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.


3 thoughts on “Tolkien’s Ceremonial Heroism

  1. Krishnan.

    You wrote –

    ” 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.”

    “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.”

    Or, as we say it succinctly in Zen – ‘to be in this world but is not of this world’ – no worldly clinging or attachments!


  2. Dear Krishnan,

    This is a wonderfully written and insightful exposition of a truly great novel.

    I discovered Tolkien as an early teen, finished LOTR in haste to beat the movie premiers, and tasted the epic largeness of Middle Earth, Arda and Valinor from the Silmarillion.

    You have definitely come on to something about the meeting of the cosmic and the common – Tolkien commonly wavers in his tone, going from high myth and creation to romantic and natural to silly rhyme and poems.

    He has often been criticized for lack of character development, being too prosaic and descriptive and merely plot-driven.

    I agree in a sense but I always find that when it comes to the moment of a death, for example, it happens in a sentence and doesn’t linger but moves on to the next.

    I personally relish the simple symbols and classic motifs he uses in his romances (e.g. Beren and Luthien) or tragedies (eg Turin Turambar), but what ultimately entrances me is the way his words infuse the events of the stories with profound significance and bear on life the greatest which is desired by us worldly and time-bound men and women.

    Truly, fiction and myth is a great escape; a running towards something profounder and sweeter.

    I’ve been really enjoying this blog and love that someone is as hyped on Tolkien as me.

    By the way, I was pointed in your direction by Susan Olmstead of St Johns Santa Fe. I may be joining the MA program there in the Fall.


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