of our protagonists, as Eowyn, Sam, and Frodo have to find repair and resolution after all the tearings they have witnessed. 

   

Rhythm: A Writing Lesson from Tolkien

All great prose has rhythm. This may at first be a puzzling claim because most people associate rhythm  with poetry and not prose. But surely all things that exist in time — not only living things, but also planets and weather — follow some kind of rhythm. All language has rhythm, and the rhythms of verse are codified as meter. Moreover, not all poetry is verse, just as not all verse is poetry. Tolkien — for whom English poetry spanning a thousand years was lifelong bread and butter — draws from various kinds of meter for the prose of his novels. If you are used to the forms of English poetry from Beowulf to Milton, you will immediately feel different kinds of meter pulsing through his sentences. What do I mean by “different kinds of meter”?

   In English literature poets practice mainly two metrical traditions, and Tolkien’s prose draws from both of them. In what follows, I’ll be simplifying a complex topic but will use a few technical terms from standard metrical analysis. What matters is not knowing the terms, but actually hearing what is happening in the style and becoming more sensitive to good writing. 

   In many languages — such as Greek and Latin — meter depends on the classifying of syllables into “long” or “short.” While many teachers of English poetry talk about “long syllables” and “short syllables,” in fact English is made up of “stressed” and “unstressed” rather than “long” and “short.” For example, the syllables in cónvict and convíct are the same length, but the stresses fall differently; similarly, the difference between your Frénch teacher (the one who teaches you French) and your French téacher (the one from France) is a matter of stress, not length. English meter is based on the rhythmic patterning of stressed and unstressed syllables. Most classical English verse is based on a unit of one unstressed followed by one stressed syllable (indéed, my fríend, redúce), called iambic; and a line will consist of a regular number of these units, traditionally and irrationally called feet. The meter of Shakespeare, Milton, and Wordsworth is generally a ten syllable line made up of five iambic feet; this is called iambic pentameter (And só, my fríends, I bíd you áll farewéll). An iambic line can have any number of feet, but iambic pentameter will have ten, with sometimes an unstressed eleventh syllable. Indeed, there are permissable variations whereby, for dramatic emphasis or emotional effect, strict iambic can be deviated from while the line as a whole still falls within the bounds of iambic: the first foot can be reversed (síckness), both syllables in a foot can be stressed or unstressed (Mád Máx, in the), and there can be that unstressed extra syllable. Síckness, my Lórd, sláms shút the dóor of pléasure. When you are accustomed to hearing a steady iambic pulse, the variations give more nuance and expressiveness to the verse.

    Tolkien — a master of many styles — makes iambic the dominant rhythm of his martial style. Take this passage from chapter 8 of The Two Towers, “The Stairs of Cirith Ungol”:

…the Wraith-king turned and spurred his horse and rode across the bridge, and all his dark host followed him. Maybe the elven-hoods defied his unseen eyes, and the mind of his small enemy; being strengthened, had turned aside his thought. But he was in haste. Already the hour had struck, and at his great Master’s bidding he must march with war into the West.
   Soon he had passed, like a shadow into shadow, down the winding road, and behind him still the black ranks crossed the bridge. So great an army had never issued from that vale since the days of Isildur’s might; no host so fell and strong in arms had yet assailed the fords of Anduin; and yet it was but one and not the greatest of the hosts that Mordor now sent forth.
   Frodo stirred. And suddenly his heart went out to Faramir. ‘The storm has burst at last,’ he thought. `This great array of spears and swords is going to Osgiliath. Will Faramir get across in time? He guessed it, but did he know the hour? And who can now hold the fords when the King of the Nine Riders comes? And other armies will come. I am too late. All is lost. I tarried on the way. All is lost. Even if my errand is performed, no one will ever know. There will be no one I can tell. It will be in vain.’ Overcome with weakness he wept. And still the host of Morgul crossed the bridge. 

You can already hear the iambic through most of this. Look what happens when I set this out as verse:

…the Wráith-king túrned and spúrred his hórse and róde 
acróss the brídge, and áll his dárk host fóllowed hím.
 Máybe the élven-hóods defíed his únseen éyes,
 and the mind of his small enemy, being strengthened, 
had túrned asíde his thóught. But hé was in haste. 
Already the hour had struck, and at his great Master’s bidding he 
must márch with wár intó the Wést.
Sóon he had pássed, like a shadow into shadow, 
dówn the winding road, and behínd him stíll 
the bláck ránks cróssed the brídge. So gréat an ármy 
had néver íssued fróm that vále 
since the days of Isildur’s might; 
no hóst so féll and stróng in árms had yét
 assáiled the fórds of Ánduín; and yét 
it wás but óne and nót the gréatest óf 
the hósts that Mórdor nów sent fórth.
Frodo stirred. 
And súddenly his héart went óut to Fáramír.
 ‘The stórm has búrst at lást,’ he thóught. 
`This gréat arráy of spéars and swórds is góing 
to Ósgilíath. Will Fáramír get across in time? 
He guessed it, but did he know the hour? 
And who can now hold the fords 
when the King of the Nine Riders comes? 
And other armies will come. 
I am too late. All is lost. 
I tarried on the way. All is lost. 
Even if my errand is performed, no one will ever know.
 There will be no one I can tell.
 It will be in vain.’ 
Overcome with weakness he wept.  
And stíll the hóst of Mórgul cróssed the brídge.

Not to get too detailed about this, I placed accent marks over those sections that felt to me to be obviously iambic; you can decide for yourselves about the rest. Already you can see that many lines are straightforwardly iambic pentameter, and feel how powerful it is when, towards the end of this passage, after about ten non-iambic lines in which Frodo muses and vacillates, we return to perfectly regular iambic pentameter: And stíll the hóst of Mórgul cróssed the brídge. The iambic is sometimes like a drumbeat, marking the relentless forward drive of the action.

    Besides the iambic, Tolkien’s “martial” style has another mode. Between chapters 5 and 6 of Book 5 (“The Ride of the Rohirrim” and “The Battle of the Pelennor Fields”) we witness an extraordinary stylistic transformation from “straightforwardly martial” to “ecstatically martial.” Every lover of Tolkien is struck by the mad power of these chapters. As with the passage above, the foundation is strongly iambic. We are given information clearly and rigorously as the movements of the actors gain speed and the narrative tension gradually tightens:

The leading company rode off as swiftly as they could, for it was still deep dark, whatever change Wídfara might forebode. Merry was riding behind Dernhelm, clutching with the left hand while with the other he tried to loosen his sword in its sheath. He felt now bitterly the truth of the old king’s words: in such a battle what would you do Meriadoc? Just this,’ he thought: ‘encumber a rider, and hope at best to stay in my seat and not be pounded to death by galloping hoofs!’It was no more than a league to where the out-walls had stood. They soon reached them; too soon for Merry. Wild cries broke out, and there was some clash of arms, but it was brief. The orcs busy about the walls were few and amazed, and they were quickly slain or driven off. Before the ruin of the north-gate in the Rammas the king halted again. The first éored drew up behind him and about him on either side. Dernhelm kept close to the king, though Elfhelm’s company was away on the right. Grimbold’s men turned aside and passed round to a great gap in the wall further eastward. (111)

You can see this more clearly if I set some of it out in verse form, this time with “feet” marked out:

The léad|ing cóm|pany | róde óff | as swíft| ly 
as they cóuld|, for ít | was stíll | déep dárk,
 whatév|er chánge | Wídfar|a míght | forebóde. 
Mérry | was ríd|ing be|hínd Dérn|helm, clútch|ing 
with the | léft hánd | while with | the óth|er
 he tríed | to lóos|en his swórd | in its shéath. 
He félt | now bítt|erly | the trúth | of the óld | kíng’s wórds:
 in súch | a bát|tle whát | would yóu | do Mér|iadóc? 
Just thís,’| he thóught:| ‘encúm|ber a ríd|er,
 and hópe | at bést | to stáy | in my séat | and nót 
be póund|ed to déath | by gál|loping hóofs!’

If you now read the rest of the paragraph aloud, can you hear the mainly iambic beat beneath the variations? If you can, you will be doubly amazed by the way the style then changes into something elevated, incantatory, almost trance-like:

With that he seized a great horn from Guthláf his banner-bearer, and he blew such a blast upon it that it burst asunder. And straightway all the horns in the host were lifted up in music, and the blowing of the horns of Rohan in that hour was like a storm upon the plain and a thunder in the mountains.

Ride now, ride now! Ride to Gondor!

Suddenly the king cried to Snowmane and the horse sprang away. Behind him his banner blew in the wind, white horse upon a field of green, but he outpaced it. After him thundered the knights of his house, but he was ever before them. Éomer rode there, the white horsetail on his helm floating in his speed, and the front of the first éored roared like a breaker foaming to the shore, but Théoden could not be overtaken. Fey he seemed, or the battle-fury of his fathers ran like new tire in his veins, and he was borne up on Snowmane like a god of old, even as Oromë the Great in the battle of the Valar when the world was young. His golden shield was uncovered, and lo! it shone like an image of the Sun, and the grass flamed into green about the white feet of his steed. For morning came, morning and a wind from the sea; and the darkness was removed, and the hosts of Mordor wailed, and terror took them, and they fled, and died, and the hoofs of wrath rode over them. And then all the host of Rohan burst into song, and they sang as they slew, for the joy of battle was on them, and the sound of their singing that was fair and terrible came even to the City. (112-13)

 What exactly has happened stylistically? This style is clearly different from the previous “martial iambic,” but how? The difference is in the rhythm. 

   This new rhythm is in fact the alliterative meter of Anglo-Saxon poetry, the field in which Tolkien was a great scholar. Here, the line can be of any syllabic length, but it has four main stressed syllables, of which at least three are alliterated; and the line has a central break, on either side of which fall two of the stressed syllables. Here are two examples, translated into modern English, from the 8th and the 14th centuries. You will notice that in the later sample the line is not as tightly restricted to four stresses, and that the effect is of a “bursting” energy that is more like Tolkien’s language:

Then was breaking of bucklers,    shipmen advanced
Bold to the battle;   sharp spears pierced
Life-house of doomed men.   Wistan hastened
Hurston’s son,   and strove with the Danes.
Three he slew.  in the stress of battle
Ere Wigeom’s son   was slain in the war.
The strife was stern,   the warriors were steadfast,
Bold in battle;   fighters fell
Weary with wounds.   Death covered earth.
(Battle of Maldon, 289-97, tr.J.B.Trapp)

At the first cry wild creatures    quivered with dread.
The deer in distraction    darted down to the dales
Or up to the high ground.   but eagerly they were
Driven back by the beaters,   who bellowed lustily.
They let the harts with high-branching heads    have their freedom,
And the brave bucks, too,    with their broad antlers,
For the noble prince    had expressly prohibited
Meddling with male deer    in the months of close season…
Lo! the arrows’ slanting flight    as they were loosed!
A shaft flew forth    at every forest turning,
The broad head biting.   on the brown flank.
They screamed as the blood streamed out,    sank dead on the sward,
Always harried by hounds    hard on their heels.
   (Gawain and the Green Knight, 47, tr. Brian Stone)

Now here is Tolkien’s passage, set out as verse:

Súddenly the kíng    críed to Snówmane 
and the hórse   spráng awáy. 
Behínd him his bánner    bléw in the wínd,
 whíte hórse    upon a fíeld of gréen, 
but hé    outpáced it. 
Áfter him thúndered    the kníghts of his hóuse,
 but he was éver befóre them.    Éomer róde there, 
the whíte hórsetail on his hélm    flóating in his spéed,
 and the frónt of the fírst éored 
róared like a bréaker    fóaming to the shóre, 
but Théoden could nót    be óvertáken. 
Féy he séemed,    or the báttle-fury of his fáthers 
rán like néw fíre    in his véins,
 and he was bórne úp    on Snówmáne 
like a gód of óld,    even as Óromë the Gréat 
in the báttle of the Válar    when the wórld was yóung. 
His gólden shíeld    was uncóvered, 
and ló! it shóne    like an ímage of the Sún,
and the gráss flámed into gréen    about the whíte féet of his stéed.
For mórning came, mórning,    and a wínd from the séa; 
and the dárkness was remóved,    and the hósts of Mórdor wáiled, 
and térror tóok them,    and they fléd, and díed, 
and the hóofs of wráth    róde óver them. 
And then áll the hóst    of Róhan búrst 
into sóng,    and they sáng as they sléw, 
for the jóy of báttle    was ón them,
 and the sóund of their sínging    that was fáir and térrible 
cáme éven    to the Cíty.

The family resemblance is obvious. Tolkien’s mastery of the two martial rhythms is gentle, tactful: he does not beat you over the head with it, and the poetic associations of his rhythms do not undermine the fluidity of the prose — but they do add rich layers of experience to those who can notice.

   In the paragraph I haven’t discussed, beginning With that he séized…, observe how gently and carefully Tolkien makes the transition from iambic to Old English rhythm. I can set it out as mainly iambic:

With thát | he séized | a gréat | hórn 
from Guthláf |  his bán|ner-béar|er, and | he bléw | súch 
a blást | upón |it thát | it búrst | asún|der. 
And stráight|way áll | the hórns |  in the hóst 
were líft|ed úp |in mús|ic, ánd 
the blów|ing of the hórns | of Róh|an ín | that hóur 
was líke | a stórm | upón | the pláin 
and a thúnd|er ín | the móunt|ains.
And I can also set it out as Old English alliterative meter:

With thát he séized 
a gréat hórn    from Guthláf his bánner-béarer, 
and he bléw such a blást upon it    that it búrst asúnder. 
And stráightway 
áll the hórns in the hóst    were lífted úp in músic,
 and the blówing of the hórns    of Róhan in that hóur 
was like a stórm upon the pláin    and a thúnder in the móuntains.
This double-meter is how Tolkien effects an effortless, organic transition from one mode to the other.  His artistry turns out to be delicate and subtle.

   Although it is not necessarily the case that an author consciously adopts specific rhythms, it is likely that a scholar and philologist like Tolkien would have been minutely aware of what he was doing. As Aristotle put it, art does not deliberate: the artist just “knows” what has to happen here and now. But that knowing is informed by decades of impassioned study and attention to detail. Tolkien edited a number of Old and Middle English texts, including The Battle of Maldon and Gawain and the Green Knight; he knew these traditions intimately, and by the time he wrote his novels they were in his marrow. One of the greatest pleasures of reading someone like Tolkien is gaining an appreciation of the broader literary conversation that his books are part of, and watching how he has learned from his teachers. He is a great writer of prose partly because he is a great reader of poetry.  Rivers of poetry flow through his veins.

   The lesson for those of us who write, and who seek to develop skill with rhythm and with all the possible motions of language?  Read great writers, read the old poets; read them aloud, slowly, and notice what they do.


Athelas: A Cure for Spiritual Sickness


What is the nature of the disease that only the herb athelas can cure, and what is the nature of the cure? The disease is clearly more than an adverse phytomolecular reaction, and Aragorn’s healing of it much more than a feat of aromatherapy.

But now their art and knowledge were baffled; for there were many sick of a malady that would not be healed; and they called it the Black Shadow, for it came from the Nazgûl. And those who were stricken with it fell slowly into an ever deeper dream, and then passed to silence and a deadly cold, and so died.  (136)
The malady appears to be a paralysis or atrophy of the will to live, and evidently feels like a “black shadow” because it consists of a gradual withdrawal and fading into nothing — a dwindling away, from the all too pressing world of light and color. We have all faced something of this kind — for example, in an experience of something so negative, stifling, and disheartening that we temporarily lose all faith and hope in life, become indifferent to joy and suffering, and can willingly lie down and die. With the sting of the Nazgul, the affliction is not temporary, and it takes something more than natural to heal it.

   Just as the ailment amounts to total possession by a Spirit of Negation, the cure has to be an evocation of goodness strong enough to dispel the darkness:

Then taking two leaves, he laid them on his hands and breathed on them, and then he crushed them, and straightway a living freshness filled the room, as if the air itself awoke and tingled, sparkling with joy. And then he cast the leaves into the bowls of steaming water that were brought to him, and at once all hearts were lightened. For the fragrance that came to each was like a memory of dewy mornings of unshadowed sun in some land of which the fair world in Spring is itself but a fleeting memory. But Aragorn stood up as one refreshed, and his eyes smiled as he held a bowl before Faramir’s dreaming face. (141-42)

It is a fragrance like “a memory of dewy mornings of unshadowed sun in some land of which the fair world in Spring is itself but a fleeting memory” — a memory of a memory, an evocation of an evocation, scent of something long gone and perhaps never existent in this world. In fact, it is not even a scent, but a more ethereal kind of influence:

Then, whether Aragorn had indeed some forgotten power of Westernesse, or whether it was but his words of the Lady Éowyn that wrought on them, as the sweet influence of the herb stole about the chamber it seemed to those who stood by that a keen wind blew through the window, and it bore no scent, but was an air wholly fresh and clean and young, as if it had not before been breathed by any living thing and came new-made from snowy mountains high beneath a dome of stars, or from shores of silver far away washed by seas of foam. (146)

  In the first passage we are reminded of some eternal spring, with its promise of new growth and a fresh start: the beauty of our own earthly spring is itself a shadow of this more real but inaccessible spring, a secret spring that lies deep in our hearts and that we know about but cannot directly experience. The second passage attempts to express it with a different version of newness — this time, not a season, but a boundary to human experience, some threshold beyond which the world has remained pure and untainted by human touch. The shores of silver far away washed by seas of foam are reminiscent of the “magic casements, opening on the foam /Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn” to which Keats’ nightingale leads us. Whereas in Keats’ poem we are abandoned on this remote, transcendent shore, in Tolkien’s narrative we stay here, and it is the breeze from the phantom shore that reawakens us to this life and makes it livable again. 

   Tolkien’s description of the effect of athelas is very much like Wordsworth’s account of the effects of early experiences of nature on later life. When as adults we find ourselves in hardship and depression, our childhood immersion in nature can be 

The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being.
(From “Tintern Abbey”)
Such memories can protect our sanity and our faith in life. Wordsworth, in the Prelude, refers to them as “spots of time,” which can come in unexpected forms and irradiate seemingly ordinary experiences with a light that is not of the senses:

         There are in our existence spots of time,
          That with distinct pre-eminence retain
          A renovating virtue, whence–depressed 210
          By false opinion and contentious thought,
          Or aught of heavier or more deadly weight,
          In trivial occupations, and the round
          Of ordinary intercourse–our minds
          Are nourished and invisibly repaired;
          A virtue, by which pleasure is enhanced,
          That penetrates, enables us to mount,
          When high, more high, and lifts us up when fallen.
          This efficacious spirit chiefly lurks
          Among those passages of life that give 
          Profoundest knowledge to what point, and how,
          The mind is lord and master–outward sense
          The obedient servant of her will. Such moments
          Are scattered everywhere, taking their date
          From our first childhood. I remember well,
          That once, while yet my inexperienced hand
          Could scarcely hold a bridle, with proud hopes
          I mounted, and we journeyed towards the hills:
          An ancient servant of my father’s house
          Was with me, my encourager and guide: 
          We had not travelled long, ere some mischance
          Disjoined me from my comrade; and, through fear
          Dismounting, down the rough and stony moor
          I led my horse, and, stumbling on, at length
          Came to a bottom, where in former times
          A murderer had been hung in iron chains.
          The gibbet-mast had mouldered down, the bones
          And iron case were gone; but on the turf,
          Hard by, soon after that fell deed was wrought,
          Some unknown hand had carved the murderer’s name. 
          The monumental letters were inscribed
          In times long past; but still, from year to year
          By superstition of the neighbourhood,
          The grass is cleared away, and to this hour
          The characters are fresh and visible:
          A casual glance had shown them, and I fled,
          Faltering and faint, and ignorant of the road:
          Then, reascending the bare common, saw
          A naked pool that lay beneath the hills,
          The beacon on the summit, and, more near, 
          A girl, who bore a pitcher on her head,
          And seemed with difficult steps to force her way
          Against the blowing wind. It was, in truth,
          An ordinary sight; but I should need
          Colours and words that are unknown to man,
          To paint the visionary dreariness
          Which, while I looked all round for my lost guide,
          Invested moorland waste and naked pool,
          The beacon crowning the lone eminence,
          The female and her garments vexed and tossed 
          By the strong wind. When, in the blessed hours
          Of early love, the loved one at my side,
          I roamed, in daily presence of this scene,
          Upon the naked pool and dreary crags,
          And on the melancholy beacon, fell
          A spirit of pleasure and youth’s golden gleam;
          And think ye not with radiance more sublime
          For these remembrances, and for the power
          They had left behind? So feeling comes in aid
          Of feeling, and diversity of strength 
          Attends us, if but once we have been strong.
          Oh! mystery of man, from what a depth
          Proceed thy honours. I am lost, but see
          In simple childhood something of the base
          On which thy greatness stands; but this I feel,
          That from thyself it comes, that thou must give,
          Else never canst receive. The days gone by
          Return upon me almost from the dawn
          Of life: the hiding-places of man’s power
          Open; I would approach them, but they close. 
          I see by glimpses now; when age comes on,
          May scarcely see at all; and I would give,
          While yet we may, as far as words can give,
          Substance and life to what I feel, enshrining,
          Such is my hope, the spirit of the Past
          For future restoration. (The Prelude, Book 12, 208-286)

In Wordsworth, the “spots of time” are always particular and subjective: yours may look very different from mine, and there is absolutely nothing stereotypical about them. That is to say, “spots of time” bear no characteristic “mark,” and are always unwilled and unpredicted. One such “spot of time,” in a poem by Coleridge, finds a focus not only in an individual blue clay-stone, but the dripping edge of it. 

The roaring dell, o’erwooded, narrow, deep, 
And only speckled by the mid-day sun; 
Where its slim trunk the ash from rock to rock 
Flings arching like a bridge;—that branchless ash, 
Unsunn’d and damp, whose few poor yellow leaves 
Ne’er tremble in the gale, yet tremble still, 
Fann’d by the water-fall! and there my friends 
Behold the dark green file of long lank weeds, 
That all at once (a most fantastic sight!) 
Still nod and drip beneath the dripping edge 
Of the blue clay-stone. 

(“This Lime-Tree Bower my Prison,” 10-20)

   In both Wordsworth and Coleridge the healing images are nearly always an individual’s memory of particular experiences in a specifiable place and specifiable time — for the universal manifests itself in the local, and this one moment in time is the intersection of our little lives with eternity. It restores us, because it lifts us out of our temporal unhappiness and opens us up again to the vastness beyond us. 

   Tolkien’s athelas does much the same thing, yet the images he uses to describe it are more generic, less particularized — more Keats than Wordsworth. First he tries to get at it by suggesting the essence of spring, which is new life and resurrection — but spring also suggests a seasonal cycle, and the inevitability of succumbing once again to winter. Perhaps the spiritual cosmos of Middle-earth is in fact more pagan than Christian, and victory and defeat are destined to repeat themselves forever. Not wanting this desolate connotation but wishing instead to draw out more the sense of an eternal spring not available to the physical senses, he resorts to the imagery of mountain peaks and distant shores to convey the limits of our sensory experience and the Great Beyond from which athelas draws its virtue. Aragorn could have awoken Faramir and Eowyn with particular memories of their childhoods in blossoming palace orchards or moonlit rides over mountain meadows, but I think Tolkien wants the athelas to stir up a generic spiritual memory that is recognizable to everyone in the room. For Wordsworth the eternal irrupts through historical particularity, but for Tolkien it comes through fairy tale imagery that expresses universal yearning for renewal, purity, and innocence.