Adult Consolations: Tolkien on Fantasy

Only in the English-speaking world are fairy stories relegated to the children’s section. In Germanic cultures, the Märchen is for everyone, and often too dark for children; in France, the Conte is a sophisticated, sometimes cynical genre. Tolkien is insistent that the best fairy stories are for adults. In his essay “On Fairy Stories,” written in 1939, over a decade before The Lord of the Rings, he wrote:  If fairy-story as a kind is worth reading at all it is worthy to be written for and read by adults. They will, of course, put more in and get more out than children can. (p.15) What, then, will adults “get” from a serious reading of The Lord of the Rings? Tolkien offers three benefits of reading good fantasy: Recovery, Escape, and Consolation.

   Great works of literature generally give us ways to experience our world afresh, to make the familiar unfamiliar. Our world is often lost to us through overfamiliarity, such that we no longer pay attention to the people and things around us; literature helps us to “recover” the world we have lost. Perhaps all art does this in some way. 

Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a re-gaining—regaining of a clear view. I do not say “seeing things as they are” and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say “seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them”—as things apart from ourselves. We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness. Of all faces those of our familiares are the ones both most difficult to play fantastic tricks with, and most difficult really to see with fresh attention, perceiving their likeness and unlikeness: that they are faces, and yet unique faces. This triteness is really the penalty of “appropriation”: the things that are trite, or (in a bad sense) familiar, are the things that we have appropriated, legally or mentally. We say we know them. They have become like the things which once attracted us by their glitter, or their colour, or their shape, and we laid hands on them, and then locked them in our hoard, acquired them, and acquiring ceased to look at them. (19)

Fantasy literature “recovers” by getting us to imagine alternative worlds composed of elements from our world, but reassembled into new combinations and reshaped. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series illuminates the world we think we know by making us live for a while in an alternate universe the features of which bear a distorted resemblance to elements of our own. The effect is to tickle and startle us into a new perception of our lives,  in much the same way as Chesterton’s word Mooreeffoc perplexes us:

Mooreeffoc is a fantastic word, but it could be seen written up in every town in this land. It is Coffee-room, viewed from the inside through a glass door, as it was seen by Dickens on a dark London day; and it was used by Chesterton to denote the queerness of things that have become trite, when they are seen suddenly from a new angle. That kind of “fantasy” most people would allow to be wholesome enough; and it can never lack for material. But it has, I think, only a limited power; for the reason that recovery of freshness of vision is its only virtue. The word Mooreeffoc may cause you suddenly to realize that England is an utterly alien land, lost either in some remote past age glimpsed by history, or in some strange dim future to be reached only by a time-machine; to see the amazing oddity and interest of its inhabitants and their customs and feeding-habits; but it cannot do more than that: act as a time-telescope focused on one spot. (19)

Tolkien then differentiates this valuable effect from the powerful thing that happens when “creative fantasy” unlocks what is inside you (your hoard) and liberates it to surprising transformations:

Creative fantasy, because it is mainly trying to do something else (make something new), may open your hoard and let all the locked things fly away like cage-birds. The gems all turn into flowers or flames, and you will be warned that all you had (or knew) was dangerous and potent, not really effectively chained, free and wild; no more yours than they were you. (19)

What does he mean by this? In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo’s long education through Bilbo’s stories and songs frees him to imagine possibilities for himself that those around him would never consider; it opens up his ability to undertake the grinding trek to Mordor and gives him the faith that the often perilous struggle might be good for him. It also renders him incapable of simply living in the Shire any more. Creative fantasy has the power to dissolve ties that we thought were natural and unbreakable.

   From unleashing the imagination it is only a small step to Escape, the second great benefit of fantasy. Tolkien disagrees strongly with people who denigrate “the literature of escape”:

I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which “Escape” is now so often used: a tone for which the uses of the word outside literary criticism give no warrant at all. In what the misusers are fond of calling Real Life, Escape is evidently as a rule very practical, and may even be heroic. In real life it is difficult to blame it, unless it fails; in criticism it would seem to be the worse the better it succeeds. Evidently we are faced by a misuse of words, and also by a confusion of thought. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter. Just so a Party-spokesman might have labelled departure from the misery of the Führer’s or any other Reich and even criticism of it as treachery. In the same way these critics, to make confusion worse, and so to bring into contempt their opponents, stick their label of scorn not only on to Desertion, but on to real Escape, and what are often its companions, Disgust, Anger, Condemnation, and Revolt. Not only do they confound the escape of the prisoner with the flight of the deserter; but they would seem to prefer the acquiescence of the “quisling” to the resistance of the patriot. To such thinking you have only to say “the land you loved is doomed” to excuse any treachery, indeed to glorify it. (20)

There is nothing in itself wrong with the need to escape; in many situations, escape is understandable and justified. It might be argued that most forms of literature are “escapes” from our ordinary lives, in that through them we are taken to different times and places and meet different people. This can be a very good thing — again, loosening our chains to the world we take for granted by getting us to entertain other possibilities. The escape from ideas of natural Necessity also includes what Tolkien calls “the Great Escape: the Escape from Death,” with which fairy tales and religions share a preoccupation. This fictional freedom from necessity may be the virtue and the vice of fairy tales: on the one hand, why should there be only one necessary way for things to be? — and on the other, surely the habit of thinking in terms of Escape will trap the prospective escapee in a permanent misery of resisting what in fact cannot be resisted — such as sickness, old age, and death.

   Against the facts of the irresistible, the third benefit of fantasy literature is Consolation, which is the essence of the fairy tale and which is manifested as a “eucatastrophe”:

…Tragedy is the true form of Drama, its highest function; but the opposite is true of Fairy-story. Since we do not appear to possess a word that expresses this opposite—I will call it Eucatastrophe. The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function. (22)

Kata-strophe itself literally means “downturn,” or “overturn.” The prefix eu (“good,” “well”) expresses a reversal of the downturn, a fixing of the upset. A good example would be the confused action leading to the destruction of the Ring: in spite of Sam’s incapacitation, Frodo’s sinister change of heart, and Gollum’s frenzied triumph — or because of them — the Ring is destroyed in a sequence of events that nobody would have imagined beforehand. 

   But is the Eucatastrophe a mere plot element, just another form of peripeteia? — or is it a an irruption of grace, even when the downward plunge of plot has not been reversed? Tolkien seems to mean both of these.

The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist,” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.  It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the “turn” comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality. (22-23)

Far more powerful and poignant is the effect in a serious tale of Faërie. In such stories when the sudden “turn” comes we get a piercing glimpse of joy, and heart’s desire, that for a moment passes outside the frame, rends indeed the very web of story, and lets a gleam come through. (23)

These “piercing glimpses of joy” arrive as revelations of a world behind or held within our world; they irradiate the surface world of the narrative, giving it a luminous transparency in  which the hidden dimension expressed through song and poetry suddenly becomes manifest. Such moments are “eucatastrophic” because they unexpectedly redeem or save the seemingly hopeless world. Of all the characters, Sam is the most receptive to the “turn,” as when he encounters the magic of Lothlorien:

He turned and saw that Sam was now standing beside him, looking round with a puzzled expression, and rubbing his eyes as if he was not sure that he was awake. “It’s sunlight and bright day, right enough,” he said. “I thought that Elves were all for moon and stars: but this is more elvish than anything I ever heard tell of. I feel as if I was inside a song, if you take my meaning.” (Fellowship, 341-2)

Even in the depths of hardship he has the intense sensitivity to beauty that we see in Japanese literature, where a hardened warrior can be brought to tears by a glimpse of the moon:

There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach. His song in the Tower had been defiance rather than hope; for then he was thinking of himself. Now, for a moment, his own fate, and even his master’s, ceased to trouble him. (Return, 199)

There are several extraordinary moments like this throughout the book. Another memorable moment is the one at the end of the “Siege of Gondor” chapter in which Gandalf, about to be assailed by the Black Rider, hears a cock crow:
   

Gandalf did not move. And in that very moment, away behind in some courtyard of the City, a cock crowed. Shrill and clear he crowed, recking nothing of wizardry or war, welcoming only the morning that in the sky far above the shadows of death was coming with the dawn.
   And as if in answer there came from far away another note. Horns, horns, horns. In dark Mindolluin’s sides they dimly echoed. Great horns of the North wildly blowing. Rohan had come at last. (193)

Here, we have eucatastrophe on two levels: the horns of Rohan signal a happy turn of the plot, while the cock’s crow — which does nothing to further the plot — illuminates the darkness of the situation with a reminder of the beauty of the dawn.

   Without such moments, the story would be not much more than a chain of events, an action narrative, without “heart” or “soul.” Tolkien’s point is that the outer sequence of events is held together by an “inner consistency” that gives it solidity and depth. The sequence of events is not all there is, but issues from a meaning or logos that lights it up to one who is sensitive. The reader who is attuned to this inner consistency can feel how all the disparate elements of the story cohere into a meaningful pattern — just as Gandalf is able to sense at the outset that Gollum might have a function in the whole. 

Probably every writer making a secondary world, a fantasy, every sub-creator, wishes in some measure to be a real maker, or hopes that he is drawing on reality: hopes that the peculiar quality of this secondary world (if not all the details) are derived from Reality, or are flowing into it. If he indeed achieves a quality that can fairly be described by the dictionary definition: “inner consistency of reality,” it is difficult to conceive how this can be, if the work does not in some way partake of reality. The peculiar quality of the ”joy” in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth. It is not only a “consolation” for the sorrow of this world, but a satisfaction, and an answer to that question, “Is it true?” (23)

   Tolkien compares the eucatastrophe to the evangelium (eu-angelium: good news), a kingdom of grace that permeates the world and redeems it all from its sins and stupidities. The novel, however, does not necessarily announce any such religion: there is no God, apparently also no gods, no afterlife, no linear plot of ascension and salvation, no theology of sacrifice. A Buddhist might well experience the eucatastrophe as nirvana in samsara; a Hindu might see a flash of the One Brahman in the multifarious universe. In Middle-earth there are beings like Tom Bombadil who have existed from the beginning of an uncreated universe, and there are many hints of long ages that succeed one another with cyclical logic. The world-weary Elrond speaks as one who has seen it all before and knows that we will see it again. The history of Middle-earth is not redeemed by any Deliverer from high, but from something that glows within it and transfigures it with unearthly beauty. Tolkien is adamant that any true Fantasy will be lit by this, and that it is something that adults will be moved by more than children. The Consolation consoles because it brings us back into contact with something that we tend to lose with age: an attunement with the magic of the world, the fairy improbability of everything.

Advertisements

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.

Denethor the Asura

In the figure of Denethor, Tolkien accurately portrays a common type of human being. We all know someone like Denethor — unfortunately, often a colleague, friend, sibling, or even parent. Such a person is intensely competitive, always comparing himself with others, pleased to find fault, and quick to detect disingenuous ill-intent in those around him.    

    When Gandalf offers help, Denethor instantly claims to call his bluff and to assert his own moral and intellectual superiority:

 ‘Pride would be folly that disdained help and counsel at need; but you deal out such gifts according to your own designs. Yet the Lord of Gondor is not to be made the tool of other men’s purposes, however worthy. And to him there is no purpose higher in the world as it now stands than the good of Gondor; and the rule of Gondor, my lord, is mine and no other man’s, unless the king should come again.’ (p.30)

In almost every exchange with Gandalf he accuses the wizard of treating him like a fool and of scheming to supplant him as chief power in Gondor:

‘Do I not know thee, Mithrandir? Thy hope is to rule in my stead, to stand behind every throne, north, south, or west. I have read thy mind and its policies. Do I not know that you commanded this halfling here to keep silence? That you brought him hither to be a spy within my very chamber? And yet in our speech together I have learned the names and purpose of all thy companions. So! With the left hand thou wouldst use me for a little while as a shield against Mordor, and with the right bring up this Ranger of the North to supplant me.

‘But I say to thee, Gandalf Mithrandir, I will not be thy tool! I am Steward of the House of Anárion. I will not step down to be the dotard chamberlain of an upstart. Even were his claim proved to me, still he comes but of the line of Isildur. I will not bow to such a one, last of a ragged house long bereft of lordship and dignity.’ (129)
His suspiciousness is always based on a shred of fact, such as Gandalf’s instructions to Pippin before meeting the Steward, and therefore it is easy for him to convince himself that the hasty and sweeping interpretation that he weaves out of that one fact is grounded in truth. Even with his own son, Faramir, one of the genuinely pure hearts in this book, he is quick to construe humility and deference as lurking ambition:

‘ I hope that I have not done ill?’ He looked at his father.
   ‘Ill?’ cried Denethor, and his eyes flashed suddenly. ‘Why do you ask? The men were under your command. Or do you ask for my judgement on all your deeds? Your bearing is lowly in my presence, yet it is long now since you turned from your own way at my counsel. See, you have spoken skilfully, as ever; but I, have I not seen your eye fixed on Mithrandir, seeking whether you said well or too much? He has long had your heart in his keeping.
   ‘My son, your father is old but not yet dotard. I can see and hear, as was my wont; and little of what you have half said or left unsaid is now hidden from me. I know the answer to many riddles. Alas, alas for Boromir!’
   ‘If what I have done displeases you, my father,’ said Faramir quietly, ‘I wish I had known your counsel before the burden of so weighty a judgement was thrust on me.’
   ‘Would that have availed to change your judgement?’ said Denethor. ‘You would still have done just so, I deem. I know you well. Ever your desire is to appear lordly and generous as a king of old, gracious, gentle. That may well befit one of high race, if he sits in power and peace. But in desperate hours gentleness may be repaid with death.’
   ‘So be it,’ said Faramir.
   ‘So be it!’ cried Denethor. ‘But not with your death only, Lord Faramir: with the death also of your father, and of all your people, whom it is your part to protect now that Boromir is gone.’ (85-86)
   The last part of this exchange is an attempt to weaken Faramir by playing on his fear of guilt and failure, instilling in him anxiety and self-doubt that will follow him in every endeavor. I know you well is the constant refrain of a Denethor: he asserts unceasingly his capacity to penetrate into hidden motives and his invulnerability to deception. In my own experience I have found such people to be actually very innocent: since they are in fact bad judges of other people’s motives and are dimly aware of it, their default strategy is to ascribe malign complexity to everyone and to interpret accordingly. In politics, this strategy is probably safer than its opposite if what we wish to cultivate is a permanent defensive stance, but the enemy who sees through this can use it to his own advantage. Denethor’s innocence makes him blind to goodness and susceptible to Sauron’s manipulation. He clings to his posture of shrewd mistrust because it protects him — both politically and emotionally.

   The Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa gives a perceptive account of the Denethor type in a chapter on the traditional six realms of being: gods, asuras (or jealous gods), human, animal, hungry ghost, and hell. He sees these as not “places” but as different ways of being or as fundamental mindsets, which we render powerful by identifying with them. The vulnerable Denethor, out of self-protection, identifies with the mindset of an asura, which in South Asian mythology is eternally in competition with beings perceived as godlike. Trungpa’s description of the asura state is worth quoting in full because almost all of it is directly relevant to Denethor:

The dominant characteristic of … the jealous god or asura realm, is paranoia. If you are trying to help someone who has an asura mentality, they interpret your action as an attempt to oppress them or infiltrate their territory. But if you decide not to help them, they interpret that as a selfish act: you are seeking comfort for yourself. If you present both alternatives to them, then they think you are playing games with them. The asura mentality is quite intelligent: it sees all the hidden corners. You think that you are communicating with an asura face to face, but in actual fact he is looking at you from behind your back. This intense paranoia is combined with an extreme efficiency and accuracy , which inspires a defensive form of pride. The asura mentality is associated with wind, speeding about, trying to achieve everything on the spot, avoiding all possibilities of being attacked. It is trying constantly to attain something higher and greater. To do so one must watch out for very possible pitfall. There is no time to prepare, to get ready to put your action into practice. You just act without preparation. A false kind of spontaneity, a sense of freedom to act develops.

The asura mentality is preoccupied with comparison. In the constant struggle to maintain security and achieve greater things, you need points of reference, landmarks to plot your movement, to fix your opponent, to measure your progress. You regard life situations as games, in the sense of there being an opponent and yourself. You are constantly dealing with them and me, me and my friends, me and myself. All corners are regarded as being suspicious or threatening, therefore one must look into them and be careful of them. But one is not careful in the sense of hiding or camouflaging oneself. You are very direct and willing to come out in the open and fight if there is a problem or if there is a plot or a seeming plot against you. You just come out and fight face-to-face, trying to expose the plot. At the same time that one is going out in the open and facing the situation, one is distrustful of the messages that you receive from the situation, so you ignore them. You refuse to accept anything, refuse to learn anything that is presented by outsiders, because everyone is regarded as the enemy. (Chögyam Trungpa, The Myth of Freedom,2002, pp.28-29)

   The need for a permanent state of wary belligerence explains the impression of deadened hardness given out by the city of Minas Tirith, which has few plants and animals to soften the stony surfaces. This need is in fact a fear of softness, which includes a fear of the organic, of life itself. Denethor sleeps in mail and may even wear it next to his skin, like an exoskeleton:

Denethor laughed bitterly. ‘Nay, not yet, Master Peregrin! He will not come save only to triumph over me when all is won. He uses others as his weapons. So do all great lords, if they are wise, Master Halfling. Or why should I sit here in my tower and think, and watch, and wait, spending even my sons? For I can still wield a brand.’
   He stood up and cast open his long black cloak, and behold! he was clad in mail beneath, and girt with a long sword, great-hilted in a sheath of black and silver. ‘Thus have I walked, and thus now for many years have I slept,’ he said, ‘lest with age the body should grow soft and timid.’ (92)
There are people who need to prove to others and themselves that they are tough; they wear black military clothing all day and every day, are armed wherever they go, keep several knives and guns in their bedroom, and talk endlessly about threats and ways of defending against threats. However, real warriors sleep naked or in pyjamas, and do not need to have their hand on a weapon at all times; this is because they know they are warriors without any of the accessories. The paranoid Denethor is really a fantasizer about warriorhood, perhaps because he has never in fact seen combat; this is why Aragorn poses such a moral threat to him, and why it is so easy for Sauron to set him at odds with his betters. 

“A Hutch to Trammel Some Wild Thing In”


While the plot of The Lord of the Rings is simple, linear, and compelling, the soul of the book lies in its narrative polyphony, which filters the action through personalities that on first reading do not seem to be the principal actors in the epic. Pippin’s perspective gives a brighter, more benign cast to the civilization of Gondor, while Merry gives a somewhat darker, more despondent sense of the war. One personality central to Book 5 is Éowyn, who is the anguished heart of this part of the book, and who contradicts the plot of epic fulfillment with a strain of tragic insufficiency. Without her, the trilogy would be brighter but shallower: brighter, because all the characters manage to play the roles they were assigned to play and find a place in the world for their dreams; shallower, because such a world would not know the suffering of someone whose dreams might be too big for it.

When she hears that Aragorn is about to take the Paths of the Dead, her feelings are evident to all:

Then they said no more, and they ate in silence; but her eyes were ever upon Aragorn, and the others saw that she was in great torment of mind. (57)
This torment is twofold: she has loved him since she first saw him, and she has yearned all her life to be a great hero in a house of great heroes

‘I do not choose paths of peril, Éowyn. Were I to go where my heart dwells, far in the North I would now be wandering in the fair valley of Rivendell.’
For a while she was silent, as if pondering what this might mean. Then suddenly she laid her hand on his arm. ‘You are a stern lord and resolute,’ she said; ‘and thus do men win renown.’ She paused. ‘Lord.’ she said, ‘if you must go, then let me ride in your following. For I am weary of skulking in the hills, and wish to face peril and battle.’
‘Your duty is with your people,’ he answered.
‘Too often have I heard of duty,’ she cried. ‘But am I not of the House of Eorl, a shieldmaiden and not a dry-nurse? I have waited on faltering feet long enough. Since they falter no longer, it seems, may I not now spend my life as I will?’
‘Few may do that with honour,’ he answered. ‘But as for you, lady: did you not accept the charge to govern the people until their lord’s return? If you had not been chosen, then some marshal or captain would have been set in the same place, and he could not ride away from his charge, were he weary of it or no.’
‘Shall I always be chosen?’ she said bitterly. ‘Shall I always be left behind when the Riders depart, to mind the house while they win renown, and find food and beds when they return?’
‘A time may come soon,’ said he, ‘when none will return. Then there will be need of valour without renown, for none shall remember the deeds that are done in the last defence of your homes. Yet the deeds will not be less valiant because they are unpraised.’
And she answered: ‘All your words are but to say: you are a woman, and your part is in the house. But when the men have died in battle and honour, you have leave to be burned in the house, for the men will need it no more. But I am of the House of Eorl and not a serving-woman. I can ride and wield blade, and I do not fear either pain or death.’
‘What do you fear, lady?’ he asked.
‘A cage,’ she said. ‘To stay behind bars, until use and old age accept them, and all chance of doing great deeds is gone beyond recall or desire.’ (57-58)
Does she understand what he means by “wandering in the fair valley of Rivendell,” and does this understanding fuel her indifference to life? On the surface she appears a creature of fire and steel, fiercely single-minded in her desire to do something noble in battle; she is a fighter, born to ride a warhorse and wield a sword, and has always been this way. But the exchange hints at something more: she might not have known this before Aragorn appeared, but what she wants as much as all this is a great love. Freedom to fight and freedom to love are somehow connected, but if she cannot have the latter she can at least have freedom to die. This is what Merry notices in her face at once:

A young man, Merry thought as he returned the glance, less in height and girth than most. He caught the glint of clear grey eyes; and then he shivered, for it came suddenly to him that it was the face of one without hope who goes in search of death. (76)

In order to fulfil one of her dreams, she has to become another person, a man — which in itself is acknowledgement that the other dream is closed to her. She does this with remarkable calm:

Merry bowed and went away unhappily, and stared at the lines of horsemen. Already the companies were preparing to start: men were tightening girths, looking to saddles, caressing their horses; some gazed uneasily at the lowering sky. Unnoticed a Rider came up and spoke softly in the hobbit’s ear.
‘Where will wants not, a way opens, so we say,’ he whispered; ‘and so I have found myself.’ Merry looked up and saw that it was the young Rider whom he had noticed in the morning. ‘You wish to go whither the Lord of the Mark goes: I see it in your face.’
‘I do,’ said Merry.
‘Then you shall go with me,’ said the Rider. ‘I will bear you before me, under my cloak until we are far afield, and this darkness is yet darker. Such good will should not be denied. Say no more to any man, but come!’
‘Thank you indeed!’ said Merry. ‘Thank you, sir, though I do not know your name.’
‘Do you not?’ said the Rider softly. ‘Then call me Dernhelm.’ (77-78)
And so I have found myself.

At the end of this conversation “Dernhelm” is born, a name chosen to indicate either that Eowyn has gone into occlusion or that all this time there was a male warrior hiding in Éowyn: in Old English “dern” means “secret, concealed,” and “helm” derives from an Indo-European word meaning “to cover, hide.”

In a book where generally good is good, evil is evil, and characters generally have unequivocal roles to play,  Éowyn is puzzling because she has two natures and is both masculine and feminine. When on the Pelennor Fields she rises to avenge her uncle, we are told by the narrator, who knows the truth, and not by Merry, who is in no position to witness Dernhelm’s tears, that

Yet one stood there still: Dernhelm the young, faithful beyond fear; and he wept, for he had loved his lord as a father. (115)

HE wept, for HE had loved HIS lord as a father: in the narrator’s voice, Éowyn has fully become Dernhelm. It is an astounding and confusing shift, but no less disorienting than the response to the Witch-king’s boast that “no living man shall hinder me”:

It seemed that Dernhelm laughed, and the clear voice was like the ring of steel. ‘But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Éowyn I am, Éomund’s daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. (116)

It is Dernhelm who laughs, but it is Éowyn who now proudly avows her womanhood and daughterhood before she attacks. The narrator, or Merry, simply says:

Éowyn it was, and Dernhelm also. (116)

For one transcendent moment, Éowyn rises above dualities to achieve a kind of completion that would have been hitherto inconceivable. The only witness to this moment is Merry, the one character who has a mind capacious enough to grasp this and who is momentarily transformed by it: Pity filled his heart and great wonder, and suddenly the slow-kindled courage of his race awoke. Like Éowyn, Merry transcends himself on the Pelennor fields.

Afterwards, in the sick-room, Aragorn, Éomer, and Gandalf attempt to share their separate partial understandings of her. Aragorn has intuited her double nature but expresses it with the static, heraldic image of a steel lily; he does not see that if she is frozen, it is with the burning ice of love’s pain:

‘Alas! For she was pitted against a foe beyond the strength of her mind or body. And those who will take a weapon to such an enemy must be sterner than steel, if the very shock shall not destroy them. It was an evil doom that set her in his path. For she is a fair maiden, fairest lady of a house of queens. And yet I know not how I should speak of her. When I first looked on her and perceived her unhappiness, it seemed to me that I saw a white flower standing straight and proud, shapely as a lily, and yet knew that it was hard, as if wrought by elf-wrights out of steel. Or was it, maybe, a frost that had turned its sap to ice, and so it stood, bitter-sweet, still fair to see, but stricken, soon to fall and die? Her malady begins far back before this day, does it not, Éomer?’

‘I marvel that you should ask me, lord,’ he answered. ‘For I hold you blameless in this matter, as in all else; yet I knew not that Éowyn, my sister, was touched by any frost, until she first looked on you. Care and dread she had, and shared with me, in the days of Wormtongue and the king’s bewitchment; and she tended the king in growing fear. But that did not bring her to this pass!’ (142-43)

It is Gandalf who seems to grasp the deep desperation of someone who is caught in a living death because she cannot run after her dream of greatness:

‘Think you that Wormtongue had poison only for Théoden’s ears? Dotard! What is the house of Eorl but a thatched barn where brigands drink in the reek, and their brats roll on the floor among their dogs? Have you not heard those words before? Saruman spoke them, the teacher of Wormtongue. Though I do not doubt that Wormtongue at home wrapped their meaning in terms more cunning. My lord, if your sister’s love for you, and her will still bent to her duty, had not restrained her lips; you might have heard even such things as these escape them. But who knows what she spoke to the darkness, alone, in the bitter watches of the night, when all her life seemed shrinking, and the walls of her bower closing in about her, a hutch to trammel some wild thing in?’

This seems to be news to Eomer, who now realizes that he never knew her — and that to the same extent, Éowyn as she truly was never really existed for him. Gandalf’s phrasing is rich. Hutch suggests small, narrow confinement, and the word itself derives from a Latin word meaning “storage chest”: Éowyn has been locked away, her excellence kept from  functioning. A trammel is a kind of reinforced fishing net and therefore, with hutch, a mixed metaphor — but it intensifies the sense that escape is absolutely impossible, and that everything has conspired to trap this wild thing. Wild is the perfect word here, for the being that is both Éowyn and Dernhelm cannot be domesticated; it is too full, too bursting, to fit in any prearranged slot.

Then Éomer was silent, and looked on his sister, as if pondering anew all the days of their past life together. But Aragorn said: ‘I saw also what you saw, Éomer. Few other griefs amid the ill chances of this world have more bitterness and shame for a man’s heart than to behold the love of a lady so fair and brave that cannot be returned. Sorrow and pity have followed me ever since I left her desperate in Dunharrow and rode to the Paths of the Dead; and no fear upon that way was so present as the fear for what might befall her. And yet, Éomer, I say to you that she loves you more truly than me; for you she loves and knows; but in me she loves only a shadow and a thought: a hope of glory and great deeds, and lands far from the fields of Rohan.’

Aragorn’s comment about what it feels like to “behold the love of a lady so fair and brave that cannot be returned” seems stilted and enotionally thin, but his diagnosis of Éowyn’s love may be accurate: what she loves is not Aragorn but the lofty ideal he embodies. If he is right about this, obtaining Aragorn will not solve the problem, because the ideal will remain unreachable; on the other hand, she may grow out of love for an ideal and return back to earth to love real people. If he is wrong about this, and she does indeed love Aragorn, then the love is doomed. Either way, at this moment, in the Houses of Healing, there is no way to tell if Éowyn is destined for happiness or unhappiness.

‘I have, maybe, the power to heal her body, and to recall her from the dark valley. But to what she will awake: hope, or forgetfulness, or despair, I do not know. And if to despair, then she will die, unless other healing comes which I cannot bring. Alas! for her deeds have set her among the queens of great renown.’ (143-44)

Éowyn’s mirror in the second half of the book is Frodo, because in both cases we can ask if the victory has been won at such cost that they are no longer able to live — that peace and happiness are forever out of their reach. Not only is her great love unattainable, but Éowyn’s finest moment is her defiance of the Witch-King, and every subsequent moment of the rest of her life will be felt as an anticlimax. Never again will she be both Éowyn and Dernhelm.  And unlike Bilbo, she is not one who will take pleasure or nourishment in living on tales about herself. At the end of Book 5, we leave Éowyn in suspension and have to wait to see if Tolkien can bring a satisfactory resolution to her life. Even if she achieves a kind of reconciliation with the life she will have to live, what she has brought to the tale is the sensibility of one whose dream cannot be lived — yet for one moment, she fulfills the impossible in Middle-earth and becomes both man and woman.

The World Is Gnawed By Nameless Things

It is always risky for a writer to drag characters back from the dead. When George R.R. Martin does it in the Game of Thrones series I lose interest in the story, because if that can happen, the world no longer has inviolable rules or a nature; nothing is definitive, no action matters, if death has been overruled. This might be acceptable in the New Testament, which asserts  the rule of a higher intelligence than nature; but if a novelist resurrects dead characters, it smells of cheating, and is a betrayal of the cogency of the world that he has taken such pains to create. In The Fellowship of the Ring, every reader gasps with shock when the Balrog takes Gandalf into the abyss, and together with his companions we grieve for him. What are we to think of his return to life in The Two Towers? The “death” of Gandalf  in the first volume was as momentous a turning-point as Virgil’s departure in Dante’s Purgatorio: suddenly the protagonists are “on their own” and have to become their own lights. So when he reappears, it is impossible not to ask why, how, and what it all means.

He himself says that he is not the same person and that “Gandalf” did die — but he is willing to be called Gandalf if that is how everyone thinks of him. He is now virtually interchangeable with Saruman, as if he is now in fact no particular person but an impersonal distillation of the ideal wizard: ‘Yes, I am white now,’ said Gandalf. ‘Indeed I am Saruman, one might almost say, Saruman as he should have been… I have passed through fire and deep water, since we parted. I have forgotten much that I thought I knew, and learned again much that I had forgotten. I can see many things far off, but many things that are close at hand I cannot see.’ (98) The others point out that light shines through the new Gandalf; he is translucent, as if the gross body has evaporated and dissolved in “fire and deep water.” Is this a ghost, a spirit? Is he dead? What exactly happened with the Balrog, what was that fight really about? Cleverly, Tolkien the narrator refrains from giving us the answer: he knows we are all bursting to know how Gandalf escaped, but he also knows that trying to describe it objectively will both stretch credulity and render nearly everything that follows anticlimactic — for what could follow a detailed account of Gandalf’s vanquishing of the Balrog? Yet if he is going to resurrect Gandalf, he must give a plausible account. If Gandalf himself were to give the account, he would give us “what happened” from his point of view, but that point of view will be dazed, confused, shell-shocked, unremembering — convincingly so. Thus Tolkien the author would be absolved from working out all the details. The narrative will not be a recounting of a causal sequence of physical events, but will follow some other kind of logic.

It begins awkwardly:

Then tell us what you will, and time allows!’ said Gimli. ‘Come, Gandalf, tell us how you fared with the Balrog!’

‘Name him not!’ said Gandalf, and for a moment it seemed that a cloud of pain passed over his face, and he sat silent, looking old as death. ‘Long time I fell,’ he said at last, slowly, as if thinking back with difficulty. ‘Long I fell, and he fell with me. His fire was about me. I was burned. Then we plunged into the deep water and all was dark. Cold it was as the tide of death: almost it froze my heart.’

The sentence beginning “Name him not!” is a lapse into the histrionically portentous epic style that mars Tolkien’s writing when he tries to elevate the narrative to the mythic. “Cold it was as the tide of death: almost it froze my heart”: the syntactical inversion also strains at sounding archaic, sage-like, and otherworldly. This is the kind of language that Yoda’s speech patterns affectionately parody: “When nine hundred years old you reach, look as good you will not.” Gandalf’s language here lacks Yoda’s wry humor and manages to be both vague and pedantic: why “almost it froze my heart”?

So far he has given us the conventional fire-water imagery of death before rebirth, but then he hits his stride, and the account becomes both interesting and original:

‘Deep is the abyss that is spanned by Durin’s Bridge, and none has measured it,’ said Gimli.

‘Yet it has a bottom, beyond light and knowledge,’ said Gandalf. ‘Thither I came at last, to the uttermost foundations of stone. He was with me still. His fire was quenched, but now he was a thing of slime, stronger than a strangling snake.

‘We fought far under the living earth, where time is not counted. Ever he clutched me, and ever I hewed him, till at last he fled into dark tunnels. They were not made by Durin’s folk, Gimli son of Glóin. Far, far below the deepest delving of the Dwarves, the world is gnawed by nameless things. Even Sauron knows them not. They are older than he. Now I have walked there, but I will bring no report to darken the light of day. In that despair my enemy was my only hope, and I pursued him, clutching at his heel. Thus he brought me back at last to the secret ways of Khazad-dûm: too well he knew them all. Ever up now we went, until we came to the Endless Stair.’

In a previous essay I wondered if the Balrog expresses the dread-beyond-meaning in the face of which all heroism is pointless. Gandalf sacrifices himself to quell the meaningless beast and restore the possibility of the war of good against evil in the many pages to follow. This passage, however, recasts the Balrog as still firmly within the realm of meaningful polarity. They descend beneath the living earth to where time is not counted, a world gnawed by nameless things older than Sauron and unknown to him. It is a world that precedes meaning, and does not know good and evil, light and dark. The “nameless things” cannot be imagined. Is it the world there that is gnawed, or is it the foundation of our own world? “Gnawed” is a word choice of genius, suggesting futility, the eternal sound of teeth against bone or rock: we hear it and feel it, because we know what it is to gnaw. We also know what it is to be gnawed. The word carries emotional connotations: gnawing anguish, gnawing anxiety, gnawing thoughts — all expressing persistent misery and a concealed wearing down. “Gnawing” does not invoke worms chomping on dead things, but teeth that can bite yet have no power to eat. It is a hell of craving and endless starvation. When Gandalf calls it “that despair,” he might simply mean “that place of despair” — but more probably what he means is a state of soul without hope, a spiritual agony “gnawed by nameless things.” Gandalf’s experience is of the underneath of our world, the foundations of sentient life. It turns out that even the Balrog cannot endure this and has to flee, taking Gandalf with him. Thus both Gandalf and his enemy need their enmity; paradoxically, it is the Balrog that saves Gandalf, because it too cannot bear the hell of meaninglessness. And when it flees, it takes an upward path from abyss to heights, uncharacteristically seeking the light.

‘Long has that been lost,’ said Gimli. ‘Many have said that it was never made save in legend, but others say that it was destroyed.’

‘It was made, and it had not been destroyed,’ said Gandalf. ‘From the lowest dungeon to the highest peak it climbed. ascending in unbroken spiral in many thousand steps, until it issued at last in Durin’s Tower carved in the living rock of Zirak-zigil, the pinnacle of the Silvertine.

‘There upon Celebdil was a lonely window in the snow, and before it lay a narrow space, a dizzy eyrie above the mists of the world. The sun shone fiercely there, but all below was wrapped in cloud. Out he sprang, and even as I came behind, he burst into new flame. There was none to see, or perhaps in after ages songs would still be sung of the Battle of the Peak.’ Suddenly Gandalf laughed. ‘But what would they say in song? Those that looked up from afar thought that the mountain was crowned with storm. Thunder they heard, and lightning, they said, smote upon Celebdil, and leaped back broken into tongues of fire. Is not that enough? A great smoke rose about us, vapour and steam. Ice fell like rain.’

It was made. Gimli’s musing and Gandalf’s response bring the narrative back to tangible materiality — an actual staircase, built by historical Dwarves. But immediately after this the description takes on cinematic special effects as Gandalf tries to render a fight that occurs on an impossible scale and in fire and smoke as well as ice: it cannot be seen, so how could it be sung? He gives up describing it. His language then suddenly takes on the register of the King James Bible: I threw down my enemy, and he fell from the high place and broke the mountain-side where he smote it in his ruin. The diction of this single sentence veils Gandalf’s account in sacred speech, and this allows a transition into mythopoeic language to convey an experience beyond life and death:

Then darkness took me; and I strayed out of thought and time, and I wandered far on roads that I will not tell.


‘Naked I was sent back – for a brief time, until my task is done. And naked I lay upon the mountain-top. The tower behind was crumbled into dust, the window gone; the ruined stair was choked with burned and broken stone. I was alone, forgotten, without escape upon the hard horn of the world. There I lay staring upward, while the stars wheeled over, and each day was as long as a life-age of the earth. Faint to my ears came the gathered rumour of all lands: the springing and the dying, the song and the weeping, and the slow everlasting groan of overburdened stone. And so at the last Gwaihir the Windlord found me again, and he took me up and bore me away.’
(106-7)

This new location mirrors the place “far below the deepest delving”: the “slow everlasting groan of overburdened stone” echoes the uttermost foundations of stone and the “gnawing of nameless things,” and “each day was as long as a life-age of the earth” balances the depth “where time is not counted.” Gandalf has experienced both poles of meaninglessness, one beneath the world and one above it — and from the one above, the realm of human endeavor and song feel faint, irrelevant. That realm occupies an edge between these two inhospitable eternities. Gandalf, having experienced both, has to return to the world of human time to complete the plot, but he is happy to. Gandalf, the White, is resolutely cheerful to be an actor again; the war against Sauron is far better than the two forms of living death he has just experienced.

This is partly why the first half of The Two Towers feels lighter than the rest, more optimistic. There are some things worse than losing to Sauron, and a long destructive war against an evil enemy gives at least a comforting frame of meaning: even if you die, it will have been alright. The Enemy will have saved you.